A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters...
Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.
The book cover below includes alt-text.
Ursula Le Guin's books are always thought-provoking, and The Left Hand of Darkness is no exception. This time, the author invites us to a thought experiment: how would a genderless society function? Of course, this isn't the only theme of this book, as she also explores spirituality, loyalty, friendship, the meaning of patriotism and other issues.
The main character, Genly Ai, finds himself in a world he can't really understand — not only is it excruciatingly cold, with social norms that he can't grasp, but the population in sexless most of the time, except when they enter kemmering. That's when they become either male or female for a short period of time and experience sexual desire. No one knows what sex they are going to be, and it can be different during each kemmering.
Ai, however, can't think of people as truly genderless/sexless. He chooses to use "he/him" pronouns when talking about them, which I found annoying. Because when I read "he" I immediately imagined a man (which is also an interesting observation on how a person from a world like ours experiences gender), I had to constantly remind myself these people weren't actually men. I tried to replace "he" with "they" in my head, but it required a lot of effort, and I often found myself forgetting about it and slipping back into thinking about the genderless people as men.
Ai can't help but describe people in terms of femininity and masculinity, and, interestingly enough, he distrusts the behaviors he finds feminine. He often describes femininity as inferior and looks down on it. I think it's an excellent commentary. It shows that neither features are truly feminine or masculine, but rather just human, however, our culture preconditions us to categorizing and assigning values to them. It also explores Ai's ingrained sexism, even though, as an envoy to an alien world, he should be open-minded.
However, the choice to refer to genderless people as male is not just about character development. It's the author's choice. She wrote that she couldn't use "they" as a pronoun because the book wouldn't be published, and that she refused to "mangle" (my word, not hers, but the idea is the same) English by inventing a pronoun of her own. Even though I respect Le Guin a great deal, I completely disagree. It would make perfect sense to have a made-up pronoun to refer to a gender (or rather genderlessness) that doesn't exist, at least in the biological sense, in our world and language. Since we are talking about a phenomenon that doesn't happen on Earth, we can borrow a word from a local language to describe it. Oh, well...
Even though the alien society has conflict and political intrigue, they don't have war or even a word for it, which, as far as I understand, is largely attributed to the genderlessness, and maybe, to some extent, to the unforgiving harshness of their world that promotes mutual help. Without gender roles, a person's merit is only determined by their personality and ability. Everyone is held to the same standards. No one is expected to behave in a way "appropriate" to their assigned social role. It's very interesting to look at our society in contrast and see how gender roles permeate everything, how much they determine about our lives since the very first moments. It's hard not to view Le Guin's world as superior, and I think that was her intention.
There is a curious attitude to progress, which is in stark opposition to our world, where we "move fast and break things". On the contrary, Gethenians are slow and methodical. Their progress is glacial, and even their travel speeds are extremely slow. They just aren't in a rush. Is it better or worse? A knee-jerk reaction might be to condemn this approach, but isn't it conditioned by the norms of our society?
There is much more in this novel. Everything is entwined: gender, politics, religion, social norms, relationships between people... I feel like it's very hard to examine The Left Hand Of Darkness without writing an extremely long essay, that will still miss some points. I don't feel qualified.
So, instead, I'll say that I enjoyed the book. It gave me food for thought, a lens to look at our world and norms from a different perspective, and it also entertained me. Le Guin's books aren't usually fun for me to read, but this one was quite enjoyable as a story on top of all the ideas.
You might enjoy The Left Hand Of Darkness if you like intellectual sci-fi, feminist ideas, in-depth world-building that allows you to question the norms of our society and other Le Guin's books.
Ursula K. Le Guin published twenty-two novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and has received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc. Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, an essay collection, Cheek by Jowl, and The Wild Girls. She lived in Portland, Oregon.
She was known for her treatment of gender (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Matter of Seggri), political systems (The Telling, The Dispossessed) and difference/otherness in any other form. Her interest in non-Western philosophies was reflected in works such as Solitude and The Telling but even more interesting are her imagined societies, often mixing traits extracted from her profound knowledge of anthropology acquired from growing up with her father, the famous anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber. The Hainish Cycle reflects the anthropologist's experience of immersing themselves in new strange cultures since most of their main characters and narrators (Le Guin favoured the first-person narration) are envoys from a humanitarian organization, the Ekumen, sent to investigate or ally themselves with the people of a different world and learn their ways.
Featured image by Vlad_Aivazovsky.