Left Hand of Hmmm

by Sally Z

Sally Z on 'The Left Hand of Darkness'.
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(This whole review I'm going to using gender dichotomies all over the place, so please take it as given that I'm referring to generalizations only.)

I really enjoyed The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin, so I was quite looking forward to Left Hand of Darkness, which is considered to be one of her best works and generally a classic. It had a lot that was good about it, and the bad parts weren't bad so much as they just didn't work for me, but I was expecting to love it, so I was disappointed.

Warning: mild spoilers ahead.

Basically, it's a story of an emissary from an interplanetary federation trying to open up negotiations on an ice planet (code name: Winter) inhabited by a species of ambisexual humans. Each individual spends most of their time physically intersexual and erotically asexual. Once a month (except for pregnant or lactating individuals) there are a few days of sexual attraction (“kemmer”), during which the members of an erotic relationship become fully female or male (there's no choice which, and it seems to be random) and procreation, sexual bonding, etc. ensue.

What I found interesting about the way LeGuin handled this is that these people aren't the asexual, relatively emotionless beings of a lot of sci fi but rather seem to really combine stereotypical attributes of male and female - predominantly: ambition/political awareness coupled with intuition/holistic awareness. Moreover, there's no dichotomy between the two modes. I can't think of any other fantasy or sci fi that imagines a world quite like this.

On top of that, we have two rival societies to play with. One, Karhide, is kind of like a feudal combination of Viking and Inuit society. It consists of many domains loosely loyal to a central ruler, but each person's loyalty is primarily to their own family/tribe. Pride is a big, big, big, big deal - vengeance murders and exile are fairly common punishments for transgressions. The other society seemed to be similar to Karhide in the past - they share an ancestral culture - but has consolidated itself into a bureaucratic communist state. Pros: Full employment, material comforts, low crime rate. Cons: State controlled everything, lack of personal ambition and volition, gulags.

One of LeGuin's major strengths is world-building, and she has done a fantastic job here. Furthermore, between the emissary's travels and the chapters interspersed with myths and legends, we get to understand quite a bit of the planet, and it never feels like a slog. Unlike The Wizard of Earthsea, another LeGuin classic (or, ahem, Lord of the Rings), I felt like LeGuin got to include everything she wanted to without ever forcing or outright disregarding the story.

A big plus here is Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide, who really epitomizes and personalizes Karhide. S/he is an all-around awesome character - intelligent, strong, and subtle, complete with tragic past. Probably my favorite thing about Ai, the central narrator, is the way we get to experience his slowly evolving relationship with Estraven.

Which brings me to the major flaw I found with the book: Ai, the emissary. Similar to Dispossessed, the main viewpoint character is a relatively clueless outsider, which is a handy device for instructing the reader. But whereas in Dispossessed the outsider is an anarchist among capitalists, in LHoD the outsider is a male ambassador who is constantly freaked out by the ambisexual societies around him.

There are two problems with this, as it's handled. One: Ai never felt real to me - I would guess because LeGuin was trying to write a character counter-intuitive to her own personality. He was supposed to be this reasonably macho male, but from the inside of his own head, much of the time he sounded fairly feminine himself - and not in a clever, psychologically reasonable way, but like LeGuin was writing things as they made sense to her, and she writes like a woman - intuitive, emotionally interested. When she tried to make Ai seem overtly macho to me it still sounded like a female psychologist narrating the unspoken, subconscious feelings of threatened masculinity.

The other thing is that, if Ai were as locked in to gender roles as he believed himself to be, he seemed an extremely unlikely choice to be the sole gendered representative to an entire planet of ambisexuals. Unlike the main character in Dispossessed, whose journey to a different society made complete sense, I kept trying to invent some sort of logical backstory for Ai: Maybe no one else wanted the job. Maybe he had seemed very intersexually sensitive back on earth. Maybe his discomfort was part of the plan. ...But no. It didn't work. I never shook the conviction that Ai existed simply as a fictional construct with which LeGuin could explore gender in her imaginary world.

Looking back on it, I wish LeGuin had written a different book that took place in Karhide and starred Estraven and had nothing to do with anywhere else. Even though the bureaucratic society is mildly interesting in itself, the contrast with Karhide is, if anything, too drastic. It's obvious which is the society we're rooting for, and the collective takes valuable page time away from Karhide. Furthermore, the two societies don't really seem to speak to and about each other in a particularly interesting way - unlike, for example, the way a fictionalized juxtaposition of the US/USSR might make some very insightful comments on each society simply by setting them next to each other. Karhide and Orgota are just different evolutions of the same starting point with conflicting interests, and they share a fence.

So Orgota can go, and really the Ai plot (aka the novel's reason for being) can go, too, except that it makes such an excellent device with which to explore Karhide. One the other hand, the whole idea of the galactic federation emissary is cool - I do like the glimpses we get of his society. I really really really like that they conceive of their own mission in an intuitive, story-telling sort of way. They send a non-threatening individual to make contact following recon missions of explorers in disguise. This experience transforms both the society and the ambassador and sets the stage for what is primarily cultural trade. It's classic LeGuin concept, feminist in the sense of being an intuitive and cooperative rather than concrete and competitive, but at the same time it rather belies the supposed differences between the gendered and non-gendered societies that she's trying to depict.

In conclusion, LeGuin is, as always, a top-notch writer - intelligent, interesting, subtle, sympathetic - and The Left Hand of Darkness is good enough that I wish it had been better
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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 15:08 on 2011-12-10
Weeee! I've been wanting to get a discussion about The Left Hand of Darkness going for ages! And ta-daaaa you wrote this!

I have a really ambivalent relationship to the book because I read it initially when I was teenager and it blew my tiny mind. As you say in this review, there's a lot that's really fascinating about the way it sets up its ideas, and the world building is fabulous, so I think it hit me really hard because it was the first time any text I'd read had engaged with these sort of issues.

And then I read it again about half a year ago and was really quite disappointed by it. I mean it's incredibly hard to get into and although the middle section is really engaging I found it overall deeply unsatisfying.

Although a friend of mine lent me her copy of 'The Birthday of the World', which is a short story collection, and that's absolutely wonderful, and addresses a lot of things that disappointed me about Left Hand.

LeGuin was writing things as they made sense to her, and she writes like a woman - intuitive, emotionally interested.

Although I agree with you that Ai isn't massively convincing (and it doesn't make sense that they would send Crap Dude to establish diplomatic relations with this new planet), I'm not sure I'd characterise LeGuin's writing as 'inherently' feminine (or like a woman). I'm very wary in general of gendering text.
valse de la lune at 16:00 on 2011-12-10
That and, for me anyway, I've always found le Guin's writing difficult to engage with emotionally.

And then I read it again about half a year ago and was really quite disappointed by it. I mean it's incredibly hard to get into and although the middle section is really engaging I found it overall deeply unsatisfying.

Although a friend of mine lent me her copy of 'The Birthday of the World', which is a short story collection, and that's absolutely wonderful, and addresses a lot of things that disappointed me about Left Hand.


Are you me? Seconding a vast and decisive preference for The Birthday of the World over Left Hand.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 23:17 on 2011-12-10
That's some strong recommendations so I guess 'The Birthday of the World' is going on my list. As it comes to Left Hand, I've found it curious how it is in some ways a very compelling story and in other ways it is not.

Perhaps there is a slight dissonance between the story Le Guin is trying to tell as compared to the very interesting world she created. For the story's purpose, Ai is needed, so we can have the contrast between a very set identity defined by gender contrasted to the fluid nature of the denizens of Winter. The alienation Ai feels is caused by his failure to connect with the denizens and their differnce to him and is underlined by his helplessness and uselessness in helping and comforting Estraven when s/he needs him the most, which in turn leads to his own anguish. But this of course is undermined by Ai's failure as a credible character, so the sense of alienation and sadness is perhaps not as powerful as it could be.

Was Ai there as an actual outsider alien? If so, perhaps the disconnect between the story's focus on the gender contrast is undermined by the way that the main protagonist and the other characters are not of the same species. Although I don't know whether that is important.

I myself do like the book, although it has been some time since i read it, even with its problems. Good review too.
http://roisindubh211.livejournal.com/ at 17:00 on 2011-12-12
Weird. I *just* reread this at the end of November.

it doesn't make sense that they would send Crap Dude to establish diplomatic relations with this new planet

Not just for this particular planet,either. I spent both reads of this book going "Is this guy for real? Who decided he had enough experience for this job?" I'd believe him as a "crashed here, now what?" outsider but he makes no sense as an ambassador, because he makes no effort to connect with people. Though I never considered that he's supposed to be this big macho guy- it didn't even register the first time I read LHoD and I barely noticed this second time around.
Andrew Currall at 19:00 on 2011-12-12
It's a while since I read tLHoD, but I think my overall reaction was similar- it's good, and has some interesting ideas, but it's not one of her best. I certainly liked it less than any of the original Earthsea trilogy or the only other Le Guin SF I've read- The Word for World is Forest.

I don't think I agree about Ai, though. I remember thinking he was a rather bland character, without much interesting about him in any dimension. Certainly Estraven is the most interesting character in the book- in fact one of my complaints would be that other than Ai and Estraven, there really are no other characters of any depth at all. I thought Ai worked, though- he's there to provide exposition by explaining the world from an outsider's perspective. I don't see how she could have done it without such a character.
Perhaps I'll read it again- my memory may be fuzzy in places.
valse de la lune at 20:17 on 2011-12-12
Not just for this particular planet,either. I spent both reads of this book going "Is this guy for real? Who decided he had enough experience for this job?" I'd believe him as a "crashed here, now what?" outsider but he makes no sense as an ambassador, because he makes no effort to connect with people. Though I never considered that he's supposed to be this big macho guy- it didn't even register the first time I read LHoD and I barely noticed this second time around.


I recall thinking that Ai was pretty misogynistic, or at the very least gender-essentialist, which... makes this even more nonsensical, in terms of in-story logic.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 23:24 on 2011-12-28
Um - wow. I HATED "the Word for World is Forest". It was so obviously an allegory for Vietnam that it just annoyed the heck out of me.

As for "Left Hand of Darkness", a book I still love, it seems that I am seeing three specific things in it that no one has yet mentioned.

1. Genly Ai, and the whole concept of an ambassador from the Ekumen. One of the things that's obvious to me is that this guy is *young*. And that is intentional. It's stated in the text that the way the Ekumen works, when they want to make contact, is by sending individuals to planets. These people are supposed to forge relationships with the 'aliens", and, whatever you think of him, Ai does manage to do that. Because -

2. At heart, this is a love story. Ursula LeGuin is always exploring human love and its boundaries, and I am still thrilled by the scene on the ice when Ai realizes his feelings for Estraven (what a name, btw!)

3. Also - I feel like quoting the chief of the dufflepuds here: "You've gone and missed the point! No one could have missed it cleaner or better." :)
Gethen is a planet that has never had a war. Karhide's political system, with its clans and its emphasis on shifthregor (sp?), can be very violent, but it's the new system that's arisen in Orgata that seems to be pushing the people of Winter toward wholesale slaughter. If you, as readers, don't like Orgata, that might be part of the point, too.

Summing up, I think LeGuin is doing three things here, and doing them very well. She's exploring how we define ourselves sexually, she's examining cultures and how and why they justify violence toward other cultures, and - primarily, and most importantly - she's telling a love story.

Anyway, it's one of my favorite books. As to the Gethenian physiology and culture, it makes sense that LeGuin can be more radical in a recent book than she was here. "The Left Hand of Darkness" was written in the 1960s. I really don't think anyone had ever imagined a culture like Gethen's much before this.

My two cents!
I recall thinking that Ai was pretty misogynistic, or at the very least gender-essentialist, which... makes this even more nonsensical, in terms of in-story logic.


Having just read this, I agree totally. He was fucking irritating for it and I didn't like being in his head and I was entirely unconvinced by that bit at the end where (not a huge spoiler I think but it does give away some stuff)
he meets up with the people waiting in the spaceship again and he's all disconcerted by their genderedness. After spending the whole book being weirded out and/or contemptuous whenever he thinks someone looks or acts "feminine"
. Yes, an outsider character was necessary to tell that particular story--and I was really engaged with the plot! It's why I kept reading; that and Estraven--but this character?
Ibmiller at 22:05 on 2013-03-12
Man...just read The Dispossessed, and despite the fact that I loved it, I just have very little desire to read Left Hand. I'm moving on to The Telling, hoping that it's more to my liking.

Also rereading Earthsea. Because I've not done that since I was a wee lad, over a decade ago.
http://baeraad.livejournal.com/ at 16:41 on 2013-06-08
Yeah, this was my reaction to the book too.

It's not that Le Guin can't write men. She can do that just fine. But she can't write macho men. All her male characters are of a thoughtful, mild-mannered, poetic bent - not to say that they don't sometimes behave badly, but when they do it is for thoughtful, mild-mannered, poetic reasons. Even her strawman chauvinists in the later Earthsea stories are of the benevolent-patriarchy, "don't you bother your little head with that" variety - they don't so much oppress women as ignore them as much as possible.

So as far as I could see, Ai was basically an emo, introspective type right up until the point, late in the novel, when Le Guin wanted to make a point of Estraven observing "masculine" traits in him, and then, for the first and only time, he turned into a boisterous hothead for five seconds. It just... wasn't convincing, at all.

But yeah, Estraven was cool. :) So was the setting, especially in how natural the gender situation started to feel after a while - you really believed that to the people there, it was the only way they could even imagine things being.
Michal at 19:04 on 2014-01-05
For anyone interested, I hosted a podcast about The Left Hand of Darkness late last year.

Putting in another vote for The Birthday of the World. The first short story explores kemmer without recourse to the outside observer pattern that Le Guin employed for most of the novels in the Hainish cycle. In fact, most of the stories in Birthday are narrated from insider perspectives, which was a refreshing change.
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