My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is not extrapolative. If you like, you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. […] In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (1976)
This 1969 classic of science fiction finds Genly Ai, an envoy from a benevolent galactic federation called the Ekumen, trying to persuade the nations of a cold planet called Gethen, or Winter, to join the rest of the far-flung human race. (This novel is part of Le Guin’s cycle about the Hainish civilization, and apparently in this mythos all other variants of humanity in the universe were seeded by the Hain, including the Gethenians.) As we gradually discover, the Gethens are unique among the planetary peoples in that the are ambisexuals—they are without gender or sexual desire 21 days of their month, until they enter the state of kemmer, an estrus in which they take on a need for intercourse and develop sex characteristics and reproductive organs, generally in distinction to those of their immediate partner, so that a Gethenian has the potential to become male or female—and to become a father or a mother (Le Guin in 1969 assumed a heterosexual norm, for which she has since, according to Wikipedia, expressed regret). This speculative device is what the novel is renowned for, but it take up surprisingly little of the book. For the most part, The Left Hand of Darkness concerns itself with Genly Ai’s difficult negotiation of Gethen’s two main states: a feudal monarchy, vaguely reminiscent of various northwestern European and northeastern Asian civilizations, called Karhide; and a totalitarian bureaucracy on the Soviet model called Orgoreyn.
While the novel is cast as a report to the Ekumen narrated by Genly Ai, the text is inclusive and capacious, including an earlier report from an Ekumen investigator; translations of myth and folklore from Gethen’s two main religions, the Taoist-like Handdara (practiced in Karhide) and the more monotheistic or prophetic Yomesh (corresponding to Orgoreyn); and narration by the novel’s most dominant and interesting character, the Karhidish vizier Estraven, a former adept of Handdara, a former lover of his brother, and eventually Genly Ai’s closest friend and intimate on Gethen. The slowly developing relationship between the two is the emotional core of the novel, and if they never become lovers, their love, despite and because of their alienness to each other, is Le Guin’s most persuasive representation of the non-coercive universalism she advocates. The wise, patient, shrewd, determined, gentle, and thoughtful Estraven is a type of character readers may recognize from political novels outside the science fiction genre: he is the humane but compromised “man of liberal conscience” (the phrase is Coetzee’s) that one finds in Nostromo or The Plague or Waiting for the Barbarians, his wintry voice in the wintry landscape not unlike that of Sebald’s narrators. Perhaps the novel’s emotional climax—perhaps, in a very quiet way, its erotic climax—comes when Genly Ai observes:
When I came, he was ready. Nobody else on Winter was.
The novel is as various in genre as in narrative voice. We have myth and fairy tale, saga and religious scripture, totalitarian dystopia and captivity narrative, spy novel and drama of courtly intrigue, and, for the novel’s final quarter, a man-vs.-nature adventure and a subtle love story as Ai and Estraven make a desperate eighty-day crossing of the planet’s northern ice-field. I did not find all of this equally persuasive—the political machinations that take up so much of the novel ultimately seem irrelevant to its more philosophical speculations on gender and spirituality. My eyes tended to glaze over at the foreign-looking names of the perfunctory characters and institutions that make up Gethen’s political life, as none of these was described in enough detail or given enough to do to become memorable. While admiring the novel, I found some stretches of it very dull, and I think it’s significant that these sections are precisely those mandated by the commercial constraints of genre fiction. What is interesting in this novel might have been just as interesting without the suspense-and-adventure elements. (But then, to be fair, I do not read much science fiction and fantasy these days—though I did when I was young—and may have lost the hang of it, or the taste for it.)
In political terms, the novel holds out Karhide as exemplary—it is a flawed but humane society that is technologically adept without being rapaciously industrial, a monarchy that is nevertheless decentralized and where social life is organic and unpoliticized, a communal order based on a skeptical spiritual philosophy without dogma or gods. This pre-modern ideal is contrast with the punitive, secret-police-ridden industrial society Orgoreyn, modeled on communist bureaucracies of the Eastern bloc and the administrative society of the Western bloc. The year, again, was 1969, so we may take this as Le Guin’s anarcho-feminist New Left polemic against the statist and masculinist Old Left.
Gender plays a role in the argument, of course. Despite the novel’s reputation as a feminist classic, its vision is far from the anti-essentialist and postmodern doctrines that would come to dominate in progressive spaces. The novel seems to accept the view that the male principle is one of rationalism, analysis, idealism, and domination, while the female principle is experiential, synthetic, materialist, and non-coercive, as implied when an investigator speculates that the Hainish may have created an ambisexual species to eliminate war:
Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organzied social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? Or…did they consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped? God knows. The fact is that Gethenians, though highly competitive (as proved by the elaborate social channels provided for competition for prestige, etc.) seem not to be very aggressive; at least they apparently have never yet had what one could call a war.
Genly Ai’s growth over the novel’s course centers on his recognition of how the Gethenians—and Estraven especially—embody a healthful yin-and-yang balance of these elements; their androgyny holds out hope for a way of human life beyond the conflict between masculine and feminine, the suppression of the latter by the former. Estraven—and the more balanced Karhide—therefore model to the reader a social potential possible latent in humanity as a whole. In his sometimes acid literary history of science fiction, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, the late Thomas M. Disch was provoked to this acerbic comment by Le Guin’s novel:
Ursula Le Guin’s first large success, The Left Hand of Darkness, depicts androgynous aliens who impart a lesson in equal opportunity to a visiting human male. The difficulty with Le Guin’s Gethenians, as with most of her other aliens, is that they seem to spring with such pure didactic intent from the Swedenborg tradition of populating outer space with noble savages of ideal virtue.
While I find that a bit too strong, it holds more than a grain of truth. Enabled by the conventions of the genre, Le Guin stacks the deck by creating a planet with the kind of climate that would best enable and sustain her preferred social order, and she treats as universal stereotypes of gender that may be more historically, religiously, or ethnically specific than she recognizes. If the female principle eschews dogma, violence, and avarice, someone might have alerted the women of the largely conservative suburban and Catholic milieu in which I was reared, to say nothing of the nuns who presided over my early education. It was—allegedly—the mothers of Sparta who instructed their sons to come back with their shields or on them.
Nothing will minimize such political concerns more than the aesthetics of Le Guin’s prose. An avowed follower of Woolf—she wrote an essay advocating for the application of Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” manifesto to science-fiction writing—Le Guin is comparable to her modernist precursor in the development of a mobile, fluid narrative prose that is sensuous and abstract, jargony and elemental, fervently emotional and intellectually refined:
It had not rained, here on these north-facing slopes. Snow-fields stretched down from the pass into the valleys of moraine. We stowed the wheels, uncapped the sledge-runners, put on our skis, and took off—down, north, onward, into that silent vastness of fire and ice that said in enormous letters of black and white DEATH, DEATH, written right across a continent. The sledge pulled like a feather, and we laughed with joy.
To end at the beginning: while I was not totally convinced by the novel’s apparent philosophy, Le Guin’s two main characters are sufficiently complex to mitigate any outright didacticism. Such polemic is further undermined by the novel’s perfect opening, with which I will conclude, an opening that promises the reader enough imaginative freedom to explore what is alien and other without ideological precondition:
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. Both are sensitive.