Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I wrote this post before Ursula K. Le Guin passed, though it seems fitting now to open it with these words of hers, in response to the question, “What do you want to happen to your books after you die?”:  “I want them to be available, I want cheap paper editions of them, I want them to be continuously downloaded in forty different languages, I want them to be read, I want them to be argued about, I want people to cry over them, I want unreadable dissertations written about them, I want people to get angry with them, I want people to love them.” Well, I’ve read a second-hand cheap paper edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, gotten angry with it, kind of loved it in a few moments, argued about it (in my head, with myself and with two different versions of Le Guin), and now, behold, an unreadable dissertation blog post. Hopefully, this is exactly as Le Guin would wish. Rest in peace.

TheLeftHandOfDarkness1stEd
Cover of the 1st edition, vastly superior to the latest edition’s cover, which is just a glacier, honestly it’s stunning how mediocre that new cover is. Courtesy of Ace Books

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books I’ve always felt silly for not having read—and likewise, Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those authors I’ve always etc. Not just because Left Hand is considered a classic, and Le Guin one of the greatest, most influential sci-fi/fantasy writers, but because it’s the kind of sci-fi and fantasy that really interests me. Sci-fi with a focus on society, on the world, on characters. Not to mention, the gender thing—I’ve always heard that Le Guin is a great feminist writer, someone who subverts and challenges our ideas about gender, and especially about women. And Left Hand is, of course, the gender book—or the book without gender. A world where the dominant sentient life-form has no biological sex—fantastic. I’m always interested in that kind of premise, I always like to see deconstructions and reconstructions of gender. Yet, I somehow never got around to reading it, I always had some other book or author I was more interested in. I finally decided to read the book when I got it in a white elephant gift exchange, and, for months, had the physical copy sitting about in my bedroom somewhere, staring at me.

So I read it. One less thing to feel silly about Francis, good job. After reading it, and kind of wondering what everyone else saw in it re: the discussion of gender, I read Le Guin’s essay on the book, “Is Gender Necessary?” Actually I read the “Redux” version, which was written over a decade later, with annotations from Le Guin clarifying and arguing with her past self. In some ways, the redux essay is a revisiting of a revisiting—Left Hand came out in 1969, “Is Gender Necessary” (henceforth to be referred to as IGN) in 1976, and the redux in 1988. Which would make this blog post a commentary on a commentary on a commentary on a book, at least in some part.

I’ve struggled with how to write this post. It seems unfair to review the book as if its some kind of argument—in fact, Le Guin herself mentions this in “Redux,” when she writes that “critics of the book insisted upon talking about its ‘gender problems’ as if it were an essay not a novel.” That line instantly made me think of “Cat Person,” the Kristen Roupenian short story that made the rounds last year, and which was bizarrely referred to as an “article” or “essay” by some. These stories did not ask to be scrutinized as perfectly hygienic arguments about gender and sexuality. The idea that Left Hand is an incredible classic which strikes right to the heart of gender politics is external to the book. So I’ll do my best to separate the two, to review the book as just a book, before specifically going into why I found it lacking in terms of gender commentary.

The Left Hand of Darkness follows, and is mostly narrated by, Genly Ai, an envoy of the Ekumen of Known Worlds, whose mission on the planet Winter is to bring one or all of the nations of the planet into the fold of the Ekumen, or, failing that, to collect ample notes on the culture, politics, and history of the Gethenians for the next envoy (Genly is the first ever.) Also, Gethenians don’t have sexes. They are all androgynous, and only develop male or female genitals during “Kemmer,” a phase in a hormone-cycle analogous to menstruation. This confounds Genly, who has fairly concrete ideas about gender roles (less so regarding what jobs men and women should do, more so regarding emotion, personality, etc.).

Another great cover, superior to Ace’s 2010 “premium edition.” Courtesy of Orbit

The book’s strength is in world-building and atmosphere, which are sort of one and the same. Through the imagery as well as the passages of Gethenian folk tales, through Genly’s voice as well as the descriptions of Karhide architecture, you get this constant sense of coldness and solitude—a solitude and coldness which are perfectly comfortable to the Gethenians, but off-putting and wearying for Genly (as well as the reader, presumably.)

There’s not much of a plot—although, bizarrely, the book begins almost straight away with the line “So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide, and I was in peril of my life, and did not know it.” Like, what? The book is so slow (in a good way) and deliberate, about journeys rather than destinations, I have no idea why the third paragraph has this set-up as though it’s going to be a political thriller. Just FYI, don’t be fooled. But, yes, not much of a plot—Genly travels to different cities, eventually leaves Karhide for the neighboring country of Orgoreyn, travels around there—meanwhile, political intrigue is steadily building, eventually bursting, and catapulting the book into its more plot-heavy final third. This final third, the focus shifts from an anthropological scope to a much more personal one, as Genly finally begins to form a relationship with a gethenian.

The whole gender thing is not really foregrounded, though it’s not backgrounded either. Le Guin herself described this aspect of the book as the “lesser half” of it (IGN), with the greater half being “betrayal and fidelity”—though in “Redux,” she qualifies this, saying that “This is bluster … there are other aspects to the book, which are involved with its sex/gender aspects quite inextricably.” I’m inclined to agree with both Le Guins. Taking the book by itself, with no foreknowledge of its reputation as a work of feminist literature, gender is indeed the lesser half—and I think even that is overstating its presence. However, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about the “gender problems” of the book, precisely because of how lesser they are. The fact that this world has no biological sex, nor societal concept of gender, is something that would make it profoundly different from our world. It’s something that a human envoy would not be able to ignore. It would manifest in small and large revelations, constantly. And yet, Le Guin seems to have little interest in this very challenging premise she’s set up. Gender shifts in and out of view throughout the novel, but it’s scarcely explored except as it relates to Genly. Then again, genderlessness only really exists in the mind of Genly, we humans don’t think of ourselves as being wingless—it’s just a given. But even within Genly, his relationship to gender and sexuality is hardly explored. Why not have him puzzle over which pronouns to use? (More on that later.) Why does Genly almost never express any kind of sexual desire for a Gethenian? (To be clear, Gethenians just look like humans, they’re not bug creatures or anything.) Would this disturb him? Would he question his own sexuality, being attracted to an “androgyne”?

This is not a major failure of the novel, taken by itself, just a minor disappointment—even if you come at it without knowing its reputation, I think the book does a poor job telling the reader what to expect from it. (e.g. “peril of my life”)

To sum up this formalist portion of things, the book is a wonderful exercise in world-building and atmosphere, a bit dry, but enjoyable overall, especially towards the end. As far as its commentary on gender, it’s rather unrealized, timid, conservative. Le Guin mentions in “Redux” that “Men were inclined to be satisfied with the book, which allowed them a safe trip into androgyny and back, from a conventionally male viewpoint”—which would perhaps be an appropriate subtitle. The Left Hand of Darkness; A safe trip into androgyny and back. Really, its just a solid book, seasoned with some gender-politics-commentary.

Image result for ursula le guin left hand of darkness
This isn’t even depicting anything from the book, but its so much more evocative, and relevant, than that freakin’ photograph of a glacier. Courtesy of Ace

However, I feel that I must discuss my disappointment in greater detail, given that this is what this book is known for. Again, this is not really a criticism of the book, which didn’t ask for this, but just an exploration of my reaction to it. My goal here is to puzzle about why, so often, Left Hand felt so conservative to me, by looking at the underpinnings of the book, as espoused by Le Guin herself.

I think part of why I was left underwhelmed by the gender commentary is that I processed some details as just world-building, despite Genly’s (or another member of the Ekumen, Ong Tot Oppong’s) speculation that these aspects of the society were related to androgyny. This is, perhaps, part of what makes this book so adaptable. Lots of Le Guin’s failings can be passed off as the rigid gender notions of the Ekumen. Like when Oppong, an Ekumenical investigator, observes that, during Kemmer, sexual partners assume opposite sexes “apparently without exception.” Surely this is just the Ekumen being foolish. Surely there are same-sex pairings, though maybe they’re taboo, or just not talked about, or perhaps they’re conceptualized as something completely different—and the Ekumen is just too distanced from the Gethenians to understand this.

Actually, in my 2010 edition of the book, this passage has been changed, though it hardly provides any more insight. It seems to merely force the reader to consider what should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about sexuality: “? without exception? If there are exceptions, resulting in kemmer-partners of the same sex, they are so rare as to be ignored.” (96)

Another thing I took to be just a neat flourish of world-building, not stemming from the lack of sex, is the absence of war. On Winter, there have never been any large-scale conflicts. Oppong speculates on whether or not this world was created as an experiment, with the object being to create a world without war: “did they consider war to be a purely masculine activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped? God knows.” (102) I put little stock in this speculation. Of course that is not the reason there’s no war. How absurd. As if gender is the only fundamental power dynamic which enables abuse (age, physical ability, intelligence, access to plentiful resources—not to mention the societally constructed factors of race, class, etc.). Rather, I thought, perhaps the Gethenians are just more averse to murdering strangers. Or perhaps its because of the extreme cold of their world. On Earth, during wars, fighting dies down in the winter months. So, on a world of endless winter, maybe there would be no war—though it seems, as Orgoreyn and Karhide are slowly industrializing in Left Hand, the first ever war may be brewing.

Le Guin says in “Redux” that the concept of a society that’s never known war was actually the first aspect of the world she conceived, and that “the androgyny came second. (Cause and Effect? Effect and Cause?)”

You may notice that these two example come from the same section of the book. It’s one of the only extended contemplations of gender in the whole novel, and its not even narrated by Genly! The ideas discussed in this chapter, even though some may appear foolish to me, are what I was expecting to be spread throughout the book, not confined to ten pages.

There’s also the matter of the pronouns, which Le Guin apparently caught grief for right away. This one I find difficult to blame on Genly (or Oppong, since, once again, it is only in her chapter that the issue is directly addressed.) Le Guin could’ve decided that the standard Ekumen language has a gender neutral pronoun, instead of being a language which is apparently indistinct from the starchy, prescriptivist form of English she chose to write in, with “he” as the gender neutral pronoun. Or, I don’t think it would be such a stretch for the Ekumen to just use the Karhidish pronoun, since they also leave untranslated such concepts as “shifgrethor” (which is a kind of honor, difficult to understand, and central to Gethenian society.)

I’m honestly just trying to break up the torrent of confusion and bleary-eyed examination of Le Guin’s thought process that is this post. Courtesy of Orbit

I seriously don’t understand why Le Guin so stubbornly clung to the masculine pronoun. In “Is Gender Necessary” she wrote, “I utterly refuse to mangle English by inventing a pronoun for ‘he/she.'” In “Redux” she noted how foolish this was, and that she later wrote a screenplay for the novel using the invented pronouns a/un/a’s—though even here, she’s oddly conservative, supposing that, “These would drive the reader mad in print …” Who is this sci-fi reader who will be driven mad by learning three new words—and why does Le Guin care about pandering to them? Was 1988 really such a straight-laced time, that people would struggle to read a book with invented pronouns? Was 1969? The pronouns are inexcusable, and a lost opportunity to dig into Genly’s psyche. I think even having Genly refer to Gethenians he considers feminine as “she” and those he considers masculine as “he” would’ve been superior to the blanket “he.”

I think sexuality is where Le Guin caught my interest most. Genly is considered perverse, being, apparently, forever in kemmer. There’s also the fact that, because sex drive is so regular and so intense, it’s treated with little embarrassment or shame associated—it’s as though its just another bodily function, and a kemmerhouse is something a Gethenian can expect any city to have. These things don’t have enormous implications on the story, nor do they have to—the story isn’t a romance, after all (at least not principally.) But the inclusion of these details makes the world feel more realized, and it makes the Gethenians feel more alien, and more relatable, at the same time. This is what I wanted from gender, and did not get.

For me, this book’s most interesting big idea relating to gender is the concept of dualism versus solitude—the idea that, in a society where people are not expected to pair off, to find their “soulmate” or “other half” as we english-speaking humans say, people would be much more comfortable with solitude—that is interesting. I’m not sure how I feel about it—is our focus on seeking validation from others, or from one specific other, a result of dimorphism? Of a dominantly heterosexual population? In a world without gender, does romance and love become less central? I really don’t know. I feel like there could still be an emphasis on forming relationships, on self-fulfillment through bonding, though maybe not. But this is the kind of thing I wanted from the book. Not ideas which feel flat out absurd, which seem, in themselves, to be sexist, and thus are quickly dismissed as being a product of the sexist Ekumen.

The difference has everything to do with my understanding of gender versus 1969 Le Guin’s understanding of it. I can’t tell if she really believes there is a fundamental, psychological difference between men and women, or if she thought this only as late 1976, or if she thought this only as late as 1969, though there is this from IGN: “I eliminated gender to find out what was left. What was left would be, presumably, simply human. It would define the area shared by men and women alike.” Later in the essay, she describes this as bringing the “female principle” and the “male principle” into balance—though, especially in “Redux,” she, to use her own word, blusters about, making it unclear whether she believes these are the products of society, or something more inherent. It’s difficult to pinpoint the underlying assumption that Le Guin has made where I disagree with her—theoretically, this assumption or worldview is the root of my lukewarm reactions to the treatment of, and extrapolation from, androgyny in this book.

But this is probably it: In “Is Gender Necessary,” toward the end Le Guin posits that a world where we were “socially ambisexual”—that is, equal in every way, economically, socially, legally—that in this world, “it seems likely that our central problem would not be the one it is now: the problem of exploitation—exploitation of women, of the weak, of the earth. Our curse is alienation, the separation of yang from yin.” It seems that Le Guin’s point here is not so much that if women were treated equally they would fix everything. Rather, that we would have better perspective on problems if, through gender equality, everyone had equal access to … ah … the yin and the yang?

Last one, promise—but honestly, there’s so many great covers of this book. Courtesy of John W. Knott, Jr.

Perhaps her point is that, without biological sexes onto which to force gender roles, naturally the characteristics of each gender role would be equally valued. I think this is sensible. When every single person in a society may end up bearing a child, perhaps sensitivity, inclination to nurture, is valued in everyone. (For example, parents would not seek out a young “girl” to be their babysitter—there’d be no girl.) Where this breaks down is where Le Guin extrapolates this to power—to exploitation. Of course, on an individual level, especially in romantic relationships, there would be equanimity—Gethenians literally cannot rape one another, it is a biological impossibility. However, extrapolating this to the power structures of the world is an ecological fallacy. Would the powerful really not try to consolidate their power? Would the powerful really not favor family over strangers, for instance? Would the powerful really not hurt people for personal gain, just because they’d been conditioned to be more sensitive? I don’t think so. Because the other aspect of this is “alienation.”

It’s possible that the thrust of Le Guin’s yin-and-yang point is that we would not suffer the “curse” of “alienation” if there were not this biological dividing line running through us. This seems, immediately, absurd. There are infinite ways to other people, to conceive of someone else as alien, but the most fundamental way doesn’t even have to do with race or sexuality or class or anything. The most fundamental alienation—which androgyny would not remove—is the separation of self from others. This is why the golden rule—treat others as you would wish to be treated—is so difficult to follow, despite its simplicity. Its hard to know what others want—do they really want the same things you do? Is it worth making a huge sacrifice in order to help someone else only slightly? As well, it’s easy to prioritize which others you treat well—family before strangers, fellow-citizens before foreigners—and, it can even be easy to believe that certain groups of people enjoy being mistreated. The curse of alienation could only be lifted if every member of a species somehow experienced all facets of sexuality, all types of upbringings, all forms of language, all histories, all cuisines, all ages—and so on. Short of a hive-mind-style organism, we’re bound to be alienated from each other. I mean, look at how much difficulty I’m having trying to understand what was going through the mind of this human named Ursula K. Le Guin back in 1969. I’ve spent so much time with this post, because it’s so difficult for me to figure out where the point of divergence is between me and her—and between me and all the people who have hailed this as a classic of feminist literature throughout the years. My trouble in understanding Le Guin has absolutely nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with the fact that 1969 Le Guin lived in a completely different America, read completely different books (mostly), talked to completely different friends.

The trouble is, I live in the world that Left Hand made. I was born almost thirty years after the book was published. I have friends who are non-binary, so it seems obvious to me what gender neutral pronouns should be—and taking a step farther from that, to invented pronouns, seems like an easy jump. And just as importantly, so much (all?) of the contemporary sci-fi and fantasy that I read is influenced by Le Guin, whether directly or indirectly. The authors that inspired me, Le Guin inspired them. Though the craft of Le Guin’s writing, her mastery of tone and imagery and place, are still inspiring, the ideas now seem more useful in a historical context—with Left Hand as a genealogical point in the evolution of the genre, Le Guin a common ancestor for so many writers today.

In IGN, Le Guin describes The Left Hand of Darkness as “the record of my consciousness, the process of my thinking.” She says it is a thought experiment—Schrodinger’s cat, Einstein’s elevator, Le Guin’s Gethenians, these are “questions, not answers; process, not stasis.” Indeed, IGN and “Redux” themselves seem like further process, further questions. Why else revisit a book twice? In one moment in IGN, Le Guin writes that “the experiment by someone else, or by myself seven years later, would probably (5) give quite different results.” Note 5 in “Redux” reads, “Strike the word ‘probably’ and replace it with ‘certainly.'”

So in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness did not endeavor to answer, but simply to question, is gender necessary? In 2018, it seems we’ve answered this question, in fiction and in society. (No, it’s not.) Now we can ask, “If it’s unnecessary, then why gender?” and “Though it’s unnecessary, can it still have value and meaning?” and many more nuanced questions which will some day seem to have obvious answers. One incredible piece which wrestles with these questions is Ian McHugh’s 2014 short story “Extracted journal notes for an ethnography of bnebene nomad culture.” I remember being blown away by the conclusion, and fascinated with the alien species—maybe this is how people felt in 1969, reading Left Hand.

I think it’s a great book, and undoubtedly an influential one. For anyone with an interest in the history of sci-fi, or of American literature, or of gender and society, this book is great—remember, it’s a “record of [Le Guin’s] consciousness,” a historical artifact, as well as an inspiration to her contemporaries and to current writers. But, if a fan of science fiction—especially a young one—asked for recommendations of books which tangle with gender and sexuality, I wouldn’t point to Left Hand as The Book. Nnedi Okorafor, Amal El-Mohtar, Dominica Phetteplace, Ian McHugh, Aliette de Bodard, Eugene Fischer, to some extent Robert Reed—these are the writers that come to my mind re: gender, who get me really excited, and I’m sure I’ve missed many others. Le Guin’s hypothetical of someone repeating the experiment seven years later has been made real dozens of times over, and today’s experimenters, almost 50 years later, are producing some fascinating results.

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