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July 2019: The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin)

posted Aug 9, 2019, 5:56 PM by East Bay Smith Club
Our July meeting was on July 9th at Charmaine Detweiler’s house in
Lafayette.  There were ten of us in attendance, which seemed a pretty good
showing for a summer meeting.  Our book for the month was Ursula K. Le
Guin’s 1969 science-fiction/fantasy classic The Left-Hand of Darkness.  The
novel’s central character is a man named Genly Ai, a representative of a
confederation of planets who is sent to a distant and largely ice-bound
planet called Gethen.  Ai’s mission is to inform the inhabitants of Gethen
of the existence of life beyond their world and to ask them to join his
confederation.   

The planet is populated by humanoids who are not that different from Ai,
except that the Gethenians are naturally androgynous.  They develop male or
female sexual organs for only a few days a month, and they can never be sure
which organs will develop.  So, the same individual can both father and
mother children.   The novel is, in part, an exploration of the differences
that this sort of gender fluidity creates in the societies of Gethen, and
how those differences puzzle and challenge Genly Ai.  However, such matters
are only part of the story, and Ai soon gets caught up in, and almost
destroyed by, the complicated political tensions between the two largest
nations on the planet.  To save his life and mission, Ai has to take a
perilous, 80 day journey across a large and uninhabitable ice field with the
help and guidance of a single Gethenian ally, a political exile named
Estraven.   Slowly, the challenges of surviving in this harsh environment
breaks down the differences between them.  What was in opposition becomes
complementary, what was incomprehensible becomes deeply familiar.  

In one way, the novel is a love story.  Life on Gethen is almost constantly
a struggle for survival, and this sometimes drives the people on its surface
apart.  However, as Genly Ai and Estraven’s journey proves, sometimes the
struggle against death and despair is what brings finite beings most closely
together.  It reveals the value and strength of life, while highlighting its
ultimate fragility and vulnerability.   It can give rise to deadly conflict,
but it can also inspire trust, fellowship and remarkable acts of
self-sacrifice.  

Our reactions to the book were pretty mixed.  I think it is fair to say
that some were turned off by the genre of the story.   Not only was it
science-fiction, but it was a strange sort of science fiction.  It was set
in the future of interstellar travel, and the people of Gethen were a
relatively advanced civilization technologically, but still the book read as
if this was a medieval world, with some quite primitive habits and social
structures.  (Genly Ai must appeal to king’s and negotiate court politics,
for example.)  The book was heavy with description, but still some of us
found it hard to imagine themselves into this world.    This wasn’t true for
all of us, however.  I grew up reading both fantasy and science fiction and
I found Le Guin’s descriptions so compelling, that the novel played like a
movie in my head as I read the pages. 

We all shared some reservations, however, about the degree to which this
can be classified as a feminist novel.   Le Guin is definitely a hero to
many feminists for her success in the extremely male dominated field of
science-fiction and for her role in improving the literary merits of her
field.  It is also clear that her portrayal of an ambisexual alien species
with fluid gender identities and, thus, without traditional gender roles,
was absolutely ground-breaking at the time.  It is no wonder that this book
continues to gain new fans today.  Nonetheless, to many of us the book
seemed very male focused.  Genly Ai is a man, and he uses male pronouns to
refer to the Gethenians that he meets, unless they are pregnant or clearly
show feminine traits.  The book also reads like a boy’s adventure tale,
echoing at first tales of kingdoms and knights and, then, tales of artic and
mountain explorers.  It is sometimes not clear if gender roles have
disappeared from Gethen, or just one gender.    

In the PBS documentary on LeGuin, she recognized the fairness of this
concern.   She said that the feminist critiques of The Left-Hand of Darkness
made her realize that she had crafted a space for herself in science fiction
by proving that she was a woman who was really good at writing men.   In
subsequent books, she strived to find a more meaningful way of writing women
into the genre.

That being said, there is much still to admire in The Left-Hand of
Darkness.  If you have any interest in science fiction or fantasy, I think
it is definitely worth reading.  Ursula Le Guin had an amazing talent for
turning thought experiments into rich, evocative and dramatically compelling
fictions.  (Read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to see her do this
masterfully in a few short pages.).    It was fascinating to contemplate how
the world would be if gender identities were only ever temporary.   The
world Le Guin described was harsh, unappealing and cruel in many respects,
but it was also rich, captivating and, ultimately, deeply human.
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