I first heard about The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin a long time ago when I first became interested in science fiction, but I had never read it until now. The main thing you hear about this novel is how incredible the world building is, and how it stands at the pinnacle of science fiction for that reason. So I was really interested and excited to finally get to it on My List. Well, needless to say, the book really does live up to that well-deserved hype.
So without further ado, let’s get into it!
The Left Hand of Darkness is about a man named Genly Ai who visits the planet Winter, or Gethen in that planet’s language, as an Envoy from the Ekumenical Scope, a federation of planets. His aim is to convince the nations of Gethen to join the Ekumen so that they may learn from each other and trade knowledge. Initially, King Argaven of the country Karhide doesn’t believe Genly, even though his government has the ship Genly landed in, and his scientists have confirmed to him that Genly is an alien.
One of the reasons that the king has such a hard time believing and trusting Genly is that he, like us, is a human with a single sex, whereas the Gethenians are androgynous humans. Most of the time they are neither strictly male nor female, except for once a month when they enter a period called kemmer, during which they take on male or female physical traits in order to reproduce. Because of this, Genly is seen as a pervert, truly foreign and weird to the Gethenians, as if he were in heat all the time.
“‘They’re all like that – like you?’ This was the hurdle I could not lower for them. They must, in the end, learn to take it in their stride. ‘Yes. Gethenian sexual physiology, so far as we know, is unique among human beings.’ ‘So all of them, out on these other planets, are in permanent kemmer? A society of perverts?'”
One of the few people who do believe Genly is a man called Estraven. He starts off as the king’s prime minister but is quickly exiled for treason over a border dispute with the neighbouring nation of Orgoreyn. Genly is not sure whether he can trust Estraven because he has yet to fully master the Gethenian culture and their concept of shifgrethor (more on that later). But when Genly travels to Orgoreyn to try to persuade that government to join the Ekumen and is thrown into a labour camp for his troubles, Estraven breaks into the prison to save him.
What follows is a really excellent section of the novel, in which Genly and Estraven travel back to the country of Karhide but must do so on foot over a large ice sheet so that they don’t get caught. The trip takes them more than 80 days, during which they finally come to understand each other. Genly learns that Estraven has believed in his mission the whole time. He wants Gethen to join the Ekumen and the rest of mankind in the stars.
Ultimately, it is because of Estraven and his sacrifices that Genly succeeds in his mission to get the planet of Gethen to join the Ekumen.
Sex, Gender & Androgyny
As I mentioned above, the people of Gethen are androgynous, or ambisexual. They are neither male nor female except during their period of kemmer when their physical characteristics change to become male or female. As such, all Gethenians are able to become pregnant and to sire children. This is one of the main inventive ideas for which The Left Hand of Darkness is famous.
A lot has been made of this idea, including both criticisms and adulations. However, the criticisms that I’ve come across so far seem to want more out of the novel than was ever intended. I understand that artworks can be interpreted in many different ways, but I think author intent very obviously needs to be taken into account.
Consider this criticism from the sci-fi author Charlie Jane Anders, who wrote an Afterword for The Left Hand of Darkness’ 50th anniversary edition:
“Even as this book drives you to question all of our assumptions about male and female bodies, it never raises any questions about how gender shapes us independently of our biological sex (the way a lot of science fiction has, in the decades since.)”
Now consider Le Guin’s own take on this aspect of her novel, from the Author’s Note at the beginning of that same edition:
“Yes, indeed the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies.”
In Le Guin’s own words, she is saying that the idea of androgynous/ambisexual humans is simply a thought experiment, because we all have both masculine and feminine traits to us. So with this novel she wanted to explore the theoretical psychological impact and consequences of being ambisexual. As such, the book never intended to “raise questions about how gender shapes us independently of our biological sex.” That’s just not what it’s about. It’s about how the biological bodies of Gethenians shapes their society.
Indeed, at one point we come across a section of the novel that is written from the point of view of one of the first Field Investigators to Gethen, many years before Genly’s arrival. The Investigator hypothesizes about this very question. Why are the Gethenians ambisexual? She notes that an ancient group of people colonized many planets with humanoid beings, and so wonders if they were experimenting on Gethen with this androgyny. Was it to prevent war? Was it to prevent the type of sexual frustration that leads to violence? She does not know.
Ultimately, at least the way I read and interpreted the novel, this facet of the Gethenian people serves as a story device to highlight the larger concept of cultural differences and how these differences can pose significant barriers to understanding between peoples.
“Though I have been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.”
Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists and so she grew up immersed in that world, learning about different cultures. And that’s really what The Left Hand of Darkness is about: Genly’s attempt to understand Gethenians so that they will trust him and join the Ekumen. This leads us to our next main theme.
Shifgrethor, Trust & Truth
“One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time.”
Another really interesting aspect of Gethenian culture is shifgrethor, defined by Genly as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen.” It can be understood as an unspoken set of rules for social interaction and communication that allows the speakers to “save face” and continually remain on equal footing, never letting the other person get the upper hand in a conversation.
As an aside, it reminds me of a book called The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, written by a friend of mine and her husband. The description of the book reads thusly:
“In The Bonjour Effect Jean-Benoît and Julie chronicle the lessons they learned after they returned to France to live, for a year, with their twin daughters. They offer up all the lessons they learned and explain, in a book as fizzy as a bottle of the finest French champagne, the most important aspect of all: the French don’t communicate, they converse. To understand and speak French well, one must understand that French conversation runs on a set of rules that go to the heart of French culture.”
So I imagine shifgrethor is something like that. It is also one of the reasons that Genly has so much trouble understanding Gethenian culture and integrating enough to get the king and various politicians to trust him. And he needs that trust because the two countries in question, Karhide and Orgoreyn, and their respective leaders, always want the upper hand. For example, many of the Orgota politicians don’t trust that Genly is telling the truth about his mission or who he is. They believe he is an agent from Karhide sent to make a mockery of the country of Orgoreyn.
“They fear to swallow a great hoax in public, a hoax already refused by Karhide. They make their invitation, they make it publicly; then where is their shifgrethor, when no Star Ship comes? Indeed Genly Ai demands of us an inordinate trustfulness.”
(For background, Genly arrives to Gethen on a starship that remains in orbit while he is on the planet. In order for Genly to call the starship and its crew to come down to the planet to officially make first contact, the leaders of Gethen must first publicly announce that aliens have arrived. It’s a way to ensure that the leaders of the planet truly intend to join the Ekumen.)
You could argue that trust is actually the main theme of The Left Hand of Darkness, far beyond the significance of the theme of sex and gender. The sexual differences between Terrans (Earth people) and Gethenians simply highlights how difficult it can be to truly understand someone from a different culture. Other barriers abound, of course, from language to cultural norms to customs. As Genly says in the quote above, he is “unable to see the people of the planet through their own eyes,” as he is constantly looking at them through his own cultural and biological lens. This prevents him from understanding the Gethenians and from trusting Estraven, as I mentioned above.
The question the book poses on this subject is therefore how can two people trust each other who can’t understand each other?
We discover the answer as Genly and Estraven escape from the labour camp and prepare to cross the ice sheet on their journey back to Karhide, during which time they finally speak openly with each other.
Genly: “How the devil can I believe anything you say?”
Estraven: “My greatest error was, as you say, in making myself clear to you. I am not used to doing so. I am not used to giving, or accepting, either advice or blame…It is strange. I am the only man in Gethen that has trusted you entirely, and I am the only man in Gethen that you have refused to trust.”
And further, crossing the ice sheet:
“And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man…what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was.”
“For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose…But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us.”
But it’s not just that Genly and Estraven are finally truly communicating, it’s that they have to go through this terrible, arduous journey together, first breaking out of the labour camp and then crossing the ice sheet. It’s the physical hardship of those days that seems to break down the mental barriers between them, especially for Genly. There’s something about being tired and exhausted that can allow us, paradoxically, to think more clearly and to see things as they are. Genly at this point has almost died in the labour camp and he still has to cross the ice sheet. There’s just no energy left for prejudice and protest.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Small Stakes & Large Stakes
“I can’t properly define that Orgota word here translated as ‘commensal,’ ‘commensality.’ Its root is a word meaning ‘to eat together.’ Its usage includes all national/governmental institutions of Orgoreyn…in the form ‘the Commensals’ it usually means the thirty-three Heads of Districts…but it may also mean the citizens, the people themselves. In this curious lack of distinction between the general and specific applications of the word, in the use of it for both the whole and the part, the state and the individual, in this imprecision is its precisest meaning.”
I don’t have any weaknesses for this novel. It really is an excellent book that I will most certainly read again. It’s so rich in story and themes, and I’m sure it’s one of those novels that reveals more of itself the more times you read it. Unlike some other books on my list, it certainly stood up to all the hype.
If you haven’t yet read The Left Hand of Darkness, I highly recommend it!
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. ACE, 2019. Fiftieth Anniversary Kindle Edition.