Though I last read The Left Hand of Darkness some fifteen years ago, it had been on my mind frequently as my first North Dakota winter got underway. As the temperature plummeted to -20°F (feeling even colder with the wind rushing down from the icy north), as the snow piled up in feet, as a simple walk from my car to the grocery store became a race against frostbitten fingers, all I could think about was Genly Ai and Lord Estraven, trekking across the glacier in LeGuin’s most famous novel.
I had already been planning to focus on rereads in 2017. As my nation, as the world, veers drunkenly into ominous and uncharted new dimensions, I’ve been craving the comfort of reading stories whose endings are known, whose dangers have been mapped and rendered tame. But I had forgotten how The Left Hand of Darkness actually ends.
It begins in the capital city Erhenrang, in the nation Karhide, on a planet called Gethen or, more descriptively, Winter. Genly Ai, originally from Earth, has been sent with a mission to invite the Gethenians to join the Ekumen, a galactic alliance of human societies. He comes alone, as Ekumenical Envoys always do, so as not to frighten or antagonize his hosts (“One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion,” he explains.) But, as probably should be expected when inserting oneself into the political sphere of any human nation, Ai soon becomes a tool of multiple factions both within and without Karhide – and none, it seems, have much interest in prostrating themselves before some mythical League of Nations from beyond the stars.
When the Karhidish government, nominally a monarchy but actually a loose federation of diverse tribal groups, falls under the spell of a Trumpian demagogue with unity on his lips and war on his mind, Ai decides to leave Erhenrang and try his luck with Karhide’s major rival. The country of Orgoreyn runs a tight Soviet-style ship; their national motto is “papers please!”, and their secret police love nothing more than to send dissidents and deviants off to the Voluntary Farms, which aren’t exactly farms and certainly aren’t voluntary. It isn’t long before Ai finds himself on the wrong side of the wrong people, and throughout the second half of the book, must escape from a labor camp on foot, across a continent-wide glacier in the dead of winter on a planet so frigid it is named after the ice. His savior and only companion on this expedition is a person named Estraven, the disgraced former Prime Minister of Karhide, who had been exiled as a traitor. S/he is, perhaps, the only truly honorable person on Gethen – certainly the only one Ai ever meets (though, hanging around politicians, I suppose he’s lucky he met even one…)
The book, narrated primarily by Ai, refers to Estraven with male pronouns, but this is something I won’t do in my review. Because Estraven is neither man nor woman. Though “typical” humans in every other way, all Gethenians are androgynes, spending the majority of their lives in a sexless state. Once a month, they enter a period called “kemmer” (heat, rut, estrus), where they, upon finding a partner, take on the characteristics of one or the other sex. In this way, the same individual may be father to one child, mother to another. Genly’s permanent maleness is seen as a perversion by them – being always sexually responsive, how do his people ever get anything done?
It is the gender politics of Gethen – or, really, the lack thereof – that have made The Left Hand of Darkness a classic of feminist science fiction. To me, though, it feels odd to read a “feminist” book where every single character is referred to as “he”. One of things I remember about reading this the first time is how much this bothered me, the consistent use of masculine pronouns. The Ekumen’s (and LeGuin’s?) excuse for writing this way is as follows: “Lacking the Karhidish ‘human pronoun’ used for persons in somer [the sexually inactive state], I must say ‘he,’ for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine.” And to this I say: bullshit. Masculine pronouns are certainly “defined”, in that if you refer to a person as “he”, I will picture a man. It’s incredibly difficult to train the brain not to. The narrator even acknowledges this, saying: “But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman.”
I am not quite sure what to make of LeGuin’s intent here. Although inventing or appropriating a gender-neutral pronoun could potentially be jarring or break the flow of narration, I think it should be a bit jarring to read about a civilization of complete neuters, where we as readers can’t automatically slot any character into one of the two most basic categories we understand: man or woman. In fact, I don’t think it’s even necessary to use a gender-neutral pronoun to do this, as Ann Leckie demonstrated ingeniously in her Ancillary Justice series, where everyone is referred to as “she”. There, though the characters aren’t androgynes, gender is considered irrelevant in the narrator’s culture, and the use of “she” forced me every time it was used to consider that the character in question may identify as male, or female, or neither, and the lack of confirmation was both jarring and refreshing. (It also led to some humorous reviews, where careless readers scoffed at this “society full of lesbians”…)
The first time I read The Left Hand of Darkness, I wrote this all off as LeGuin being unintentionally sexist. I figured, this book was written in the 60’s; maybe just the idea of an androgynous culture was considered radical, and who cared whether they were all called “he” – it was just language, after all. But rereading the book now, I think LeGuin was being subtler than that. The entire novel is infused with Genly Ai’s point of view – even when Gethenians are narrating, Ai is translating. And Ai is a man from Earth, a very 1960’s-ish Earth from what we can tell. It no longer seems to me that LeGuin couldn’t handle gender-neutrality well; rather, Genly Ai can’t.
Ai’s sexism is subtle, but it is definitely there, and as I read through the book this time, examples started to jump out at me. The powerful political leaders that Ai spends most of his time with are referred to as men exclusively, with little thought or cognitive dissonance. It is only when Ai begins to meet downtrodden Gethenians, such as the other inmates at the labor camp, that they begin to seem feminine to him – and always in a negative way. “Among my fellowprisoners I had for the first time on Winter a certain feeling of being a man among women, or among eunuchs. The prisoners had that same flabbiness and coarseness. They were hard to tell apart; their emotional tone seemed always low, their talk trivial.” He speaks later of their “gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge.” When Gethenians lose power and prestige, when they lose their very freedom, suddenly they seem womanly to Ai. Later, when Estraven explains why, though s/he loves Karhide, s/he is not a patriot, Ai is again disgusted: “There was in this attitude something feminine, a refusal of the abstract, the ideal, a submissiveness to the given, which rather displeased me.” Again and again, when Ai encounters any traits in a Gethenian that are not associated with virility, aggressiveness, or authority, he is suddenly reminded that the person before him is not a man, but something lesser, something a bit vulgar. Something feminine.
Ai is not really an unreliable narrator, in the sense of being a liar or a madman, but his biases are insidious, threaded throughout the novel and rarely drawing attention to themselves. It is not that Ai hates women; like many men, he has just not thought much about gender politics. When asked by Estraven, who has never met a woman, whether they are inferior to men, Ai has trouble responding. “No. Yes. No, of course not, not really. But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female.” He’s hardly a misogynist; it’s just that a gender studies class would probably do him good. As a character Ai is likable, but he is probably not the ideal individual to lead the reader on this anthropological journey through Gethen. And that is, I think, the point.
One of the themes in this book is cultural misunderstanding – how the same action or trait can be seen in contradictory ways by different civilizations. As this idea is a staple of virtually every first-contact or anthropological science fiction story, I tend to take it for granted by now, but I like how it’s handled here. On their trek across the ice, Estraven and Ai begin to understand each other in ways they never had before; they become friends, and even begin to love each other (in a strictly platonic way, Ai hastens to point out – sex with a Gethenian would just be too weird for him). But they also recognize the ways in which they are too different, too alien, to fully comprehend each other. And they leave it at that. I love Ai’s dawning understanding toward the end of the novel:
“I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou.”
This duality, between I and Thou, relates to the title of the novel, which comes from a Gethenian poem: “Light is the left hand of darkness / and darkness the right hand of light. / Two are one...” Ai thinks that Gethenians are obsessed with the unity of all things because they are sexually undivided; other humans, separated into men and women, are therefore obsessed with duality. But Estraven disagrees: “Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”
I’m not sure where to leave this review, other than at that. This book is a classic, and deservedly so. The ending broke my heart in a way I was completely not expecting – how could I remember so many specific plot points from reading this so long ago, but forget how shattering it is in the end? But I was a different person then, and the world was a different place.
Speaking of the world, maybe in the end I can take heart in the quick and absolute downfall of Tibe, the Karhidish Donald Trump. I can take heart in the prevention of total war between Karhide and Orgoreyn. I can take heart in people like Estraven, who love their homelands but are resolutely unpatriotic, who would be happy to serve a good government if they ever could identify one. Maybe there’s hope for us too. Maybe it won’t even require the intervention of a galactic civilization, to remind us how small we really are.