I suppose the most important thing, 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. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food. Women … women tend to eat less. … It’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones.
So Genly Ai, lone human envoy to the planet Winter (also known as Gethen), attempts to explain the differences between men and women to Estraven, one of the people of Winter. Estraven does not understand male and female as separate sexes because on Winter, all the people are androgynous, taking on male and female characteristics only when they are in kemmering, which is rather like being in heat. While in kemmering, an individual Gethenian might take on female sexual and reproductive traits one time and male another, and those traits are retained only until their purpose is achieved—that is, until the period of heat is over or, for those who become pregnant, until the resulting child has finished nursing.
The androgyny of the Gethenians is perhaps the most famous aspect of Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel, but on the surface, it seems remarkably irrelevant to the plot. Genly, who narrates most of the novel, gives a lot of thought to it, as I imagine any human living there would do. He thinks about how not having to expend energy on sexual desires might give the Gethenians the endurance they need to survive their planet’s harsh climate. When he ends up in a nation that oppresses its citizens and meets little resistance, he realizes that the sex drive introduces and unstable element to society. And the Gethenians marvel that Genly lives in what seems to them like a state of kemmer all the time.
But on a day-to-day basis, this difference between humans and Gethenians doesn’t come into play that much. Most of the book focuses on political machinations and Genly’s journeys around the planet to attempt to create a diplomatic relationship between the Gethenians and the Ekumen, a league of planets that Genly represents. Like any explorer encountering a new culture, Genly must interpret and react to communications and actions that have nuanced meanings he cannot comprehend, and he wrong-foots it or lets himself get caught in squabbles between the planet’s two major nations, Karhide and Orgoreyn, or among the people within those nations. Le Guin keeps the reader in the dark about many of the other characters’ motivations until late in the book, when we start to get excerpts from Estraven’s journal. We’re just as lost as Genly.
The narrative is interspersed with bits of Gethenian myth and history, some of which are echoed in the main story. We read what appears to be a myth of two brothers, for example, and we later learn something of the close relationship between Estraven and his brother. The effect is to make Gethen, as well as the Ekumen, feel like a larger world than the one confined to these pages. This is what much of the best speculative fiction does. Look, for example, at Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings is but a tiny piece of a much bigger story. Indeed, Ursula Le Guin wrote several books and stories about this world, which is actually our own world far into the future. Left Hand of Darkness is the fourth.
As I mentioned already, the Gethenian androgyny is more of a matter of discussion in the novel than a driver of the plot, but I wonder how much Genly’s own perceptions are influenced by the inescapable presence of gender binaries in his thinking. He refers to all the Gethenians as he, noting that “the very use of this pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman.” As a reader, I found myself facing the same limitation. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that Genry typically spends time with people in roles traditionally ascribed to men or in environments that would likely be all-male. We don’t meet a Gethenian mother, although we learn of a king giving birth. The language makes the society seems predominately male, and this maleness doesn’t seem strange, which shows just how easy it is to accept male as the default gender, especially when you’re in the courts of power.
The Left Hand of Darkness gave me lots to mull over, but I can’t say that I fell in love with it. It’s interesting, and as an exercise in speculation, it has a lot to offer. But the characters and the story never felt entirely real to me. Le Guin notes in her excellent introduction to this book that “in reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.” I didn’t quite believe in this novel, and that keeps it from making my personal list of favorites.
I did love the introduction though. I’ve read a couple of essays by Le Guin in the past, and she says so many smart things about reading and writing that I think I’ll have to seek out more of her nonfiction, even if I don’t read another of her novels.