Classics Club: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The new Folio Society edition of this book is available here. A copy was received from the publisher for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Binding design by David Lupton for The Folio Society’s edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

It’s no secret that Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, but I’d somehow managed never to read her most acclaimed science fiction novel — even though the paperback cover with its male-female snow sculpture face is engraved on my memory, probably from my days shelving books in the public library. It’s also no secret, and I hope not a spoiler, to say that the setting of the book is a planet inhabited by people not defined by gender. They bear the potential to manifest as either male or female, and only come into single-sexed form once a month, the sex in question depending on the others in their environment. When a stranger from the interplanetary alliance called the Ekumen visits their remote, wintry world of Gethen, he must come to terms with this very alien society and try to break through its resistance to his call for peaceful cooperation.

As with most science fiction of the time, the book was not considered serious literature when first published. But that did not stop it from becoming a groundbreaking work of gender re-imagination, of social-science-fiction, the genre in which Le Guin excels. Its profound influence on writers and readers is acknowledged in Becky Chambers’s introduction to the austerely beautiful new Folio Society edition, which points out that the Terran protagonist must spend the length of the story overcoming the biases built into him by his biology, just as we do today. And though we still struggle with the bias and conflict and abusive behaviors that spring from our divided nature, we can look back at the years since Le Guin’s novel was published and see that our ideas have become more fluid and open, and have the potential to become even more so.

Illustrations by David Lupton for The Folio Society’s edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

This book was an opening gambit in that conversation, and it’s fascinating to read it for the first time just now. At first my response was mixed. Le Guin’s language is always finely and thoughtfully crafted, but I found it jarring that the male pronoun and the word “man” are used for Gethenians, making it very hard not to picture the male gender. I wish that Le Guin could perhaps have been more daring with her language, even though as we all know it’s incredibly awkward to come up with a gender-neutral pronoun in English. The strangeness and awkwardness would not have been inappropriate, though, as it requires a real mental effort to imagine an androgynous society.

I was also surprised and rather dismayed that specifically female experience was largely absent from the novel. The amazing fact that Gethenian “men” can also be pregnant and bear children is mentioned, but never shown. Even though there must be pregnant and nursing “women” present during the time of the story, we never see them; we read the startling phrase “The king was pregnant” but he doesn’t appear onstage in this state, and we just get the report of his child’s death. Again, this made Gethen seem like a society of default men, with the female form as more of an aberration than an integral part. In fact, it could be viewed as a kind of male fantasy, where women are present for their essential functions (sex, childbirth) but absent the rest of the time, along with their pesky hormonal imbalances and mood swings.

Illustrations by David Lupton for The Folio Society’s edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

But does this anthro-centrism have a hidden point? Is it in fact due to the perspective of the Envoy, Genly Ai? His misogynistic prejudices filter through his narrative; whenever he mentions a Gethenian as having a feminine quality, it’s generally negative. His only encounter with a “girl” in the state of kemmer (when Gethenians come into their mating potential) inspires wordless disgust in him. A pathetic captive like himself at this point, she nevertheless seems to threaten him in some fundamental way that he can’t even express. And when he’s asked by a Gethenian what single-sexed women are like, he has no idea. Apparently the people of the future have been able to master interstellar travel, but the nature of half their population remains inscrutable to the other.

But then Genly must undergo an arduous journey across the great ice field that covers much of Gethen, in company with Estraven, the only person on the planet who has supported him, and whom he has so far distrusted. Estraven takes a tremendous risk in order to bring Genly out of captivity, which involves performing a deeply feminine role: creating a space of warmth, cultivating life, enduring hardship for the sake of human connections. Experiencing Estraven’s unwavering commitment to the forces of transformation changes Genly; distrust turns to friendship, and then to love. It changes us too, as readers. We experience something of the true nature of sacrifice, of the process of conception, gestation, and birth that is one of the great mysteries of human life — and that truly transcends all limitations imposed by our bodies.

Estraven wanted to change the world. We can, too. And if you need some guidance across the icy wasteland of today’s fractured cultural landscape, this book has something to offer. Read it, and let it spark your own questions about what is vital, what is essential, what is real. So the journey begun by Genly and Estraven may continue.

Classics Club List #54


17 thoughts on “Classics Club: The Left Hand of Darkness

  1. A sensitive and thoughtful review, Lory, thanks. I think your approach is the right one, where the male Genly (like so many of those early male readers) is forced to confront his prejudices, his disgust and his gendered language to acknowledge that there are different but valid ways to regard love and reproduction.

    If I remember right (and I have to undertake another reread) he is only partially persuaded, his reluctance a reflection of contemporary male attitudes, and sadly one still with us.

    This looks a handsome edition, though I often prefer to let text conjure up images in my mind rather than rely on it being mediated by an artist.


    1. Those entrenched attitudes are incredibly hard to shake. You’re right, Genly only makes a start, as we can see when at the end of the book he again makes an thoughtlessly sexist remark. But he now has a story to tell, and in the telling further transformation may happen. I hope it will happen with us, too, in the pondering of this and many other stories that want to wake us up and show us other ways of being.


  2. Not sure the story or the genre is for me, but she is unmistakably an historic and classic author. I may have to read it just to enjoy her writing. Awesome. Thx for the encouragement.


    1. Can I encourage you to read it, Mike, and soon? I’ve read it twice over the years, and intend to do so again–and soon–and have got so much out of it each time. Le Guin’s SF is not like any other SF I’ve read; it’s essentially about the human condition and human relationships despite the otherworld settings, and in amongst the narratives it nearly always makes one think and question one’s assumptions.

      Which can be no bad thing in my opinion.


  3. I love this book. Its exploration of social issues is all that you mentioned it is. Le Guin was such a great writer. You have likely read it, but I found that The Disposessed was also an insightful look into gender roles.


  4. I have yet to read this, though I have read several reviews of it now and I found yours very interesting. I think I saw somewhere that Le Guin herself later regretted some at least of those decisions which you identify and question, for instance the pronouns.

    The illustrations look lovely.


  5. I read this with my book club and we also talked about Le Guin uses male pronouns all the time. For me, that did make this book feel much less novel in its treatment of gender. I really like your description of how it makes it feel as though the default in this society is male. What a lovely edition of this book!


    1. Sci fi was such a male-oriented world at the time. I think the choice reflects that; it would certainly not be the same today. But our world would also not be as it is today if Le Guin had not lived and written her books. We’re always changing, thank goodness.


  6. I really enjoyed your review, and love the illustrations for this new edition. If I didn’t have a hardcover already, I might buy the FS book.
    I loved this novel when I read it in the 1970s. It was the first SF book I read, recommended by a very intelligent reader. Classicists are always reading SF! I must admit that when I reread it a few years ago I was less impressed. But rereading is a strange thing.
    Fascinating to read the reactions of another generation!


    1. Though I don’t think I’m actually from a different generation, I never got around to reading this until now. It does make me look back at my teenage years (when I should have read it, really) and realize how much I and the world have changed. Pretty amazing, really.


  7. This is one of my all-time favorites, and I am so pleased to read your review. I know I’ve read essays by Le Guin in which she bemoans the way her younger self approached issues of sex and gender, so I wonder if she’d perhaps agree with your misgivings! I don’t usually feel a need to own my favorite books, but I tend to make exceptions for her work, and this looks like a lovely edition.


    1. It is a gorgeous book. It is interesting that while Le Guin went back and “revisioned” Earthsea, she never went back to Gethen (except in one story). If only her writing life could have been longer …


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