Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness. 1969. (Panther edition 1973.)Reviewed by Simon Mahony
Ursula Le Guin’s, The Left Hand of Darkness, Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for the year’s best S.F. novel (so it says on the cover of my 1973 reprint), has a lot to live up to as the first novel since Frank Herbert’s Dune to win both of these prestigious awards. Had my impressions of this novel changed with the passage of time between my first reading (attested by the yellowing pages with “U.K. 35p” marked on the back cover and “12p” in scrawled biro inside the front one) and now? Certainly I had changed in the intervening years; how would this influence the triangular relationship between writer, reader, and text?
This outstanding novel is set on the freezing inhospitable world of Gethen (Winter) where the inhabitants cling to life in the narrow margins between the Northern and Southern glaciers. Life is harsh and errors mean certain death. Genly Ai is the ‘First Mobile’ or first direct contact with the inhabitants of Gethen from the ‘Ekumen’, not so much an empire as a league of planets and peoples (3000 nations on 83 worlds). A facilitating body (it says) set up to develop communication, trade, and harmony between its members.
The story is told in the first person by the two major protagonists, Genly Ai and Estraven, Prime Minister, before his exile, of Karhide, the first kingdom of Gethen visited by Ai. Using this narrative technique their nature is gradually revealed by words and deed although more is revealed by the way they misinterpret each other. The novel is interspersed with short chapters of tales from Karhidish legend which gives the reader an additional level of background insight into Karhidish culture (and another set of tools by which to evaluate Estraven and the Karhiders).
Other than the harsh landscape, the main obstacle facing Ai is the physical nature of the Gethenians: they are hermaphrodite. Not for them, however, the striking symbiosis of both female and male characteristics much favored by ancient sculpture; most of the time they are sexless, neither men nor women. A short cyclical period of sexuality (Kemmer, which lasts four days a month) brings them into ‘heat’ where they take on female physical characteristics and induce by touch the opposite sexual characteristic in a companion. This is the only time in which they are recognizable sexual beings.
Throughout the book, Ai struggles with his interpretation of the Gethenian sexuality. Le Guin constantly refers to the Gethenians as ‘he’, using the male pronoun and other grammatical indicators, which reinforces the reader’s impression (and confusion) of the Gethenians’ maleness. Ai, the alien, the outsider, the off-worlder, finds great difficulty with the ‘alien’ nature of these people. In a conversation with Estraven he rightly notes that for other races “the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything.” In their sexless state Ai still regards these strange beings as male but with a strange and seemingly prejudiced antipathy towards any feminine aspects of their nature. Female traits are always negative; for example in Ai’s early meeting with the insane king (apparently madness is a necessary quality in a King of Karhide) when the ruler laughs it is “shrilly like an angry woman,” or when he is brooding “as an old she-otter in a cage.”
How does society operate without the rigid distinction between the sexes? For one thing there is no war—a situation Estraven’s successor Tibe seeks to change for his own advantage as he aggravates a border dispute with Orgoreyn (as sub-plot and vehicle for a display of political intrigue, stretched loyalties, and an examination of the nature of patriotism). They have murders and forays into a neighbour’s territory but never wars. They have no concept or language to describe such conflict just as they have none to describe men and women.
The Ekumen sees all humankind as related and coming from ancient origins on Earth. It is suggested that the Gethenian physiology might have been the result of some type of genetic experiment. An added dimension, surprisingly not suggested by the author, might be that their ambisexuality is the result of the Terrans’ need to adapt to the harsh climate of Winter. So much of Mankind’s efforts (according to Freud) are directed towards the pursuit of sexual conquest and fulfillment that they perhaps would not have survived in this unforgiving environment without some sort of major change. Take sex out of the equation and what might man accomplish? An obvious reaction to this story (well it was to this writer on that earlier reading—the one fact that remained) but not one explored here by Le Guin.
This is a tale about loyalty and betrayal and how these two sides of the same coin are misunderstood and confused. The two main protagonists are thrown together towards the end as Estraven rescues Ai from an Orgoreyn labour camp, and they must make the long and dangerous trek across the glacier to Karhide (and relative safety, although not for Estraven). During this journey they are completely alone, sharing the confined space of the tent and the labours of dragging the sledge weighed down with their shelter and provisions across snow, ice and the glacier. This close contact brings out, for the first time, intimate discussion as they dispense with the ever-present ‘shifgrethor’, the pride and prestige relationship that governs social protocols and hierarchies between the Gethenians.
It is difficult not to read into the narrative the tensions of the time in which it was written. Are these the author’s intentions, purely the reader’s expectation, or our interactive response to the text? This is the time of the re-awakening of the women’s movement in the USA after a long period of inactivity. It is also the height of the cold war and the clash of political ideologies.
Contrast the anarchic, decentralized, and flexible society of Karhide—albeit ruled over by a madman (could this too be part of the analogy?)—with the totalitarian, centralized, rigid, and uniform state that is Orgoreyn: broken up into Commensalities within which “they provide all units [citizens] with jobs”. Karhide however is rife with factionalism and political intrigue, and in contrast Orgoreyn seems so appealing to Ai—at least until his incarceration and brutal treatment in the labour camp where the authorities hide him, covering their tracks with rumours of his death.
Since the Odyssey and Aeneid (and earlier foundation myths) the hero’s journey is a familiar topos, in the case of SF usually from Earth to different planets. This is true here but further reading reveals that there are (like for Odysseus and Aeneas) journeys within journeys. The one that will challenge Ai and lead him to self-awareness is not the passage from Earth to Winter but his arduous and perilous crossing of the icy wasteland in the company of Estraven, the native. This journey is indicative of and mirrors Ai’s true journey: that of his rising self-awareness and the developing warmness of his relationship with Estraven. In that journey they find a closeness, a love like that between Estraven and his 'brother' (told in an inset-tale) that can never be.
Like travelers in the Odyssey, Ai and Estraven are granted, upon formulaic request, shelter and food from strangers; a necessary reciprocal code to maximize the chances of survival in this harsh and unforgiving landscape especially amongst those “who live on the edge of the edge”. Without this no sane person would ever venture out onto the roads buried under snow and ice.
Their hazardous journey and shared hardships bring them closer together and a strong bond forms between the two. Estraven cannot avoid his time of kemmer but chooses to repress his feelings towards Ai. However, in this proximity his femininity is revealed (together with mention of a child born from his body) and once this is accepted by Ai, he begins to be able to accept his own feminine side something he had previously thought of as weakness and a characteristic only for women. Showing depth of character and an inner strength he acknowledges and even gives voice to his own vulnerability. As they reach their goal, where they know parting must come, Ai feels the true cost of opening himself up to love as Estraven dies, betrayed and shot down by an apparent friend. Love gained is balanced by love lost, just as joy with sorrow, and light with darkness. The fullness of Ai’s love is matched by the intensity of his loss. His growth as a character is marked by his experience of the pain of both love and its loss as he emerges with greater knowledge, insight, and strength. Here the reader might remark on the choice of name for Le Guin’s problematic ‘hero’: Ai. Like the Aias (Ajax) of Sophocles the sound of Genly’s name is “a cry of pain” and as the tragic chorus well understands: “man must suffer to be wise.”
As in Taoist philosophy, light and dark are not in conflict but co-exist, each defining the other rather than struggling to eliminate each other. Both are essential for life to combine as are good and evil, positive and negative, male and female. Opposites are reconciled to achieve balance and harmony. This is the implied message of Le Guin’s story. How much would we as human beings achieve if we removed the continual contest of sexuality and how greatly would our lives be enriched if we, both men and women, were permitted to experience the full range of human emotions and were not restricted to only some of them? Human sexuality is a cultural question, one of tradition and prejudice. Taoist peace and harmony may be achieved on an individual level, and indeed on a world level, if we accept and foster both the female and male principles in each of us. Thus might we become whole.
The interesting calendar, where years are counted backwards and forwards from the present so that Gethenians are constantly in Year One, also needs to be included here on a minor note. This also feeds into the Taoist perception of harmony where the emphasis is always on the ‘now’ with energies being directed here on the moment rather than on (as often is the case in Western thought) what may happen in the future. This is not to say that no thought is given to the future, or that we should live in an unrestrained, hedonistic present, but that there should be more balance between the two. We exist and can only exist in the present moment, however hard we plan and work towards an unseen future.
That to one side, Le Guin weaves an intricate tale that draws in and immerses the reader in this new and strange world of Winter; a world where a study of its inhabitants necessitates an exploration of the nature of sexuality, loyalty, betrayal, oneness. A story teller of the highest magnitude, Le Guin rightly deserves the awards for this novel (which really should be read in mainstream literary circles as well as by genre fans), for the way in which it engages with the human condition in elegant and superbly descriptive prose. The author displays insight of both the social and political spectrum and engages the reader with both philosophical and psychological issues.
Authorial intrusion can arguably be read in the one chapter that does not fall into the earlier given categories, ‘The Question of Sex’. Structured into the tale as ‘field notes’ from an earlier investigator (of the type that do the preliminary groundwork but do not make contact) we find in the penultimate sentence that this is a female voice, the sole female in the novel. Here there are suggestions for the peculiarities of Gethenian sexual physiology, well thought out though suitably vague descriptions of their sexual cycle, how this fits in with conventions of pair-bonding and family ties. Sex is a part of a cycle so there can be no non-consenting sex, no rape, no division into strong and weak, owner and chattel; and importantly, no war. The ‘investigator’ postulates the link between “continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression” and suggests that some consider “war to be a purely masculine” activity—“a vast Rape”—although she herself is “no expert on the attractions of violence or the nature of war”. No race of warring Amazons here. However, might it simply be the climate, the relentless cold that eats up all their fighting spirit? They need all their energies to survive the harshness of their surroundings. That is their unrelenting war.
My only serious criticism is that in the exploration of ambisexuality the inhabitants of Gethen seem to be solely male (except for their negative characteristics) and hence an opportunity is lost. In addition there is no mention of same-sex attraction or relationships. We hear and meet Estraven’s child but we do not see Estraven as a mother or in any other overtly ‘female’ role. My copy of The Left Hand of Darkness is 200 pages long and perhaps if Le Guin were to have addressed these issues we would have had a length more approaching Dune or Lord of the Rings, more heavy going, and less accessible as a result.
This work survives the test of time and survives it well. I expect that subsequent visits when the pages fade further will also be worth the time spent. In this book Le Guin addresses issues that are timeless and intrinsically relevant to mankind. They were always there in the text and within the author; the change in the triangular relationship has been with the reader. This one is now more able to appreciate the complexities and subtleties woven within.