Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness feels like an older generation’s Ancillary Justice.

I say that partly because it’s a good first sentence that makes me sound like a more seasoned SF reviewer than I actually am, and partly because, like Ancillary Justice, a lot of the discussion that goes on around The Left Hand of Darkness focuses on its approach to gender to the exclusion of much else that’s important and interesting about it.

Its premise is simple enough: Genly Ai is an ambassador to the icy planet of Gethen (Winter, in the language of its inhabitants) from the Ekumen, a confederacy of worlds. Most of the time, the Gethenians are gender-neutral and biologically intersex; but for about a week every month they go into kemmer, becoming either biologically male or biologically female, depending on what other nearby people in kemmer are doing. Kemmer, it seems, is mainly spent having sex with all and sundry: there are monogamous couples on Gethen, but it’s by no means the norm. And, of course, any one Gethenian can sire and bear children (although not, presumably, at the same time).

The novel follows Genly (whose society has the same gender norms as ours – more on that later) as he navigates the politics of the two major Gethenian nations, Orgoreyn and Karhide, in an attempt to bring the planet into the Ekumen. His efforts – his very presence, in fact – threaten to destabilise the fragile balance between the powers and topple the planet into war – a concept that’s entirely new to Gethen, because its societies have never developed ideas of toxic masculinity that’s performed through large-scale aggression.

So. What I find most interesting about The Left Hand of Darkness is how it uses language to construct a world that’s very different from ours – not just in terms of gender, but in general outlook and philosophy. I don’t mean by that the mundane work of worldbuilding that most SFF authors engage in, but a much more potent and challenging semantic slippage, a textual instability that evokes a world that is always already irrevocably changing.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, in other words. So we have Genly’s report on his mission (although, “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination” – from the very first lines a gap is growing between observer and observed, between narrated experience and unmediated “reality”); notes from the diary of a Karhide politician called Estraven, who’s trying to push his reluctant country into a new age; ethnological notes from the Ekumen’s first clandestine mission to Gethen; and a series of Gethenian myths and legends. That’s four views of Gethen, overlapping, jostling for factual and emotional primacy; each of them with different priorities, different focuses, different assumptions, different prejudices. Their conflicting clamour distorts the edges of what we can know about Gethen (especially in later chapters, when we get different versions of the same events from Genly and Estraven); but it also serves to give us a better picture of what Gethen is like than an omniscient narrator can. Gethen, like all real societies, is constantly rewriting itself. It never stays still, it’s never just one thing. What was once true is always, almost by definition, now untrue. Genly’s arrival on the planet, and his message of Ekumenical peace and love, has exacerbated this process somewhat; it’s a society on the cusp of great change, and this clamour of voices is a particularly apt way of evoking that textually.

And so, onto some problems with The Left Hand of Darkness. (In all fairness, it was first published in 1969. It would be practically impossible for it not to have some problems.) The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed the most glaring one: the use of male pronouns to describe the gender-neutral Gethenians.

This is partly an effect of semantic slippage, the gap between author and protagonist that helps to create the world of Gethen more fully. Put less pretentiously, Genly is enormously, outrageously misogynist.

The [Gethenian] guards…tended to be stolid, slovenly, heavy, and to my eyes effeminate – not in the sense of delicacy, etc., but in just the opposite sense: a gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge.

Yes, that’s right: Genly thinks women are cows. Le Guin was a strident feminist; these are assuredly not her views.

So we can, if we so wish, argue that the novel’s use of “he” as a universal pronoun is Genly’s use, not Le Guin’s; a reflection of the sexist strategies he uses to construct his world and his own experience. (Remember: this is a novel that’s deliberately placing emphasis on the truth-value of experience.) But, still, I think we run into a problem with the fact that all of the narratives use male pronouns to describe the Gethenians, who surely have their own pronouns. We can speculate that Genly’s translated these narratives (although: not the ethnological reports, which I think were written by women from Genly’s society), and so they’re also subject to his construction (as they assuredly are anyway, per that first sentence), but I don’t think this is speculation that goes anywhere, and at some point along that line of speculation the gap between protagonist and author narrows to a width so tiny it’s not worth mentioning any more. Which is to say: the universal male pronoun is ultimately an authorial choice, no matter the semantic slippage that’s happening along the way. And it’s a problematic choice.

Ah, but: as I said at the beginning of this post, gender is only one of many things The Left Hand of Darkness is interested in. (And, for the record, I don’t think its treatment of gender is entirely problematic: it’s certainly always refreshing to read something that tries to reconstruct gender and sexual norms so thoroughly.) It’s also interested in duality, change, survival, politics, war, time, shared humanity; it’s a portrait of a world and a character and a relationship all at once. Above all, it’s dialectic, not didactic: it leaves space for conversation, contemplation, reinvention. I liked it. I’m glad I read it. That’s all; that’s enough.

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