The Left Hand of Darkness  (1969)

Ursula K. Le Guin

Winner of the Nebula Award in 1969; the Hugo Award in 1970


The first science fiction novel, it is largely agreed, was Frankenstein. However, the field has since been dominated by male writers who have made the domain of science fiction almost exclusively male. Indeed, in his book Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss describes the genre as an "all-male escapist power fantasy" and calls its writers "Philistine-male-chauvinist pigs" who work in the "Ghetto of Retarded Boyhood." The heroes that these male writers created were generally immature men seeking to remain forever young and powerful, playing with imaginative and powerful toys, hoping to escape from girls or women, mothers or wives, as well as to avoid the responsibilities of a demanding reality, enclosing themselves in their exclusive men's club.

Needless to say, all these heroes were virile males served by their followers, the female characters. With all their invention and often daring imagination, these writers failed to explore alternative roles for women in a future society. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the lions in the genre, had hardly any place for women in their fantasies. Other writers who did employ female characters pictured the relationships between the heroes and their women largely along the same lines as did the existing society: women as assistants to men, women in the role of entertaining dolls. A classic example is the story "Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey (1938) which features a man who builds a robot programmed to be a perfect wife. These writers, naturally, aimed their stories mainly at male readers, mostly young boys who often stopped reading science fiction novels once they grew up.

In her fine introduction to Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, herself a prolific science-fiction writer, calls traditional science fiction "an escapist literature for men and boys." She claims that women have traditionally been discouraged from entering scientific and technological fields, based on two assumptions: first, that women lack the aptitude, and second, that they are essentially intuitive rather than rational, and are "hostile to any kind of intellectual exploration." Few women dared to invade the field and even when they did, they imitated their male colleagues. Catherine Moore, for example, wrote from the male point of view, "a necessity," Pamela Sargent explains, "for anyone who wished to publish in the pulp magazines which had dominated American sf since the 1920s."

However, a change began to take place after World War II, when some women science-fiction writers joined the field. However, they too, like their male colleagues, usually presented housewife heroines, passive, naive, ignorant child-raisers, who solve problems not through their intelligence and daring but through ineptitude or accident. But it was only in the 1960s that women science-fiction writers began to question the very nature of science fiction, and as a result, took it in a completely new direction: software replaced hardware, human relationships replaced technology, social science took the place of the physical sciences. Substance and emotional content introduced depth and meaning into what had often been flat, boy scouts' literature.

In 1973 Brian Aldiss said that much of the best writing in science fiction of that time was done by women who brought the genre closer to mainstream fiction. Although much of today's science-fiction writing is still male-oriented power fantasies, serious writers such as Ursula LeGuin or Joanna Russ have turned the best of science fiction into writing worthy of serious consideration and literary criticism. Pamela Sargent, in her introduction to Women of Wonder, presents an intriguing quote by Harlan Ellison: "... women are writing many of the things male sf writers thought could never be written, they are opening up whole new areas to us ..."

In the light of this history, Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness presents a real change. Human relationships take center stage; everything else is subordinate to the development of a profound and meaningful relationship between two human beings. The great achievement of The Left Hand of Darkness is the creation not of a new technology or of science-fiction gadgets but rather of a new society of truly equal human beings. It is her depth of thought, emotional involvement, strong moral values, and philosophical thinking that place LeGuin among the very top contemporary science-fiction writers.

In her article "Is Gender Necessary?" written in 1976, seven years after the publication of The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin herself openly discusses what inspired her to write The Left Hand of Darkness. It was, she writes, in the mid-1960s when the women's movement began to awaken after half a century of stagnation. Although as a writer she had never been treated unfairly or patronizingly on account of her sex, LeGuin was bothered by the question that besieged many women then and even now: What is a woman? This question had motivated the French philosopher and writer, Simone de Beauvoir, to write what has been considered the bible of the women's movement, The Second Sex (France 1949, United States 1953), the exploration of women's situation throughout the ages. This question also inspired the American feminist Betty Friedan to write The Feminine Mystique (1963).

In "Is Gender Necessary?"  LeGuin, suprisingly, rejected the notion that hers was a "feminist" book. Although she considered herself a feminist (holding that every thinking woman is a feminist), she emphasized that "the real subject of the book is not feminism or sex or gender ... it is a book about betrayal and fidelity." However, in 1987, eleven years later, LeGuin revised her essay, or rather added comments that attest to her own growth as a conscious feminist. In "Is Gender Necessary? Redux" she admits to having been defensive and resentful that critics had concentrated on the gender problems "as if it were an essay, not a novel." In her revision she writes that "there are other aspects of the novel" inextricably involved with its gender aspects.

In The Left Hand of Darkness LeGuin has aspired to reach beyond the question of "What is a woman?" to broader and deeper questions of "What is sexuality?" and "What is the meaning of gender?" Besides physiological differences, are there really any differences between men and women? Being a novelist, her explorations of these questions are the basis of The Left Hand of Darkness.

To be precise, the book does not offer ultimate answers, and readers will not find there the answer to the basic question of "What is a woman?" Actually, when the male Envoy from Earth is asked by his friend from the new planet to explain what a woman is, he embarrassedly hesitates, fails, and finally admits that he does not know what a woman is. But more important than the answers are the questions and the hypothesis that LeGuin offers, in her "thought-experiment," as she calls the novel in her intriguing introduction. The book serves as "the record of my consciousness, the process of my thinking" in the laboratory of the mind. It offers alternative modes of thinking not about the future but about ourselves in the present.

The result? "Messy," according to LeGuin, "dubious and uncertain." The same experiment done by someone else, she maintains, and even by herself several years later, "would probably give quite different results" (in her revision she replaces the word "probably" by "certainly").
However, LeGuin has been frequently criticized for making her Gethenians, although they are menwomen, too much like men. Feminists have accused her of not going far enough and for using male protagonists. In her recent essay, "The Fisherman's Daughter" (1988), LeGuin admits that these critics were right, that until the mid 1970s "men were the central characters, the women were peripheral, secondary." And she adds that feminism has empowered her to criticize her society, herself, and feminism itself.

All that aside, in the New Republic, Derek de Solla Price emphasizes that he knows of no "single book [that is] likely to raise consciousness about sexism more thoroughly and convincingly than this one."

The Story:

The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of how Gently Ai, a mobile of the Ekumen, comes to the world Gethen. Gethen is a cold planet, always covered in snow and ice. The people living on it are peculiar in that that they are androgynous - sometimes male, sometimes female.

This story must be pieced together from various points of view -- much as the anthropologist, Genley Ai, has to piece together his understanding of Gethan culture and politicas. Basically, the story alternates between the perspectives of Genley Ai, the Gethan Estraven, and the gnomic mysteries of Gethan myths, with one interpolated report from a visiting team of anthropologists.

Genly Ai narrates Chapters 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 13, 15, 18, 19, 20 Estraven narrates Chapters 6, 11, 14, 16. The shift of narrators in Chapter 6 is quite disorienting. Various Gethan myths and legends are presented in Chapters 2, 4, 9, 17 12. See below for suggestions to help with interpretations. The Gethan sexual arrangments are explained by the Report in Chapter 7.

A very important part of understanding a culture is learning its language. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- often invoked by anthropologists -- holds that every culture's reality is at least to some degree created by their language; among other things a language shows what a culture thinks is important enough to name. (Inuit Eskimos have 30 different works for snow, for example.) So, understanding the meaning of key Gethan terms is crucial to understanding their culture.

The most important word/concept for Genly Ai, and us, to master is shiftgrethor. References to this idea of pride, place, self-image occur on pp. 7, 11, 13, 14, 16, 32, 40, 48, 70, 79 , in the begining of the book. Note all further references to this key term and begin to explain what all it means.

Electronic Sources:

Le Guin has written an introduction to science fiction in general and this novel in particular that you might find interesting. It can be found at Le Guin's introduction brings up a number of issues that are crucial to the novel. In particular, the dichotomy between truth and lies in which lies turn out to be truer than truth, sets up a pattern of oppositions which deconstruct each other that is a major theme throughout the novel. Other dichotomies which line up in this way include: light/dark, male/female, spring/winter/ yin/yang, kemmer/somer, shiftgrethor/mind speech, Karhide/ Orgoryen, Handara/Yomesh.

You might also be interested in an interview Rebecca Rass, Assistant Professor of English at Pace University has transcribed.

Study Questions:

Does the structure of the novel (narrative, folklore report, diary) aid the progress of the novel?
Is Estrevan's androgyny real? Why or why not?
Is androgyny essential to the story itself or would the story essentially be the same without it?

The culture of the Ekumen is not exactly the same as ours -- even though they are biologically heterosexual. What words/ concepts help us to understand the Ekumen?
Is the background clearly described?