The Future Is Here
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The truth is self-evident: Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness isn't about gender

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It's 1970, and with this Hugo winner — Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness — we finally got the ladies up in here! And the men too! And of course, the menwomen.

So this is daunting. I mean, these are always daunting, but The Left Hand of Darkness — that's daunting. It's the first Hugo-winning novel by a woman, and even if it were simply about what it's most famous for being about — the meaning of gender — it would be daunting, since that theme has made it the subject of intense critical and academic scrutiny for decades already, so what can I add to the conversation?


But then Left Hand has the nerve to go and be about so much more than gender. (In fact, maybe it's not that much about gender at all.) And on top of that, there's the author: Names have power, as any wizard of Earthsea will tell you, and Ursula Le Guin's name calls to mind a sort of storytelling perhaps best described as unfuckwithable; the word "myth" gets thrown around a lot to describe it. (And it doesn't help matters that she resembles a real-life fairy godmother.)

Let me just try to sum up the story before I even attempt anything deeper:

The year is 1491, on an interplanetary calendar in the distant future. The Earthling Genly Ai has come alone to the planet Gethen — also called Winter, thanks to its climate, which ranges from chilly to frigid year-round — to convince its leaders to join the Ekumen, a loose league of more than eighty worlds.


Gethen is unique: Its natives are human, but ambisexual. Each one is both male and female. Most of the time, they are essentially sexless. But once a month, a Gethenian goes into an estrus-like state called kemmer. In kemmer, two Gethenians pair up, and one becomes a man, the other a woman; which particular sex they take on can change each time. Every manwoman can be both a father and a mother.

This tends to be the part of the book many critiques focus on, and though Left Hand has earned plenty of accolades (it won a Nebula, too), Le Guin has gotten a fair amount of criticism for how she handles her androgynous society. Among others, Stanislaw Lem (whose name carries the same sort of potency hers does) accused her of basically painting a false picture of Gethen — writing the Gethenians as men who very occasionally exhibited womanly characteristics, and thus hardly exploring the intriguing notion of what people who were both sexes at once would really be like.

And he is totally right. She kinda blows it.


Now hang on before you jump on me: Ursula Le Guin agrees. In 1976, she wrote an essay defending the novel and how she dealt with the Gethenians' gender. But then in 1987, she revised the essay, and admitted that, yeah, the critics probably had a point. Outside of positing them as a people who might skirmish but would never go to war — because their necessary masculine aggression is balanced by their female sensitivity — she never demonstrates how Gethenian social life is very different from a bunch of dudes hanging out. And throughout Left Hand, she uses masculine pronouns and nouns — he, his, father, son — to refer to Winter's inhabitants, even in the many Gethenian legends and when one of them takes over as narrator.

But here's the thing: I don't care. She may have muffed the gender aspect of the book, but like I said above, the book's not that much about gender anyway. And what it is about is made stronger by her mistake.


Most of the novel is narrated in the first person by Genly Ai, who's such a well-built, natural character that it takes a while before you really realize how dense he is. Though he's on a mission of goodwill and brotherhood (pardon the sex-specificity there), he's quietly repulsed by the Gethenians. He thinks of them as men, because it's easier for him. Only when he's noticing something he doesn't like about them does he ruminate scornfully about their womanly hips or feminine wiles.

And because the main plot arc is concerned with Genly's coming to terms with his prejudice and his acceptance of the Gethenians for what they wholly are, and not as he'd prefer to imagine them, it's really quite effective to perceive them the way he does, as men. (And if the book's other narrators referred to them with different words, I don't think it would work — it would break the illusion that Genly has woven for himself and for us.)


The Left Hand of Darkness is about a lot of things. It might be a (literally cold) cold war metaphor in some ways, with the semi-anarchic monarchy of Karhide, where Genly's story starts, standing in for the U.S., and the rival communist nation of Orgoreyn, where Genly almost dies, as the U.S.S.R. It plays with history as cycle, breaking up the primary narrative with Gethenian myths that are relived by Genly and the other main character, the exiled Karhidish prime minister Estraven. And it spends a lot of time on the harmony between dichotomy and unity — yin and yang, I and Thou, individual and group. The novel's title refers to light — the opposite hand of darkness — the point being that, pervasive Judeo-Christian and other religious metaphors notwithstanding, light alone isn't good, isn't any better than darkness alone. Life deals in both.

Genly's coming-to-terms is really about overcoming that obstacle in his thinking — internalizing the understanding that life is not about any single way. Maybe paradoxically, it's also about his recognizing the power of the solitary self. He's sent alone by the Ekumen on his mission not merely because of a Prime Directive–esque philosophy that one person can't do too much harm, but also because only a self can really connect with anyone else. Any group identity is a convenient fiction — there are similarities between students at the same school, or citizens of the same country, or followers of the same religion, but nearly any time you say, "[Group X] is..." you're flattening a complex four-dimensional reality into a less accurate Mercator projection (and the more people there are in Group X, the grosser the inaccuracy becomes). The only way for Genly to get over his feelings about the Gethenians is to engage deeply with a single Gethenian, Estraven — to touch another self. His telepathic abilities, which most citizens of the Ekumen possess, sure don't hurt either, once they come into play.


In the very first line of the book, Genly says that "Truth is a matter of the imagination." (That's "Truth" with a capital T.) This is true (with a lowercase t). All our understanding takes place in our heads. The more light and darkness and shades in between we're capable of acknowledging, the fuller that understanding will be. The mark of a great Truth is that it encompasses something much bigger than any single idea; the mark of a great self is an aptitude for imagining a world that is concerned with much more than its own existence.


Boy, I really haven't mentioned a lot of important parts of this book. The Foretellers, Gethenian shamans who practice the nonreligion of Handdara and can predict the future but don't see any point in it. Shifgrethor, the Gethenian system of honor that is so subtle and nuanced you barely understand it even by the end of the story. The ansible, Le Guin's famous faster-than-light instant messaging hardware. And Genly Ai and Estraven, pulling their sledge together across the glacial desert known as the Ice, huddling in a tiny tent at night or during a storm — forming their own tiny planet in a cold as vast as the void of space, or the void between strangers.

There's just too much to hit on. Like life itself, The Left Hand of Darkness eludes attempts to boil it down.


In the introduction to my edition, Le Guin writes:

...while we read a novel, we are insane — bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren't there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon.


That's power of a true artist; that's what makes someone an unfuckwithable storyteller. That's how they show us Truth, even when they're painting a false picture: It sure doesn't hurt that they have telepathic abilities. But most important, somehow, they take on a task that's truly daunting, of making it easier for us do the most daunting thing of all: As if they were conjuring them out of the air — like a wizard, or a fairy godmother — they give us other selves to touch.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: Ringworld, by Larry Niven, from 1971.


Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.