The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Left Hand of Darkness, Part II: Love on the Ice

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 185 to the end (out of a total of 304 pages)

Gethen—Winter—is a world utterly alien to the vast majority of our earth’s population. The frozen wastes, heaving glaciers, icy crevasses, unending cold and snow are so far from the warmer climes that most humans inhabit that they stand out as exotic, other, exciting. Their ambisexuality aside, the people of Gethen also entice: they are an evolutionary branch of humankind suited to permanent winter, brought to sweats by the lowest setting on a small, portable heater in a tent buried in snow atop a mountain. For non-indigenous readers, the Gethenians likely conjure fetishized images of Inuit and igloos, or remind us of trivia about a language with thirty… no fifty—or was it a hundred?—words for snow. Perhaps the scene of two men (to Genly, at least, for a time) fleeing 800 miles across taiga, mountains, a glacier, running toward unsure safety in another country evokes the ironically cozy feeling of winter survival films like The Way Back (2010), Vertical Limit (2000), or, the gods of Kobol forbid, The Day After Tomorrow (2004).

Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness (LHoD) over the past two weeks, I was surprised to find how little of the novel was occupied with Genly and Estraven’s escape across the ice. As commenter Wimsey noted, “what I remember most about [LHoD] is that trip through the frozen language, how amazingly well written it is.” While I have to disagree with Wimsey’s suggestion that “it’s a disservice to Le Guin to focus on her book’s ideas,” my own memory of LHoD was indeed overshadowed by what turned out to be just two chapters, those of Genly and Estraven’s account of their time in the tent on the glacier, growing closer, breaking down the barriers of culture and, for Genly, of gender, shaping their relationship as two humans who share a deep and abiding love.

It certainly is a testament to Le Guin’s abilities as a writer, her craft as an artist, that the entire book can easily be remembered for these two chapters alone. Her incredible characterization of these two in the preceding chapters, her building up of the tension (sexual, romantic, human) between Genly and Estraven, and her attention to the two very different but mutually caring experiences of their time together on the ice. It’s a literary accomplishment, an aesthetic one, and affectively powerful.

My experience (and Wimsey’s) of LHoD doesn’t seem to be all that singular. Readers I’ve talked to and heard from about LHoD have two basic associations with this book. The escape across the ice—the cold, the danger, the closeness, the intensity, the tensions, the trust, and finally the love. And the “gender stuff,” making LHoD the one major feminist SF book most casual readers know, second only to The Handmaid’s Tale. The associations are important to understanding why LHoD seems to be Le Guin’s most famous novel, among and beyond the ken of SF fans.

LHoD is a political thriller that morphs into an adventure story two-thirds in, and it’s a particular kind of adventure story that emphasizes the threat of environment and weather. There are no enemies, no “natives” throwing spears or Nazis shooting guns a la the Indiana Jones franchise, just the cold, the ice, the dwindling food supply. At no point, really, do we fret for Genly and Estraven’s lives on the ice. It’s tense, grueling, and we can feel the cold wind biting from the page, blowing cutting snow between the paragraphs; each punctuation mark is a brief respite, our break for gichy-michy, and then we carry on across the ice of Le Guin’s “frozen language.”

The sojourn through Gethenn’s frozen wilderness seems too sparse and disconnected for it to be political. The ice is apolitical; the cold kills commies as readily as capitalists. Right? I think it’s safe to say that’s the case on Gethen, at least, even if on our earth the polar regions are subject to the same colonial forces as the rest of the world.

Yet Genly flees political imprisonment in the nation they’ve left behind and Estraven faces death in the one ahead of them. The ice is a political mediator, a no man’s land across which geopolitics takes place despite its barrenness. It’s here that Estraven instructs Genly to call down the Ekumen ship, here where they make their plan to raise Karhide’s shifgrethor and embarrass Orgoreyn, to force the latter’s political thawing, and to orchestrate Gethen’s joining of the Ekumen. It’s on the ice that Genly finally dismantles his intense uncomfortability with Gethenians’ lack of gender roles, with the confusion (to his cishet male self) of Gethenians’ gender presentation. Genly embraces Estraven in the frozen tent not merely as a friend, and not even as a (sexual) lover, but as something more, something else: as one with whom is shared a deep, intense, trusting love.

For readers living in a sexed heteropatriarchal society, the love—given my argument in the previous reread, maybe we can just call it trust, the very crux of Le Guin’s political vision in this novel—between Genly and Estraven is necessarily bound up with what LHoD is doing with gender. So it’s unsurprising that the time those two spend on the ice, Genly tensing in his sleeping bag as Estraven goes into kemmer, becoming ever more “feminine” in response to Genly’s male-sexed self (I imagine there’s a good deal of fanfic reimagining this novel…), stands out in readers’ memories of LHoD. Without the gender dynamics imposed by Genly and essentially absent from Estraven’s account, Le Guin’s “experiment” with ambisexuality is little more than anecdotal.

In fact, for most of the book Le Guin is direct, ethnographic, and frankly simplistic about the sexuality of the Gethenians. We only learn about kemmer and pregnancy and family on Gethen as the story demands, and then through the lens of an alien explorer trying to understand the Gethenians and how they “measure up” to the other known human cultures (which happen to essentially be a Euro-American default). All Le Guin asks is that we put aside a few basic assumptions to consider what it might be like to experience genitals, gender, childbearing, and romance differently. Some have said Le Guin was hardly radical in comparison to, say, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, Suzy McKee Charnas, Suzette Haden Elgin, or Marge Piercy, who collectively can be thought of as the first generation of SF writers to really fuck with gender, sexuality, and the stuff between our legs (baring some earlier experiments, like Philip José Farmer’s Strange Relations).

LHoD is less a feminist (or queer) vanguard and more an argument that the encoding of sex into gender roles and the resulting patriarchal structure are merely one culture’s bioanthropological response to penises, vaginas, and the baby-making they can do. This doesn’t sound all that revolutionary today, and yet we still many of us find ourselves enacting patriarchal norms, worrying about breast size and dick length, concerned with navigating the dating scene, and bombarded by sexualized images of women wherever we go. Our ideas about gender have changed for the most part but the material circumstances have only somewhat improved on the status quo of 1969. If Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was able to captivate a generation of readers in the 1980s and point out how screwed up Evangelical Christianity’s ideology of gender was, Le Guin took things a bit further 15 years earlier to criticize the very basis of gender in Euro-American society: sex roles assigned by (supposed) genital shape and function. How did she do it? She took gender and genitals away.

No doubt, there’s a lot to critique where gender and sexuality are concerned in LHoD—Le Guin herself called it “messy” (see the next link). I’m not here to point out all the ways it “fails.” That’s a project others have carried out before me (even in the comments to the previous post) and done better, but it is worth noting that Le Guin didn’t consider herself a feminist until nearly a decade after this novel was written. In a 1994 interview Le Guin admitted she had trouble imagining that her female character in early drafts of The Eye of the Heron could be the protagonist, but after reading feminist literary criticism, “It taught me that I didn’t have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write like a woman and feel liberated in doing so.”

This hardly matches up with the Le Guin we’ve come to imagine was writing LHoD. If not always feminism, then what? As The Dispossessed highlights, Le Guin’s guiding principles in the Sixties and early Seventies were cultural relativism, anarchism, and Taoism. She was not yet the Le Guin we know, but she was nonetheless the Le Guin who wrote the 5 “masterworks” she is best remembered for in the half-decade between 1969 and 1974: LHoD, The Dispossessed, A Wizard of Earthsea, Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. But maybe our fantasy of who Le Guin was in 1969 isn’t ours alone. In 1988 Sarah LeFanu pointed out the contradiction of Le Guin’s surprising popularity among feminists and suggested that Le Guin’s ability to publicly and honestly reckon with her political oversights, to call out her own work, was an important factor.

If you’re looking for the answer to “What’s the most radical feminist novel?” then, no, LHoD is not the book you’re looking for. (I don’t think there is an answer to that question.) Still, the way it deals with gender, unfettering it from patriarchal connections to sex organs and sex/gender roles, lays down beats that form the melody of Le Guin’s career. As I noted in the first part of the LHoD reread, folks have tended to focus exclusively on gender in the novel, but there’s much more going on and much more at stake, even if gender is an important part of the larger social critique Le Guin puts forward. The novel is largely interested in the question of the individual, Genly, and how he copes with the set of biosocial circumstances that greet him on Gethen. It’s a novel about trust between people, about competing politico-economic systems, and about what drives humans to war. And it happens to be set on a planet of sex-mutating androgynes.

LHoD might seem rather unpolitical outside of the “gender stuff,” but consider that Genly’s love and dedication to Estraven—which in a heteropatriarchal society like ours cannot be anything but gendered—brings about what is essentially a political revolution on Gethen caused by the coming of the Ekumen and inspired by a political execution, Estraven’s. In the end, Genly is tentatively transformed by his love for Estraven, at least as far as gender is concerned; he still sees manliness and womanliness in Estraven’s offspring, still applies the masculine pronouns in his report (the novel?) to the Ekumen. But Le Guin has shown us a way forward through difference: personal relationships, love, trust.

As we’ll see in two weeks’ time when we turn to the first half of The Dispossessed, Le Guin’s other major science fiction novel and another novel in the Hainish cycle, these themes and their relation to political economy (tackled in the previous post) are taken further. They are in fact the explicit domain of Le Guin’s go at utopia—an always tentative, always ambiguous process of figuring out how we could live better and more justly. Join me, March 4th, on Urras.

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 affiliate READ / REBEL. For animals, politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.


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