The Left Hand of Darkness

Posted by : atcampbell | On : October 1, 2007

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

11 people attended the discussion of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. Most of the group, except 2 people, had read this novel before. Some had read it when it first came out in 1969.

In this book, a human named Genly Ai who is an Envoy from Ecumena, a multi-world union, is sent to a planet Gethen to convince its government to join Ecumena. The most unusual quality of Gethenians is that they don’t have two sexes, at least not permanent ones. Most of the time they are sexless, but for a few days each month they go into the so-called kemmer, where they acquire either male or female characteristics and are able to reproduce. Their ambisexuality influences Gethenian social and political life in ways unpredictable for Genly. Fate brings him together with Estraven, a local political figure, and they embark on an unexpected journey.

Most people liked the book, and some felt profoundly influenced by it. A reader regretted there was no Tiptree award at the time The Left Hand of Darkness came out, because, in his opinion, Le Guin pushed the gender-bending envelope way harder. He said, “Le Guin made an incredibly clever choice in the sexuality of the Gethenians. She truly understands that the alien is us, far more than the aliens I’ve ever read in any SF story.”

Somebody remembered a couple of years ago there was a panel at ArmadilloCon on women who grew up on this book. Women were saying, this book changed my whole life, this book is the reason I’m writing. One reader said her favorite line from the book is “you are only judged as a human being. It is terrifying.” “It captures the longing that a lot of us had,” she said, “when we first became aware that we women were not been judged as human beings, that we were not judged on our work. [We had a longing for a world where] everybody is in the same boat, where 5/6 of the time sex doesn’t matter.”

A few people were not as impressed by this book. One reader said he vaguely remembered The Left Hand Of Darkness as a novel where “nothing really happens in the end. It’s just describing the alien culture that goes through it.” Another reader said while he admires what Le Guin is doing and the way she’s dealing with important issues, for some reason her work doesn’t connect with him.

Some people reminisced about their favorite scenes from the novel. One reader’s most memorable part was the one where Estraven went into kemmer during the ice trip. Up until then Estraven, despite his sexlessness, was perceived by Genly as a man. Having entered kemmer, he temporarily becomes a woman. This happens against Estraven’s will, as neither he nor Genly want the complications of changing gender perceptions, but now they have to deal with them. It is especially hard on Genly, who, despite the years spent among the Gethenians, is still not used to thinking of gender as fluid. This reader found that episode really mind-twisting. Another reader thought the scene where Genly teaches Estraven to “bespeak”, or communicate telepathically, was especially vivid. The mind communication between them had a strong erotic aspect, even though their relationship remained platonic. Yet another reader found the Foretelling scene especially interesting, and wished there was more about it in the book. He liked the comment of the futility of getting the correct answer to the wrong question.

It was interesting to see how people’s opinions about the protagonist reflected their own notions about gender. I pointed out that Genly, despite his mission to bring a more enlightened era to Gethen, harbored a few backward stereotypes about women. For example, he sees Estraven as feminine because Estraven is indirect, devious, and scheming; later he says that women don’t have much capacity for abstract thinking. Shouldn’t an Envoy see beyond such stereotypes, especially if you keep in mind that the book is set in a much more enlightened era of far future? He was sent by Ekumena to bring progressive attitudes to the little “backward” corner of the universe that was Gethen, to convince the Gethenian states put aside their little petty differences, to open their minds and become part of a greater whole; but on the other hand, his own attitudes towards women are backward. So I wondered if Ursula Le Guin deliberately meant to create a character with these contradictions, or if she thought Genly’s views of women were accurate.

Two readers pointed out to me that Genly’s attitudes towards women were far more generous than those of most men in the US today. I replied that this may be true of men of our era, but the book is set in far future; the fact that Ekumena is succeeding at its improbable mission to bring peaceful cooperation to all alien races, must mean this world is based on far more enlightened attitudes than ours. And Genly, an Envoy to an alien planet, must be even more enlightened than most! So I see a contradiction here. Nonetheless, the other two readers insisted that Genly’s views make him a saint, especially as compared to an average man of today. One reader even said this saintliness makes Genly not a credible character, definitely not as a young man. He also wasn’t clear on whether Genly was straight or gay, because he thought Genly behaved in ways we associate with gays. However, he concluded Genly was straight, “because Le Guin is trying to write a strong male character”. This elicited laughter from several women: do you have to be straight to be a strong male character?

So, while the discussion never degenerated into a war of the sexes, there were a few opportunities for that, which I guess is more than you say about most books. 🙂

— Elze Hamilton