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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
50th Anniversary Edition

Ace 2003 (1969)
301 pages
Science Fiction

Genly Ai is an envoy, a messenger from the Ekumen, a community of worlds peacefully trading with each other. The young man is an envoy to a new world they call Winter, which the inhabitants call Gethen. Even as a world among many different worlds, Gethen is unique. Still locked in its Ice Age, the people are what could be a long-abandoned experiment: they are asexual, neither male nor female, but both female and male. Every twenty-six days they individually enter a state called “kemmer”, during which they take on either a male or female sexual role, their bodies changing to allow them to mate and have children.

The rest of the time, they are non-sexual. Ai likens them, at times, to eunuchs, and finds them disturbing, while they consider him to be a pervert, permanently locked in kemmer.

Having landed his ship in the kingdom of Karhide, Genly Ai is taken under the wing of the prime minister, Lord Estraven, only to be seemingly betrayed by him when he finally meets the king, Argaven. Estraven himself is branded a traitor and flees to the neighbouring – and, in a way, more advanced – country of Orgoreyn, a land of bureaucrats. Finding Argaven disinclined to welcome a treaty with the Ekumen, Ai journeys to Orgoreyn, where Estraven – his one real ally – has paved the way for him.

But like Argaven, the bureaucrats of Orgota are too afraid to take the plunge, many fearing it’s a hoax and they’ll lose face with Karhide. Instead, they have Ai arrested and sent to a “voluntary farm”, a kind of concentration camp from which only one person would even care to rescue him from: Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. In this deadly cold world, a world of contradictions and obscurities, a land stripped bare by the glaciers and blizzards, Ai’s own perceptions are subtly altered, his understandings and assumptions of people are confronted, by the unique puzzle of a genderless people.

I first read this while living in Japan, about six years ago, and while I couldn’t articulate exactly what my problems with the book were at the time, I was left feeling decidedly bothered, disappointed and even angered a bit. I find that my emotional response and reader’s response to the book hasn’t changed at all, this second time around. I can only hope that, this time, I can articulate why I find it so disappointing and, dare I say it, unworthy.

This isn’t a review I was looking forward to writing. It would be so much easier if, like so many other people, I loved this book. But I don’t and I can’t. When you dislike a popular book, a canonised book – a “masterpiece” and an “instant classic”, according to other reviewers – naturally part of you wonders whether you’re just not getting it, whether you’re not bright enough or clued-in enough, or whether you’re placing unnecessary or unfair demands and expectations on it. But really, I don’t think so. The downside of any book bearing the hefty label of “classic” is that it’s going to be more closely scrutinised than other books, and readers will come to it with some naturally high expectations. While any understanding of any text can be improved upon by study and dialogue, initial impressions and a “layman’s” analysis is still perfectly valid.

I have several, inter-connected problems with this book. While there are some elements I like, that fascinate me, overall I find the effort disappointing.

The big draw for this book is the “bisexual” aspect of Gethen’s human population, the unusual nature of their bodies, their ability to be both mother and father in a single lifetime. While this is indeed a fascinating concept and a premise that makes you eager for insight, Le Guin just never manages to really come to grips with it.

We are a society, a species, that is hugely influenced by gender. So when you remove such an integral part of our various cultures, our understanding of life and sin and the rest of it, it is hard for us to imagine what could possibly be left – especially when you remove, along with it, the ever-present sexual tension and sexual awareness that infuses all our relationships, conversations, interactions. Le Guin envisages a people who know no war, who work and change slowly and carefully, who are at times beset by the (negative and clichéd) traits of women but none of the strength and decisiveness of men – a bland people who don’t seem to make friends or have a sense of humour or play (all things that could be attributed to life on a harsh, inhospitable planet – except that, the opposite could happen just as easily).

Le Guin perfectly captured a very different people and attitude and way of speaking and interacting, but shied away from some of the bigger questions and from really delving into this, into what this creates. I would have expected this, if she had presented a profound issue/question/analysis of our own society or attitudes and left it to her readers to think about, but this is a very empty book, and the nature of the human population on Gethen is handled in a vague, offhand manner.

Yes, this is speculative fiction; yes, it’s a product of its times and was, I’m sure, “groundbreaking” at that time; and yes, you need to take that into consideration – that’s too obvious to need pointing out. But I find it worrying that so many books – “classics” – escape a closer, rational inspection simply because they are such treasures, and any critique is easily dismissed as a product of its times. I would think that less is truly learned from a text by simply accepting it as it is, by not analysing and critiquing it. No book, not the Bible or the Koran or Lord of the bloody Rings, is untouchable, and human minds grow stagnant by not questioning.

My problem is this: Le Guin has created a sexless people, for all intents and purposes, who are neither female nor male, but uses the terms “he”, “man” etc. to capture and identify them. These are powerful pronouns and nouns. The old argument that “man” (or “Man”) meant all people, both genders, is complete crap. It never did and never will. It bespeaks to the more powerful gender, the one in control. It is naturally selective and singular, and historically comes from a highly patriarchal society. All obvious points.

Now, this is my own paradox of sorts: does Le Guin achieve more by having Genly Ai and all the people of Gethen use “he”, “brother”, “man” etc., or would taking the Fantasy route and using a newly made-up, local word be more telling, more disorientating, more profound? I lean towards the latter, though part of the problem is that I really, honestly, do not know what Le Guin was trying to achieve with this book. If it is meant to show us the narrow confines of our own language, attitudes, labelling system, well, okay, but it’s weak. Ai is from a future well in advance of our own, and it’s disheartening to hear so much gender bias coming from him. But I can’t tell if it’s Ai, or Le Guin (or the 60s).

The end result is that, despite many reminders that they are genderless, using “he” etc. firmly settles the idea in my mind that this is a society of men – the ultimate society, in a way, a society that has got rid of women once and for all since the one thing above all others that women and women alone can do – childbirth – is no longer the provenance of women. Yes, this creates a fascinating study, but it is unsatisfactorily studied and throughout it the use of “man” etc. shackles it, enslaves it, as does Ai, who attributes all Gethenian weaknesses to their “feminine” side.

The English language has great potential and great flexibility, but in some words it is completely short-sighted and inflexible. The gender-specific pronouns are perfect examples of this. They are horribly confining, and we’ve yet to create a asexual alternative. I wonder whether this book would have been more deserving of its “masterpiece” status if it had taken that extra step, and truly confronted sexual stereotypes and our whole way of thinking – even though it is narrated by Ai.

It would have been far more interesting to see what a truly genderless society could achieve (or not) when they are not obsessing about sex all the time. Sex invades and defines so much of what we do, say, wear, think etc., that removing it presents an amazing opportunity to strip away this major aspect and, well, see what’s left.

Parts of the story are also told by Estraven, through his journal entries. Getting this insight into the mind of a Gethenian would have provided an amazing opportunity to explore a non-gendered mind – but sadly we learn little that’s new (though it’s interesting to see how he perceives Genly).

This is my disappointment: I am not made to think or question, by this novel. My perception of my own society is not confronted; I learn nothing new about it. “It is a novel of ideas”, they say, and yes it is. But with so much focus on the planet itself, so much time spent describing the ice-bound world and how to survive in it, as interesting as that is, you can’t help but feel that whatever idea Le Guin was trying to explore became completely lost in the wilderness. A profound idea, unexploited. Leaving behind a book that struggles to have anything interesting to say.

Plotwise, there’s little, but there are moments that never fail to grab me: the work prison Ai is sent to, and the return to Karhide and the ensuing tragedy, which I had completely forgotten about and so was taken by surprise – the first and only time in the novel that I felt truly emotionally engaged.

The only other thing I’ll take the time to mention, is that the prose does a weird thing at the beginning. Ai is reporting his experiences as Envoy, but begins his tale is a very odd present-tense. This switches to past tense abruptly, for no apparent reason, and while it took me a few paragraphs to notice, it left me with a weird feeling like I’d eaten something bad.

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