World without Gender:

Revisiting The Left Hand of Darkness

My husband Peter and I just got back from two weeks in France. We started our holiday in the town of Sarlat in the Dordogne region, which is a nine-hour car trip from Bern. Not only did we drive back two weeks later, but we used the car a lot during the vacation to visit the area’s medieval castles, Romanesque churches, and magnificent gardens. In spite of all the beautiful scenery, that’s a lot of driving. 

So we took audiobooks. On the way to France we listened to Andy Weir’s Hail Mary, which we enjoyed a lot.  On the way back to Switzerland we listened to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is what I want to write about.

I got to know Le Guin’s writing as a child through her Earthsea Trilogy, which tells stories about the accomplishments of the wizard Ged. The three books are exciting; they’re also a profound meditation on how and why we let evil into our lives—or choose to reject it. Beautifully written and moving, I think the trilogy works for adults as well as young people (Beware, though—the books contain not one jot of humor.)

In 1969, a year after the first Earthsea book came out, Le Guin published The Left Hand of Darkness, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, science fiction’s highest honors. (Hugo winners are chosen by readers; Nebula winners by scifi and fantasy writers.)  Ostensibly, TLHoD is about an envoy from the Ekumen, a union of eighty-three civilized worlds, to a planet called Gethen, also known as Winter, because even during the summer months the temperatures barely rise above freezing. The envoy, Genly Ai, wants Winter to join the Ekumen, and he has been in Karhide, one of the planet’s two large countries, for over a year, trying to win an audience with the king to tell him about the Ekumen’s offer of membership. Before Ai landed on the planet, its people were unaware that other inhabited worlds existed, and the only person who believes in Ai and supports his cause is Karhide’s prime minister, Estraven.  But Ai doesn’t trust Estraven at all.

This book can be read as an adventure story, and it is truly exciting, as both Genly Ai and Estraven face one catastrophe after another, first separately and then together. In particular, the section of the book describing their life-threatening three-month trek across mountains and glacial ice at temperatures far below zero degrees Fahrenheit is gripping and superbly described.

TLHoD is also a fascinating political study that compares the very different intrigues and power struggles in two countries: Estraven’s homeland Karhide, with its more or less feudal system of government, and the other main country on the planet, Orgoreyn, a totalitarian state that Le Guin seems to have based on the Soviet Union. (Don’t forget, this was 1969).

What makes the book extraordinary, however, are the planet’s inhabitants. Winter’s people are neither male nor female but simply human. Physically, they are more or less like us, but with the capacity to enter a fertile state once a month and develop into one sex or the other, depending on who arouses them. Anyone can become a mother, anyone a father. The planet has birth control, so once a month every mature adult who doesn’t choose to be celibate will guiltlessly and joyfully couple with someone (including, perhaps, a life partner) and then revert to being a sexless, genderless human being.

As if the story of a people never classified by their sex weren’t interesting enough, we are presented with Genly Ai’s response to them.  Ai is a man, with ideas of manhood and womanhood that might have been old-fashioned even in 1969, and his whole concept of Self and Other is shaken to bits by not being able to identify those around him as male or female. This overwhelming uneasiness is what causes him to distrust Estraven, whom he desperately wants to conform to his image of a man, because that is the only kind of powerful person Ai knows how to interact with.

So the most important journey in the book is not Estraven and Ai’s astonishing crossing of the ice but Ai’s slow conquering of his prejudices and his growing attachment to Estraven.

The book has its faults, the main one for me being some of the mysticism that occasionally intrudes on the story. I’d describe this as a sometimes interesting and otherwise heavy-handed mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism with additional creative bits thrown in, all very reminiscent of the Sixties. (Remember I Ching, anyone?)  Also, as in most of Le Guin’s books, every step of the story is utterly serious. (If you want humor with your scifi, read Weir’s Hail Mary, which is funny all the way through, despite being about the imminent destruction of the Earth.)

Nevertheless, everything in The Left Hand of Darkness that has to do with sex and sexuality is still as topical and intriguing as ever. The idea of living in a society in which no one has a gender identity and everyone is “only” a human being is just as fascinating a thought-experiment today as it was in 1969.  And the contempt with which Genly Ai uses words like “effeminate” and “womanly” during the first two-thirds of the book are a chilling reminder of how little some things in our world have changed during the past fifty-two years.

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

2 thoughts on “World without Gender:

  1. I’m tempted to re-read Left Hand of Darkness. My LeGuin favorite, by far, is The Dispossessed, which is about a utopia and its relationship with a capitalistic, sexist world that is reminiscent of our country, though even more so. I didn’t like Left Hand of Darkness, and I know that I am in the minority of LeGuin fans.

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