The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, a human envoy to a far-off planed that he names Winter. Genly is in Winter as a representative of the Ekumen, an association whose aim is to promote communication and trade between worlds – not just commercial trade, but trade of ideas, philosophies, experiences, beliefs, cultures. Before Genly’s arrival, the inhabitants of Winter, the Gethenians, were not aware of the existence of other inhabited worlds. Genly’s mission is to convince them that he is trustworthy, and that it would be in their best interest to join the Ekumen. This is not an easy task, because most won’t even believe that he is an alien.

Winter is an austere planet, with constant sub-artic weather. However, that is not the strangest thing about it. What Genly finds strangest is the fact that the Gethenians are androgynes. They have a sexual cycle that lasts approximately 26 days. For 24 of those, they are genderless and asexual. In the remaining two days, they enter kemmer, and can become either male or female. There is no way no predict which they will become, nor do they find it relevant. No Gethenian has a predominant tendency to become male or female. And the same person can mother and father a child, and often does both during their lifetime.

Ursula Le Guin uses this premise to explore issues like gender and its role in society, power, ambition, fear and politics, and more individual issues like sexuality, intimacy and trust.

I will start by saying that I feel very ambivalently towards this book. This is not the first time I tried to read it – the first time was a couple of years ago, and I just couldn’t get into it, so I put it down. I thought it was perhaps a matter of timing. However, this time I struggled once more. But I persisted.

I do not mean by this that I think that The Left Hand of Darkness is a bad book. It won the Hugo and the Nebula, and I can see why. I can see its merits, and I understand why it’s a landmark in science fiction. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it. It’s hard to have such mixed feelings, especially about a book by an author I practically worship. I guess the best I can do is try to explain how this book made me feel, and why.

Even though I am a big fan of fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction, I have a little trouble entering sci-fi worlds. It’s not that I can’t do it – I love books like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and TV series like Stargate and Babylon 5. It’s just that it takes an extra effort – I am not transported into a sci-fi world as easily as into a fantasy one. I can’t explain why. It’s certainly not a matter of scepticism, of being unable to suspend my disbelief. Aliens, after all, are much more likely than ogres or elves. I grew up obsessed with the X-Files and scanning the skies for flying saucers regularly. And plus, my enjoyment of a story has never depended on how close its relationship with reality is. So this resistance is odd, I know, but it’s how it’s always been for me.

So that, and the fact that I am unfamiliar with Ursula Le Guin’s Hamish universe, could have been part of the problem. But there’s more. The story begins as a report from Genly to the Ekumen. Part of it is written like that, with other chapters from the point of view of Estraven, the Gethenian Genly gets closer to. There are also short interludes with myths and traditional tales from Winter (and in the first half of the book, these were my favourite bits).

My problem, at first, was that the book was written as a report and it actually read like one, rather than like a story. There was this sense of alienness, of distance from the story that I couldn’t shake off. I felt like I was on the outside looking in. What’s interesting here is that this reflects exactly how Genly feels about Winter in the first half of the book. He cannot get over the Gethenians’s lack of gender definition. I think the strangeness I felt was possibly part of what the book was trying to achieve. It’s funny, because I don’t really think of myself as someone to whom gender matters all that much. And yet… the strangeness was there. This book made me think. Even if I don’t believe in the existence of male or female personality types or characteristics, even if I don’t think I look at or classify people in terms of their gender, to what extent can I actually ignore those categories? They are, after all, deeply ingrained in my mind.

As the story advances, the tone becomes less strange, more intimate, quieter and more reflective. There was a part describing a long journey across the ice that I really enjoyed. And again, that is exactly when Genly begins to surpass the strangeness he feels, which once more makes me think that this is part of what Ursula Le Guin was trying to achieve. When Genly began to feel at home among the Gethenians, I too felt at home in the story.

And yet… this book made me uncomfortable, and I can’t quite pinpoint why. It challenged me. There were passages I loved, passages that show Ursula Le Guin at her very best:
When you meet a Gethenians you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectation of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?
It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give.
How does one hate one country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain ploughland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?
I can see this book growing on me as it sinks further in. I can see myself looking back at it with more and more fondness as time goes by. I really liked the ending, for example – it was hopeful and sad, full of gain and loss. I think this is a book that will stay with me. But if you were to ask me right now how much I enjoyed it, I still wouldn’t know what to say. However, if the question were if I’m glad to have read it, the answer would be a definite yes.