Over the next few weeks, Mythgard is running a free online course on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I’m rereading Le Guin’s Hainish books in order to prepare. The Left Hand of Darkness isn’t the first book in the chronology, but it is the most famous…
What would society look like without gender? How would love and politics differ if we were neither male nor female? Gender is such a critical part of our identity that this thought exercise turns out to be incredibly difficult. Almost all human stories have some element of romance, or at gendered norms. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin asks readers to shed our cultural baggage and explore a humanity beyond gender.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin introduces us to a society world known as Gethen. (“Winter” in English), on which descendants of humans possess elements of both genders. The beings are asexual, but during a mating season – known as kemmer – one gender dominates the other to allow for reproduction.
The book starts when an envoy from the Ekumen (an interplanetary consortium) to Gethen finds himself in trouble with political authorities in the kingdom of Karhide. The envoy, Genly Ai, is a male, and the only male on the planet. Meanwhile, the prime minister of Karhide, Estraven, is exiled for arguing that Karhide should join the Ekumen.
The Left Hand of Darkness excels when it comes to character development. The book focuses on the convoluted relationship between Genly and Estraven. To describe it as a love-hate relationship would be too simple. The relationship transverses a range of human emotions, mostly platonic, but at times sexual. Odd as it might be to say, there is a beauty to their suffering and the raw intensity of their emotions.
The book remains relevant over 45 years after its initial publication because it touches upon important questions about humanity. I don’t believe Le Guin intended the book to serve as a direct metaphor for homosexuality, but given the political debates about gay marriage modern readers will probably make that connection. And they would be right to do so. Le Guin’s complicated depiction of asexual romance might just help some readers to appreciate that love can transcend genders.
Readers looking for rich world building will probably be disappointed. Le Guin does not provide much in the way of context for The Left Hand of Darkness. Although we learn a lot about the planet Gethen, its people, and its culture, we learn almost nothing about the Ekumen or Genly. At times, I found myself wanting to know more about Ekumen culture so I could better understand Genly’s perspective. Technically, The Left Hand of Darkness is the fourth book in Le Guin’s “Hainish” series, but in her introduction to the novel Le Guin claims that The Left Hand of Darkness can be read alone. I haven’t read the earlier books so I don’t know if they provided any more information about the Ekumen.
Another – admittedly smaller – problem is that the point of view changes several times without warning. The book is told from a first-person perspective, but from both Genly Ai and Estraven’s points of view. I only discovered this when in one of the earlier chapters the narrator refers to Genly as “he.” Having read several other reviews, I get the sense that other readers have found this confusing during their first read-through. Once you realize that there are two narrators, it’s not too difficult figure out who is narrating in each section, but Le Guin could have avoided much confusion by simply adding a note in the chapter headings.
The Left Hand of Darkness earns its place as a science-fiction classic. It definitely made me consider – or reconsider – my biases about gender and humanity. The book could have benefitted from some more world building, but I take it as a good sign when I want to learn more about an author’s subcreation.
Speaking of which, I will look at The Dispossessed next week, which acts as a prequel to The Left Hand of Darkness.