The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness Cover

The Left Hand of Darkness


Intended Audience: Adult
Sexual content: Significant
Ace/Genderqueer characters: Yes (Aliens)
Rating: PG-13 for violence, some sexual imagery, and detailed discussion of alien biology/sexuality

Writing style: 5/5
Likable characters: 4/5
Plot/Concepts: 5/5

Genly Ai, envoy to the people of the icy planet Gethen, does not trust the one man who can help him avoid assassination and accomplish his mission. Partially this is because that man is not a man at all, nor a woman—he is both, and neither, as are all Gethenians. But who else can help Genly convince the people of this frozen world to join the Ekumen and so open communication and trade with dozens of other worlds? There are so many things about this planet which Genly finds incomprehensible, and Estraven perhaps the most incomprehensible of all.

Let's start with the problematic elements of this book, and then we can move on to the great stuff. For a genderqueer or ace person picking this story up for the first time, first impressions might leave a bitter taste, and there is plenty that could make such an audience uncomfortable. As a repulsed ace some of the blunt clinical observations of Gethenian physiology and sexual behavior were a little much for me the first time I read this one through (I was also a sheltered conservative teenager). One might expect Gethen to be a sort of literary utopia for genderqueer readers, but our first experience with it is from Genly's perspective, and he is not only constrained strictly by the gender binary he grew up with, but is a bit sexist in his own way, and makes some very judgmental comments in-narrative about Gethenians both individually and as a whole.

In addition Genly's thinking is definitely tinted by his being susceptible to sexual drive and attraction at all times, while Gethenians are basically asexual when not in kemmer. (Kemmer is the period during which Gethenians are essentially "in heat" and their bodies change to take on characteristics of one sex or the other at random.) Genly and others muse about how this affects Gethenian society and psychology for good or ill, and make some startlingly ethnocentric judgments which sometimes seem to imply that a society without constant sexual tension has little to drive it forward. Even the Gethenian's part-time asexuality is perceived as a lack, their cycles compared to those of nonhuman animals. Some readers might find this dehumanizing. In fact Genly uses animal metaphors to describe Gethenians quite a lot, although sometimes this isn't done offensively but merely as a way of illustrating a certain expression or bearing.

The use of "he" as a pronoun for all Gethenians throughout the story might prove the greatest obstacle to some readers, especially as it is used in passages from Estraven's point of view, since technically Estraven should be using gender neutral pronouns in his own language. We could chalk it up to being a translation choice on Genly's part, since he is the one putting the story together from his and Estraven's records of events. But why would he stick to this last bit of sexism even after he has a deeper understanding of Gethenian culture and gender? As the story is written, Genly narrates in such a way as to reflect his mindset at the time, without much foreshadowing or apology in the moment of error. I believe he bares his faulty thinking to the reader assuming that the reader is as much an outsider to Gethenian ways of thinking about gender as he was in the beginning. Thus, the reader and Genly start at the same point and progress together. Genly, being a man, sees his gender as the default, the neutral, and so labels the truly neutral with what is natural for him—"he". When a Gethenian's looks, voice, or behavior reminds him that they are not like him, he immediately is uncomfortable with their deviation and sees them as effeminate men. In a way, being in Genly's head provides an excellent critique of masculine culture as it still exists today, with all the insecurities that come along with that mindset.

In any case, if you are or were uncomfortable with some of Genly's thoughts in the first quarter or even the first half of the book, that's probably the point. My feeling is that Le Guin wrote this book mainly as a starting point for those who are deeply entrenched in sexism and binary thinking. For the sake of realism, she wasn't going to make it easy for Genly. Sometimes I think we forget how hard it is for people who grew up in one culture to free themselves from a mode of thought which has been drummed into them since birth. The gap between generations or political or religious sects can be just as difficult to bridge as the gap between larger cultures or worlds. As such the beginning is not going to completely resonate with those of us who are already quite capable of thinking outside that box of gender. We start, as it were, by having to go backwards, to see our own alien-ness to those who cannot yet see us as we are. Of course that's uncomfortable. But we also get to see the process by which Estraven in particular becomes known to Genly as "he" truly is, and that is something I found well worth the difficulty.

One thing that is immediately praiseworthy is the racial aspect of this story. Since Genly has darker skin even than the typically dark Gethenians, nowhere is "white" the norm or ideal on this planet, nor in any of the narrative. The privileged white people of our world are reduced to a single reference to "white Terrans" as a point of comparison in some notes on Gethenian physiology. It is refreshing to see a story in which having dark skin is seen as the default. No fuss is made over it. It simply is, embodied in all the important characters.

As for the other aspects of the book, Le Guin's world-building is spectacular. In addition to narration by Estraven and Genly, she also uses excerpts of ancient legends and essays by previous explorers to give a rich picture of the religious, environmental, and historical forces which influence the spirit of the Gethenian people as a whole. The narration has an atmospheric, reverent quality that I have rarely seen done so well. I imagine some would rather forego the detailed descriptions of landscape, architecture, and weather, but this is a book which is meant to give the reader a sense of being in another place both like and unlike home, and Le Guin's writing style is very transporting. Similarly, being faced with so many foreign names and words, especially while in Estraven's point of view, might seem daunting to some, but to others it will be an integral and delightful part of experiencing Gethen more genuinely. The characters are all described vividly, but the focus is mainly on Genly and Estraven, since the development of their relationship is so crucial to the plot. Both are quite flawed in their own ways; I can think of a few reasons why a reader might not love one or the other, especially Genly as he is in the beginning. But every effective character must have flaws, and in the end it is the growth out of those flaws which is important.

The plot can be a little difficult to follow at some points, particularly those having to do with political maneuverings between the officials of the different Gethenian countries. Because Estraven was the King's Ear in Karhide, and Genly a political curiosity in any nation he entered, the crazy and confusing politics of the world is an inevitable part of their story and is in a sense what drives them together about halfway through the book. I confess I still don't understand all the twists and turns of what this or that political figure was trying to accomplish, but understanding the gist is enough to be able to enjoy the story, and no doubt some people have a better mind for comprehending that sort of thing than I do. A lot happens in the first two-thirds of the book, but ironically, the moments I remember best happen during the last third when there it is only Genly, Estraven, and a whole lot of Winter. When it comes to pacing, I never felt rushed, or bored, and the tying together of each stage of character development was pretty satisfying.

This was my third time reading this book. Every time I've read it has been a different experience. When my friend first insisted I give it a try, I was a very sheltered, transphobic, homophobic, conservative teenager. I'm surprised I managed to get through it, considering all that, and in my vague memory of that first time I was made pretty darn uncomfortable and didn't really know what to think at the end. But I did end up thinking, at least a little bit.

The second time was a few years later. I was much less bigoted, although still sitting the fence on a lot of things. I could encounter queer content in stories without feeling too freaked out, at least. That second time I felt a deeper connection with the gender themes, a deeper identification with the idea that a person should be seen as primarily a human being—that being either feminine or masculine was not the primary aspect of my identity. But I didn't have a name for it. I just felt, and appreciated, and went on with my life.

My third time reading this comes after and during some very recent processes of self-discovery. I finally adopted the asexual label two years ago, and only within the last few months have I started to put a name to my feelings about gender. Looking back I can definitely say that this book was a key reference point for my understanding of myself. Because of it I had something to point to mentally, even when I didn't know whether such a mindset or way of being existed anywhere in the real world. The Gethenian attitude toward gender became an ideal to me long before I allowed myself to examine my own. And that is why I will continue to recommend this book to people even if—or maybe especially if—their concept of gender is as narrow or narrower than mine was the first time I read it.