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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