I emerge once more from the void to regale you all, my dear readers (however few you may be!), with tales of my latest literary conquests! Or, in this case, literary conquest (it turns out it’s hard to find time to read fiction when you’re studying for a preliminary exam for your PhD program at the end of the summer and are working on papers for two conferences at the end of August… eep!).
The aforementioned literary conquest is none other than Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. This is the third LeGuin novel I’ve read, after (relatively) recently finishing The Dispossessed (which I loved) and The Word for World is Forest, which I read a while ago but I still find to me one of the most thought-provoking and evocative works of science fiction I have ever had the pleasure to read.
It was thus with great enthusiasm that I dove into The Left Hand of Darkness… and was immediately disappointed. Not because it was bad – by no means was it a bad novel – but because it felt like work. In my non-writer alternate life (which I am going to pretend is my secondary one, despite it taking up all of my time), I study sociology, which has recently consisted of reading a fair bit of ethnographies. Having been raised by anthropologists, LeGuin is extremely good at evoking the feel of an ethnography in this novel, which is actually framed as a fictional ethnography from the future. She is so good at it, in fact, that it actually felt like I was doing work by reading it. I found it at the beginning to be slow and cumbersome, full of ethnographic conventions and commentary that made me feel like I wasn’t reading for pleasure, but for work (when I was, in theory, reading for pleasure).
As such, it took me a long time to make substantial progress. However, I am extremely glad I did, for this novel was well worth the trudging! Most people I don’t think will have the same trouble I did with the opening of the novel, and so might breeze through it. After the first few chapters, the ethnographic tone became much less prevalent, and I again felt like I was reading a novel, and was utterly drawn into her world.
LeGuin is a master of worldbuilding – or more specifically, of society-building. We can see this in the hyper-capitalist and anarcho-communist societies in The Dispossessed, and in the indigenous and colonial cultures in The Word for World is Forest. Like these other works, the world of The Left Hand of Darkness is explored through a culture clash, and what defines and undermines the differences between these cultures is gender.
The story chronicles the journeys of Genly Ai (who, it is covertly slipped in, is a Terran of African descent), an envoy from the Ekumen, a huge interstellar organization of human-types, as he attempts to bring a newly discovered planet of humanoids, Gethen (or Winter), into this organization. In order to do this, he needs to convince the world that it is ready for this integration with the larger universe, and help ease its transition. He goes down alone in order to learn all he can about the planet and slowly work the planet so that it can accept its place among the stars.
Genly is the audience (or readers), and coming from Terra/Earth, embodies many of the cultural beliefs and assumptions that many humans have about society and norms. On the world of Gethen, there is no distinction between male and female, as Gethenians spend most of their time as sexless humans, and once a month become biologically able to engage in intercourse, and their sex at that time is determined by hormone levels that react to those near them.
LeGuin then explores that a sexless society would look like, through the eyes of a typical, male Terran. There is no gender on Gethen, which makes Genly extremely uncomfortable, and which makes Genly’s gender uncomfortable for Gethenians to deal with. The interaction between these two societies is primarily shown through the friendship of Ai with a Gethenian named Estraven, as they wade through the mess of Gethenian politics and get caught in a bitter struggle between two rival nations. This friendship – and the way it ebbs and flows – is one of the most powerful parts of the book, and ultimately is what kept me reading.
However, what is most thought-provoking is LeGuin’s depiction of a genderless society. Sex is not a constant drive or urge. There is no gender, and so there is no sexism. The philosophy of Gethen is entirely different from that of Earth, religion is entirely different as well, and most interestingly, there is no war.
Despite my slow start, The Left Hand of Darkness is definitely worth reading. I still prefer The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest, but it is easy to see why The Left Hand of Darkness is as influential as it is!