As an exemplar of anthropological SF, The Left Hand of Darkness is a LeGuin classic. As a disquisition on gender issues, however, it hasn’t aged as well as I’d imagined.
Darkness is part of LeGuin’s Hainish cycle of novels, a loose collection of stories set in a universe where humanity has evolved in parallel on different planets. Darkness takes place on the planet Winter, or Gethen to its natives – a planet gripped in the throes of an ice age. But what really sets Gethen apart – and by extension, the book – is that its inhabitants are essentially sexually latent androgynes for most of their lives, only developing secondary sexual characteristics (whether male or female is essentially random) during certain times of the month.
The book’s protagonist, Genly Ai, is a baseline human from Earth, a representative from the Ekumen, an association of human worlds, come to offer Gethen membership among its ranks. But he’s caught up in the complex tangle of Gethen’s geopolitics and ultimately sent to a gulag, until he is rescued by Estraven, once Prime Minister of Karhide, a nation on Gethen, now exiled by the whims of his mad monarch. Estraven helps Genly out of a sense of obligation to him and also out of a wish to see Gethen uplifted into the ranks of the Ekumen. Together, the two embark on an epic trek across the Gethenian ice to find safe haven.
The book, like others in its loose cycle, leads the reader to understand and empathise with its painstakingly built other-cultures. In Darkness, the reader has Genly as a narrative figure who starts out in a position of distrust and misunderstanding, but who, through the process of crisis and through Estraven’s companionship, begins to understand and form a connection with his host culture – to get skin in the game, so to speak.
I think Darkness does this particularly well. Darkness is a poetic study of gaining understanding and perspective through adversity. The development of Genly’s and Estraven’s friendship as they trudge through the frozen north is the best part of the book. LeGuin’s crystalline prose describes the Gethenian cold in terms of stark geologic beauty, using it as a plot device to bring two characters together in combined resistance to the elements. In the space of a short section of the book the prospect of their rapprochement transformed from an absurdity to something with real emotional weight.
LeGuin’s worldbuilding in the main is also on point. Her vision of Gethen, with its society and politics shaped by the lack of gender and sex-driven motivations, is a compelling one. They raise their children in communal creches, owing to the lack of gendered division of labor to define parental roles in a family context. Gethenian religion focuses on the essential duality inherent in every person – light and darkness, male and female. Gethen has never experienced war between nations, attributed by Genly to a lack of sexually-mediated militancy or nationalistic drive. And they are in a kind of technological homeostasis – they’ve had motorcars and electricity for thousands of years, but have never got it in their heads to develop flight. It seems fitting with the cold climate – an elemental metaphor of the slow burn of Gethenian progress, and the weight of their long history. Gethen is LeGuin’s exploration what society would look like if gender and sexuality were not important parts of its psychosocial fabric.
For that reason, Darkness is often called one of the seminal works of feminist science fiction, because it tries to imagine society without sexual divisions. I do think, however, that in this respect, the book hasn’t really aged that well.
In one respect, the book is about Genly’s own journey from being a dyed-in-the-wool chauvinist to someone who tries to actively combat the urge to see people in a gendered light. But his initial chauvinist attitude is also a bit hard to take seriously, at least in the way he presents it, because he’s so nakedly contemptuous of feminine qualities. There’s also the exclusive use of the masculine pronoun and terms of reference – everyone is described as a ‘man’, and terms like “Lord” and “King” are used to describe positions of authority. Then there’s the almost exclusive depiction of only the more stereotypically masculine aspects of civilisation in Gethenian society – its characters are soldiers, lords, politicians and military police – but we don’t get a sense that they also perform the more traditionally feminine roles in civilisation. In a supposedly post-gendered society without sexual division of labor, this lack of detail of who performs these “feminine” tasks is a gaping hole. While LeGuin does try to present the dispositions and demeanors of certain characters as feminine, it’s rarely more than telling the reader that so-and-so seemed feminine from Genly’s perspective, but that femininity is rarely shown.
But given that the book was written in 1969, in a time of more restrictive sexual mores, it feels unreasonable to harangue the book for what would have been seminal at the time of writing, especially in terms of its postmodern approach to storytelling – such as the frequent changes in POV and the use of disordered narrative sequencing, LeGuin’s way of bucking the literary trends of a male-dominated profession. Darkness, for its prose, its textured take on worldbuilding, and for its seminal nature, remains a classic of the genre.
I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 magic heaters