Jun 8 2009 10:32am

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.

Christopher Key
1. Artanian
Interestingly, this is one of those books that I've tried to read several times, and each time I've gotten maybe 15 or 20 pages in, and put it down because it just doesn't hook me. Because it's one of the 'classics' I know I should finish it, but I just can't.
Liza .
2. aedifica
Jo, does your copy have the introduction? I really enjoy the book, but the introduction (found in some editions and not in others) is something I love. There's a copy of it available here.
3. Gontish
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.

On the other hand, i've discussed this book with a number of queer and transgender-identified people, and those who are looking for very interesting or subversive things about gender are often disappointed, while those who like good science fiction are better rewarded.

The other stories you mention are indeed very different. I had thought that Winter's King was actually written first (ah, yep), and Coming of Age in Karhide much later; i agree with you that neither work very well to communicate the androgynous/bi-gender (bisexual?) nature of the Gethenians, but i actually think Left Hand only does so as well as it does due to it's length, and that the use of male pronouns radically undermines what Le Guin was trying to do. Unfortunately there are no good ways to do that in English, and the story remains hard to tell. Or rather, the story is told very well, but the Gethenians' gender(s) as i think we are meant to understand them, are not.
4. DBratman
Somewhere UKL once explained that the Gethenians have trouble with some of our phonemes. Genly = Henry. (Russian also lacks an H, and substitutes G in foreign words.)

This goes on elsewhere with different results. In The Dispossessed, there's reference to the famous Terran physicist Ainsetain.
5. Mary Frances
I was fifteen years old when I read this book, on a long car trip about which I remember almost nothing except sitting in the back seat compulsively turning the pages of Left Hand of Darkness. There are scenes--and characters--that have never left me, but what I remember most clearly is looking up as I closed the book for the last time and thinking: "Yes. This. This is what science fiction is supposed to do." I wasn't quite sure what that was yet--I suspect I'm still not quite sure--but I knew it when I saw it, even then . . .
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
DBratman: No, Genly is Genly, the people in Karhide pronounce it Genry, but the people in Orgereyn can say it properly as Genly. This is specifically stated in the text. It's possible that Le Guin intended "Genly" to be a future version of "Henry", but it definitely isn't a Gethenian mispronunciation of it -- and as it seems to be a place in Belgium and several people's names in the Phillipines and China, I don't think we need to make any assumptions about it not being simply the existing Terran name Genly.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Aedifica: No, my copy does not have the introduction. I have a 1981 Futura edition with a very nice cover, but no introduction. I've had it since, probably, 1981, and I won't be replacing it any time soon. It's a nice introduction though. I have read it before, but thank you very much for linking, it was nice to read it again.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Gontish: I think the way the Gethenians are gendered is very different from anything we'd expect to see in ordinary humans, and I'd be disappointed if transgender people did see them as being like them -- even natural hermaphrodites have gender and sexuality all the time, and that's what's so very different about the Gethenians.

I don't know how you "think we're meant to understand them" but I suspect my understanding of that is different. They're not "if everyone were transgender, or everyone were both male and female" they're "if everyone only had any gender at all once a month, and then it might be either at random". I think it's possible to argue, as Le Guin herself has argued, that she didn't make them feminine enough in the novel, and that using "he" was part of the problem, but I like them as they are, not an analogy but a bit of exploration.
9. DBratman
Jo - I'm not making any assumptions about the name being "Henry". I got this from somewhere, and I'm pretty sure it was something that Le Guin herself wrote, or I wouldn't retell it with confidence. I am terminally skeptical of this kind of speculation about fiction from any source other than the author. (The number of times I, and even the author himself, had to tell people that Tolkien's Gondor has nothing to do with a place in Ethiopia ...)

It is possible, however, that I'm forgetting something about the name having evolved from "Henry".
René Walling
10. cybernetic_nomad
About the name:

I've always seen it as derived from Jean-Louis (Genly) but that's probably because whenever I see a word I do not know and is not in the dictionary I tend to pronounce it the French way (after all, if you a native, you _know_ what almost any French word or name sounds like -- even if you haven't see it before, unlike English which has inconsistent rules for these things)

'Ai' is a fairly common Japanese name. So if there are people name Genly in the Phillipines, I could see someone being named Genly Ai.
11. Gontish
bluejo: Oh, i absolutely agree "the way the Gethenians are gendered is very different from anything we'd expect to see in ordinary humans," and i certainly didn't mean to imply that they are trans or anything like it. But how i have seen the book talked about, perhaps by those who have not read it, might lead one to expect something different* than what is there, or at least, what i see there, and that this does a disservice to the story. My point was that by using "he," i think Gethenian gender, or lack thereof, is not rendered as differently from ordinary human gender as it ideally would be if English had more appropriate words available. For me, "he" is not unmarked enough to accomplish that.

Hmm, i wonder how this is translated for readers of, say, Finnish, which does not gender personal pronouns. Does it work better?

*i don't doubt that this book was quite radical when it was published in 1969, but reading it for the first time today (i probably read it first in the late 90s), by current standards i think it is less so, though obviously that depends on where the reader is coming from.

In terms of where i am coming from, i don't see "gender" as a synonym for "sex" and while Gethenians only have a sex once a month, "either at random," it may be that they have a gender all the time, just one we don't recognize. Not that this is what Le Guin intended either, i guess in the 60s gender and sex were considered mostly the same thing, but i wonder if that might be one way to think about it. Perhaps i'll re-read this soon and see if that holds up (it may not).
James Goetsch
12. Jedikalos
It is an astonishing book that has been with me ever since I read it as a teenager. It made me think and think about what gender means, and opened my mind to all kinds of good thoughts. And most of all it is a story well told--Estraven still haunts my mind too. I still remember the ending, with Estraven's child saying: tell me about the other worlds. As another commenter above said, it has always seemed to me what Science Fiction is at its best. I was able to meet LeQuin once, and to have her sign my copy of the book: she is one bright and lovely human being.
René Walling
13. cybernetic_nomad
@Gontish: Most radical books become less so once the ideas they implement are part of everyday life. That is usually their fate, I believe Left Hand of Darkness escaped that fate because it is such a good story.
Liza .
14. aedifica
(I'm very sleepy today, so I hope this comment will be coherent but I'm not certain it will be.)

I don't clearly remember the first time I read The Left Hand of Darkness, but when I re-read it earlier this year I was interested to see how much I learned about Genly Ai's culture from his reaction to the Gethenians, though disappointed that the future he's from (if he is indeed from our future) is so misogynistic. I haven't yet read Rocannon's World; I'm sure I'll get around to that someday too.

Also, this most recent reading was part of an unplanned set of books with winter journeys (most on colder-than-Earth planets) where someone generally dies at the end of the journey. As I say, I didn't set out to read books that all matched that theme, but I found myself reading one after another of them.
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Aedifica: "Pray that your journey will not be in winter"? I used to have story parties, where the guests would bring along stories to read to each other, and every time we found that entirely by chance the party would develop a theme. Though some stories might be funny and some sad, some home-made and others published they'd all have some weird thematic connection we could never have guessed in advance.

And yes, Ai's future Earth, future Ekumen, is far more sexist and gender essentialist than our 2009, and I really do think that's partly because we've been fortunate enough to have this book.

Cybernetic Nomad: I adore your Jean-Louis idea. I've always pronounced it as "Gently" without the T, but I now see him as a dark skinned guy (with some Japanese ancestry) and totally from Montreal.
16. wsean
Huh. I've never actually read this book, mainly because I thought it was a didactic/message sort of work, which I always find deadly dull. I might have to actually give it a read now.
17. 'nother Mike
Um -- Ai is a fairly common Japanese first name, although usually in combination (for example, Aiko -- child of love). I don't believe it is one of the allowable family names, though. Of course, it is in the position that in Japan would be a personal name, and calling him "Love" does make some kind of sense.
Patrick Garson
18. patrickg
What a fabulous book, and true confirmation of Le Guin's status - when she's on like in this, she really is one of the best writers going in my opinion.

I wish I could share your optimism that the world has changed so much since 1968, Jo (though a few Mad Men episodes is always enlightening!). Without taking away from the great achievements since that time, I suspect that chauvinism is simply wearing a more insidious mask, and thus books like this will always be welcome and indeed necessary.
Sandi Kallas
19. Sandikal
I read this a couple of years ago. I knew nothing about it being any sort of political or feminist work. I read it because I knew it was a classic piece of science fiction and felt that my SF background was lacking without it. The one thing I noticed immediately is that "The Left Hand of Darkness" is capital-L Literature. It transcends the genre in a way few books do. The story and the language are absolutely timeless. I can see people reading this and being as awed a hundred years from now as we are today. In my opinion, it is a great novel, not just a great science fiction novel.
Clifton Royston
20. CliftonR
The name Genly (and I do like the pronunciation suggestion) and the discussion of gender suddenly made me think of the Sime-Gen novels (Jacqueline Lichtenberg.) I haven't read any of those in years and am curious how they'd hold up to a re-read.

It wasn't until a number of years after reading them that it suddenly dawned on me that the Sime-Gen relationship functioned as a metaphor (intentional or not) for the interdependent yet toxic and sometimes lethal aspects of traditional male-female roles.
Tim Nolan
21. Dr_Fidelius
I'm also a fan of the multicultural, multinational worlds that Le Guin creates. The passage I love most from The Left Hand of Darkness isn't about gender, it's about nations:
"How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain ploughland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it the hate of one's uncountry? Then it's not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That's a good thing, but one mustn't make a virtue of it, or a profession...Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope."
You can sign me up for the Estraven fan club too.
Liza .
22. aedifica
I looked at the author's website last night and she has a FAQ answer on pronunciation of names: "I think the reader has the right to pronounce a made-up name or word just the way she or he wants to. But lots of readers would like to know how I, the maker-up, pronounce it." She goes on to say that her pronunciation of Genly Ai is "hard 'g' as in get — Ai pronounced like I or eye or Aiieee!"
Melissa Ann Singer
23. masinger
@22: I am stunned to discover that I have mentally been pronouncing Genly correctly all along. I tend to "hear" when I read, and for me, Genly has always had a hard g.

If the Ace edition was really first released in 1977, that's when I read it, because that's the edition I still have on my shelf. I was 17 or 18 and the feminist themes were very clear to me. I read a lot of feminist SF in those days; Kit Reed, LeGuin, Joanna Russ, etc.

Interestingly, I've rarely reread any of the works I read back then, though I've continued to read many of those authors. Perhaps I don't want to go back to them and find that they don't have the same power for me now? Certainly at the time, I felt as if new grooves were growing in my brain (and I was already a feminist and the daughter of a feminist and went to a single-sex high school).

Now I'm just waiting for my daughter (also a feminist) to get a couple of years older so that she can tackle this book and some of the other things that were, for me, seminal (ouch) works. I wonder what they'll look like through her eyes.
Matt London
24. MattLondon
Awesome read, a candidate for "my favorite book of all time." Perhaps what I find so enchanting is the love story, as understated and danced around as anything serious in the Gethenian culture. Also I like the many ways that people interpret the text -- the little disagreements sprouting up in the comments here are fine examples of how people read the book differently.

The pronoun issue (using "he" for Gethenians makes them masculine) seems to trouble a lot of readers. I've found that this goes away on re-reads, either through a more established idea in the mind's eye of what a Gethenian is, or by mentally adding an "s" to the beginning of each pronoun.
25. C12VT
I wonder if the "he" would have seemed more gender-neutral at time of publication than it would now. I wasn't alive back then, so it's hard for me to say, but I know that people used to use "he" much more neutrally - e.g. if you were talking about a generic person (where we would now probably say the grammatically iffy "they" or the over-awkward "he or she") or about all humanity (or as they said back then, "mankind").

I much prefer the tactic I've seen some authors use of inventing their own gender-neutral pronouns. It seems weird and awkward at first, but once you get used to it, works much better. "It" always seems dehumanizing to me (even if they do say it on Beta Colony).
Jo Walton
26. bluejo
C12VT: I don't like "it" either. I tend to use "they" naturally for a generic person "Everyone should wear their hat sideways..." but find it odd for a specific singular person "Jo should wear their hat sideways..." I think whatever pronoun you use gives a certain flavour, if you make one up, if you use "he" as a default, or as Delany does in Stars in My Pocket she as a default. I agree with Matt it's less of a problem on re-reading.

Finnish doesn't have gendered pronouns at all. That must be great.
27. Mary Frances
But in addition to gender-neutral personal pronouns, Finnish also has something like fifteen noun declensions! (I think--native and/or bilingual Finnish speakers reading this, please correct?)

I've decided that if I ever need to learn a truly alien language, I'm going to study Finnish.
Bruce Cohen
28. SpeakerToManagers
I also love the book. I've read it at least 4 or 5 times since the first time, about a year after it was published. Each time I read it differently, because what I bring to it is a different background to compare to the world and inhabitants of Gethen.

When I first read it, I was impressed by both the way in which LeGuin held up a distorting mirror to the sexual and gender-related customs and assumptions of the time, and also by how well the book was written. One thing in particular has always intrigued me about the book: Estraven's part is a re-enactment of one of the Karhide stories told in between the action, and it is a tragedy. I vote for Estraven as one of the best characters I've ever read, because he is sympathetic, and his tragic flaw arises from the honor and empathy that make him sympathetic.

I was not bothered by the use of "he". I assumed that this was an interpolation by Genly, whose default was male, because he was a Terran, from a society not unlike the one LeGuin lived in at the time. And that was intended to be contrasted to the actual sexes of the individuals referred to, usually effectively neuter except when in kemmer, producing a tension between what was expected (our own society's default), and what was being presented.

For those who first read the book in the last couple of decades: I wouldn't expect you to read it as a political message; when it was a message, the intended recipient was the Western European / American culture of the mid-20th Century. That recipient is long-gone, in part, as Jo says, because of this book. But it remains a moving story, told within a wonderful piece of world-building, and well worth the reading.
Liza .
29. aedifica
SpeakerToManagers @ 28: Your third paragraph: yes.
Jo Walton
30. bluejo
Alison Sinclair, herself a terrific writer, has a very interesting blog piece in response to this post, in which she addresses the gender question from a very interesting angle.
Aquila G
31. Aquila1nz
I read Left Hand as a teenager, and it blew me away, I adored it, and reread it, and always cried at the end, when young Sorve shows his heritage. I loved the way the myths and ethnographys interleaved with the main narrative. I loved the language in it.

One thing I noticed about rereading it - it could be the middle of a hot summer, and I'd still end up curled up under a blanket as I read the journey across the ice.
Vicki Rosenzweig
32. vicki
Another thing that the book is about (one that a lot of people overlook, even though it's explicitly in the text): the uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question. Genly asks the Foretellers what he most wants to know: in five years, will this world be part of the Ekumen? They answer, he is confident of the answer, and it doesn't actually help him in the ways he expected it would.

One of the lines that sticks with me: "The ice says there is nothing but ice. But that young volcano over there has a word it thinks of saying." A vivid image, somewhere between animist and anthropomorphic.
33. Goljerp
Aquila1nz: Yeah, I always get cold reading LHD also.
34. dcole78
Ah how I love LeGuin Definitly Literature with a capital L. But then the best sci-fi really is. I found her after being absorbed in asimov, and Clark. As I read I remember thinking..wait this is science fiction, but its to good to be science fiction. I need to reread this now...LeGuin quickly becaome one of my favorite authors even if I don't ever agree with her politics much.
Bob Blough
35. Bob
I still cherish that Tery Carr Ace Science Fiction Special I have from 1968. It changed my world at the time - mostly because of the gender thing.

I've re-read it 2 or 3 times and now it doesn't do any life-changing - it enlightens me with lovely charactrizations, beautiful language and an enjoyable story. But then, almost all of LeGuin's work affects me that way. I once read that someone described it as "pebbles underneath a flowing stream" (or close to that) and I agree.
36. firkin
I don't know if these are the essays mentioned in the post, but inspired by this thread I tracked down two of Le Guin's essays, Is Gender Necessary? (1976) and the Redux edition (1987). Some pages are missing from each but these are pretty good reading nonetheless.
jamie stafford-hill
37. seamus
just happened on this recent interview with Ursula K. Le Guin about The Left Hand of Darkness. i especially appreciate her comments about race and gender and writing in the late 1960s, and how the hearth tales fit in with writing the story.
39. John E. Rogers, Jr.
Wrote a spoof combining Le Guin's and Mickey Spillane's styles. It's up at Asimov's. Hope you like it.

43. Inst
Ai hails from a place called Borland, with cherry petals that fall in the spring, snow-like, so if you consider that the story is set about 2000 years from the present, It's likely that he hails from a race and culture that does not yet exist. I'm also reluctant to say that he's black; extremely dark-skinned, as opposed to the liable olive of the Gethenians, is possiblu.

As for the name, while I think the point is that he's non-cultural or post-cultural, I think it was chosen for two resonances; that when pronounced, it reads I, as though it were a post-modern joke akin to Stephenson's Hiro Protagonist, and because in both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, it can, but does not necessarily have to, mean "love".

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment