Holding The Left Hand of Darkness



Holding The Left Hand of Darkness


With our last post, we disgruntled some readers by taking examples from mainstream fantasy rather than LGBT fantasy and you may be thinking that I’ve done it again. It’s probably true, because The Left Hand of Darkness, or LHD as I’ll call it for short, is not an LGBT book. But it is a Q book. Or at least, it has been, for me, the only book I have ever read that gave me a glimpse of what life would be like in a society where people were more like me.

This is a personal reminiscence, because this is a book very personal to me. It’s taken me a long time to work out what exactly it is that I am, because neither of those things are very high profile – I am genderqueer and I am asexual (though het romantic). These things took a long time to figure out because in my day (yes, I am that old) and in my suburban culture we didn’t have words for any of that stuff. I’ve mostly identified as ‘weird’ and ‘frigid’.

So intellectually I had no idea why, when I read this book first, twenty or so years ago, it hit me like a breath of paradise. It hit me like finding out I had somewhere where I was home. I still haven’t read another book that did the same thing (though some of my love for Sherlock Holmes comes down to recognising him as a fellow ace. Oh, I hate it when they give him a girlfriend!)

Anyway, scene setting aside, let’s talk about the book:

If you don’t know it already, it’s the story of Genly Ai, an ambassador from the Ekumen – a league of human planets – who is dropped off on Gethen (also known as Winter, from the climate) in an attempt to get the natives to join the league.

The inhabitants of Gethen are human, but for the majority of the time they are non-gendered and non-sexual. Every so often they go into a heat called kemmer, where they will manifest whichever gender fits their mood at the time and/or fits their chosen partner. They’ll get it on for a few days and then, if they become pregnant they and their extended family will raise the child. But when the child is born or if they don’t become pregnant, they’ll go back to being simply human again.

Genly Ai has remarkable difficulties with this. He also has difficulties with the subtle politics of the court of Karhide – the monarchist nation he tries talking to first. He mistakes his closest supporter, Estraven, for a sneaky double-dealing enemy, bums around for a while investigating Karhide’s practices of meditation and telling the future, and then decides to try his luck with the totalitarian nation over the border. There, he initially thinks everything’s going swimmingly well until he’s interred in a camp for dissidents, madmen and perverts. (‘Pervert’ meaning someone who is stuck in one gender.)

Estraven rescues him and they make an epic icy journey back to Karhide, where a shocking plot development means that Genly Ai succeeds in convincing the Gethenians to ally with the Ekumen.

When I read the book in my youth I thought that LeGuin was aware that Genly Ai was a dipstick, with his constant attempts to categorise Gethenian’s behaviours as either masculine or feminine. I thought it was obvious to everyone that everyone exhibited, or had the potential to exhibit, both kinds of behaviour – that the mere concept of gender was a crock, and she was aware of this.

This article suggests that I was wrong about that, and says “Stanislaw Lem (whose name carries the same sort of potency hers does) accused her of basically painting a false picture of Gethen — writing the Gethenians as men who very occasionally exhibited womanly characteristics, and thus hardly exploring the intriguing notion of what people who were both sexes at once would really be like.

And he is totally right. She kinda blows it.”

And here I have to hold on to my blood pressure. Really? People really think that gender is that binary? People really think that there is some mystic way in which men are real men and women are real women, and it differs from the fact that they are both human? Well, I don’t understand that idea, and you would think that having been born female would give me some insight into how mysteriously unknowable men are. The truth is that I find men and women identical, except that women are physically weaker, and therefore they have had to learn some survival techniques typical of slaves, oppressed groups and other people who are vulnerable to domination by force.

But as I say, maybe I feel this not because I’m right about gender, but because I am genderqueer myself. I feel no echo of recognition with the gender binary – I can’t place myself on one side or the other. That being so, I see Gethen not as “a bunch of dudes hanging out” but as a place where people are free to be people without being shoved into ill-fitting boxes by virtue of sex.

I do think that LHD slightly muffs the aspect of sexlessness, though, because most of it is told through Ai’s eyes and he – being a sexual person – is typically obsessed with it. To be fair, I suppose it is an aspect of society which has to be handled, and LeGuin needs to show how it would work in the context she has set for it. But surely not all Gethen’s stories revolve around kemmer? Perhaps that’s Genly Ai’s selection process at work. Certainly a society that is sex-free and gender-free remains a utopia for me, even though, since I’ve grown up I’ve gathered that LeGuin herself didn’t think so.

Although I concentrate on the sex and gender stuff, because that’s what makes this book resonate with me so much, there’s so much else in it which is wonderful. If I ever get a text tattoo it may well be “If this was the royal music, no wonder the kings of Karhide were all mad.” But I can see I’ve gone on too long already. What do you think?


14 responses

  1. Alex, I think you make an interesting point, that the world is shown through the eyes of a gendered person but that doesn’t necessarily make the world, perforce, gendered. If sociologists are correct, for example, gender is a societal construct whereas sex (here I mean the “sex” of an animal) is a biological fact. (I’ll leave out hermaphrodism for the moment because it complicates my point.) Since gender is a social norm, meaning a collective decision on the part of society, it stands that it’s not something that is static. What makes something “feminine” in Chicago might be entirely different in Mogadishu. That’s one of the reasons I love LeGuin’s writing, because she so often explores different aspects of this idea. Her Earthsea books aren’t obsessed with romance or sex, though later readers and the miniseries based on her work do focus on it. But the magic that the people use makes them asexual, unable to perform sexually. I found that idea fascinating, that the energy had to come from somewhere and it was a reasonable conclusion that it would come from sexuality.

    I find it interesting that you mention Sherlock Holmes, because I’ve been finding his asexuality fascinating recently. Like you, I get impatient when Hollywood tries to stuff him into a “regular” mold and give him someone to be sexual with; I get more impatient when that someone is Watson. Just because he isn’t into women sexually doesn’t automatically follow that he’d therefore be gay. It’s not an aspect of his personality that is developed, for whatever reason, and it makes me impatient when modern interpretations try to stuff him into a modern point of view. (That might sound like I’m saying he’s old-fashioned, and I don’t mean that; it’s more that since Mr. Doyle isn’t around folks can reinterpret his work without him being able to defend it himself.)

    • She seems to me to have come down fairly heavily on the ‘men and women are intrinsically different’ side, though, rather than the ‘gender is a societal construct’ side. Certainly the Earthsea books maintain that women’s magic is different – deeper but less powerful, less systematic, more domestic, and more morally dubious – from men’s magic. I think she takes gender essentialism as a given, which is why Genly Ai has such difficulty with things like deciding whether Estraven weighing their stores for the journey is ‘scientific’ or ‘housewifely’. Well duh, if you don’t worry yourself about the gender of the person doing it, the question is bogus, they are the same thing.

      *g* I quite like the BBC Sherlock, because I think it would be the assumption, nowadays, that two blokes who are as intimate with each other as Sherlock and Watson must be a gay couple. And everyone’s perplexity about what was going on with Irene Adler was quite true to life, I think – everyone’s trying to fit both that relationship and his relationship with Watson into the model of sexual relationships, and they go together so far but don’t really fit. The Robert Downey Junior films, OTOH, just mangle his character altogether. They were fun as semi-Steampunk romps, but not as Holmes films, I feel.

        • I’m not sure I’d put Tehanu on the table in a discussion of gender, since Tehanu is a dragon or at least a dragon-speaker. (I’m so excited, I just found out that I missed the fact she published a sequel to it that I haven’t read yet – so no spoilers, please, I’m waiting til payday to buy it.) But I agree, I found the relationship between Goha and Ged fascinating, particularly because they were bound to each other but not sexually, necessarily.

  2. Pingback: Alex Beecroft – Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction » Blog Archive » Posting on the LGBT Fantasy Fans and Writers blog

  3. I was very interested to read this because LHD is one of my most favourite books too, not because I identify with it but just because I love the characters so much. I’m not sure it really does convey what a genderless society would be like, but it certainly throws up some interesting ideas. Like you, I first read it a long time ago when no one was talking about these things. And you are completely right in that men and women are the same – it’s just that men get away with more!

    • I have to admit that I either fell in love with or wanted to be Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, which is another reason for me to dislike Ai. He was far too slow off the mark in that respect, though he got there in the end.

      *g* I imagine that men think exactly the same thing, but reversed ;)

  4. I love LHD but have always taken Genly Ai as a totally unreliable witness – as unreliable as Harry Potter. Maybe using him as a screen was LeGuin’s way of describing a society that she knew she couldn’t really comprehend?

    Sherlock Holmes is a perfect example of someone who just has no interest at all in sex. He’s far too cerebral. I’m satisfied that his fascination with Irene Adler was because she was the only woman he had ever met who was capable of out thinking him and definitely not because he was desperate to get in her pants. Robert Downey Junior’s depiction of Holmes is huge fun but doesn’t manage the terrifying callousness that the BBC Sherlock does so well.

    • Yes, my main problem with the book is just that Genly Ai is so obtuse. He trips up over his own prejudices everywhere. If it was only him, I’d say he was meant to be read as a bit of an idiot, but some of the other Ekumen visitors’ reports show the same thing. I always assume he’s meant to be an everyman, which is ironic, if you think of it from a gender essentialist pov, given that he was written by a woman.

      I’ve also always found it immensely cheering that Conan Doyle, who was a Victorian, decided to have his genius detective out-thought by a woman. Moriarty doesn’t get the better of Holmes in the end, but Irene Adler does – and Holmes admires her for it. That’s so progressive of Doyle that even modern film and TV writers keep failing to live up to it.

  5. I have to hang my head in shame and admit that I haven’t read this book yet. I keep *meaning* to. And I love Ursula K LeGuin so much that it’s silly that I haven’t…

    • I would do to, if many of her later books didn’t tend to support him. (Obviously he is unreliable in so far as ‘that Estraven is a big meany’ goes, but does that mean he’s shown to be unreliable as far as his assumptions on gender go?)