“The Future, in Fiction, is a Metaphor.” – A Review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

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“Let’s swap books instead of reading the same one together. Just to change things up.”

When Hope suggested the above (paraphrased) idea, I thought it was a very good idea – and I still think it’s a good idea. For a while now (since November or very late October, at the earliest) she and I have been engaged in what we’ve called “the read-along:” we pick a book, agree on the amount of time to finish reading it, and read it “together,” in the sense that we more or less finish the book in question at the same time, thus allowing us to discuss the novel to its fullest extent.

After I had finished reading and reviewing Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, though, Hope was sufficiently interested that she wanted to read it right away. Thus the proposed idea: she would read God’s War, and she would give me another book of a more-or-less similar length to read. When we swapped copies, she traded me Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, aware that I was in a sci-fi mood and wanting to share her joy in what is one of her favorite books by one of her favorite authors.

Now, I am not entirely unaware of the pleasures to be had in Le Guin’s prose: I’ve read her Earthsea Quartet and loved it. I was aware she wrote sci-fi, of course, and enjoyed great respect as a writer in that genre, but I hadn’t really considered reading any of her works. When Hope threw The Left Hand of Darkness my way, though, I thought it was as good a time as any to give Le Guin’s sci-fi a shot, knowing I wouldn’t be disappointed.

As it turned out, it took me much longer to finish The Left Hand of Darkness than it took Hope to finish God’s War. Aside from life’s exigencies (when Hope passed the book to me it was coming to the end of the term at university, and there was the usual whirlwind of social engagements that accompanies the approach to Christmas), Le Guin’s novel was simply a very different beast from Hurley’s – despite having similar themes – in that it was significantly slower, since its plot line and style were such that it did not require the same frenetic pacing as Hurley’s novel. But in many ways, The Left Hand of Darkness (and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) opened a space in sci-fi where deeper, more political issues – particularly those connected to gender, and eventually race and religion – could be addressed, thus allowing books like God’s War to exist.

The Left Hand of Darkness is part of The Hainish Cycle, a collection of stand-alone novels set in the same universe. The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on a planet called Winter (Gethen, as it’s called by its residents), as seen (mostly) through the eyes of Genly Ai, a Mobile sent by the Ekumen to integrate Gethen into its “cooperative” of worlds. When the novel begins Genly has been on Gethen for two years, operating mostly in the country of Karhide. Despite his two-year residency, however, Genly has had difficulty integrating, mostly due to the fact that he has trouble grasping the fact that the Gethenians have no gender at all save for a few days every month when they enter a phase called “kemmer.” After those few days, though, Gethenians go back to being genderless unless pregnant.

For the most part, the novel is concerned with this idea, and Genly’s attempts to wrap his brain around a culture wherein the usual dualities of Terran culture are completely absent. This is, of course, the same dilemma that the reader faces, being from the same culture as Genly, and was, for my part, a bit of a hurdle in the first few chapters of the novel. The persistent use of masculine pronouns when referencing individual Gethenians kept throwing me for a loop, since it worked against my imagination’s attempts to view them as genderless until I got used to it by around the fifth or sixth chapter. I suppose this is due to the limitations of the language: English, after all, has some very specific gender pronoun rules, and it is assumed that the Ekumen uses a language similar enough to English that the gender pronouns are the same.

This confusion, of course, has a purpose: to show the reader how deeply entrenched Genly’s culture is in gender dualities – and, therefore, how deeply one’s own culture is entrenched in those same dualities. An Investigator asks: what is the first question we ask about a newborn baby? So much of our lives is built around these gender dualities, whether we are aware of it or not, but on Gethen, where gender is something that happens for a few days every month and thus has no consequence beyond those few days (or months in the case of pregnancy), personal identity – and thus everything else – relies on a sense of personhood that has nothing to do with gender. The contemporary reader may perhaps dismiss this, thinking it a preoccupation of the author’s time when this novel was written (the seventies), but gender roles are still of great concern in the twenty-first century – and will continue to be. This is why the novel continues to be such an important book decades after it first came out: its concerns are such that they continue to preoccupy us today.

So what is a society without gender like? Very different from Genly’s (and the reader’s) own, to be sure, but in some ways, similar too. Power, after all, is a constant of civilization, and it is power that preoccupies the other half of the novel. The rules for gaining, losing, and manipulating power are different without gender as an added complication, but it is still desirable, and control of it is still a goal of many of the characters in the story. Genly himself gets caught up in a power play between two nations (Karhide and Orgoreyn), because his promise of an alliance with the Ekumen could shift the uncertain balance of power between the two countries in favor of one or the other, depending on who can get the privilege of first contact.

At this point the character Estraven becomes exceedingly helpful, and very interesting: his position as a Gethenian politician allows the reader special insight into the workings of power on Gethen, without the complications (and naiveté) of Genly’s observations. Aside from this, though, it is through Estraven that the reader comes to view the Gethenians in a more personal light, as his relationship with Genly evolves towards the latter third of the novel into something quite unique. Not romantic – though I’ve found it is all too easy to slide into such thoughts while reading – but something else entirely. Genly speaks of a mutual respect founded on personhood: Estraven, to him, has ceased to be either male or female, but simply is. Genly’s realization and acceptance of this fact has a great deal of emotional impact on the reader, which reaches its peak in the latter third when Estraven sacrifices his life to give Genly a chance at succeeding in bringing the Ekumen to Gethen, and thus changing Gethen forever. I was heartbroken at that point, and in many ways I still am: a clear sign of the power of Le Guin’s writing.

Overall The Left Hand of Darkness is a great book: far ahead of its time thematically speaking, with fascinating characters, a well-built world, and written in that elegant, meditative style Le Guin is notable for. Certainly, it is not for everyone: it is slow to start, and there are many readers who will have more difficulty settling into it than I did. But it is worth the struggle, and worth the time, because if nothing else, it raises questions that we continue to ask ourselves today, many years after its first publication: questions that do not have immediate answers, but which must be asked regardless.

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