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.



Brian Aldiss Non-stopThe idea of a ‘generation ship’ had been kicked around in both scientific non-fiction and SF for quite a few years by 1958, when Brian Aldiss wrote the first novel-length treatment of the concept.  Non-Stop concerns itself with several scavenging, semi-primitive tribes who inhabit a primordial jungle; the obvious mid-novel revelation being that these tribesmen are, in fact, the distant descendants of the crew of a vast generation ship who have, indeed, forgotten that they live on a giant star cruiser. This is owing to some horrific accident of many centuries ago that has resulted in the ship becoming over-grown with mutated plant life (dubbed ‘ponics’ – presumably a corruption of ‘hydroponics’).  I say the twist is “obvious”, but this is only because it has, in recent years, become an over-used cliché of both visual and literary SF, from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun and Christine Love’s Analogue: a Hate Story, to cinema’s abortive 2009 horror bore-fest Pandorum.

The reason for this over-use is obvious: the scenario is an incredibly fruitful one, a twist that generates impressive narrative momentum and sense-of-wonder while simultaneously knocking at the door of deeper philosophical investigations and a Platonist questioning of the material evidence for the world around us.  Non-Stop is one of the better examples of this scenario, and is, of course, awarded extra SF points for being its progenitor.  The prose is a little dry, occasionally veering on clunky, but the sheer pace of the book mitigates any sense of stylistic aridity, and the deftly handled dénouement is, for modern readers at least, a much more impressive shock than the early disclosure that ‘they were on a ship all along’.

Generous readers might want to argue that Non-Stop (both its plot and, fittingly, its title) functions as a metaphor for human history and our awakening from an ignorant dark age into a self-aware scientific knowledge.  This transition, it’s religious and psychological implications, are brilliantly worked-through in the character of Marapper, a priest who leads an expedition to find the ship’s legendary “bridge”.  Unfortunately, however, the rest of book’s characterisation is inconsistent at best, with the majority of protagonists seemingly unfazed by the surely mind-blowing discovery that the recognizable world of their arid jungle is actually an enclosed hermetic space aboard an interstellar, man-made ship; I was hoping for at least a little existential panic.  (Although there is a strikingly beautiful sequence in which several characters stumble upon and activate a viewing window, exposing themselves for the first time to the stars and the vastness of the cosmos, a moment that functions as an unsubtle but nonetheless arresting metaphor for the death of religion and the revelation of human smallness).

It’s not without its flaws, then, but Non-Stop is a swift, highly readable novel that has stood the test of time. It is also, perhaps, one of the best, clearest examples of what Adam Roberts calls the defining dialectic of Science Fiction: the tension between scientific, materialist logic, and the mystical spiritualism encoded in religious myth that pervades so much of our history, literature and attempts to explain the universe.


NovaSamuel R. Delaney’s Nova (1968) is an early example of Science Fiction wilfully deconstructing its own tropes and stylistic proclivities, a wry rebuttal to the hero-centric adolescent nonsense of SF pulp. Delaney has since become a giant of both Science Fiction and the academic study of the same; and this early novel (he wrote it when he was 25!) serves as a good way-in to both his narrative style and his dry wit, without posing the insane post-structuralist difficulties of his later works like Dhalgren.

The premise is classic space opera: Captain Lorq van Ray assembles a rag-tag crew of drifters and aspirants to gather ‘Illyrion’, a game-changing energy source that can only be harvested by flying a ship through the heart of an imploding star.  The story is relayed from the perspective of The Mouse, a gypsy from Earth, gifted musician (he plays the hologram-generating ‘syrynx’: an instrument shamelessly plagiarised in Futurama’s Holophonor), and one of Lorq’s recruits.  This seemingly run-of-the-mill premise is soon complicated by the character of Captain Lorq himself; a narrative red herring who initially fits the archetype of noble space captain, but is gradually revealed to be a violent, deformed, ignoble, impatient and dangerous obsessive: the book’s shocking, brutal and brilliant ending forcing the reader to completely re-adjust her opinions of this central but ultimately intangible figure.

The ‘love interest’ trope, meanwhile, is a cartoonishly sexualised femme fatale engaged in an are-they-aren’t-they incestuous relationship with her brother (Lorq’s rival); the jealous, insecure but ambitious Prince Red.  The mythopoeia of the setting similarly upsets space opera conventions by being grounded on Tarot law and strange references to the Grail Quest; and it’s this, combined with one character’s constant musings on the nature of the novel, that gives Nova it’s strange bipartite identity, half manic space-race to an elusive fuel source, half thoughtful rumination of the nature of spirituality and art.

It’s a relatively short novel (my copy: 224 pp), but one that strikes out in so many different directions (race, sexuality, philosophy of science, revolutionary politics, war, revenge tragedy etc.) as to feel, T.A.R.D.I.S.-like, vastly bigger than it’s meagre page count would suggest.  Nova is incredible: completely exhilarating, decades ahead of its time, and brimming with challenges to the reader’s pre-conceived notions of what SF is, or how it should behave; and it achieves all of this without ever feeling saturated or confusing or in the least bit pretentious.


The DispossessedUrsula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) is a Utopian Science Fiction that explores the odd-couple societies of twinned planets; one a capitalist democratic paradise, the other a haven of anarcho-socialism. The protagonist, Shevek, is a brilliant physicist from the anarchist desert planet of Anarres who’s developed a method for ‘Simultaneity’ – instantaneous communication across vast interstellar distances.  Shevek finds that the technologically basic and bureaucratically corrupt anarchist administration obstructs the development of his revolutionary idea, but when he travels to Anarres’  twin planet Urras, he is confronted with a politically conniving capitalism that’s more interested in owning his ideas than making them a reality.  What follows is a theoretically dense but always readable extrapolation of two very different political approaches to the individual, to genius, and to human relationships in general.

In a recent review of Patrick Ness’ The Crane Wife, Ursula Le Guin laments modern literature’s penchant for brief, quippy dialogue predicated more on wit and style than realism or meaning: “for me these dialogues, even when clever, fail to work as part of a novel. But expectations change with generations, and the reduction of human relationships to a back-and-forth table-tennis bounce of bodiless voices may be perfectly satisfactory to readers who spend a lot of time on a mobile phone.” The Dispossessed, then, definitely offers the antithesis to this post-mobile phone rendering of dialogue. The greater part of the novel comprises very long, politically charged exchanges between Shevek and various characters (notably his partner Takver, a beautifully realised character piece who epitomises the contradictions inherent in, on the one hand, fierce loyalty to her social ideals and, on the other, to her lover and family).  But such is Le Guin’s ear for realistic speech and characterisation that these long cogitations on politics and morality never feel text-booky or robotic, always coloured as they are by an incredible empathy for human emotion, and enlivened by Le Guin’s characteristic wit, “It’s hard to swear when sex is not dirty and blasphemy does not exist”.

I’m finding it difficult to describe, in the compass of this mini-review, quite how detailed Le Guin’s descriptions of the finer workings of these two societies are. It’s extraordinary, and made more so by the human interest that tempers any potential for cold politicising. The book’s ending is a tad out-of-the-blue, and there’s a revolutionary riot scene on the capitalist planet that takes place in sympathy with the plight of the anarchists and which we would probably now call Miévillian in its tone (sorry, I know that’s an awful neologism… alternative suggestions on a postcard, please), but ultimately The Dispossessed is a captivating, ferociously intelligent and deeply moving epic. The book’s imagery is dominated by descriptions of walls, of boundaries and their violent breach, and this forms a very successful visual and metaphoric subtext for the more violent events of the plot.  For the curious among you:  this is my favourite novel of the three I’ve reviewed in this post, so if for some reason I can only convince to read one of these books, make it The Dispossessed.