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


I’d like to start this post by illuminating my selection process for the books I review here. 1. I never read the backs of the novels I select. 2. All I need to know is that they are scifi or fantasy and written by women, and 3. They have received some form of recognition. I do not choose any of these books on purpose because they are similar to one another. Any similarities in plot or character are strictly coincidence.

That being said, I confess I had never read any books written by Ursula K. Le Guin until this post, which was a monumental failure on my part because I liked to consider myself a bit of a science fiction and fantasy aficionado. I saw her novel The Left Hand of Darkness when I was at Powell’s books in Portland, OR at the beginning of August. It was shelved (rightly so) under “25 books you have to read before you die.”

Although this is just the second female-authored scifi novel I’ve reviewed for Luna Station Quarterly and although this novel was written in 1969 (45 years before Ancillary Justice was), both espouse similar threads and won Nebulas and Hugos (Ann Leckie just won hers in August). Both follow outsiders transplanted on worlds miles and eons away from their homelands. Both of them address the idea of bisexual or non-specifically gendered societies. As I began reading and, consciously drawing parallels between the two novels, I wondered why Ursula K. Le Guin and Ann Leckie, writing nearly five decades apart, focus upon gender and alienation in their investigations.

Enter Mr. Genly Ai, a human envoy to the alien planet of Winter (aptly named due to its Ice Age-esque climate). The chapters alternate (in no particular order) between first person accounts housed in Winter’s library written by Mr. Ai, archived tales of researchers and Winter’s historians regarding fairytales and cultural fables that have permeated this strange world, and a first person journal of “Estraven the Traitor” (Mr. Ai’s later companion). Mr. Ai arrives on Winter two years prior to the beginning of the novel to recruit the planet into Earth’s 83-world-strong alliance.

The novel follows Genly and Estraven’s exile from Karhide to Orgoreyn and the ways in which Genly learns to cope with the society of which he is not a full-fledged member (physically or mentally). He remarks that “The people of Winter, who always live in Year One, feel that progress is less important than presence” (50). Where Terran (or Earth) feels as though its mission to recruit others into its alliance in order to facilitate Open Trade, Winter exists as is. Its citizens live each day without thought of what is to come. Speculation by citizens of Winter about the future, as the legends interspersed throughout the novel suggest, all lead to unfulfilling deaths. As one researcher notes in her address of “The Question of Sex” she attributes the lack of drive towards progress to their ambisexuality which “has little or no adaptive value” (89). On Winter, beings remain sexless until, during their 26-28 day cycle, they undergo “kemmer” or sexual arousal and can become a man or woman. As the researcher notes, “burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else” (93).

As readers who experience Winter through Genly’s eyes, Estraven’s eyes, and the eyes of field researchers and native oral traditionalists, we find ourselves questioning the previous researcher’s conclusion: without preordained sexual roles, a nation finds itself suffering from stasis. Instead, as a reader, I found it liberating. Where the researcher states “a man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience” (95) I disagree with her (as I believe we are meant to) on the grounds that she misses the distinct point of it all: equality seems to breed nonviolence and peace.

I argue that Le Guin’s representation of procreation between species members who have no distinctive gender bounds, where love is just love and where anyone could have a relationship with anyone else, demonstrates an equalization across sexual power. Her main character, a human male, finds himself unable to cope with the strange social order as he tries to put these “neutered hermaphrodites” into categories that suit his earthen nature. Where he describes others as having effeminate qualities as well as masculine qualities, he assigns negative responses to those of the feminine nature. He even admits his own distrust of Estraven, not because the being is a politician but because he “had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance…I had not been willing to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man” (249). While Winter is far from utopian, it lacks a demonization and categorization of gender that provides readers with a freeing thought experiment.

I am in no way making a blanket statement that female authors in this field seem to be proponents of equalizing gender by completely erasing the markers of it. Instead, I seek to pose a question: why does the science fiction medium provide a perfect arena in which to discuss gender? Even if I look to science fiction novels like Oryx and Crake and A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, I noticed commentary regarding sexuality and power. In Atwood’s novels, reproduction becomes crisis for characters and they find their whole world is centered around procreation as well as the psychology behind it.

In doing so, I look to the title of the novel: The Left Hand of Darkness and note its “Winter” origins from the quote that Le Guin includes. “Light is the left hand of darkness/and darkness the right hand of light/ Two are one, life and death, lying/together like lovers in kemmer,/like hands joined together,/like the end and the way.”

Winter contains both yin and yang, both male and female, light and darkness. The planet offers balance and thereby stasis with little ambition for progress. Le Guin makes no true ruling on the planet and instead just offers her research to us as a seemingly objective third party. Yet Mr. Ai is only the left hand of darkness and, without a balanced right hand, he cannot understand that what he sees before him is both a finality and a beginning, the stop and the path. Without earthen men it exists as a completed whole. With them, the delicate balance is overthrown. Five out of Five Stars