A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary’s mission to Winter, an unknown alien world whose inhabitants can choose—and change—their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Exploring questions of psychology, society, and human emotion in an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of science fiction.
Some books age well, relatively timeless in their concerns, approach, and writing. Some age poorly, speaking only to a very specific time and place. Most books age somewhere in between, aspects dating badly but others still having a resonance. The Left Hand of Darkness is often considered to be one of the first kind; but on this reread, I wanted to see if that really was the case.
The fact is plainly that it is not. In the introduction, Le Guin explicitly describes The Left Hand of Darkness not as a prediction of where humanity will in future go, but as a reflection of gender and society at the time it was written; given that it was written in 1969, and both our understanding of gender and of society have changed a lot in the intervening four and a half decades, that it has dated isn’t a surprise. But some of the ways in which it has dated are significant, given that (unlike, say, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man) it is still very widely praised for its portrayal of a nonbinary approach to genders. Part of the problem is that the narrator of most of the book is trapped in a very 1960s approach to gender; a very binarist model, with masculine/male superior and feminine/female inferior; public/domestic, forceful/submissive, strong/weak, violent/peaceful, straightforward/dissembling are all read through a male/female binary that reads as singularly outdated to the modern reader. Even those parts of the book narrated by a Gethen native, an “hermaphroditic neuter” as Le Guin describes them, is affected by these things.
A further problem is that these “hermaphroditic neuters” (who enter kemmer, or heat, about four days in twenty-six and only have a dominant binary sex then) are referred to, consistently, as “he”, “him”, “man”, etc; they are gendered, both by Genly Ai and by Estraven, our native narrator, who surely ought to have to hand a gender-neutral pronoun, whether neo or otherwise. As it is, the times they enter kemmer as female become slightly strange, as if there is far more change; this is inconsistent with the actual words on the page, but the implication of the defaulting all characters to male by all the narratorial voices.
The biggest problem from a queer point of view, though, is that queerness is completely erased from The Left Hand of Darkness. Homosexuality is implied as a strange minority act in the Ekumen, and nonexistent on Gethen, the setting of The Left Hand of Darkness, as if given the choice everyone would have heterosexual pairings; sex arises from oppositional sex to the person one is pairing with in kemmer, hence all sexual pairings are heterosexual, even though people are clearly referred to as having preferred sexual characteristics in kemmer. Furthermore, Genly Ai has no experience with anything but an incredibly simple from-birth binary; the only breach of that binary is on Gethen, meaning trans people, nonbinary people, third gender people, agender people, intersex people, etc? None of these people exist in the world of the Ekumen; Le Guin addresses the questions of sex and gender as utterly inseparable except by a subspecies of humanity, and The Left Hand of Darkness makes, of anyone outside the simple binary, an Othered alien. We are not, in the world of The Left Hand of Darkness, people; we are Other, fundamentally alien, fundamentally estranged from humanity, and indeed fundamentally lesser because of it. This is, from that point of view, an incredibly uncomfortable book to read.
As far as a broader review goes, the book has suffered less from the ravages of time. The Left Hand of Darkness includes a look at a something-like-Soviet Communist state and a semi-feudal, semi-anarchist collective state, noting the shortcoming and drawbacks of each; it features a fantastic amount of both politicking and what might be referred to as fantasy-mountaineering, brilliantly balanced with a consistency of characterisation that really works well; and a philosophical strain, drawing on various non-Western philosophies, that requires real engagement with. Indeed, it’s the balance of these elements that works best, but is fundamentally a minority of the book; the mountaineering section is fantastically evocative and by turns claustrophobic and agoraphobic, but still essentially concerned with the questions of gender noted above, which the book is ill-prepared to deal with. The best writing in the book is environmental, evoking the cold, stark beauty of an ice sheet or the strange mixture of slush and ash around a frozen volcano; Le Guin excels at these descriptions, undoubtedly.
The Left Hand of Darkness, then, is a book that challenged views of gender in 1970, undoubtedly, although even then not so radically as one might imagine; in 2016, it is hopelessly dated, and even, for those of us for whom the binary is a poor, uncomfortable, damaging fit, actively destructive.
This review is dedicated to Corey Alexander, who was asking for more reviews of The Left Hand of Darkness by trans and enby reviewers!
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