The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula K. Le Guin

After months of reading nothing but Japanese books, watching Japanese movies, listening to Japanese podcasts, dreaming in Japanese, Japanese, Japanese, Japanese to prepare for working with the incredible Taiyo Matsumoto for TCAF, you cannot even begin to imagine what a sinful luxury it was to dig into something in English. A novel! Written in my native tongue! I was seriously wallowing in the words. I had been keeping this particular book on my shelf for just such a wallowing occasion because I knew it would be the engaging thought-provoking read I want on such occasions.

Having finally established that Ursula K. Le Guin is not, in fact, Jean M. Auel, and discovering that she is, in fact, an insanely talented and interesting writer taking up issues and themes that are of great interest to me, I was eager to read more of her work. And The Left Hand of Darkness is that book of hers that is at the top of everyone’s list. Normally, I am not a reader of things that top lists (because I can be quite contrary), but a novel about a race of people with no permanent sex sounded way too fascinating to pass up. 

So this interplanetary bureaucracy, the Ekumen of Known Worlds, has a sort of Star Trek deal where they go around and check out planets, and bring peeps into the fold for information exchange and exploration. They send First Mobile Genly Ai to the frozen world of Gethen (also known as Winter) to persuade the sex-less peoples of that world to join in the Ekumen fun. So down he goes to freeze on Winter, where it snows even in summer with only a belt in the center of the planet even habitable at all.

I was disappointed to find that the narrator here again is a guy (like in The Dispossessed) and that Genly defaults to thinking of everyone he meets as male, and that male does actually seem to be the default form for the people of Winter. Lots of beards and burliness. I can understand the thinking behind it; the book was originally published in 1969, and given that the idea that books about men are for everyone and books about women are for women still persists, I can only imagine how much more so it must have been back then.

Genly has trouble with this weird sex-less society, and mentally puts people in the boxes of male and female, even though he uses masculine pronouns for pretty much everyone. It’s interesting to see him wrestling with his own ideas about men and women, and watching him face the challenge to his own assumptions about inequalities between the two sexes. But it was a little disheartening to see that in this world of advanced civilization and space travel and instantaneous communication, ladies are still viewed as soft and weak and naggy, even if they are permitted to have important jobs and things now.

I’m sure this is just the perspective of the narrator, and in giving him these sexist ideas, Le Guin is offering up a challenge to readers who might hold the same thinking. I guess I felt like those ideas weren’t ever actually challenged. Genly struggles to understand the Gethenians and their kemmering period, the one time each month when they might take on the sex characteristics of a man or a woman and mate. But for the rest of the time, the Gethenians are portrayed as fairly masculine, without any real portrayals of a reversal of Genly’s conceptions about women.

Genly’s speculations on the cultural and societal effects of this lack of permanent sex are also influenced by his prejudices, but the ideas he brings up are pretty fascinating. Gethen has never had anything resembling an actual war. Murders, assassinations, all sorts of political intrigue, fistfights, and pretty much every other kind of small group violence are all present in Gethenian societies, but no all-out battle of a group of strangers determined to slaughter each other so someone far away can win power. The Gethenians are completely whole in their duality, which affects other aspects of their societies too. For instance, rape is impossible when you are only physically able to copulate for a set period each month and your junk doesn’t appear unless you actively participate in the process. And when you don’t put half of your population on the shelf to rot, your world ends up being pretty productive.

As in The Dispossessed, two nations are contrasted in the pages of Left Hand; feudalistic Karhide tangled with webs of intrigue and honour, and socialist Orgoreyn where every “unit” is born equal and guaranteed a job of some kind. But the more you peer into these seeming opposed societies, the more you see that they are both run by the same kind of power-hungry idiots who always ruin everything for everyone. I like how Le Guin takes up these opposites and plays them off each other. It’s a subtle way to reveal a great deal.

And this is what she excels at, creating this world with a few strokes of the pen. The Left Hand of Darkness feels much longer than it is (in a good way), thanks to the richness of the societies and the characters that populate them. In between chapters in which Genly reports to the Ekumen on his progress and life on Winter, are tales of folklore, reports from the initial landing party on Winter, and chapters from the point of view of a certain Gethenian (no spoilers here!), all of which combine to form a depth that would not be possible with just the lone narrator Genly. More than once, I stopped to just consider and admire how easy she makes this whole writing thing seem.

The one thing that did crack me up though was the use of the imperial system of measurement throughout. Apparently, in the future, we will give up on the logic and ease of metres and grams, and every human-like creature in the known universe will switchover to the nonsensical miles and furlongs. Get ready for the future, it is the past!

6 thoughts on “The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. I really want to read The Left Hand of the Darkness since Le Guin seems to be a major influence of mangaka such as Moto Hagio and Shio Sato. I’ve only read Terremer trilogy from Le Guin and didn’t really enjoy it because I was expecting some kind of basic fantasy. Your review is still very interesting, as usual. I understand how much you feel relieved to read a book written in English xD.

    • I would recommend this one. Le Guin is definitely worth reading, and this book is standalone (although it ties in with other Hainish cycle works like The Dispossessed), so you don’t have to invest like you would with a series. In any case, glad you enjoyed my post on it! And I knew that you, as a fellow reader in foreign languages, would understand my relief at a return to my native tongue. Sweet delight!

  2. Finally I did it! I read The Left Hand of Darkness but couldn’t write about it. It was like discovering Ursula Le Guin the first time, though I did read Eartsea trilogy and really found it boring (I have no remembrance of it…). Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction is so deep, philosophical, political, and very introspective. I think I love this kind of science fiction, being a newbie in this field. What surprised me was the plot, as being not so important in her novel. The writting is also very interesting: I love the way she describes the customs of the Genthenians (don’t know if this is the same name in English…), or the inserts of legends, tales, scientific observations and reports. That was what I prefered reading, more than the story itself, more than the part between Genly Aï and Estraven, their feelings of deep friendship. This approcach of science fiction was very new to me.

    The travel part was great, developping the characters very deeply. I love the storytelling, confronting the opinions of the two main characters. Their relationship is beautifully told as well. The travel itself is painful, and sometimes too long in my opinion. The subject of sexism is something Ursula Le Guin dealt with lots of intelligence. I find it interesting to see that the main character is a man, being in his shoes. His thoughts about gender differences were finally ridiculous. The main character had to be a man, because in his shoes, we can see how it is important to a man that people were genderly defined. We can see that everything “feminine” was coward, or untrustfull, or hypocrite. Genly Aï is obsessed by the gender question, being forced to tell himself that this one is a woman, this one a man, though there is no sense in it.

    I also read The Dispossessed very recently. I liked it more… Ursula Le Guin is definitely a great writer, and now, I want to read all of her Hainish cycle.

    • Hey! High fives to finally getting to this! So worth it, right? Like you, after reading this and The Dispossessed, I want to read everything else she’s written. I love the introspection, the subtle politics, the great care she obviously puts into every sentence she writes. And the relationship between Genly and Estraven, yes! So beautifully depicted. And so natural. The progression from strangers to close friends just rings so true. Genly’s obsession with filtering the world through gender ends up showing how pointless gender actually is. You’re right, there’s no sense in it, and yet he persists. It’s the only way he knows how to see the world, until he meets Estraven who does force him to reassess those ideas to some extent. Such a great book!

  3. Did you go on discovering Ursula Le Guin’s works? I did, for the Hainish series, and I want to read Earthsea and all of her books. If you don’t have much time, you have to read Four Ways to Forgiveness which is so great. Really. Slavery and feminism.

    • I haven’t yet. She’s on my reading list, but there are just so many books to read! But I’ll try to get to Four Ways to Forgiveness as soon as I can. Because slavery and feminism! Wow!

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