The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessOn the surface at least, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is a classic First Contact story, and initially conforms to all of the structural and narrative tropes of that SF archetype. Genly Ai is a human envoy sent to the planet of Winter (a sobriquet given to the alien world by us humans, & inspired by its planet-wide perpetual ice age), to convince the quasi-industrial natives to join the Ekumen, an inter-planetary er… federation. Of sorts.

The book opens with Genly witnessing an esoteric alien ritual, in which a local ruler places a keystone into an arch, forever joining its two sides together, in union. Seemingly this is a clumsy metaphor for the coming-together of the two races: stronger as one, now we can bear weight etc. etc. (insert cliché of your own choosing). But as we learn more about the aliens of Winter, it soon becomes apparent that the real subtextual referents of this arch metaphor aren’t aliens and humans, but men and women. The First Contact plot line is merely a McGuffin or way-in for the writer to analyse the nature of gender binaries, and of their wider implications for societal structure and behaviours. As such, The Left Hand of Darkness is characteristic of the anthropological mode of le Guinian fiction.

The inhabitants of Winter (“Gethen” in their own language) are genderless; every individual is capable of bearing children, and everyone is physically androgyne. The non-gendered nature of the Gethenians is, the text argues, in direct correlation with the organization and manners of their society, with stereotypically feminine qualities being more prominent, and stereotypically masculine qualities less so than our own: the result an ostensible balance between the two.

Conflict, for example, is significantly more subtle and nuanced when male physicality and aggression is almost entirely absent.  Gethenians resolve interpersonal differences via a convoluted and dense system of etiquette known as ‘shifgrethor’, and the human protagonist’s constant failures to understand the subtleties of this system are responsible for both the novel’s most comic moments, and its most tragic. It’s a concept that draws on Eastern religious ideologies, without actually name-checking any of the real-world systems that so obviously inspired it. When individuals aren’t able to “other” one another along gender lines, the resulting interplay of social relations requires a notably more convoluted system of differentiation: hence shifgrethor.

And “othering” really is the central theme of the novel. With the arrival of the envoy Genly, the native aliens are able to “other” – for the first time along gender lines – another individual. Simultaneously, of course, Genly is able to (eventually) appreciate the benefits of a social system absent any gender biases. It’s tempting, therefore, to suggest that The Left Hand of Darkness espouses the old empirical cliché of the privileged and enlightened ambassador coming to liberate the natives from their ignorance, but who eventually ends up learning more from them than they do from him. I think that this would be a somewhat simplistic reading, however, as LHOD’s presentation of an ambisexual society is anything but utopian and parochial. It’s certainly feministic; a contemporary cultural reflection of the late 1960’s, when traditional gender roles were becoming less and less rigid; but I’m wary of saying that LHOD offers any kind of prediction, or even mandate for social change. It’s more thought experiment than it is extrapolation.

This isn’t to say that the Gethenians have no notion of deep-structured duality, as political and national differences, jingoism and xenophobia seep in to fill the psycho-social void left by the absence of gender disparities. There’s a cold war taking place on Gethen (ice age pun unintended… honest), with all of the historical and social positioning that such a term suggests;  each nation defining itself in terms of its difference to the “other”. Hence:

“I don’t mean love when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other.”

The planet’s two major nations are locked in a kinda passive-aggressive stalemate: as consequent of their societies’ lack of masculine aggression, there has never been a war on Gethen. This perhaps being the most heavily implicated correlation that le Guin makes between the absence of gender, and the political behaviours of a society. War is: “[…] a purely masculine displacement activity, a vast rape.”

Supposedly, then, LHOD invites the reader to judge its characters purely on their identity as moral agents:

The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imaginations to accept. After all, what is the first question we ask about a newborn baby? ….there is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protected/ protective. One is respected and judged only as a human being. You cannot cast a Gethenian in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards ‘him’ a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the interactions between persons of the same or opposite sex.


It’s unfortunate, then, that the book is almost (I said “almost”…) completely broken by Le Guin’s baffling stylistic decision to refer to every non-gendered native of Gethen using exclusively male personal pronouns (“he”, “his”, “him” etc.). This influenced my visual conception of the novel to such an extent that I couldn’t help but imagine all of the book’s characters as physically male. The effect of these male pronouns is to massively damage the dissociative power of the genderless society as a narrative conceit. If Ursula Le Guin’s goal was to suggest that the consequences of a non-existent gender bias was a societal structure inordinately different to our own, then surely it would have been more successfully alienating to neologise a set of non-sexed pronouns that don’t carry any of the gender baggage that the writer is attempting to deconstruct? It’s a small oversight that has regrettably deleterious consequences.

The novel’s final third is a brilliantly intense piece of wilderness writing, a ‘journey through the snowy wasteland’ passage that’s alternately told from the P.O.Vs of the human Genly, and a native of the alien planet. It’s here that Le Guin most successfully marries the themes of anthropological thought experiment, with a more emotional, personal and zoomed-in focus on an individual’s deep-rooted and subconscious gender assumptions.

The Left Hand of Darkness rightly has a place in the pantheon of Science Fiction masterpieces, exposing the un-spoken biases of our own social structures by presenting to the reader a society that’s markedly at odds with our own. It’s beautifully written (if occasionally essayistic), challenging and, despite what some commentators would have you believe, still 100% relevant. It’s just a shame about that pronoun stuff.


One response to “The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

  1. I remember this fondly, and recall thinking it a very provocative novel in the right sort of way – provoking thought and reflection.

    Doubt I’ll reread it, but I do agree that it’s beautifully written. Not at all turgid as one might fear it would be.

    Good point on the pronouns. I have seen others avoid that, so it definitely can be done without any great intrusion (ve, vis, vim, something like that).

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