The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K Le Guin

[I read this novel in three sections, each time writing about a section before reading any further. So as I wrote, I never knew what was coming next.]

18 March 2017
Chapters 1-7
The 40th Anniversary copy I’m reading isn’t new. Nearly 50 years after its publication, is Le Guin’s fantasy of a semi-industrialised planet of hermaphrodites more than a mere curiosity? It’s never easy to try to unpack science fiction from decades ago – I’m also reading Neuromancer (1984), which is almost impossible to separate from all the spin-off tropes that came out of it – and gender issues have been at the centre of social debate since before it was written.

Why don’t I start with those gender issues? The chapter I’ve just read is ‘The Question of Sex,’ and it’s also the only topic in Le Guin’s introduction to the 40th anniversary edition. She tells us that her early ideas hadn’t included a hermaphrodite sub-species, but that she wanted a civilisation that had no history of war. The people of this world ‘would have feuds, forays, squabbles, murders, all that – but they would not organise their aggression. They would have no armies, and no wars.’ She had already been musing on how it is always men who create armies, along with the other ‘great human group institutions.’ She found herself wondering if these institutions – and wars – have simply grown out of male patterns of behaviour…. She really, really doesn’t know when, she tells us, but at some time during the novel’s gestation her mind, ‘trying to imagine a world without war, arrived at a world without men – without men as such (her italics) – without men who had always to be, to prove themselves, men. / So, could they sometimes be women? / And vice versa?’

And there you have it. When the main character, the first envoy of an 83-planet confederation, opens the story at a big public event, he (or she?) describes the men attending a grand parade for the king. Every single time a third-person singular pronoun is used, it is ‘he’ or ‘him.’ But, it slowly emerges, they aren’t men as we know them, and this king isn’t only male. The first hint (if we haven’t been prepared for it by reading the Introduction), comes on page 4: ‘the man – man I must say, having said he and his….’ And things are just beginning to be clear by page 10. After two years there, ‘I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes.’ The envoy can’t help but see them ‘first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature.’ During the course of the long first chapter, it is made explicit: ‘Gethenians’ are asexual for 20-odd days in any month, then come on heat (in ways explained more fully in the chapter subtitled ‘The Question of Sex’) and either the male or female sexual characteristics come to the fore. It depends on what is happening to the other person involved, and the same person can be both a father and mother to different children. So that’s all sorted. Except in Oryx and Crake nearly 40 years later, Margaret Atwood was still toying with the idea of a genetically modified sub-species of humans who come into heat monthly, like animals, and are otherwise sexually inactive. They are much gentler than we are.

But I should tell you the plot. And a bit about the structure. Gethen, called ‘Winter’ by an earlier confederation landing-party, is almost identical to Earth in every way, astronomically speaking: there’s a moon with monthly cycles, a day that is within an hour or two of Earth’s, years that are a few days shorter than ours, winters, summers etc. – so there must be the same tilted axis. Lucky. Except it’s in the middle of an ice age, so the Gethenians are a hardy breed. Like all the peopled planets (including Earth), it was colonised tens of millennia ago by the go-getting humanoids of planet Hain – but Gethen’s colonists must have decided to try the gender-modification experiment that we see the results of now. The main character, Genly Ai, has been sent by the ‘Ekumen’ as an envoy to Karhide, one of only two main countries on the planet. He – I’ll call him ‘he’ – has been there two years, aided by the prime minister figure, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. (There’s a plethora of names in this novel and, like Estraven’s, most of them would be at home in anything written by Tolkien.)

I’ll try to be brief. Estraven has been trying to get the King, as paranoid as kings always are and notoriously stupid, to see the usefulness of joining an interplanetary confederation. He – I’ll call them all he, because Le Guin does – finally arranges an audience, the day after the big parade. But there’s a grubby political intrigue going on, and it seems that Estraven is Hillary Clinton to a decidedly Donald Trump-like Tibe, his rival. On the early-20th Century-style radio in the anteroom in the palace, Genly hears that Estraven has three days to leave the country, on pain of death. Tibe, meanwhile, is the new prime minister. Genly is very worried indeed… but he is allowed to continue wandering the country, although he isn’t sure about how long he will be safe. He is unarmed, demonstrating the confederation’s peaceful intentions. It’s like a larger-scale, somewhat idealised United Nations but with more power and, perhaps, without the fault-lines.

Over the next chapters, a bigger story emerges. (It’s interspersed with chapters consisting of other stories, sometimes presented as Gethenian folk-tales, that offer an oblique commentary or clarification of the main action. Story is all for Le Guin, and she sets her stall out in the first sentence, supposedly written by Genly: ‘I’ll make my report as if I told a story, because… Truth is a matter of the imagination.’) But the bigger story is that there is a border dispute between Karhide and the other country on the main continent, Orgoreyn. (Where does she get these names?) Orgoreyn is different from Karhide, run ‘more efficiently,’ its politicians like to think. Estraven, who escapes there by the skin of his teeth, tells them not only what Tibe is thinking – he wants to run Karhide on more efficient lines – but that the interplanetary envoy they have been told of is not a fiction. He really does exist – and he’s the planet’s best hope for peace. There might never have been a war but, as Estraven asks the Orgoreyn politicians, can they imagine two Orgoreyns existing peacefully side by side?

This comes in Chapter 6, in which Estraven narrates his own story from hearing of his exile to his meeting with the Ogoreyn political elite. Before that come two more chapters narrated by Genly, and they have a much more mystical edge. Not at first, as he makes his way in one of the slow-moving convoys of electric trucks over a huge mountain range into a part of Karhide which might, or might not, be safer. Le Guin likes the Ice Age elements, and before she wrote the novel, Gethen was a wintry planet long before it was hermaphrodite in her mind. There are descriptions of the majestic, glacial scenery, the survival measures taken by the inhabitants, and little jokes. A useful bit of kit in winter is a little hammer to break the ice on your drink between mouthfuls. Indoors. And during the short summer, Estraven is glad to have a menial job in a fish-freezing factory, because he considers the outside temperature of 82 degrees (they seem to use the Fahrenheit scale) to be unbearably hot.

But I was with Genly, on a visit to a mystical place. It’s hard not to think of Earth equivalents for places of Le Guin’s invention, and the ‘fastness’ he reaches, seat of one of the planet’s religions, is like a valley in the Himalayas. And Genly has had a purpose in mind in going there: to ask a question of the ‘foretellers’ who have never been known to be wrong. We’ve had a little story-chapter explaining how careful you have to be with the question, and how ambiguous the answers can be, but when Genly asks if Gethen will be part of the Ekumen in five years’ time, he gets a definitive yes. Well.

It’s the next chapter where we read Estraven’s story, and by the end of it, he is arguing that the space-envoy might become a very important part of negotiations between the two kingdoms. The politicians will take some convincing, but at least he’s been able to make a start on them. And how fortunate that a space envoy, after all those millennia, has apparently arrived at just the right time for all parties concerned.

Anything else? Probably, but it’s time to read on.

20 March
Chapters 8-14
I’m bored now. There are some nearly interesting ideas in it, like the parallel first-person narratives that reveal how two people who both want the same thing can be at near-fatal cross-purposes. Umm… and I can’t really think of any others. This is, I hope, the dull middle third of a novel in which the first and last sections are more interesting, and it culminates when one of those two characters finally convinces the other that they are both singing from the Gethenian equivalent of the same hymn-sheet. Estraven has just saved Genly’s life, and it begins to dawn on Genly that maybe he should trust him after all. With them looking as though they are probably going to start working together – Estraven has just got Genly to agree to teach him mind-reading, a faculty that seems to be commonplace in Le Guin’s version of Earth – maybe things will pick up a little. Maybe.

The plot, for what it is. Orgoreyn might pride itself on its efficiency and methodical practices, but in fact it is riven with intrigue and factionalism. Le Guin goes into far more detail than she needs about who is plotting against whom, and which factions are in alliance or not… but, basically, nobody dares to be seen trusting Estraven, or Genly when he arrives later. Le Guin makes an attempt to explain some of it through a term of her own invention, shifgrefor, which is the Gethenian version of honour, or the Samurai code, or whatever. It means that nobody commits the unforgivable sin of speaking plainly, or giving advice, or asking opinions…. It seems not to be so bad in Orgoreyn, until it becomes clear that he politicians never, ever, talk straight. So nobody believes Estraven is doing what he says he is doing, which is to try to prevent conflict between their countries. The favour he finds early on, when they assume he only wants to betray his own country, soon turns to suspicion, then outright hostility.

They’ve invited Genly by now, hoping that whoever or whatever he is, there will be some advantage in doing business with him. So they appear to be very welcoming, and he regrets wasting so much time in the more primitive-seeming Karhide. Hah. In fact, his presence is never publicised – by contrast, he was a well-known object of curiosity in Karhide – and soon he is unwittingly caught up in the country’s factional rivalries. He is arrested and, to save the face of the men who had invited him, is sent to a labour camp in the far north-west. Winter is approaching, and he will not survive for long. (The readymade 20th Century Earth equivalent that Le Guin doesn’t need to mention are the gulags of the Soviet era.)

Estraven needs to rescue him. Which, against all the odds – and I mean all the odds – he does. Le Guin likes to take her stories beyond the limits of boring old scientific rationalism, and she has invented a precursor of the Force in the Star Wars films. Estraven feels the wheel turning for him, knows with an uncanny certainty that his mission to save Genly will be successful, and relies on the Gethenian mind-over-body technique of dhoth to give him the strength of two men to carry Genly for miles through the falling snow. In the tent he’s brought – for a foreigner, Estraven finds it surprisingly easy to run rings around Orgoreynian bureaucracy, and has the papers to show he’s a trapper now – he spends two days and more in the recovery phase Le Guin insists on naming. Meanwhile, Genly emerges only slowly from his exhaustion, and from the drugs he’s been given as part of the prison regime. He is still suspicious at first – in the city of politicians, he had been convinced that Estraven had some dark agenda of his own, and had avoided contact with him – and Estraven has to control his anger… but they both get over it, and from now on they are obviously going to get along fine. Are we nearly there yet?


I’ve been trying to put my finger on what my problem is with this novel. Basically, I realise, I don’t believe a word of it. Le Guin wants us to be convinced that the world she has created really could exist – after all, she has radically altered human sexuality in order to make a society without war seem plausible. But her hermaphrodites are merely dull – and her perpetual use of the word ‘he’ makes them unimaginable as anything other than occasionally trans-gender men. Otherwise, all she has invented is a very Earth-like place with what seem like a few random tweaks. Years, months and days are (very slightly) shorter; seasons work exactly like those on earth, except it’s colder; industrialisation happened, if slowly, and now things have reached roughly the point reached on Earth in the early 20th Century. And so on. From time to time, she has to remind us that we’re not in Kansas any more, so she’ll have a little episode when somebody will come into oestrus, or she reminds us how strange the ice-age architecture is, or… whatever. But the political in-fighting feels all too familiar, the news of Tibe’s warlike forays sound like any on Earth, and I don’t believe the mystical stuff any more than I believe in Jedi Knights.

And I’m constantly reminded of Tolkien. It’s not only the small stature of the Gethenians and, especially when we get to Orgoreyn, the Hobbit-like creature comforts they go in for. It’s those paragraphs of scene-setting or back story in which every sentence contains a (usually Northern European-sounding) place-name or specialist word. Inevitably, there are glossaries, and appendices relating to the names of days and months and so on, and on, and on. The forward momentum of the narrative is often slowed to a standstill by detailed back-stories to explain why, over tens of millennia, these people who are very different from us have developed in ways that seem to be just like on Earth. There’s one tiny exception – they don’t do wars – but they do monarchies, and parliaments, and industries, infrastructures…. They have communes rather than families, but you get those on Earth too.

Overarching all this, she also reminds us, is the clash of Gethenian and Earth cultures that are supposedly more different than the characters realise. This is a key theme of this novel – but, for me, it too often gets entirely lost in yet more surface detail. And even when the Gethenians and the Earth-man have different sexual expectations – the biggest difference of all – they get over it. And anyway, often Le Guin disrupts the sexual functioning of her creations by having them take hormone supplements or force suppressive drugs on others.

It sounds as though I’m nit-picking, and perhaps I am. But Le Guin, all the time, seems to be setting out her fantasy writer’s stall: a world, she wants to convince us, really could be like this. Well, maybe. But if so, to draw another comparison, it would have to feel a lot less like an early episode of Star Trek, the ones being made at the time when Le Guin was writing this. As Captain Kirk would so often find, established cultures on whole planets feel like rival tribes in neighbouring villages. There isn’t enough political and sociological complexity for a whole country, never mind a whole continent. Or a whole planet. And, we discover from Genly, there’s supposed to be an orbiting starship, with its crew in ‘stasis’ waiting for a wake-up call from him whenever the time is right. But at the moment I find his little story no more convincing than the Orgoreynians do. I’m not surprised they treat Genly’s story with derision and send him to a labour camp when he tells them about it. I would do the same.

23 March
Chapters 15-20 – to the end
Last time, I was hoping the final third might not be so dull as the middle third. There must be readers who think that none of it is dull – ‘classic’ and ‘science fiction masterpiece’ are terms routinely attached to this novel – but, to the end, none of it works for me. Le Guin turns her attention more than ever to her two favourite aspects of her own invented world, the cold and the weird sexuality. My heart sank when I realised that most of this last section was to be spent in a long trek across the wastes of the frozen north, and my spirits weren’t lifted when we are warned that Estraven is about to go into kemmer. This is the local word for the ringing of the monthly sexual alarm-clock, so I guessed the Gethenian and the Earth-man were going to have to face some tricky moments. They do, and… it isn’t interesting because Le Guin is just too damned polite. She describes Gethenian sexuality, but as solemnly as a sociological textbook. Estraven has drives, we gather, but he’s going to hold them back and not frighten the horses. Or whatever those little Gethenian quadrupeds are called.

And there’s Genly’s sexuality too, just as solemnly dealt with – even when described from a rather prim-sounding Gethenian perspective in which the idea of ‘permanent kemmer’ is beyond disgusting. From his own point of view, spending 80-odd nights in a tent with a hermaphrodite teaches Genly that he might have been looking at the Gethenians all wrong. As we know, he’s always had trouble with these men who aren’t really men, and their ‘feminine’ ways – it’s a word he uses – don’t cut the mustard for him at all. What becomes clear is that he is very much a child of the 1960s. Estraven’s descriptions of his strength, his drives, his often irrational responses to the ups and downs of their ice-journey make him sound like Captain Kirk. In Earth terms, he has the right stuff, but to Estraven he seems lacking in that stolid Gethenian discipline. To a 21st Century reader Genly’s attitudes seem antediluvian. He could be a 60s action hero like Captain Kirk.

The whole thing is a thought experiment – what would it be like if…? – and, as the novel has unfolded, it has rarely gone beyond that for me. There’s something plodding about Le Guin’s careful arrangement of different elements – I bet when she’s not writing novels she likes patchwork quilt-making, and this novel is fine if you like quilts. Maybe I might have felt differently if I’d read it 40-odd years ago, but I doubt it. I don’t believe Le Guin’s version of maleness, so why would I ever believe in her hermaphrodites, who never, ever seem fully realised? And why would I care? (There is one interesting moment near the end. As correctly predicted, the planet is going to be a member of the Ekumen confederation, and soon the waiting star-ship lands – I’m not kidding – on a nearby fen. Some of the crew of eleven are women and, having been with hermaphrodites for three years now, Genly finds both them and the male crew very strange indeed. He’s looking at them, he realises, from a Gethenian perspective. Ok, it isn’t all that interesting.)

What else do I need to say? Le Guin has told us in the introduction (or somewhere) that she did a lot of research on the subject of travelling with a sledge over ice. So it’s convincingly described, all 40 or 50 pages of it. Fine, if you like your imaginary travel writing to feel real…. And Estraven and Genly become true friends, so that even the unregenerate child of the 1960s comes to realise that it is possible to love a fellow human being, not in a sexual way. In fact, when he does his thought-transference trick – far more than a trick in this serious-minded universe, obviously – Estraven is highly disturbed by what sounds like his dead brother’s voice in his head. (There’s a tragic back-story about the brother, and Estraven’s part in it, but I’m having trouble remembering the details. Don’t care enough, probably.)

Estraven has decided on the desperate trek over the ice-sheet because he wants them to get back to Karhide and no other route is possible. They wouldn’t get past the Orgoreynian road checks, and Genly needs to be in Karhide in order to send a radio transmission to wake up the star-ship crew. In fact, once they get to Karhide, with one significant exception, everything goes like clockwork. The locals who live near the ice-sheet are friendly, they get safe passage, the king is fine about the transmission, Genly is treated as a VIP, the star-ship lands, and Gethen will be a member of the Ekumen just like that. Tibe has resigned, there’s been a re-shuffling of power in Orgoreyn, the planet’s other countries (more remote and apparently with no will of their own) are fine about it. Absorption into a galactic hegemony has never been so painless.

Maybe Le Guin realised this – so she adds one piece of darker material to the patchwork. Estraven ensures Genly’s safety by sacrificing himself. He’s still an outlaw, and after he overhears himself being reported to the authorities, he gets on his skis. But he knows perfectly well that there’s nowhere he can go and Genly soon realises it too. Estraven, to make things simpler for his new friend, chooses to face the guns of the border guards. There’s not a dry eye in the house – and there’s no happy ending in the final chapter when Genly goes back to the ‘hearth’ of Estraven’s birth and meets the man who is his flesh-mother (or whatever). The man’s face is expressionless when Genly explains how and why Estraven was killed – but Le Guin can’t end it on such a grim note. She decides, as she did at the very beginning, to put her faith in storytelling. In fact, as Genly agrees to tell all to Estraven’s blood-parent, we realise that what we’ve just read must be the story he tells.