Following the very sad news that Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this year, my feminist fantasy book club decided to commemorate her by reading one of her books. Le Guin was the first woman to win the Hugo Award for best novel for this book, so expectations were pretty high.
“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a science fiction novel about a man called Genly Ai who has been sent to a frozen planet called Gethen as an envoy. The plot is quite complex, but essentially, Ai comes from a confederation of planets called the Ekumen and has been living on Gethen for some time learning about the planet’s humanoid inhabitants and their peculiar culture. The Genthenians only have one sex: each person goes through a sexual cycle with the potential to be either male or female at its peak. Ai has been working towards a meeting with the “King” in a country called Karhide so he can issue an invitation for Gethen to join the Ekumen. However, Ai’s efforts are undone when he fails to understand the subtle messages communicated by the Prime Minister Estreven.
Not unlike “Orlando“, this book was clearly groundbreaking when it was first released. The edition that I have has an introduction written by China Miéville, who praises the novel and its ability to reveal something new on each rereading. Published in 1969, 50 years ago next year, it certainly was a very unique premise. This is a very complex novel that explores what a society would be like with not quite no gender, but if everyone could experience either gender. The politics and the cultural differences between countries on a Genthen are done cleverly but subtlety, and I think they require a lot of concentration to pick up on the nuances of Genthenian people. Le Guin conjures a palpably icy world, nicknamed Winter by Ai, and the later chapters traversing through a white wasteland read almost like a journal of Antarctic explorers.
However, this book is not easy to read. To begin with, and this is the biggest criticism that Miéville alludes to and Le Guin herself acknowledges in her own introduction, the way gender is handled in this book feels clunky. I think the significance of the fact that each person on this world essentially is at once both male and female is lost because of the Le Guin’s choice of pronouns. I understand that in 1969, gender neutral pronouns in English weren’t really a thing, but given their prevalence across languages around the world I’m not quite sure that holds up. I understand that historically, he has been used in English to be gender neutral, but I think in this case it’s just confusing.
I think that even though it’s such a critical element of the story, the androgyny of the Genthenians simply is not centralised enough in the storytelling. Ai is the lens through which we observe this world. However, so much of the description is on the political structures and the weather, I felt like I was constantly searching for a foothold to understand what Le Guin’s imagined people were like and what their culture was. I appreciate that an inability to understand them and the way gender influenced their culture was a key issue for Ai and his mission, but I think such a fascinating idea should really have been done a bit more justice and have been given a bit more airtime.
I think the other problem I have with this book is a problem that I often have with older science fiction. The writing style is often quite cold, and relationships and emotions are often stated to exist rather than shown or felt to exist. Maybe this as well was exacerbated by Ai and his unreliable narration, but later in the book I felt like all of a sudden a relationship was there just because Ai said so, not because it had really been established.
I honestly could go on and on about this book, there really is so much in there to unpack and maybe one day I’ll have to read it again and see if, like Miéville, I can discover more on a second reading. I think this book really has a lot of important and interesting things to say, and was one of the first books to say them, but it is a difficult book to read and does feel impenetrable at times.