The Left Hand of Darkness
Forty-six years after its original publication date, I first picked up and devoured The Left Hand of Darkness, at age 23. Now here we are, almost a year after the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s release, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it again. But in the four-and-a-half years since I first read it, The Left Hand of Darkness has frequently been on my mind: I pondered Genly Ai’s intense isolation as the only non-Gethenian on a planet of near-endless winter, reflected on his confusion among a new society and an unfamiliar physical and sexual cycle, and mourned his loss of a singular friendship at the end of a journey across the Ice. These things stuck with me, made me remember the book as a great piece of storytelling and a wonderful experience.
I thought that in revisiting the book I would find those elements again, and I did, but I also found that— because I didn’t need to study my way to an understanding of kemmer, sex, and gender on Gethen, because I didn’t need to guess at many of the details of the Ekumen or the history of the novel’s universe, and because social peculiarities such as shifgrethor weren’t so unfamiliar to me this time—layers upon layers of Le Guin’s various interrogations into humanity and our possibilities and potentialities opened up before me. I found dozens of paths in the woods that I must have walked past the first time I maundered through this novel, but that were hidden just behind the light foliage of a first read.
This, like so much of Le Guin’s work, is a novel that I might read ten thousand times and always find something to marvel at.
The book’s consideration of gender and sex, and the social interactions and intricacies thereof, is perhaps what it’s best known for and what sticks out most in a first read and in general buzz about the book. Not only does Le Guin break assumptions of binary gender and sex into pieces, she’s highly critical of that toxic masculinity that, even in the far future, makes it difficult for the Terran protagonist, Genly Ai, to reliably access his emotions. A consequence of this criticism is how starkly Ai’s gendered interpretations of actions and of the world impose on the world around him, where he’s the only person with this type of highly gendered, essentialist perspective. He describes certain actions or physical features as manly or womanly, and he is upset by interactions that contradict his gendered assumptions. Inevitably, this disrupts and weakens his communication with the world around him. Genly Ai’s difficulty understanding gender outside of the monolithic model of his upbringing on Earth causes him serious problems. This is immediately evident when, in his narration, Ai clarifies that he will gender all Gethenians as men, using “he” to refer to them all.
Later in life, reflecting on The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin admitted that this choice was at least partially an authorial imposition, a decision that she made to get the book published in a culture where gender neutral pronouns or neopronouns would’ve meant the book never made it into the public. She compromised some of the truth of the novel in order to share the rest of that truth. I’m not as interested in making a moral judgment on that choice as I am in looking at how it impacts the book as-is.
Going into this reread knowing that the Gethenians wouldn’t use gendered pronouns as a default, I tried, at the start, to replace every instance of “he” with “they” as I read, but I found it exceedingly difficult to do so. Gendered images and interpretations of events forced their way past my imposition of neutrality almost immediately. What came of this, though, is something I don’t remember realizing the first time I read this book. Because literally every adult on the planet is referred to as a man, the story becomes super, super gay. Le Guin specifically genders everyone as men in her pronoun usage, but she goes to great lengths to break this image through physical and social means. King Argaven of Karhide becomes pregnant and bears his child halfway through the novel. Many named characters have both sired and birthed children. Le Guin refers to men’s breasts growing larger during certain stages of kemmer. Every romantic and sexual relationship is between two men. While using gender neutral language certainly would have been more accurate, it also would’ve potentially made it much easier and more comfortable to assign our own gendered categories on the characters. Instead, Le Guin forces us to bring our assumptions of what a man is to each of these situations, and in this way her intention to queer our ideas of gender and sex is unavoidable. We never get to see the Gethenians as they see themselves, but at least we aren’t able to ignore the ways that their existence inherently queers our own.
Among all the traits I admire about Le Guin’s writing, one that recurs in every book and story and that I wish more writers did so well—and this trait is something I long to cultivate so thoughtfully in my own writing—is her capacity to thoroughly, painstakingly, and so, so naturally portray the multiplicity of human potentiality. In Left Hand particularly, she shows us a world drastically and intensely different from our own, with a massively different global climate, an entirely different relationship to and understanding of both gender and sex than the dominant culture of the US in the 1960s (and today) had, unique social relationships, different relations to capital and power and borders, an approach to architecture based on snowfalls of ten feet or more at a time, and very different systems of agriculture and eating. Yet Gethen is still distinctly human.
This may seem like the purview of any SF writer, to write about differences, but Le Guin does so with great intention, never assigning these differences in culture a valuation of good or bad. They are simply differences, and it is up to the reader to look at the world they take place in and extract new ways of being, to look at all these different possibilities she presents us and construct a better reality from the pieces. Without ever deigning to create a perfect world, Le Guin looks at differences and asks us to explore them to find ways forward. For example, Karhide is a monarchy with an extremely hierarchical and centralized form of governance, but it’s also a place without a sense of xenophobia and without a penchant for war. In Karhide, people who choose to stay permanently in kemmer, permanently gendered, are labeled perverts and often outcast, but it’s also a place where child rearing is largely communal and no one is left without support systems upon pregnancy.
None of these differences, though, are portrayed as a spectacle, a great and just achievement. To do so would suggest that these differences are alien and that to achieve them would take an alien and intense effort. Instead, these aspects of Gethen just are. Because a better world is possible, and we can recreate it. It isn’t human nature to hate outsiders, Le Guin suggests. But it is our culture, and, as we see in Karhide, Orgoreyn, and every day on Earth, we are capable of changing our culture. We just have to imagine it. Over and over, Ursula K. Le Guin—to use her words from her momentous speech at the 2014 National Book Awards ceremony—outimagined capitalism, kyriarchy, and oppression. She’s shown us so many ways the world could be different and perhaps even better, it’s up to us now to keep imagining and keep enacting.
Whenever I read one of Le Guin’s books, amid the torrent of feelings and thoughts, one always sticks out because of how frequently it feels true: I could never write a book this good. I could write diligently, study, think, and act for a thousand years and never write a book as thoughtful and illuminating as a single one of her novels. Everything is so polished, from a word level to a sentence level all the way up to the level of the book’s entire structure, pace, and plot. It’s all so unattainable. But last year, I spent a month or so rereading the Earthsea books back to back, and that experience kept coming to mind while reading Left Hand. The first Earthsea novel was published in 1965, then came Left Hand, then The Word for World is Forest and Dispossessed. Thirty years after that the final two Earthsea books came out, and, thinking of the books in that order, it’s so blatantly obvious how she grew over the years as a writer and thinker. In fact, she’s one of the only authors I can think of who so openly and enthusiastically revised and refined her worlds and her ideas as she grew older and gained new experience and perspective. This is one of the things I love so much about her work.
So interspersed with that helpless hopeless feeling of never being able to achieve something even almost as good as what Le Guin wrote was her own repertoire telling me, loudly and vocally and emphatically, that that feeling is a lie. As I read The Left Hand of Darkness, each of her novels whispered to me, as individuals and as a collective, telling me that any perfection was instead illusion and that even this titan of creativity grew drastically over a half-century career. This duality of feeling gives me both a sense of hope and responsibility. I hope to write the possibilities and truths I see while telling a compelling and touching and lasting story, as Le Guin always did, and I feel the responsibility to do so diligently enough to claim her as an ancestor.