Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

February 6, 2022

     I’m always glad to re-read anything by Ursula Le Guin. This time, it’s for my book group, and it’s also only a couple of years since I last read this one. Since then, I’ve learnt rather more about her background in anthropology, which casts an interesting light on her ‘thought experiments’ as she calls them, in the range of Hainish novels and stories. It’s the way she can make the reader think about our own particular species of humanity, its greatnesses and limitations, by imagining variations on the template, particularly in this novel in terms of gender and sexuality, that is the great success of her oeuvre.

The Left Hand of Darkness was written over half a century ago now, in the early days of the second feminist wave, and Le Guin’s later reflections on what and how she wrote back then are also interesting: she acknowledges that she comes across as having made the reader picture the androgynous Estraven as basically male, and being focused only on heterosexuality in her imagined society… However, what struck me most in reading around the novel this time was that she apparently started off with the premise of a planet which did nthought experiments,ot know war, and the androgyny of the inhabitants only came along after that.

We see the Envoy’s awkwardness – he is apparently a Terran, as we are – faced with the Gethenians; he cannot grasp the implications of their sexuality and often seems to put them down or demean them for not being clearly one gender or the other; this is significant, as clearly we are invited to remove our own blinkers when he is narrating the story.

So this novel is an anthropological experiment as much as a political story, with obvious undertones of the Cold War era whence it originates. The science fiction elements include faster-than-light travel and the ansible, an instant communication device which keeps the many planets of the Ekumen in contact with each other. Parts of the anthropological experiment are the skill of ‘foretelling’, and also ‘mind speech’, both of which are self-explanatory. The two nations of the planet which concern us are very different, one clearly a Soviet-style state and the other almost mediaeval; the well-intentioned Estraven, who can see what becoming part of the Ekumen will mean for his fellow-humans, attempts well-intentioned manipulations and duplicity, which inevitably lead to personal and political misunderstandings and disaster.

The title of the novel comes from the Tao Te Ching, and Le Guin produced what she called a ‘version’ of it in English; I have to say that when I read it, I felt that for the first time I was attaining some understanding of its wisdom. I came across a reference to someone writing a biography of Le Guin; I’m not normally one for reading biography but I shall be keeping an eye open for that, most certainly.

Finally I have to mention how well Le Guin writes; this is no run-of-the-mill, plot driven science fiction with wooden characters and stilted writing. This is literature that deserves to last, and, at the moment, I think it will.

3 Responses to “Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness”

  1. Joachim Boaz Says:

    I’ve been reading a lot about Joanna Russ recently — and the schisms within the more feminist wing of SF of the day. Russ was very critical of Le Guin and her general lack of women characters but simultaneously praised the extreme skill present in the novel.

    I remember adoring this one as a teenager. I should reread… but… I don’t want to break the spell!

    Liked by 1 person

    • litgaz Says:

      I remember reading a lot of Joanna Russ back in the days when I was doing my research degree. I liked what I read but have never felt called to go back, whereas Le Guin always calls. There’s something much deeper about her work; the feminism is there, but the thought experiments are so much more engaging, somehow.

      Like

      • Joachim Boaz Says:

        Check out Gwyneth Jones’ recent monograph on Russ — Joanna Russ (2019). It might rekindle your interest! Especially the scandal around We Who Are About To… (1976) — my favorite of her works.

        Like


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