The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness Cover

The Left Hand of Darkness


I don't know if this reflects on me as a reader or on the book, but after reading I am still not sure if this is a re-read from years ago.

One of my reading challenges this year is to read more speculative fiction that can loosely address LGBTQ themes, have notable LGBTQ characters or if the author isn't cis-het. One of the things I have been struck with is in the space of a month I've read two books which feature non-heterosexual reproduction and I have another one lined up next month (the other books are Ammonite and A Door Into Ocean). This book also counts for another of my reading goals which is to read more fiction by anarchists or books which address anarchism and non-hierarchical forms of living (Ursula Le Guin was a well known anarchist in her lifetime).

This book feels like something I've been looking forward to reading for some time but I have been left a little underwhelmed by it. I kind of feel I have read an important book, but I am not sure I have been entertained, or especially moved by it.

The premise is that an alien called Genly Ai, lands on the planet Gethen with a mission to introduce humanity to Gethen and invite them into the Ekumen, the Ekumen being a non-hierarchical co-ordinating body of human inhabited planets to support trade and the sharing of knowledge, histories and experiences. The planet Gethen is a planet going through a kind of ice age, with the geo-politic dominated by two neighbours Karhide and Orgoreyn in a state of almost Cold war between them with border tensions.

I'm interested in the Ekumen because in the voice of Ai it is nothing but a form of benevolence, there are laws and agreements but the perception is that it is consensual. Ai lands alone in a show of peace, and the Gethenians are invited to join humanity, not colonised or forced. And yet, when we look through the eyes of Ai, it rarely leaves me that there is a sense that Gethen is 'undeveloped' and backward. I also think that Le Guin portrays the fears of Gethen well, but because they are captured through the eyes of Ai, they almost seem irrational. It did make me think, because this could easily be viewed as a novel about colonisation despite all the text saying something different. I think Le Guin is quite clever because so many readings of the Ekumen can be seen as a positive but she allows the voice of the Genthenians to shine. I think I may be giving Le Guin a free pass though, because so much of Ai's voice is critiquing these inhabitants for not knowing what is good for them and I am left with the notion that the Ekumen are colonisers and may standardise humanity rather than celebrate it's diversity.

The other thing I found notable was the not to subtle inferences as to the cultures of the two neighbouring states. Karhide is clearly a monarchy modelled on a parliamentarian nation with significant inequality, whereas Orgoreyn is clearly modelled on an over-officious 'everyone has a job but nothing gets down' communist state, complete with secret police. It's obvious now and would have been more stark then, and I can see Le Guin poking fun at both monarchies with an illusion of governance and communist states.

Le Guin's father was an anthropologist and I think it shows in much of her work. I was reading on a forum this week and one commented that Le Guin is distant from her characters and it resonated with me. One never feels the characters are loved by her as an author, or that she is part of the book. Her writing can be detached, she observes. That distance lets one reflect, and see the bigger picture but I wonder if some of the heart of the story is missing writing this way?

This detachedness, this removal from the characters is important for me, because no matter how insightful the themes are, no matter how beautiful the descriptions are, the reader always feels somewhat like an alien. I guess this puts us in Ai's shoes, but it does make things tricky. Concepts and terminology is introduced but doesn't really get explained - you have to work it out for yourself. Certain things are only explained quite late in the novel. For instance there is the concept of an honour code, of not losing face called shifgrethor. It's never really explained, Ai, the alien does not comprehend it, and so the reader does not either. The concept is loosely based on trade of grace and favour underpinned by manners - I think. The problem was, reading the book, I often checked back thinking I had missed a page, or not paid attention. There is quite a pivotal event that happens to Ai, and I am still not sure I understood why I understood why it happened. I guess this is why I have rated it as only average - reading for pleasure, I shouldn't feel like I am checking back or lost. The first third of the book was a real slog and I just wasn't enjoying it. It's mostly the reputation of the book that kept me going.

I suppose the thing that most people know about this book is it's treatment of gender, and how ground-breaking this book was in 1969. On Gethen humans have not evolved as male or female, they are simply people. In something 'sort of' akin to a menstrual cycle every 20 or so days or so they enter a stage called kemmer. In this state they are not expected to work, but are in a state of sexual arousal and have a need for sexual intimacy. It is portrayed as very much an immediate biological need like eating or sleeping. In the state of kemmer, humans who are effectively in a couple with each other have intimate sexual relations with each other, whilst others go to kemmerhouses where they effectively make love to whoever is there free from ties and obligations. One can see the influence of the free love movement of the sixties here I think!

What's interesting is that when two adults bond in kemmer, one assumes temporarily male physiology and another assumes female physiology and in effect copulate as a heterosexual couple. If the person with female genitalia is pregnant they maintain some female physiology in the course of their pregnancy before reverting back to their androgynous self. What's sad about this book is there is a small acknowledgment of what we would consider same sex attraction where both partners assume male or female genitalia but they are considered perverts. Similarly, fraternal kemmer raises eyebrows as does incest but I kind of feel these are lumped in with what to us looks like non-straight intimacy. I'm not saying the book is homophobic, because in many respects the humans are sexual, without definition, rather than hetero or even bi and I imagine it was such an important book at the time for breaking down gender norms.

Whilst this is interesting, they key point are that first of all the Gethenians think Ai is 'permanently in kemmer' because he has a penis and it's considered distasteful, second, because sexual needs and intimacy needs are treated as a biological need there is no sense of shame, and subsequently it is inferred that sexual violence is non-existent. However, the most important thing is Ai's worldview. He continues to see the Gethenians as male in the absence of another world. He misgenders them throughout the book because he can't imagine another way. And as a reader it tricked me, because quite often I thought of the characters as men, on a planet where women did not exist and I checked myself thinking how easy it is to erase people when we misgender them. Ai was the only man on the planet, everyone else are people.

What this leads to is Ai continually trying to ascribe male and female attributes to characters, particularly the Karhide Prime Minister Estrevan. Estrevan is such an important character in the book as he advocates for the world Ai promises, sees the values of opening up his world.

And I guess this is the heart of the book for me. A significant proportion of the last third of the book is mostly Estrevan and Ai together in their story. This part of the book was beautiful, whether it was the description of the landscapes, the growing love between them, that awareness of intimacy, friendship and support that all good relationships have. It genuinely touched my heart. And finally Ai gets it, he stops seeing Estrevan as either male or female, but just as a whole person in their right. Seeing how some get so tied up in gender constructs now, I am touched by the notion of, 'what if I stop trying to classify, and see someone as their whole self'. It troubles Ai because he realises that Estrevan, or anyone's behaviour can't be ascribed to their gender, but to the person and their character. We are just 'us'

I am glad I read the book, it has relevance to the struggles non cis-het people face today. It just felt like to hard a slog early on to rate any higher.