The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Far, far away, and far into the future, there is a little frozen planet called “Gethen”, or “Winter”, on the very icy edge of inhabitability. Its people are human, and very much like anybody else, except for two important things: they have no gender, and they have no war.

This may be about to change. For millenia, the people of Gethen have happily been killing each other in “forays” and skirmishes, but now, finally, their technology may have advanced far enough to allow them enough comfort, enough free time, to destroy themselves. War, after all, requires mobilisation, and mobilisation is impossible when travel has to contend with floods and blizzards, and when everybody is on the verge of starvation and of freezing to death. Gethen has advanced very slowly; but it has advanced nonetheless, like a glacier, and things are becoming possible that until now have been impossible. Two great nations now straddle the Great Continent, locked in a (literally) cold war that may or may not be about to become hot: brutal, backward, feudal Karhide; and progressive, organised, bureaucratic Orgoreyn. Neither is as simple a place as it seems.

There is no gender because Gethenians only become sexual once a month, when they enter heat, and whether an individual takes on a male or female role in any particular coupling is unpredictable. This can be assumed to be the result of genetic engineering by the Hainish forebear race that implanted the human population on this improbable planet – although why they would have mutated humans in this way is something of a mystery. In any case, the absence of gender is also at an end on Gethen: because a man from Earth has just arrived, in his spaceship. Mr Ai is an Envoy from an interstellar union of worlds, the Ekumen, of which Terra is but one member, and he has come to persuade the people of Gethen to rejoin their lost brothers and sisters (for Gethenians are alone in the universe in their lack of gender) – although he is quite aware that he may die in the attempt. The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of that attempt.

It is a novel of fundamental dualities: Gethen and the Ekumen; Karhide and Orgoreyn; the two Gethenian religions of Handdara and Yomesh; man and woman; sexed and neuter; light and dark; surface and subsurface.

It is also a novel in which dualities are undermined, and identities destabilised. Mr Ai is a black man – at least, he is darker than most Gethenians, but not darker than all of them, and they are all darker than than some people on other planets; it is impossible to impose ‘black’ and ‘white’ as categories here. Mr Ai is from Earth, but there is no traditional terrestrial/extraterrestrial division: Terra is simply one world among many. It isn’t even the first: in this universe, mankind originates on the planet of Hain, and Terran humans (like Gethenians) are only genetically-modified colonists who have forgotten their origins (their similarity to the great apes and the extinct native hominids being an intentional deception by the Hainish for reasons unknown – ecology? experiment? art? for a laugh?). At the same time, the Gethenians happily refer to their world – the only world seen in the whole of the novel – as “earth”, and the Terran protagonist concedes that he himself is “an alien”.

The story is told primarily from the point of view of Mr Ai; but this viewpoint, too, is insecure, as it is frequently undermined by chapters from other perspectives – stories from the history and legend of Gethen, reports by previous Ekumenical investigators, and above all the viewpoint of a native Gethenian, who sees the same things that Ai does, in a very different way.

I’m not going to talk much more about the themes of the book, because they’re really too sophisticated. I started off thinking in my head about things I could make note of, but by the end of the book there was so much that I would have to write a book myself to talk about it all. This is a very short novel, but it is densely packed. Duality and wholeness, history and fate, knowledge and ignorance; political theory, and war, and rhetoric, and sociology, and love and patriotism and identity and history. There’s a lot here. Above all, Le Guin rarely allows herself the luxury of a firm place to stand: every point of view, every preconception, is undermined and challenged – not necessarily fatally, but thoroughly enough to provoke constant unease. Even the tagline discussion of duality and non-duality is undermined, by the insinuation that non-duality is itself an idea imposed by dualists in opposition to themselves. We see this, for instance, in the way that the only genuinely sexless part of the book is the account by an Investigator from the planet of Chiffewar – in a ‘bisexual’ society, we might observe, part of ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’ is a denial of our bodily sex, a subconscious self-alienation that makes no sense in a genderless world, in which there is no reason to avoid mention of being a mother or a father in the most scientific and formal contexts because those categories are fluid. This observation is not made explicitly, but I think the asexuality of this chapter is not only intentional but intentionally highlighted in order to provoke this sort of doubt.

A more prominent example – and a more controversial one – is the way Le Guin constantly uses masculine pronouns to refer to the neither-men-nor-women of Gethen. Some have been angered by this, seeing it as an imposition of patriarchy; but that entirely misses the point. Yes, on the one hand Le Guin is doing it (and her characters are doing it) out of convenience, so as not to call everybody ‘it’ or invent a new pronoun; but there is also the more basic point that Mr Ai can never truly see people on Gethen as being sexless. He imposes his own notions of sex on them; he cannot help thinking of them as men or women. At one point he realises this and accepts that one character is both a man and a woman – but this too, of course, is an imposition of irrelevent categories. Indeed, even the apparently more neutral idea that they are neither male nor female may be problematic – it insists on a distinction between being hermaphrodite and being neuter that makes no sense without the alternative presence of male and female. All ‘bisexual’ attempts to understand Gethen will misunderstand it; but we must also realise, as we are shown from the other points of view, that Gethenian views of bisexuals – and even of themselves – are similarly lacking and/or distorted.

In any case, I’m waffling too long on a minor point. But then, this whole book is minor points. There is no Moral Of The Story, only a lot of questions.

This is a very… quiet book. Not slow, per se, although it does take a while to grab hold, and not a lot ever happens, but definitely quiet. Both in content and in style. You have to be very still and listen very quietly, or else you may miss something. Le Guin does not aim for the flashy and sensational and the emotive (although some of the content could be very sensationalist in other hands), but rather something very clinical and precise, but that realises that precision, and being clinical, are not neutral poses, and that they cannot serve all purposes.

If you come into this expecting the wrong sort of book, you could blast through it in a few hours and come away not knowing what the fuss was about. Don’t look at what happens, look at how it happens; and listen carefully. Nothing is accidental, and everything is related to everything else.

I’m not going to talk about it anymore.

Adrenaline: 3/5. Some parts of the book were very gripping – mostly the middle third, which has a paranoid, mysterious feel as Ai is entangled in politics and machinations in which nothing is as simple as it seems. The final third is suitably climactic, but a little slow and majestic, so not thrilling; the first third takes a while to get into, I think.

Emotion: 3/5. I may be being generous here. It’s quite a cold book, and a distant one. That said, there are some really moving sections later on.

Thought: 5/5. Maybe generous? There’s no great conundrum, it’s true, and no great philosophy. But there is a continual unease; a continual mental striving to work out what’s really going on, what she’s really saying, what’s really true, and what’s going to happen next, not to mention how each piece is going to fit into the whole. All together, I don’t think you can really expect more thinking from a reading experience.

Beauty: 4/5. Marked down not because of imperfections – imagery is beautiful, metaphors are beautiful, prose is beautiful; but just because there’s nothing that wowed me. I don’t think there was meant to be. You’re not meant to look too hard at the prose.

Craft: 5/5. It isn’t perfect. Once or twice I think she crosses the line into sounding a little preachy, and perhaps here and there things are a little simplistic; together it’s a little YA in patches, a little didactic. One or two details of sociology don’t totally convince. But I’m nitpicking. This is brilliantly constructed. The depiction of character through narrative voice is fantastic, the interweaving of perspectives, the parallels and synecdoches… it all made me sit back and just admire how good she was. There are a few missteps because perfection is very hard to maintain, but there are few authors who would even attempt this novel, let alone come as close to success as Le Guin did.

Endearingness: 4/5. I really like it – but again, the coldness counts against it. I like it, but I don’t love reading it, I don’t love the world, I don’t love the characters. It’s also such a slim book that I don’t think it would hold up well to repeat readings. This was my second read, and I got a lot more out of it than the first time (when I read it too quickly and didn’t pay enough attention) – but I think it’s a book that works best if you leave enough time between readings that you don’t remember everything. There’s not a lot here, and it could become worn-out if read too often.

Originality: 5/5. Yes, the synopses sound a little too cliche-feminist, but there’s honestly nothing to compare. Or at least I can’t imagine there is. [People say, incidentally, that this was one of the first feminist science fiction novels; that’s bollocks. Reading this as feminist is completely missing the point – in the same way that people miss the point when they call someone a traitor for negotiating peace, or when they say that evolution challenges religion. Believing that this is feminist is taking a stand on a wall that the author is busy undermining].

Overall: 7/7. Brilliant. I deliberated about this one, as it’s on the border of brilliance, but after some consideration I had to mark it up rather than down. I wouldn’t have had to think about that if only it had made me care a little more. Nonetheless, it’s a remarkable book, and deservedly considered one of the classics of the genre.

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One thought on “The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. […] The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969) […]

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