Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have been aware of Le Guin, but hadn’t read her before. I don’t read a lot of Science Fiction - although I am a huge fan of Asimov’s short stories. (“Good Taste” is a favorite - and, for completely different reasons, “The Last Answer.”) I also love the classic Jules Verne novels, campy and dated as they are. I have read a few books in that genre since I started this blog, from A Princess of Mars to the recent Mort(e) by Robert Repino. And of course, the very first Science Fiction story, Frankenstein.

The Left Hand of Darkness was recommended by a friend, particularly for its creative treatment of gender. Written in 1969, it shows signs of the times it was written in - but in other ways seems quite familiar. 

Here is the basic setup. Genly Ai (who narrates most but not all of the story) is the “First Mobile” from an organization, the Ekumen, which is similar to the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek. However, it is less centralized, and doesn’t govern so much as it facilitates trade and exchange of ideas. Persuasion and agreement, not force, if you will. Unlike in the Star Trek universe, the hominoids in this one did not evolve separately, but instead are the survivors of a great age of planetary exploration followed by a devastating war that separated the various groups. After a few hundred thousand years, the link is being reforged. Warp Drive does not appear to exist, so interstellar travel is slow, and the travelers are put in stasis during the trip.

The plan for the Ekumen is to send a single envoy to live among the natives of each planet. The envoy will learn the cultures, establish relationships, and tell his or her story. Eventually, usually after a number of years, the planet will voluntarily choose to join the Ekumen. This inevitably unifies the planet, because the Ekumen does not make separate treaties with different nations on any world - they have to join as a unit.

Genly Ai is sent to a planet aptly named Winter, which is on the raw edge of habitability - much colder than Earth (or Terran, as it is named in the book.) This difficult survival is believed to be one factor in why Winter doesn’t have all-out warfare between nations. Sure, they have skirmishes and raiding parties and such, but there really isn’t the leisure time or resources for full out war.

But that isn’t the main difference. Rather, as the result (probably - nobody remembers for sure) of genetic engineering, there are no males or females on Winter. Rather the “Genthans” are ambisexual. Specifically, they are androgynous and assexual, having characteristics of both male and female during most of the month, but go through a monthly “kemmer,” where they develop into either male or female. It is during kemmer - and only then - that a Genthan experiences sexual desire. It’s kind of like being in heat, basically. The kicker is this: in any given kemmer, an individual has an equal chance of becoming male or female. If female, the person could become pregnant, and thus stay female for an extended period, until the child is weaned. The author notes that many Genthans have fathered several children and given birth to several more. In isolation, the female and male roles develop randomly. However, if two Genthans are in kemmer at the same time, if one goes one way, the other tends to go the other way in response, thus making mating more likely.

Because all Genthans are alike, and Ai is, well, very different, he is considered to be a “pervert.” Actually, there are other “perverts” too. Any Genthan who does not develop full ambisexuality, but is stuck in one gender, he or she is also considered a pervert. Because they, unlike “normal” people, are in rut all the time, and thus have perverted sexuality. Le Guin notes that “perverts” are treated like LGBTQ people in our society - distrusted and slandered, but not generally murdered - pretty bold for 1969, perhaps.

In addition, Genthans possess the personality traits associated with both male and female. The result of this biological fact of ambisexuality is that society is set up rather differently than our own. All Genthans are given a week off of work each month when they are in kemmer. Because anyone can end up pregnant, society does not insist on tying down anyone quite as much as we are used to. Anyone can hold any profession. And everyone is expected to pitch in with childcare. Hey, it could be you next, so bear the burdens equally. As the guide Ai is given says, “Therefore nobody here is quite as free as a free male elsewhere.”

The guide also notes:

There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact, the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

This becomes one of the themes of the book. Dualism in the “this versus that” sense is indeed not part of the Winter cultures. Rather, internal dualism is the central belief. The contrast is within, between the parts of one’s nature. As the Genthan poem has it:

Light is the left hand of darkness,
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

There is a lot more about marriage and sex in general in the book - much of which is a fascinating thought experiment. But there is one more line that I really found fascinating:

The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect or subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter, they will not exist. One is respected and judge only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

In my job doing divorce cases, I have seen enough of this to know it is true. And also true about family and friends in some cases. People, both male and female - in about equal proportions - often lean on their gender identity for their sense of worth - and would be appalled if they were judged, not on their ability to fit gender stereotypes and values, but on their goodness as human beings.

To give an example, I run across far too many males who draw their identity from the masculine signifiers. Sports prowess. Income. Virility. And, often, violence. Likewise, there are many women who rely on their beauty, their feminine charm, their devotion to being a full-time mom, their social signalling through style of dress. And in our society this works. A man who is rich can get away with anything. A woman who is conventionally beautiful can leverage that into acceptance regardless of her lack of substance. Tall, strong males tend to develop into entitled brats like King Saul - not always, but often. And likewise, a woman who fits her society’s preferred gender roles can get away with being a jerk to others.

All of these people, who rely on their gender conformity for identity and acceptance would indeed find being judged as human beings to be a thoroughly appalling experience.

My wife, on the other hand, has spent much of her life expecting to be evaluated as a human, not as a female. This has (as I have previously described) resulted in a lot of heartache for her. She does not fit the preferred “female” traits well. She is assertive, competent, confident. She relies on her intellect more than her emotion. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, particularly not entitled males. She works outside the home, and probably draws her identity from that more than motherhood (which is the opposite from me - I draw more from my fatherhood than my job). Amanda would thus function better in Genthan society than in the Patriarchy morass that she grew up in.

Okay, one more observation on this. I am genetically and physically male. I identify strongly as a male. That said, I do not fit the male signifiers all that well. I am more nurturing and emotional, not competitive and stoic. (In other words, I am the girl in our marriage - if you believe in gender essentialism.) So, while I do not consider myself female or wish to be in general, the idea of splitting genders as the Genthans do is fascinating. Amanda and I have often joked that it would have been better if I could have gestated half the children. And really, if it weren’t for biology, I would be totally on board with it! There is something special about that, and were it reasonably possible, I would have done it. Taking turns would have been a relief for her, and a special experience for me. Again, this isn’t a sign I identify as female or “other.” It is just something that is fun to contemplate.

Ai’s main ally on Winter is Estraven (who also goes by Harth and Therem depending on who is addressing him - these are equivalent to first and last names and titles), who is the prime minister of Karhide - monarchy and one of the main nations of Winter. (The other country, Orgoreyn, is closer to a Soviet style system, with a veneer of bureaucracy over the iron fist of the secret police.) Estraven is the only Genthan to truly trust Ai, but cultural differences mean that Ai struggles to understand and trust Estraven. Only after (spoiler alert!) Estraven rescues Ai are they able to become true friends. This is another significant theme in the book: friendship, betrayal, and loyalty. Ai is deeply lonely as he is the only person of his race on the planet for years. Estraven is lonely for other reasons: his family history, a lost love, and political betrayal. The story of how they bridge a vast cultural - and biological - divide is a key part of the book, and quite enjoyable.

Perhaps even more fascinating than either the gender theme or the friendship theme is the discussion of politics and “patriotism.” Le Guin draws a contrast between two essential types, and I thought it brilliant:

“Let me ask you this, Mr. Ai: do you know, by your own experience, what patriotism is?”
“No,” I said, shaken by the force of that intense personality suddenly turning itself wholly on me. “I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”
“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year.”

This conversation, early on, between Ai and Estraven sets the stage for what comes later, as the king of Karhide and the Sarf (secret police) of Orgoreyn escalate a conflict to gain their own political ends. Later in the book, Ai reflects on the machinations of Tibe, the new prime minister, who talks on the radio a lot about patriotism of the more sinister kind.

He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate.

Sound familiar at all?

Ai also considers the difference between a nation which builds an unified culture and state on the basis of mutual accomplishment, and those who do so by shorter - and more evil - methods.

Now Karhide was to pull herself together and do the same; and the way to make her do it was not by sparking her pride, or building up her trade, or by improving her roads, farms, colleges, and so on; none of that; that’s all civilization, veneer, and Tibe dismissed it with scorn. He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make a people into a nation: war. His ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound. The only other means of mobilizing people rapidly and entirely is with a new religion; none was handy; he would make do with war.

We are seeing this played out yet again in our own times. Rather than build patriotic pride by investing in our mutual benefit - making college affordable for all, providing healthcare to the most vulnerable in our society, fixing our roads, building relationships with other nations, or anything else productive - we want to build it by inciting hatred of others, the perceived enemies within and without.  

On a related note, I think Le Guin has a fascinating observation about civilization. Too often, in our colonialist mindset, we draw a dualistic contrast between “civilization” on the one hand, and “primitivism.” This fallacy is present in both the colonialist viewpoint and also in the myth of the “noble savage.” Ai notes that Tibe is always talking about the “veneer of civilization” as if the underlying reality is somehow nobler.

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the noble reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness...Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other, not both.

A few other lines stood out. The first comes from an extended scene in what is essentially a concentration camp in Orgoreyn. While Genthans can and do suppress kemmer for various personal and religious reasons, in the camps, it is repressed by force. That way, laborers can work continuously, without taking the customary week off. Also, by repressing sexual desire, Genthans are more easily controlled. As Le Guin notes, the ability to eliminate sexual desire altogether is really a key component of the ideal totalitarianism. She mentions ants (which do not exist on Winter) - most individuals are for practical purposes asexual - and thus are expendable workers who loyally serve the hive. I can’t help but feel that this has always been a part of the desire to exploit others. From the days of slavery, when slaves were expected to be celibate - unless they were bred by the masters - and fear of black sexuality became part of our national consciousness; to the rhetoric now about how the poor should just stop having sex if they can’t afford the babies. (With, of course, no plan to make parenthood affordable with a living wage - or any plan whatsoever…) Basically, there are the breeders, and there are the workers. And the workers should just shut up and stop having sex. I suspect if a drug became available that could repress all sexual desire, there would be a great many more than willing to use it on others.

There was also a terrifyingly beautiful line about the way that the Orgoreyn concentration camps worked. Indeed, it is probably how most concentration camps work - not the Nazi gas chambers, but the rest.

They do not kill people on their Farms: they let hunger and winter and despair do their murders for them.

Actually, this is how many genocides happen. Not through overt slaughter, but by the deaths that occur in the shadows. Death from disease, hunger, and cold. Death from the creeping despair that you will never be helped, never loved, never really noticed. And this is the kind of murder that the Ayn Rand philosophy (which has taken over the GOP lately) leads to - and may even intend. The slow death by deprivation, not the more obvious murder by force. But it is violence nonetheless.

And this really is where the “patriotism” meets real life. As Ai puts it regarding Orgoreyn’s socialistic economy - and specifically a non-explanation of a stupid situation: “This, at least, is the accepted explanation, though like most economic explanations it seems, under certain lights, to omit the main point.”

This is exactly the frustration I feel in discussing economic issues with those who believe some grant, incomprehensible, and esoteric theory is behind what sure looks - under certain lights - to be simple exploitation.

One more note: this edition of the book has an introduction by the author, which is fantastic. I would love to quote it all, but I recommend just getting the book. In this introduction, she philosophises about the nature and purpose of Science Fiction - indeed of fiction in general. The art of lying, as she puts it, to tell the truth. Everything in a novel - particularly like this one - is fictional. (Or, a “lie,” as the fundies my wife grew up with would say - just like Le Guin, except without the intelligence to understand the point.) There are so many lines, from the one, “Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic,” to “Science Fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive,” to “Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?” Just so good. Read it.

I guess I may mention the layout of the book. While the narration is primarily by Ai, there are portions from the journal of Estraven, notes from scholarly Ekumen sources, and from official documents and legends  of Karhide and Orgoreyn. This book is apparently from the middle of a cycle of related books about the extended universe.I think this book can stand alone, but it might be interesting to read the others and see if they help make sense of the universe. I should note that if you struggle with the names in Russian novels, you might do as I did and keep a list of names for each character.   


Quick note on the author: Le Guin was one of the pioneering female Science Fiction writers, and influenced many writers in a variety of genres who came after. I will particularly note Neil Gaiman. She was the daughter of an anthropologist and an writer, which does explain some of her themes. She married an historian, which may well have added another layer to the mix. 


This book has inspired some intriguing art on deviantart - particularly the contrast of the dark skinned Ai and the androgynous Estraven. Here is one:


  1. Le Guin is a very different sci-fi/fantasy experience than most of that genre and especially of that era. Sometimes she gets a little bogged down, I think, in the anthropology of it all, but she's also very good at thinking through the logical consequences of an idea. (Not to mention practical. I remember in the Earthsea books at one point Ged heals a goat with mastitis without being paid for it, and when questioned simply says "I felt sorry for the goat.")

    And she's got flights of poetics here and there that are icily lovely. ;)

    1. I agree that it was definitely different - although I haven't exactly immersed myself in SciFi. On the one hand, yes, some anthropology stuff got bogged down. On the other, I read Trollope and Dostoevsky for fun, so I probably shouldn't complain...

  2. I'm assuming by your referencing of Estroven as "he" that he's a "pervert" by Genthan standards...what pronouns do Genthans use in general? I'm curious to read this, especially as I've been navigating the waters of coming out as non-binary over the past few years. Thanks for the recommendation.

    1. Just to be clear, Estroven isn't a "pervert" - he's a normal Genthan. Genly Ai - the non-Genthan humanoid male is considered a "pervert," because he is one gender and always in heat, so to speak.

      I use "he" in this case because Le Guin uses it for all Genthans. I didn't put the explanation in the review, but there is both the explanation given in the book - that the male pronoun is used because we don't have a good neuter one to work with - and the one that Le Guin gave later, which is that she strongly considered using a neutral pronoun, but thought it made the book difficult to read. In any case, in the Genthan language, there is no such concept of gender in pronouns. No "he" or "she" even exists, just a single pronoun to refer to Genthans.

      Admittedly, it would be very convenient to have such a neutral pronoun in English - one that everyone agrees to use - so that we can all understand what we are saying. I guess until a standard ends up being accepted, I'll just use whatever a person prefers, right?

      Anyway, it is a fascinating book.