I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. This week we travel to the planet Gethen, also known as Winter, under the guidance of our first female Hugo author(!!!), Ursula K LeGuin. Dress for the weather and leave your gender identities at the door as we continue through sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!
The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K Le Guin
published in 1969
Genly Ai has been sent by the Ekumen to the frigid planet Winter, known to its inhabitants as Gethen. He is the sole emissary, the only extraGethenian, the only human, the only man on a planet of androgynes. In order to survive the harsh climate and harsher politics of Gethen, he must learn to navigate a world completely devoid of the sexual motivators with which he is familiar and to which he is accustomed by socialization and biology; he must learn to think and live as a person, not a man.
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
This book is a ninja in a snowball.
What I mean by that is, it snuck up on me. When I first finished it, I wasn’t that impressed. But over time…well, you’ll see. This review is even more stream-of-consciousness than usual; hopefully you can follow my mental evolution without too much trouble.
I wanted to like this book more than I actually did.
Well, maybe that’s not fair. I think I went into The Left Hand of Darkness wanting to be blown away. It’s a classic, after all, one of the Big Name Books on the Hugo List, like Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune, both of which I adored. So I had high expectations of challenging ideas and mental turmoil and a general “mind = blown” reaction, which is not what I got out of this.
On the other hand (would that be the Left hand or the right? Har, har), perhaps that is part of the book’s genius. It’s a remarkably quiet book. It doesn’t jump out and grab you with big ideas, any more than Le Guin jumps out and grabs her characters with shocking events. It’s subtler than that. The book is sedate, subdued, quiescent… but still powerful. Le Guin creates in the reader’s mind the feeling of patience that exists on Winter. Everything is slow, detached. Rare if any are the moments of violent emotional upheaval, in the characters or the reader, that I was expecting, which is perhaps why I finished it feeling a little… whelmed.
Whelmed is a good way to describe this book. I wasn’t overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions and ideas. I wasn’t underwhelmed by lack of them, either. I was… whelmed.
More and more I think of this book as a glacier, moving slowly, subtly, almost invisibly, but carving out great changes in the landscape nonetheless. The experience of reading it is still sitting there in the back of my brain, imperceptibly melting into my subconscious.
It’s definitely going on the ‘to re-read’ shelf.
The point of the book, I think, is how much our constant state of kemmer (to borrow the Gethenian’s language), the heteronormative paradigm in which we live, drives our lives. How the social ideas of male and female and the biological need and/or desire for sex and sexual reproduction shapes everything we do. It is the framework in which we live. It is not just the dominant paradigm, but THE PARADIGM of human existence.
The lack of that frenetic reproductive energy is what makes the world of Gethen so alien. The genius of the book is the way in which Le Guin manages to create the world of Winter in the reader’s mind, even though the reader is, by necessity, steeped in the heteronormative-reproduction paradigm.
Maybe that’s why this book is so good. Maybe that’s why the book was so challenging to so many in 1970. Maybe that’s the point.
I wonder if some of my disconnect with this book, or at least the disconnect between my expectations of it and my experience with it, comes from reading it as a proud (if inexperienced, and thus occasionally clumsy) WisCon-going intersectional feminist. My ideas about gender and sexuality, while probably still pretty conventional by WisCon standards (and yes, that is the standard to which I hold myself; make of it what you will), are much more advanced and nuanced than those of the average science fiction reader of 1970. The idea of a whole world of androgynes is not shocking to me. I even wrote a short story about a planet of androgynes in high school (although from a much different angle and with much less skill than Le Guin!)
Since I do spend a lot of time thinking about sex and gender and sexuality, their infinite variations, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which they influence both the life experience of the individual and the shape of society, the idea of a non-heteronormative society was less foreign to me that it might be to others, especially others forty-plus years ago. Maybe that’s also why the profundity of it was harder for me to see; it wasn’t as jarring to me as it might be to some other people.
But the more I think about The Left Hand of Darkness, the more I am in awe of the world Le Guin has created and the assumptions she has challenged. One of the things is strongly believe is that the goal of speculative fiction (and many other creative endeavors) is to force us to question the assumptions we don’t even know we’re making. How many of us are really aware of the extend to which our lives are governed by the heteronormative reproduction paradigm? Even I, for all my aspirations, take it for granted far more than I should. In some ways, it’s a mark of my privilege; as a heterosexual ciswoman, I know where I fit in the dominant real-world sex-gender-sexuality paradigm. I may not always like the role I’m forced into, but I know what it is and navigate through it largely unconsciously.
Clearly I have more thinking to do. Briefly, the social review!
Race: EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER IS A POC!!!!!!!!!!!!! I think. It’s possible that one or more of Genly’s shipmates are white, but they barely count even as token characters. And skin color is not described in the incredibly problematic language of food and the like – a character’s skin is brown, yellow, red-brown, yellow-brown…
Gender/Sexuality: Pretty well covered above, I hope! I’m not sure how I feel about Le Guin’s choice to use male pronouns for the androgynous Gethenians; I would have preferred something gender-neutral, but I don’t know how common labels like “zie” were in 1969.
Other: …nothing really that I recall?
As you can see from my review, the book has given me a lot of food for thought. Over the course of time from when I first read it to my final edit tonight, my opinion of it changed significantly, and for the better. I will definitely be re-reading it, and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone!
OVERALL RANKING: 10 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).