The Left Hand of Darkness
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS
Ursula K. Le Guin
“I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.” —Genly Ai, The Left Hand of Darkness
If I had to sum up the story briefly (and glibly), I could call it “Pride and Prejudice and Glaciers.” It isn’t a perfect analogy—there are no binary female-identified characters, for one—but it is, at its heart, a book about prejudices in many forms. The story is rife with with misunderstandings that range from the insulting to the poignant, and that is both its most noticeable weakness and its greatest strength.
Genly Ai, the protagonist, is the first representative of an interstellar human organization, sent to a faraway planet called Gethen, or Winter. In the opening of the book, he is trying to convince the leaders of a nation called Karhide to open talks about joining an interstellar human governing body. However, both political concerns and vast social differences—some stemming from Gethenian biology—threaten to thwart him at every turn.
Gethenians do not have a set biological sex, but are instead functionally intersex and asexual when not in heat. The biology is addressed in detail throughout the book, but the effect is that they are a people with no concept of binary sex or gender. Genly’s ongoing state of maleness is seen in turn by Gethenians as a perversion. Struggling with this huge social barrier, Genly is unprepared for the political unrest surrounding his arrival, and can’t distinguish friend from foe, with particular confusion surrounding the Prime Minister of Karhide, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.
The characterization in this book is excellent. The cast of major characters is relatively small, and the emotional landscape of the characters is explored in diverse and interesting ways. The story is interspersed with tantalizing bits and pieces of Gethenian culture, from folktales to snatches at other characters’ points of view.
The pacing is slow at first, in the style of older science fiction and fantasy, and there’s a great deal of description throughout. The story eventually picks up, though, and takes some shocking turns, bucking genre conventions and becoming something very different than what seems to have promised at the beginning.
The emotional effectiveness of the story is strongly tied to this pacing. Very few books make me cry, but the first time I read it, this one did the trick.
As for the bad: Several facets of the representation are disappointing. From what I can tell, this is less the case with regard to racial diversity; Ai is described as being black, and most of the Gethenians aren’t white, though it can be a little difficult to parse what racial coding Le Guin is aiming for. This is still rare now in science fiction, and it was rarer still when The Left Hand of Darkness was originally published.
For a book that’s ostensibly about gender and sexuality, it has remarkably few references to actual homosexual, intersex, nonbinary, or asexual people. (The term “bisexual” is misused too, from a modern point of view, to mean something like “binary-identified.”) Even the nonbinary people are partially masked by Genly's choice to use he/him pronouns for all Gethenians. On a less practical and more conceptual level, great deal of stock is placed in binary sexuality as a touchstone of human culture and even the universal human experience.
And, strikingly for a man from the future, Genly’s perspective is riddled with misogyny and transmisogyny, much of it quite blatant: most of his negative descriptions of Gethenians stem from moments in which he notices traits in others that he sees as feminine.
While it’s only tangential to the plot, there’s a lot of ableism, as well. Some of it is relatively benign, a case of unfortunate terms with at least hints of curiosity behind it. Other instances, like a casual mention of “defectives," hint at something darker.
Finally, there's a great deal of violence discussed, and some of it is less than delicate. Dark themes like death, incest, rape, the nature of war, and the role gender has to play in forming human society are all handled, sometimes more carefully, sometimes less. It’s probably the effect of years and societal shifts. Genly's observations, which shift from compassionate to cruel, were unsettling.
It is the nature of speculative fiction to speculate, but this particular book speculates on some things it doesn't need to. Some of its premises seem incomplete or downright flawed. There are much better explorations of nonbinary identity out there—ones that don’t create a pretext of reverse discrimination from a binary point-of-view character, for example.
There are books that imagine a future in which nonbinary genders are not alien, in which sexuality in general and heterosexuality in particular isn’t conceived of as a crucial cornerstone to modern human culture.
People often talk about fiction, and science fiction in particular, as a “product of its time.” In her introduction to the edition that I read, Le Guin says, “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” It's important to consider science fiction in its contemporary context, but personal enjoyment shouldn't be neglected, either.
People looking for a love story may or may not be disappointed by this book. People looking for good queer representation, or timely questions about gender and sexuality, probably will be. But people looking for a story about a struggle for human connection—across cultures, social boundaries, and the extremities of suffering—may find themselves satisfied.
As a final note, purely by coincidence, it happens that Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, of which The Left Hand of Darkness is part, was just reissued out in a collection called The Hainish Novels and Stories by the Library of America. You can find more information about that, and a new interview with Le Guin, here.