Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the planet Gethin, also known as Winter where there is no sexual difference between people apart from a monthly period of kemmer. When the androgynous Gethenians meet in kemmer, hormonal secretions increase so that either male or female dominance is established in one and the partner takes on the other sexual role: 

Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether they will be the male or the female and have no choice in the matter. (Otie Nim wrote that in the Orgoreyn region the use of hormone derivatives to establish a preferred sexuality is quite common; I haven’t seen this done in rural Karhide.). Once the sex is determined it cannot change … If the individual was in the female role and was impregnated, hormonal activity of course continues, and for the 8.4 month gestation period and the 6 to 8 month lactation period this individual remains female. … With the cessation of lactation the female … becomes once more a perfect androgyne. No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more. (91)

Thus read the field notes of Ong Tot Oppong of the Hainish Ekumen on her initial observations concerning the sexual life of the Gethenians. These notes are in the possession of Genly Ai, who has openly come to Gethen as an ambassador from the Ekumen with the purpose of inviting the Gethenians to join the wider interstellar community. ‘The Question of Sex’ – as the chapter in which Ong’s notes appear is titled – is the aspect of The Left Hand of Darkness which has attracted most attention over the near half century since its original publication.

Front cover of the first edition, with art by the Dillons. Cover depicts two faces against an abstract background.

I was going to begin this review by arguing that ‘if Heinlein’s line “the door dilated” is often presented as an example of the cognitive estrangement of 1940s Golden Age SF, then Le Guin’s “The king was pregnant” is representative of a more profound late 1960s countercultural and feminist defamiliarisation’. But then I read China Miéville’s introduction to this new edition of Le Guin’s 1969 classic and discovered to my horror that not only does he make the exact same comparison, he also sums up its significance more effectively: ‘Heinlein renders one corridor strange: Le Guin reconfigures society’. For Miéville, the novel’s defamiliarisation of gender makes it unquestionably a precursor of the gender queerness and sexual fluidity of our twenty-first-century present. 

However, as he acknowledges, it was not always seen in such a radical light. Le Guin’s use of universal male pronouns to denote a society without a permanent sexual divide and therefore without a gender division, led to Joanna Russ, among others, criticising The Left Hand of Darkness for only containing men in practice. In In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988), Sarah Lefanu argues that the lack of sexual difference means that there is no historical dialectic and that the novel’s popularity is due to it simultaneously offering women a retreat from conflict back to the pre-Oedipal imaginary order while offering men the opportunity to roam freely unconstrained by the difficulties that arise from sexual difference. Adam Roberts went as far as to say, in Science Fiction (2000), that The Left Hand of Darkness is remarkably non-binary as a novel, with an appealing spirituality but an unengaging storyline, and mainly dependent on the quality of its world-building to attract readers’ imaginative and emotional investment.

In fact, The Left Hand of Darkness has long had all the hallmarks of one of those novels which one feels guiltily ashamed of uninhibitedly enjoying in private while publicly pretending indifference in order to fit in with the apparent critical consensus. There is something about all that apparently non-existent narrative tension concerning the fate of Genly’s mission and his relationship with the mysterious and enigmatic King’s Ear, Estraven, that makes one need to keep turning the pages even on the umpteenth rereading. The plot is not negligible by any means. The central irony that the rather backward kingdom of Karhide does eventually turn out to be more important to Genly than the apparently more modern and democratic Orgoreyn, is the inspiration for Iain Banks’s Culture-related planetary romance, Inversions (1998). And, of course, the Culture is also a society in which it is possible for the mother of several children to become the father of several more.

Maybe the fantasies of motherhood which male readers might indulge while reading such novels are merely examples of how men might roam freely in their imagination while unconstrained by the difficulties that arise from sexual difference? Interestingly, when Le Guin wrote about The Left Hand of Darkness in her 1976 essay, ‘Is Gender Necessary?’, she noted that it seemed to be men who engaged most clearly with her conception of Estraven as both ‘man and woman, familiar and different, alien and utterly human’ by identifying with Genly and therefore participating ‘in his painful and gradual discovery of love’. Eleven years later, however, in ‘Is Gender Necessary? Redux’ (1987), following more criticism of the novel, she appeared to change her mind on this matter: ‘Men were inclined to be satisfied with the book, which allowed them a safe trip into androgyny and back, from a conventionally male viewpoint. But many woman wanted it to go further …’ Yet, rather than simply replace the earlier passage with the new judgement, she allowed both versions to sit beside each other by including the new observations in square brackets within the original essay. In this way the ambivalence and ambiguity of the novel became replicated in her commentary upon it. Men might read the novel in either way. Or indeed, they might read it one way and then experience it differently when reading it again. And women were also invited ‘to explore androgyny from a women’s point of view’ as if, irony of ironies, ‘it was written by a woman’. Le Guin’s self-criticism may appear to be an internalisation of her critics’ arguments but on closer reading it is often apparent that she is angry with herself for not managing to make them see the points she was trying to make.

Miéville begins his introduction by noting that ‘The unluckiest books are those ignored or forgotten. But spare a thought too for those fated to become classics. A classic is too often a volume that everyone thinks they know.’ He goes on to suggest that The Left Hand of Darkness transcends this status by remaining alive. However, as I’m sure Miéville is perfectly aware, the defining characteristic of genuine classics is not that they are ‘known’ and, therefore, neutered entities, but that they remain alive precisely by feeding on the life in their new readers. A classic is a classic because after it has drawn out one response from a reader, it remains hungry not just for new readers but for new responses from its existing readers. So while on the first reading, men might enjoy a trip into androgyny and then back to safety and women might want more, on the second reading, they all might identify differently. 

For example, as an adolescent I read this novel indiscriminately as an exotic adventure. Later, having learned somewhere that it is a novel about gender, or the absence thereof, I dutifully read it as a novel about gender, or the absence thereof, and felt rather puzzled by it all. Becoming more aware of the history of the feminist SF of the 1970s, and having undergone the visceral experience of reading Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, I returned to The Left Hand of Darkness for reassurance and found it had become much weirder than I remembered. Some years later, the weirdness had transformed into a pleasurable campness (‘My landlady, a voluble man’ etc) and I read both Genly and Estraven as queer men. But when I read it again, while they remained queer, neither of them were any longer men. The male pronouns may have originally led to critics saying there are only men in the novel but actually their universality is ultimately so unstable that it radically calls into question their capacity to signify the male gender in the novel and, indeed, outside of it. Language is destabilised and with it meaning. In this respect, The Left Hand of Darkness should be considered an example of literary experimentation as radical as any in the genre.

The novel is also, of course, an old-fashioned love story, as Le Guin implied in her 1976 comment that her male readers understood this through their identification with Genly. For all Genly’s tiresome misogyny and heterosexual disgust, his attraction to Estraven is clear from the outset:  

Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of him as a woman, that dark, ironic, powerful presence near me in the firelit darkness, and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness: in him, or in my own attitude towards him? His voice was soft and rather resonant but not deep, scarcely a man’s voice, but scarcely a woman’s voice either … (12)

Estraven’s presence dominates this novel, fascinating both narrator and reader from the outset in the manner of a classic adventure romance. In which respect, it should be noted that the tense climactic crossing off the ice cap is one of the best pieces of sustained action writing in fiction. However, unlike many classic adventure stories, the sexual attraction between the two protagonists during these heightened experiences is made explicit to the reader, even if not consummated. It is not simply the case that there is no conventional female ‘love interest’ to disguise male same-sex desire; it is rather that Estraven fulfils both of these roles and in so doing he appears more complete than the awkward, diffident Genly. Roberts suggests that the Gethenians are not strictly speaking androgynous in that they are not both sexually male and female but neither except when in kemmer. However, Estraven, as described above, is clearly androgynous in the strict sense of the term even though not in kemmer. The reader identifying with Genly comes to share this sense of their own inadequacy, which is made manifest in his revulsion with his own people when they come down to Gethen in a starship. Genly is only happy again when alone with a Gethenian: ‘his face, a young, serious face, not a man’s face and not a woman’s face, a human face’ (296).

By the end of the novel, Genly has learned to see in the Gethenians not an absence of gender but a different kind of non-binary gender and so can the reader. Famously, ‘there is no myth of Oedipus on Winter’; no father to kill and no mother to sleep with because there is no separation of humans between binary gendered roles. In consequence there is no division into the dualisms of dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, or active/passive, but this is not simply a ‘retreat’ – as Lefanu terms it – from the symbolic order of the Oedipal complex back to the pre-Oedipal imaginary order. Rather than signalling a lack of narrative tension, this return allows imaginary identification with all subject positions simultaneously and thus underwrites the re-readability of the novel. The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic because however many times we read it, we can’t exhaust its infinitude of possible meanings. Even though you think you know it, read it again!

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