the Little Red Reviewer

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Posted on: July 9, 2017

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

published in 1969

where I got it: purchased new

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I was intimidated to read this book. I doubted my ability to “get it”. What if I read and said “ok, that’s nice”? What if I didn’t understand the author’s intent? Endless doubts and what if’s. At my local book club a few months ago, instead of having us all read the same book, the club organizer put a stack of Hugo winners on the table and told us all to pick one.  I grabbed The Left Hand of Darkness off the table.  Doubt can go screw itself.

 

The big idea in The Left Hand of Darkness is how would culture and society be different if there was no gender? Unique among the planets that support human life, the people of Gethen have no fixed gender – they are neither male nor female, and have the ability to both father a child and give birth to a child. These people have never heard the phrase “traditional gender roles” and sexism and gender bias don’t exist in their culture. In their language, the pronouns “he” and “his”, simply mean “person”, and titles and offices that sound male to our ears are inclusive. This book is full of “he” and “his”, but there is only one male character in this book.

 

Genly Ai, Envoy of the Ekumen, has travelled to Gethen to invite the planet to become a part of the Ekumen, which is an interstellar trade federation of sorts.  He has now been residing in the kingdom of Karhide for over a year, and he will stay until the planetary leaders voice their wish to join the Ekumen, or until they tell him to go away (them killing him might also happen). Genly is in some ways incredibly patient, but in other ways impatient.  Not only does he not in anyway understand the local politics, but he also struggles with the idea that his hosts are not men and not women, but potentially either, and always showing traits of both femininity and masculinity, often at the same time.  In return, they view him as a sexual deviant, a genetic freak.

 

Gethen isn’t just a planet of no fixed gender, it’s also a planet that is actively trying to kill you.  Nicknamed “Winter”,  this is a place of never ending ice and snow, with a narrow band near the equator that can support life. No large mammals, no birds, no apex predators.  LeGuin does magic with how the planet shapes the society and culture of the Gethenians – no birds to be curious about means no interest in airplanes,  no large animals to eat means many meals and snacks during the day and strict rules of socializing that revolve around eating. On a planet where frostbite can kill, hospitality towards the stranger is the norm. On a planet where the populace appears to have no fear or distrust of the “other”, there are plenty of arguments, but there has never been an all out war between Karhide and their bureaucratic neighboring country Orgoreyn. Sprinkled through the novel are interim short chapters that include both local folklore and  helpful commentary from anthropologists who visited before Genly.

The way the story is paced was intriguing to me because the pace of the story matches the pace of life on Gethen, as in, very slow.  Most vehicles trundle along at 25 miles an hour, snow sledges are pulled by hand, the easiest way to get from city to another is to walk. No one is ever in a hurry. Maybe because hurrying requires more calories than can easily or politely be obtained?  The second half of the novel is a slow-motion trek across the glaciers. I say slow motion, because they are travelling between 8 and twenty miles per day, pulling and pushing their sledge along. No dog teams, just human strength and skis on ice.  For moving slow and taking over two months with each day being much like the one before, those pages are so full of tension that you are dying to know what happens the next day. This is a land that will happily kill you, and these characters are travelling across it with hardly any resources. One wrong move, and one or both of them will be dead.  Did the Gethenian culture evolve to match their natural surroundings of snow and glaciers? Never in a hurry, cautious as if every decision is a bottomless crevasse that must be crossed?

 

I was most fascinated by two things in The Left Hand of Darkness, the first one presented rather obviously, and the second quite obliquely.

 

The first is one of the religions practiced on Gethen. Practitioners of the Handdara faith who choose to live for a time of contemplation at a Fastness take no vows, have no priest, follow no creed, and have no hierarchy.  When a particular group of Handdarata has formed, foretelling is possible. For a fee, the foretellers will answer just about any question brought to them.  Non-Handdara of course, are willing to pay through the nose to know their future!  Will next year’s crops be good? Will Gethen join the Ekumen?  When will I die? How many children will I have? Are my parents still alive? But to the Handdarata themselves, who are constantly being steeped in the answers, not know the answers and not knowing what will come next in their life is the most valuable thing in their lives. Within their fastnesses, ignorance is highly prized.  Genly visited the foretellers and was becalmed by the answer they provided. Did Estraven also visit the foretellers? And if he did, was he provided with an answer that brought him a kind of peace?

 

The second thing that still has me thinking deeper thoughts than I expected and is never mentioned in the novel, is what happens after the people of Gethen join the Ekumen and start talking with humans on other planets who have a fixed gender?  What will happen to the Gethenian culture after they are exposed to gender bias and gender roles? Will they treat their pregnant citizens differently? Will sex and nudity become more taboo? Will communication with “normal” humans be detrimental to their unique culture? Has the Ekumen even thought of any of that???  Maybe the King of Karhide wasn’t so crazy after all, maybe his paralyzing fear of interstellar communication wasn’t so irrational after all.

 

You’ll notice I didn’t talk much the plot of The Left Hand of Darkness in this review. The plot was compelling, it kept my attention, it did everything it was supposed to do. But it was everything else about this book – the world, the no-gender thing, the politics, how Genly is treated and how he treats the people he meets,  all of that was far more compelling, thought provoking,  and beautifully communicated than what actually happens. LeGuin presents it all simply and rather straight forward, making this kind of mastery of the writing craft look easy.  Instead of having a population, and a culture, and a planet, and a story that function separately, she’s so perfectly blended everything together into a complete whole. No yin and yang,  but a fully encompassing all.

 

An absolutely beautiful and fascinating book, I’ve made up for having never read this book until now by reading it twice in the last six weeks.

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11 Responses to "The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin"

Totally agree with your review which was clear and measured despite your enthusiasm. It is, after several readings, one of my favourite books.

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Happy that you liked it. It is a book that it’s easy to ‘not get’, unfortunately – it’s not very conventional, and it’s… well, frosty. I admired it more than loved it. But it’s really good. Beautiful and fascinating indeed.

But I have a controversial theory of it: I think it’s a hoax. See, all the reviews say it’s a book about what it would be like if there were no gender… and I don’t think it is. Sure, GENLY thinks that’s what it’s about, that colours every interpretation he has of his time on the world. But I don’t think we’re necessarily meant to think that Genly is right. Indeed, I think Genly may be almost a parody of how Le Guin thinks readers and critics will come to the book.
Because really, in the end, the issue of gender, though constantly on display, turns out to be pretty much irrelevent not only to the plot but also to most of what the book is interested in. The contrast between two forms of tyranny (feudalism and republicanism, the latter in her era having a strong hint of communism, which makes Karhide capitalist by default), and how the political systems shape culture and psychology, and how they don’t, and the contrast between civilisation and the brutality of winter, and the Taoism and mysticism, and science and progress and folklore, and colonialism and independence and liberalism, inclusion and exclusion, and government and pre-state morality (the myths, the honour codes)… it’s all got almost nothing to do with gender. Readers obsess over (the lack of) gender while all the important stuff is going on in the background, and I kind of suspect that that’s the point. [this is in a novel in which we are reminded that “to oppose a thing is to maintain it”, after all!]. Gethen’s lack of gender is certainly the most visible part of its culture, but I don’t think it’s actually the important part (except around the edges, of course).

This is even (imo) lampshaded at one point when Le Guin gives us the very conventional (for her era) but vague feminist theory about how the absence of gender may explain the absence of war… and then undercuts it with the rival theory that, no, there’s no war because it’s so damn cold that everyone’s too busy trying to survive to have enough time or resources for war… she leaves it open which explanation is ‘true’, if either, but while most readers and critics seem to uncritically assume it’s the gender studies one, I think the novel itself leans more toward the economics explanation (though I suspect Le Guin would say that both theories, or neither, are true).

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you are right, everything that happens in the book – the politics, the way the two countries disagree on everything, Genly’s imprisonment and escape, none of it has anything to do with gender. The plot has nothing to do with if the characters are male, female, both, neither, or something else entirely.

we (as in us Earthlings, we) are so damn obsessed with gender, I bet we are missing some important stuff too. 😉

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http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Reject.html

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where is that little emoticon of eyes bugging out of my head, because that’s my reaction!!

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Ha!
Well, to be fair, “dry, airless and lacking in pace” is a pretty accurate description. It’s just… not realising that that’s actually the whole point, it’s meant to be like that.

But I do think it reminds us to be careful in our reactions. What looks like genius when we ‘know’ that the book is a masterpiece by one of the giants of the genre can often look quite like incompetence when we think it’s a dodgy early effort by a talented but little-known young author who doesn’t know what they’re doing yet. I do find myself having to catch myself sometimes when I’m thinking “how audacious! how bold to completely subvert expectations in this way!”, and have to make myself ask myself whether i’d really see it that way if this were a self-published e-book. Would I still think it was audacious subversion, or would I think it was someone who didn’t know how to write a proper story?

[and conversely, when I’m being critical of something, I have to wonder: would I be this critical if this were a ‘classic’ author? Or would I manage to find some excuse for why, clearly, these unusual decisions were all entirely intentional and inspired in their provocativeness?]

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I love the direction this conversation is going, because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something (be it short story or novel, be it classic, recent, traditional published, self published, or anything in between) and wondered if what I’m reading is provocative genius and I just don’t get it, or if it’s crap.

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I used to have that problem… now, I’m confident enough in my judgement that if I think it’s rubbish, it’s almost certainly not great. [it might be OK; and something I think is OK might be good, and something I think is good might actually be great; but if I can’t see any signs of greatness, they’re probably not there, IMO].

This is particularly the case with “deep” books. “Oh, you just don’t get it, it’s really deep and meaningful and important and says really insightful things! Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not good!”, people say. “I have a philosophy degree from a very good university,” I say, “that’s not deep, that’s trite and simplistic. Here, allow me to suggest a number of more sophisticated analyses of these themes…” This doesn’t actually resolve the conservation amicably, but it does make me feel less insecure about my “failure” to “understand”… (and there’s a lot of even quite respected stuff that gets plaudits for it depth and philosophical importance that, to be honest, reads more like elaborated greetings card messages. If I wanted that, I’d go read my mother’s “inspirational quote of the day” calendars…

Similarly with authors who are “erudite”. It almost always seems that the more I know about a subject, the more obvious it is that “erudite” authors who “seem to know about everything” have no idea what they’re talking about. [This could be a coincidence, and actually they DO know what they’re talking about on every subject I’m ignorant in. But I suspect not…]

I have no problem with authors failing to say something important, of course, or failing to know everything. I just want them (and their fans) to be honest about their limitations. This book is actually a good example. In part, I think it’s a great book because of its humility. A lot of lesser authors would write this book “saying” a lot more, making their “point” more clearly and unambiguously, displaying at length their “research”, conveying their “message” effectively. And it would almost inevitably be a simplistic message said ham-fistedly (because most authors aren’t great philosophers, and a short SF novel isn’t the place for a genuinely sophisticated dissertation anyway). What Le Guin does instead is embrace ambiguity and complexity, hinting at the general contours of her themes but not filing off the involuted edges, and not taking one theme in isolation from all the others, but rather trying to convey an almost intimidating difficulty (a difficulty not of prose, or even of concept, but of life). It’s part of what makes it a cold book, but it’s also a big part of why it’s proven perennial. While a novel like “The Female Man”, written around the same time and also discussing themes of gender, and I get the impression even more of a landmark at the time, is (apparently – I’ve not read it) written much more didactically, and as a result is widely written off as “of its time” and no longer relevent…

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Anyway, my problem tends to be the opposite: I worry that something I think is good is actually rubbish, and that actually I’m seeing things in it with much more generosity than others are likely to…

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Great review, prob your best ever. Yes, this book is a masterpiece and its prominence will endure for many generations to come.

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One of my favorite books. Read it when it first came out and several times since.

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It is a brilliant book in many ways. And in answer to your ‘what happens when?’ musings, you may want to take in more of Le Guin’s stories involving the Ekumen and a whole range of races on other worlds – they’re usually referred to as the Hainish novels or stories, and raise lots more fasinating questions about what makes us human. Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists, which may explain her drift…

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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