The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969
the thirty‐eighth book in the visitor
Earlier this month I was tutoring in San Jose, and had to grab something quick during my brief lunch break. I remembered that there was a pizza shop nearby that was pretty decent, but then I thought, “Hmm, shouldn’t I try to find someplace new? I went there the last time I was in this neighborhood.” Then it occurred to me that the last time I had been in that neighborhood was eleven years ago. I could probably go back to the pizza shop without worrying about being stuck in a rut. Similarly, when I was sorting the books in the visitor recommendation series, authors I had already written articles about I pushed down the list, and books I had already written articles about I pushed way down the list. Why spend my increasingly limited free time reminding people what I think about a book I’ve already read, when they can just hit the archives? But this web site has been around for a while, and while I may feel like I just wrote about The Left Hand of Darkness five minutes ago—like, I very clearly remember reading it on the subway—it turns out that apparently that was seventeen years ago. My SAT and ACT students had yet to be born. (I didn’t know how unnerving this game could be until I started spending time with a preschool teacher. Her students had not yet been born when I bought half the stuff in my pantry, or when Ditko was still alive, or when any of the movies I have written about on this site were released. And yet they are already throwing around words like “entomology” and “aerodynamic”. Sunrise, sunset, etc.)
Thinking up truly alien life is hard, so the vast majority of the aliens I have encountered in fiction have either been humanoid or else the sorts of creatures that George W. Bush warned us about. The explanation The Left Hand of Darkness presents is that dozens of worlds, including Earth, were seeded with humanoid life by a spacefaring species from a planet called Hain. Over the ensuing millennia these offshoots of Hainish life have diverged a bit, but remain recognizably human to one another. Many of these worlds have formed a community called the Ekumen, which sends emissaries to planets with humanoid life and invites them to join. The chief narrator of The Left Hand of Darkness is one such emissary, Genly Ai from Earth, who has been dispatched to the planet Gethen. The first thing we learn about Gethen is that the Ekumen initially dubbed it “Winter”, as it has an Alaskan climate in its equatorial regions and an Antarctic climate everywhere else. This is very much a Pattern 14 book, and Le Guin has thoroughly thought through how society might develop on a slushball planet, from architecture (winter doors ten feet above the summer doors) to agriculture and cuisine (many meals per day to keep the metabolism running hot) to transportation (steamrollers in lieu of snowplows). She has thought through the flora and fauna (no flowers, no birds or winged insects), the technology (no airplanes, because they never occurred to anyone without animal models), even the orbital eccentricity and axial tilt of the planet (no hemispheric seasons, no significant difference in day length). She has carefully placed the continents and calculated the resulting geopolitics (two megastates, a decentralized monarchy and a bureaucratic police state, plus a handful of distant minor states). She has established two competing religious traditions (the oracular Handdara and the apostolic Yomeshta), and devotes several chapters to recounting myths. The first time I read this book, all of this stuff left me cold, no pun intended. It seemed like a lot of world‐building, not as a setting for a compelling story, but for its own sake. This time I just devoured it. I found it absorbing from start to finish, and when I was done I wanted to read a bunch more Hainish stories. Even the prose style, which I criticized both in my original article and in the first version of my patterns page, struck me as a plus on this read. So what changed? I mean, obviously the book didn’t change. I changed. But in what way? I would guess that at least some of the difference has to do with all the time I’ve spent during those intervening years in Kroeber Hall, named after Ursula Kroeber Le Guin’s father Alfred, the famous cultural anthropologist. While I’ve never sat through a full anthropology course, I have audited any number of history and geography and cultural studies classes there, developing the interest that I’ve cited in a bunch of recent articles: how our physical and social contexts affect our subjective experiences. In my original article I grumbled that the book lacked much of a plot (buh? the plot is quite substantial) and also that it lacked much of a theme. But the theme I just mentioned, the way that we may feel like discrete units of identity but are actually all loci where history and geography and culture and countless other global or universal phenomena play themselves out, is manifest throughout the work.
One of those would obviously be biology, and those who have read this book are probably scratching their heads by now over the extent to which I’ve been burying the lede up to this point, for while Gethen’s frigid climate is indeed one of the central elements of the book—the whole third act of the book is devoted to a trek of hundreds of miles across a polar wasteland—that is probably not the element that most people would mention first in describing The Left Hand of Darkness. To the delight of anyone who believes in Pattern 38, there is another important element to Gethenian society beyond how it has adapted to the cold: Gethenians are “ambisexual”. They spend five‑sixths of their time as androgynous neuters, and only develop sexual characteristics during a monthly phase they call “kemmer”—and which sexual characteristics they develop may change from one month to the next, and is not under their control. A Gethenian may have given birth to several children and sired several others. This is a thought experiment: how might society develop in a world in which every adult has the experience of being a woman and of being a man, and in which everyone is just “human” the majority of the time? But more to the point, reading about a world with an absence of fixed gender calls attention to its presence in our own, in a way we might not otherwise think about—the way we don’t normally think about the air we breathe or the gravity tethering us to the ground. Le Guin writes in the introduction to the edition I read that her brand of sci‑fi does not make forecasts about the future—“Yes, indeed the people in [The Left Hand of Darkness] are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous”—but instead comments on the present. What I found interesting is that in so doing, she demonstrated how much her present feels like a relic of our past—how, yes, the Gethenians present a contrast with our society, but so does Genly Ai, not because he is from the 4670s, but because he is from the 1960s and sounds like a character out of Mad Men. In my original article, after introducing the Gethenians as androgynous neuters, I wrote, “In practice, this seems to mean that they’re guys whom the envoy occasionally finds a bit too limp‐wristed for his tastes. Urgh.” To expand on that a bit: it’s very difficult to establish androgyny via the written word. In real life, what people look and sound and smell like is constantly in evidence; in prose, these sensory clues establishing sex are filtered out, so all we have are descriptions of gendered behavior and the terminology the narrator uses. On the terminology side, that mainly means pronouns. The Left Hand of Darkness doesn’t invent a set of pronouns for Gethenians outside of kemmer, nor (thankfully) does it employ “they” as a singular pronoun, but instead just uses “he”. I am old enough to have had a few elderly teachers—female teachers—who still held that those who want to refer to a single person of unknown gender should use masculine pronouns (“every student should keep his eyes on his own work”) and that there are no ideological implications to this rule. Those people are all dead now. Everyone I’ve heard opine on the subject in the past thirty years or so has recognized that this practice is indeed ideological, as it takes as a given that it is normal to be male and abnormal to be female. Which is what Genly Ai seems to think! Wandering around Gethen, he is only startled when these supposed neuters do something he regards as feminine—when they do something he regards as masculine, he takes no notice, even though that should be an equal departure from genderlessness. To reinforce this point, the book uses masculine words even cases where neutral words are readily available. There are no monarchs, only kings; no children, only sons. Why? To get shock value out of the Gethenians talking about a pregnant king or a pregnant son. It is one of the few ways the novel can convey androgyny in prose, but it also suggests that to be the sort of person capable of becoming pregnant is weird. Weird, and bad. Look at some of the things Genli Ai says:
On my first read I interpreted this as Ai being a gender traditionalist who wants men to be masculine—there are more than a few moments that call attention to the way Ai is limited by his psychological need to conform to standards of “virility” that are foreign to Gethen, such as his refusal to allow himself to cry—and wants women to be feminine. Over the course of the novel he grows accustomed to and even comes to prefer the epicene humanity of Gethen to the men and women of other planets, but initially, he views the Gethenians as basically men and is put off by any “effeminacy” he detects in them. But this didn’t seem exactly right to me on this read. Ai doesn’t seem to want women to be feminine either! When he has a moment of reverse culture shock as his sexed colleagues join him on Gethen, he says, “Their voices sounded strange: too deep, too shrill.” “Deep” is an inherently neutral word, maybe even positive (better to be deep than shallow). “Shrill” is inherently negative. He could have said “high”, but instead he chose to unbalance his dyad by making the feminine half pejorative. This is in keeping with his practice throughout. It is not merely that to be feminine is inappropriate for a man—it is that, for Ai, to be feminine is to be specious, insubstantial, devious, mentally ground‐bound, and weak. And that kind of thinking is more alien to me than anything the Gethenians have to offer. I know that misogyny hasn’t been eradicated from the society I belong to, let alone from every corner of the globe. But I don’t know—maybe I’m being a starry‐eyed optimist here, but I sort of figured that the people who held these sorts of atavistic views were either about to die soon or else were confined to dark corners where troglodytes with serious personality disorders furtively congregate, like 4chan, or the White House. Even the endemic mistreatment of women that society is finally beginning to confront doesn’t strike me as exactly the same thing as despising womanliness. We hear stories about men who want something from women and use their power to try to take it; we step back and observe how an organizing principle of our civilization is that men, as a class, do the same to women, as a class. True, inventing gender and assigning to women the qualities deemed inferior is part of that. But who is still blithely going along with that in 2018? What portion of the population, compared to the corresponding portion when Le Guin was writing this book back in 1968? Le Guin may disdain the practice of extrapolating trends, calling it a depressing exercise in charting a course to “somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life”, but the trend away from widespread casual misogyny gives me some hope. The idea that it might just be a mirage, or that it might not continue—that thousands of years could pass and the attitudes of the mid‑20th century could come back into vogue—strikes me as very nearly as depressing as the extrapolative sci‑fi from which Le Guin distances herself.