Ursula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness

ursulaleguin-thelefthandofdarknessThis outstanding classic of science fiction, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards when first published, is the story of Winter, an Earth-like planet with two major differences: conditions are semi-arctic even at the warmest time of the year, and the inhabitants are all of the same sex. Tucked away in a remote corner of the universe, they have no knowledge of space travel or of life beyond their own world. And when a strange envoy from space brings news of a vast coalition of planets which they are invited to join, he is met with fear, mistrust and disbelief. . .

The Left Hand of Darkness is a genuine science fiction classic that, depending on whom you ask, is part of science fiction canon. Being the SF n00b that I am, I hadn’t read any of Le Guin’s books before, other than her Earthsea novels, which are fantasy. But even those took me two tries to read and The Left Hand of Darkness is the sort of old-school SF I’ve never tried, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to get it. However, having discovered that I do enjoy “modern” SF in the last few years, I was hopeful that I’d like this one as well. The Left Hand of Darkness also intrigued me as it’s been referenced again and again in conversations about Ann Leckie’s much praised book Ancillary Justice. So when The Left Hand of Darkness was announced as the next Hodder Review Project title, I was pretty stoked.  

When the book arrived, I thought: “Yay! A short one, I’ll be able to finish it in a day or two.” It turns out that was a little optimistic, as it actually took me twice the time I thought it would. While it would be easy to blame it on pre-Christmas break fatigue and general lack of time to read, in actual fact I think it had far more to do with me having to stop and reread or think over what I’d just read. The book was very thought-provoking, especially since much of its themes regarding gender and acceptance are (unfortunately) still very current and relevant to the conversations held in the field today. The Left Hand of Darkness has so much to unpack, that I’d have to reread it – probably several times – to get it all clearly identified.

Gender is the most important theme in the novel split into three elements. First there is the gender fluidity of the Gethenians and the difficulties Genly has in accepting this. Only once he’s able to reconcile that they are both masculine and feminine, is he able to let go of his own cultural prejudices and accept Gethenian nature fully; he even comes to platonically love Estraven. – though I wonder why it could only be platonically. Why couldn’t they have truly loved each other in every sense? Would this have pushed the conceit of Gethenian ambi-sexuality a bridge too far in the eyes of 1969 readers? – From this gender fluidity also flows a critical consideration of gender politics and how gender plays a part in how people behave, how they are treated and what is expected from them. The fact that Gethenians are often both biologically fathers and mothers, having both borne and begotten children, seems to Genly to change the way they relate to their offspring, as a lessening of their maternal instincts or perhaps as an increase in their paternal instinct. Similarly, there isn’t a limit to what a Gethenian can achieve professionally as there isn’t a societal expectation of gender roles.

And underlying both of the previous aspects is the notion of cultural bias and prejudice. Genly can’t seem to wrap his head around Gethenian society, neither Karhide’s nor Orgoreyn’s. He can’t let go of his bi-gendered world view and views the Gethenians’ feminine behavioural traits when in their neuter stage as effeminate and thus reprehensible. At the same time, the Gethenians consider Genly a pervert because in their eyes he’s constantly in a sexually-determined stage and thus sexually motivated. Le Guin’s choice of the standard usage of he/his as a pronoun makes sense from Genly’s perspective as he comes from a bi-gendered culture and his own world view is decidedly male. However, one wonders whether this choice was as natural for the Gethenians, though if they had used the feminine pronoun by default, this would have quickly become quite confusing, I think. There are also some dubious assumptions on Genly’s part, namely that Gethenians don’t understand the concept of full-scale war, partly because of their feminine side. If there had been permanent males, war would have been a natural conclusion. Personally, I very much doubt this conclusion and I wondered why he never asked Estraven about it.

There is also plenty of political commentary in the novel, largely centred in the differences between Karhide and Orgoreyn. I kept trying to link these nations with a real-world equivalent, with especially Orgoreyn reminding me of a form of communist state in the vein of the DDR or the USSR. However, this might have been me reading too much into the text and giving too much weight to the year it was published. In any case, neither nation comes off very well, with Karhide being subject to the whims of an insane king and his corrupt advisors and Orgoreyn part of an even corrupter bureaucracy. In contrast, the Ekumen seems rather utopian, a beneficial coalition of human civilisations, concerned more with the good of humanity and trade than with actually making and upholding laws. Membership of the Ekumen is voluntary; they even have something reminiscent of Star Trek’s Prime Directive, where they aren’t supposed to teach potential allies new skills and technologies, such as telepathy or the creation of ansibles.

It’s easy to see why Roz Kaveney included The Left Hand of Darkness in an article on radical reading in SF. The book is still relevant today and I can only imagine how ground-breaking the novel was when first published. But beyond all the important themes and subtext, The Left Hand of Darkness is also a really pleasurable read, both for its story and Le Guin’s writing. I’ll definitely be rereading this seminal work and I’ll have to make a point of reading more of Le Guin’s oeuvre; I have some catching up to do.

This book was provided by the publisher as part of the Hodderscape Review Project.

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