The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favourite books and this must be at least the fourth time I’ve read it. On its publication The Left Hand of Darkness was received as a groundbreaking piece of science fiction, winning the Nebula Award in 1969 and the Hugo Award in 1970. Compelling, atmospheric, sometimes frightening, it offers the reader some exquisite world-building and a story with profound meaning.
The story is told through a series of narratives that have been put together by Genly Ai, an envoy of The Ekumen who has been sent to the isolated planet of Winter (or in the language of its people “Gethen”), a world still in its ice age. The narrative includes Genly’s report, extracts from the journal of his mysterious Gethenian ally Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, as well as extracts from the reports of earlier investigators and evocative stories from Gethenian mythology.
The Ekumen is a loose organisation of worlds that exists to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and the encouragement of trade in what has come to be called Le Guin’s “Hainish Universe”. The Ekumen’s policy towards first contact with new worlds is to send one envoy who will try and form a relationship with the people of that world and gain their agreement to further contact and potential membership. If the first envoy is killed, the Ekumen sends another one to start again with the next generation.
At the beginning of the novel, Genly has been on the planet for around a year without making much progress, though he seems to have found an ally in Estravan, the prime minister of Karhide, the state where he’s been residing. Genly finds his mission complicated by the apparently unique physiology that characterizes the people of Gethen. The vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants are androgynes who only take on binary sex during kemmer, a once-monthly mating cycle when they may take on either a male or female sexual role. The rest of the time they are in a state they call somer, which is neither male nor female.
Genly is a sympathetic and intelligent observer, but he finds this aspect of Gethenian life deeply disturbing. He struggles to accept it for what it is and insists, for most of the narrative, on using male pronouns and seeing the androgynous aliens as “men”. He also has to face the fact that he is regarded by the Gethenians as a sexual “pervert”, someone constantly in a state of Kemmer.
The resulting psychological struggle is played out in his relationship with Estravan, the one Gethenian who wants to help him in his mission, but who he finds it difficult to trust. Despite Estravan’s efforts, Genly feels hostility that seems to have its source not only in some unfortunate miscommunications, but also with the disturbing sexual challenge that Estravan represents to Genly.
When Estravan falls from favour with the king of Karhide, Genly heads off to the rival state of Orgoreyn, a fully-fledged beaurocracy, where he finds himself the pawn of a political faction. Refusing to heed Estravan’s warnings about his predicament, Genly is arrested and incarcerated in a prison camp. Feeling guilt at hir role in Genly’s downfall, Estravan sets out on a desperate attempt to rescue him, and from this point onwards the novel develops into an exciting adventure and a moving love story.
The problem for Genly and the earlier investigators who visited Gethen is that they feel compelled to regard its people as male when they are in their somer state. Genly includes a narrative by an earlier female investigator who attempts to explain that, while she knows they are not male or female, she feels justified using the male pronoun on the basis of the idea that “he” is less defined, less specific than “she”. Whether she was entirely aware of it at the time, Le Guin is making a point here about how men are seen as the default, the human, while women are seen as “gender”. This creates a tension throughout the narrative because while Genly misgenders the Gethenians, reading between the lines, the reader can see that they are not men or women, but rather a people for whom such categories are meaningless outside of kemmer.
Le Guin was criticised by feminists for choosing to use male rather than female pronouns in the book, but I think it makes a salient point about how the meaning of sex is constructed in binary terms and, although it’s annoying, it’s a productive annoyance that makes you think. What I think I would do differently, though, is introduce gender neutral pronouns for the parts of the story that are narrated by Estravan. We’re told that the Gethenians have neutral somer pronouns, we’re just not told what they are! I think this would have made a more powerful point. We can assume that the reason for the appearance of binary gendered pronouns in Estravan’s story is due to the fact that Genly is translating it for us, but I think it’s still a bit of a shame that Le Guin didn’t go there. Still, the book was written in 1969 sometime before feminists really starting grappling with this stuff, so I’m not going to be too hard on Le Guin. She does attempt to redress the balance in her stories ‘Winter’s King’ (in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters) which uses all female pronouns and, more successfully I think, in ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ (in The Birthday of the World) where she does a better job of conveying the nature of Gethenian androgyny.
From a feminist perspective, The Left Hand of Darkness remains a powerful attempt to imagine a vibrant, complex society in which nothing is defined by biological sex. Everyone runs the same risk of pregnancy and childbearing – one may be both the mother and father of children. Anyone can turn their hand to anything. Gethenian society has plenty of power dynamics and codes of conduct, not to mention different religious traditions, but there is no division of people into strong and weak halves and no rape; there are no manipulative games based on gender, no expressions of macho “dominance”, and no concept of feminine “submission”.
I’m not sure what is it that I personally find so compelling about The Left Hand of Darkness. Whatever it is seems to be lodged in my unconscious, but it’s something about the relationship between Estravan and Genly, and something in Le Guin’s attempt to imagine, in Estravan, a person who has no sense of splitting or loss, a person who feels entirely whole.
Another aspect of the text that has received less discussion is the fact that none of the characters are white people. Genly is a black man from Earth and the Gethenians are a dark skinned people with black hair. There is in the text a de-centring of whiteness that is also quite powerful.
With this in mind, I think it’s worth looking at some cover art. Interestingly, most of the covers depict the landscape of Winter, but those that have attempted to depict people have tried to avoid representing both the ethnicity and androgyny of the Gethenians.
This cover of the 1976 edition is, I think, one of the most beautiful sci fi paperback covers ever produced, but it’s interesting that the artist has given the people typically anglo saxon facial features and by carving the faces out of the ice of Winter has further compounded the impression of whiteness. Lovely though the cover is, the people in the book look nothing like this (they look rather more like Native Americans, I think). The image is also oddly phallic, thrusting up out of the ice like that – a bit of anxiety perhaps?
This is the first paperback edition from Ace Books in 1969. Another lovely cover, but I would say the two figures are depicted as male rather than androgynous. They are of indeterminate ethnicity, but not obviously dark skinned like the people in the book. The sameness of the faces seems to suggest the idea that a people without binary sex would be oddly identical to one another, as if binary sex has something to do with individuality. It’s a lot less phallic though.
Is this a bit of a representational cop out? Perhaps the figure is meant to represent one of the Handdarata, the mystics of Karhide who practice foretelling. It’s another very phallic image, th0ugh, full of pointy things everywhere you look. The figure at the centre looks rather like a phallus too. It’s slightly threatening! A bit like Genly’s narrative, this cover seems to be insisting on the inherent maleness of the people of Gethen.
In different ways they all show the representational disturbance that the people of Winter present.