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.
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.
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.
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.