What I’m Reading: The Left Hand of Darkness

I’ve been wanting to read Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness for years, but somehow had never gotten around to it until now, as the latest selection in the book club at my work. Thanks be to the book club! Anyway, I quite enjoyed this book, although it’s not without its flaws, so let’s get to it.

Genly Ai is an ambassador of sorts from the Ekumen, a federation of eighty-two planets. He’s just arrived on the chilly world of Gethen, known colloquially as Winter, with an offer for them to join the Ekumen. Ambassadors are sent singly so that the planet’s inhabitants don’t feel threatened, and it can be quite a dangerous job. Indeed, the two main countries/societies on Gethen, Karhide and Orgoryen, don’t even know whether to believe that Genly is a real spacefarer (despite his ship), and not just a trick being played by the other to gain some advantage in their endless conflict.

Genly spends much of his time traveling, meeting with high officials in the two countries to explain where he’s from and what he’s offering. A Karhiden noble, Estraven, seems to be the only person who really believes Genly and wants to befriend him, and ends up exiled as a traitor from Karhide at least in part for this friendship. Genly’s and Estraven’s efforts to convince the Gethenians, and later just to survive when the ruling powers turn against them, form the backbone of the novel.

Of course, Left Hand is famous for one aspect of the Gethenians: they are biologically gender fluid. The book, which came out in 1969, definitely anticipates or predicts the recent steep rise in interest in gender fluidity, transgender issues, etc. For the Gethenians, though, this is an easy and natural thing–their normal biological state is neuter, and once a month for a few days they go from neuter to either male or female, without being able to predict ahead of time which gender they’ll take on.

I wondered how much of this was purely science fiction at the time, as I had a vague sense that gender reassignment surgery didn’t come about until the 1970s. But I was wrong! According to Wikipedia, experiments with hormone therapies and surgeries were already taking place in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that gender reassignment surgery reached a point where it seems to have been a realistic option for people. Still, it wasn’t until advances made in the early 1990s in hormone therapy and 1999 in phalloplasty surgery that outcomes really improved. I wonder how much of the increase in transgenderism over the past twenty years has to do with those 1990s advancements? With more natural-looking and -feeling outcomes possible now, it must seem like a more attractive possibility than it used to.

Maybe as advances continue throughout the 21st century we’ll approach more and more the Gethenian situation where everybody can have the experience of being both male and female at different times in their lives, if it were easy enough, even those who are perfectly happy with their birth gender might be curious to try the other gender for a while.

But back to the book. What’s less commented on than the gender fluidity is the political situation in the book, though that’s treated in an interesting way as well. It’s a bit of a Cold War situation, with Orgoreyn being a repressive state something like the Soviet Union, while Karhide has more freedom, and the two countries are locked in an endless struggle. The Cold War analogy doesn’t hold up completely though, in that Orgoreyn is presented as being more modern and organized than Karhide (or did that match perceptions at the time, with Sputnik and the putative missile gap with the USSR?). Karhide, with its monarchy, its religious sects, even its emphasis on cooking, comes across as slower, not fully modernized, indeed almost medieval, though they do have motorized transportation.

Like the Cold War, the endless struggle between Orgoreyn and Karhide never reaches a climactic war–though in this case not due to a deadlock caused by nuclear weapons, but because of the lack of an ongoing sex drive in Gethenians, which Le Guin seems to say is responsible for the aggression/ambition seen in other human societies. The Gethenians simply don’t have it in them to fight an all-out war, and thus their countries exist in a sort of eternal passive aggressive contest. Part of Genly’s pitch to the Gethenians is that by joining the Ekumen, they’ll be able to put aside their petty conflict and progress their society, but insofar as the local politicians are even interested, its solely because they think joining a galactic-level civilization might provide their side with some technological advantage.

One aspect of the book I thought was a flow was that we find out so little about Ai Genly’s background. He comes from Earth, and often remembers the warm weather he enjoyed back at home. So why did he volunteer on this mission to a miserably cold planet? What drives him, what personal stakes does he have? Maybe this reticence on Le Guin’s part is in keeping with her conception of Ai as a sort of anthropologist (as per her own parents), who is there mainly to observe and make the Ekumen’s diplomatic offer. Perhaps his own background is irrelevant. But I would have found it easier to identify with Ai, if I’d known more about him.

Still, The Left Hand of Darkness is a fascinating and entertaining book. It would be of interest to any science fiction fan but also those who might like to read an intelligent and well-thought out anthropological exploration of a society with a profoundly different attitude than ours towards gender. I highly recommend it.

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