Benjamin's Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Jul 20, 10

bookshelves: audiobook

Two things:

First, let's start with that K.

That K is for Kroeber. Alfred and Theodora Kroeber were American anthropologists and writers, perhaps most famous for their work recording information about Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, and retelling his stories. (Alfred actually did the studying; Theodora, later, did the popular writing.) Ishi, so the story goes, wandered out of the wilderness, the last Indian who lived outside of European-American culture, and told Alfred what all of the Yahi artifacts were for now that his people were gone. They were so gone, in fact, that Ishi hadn't gone through a naming ceremony, which is why Alfred called him "Ishi," which is Yahi for "man."

I have a whole thing to say about Le Guin's humanist anti-Utopianism (see my entry on The Lathe of Heaven); but I want to start with the image of a man wandering from one world to another with a collection of stories to share--a man called "Man"--as being central to what makes The Left Hand of Darkness the book it is.

See, Left Hand is not original in its central plot motivation--the story of Genly Ai, human, come to study the androgynous neuter people of Gethen. Not even all of her anthropological detail is really unprecedented. This isn't to knock what she's doing here, but we should recognize that it's the same thing that Edgar Rice Burroughs does in his 1917 Princess of Mars.

In fact, there are some really interesting similarities between Le Guin's and Burroughs's books (ask me sometime how both fail to imagine pregnancy and history); but what sets Le Guin's apart is what's captured in that image of Ishi: Le Guin's book is not only more tragic, but much more interested in the notion of story-telling itself, and the many stories we tell in order to make sense of the world. The can be deceptive stories, as when the industrialized state of Orgoreyn ships Genly off as a deviant rather than deal with the fact of interstellar contact; or the stories can be enlightening, as when Genly reads Estravan's version of an experience they both shared but experienced differently.

And there is here, as in the story of Ishi, the twinned notions of continuance and loss--the last man, telling stories that go on after he is gone--which certainly differentiates this version of the "anthropologist on Mars" story from the Burroughsian planetary romance.

Second, gender, busting out in all the wrong places.

There are certain Cold War issues that Le Guin is working out with her two nations, but no one reads this book for its political stance on politics--people read this book for its investigation into the stakes of gender. As Le Guin says (somewhere), what's the first thing we ask about a newborn? Whether it's a boy or girl. So, from the very beginning, our notion of identity is tied up with our notion of gender; so, what happens when we remove that from the equation?

Le Guin has written essays and talked about the linguistic problem of English pronouns and she has revisited her stories to play with the pronouns; for instance, in the revision of "Winter's King," she uses female pronouns and male titles ("the king... she..."). She has said that she resisted inventing a neuter pronoun for the written work, since that would be a stumbling block for the reader; but that the audience seemed able to follow when she read Left Hand aloud with the invented neuter pronoun.

Even with the endemic linguistic problem, Left Hand is probably one of the most important science fiction works exploring the stakes of gender. (See also Joanna Russ's The Female Man.)

BUT! I think it's important to note that Le Guin avoids sex and pregnancy in order to preserve the normatively gender-less society. (That is, the normal state is genderless and the sexual state of kemmer is in some sense a crisis.) I'm not saying that there should be more sex in the book--though it's interesting that no successful kemmer states are shown; I'm saying that in order to prevent Gethen from becoming a gendered world, Le Guin has to avoid showing pregnancy, which is the state where gender adheres to the Gethenian body.

("Coming of Age in Karhide" attends to this somewhat, focusing on the pubescence of friends and lovers, but again, mostly avoiding direct representation of pregnancy.)

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