Book #8: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

author: Ursula LeGuin
language: English
length: 248 pages
finished on: 14/2

book cover Another self-proclaimed “classic of science fiction” that looked interesting on the shelves of my local library, The Left Hand of Darkness starts with the premise of a planet populated by a hermaphroditic species of humans and explores the implications behind such a race. Essentially, “what if there was no male and female binary?”

The planet is called Gethen, but nicknamed Winter – as this suggests, the planet is in the midst of an ice age and is permanently cold without a particularly hot summer (although it does have a summer). We see the planet through the eyes of an envoy from Earth, who pretty much has a hard time internalising that the inhabitants aren’t really men or women but somewhere inbetween.

I found that the story didn’t really kick off in a real way until over halfway through, so there were many pages of boredom during the early stages of the book – but I’ve already read at least 3 of LeGuin’s Earthsea series, so I know that she’s able to right reasonably well. It only became truly gripping, though, during the final stages of the book, when the two main characters – the envoy Genly and the disgraced prime minister Estraven, who was exiled as a madman for believing the story of the strange alien (or that was their excuse) – are trekking across the planet’s ice cap, and their isolation and the tension between them becomes palpable. And that’s when we really see both characters through each other’s eyes.

But LeGuin’s writing also annoyed me in many places. The book starts off narrated by Genly with some interludes in the form of folk tales that would be told on Winter. These are generally interesting and shine a light on how certain myths might be told differently by a race without men or women. But without much warning, she starts alternating the narration between Genly and Estraven about halfway through the book. The first chapter in which this happens is signposted as such, but the second isn’t, and it took me a whole page and a half to figure out what was going on. I felt she could have done this from the start.

In another section, Genly awakens from a nightmare to find himself in the midst of a real raid – but this was written so ambiguously that I thought he was still in the dream five pages later and had to flick back to confirm that he wasn’t, and was still confused even then. So I think this could have been a bit more straightforward.

Anyway, all that aside for a moment while I talk about the people – I feel that there were a couple of things that were somewhat unbelievable about them. For one, their entire sexual life is centred around a monthly period of oestrus or ‘heat’ (called kemmer) when they get uncontrollable urges and are let off from work. This is alright in itself – I think the purpose is to make them functionally asexual for most of the month – but during this period they apparently acquire one or the other of the sexes, along with, apparently, gender. It’s pretty much explicit that this is them acquiring for their sexual roles a dominant masculine and submissive feminine role, and I have a hard time believing that. Why not just keep them agendered? I certainly refuse to believe that they’d use a different pronoun for those in the different roles – as a more detailed explanation, I think this would break the coreferentiality of pronouns, especially if you talk about someone on two different days (must you talk about the same person with a different pronoun? This wouldn’t make sense). I also think it’s missing the point of grammatical gender a bit and equating it with social/sexual gender.

I’ll get back to some other linguistic issues I had with the book in a second, though. The reasons behind such a race are rather clumsily handwaved, saying that they must have been an ancient experiment by some precursor race… well, fair enough. The other thing I ought to mention is that the people are referred to as men with male pronouns, which gives a rather cute impression of a planet of gays. Kinda makes me wonder…

LeGuin’s other major implication is that in a single-gendered society, one wouldn’t have wars, because one wouldn’t have the more dominant and violent masculine personalities getting at one another. I don’t buy this for a second, and I’m almost insulted on behalf of the male gender. I find these kinds of gender stereotypes annoying and dated, but given that the book is 30 years old, and that Genly as a character certainly does see the world in a very binary fashion, I can forgive this. The implication that the Gethenians wouldn’t see their world in such binary terms is more interesting to me, and it’s this sort of yin-yang binary that is referenced in the title, part of the full form “light is the left hand of darkness”. There is a sort of point in there that men are only dominant and violent because there are women to contrast with them and be submissive, but still, I don’t buy it.

The more convincing reason for the Gethenians never having had a war – that their planet is too damn cold and they would rather stay at home and keep warm – is only given a single paragraph, apparently as an afterthought.

But just as interesting is to consider the two countries of the story – the disorganised but friendly and welcoming kingdom of Karhide and the well-organised-with-a-high-standard-of-living but unwelcoming republic of Orgoreyn (nicely enforcing another binary there – other countries are said to exist but not expanded upon) – who are embroiled in a border dispute. Here, particularly given the period it was written in, I think it would be more apt to instead draw a comparison to a different kind of war, specifically Cold War. Fighting is carried out in a faraway place on behalf of the two countries, although it’s not called war. Orgoreyn is an obvious pastiche of the Soviet Union, with its 33 constituent republics and mentions of the state providing employment for all “units” (ie, citizens). Their Inspectors, who spy on the lives of citizens, stop you at every opportunity to check your papers. When Genly becomes a pawn in the international conflict, he’s eventually shipped off to the Gulag (or “Voluntary Farm” as it’s known in the novel), only to have to be rescued by Estraven. On those grounds I wouldn’t say that the planet hadn’t known war at all.

Anyway, as far as language issues are concerned, there’s the thing with the pronouns, which I’ve already noted, the thing that made me really angry was the paragraph talking about Karhidish’s many words for snow. OK, LeGuin can do whatever she likes with her fictional languages, but the Eskimo myth inspires such bile within me that I nearly threw the book down in disgust. I guess I’m glad I didn’t, though, because it’s after this point (roughly and coincidentally) that it really got good. There’s also the claim that the languages don’t have a word for “war”. I… oh fuck it.

There are a few more things I’d quite like to complain about but that would be getting into the realms of nitpicking, and I can’t really be bothered. I suppose I will mention briefly that I found the sections discussing the Ekumen (the confederation of worlds which Genly represents, which is evidently developed further in a greater series of books that this is a part of) far more believable than many of the sections discussing the Gethenians. But anyway, good premise and good storyline, but the execution could have been clearer in parts and it could have been more focussed, because there are a few things that it would have been nicer to have gone into more depth about and a few things that I felt were a bit superfluous.


One Response to Book #8: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

  1. Wastrel says:

    Respectfully, I think you mis-read several points.

    Regarding the “in a world without men there is no war” idea – well, no, I don’t think that’s her point at all. First off, I think the point is more that war is an extension of continual sexual energy, but that aside – you’re reading this as though Genly (and the investigator from Chiffewar) were omniscient, or at least neutral, narrators. They’re not. Everything they say is only their opinion, and the fact they gloss over the more economic reason for the more ideological one is not a flaw in the author but a flaw (or at least a feature) in the character.

    Regarding the ‘words for snow’ – it’s not just that they have many words for snow, they just have many words for cold climatic conditions. There’s nothing unlikely about this at all, as it happens on Earth. Some languages have more words for particular semantic fields than other languages do. Let’s also remember that a) the Eskimo really DO have lots of words for snow, and b) the argument about Inuktitut is about whether certain words are ROOTS or simply DERIVED or COMPOUNDED forms. But i) we don’t know how many of those Karhidish words are meant to be roots, and ii) none of the narrative voices are experts in linguistics. Again, it’s important to distinguish the author from the narrator.

    Regarding the pronouns: I think you’re imposing Eurocentric preconceptions there! Of course there’s no co-reference problem. No more than there is in natlangs with shifting pronouns (those based on age or rank, for instance).

    Regarding them gaining gender: I think you’re over-reading again. They have to physically gain sex – one gains a vagina, one gains a penis. Why WOULDN’T becoming sexual (both the experience of sex, the social role of sex, and indeed simply the tidal wave of hormones) have an impact upon their behaviour? It’s never explored how much of that behaviour-change is physical and how much is socially-determined. I don’t see where you’re getting the “dominant masculine and submissive feminine” idea from – masculine doesn’t have to mean dominant! There’s no suggestion, so far as I can see, that the Gethenians are more ‘submissive’ due to being female at times. The pregnant king, for instance, doesn’t exactly seem submissive. To the extent that there may be suggestions of this dichotomy, they’re found only, I think, in the (clearly subconsciously a little misogynist) perspective of Genly.

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