Gender and glaciers: Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books that changed the world, so that reading it now, in the world it helped grow, it isn’t possible to have the same experience as reading it in the world it was written in and for. The Left Hand of Darkness didn’t just change science fiction—it changed feminism, and it was part of the process of change of the concept of what it was to be a man or a woman. The battle may not be over. What I mean is that thanks in part to this book we’re standing in a very different place from the combatants of 1968. Almost all books that do this kind of historic changing are important afterwards as historical artifacts, but not as stories, and they get left behind by the tide and end up looking quaint. Ninety percent of the discussion I’ve seen of The Left Hand of Darkness is about the gender issue, about the Gethenians and their interesting states of kemmer (of either gender for a few days a month) and somer (neuter for the majority of the time.) But what makes it a book that continues to be great and enjoyable to read, rather than a historical curiosity, is that it’s a terrific story set in a fascinating culture, and the gender stuff is only part of that.

The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of how the Terran Genly Ai comes to the planet Gethen to persuade Gethen to enter the Ekumen, the community of worlds. And it’s the story of the Gethenian Therem Harth rem i’r Estraven who recognises something larger than the horizons he grew up with. And it’s the story of the journey these two people take together. The book is written in such a way that you have Estraven’s journals written at the time and Genly’s report written later and various poems and folktakes and stories of Gethen inserted in the text at appropriate points, so that the world is not only a character but one of the most important characters. I love the world, I love Karhide at least, the country and the people and how different it is from its government, and the religions. The planet is in an ice age, and the adaptations to the climate have shaped the cultures of the planet at least as much as the gender thing has. They’re like real cultures, with real oddities, and the way the story is told enhances that.

If you haven’t read it, and if you’ve always seen it mentioned as a worthy feminist classic with weirdly gendered aliens, you might be surprised by this interesting story of the discovery of a planet and a journey across the ice. It is a living breathing story that happened to change the world, not a dry text with a message.

The book is set in the same universe as a number of Le Guin’s other books, many written much earlier. It has the same furniture, the ansible, the Nearly as Fast as Light ships, the long ago Hainish experimental colonization of planets with tweaked humans—were they trying to make their own aliens? The previously worked out background doesn’t give the book any problems, it makes it seem more solidly rooted.

We don’t see any of the other planets, the book is firmly focused on Gethen, also known as “Winter”. There is one narrative voice from an earlier report on the planet that’s a woman from Chiffewar, but the non-Gethenian we are given to identify with is Genly Ai, a black man from Earth. We’re not given his cultural context on Earth, though his dark skin, darker than most Gethenians, is mentioned. Neither “Genly” nor “Ai” are names I’m familiar with. A quick Google search finds me a town called Genly in Belgium, a factory in China, and people in the Philippines, China and India—Ai is regrettably unsearchable. In any case, whatever his ethnic background, Genly is our “normal” character, our filter, the one who is a gender we recognise and from a planet we’re familiar with. He’s our “unmarked” character, if you like. I think that’s cool, even though we don’t hear anything from him that makes his ethnicity other than “Terran”. His sexual preference—heterosexuality—is mentioned, and his gender essentialism is very much dated from the world the book was written in, not the world in which it is now read.

The character I’m ridiculously fond of is Estraven. I’ve loved him since I was a teenager. He’s not a man or a woman, he in exile always and everywhere, and he always sees the big picture and tries to do what he can. He tries to be as good a person as he can, in difficult circumstances. He’s one of my favourite characters in all of fiction, and when people play that “who would you invite to dinner” game, I almost always choose him. I cry when he dies, and at the end of the book, every time. I don’t know if I’d react so strongly to Estraven if I read the book for the first time now. His backstory, which is revealed so beautifully slowly, is one of the beauties of the book. His name reflects the levels of culture we have in Karhide, friends and hearth-brothers call him Therem, acquaintances call him Harth, and Estraven is his landname, which would be used where we use a title—yet when he learns mindspeech, up on the glacier, it is as Therem that he manages to hear it, and he hears it in his dead brother’s voice—the dead brother with whom he had a child. Poor Estraven, so tragic, so clear-sighted, so perfectly and essentially of his world and culture!

It’s a commonplace of SF for planets to have only one country and culture. Le Guin should be commended for mentioning four or five on Gethen and showing us two. However, there’s a Cold War legacy in the way Karhide and Orgereyn are opposed, and Orgoreyn is totalitarian, with its units and digits and work camps. I feel Orgereyn only really exists to give Genly and Estraven something to escape from, but I love their escape so much that I don’t care. I think it’s done pretty well, certainly Genly’s subjective experience of it, but I don’t think Orgereyn is as developed or as well thought through as Karhide.

The “tamed hunch” of the fastnesses, and the “mindspeech” of the Ekumen are both dealt with science fictionally rather than fantastically, but are “psi powers” of a kind rather unfashionable these days. Le Guin writes about them believably and interestingly, and I think they enhance the book by being there and providing more strangeness.

The heart of the book is the journey across the glacier, two people, from different worlds, manhauling a sledge across vast distances. There are echoes of Scott’s Antarctic expeditions—for me, echoes the other way around, because I read The Left Hand of Darkness first. She took these quintessentially useless and particularly masculine endeavours and made them over into something else entirely. She was clearly fascinated with polar exploration—she has a short story in The Compass Rose about women from South America getting to the South Pole first and not marking it or telling anyone. Here there’s a reason for the winter journey. So that’s another gender subversion.

The Gethenians have a concept they call “shifgrethor” which is like pride. You waive shifgrethor for someone to tell you something directly, otherwise you sidle around to avoid offending them. This is notably different from Earth notions of offending pride only in how conscious they are of it, of what is sayable and unsayable, of having a mechanism for waiving it. I think it’s one of the more interesting gender things—much more interesting than that they don’t fight wars—that they have this set of shifting privileges and offendable pride and that they’re aware of it. They’re touchy in a very alien way, and I think that’s really effective.

Le Guin has written essays since about the assumptions she made in writing the book. She’s also written the story “The Winter King” where she uses “she” as the pronoun for all Gethenians, rather than “he” as she does in the book, and the story “Coming of Age in Karhide.” Both of these explicitly feminise the Gethenians. They’re interesting, as are her writings about the book, but they’re afterthoughts from a different world.

It is light that is the left hand of darkness, and darkness the left hand of light, as in the yin-yang symbol, in which dualities are united. The Left Hand of Darkness is a book about making whole. It’s also a book about what it means to be a good person and where gender is significant in that. But mostly it’s about the joy of pulling a sledge over a glacier between two worlds.

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