A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Left Hand of Darkness, first published by Ace Books in 1969. My edition is Ace Books, 1999, and this installment of the reread covers pages 1 to 183 (out of a total of 304 pages).
There are very few books whose memory of reading I can still feel, quite viscerally. Memories conjured by the smell of musty pages, the touch of yellowing paper, the sight of finger-oil stains down the middle of the foredge. I first read The Left Hand of Darkness in what Ambrose Bierce called “suitable surroundings”: huddled in the bedroom corner by the heating vent, reading by ambient light from the bathroom in the dead of a Boston winter so apt to the book that snow stayed piled in parking lots until June. It was a rough time in my life and those nights reading after everyone else had gone to sleep were the only reprieve from what seemed like a daily excuse to give up. Daytime: I felt, self-pityingly, like Genly on Gethen; nighttime, reading LHoD: I was me. So it has been an absolute pleasure to return to LHoD after all these years, to begin the Ursula K. Le Guin Reread where my own relationship to Le Guin began.
LHoD is by far Le Guin’s most well-known book. Why? It tops a lot of recommendation lists, has consistently been voted by fans since the 1970s as one of the best SF novels, often coming second to Frank Herbert’s Dune (meh), and is often touted as the place to begin with Le Guin since The Dispossessed, while lauded, is a bit too obviously political. (Political, of course, meaning “anti-capitalist.”) But LHoD strikes many as the far more challenging book because it upsets the heterosexual binary, or at least tries to…or at least that’s what some people think Le Guin is doing…or maybe it’s because it really confuses people for some reason, so people want to talk about it…or—you get it. LHoD is an excellent conversation starter—and once sparked, the fire never seems to run out of fuel. It’s what literary scholars call a book filled with “productive tensions.”
I’d guess as many people began questioning their sexuality, thinking critically about patriarchy, and wondering at the peculiarity of permanent kemmer after reading LHoD as the number of folks who say reading Tolkien made them want to write fantasy. And this is good…even better because LHoD isn’t perfect and its seeming contradictions—“Lacking the Karhidish ‘human pronoun’ used for persons in somer, I must say ‘he,’ for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine”—make it ripe for discussion, debate, mixed emotions, frustration, and all the other structures of feeling that dismember oppressive ideas.
So of course I’ll dive directly into the topic of gender in this here inaugural reread of Le Guin’s most famous novel, right? Not so much…Google the terms “left hand of darkness + gender” and you’ll be busy for the next few years; you might even get a dissertation out of it. Still, Le Guin’s “play” with gender is a defining aspect of worldbuilding in the novel, something I will discuss more closely in the second part of my LHoD reread in two weeks’ time. I’m delaying that discussion for three reasons. First, it strikes me as an overly beaten (but not thoroughly dead) horse; there are many smarter assessments out there. Second, the most interesting aspects, and greatest tensions, around gender, sex, and sexuality arise in the second half of the novel—though there’s a great deal of exciting anthropological detail in the early chapters. Third, readers tend to focus only on the gender aspects and lose the forest for that one tree. Gender is woven through LHoD, no doubt; it’s inextricable. So, too, are race, sexuality, (dis)ability, imperialism, religion, and political economy. As always, Le Guin is up to a lot.
LHoD is not only a great starting place for first-time readers of Le Guin, it’s also the best entry point for Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, a loose and not-at-all chronological collection of stories, novellas, and novels, mostly set on various planets that are part of the intergalactic Ekumen, and which only read together give a good sense of what “Ekumen” actually means. As a literary product, it’s a brilliant reflection of the thing it’s about: this lose conglomeration of widely different human societies cooperating as an amorphous pseudo-whole for the supposed benefit of all. LHoD offers a rather clear look at what the Ekumen means, what it does, and how (and why) planets “join” it. Le Guin achieves this by presenting LHoD as an archival document of the Ekumen: it is the report, stories, and accounts collected, edited, and compiled by the Ekumen’s first representative (of a sort) to the people of Gethen, known colloquially as Winter.
That guy—for let there be no doubts that he has a penis, desires women, and is very much a man—is Genly Ai. He’s the closest thing to a protagonist, along with Estraven, a Gethenian and eventual friend of Genly, whose story is also told in the first-person and is presumably a recording or diary added to Genly’s report back to the Ekumen.
Plotwise, LHoD might best be described as a political thriller, the kind rather common in the 1960s and 1970s: a representative of one government is caught in a sticky situation by agents of another government; political subterfuge subterfuges; protagonists go on the lam; someone dies; lessons are learned. Only, most political thrillers serve to reinforce what you, the reader, probably already feel: with a few exceptions, those guys are bad, and we’re the ones doing it “right.” Freedom wins out over obvious oppression, good over bad—like sex, this can only be binary, right? But Le Guin is as canny a reader of genre as of society; to this basic formula she adds striking bio-anthropological details of an alien-human people, the ambisexual Gethenians, and throws in a third party (Genly’s Ekumen) to shake things up.
Le Guin’s first major novel takes place on a planet that chills to the levels of Terran winter three-quarters of the year. For Genly, it’s cold cold cold down to the bone, to the marrow. Summer is pleasant, but before he knows it autumn has come, and it’s actually just another word for winter. The environment colludes with the Gethenians’ ambisexuality—humans don’t have gender or sex organs except once per month, when they go into kemmer, grow sex organs (penis or vagina: flip a coin), and then either get pregnant or go back to their “sexless” lives—to produce a unique set of cultures who seem uninterested in rapid technological progress and haven’t learned to fight war. Communities are small, nations are few. Industrialism happened, but as Genly notes, it never revolutionized the political economy.
Genly comes to the frozen world as an envoy; his job is to introduce the idea of the Ekumen to the Gethenians. If they believe him and consent, they will join the Ekumen and its 84 worlds, become members of an intergalactic knowledge-sharing confederation. If Genly fails, the Ekumen will wait and send along another “mobile” to do the same job with another generation of Gethenians. LHoD is a first contact story in reverse, begun in media res, after Genly has already been in the semi-feudal kingdom of Karhide for two years, sweating at a royal ceremony and having made no progress in convincing the local populace or the king. Karhiders are either skeptical of the “pervert” (for he is always in kemmer, always sexually available, by virtue of possessing an ever-dick) or, like the king and his cousin, they fear what Genly and the Ekumen represents: proof that Karhide is a small fish in a vast ocean.
Perhaps it’s my having spent a few years away from the book, having grown up a bit and learned to pity myself less, but on rereading LHoD I can’t help but dislike Genly. Quite frankly, he’s shit at his job. Despite two years of fieldwork, he has a poor understanding of the Gethenians, especially of their most important cultural code that partially determines both communication and social status: shifgrethor. He is impatient. He lacks personal insight and the ability to read others’ motivations. Thankfully for the plot, this means he keeps winding up in bad situations: endangered in Karhide, suddenly in the midst of conflict between Karhide and the neighboring polity Orgoreyn, then a pawn of Orgota politicians, and finally an enemy of the Orgota state forced to flee a prison camp across a glacier in the middle of winter! He survives only because of Estraven; as prime minister of Karhide, he vouches for Genly and the promise of the Ekumen, and is branded a traitor, exiled; he uses his contacts in Orgoreyn to bring Genly out of Karhide; and he saves Genly from the Orgota gulag.
Estraven’s dedication to Genly, his trust in Genly’s information about the Ekumen and what it means for Gethenian society, is the frame upon which the literary genius of LHoD is built. It’s this ideal—trust—that motivates Le Guin’s political allegory, a simplistic but nonetheless key tool in her scaffolding a larger notion of justice and how we relate to one another, how we build societies, how we live.
On the surface, LHoD isn’t all that different to Dune. But where Dune offers a weird fusion of imperial-libertarian-religious-ecological political futurism written in the driest prose imaginable, LHoD is much more interested in the efficacy of a certain kind of politics. Leftist politics. This seems to get lost in most discussions of the novel, but LHoD is really quite interested in political systems as much as it is interested in how culture, gender, religion, and the environment shape one another in the complex matrix of forces we call human life. The Hainish Cycle is one big sandbox, an extrapolatory tool, a potter’s wheel on which are thrown globs of clay representing different forces influencing human societies. From the changing combinations, Le Guin produces new vessels, shaping each to the social, political, and artistic questions guiding her hand at that moment.
It’s 1968. Le Guin is writing LHoD. The mid-1960s saw rising tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. Hell, in 1962 missiles were almost fired. The US escalated its mission to eradicate communism in Vietnam and started dropping carpet bombs across Southeast Asia. The world’s largest communist powers, the Chinese and Soviets, broke up. Czechoslovakia tried to liberalize; the Soviets sent in the tanks. The period during which Le Guin wrote LHoD and, in fact, most of the Hainish novel(la)s, was arguably the most difficult period in the global US-Soviet conflict we like to call the Cold War.
I don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of seeing a publication date in the 1960s and shouting “IT’S A COLD WAR ALLEGORY!” but, well, it’s difficult not to read LHoD as being about the Cold War. More specifically, knowing that Le Guin’s personal commitment to and education in anarchism grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s, it’s nearly impossible to read LHoD and not ask what she’s trying to say about the Left—then at a height of public visibility in the US comparable to the 1930s and 2010s. If The Dispossessed is the novel explicitly about political economy—capitalism, bad—then LHoD is not really about capitalism so much as community and how communities (co)exist within the scope of a broadly non-authoritarian politics.
Genly has come to Gethen at a volatile moment. Karhide and Orgoreyn are bitter enemies; they are locked in a social battle for “face”/shifgrethor that blows up the usually interpersonal dynamics of “face” and sets them at the level of the state. Genly’s promise (or threat) of the Ekumen’s existence and potential interaction with Gethen only heightens the conflict, threatening war. Surprisingly, Gethenians don’t really do war; it’s one of their peculiarities, like kemmer and foretelling and not being too bothered by the cold. They murder, assassinate, and disrespect; they have guns, but mostly for ceremony. Genly imagines that perhaps the cold environment impedes large-scale mobilization, but tensions over the Karhide-Orgota border have risen to such a level that towns are now being destroyed.
Through Genly, the outside observer, and Estraven, a canny insider, we watch as these two very different states maneuver toward the first war on Gethen. On the one side, Karhide has begun to be ruled by fear: the king is indisposed, powerless, uninterested, and his cousin, Tibe, rules in his stead, using radio and rhetoric to channel fear and thus hatred of the Orgota. On the other side, the Orgota rule a bureaucratic police state through informers, investigators, and a system of supposedly representative councils known as commensalities—i.e. soviets.
Fear and social control. Karhide and Orgoreyn. The US and the USSR?
LHoD does not give itself to uncomplicated allegory. The dots don’t all connect, the buttons are a bit mismatched, but what’s clear is the emotional, physical, and social violence of Orgoreyn’s absolute control over its “dependents” and “units.” The “voluntary farms.” The unrepresentativeness of the commensalities. The rise of a bureaucratic class despite the supposedly non-hierarchical social structure. This is the USSR, PRC, Yugoslavia, Albania. It’s what happens when communism lapses into state capitalism and authoritarianism. In this first half of LHoD as Genly and Estraven sink into the political cesspools of Karhide and Orgoreyn, Le Guin seems to be saying, “Look, we know these systems, and even on this long-peaceful world, they aren’t working for humans! These are not just!”
What is just? The answer to that question, I think, is what LHoD exists to answer. Actually, much of Le Guin’s fiction seeks to answer the questions, How can we live justly? What would that look like?
I’m not sure that the Ekumen is offered as a clear answer; the Ekumen in fact seems rather daunting—it’s no wonder Karhide is threatened—as an intergalactic power that offers the riches of human prosperity and knowledge-sharing, of “Open Trade” in the Orgota terminology (not to be confused with capitalism’s “free trade”). It seems like the systems-level equivalent of benevolent dictator, but then again complex societies cannot exist without, at minimum, ways to organize and to establish consensus about what is and is not allowed. The Ekumen is, maybe, one possible way of just politics: a non-centralized organization that connects disparate societies only to the benefit of one another insofar as each agrees to participate. “The Ekumen,” as Genly describes it, is “a political entity [that] functions through coordination, not by rule. It does not enforce laws; decisions are reached by council and consent, not by consensus or command.” Council and consent: other words for communication and trust.
In these first few chapters, LHoD plays up allegories between Karhide/Orgoreyn and our world, Le Guin’s Cold War world, but also levies allegories within the novel: people as representing national types, nations acting as people (e.g. Karhide and Orgoreyn in a shifgrethor battle, usually something interpersonal). What’s more, the success of Genly’s “mission” to the Gethenians relies ultimately on whether or not they trust that he is really a human from another planet, not some always-kemmering pervert with an eccentric need for tale-telling; whether or not they trust that the Ekumen is a beneficent polity, a welcoming one, and not an enemy. Trust is also central to Genly and Estraven’s relationship. So far, Genly doesn’t trust Estraven; he feels he’s as much a pawn of Estraven’s political interests as he was of the Orgotas’.
Trust is in some important sense what LHoD is all about. Hell, it might very well be what the Ekumen and the Hainish Cycle are all about. Or maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. But I don’t think it’s off-base to suggest that, for Le Guin, any just politics is necessarily a politics of trust. None of that Orgota authoritarian-communism, none of that Karhider fear-mongering. Community, the root of all political entities, must be bonds of trust. And, as we’ll see in two weeks, trust takes center stage in the second half of the book, modeled in a very personal way…
Join us February 19 as we finish LHoD. On the horizon: trust, lust, and how confusing is gender?!
Sean Guynes is a critic, writer, and editor currently working on a book about how the Korean War changed American science fiction, and co-writing a book on whiteness for the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series. He is the organizer of the Bookshop.org affiliate READ / REBEL. For animals, politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.