Reading The Left Hand of Darkness as a Genderqueer Person

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The cover of the most recent edition (from Penguin Random House)

Last week I was zooming with my mentor and, at one point during the conversation, we discussed my recent realization that I don’t fit into the gender binary. I’ve come to understand myself as non-binary (“enby”) or genderqueer (see for more info). As often happens, our conversation also touched on science fiction and books we’d been reading. She asked if I knew Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). I’ve heard of it (and been recommended it) but hadn’t read it yet. I decided to take the pandemic as an opportunity to finally read it. And, despite the fact that a Google search returns at least 6 reviews on the first page of results (several of which were written by authors I deeply respect), I wanted to write about it to process my thoughts and feelings. I’ll get something out of it and, at the very least, another gender-minority voice in the discussion about a landmark book on gender can’t be a bad thing.

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, a Terran from a far future where humans from dozens of planets have united under a knowledge-sharing coalition called the Ekumen, and his mission to invite the humans of the newly discovered, icy world of Gethen to join the coalition. (This book is part of Le Guin’s “Hainish Cycle,” which gives readers diverse glimpses into the various kinds of human life across the Ekumen worlds, all seeded by ancestral humans from the planet Hain.) A first-contact representative of the Ekumen, Ai arrived on Gethen prior to the start of the novel. He arrived alone and with minimal advanced technology, as is the Ekumen’s policy for such engagements, to avoid a colonizer-colonized (or invader-invaded) relationship. Through the course of the novel, we follow Ai’s nearly ethnographically embedded journey in the kingdom of Karhide, and then later in the bureaucratic police-state of Orgoreyn.

The novel is sort of epistolary in form: it alternates between “fieldnotes” in which Ai records his efforts, a journal of Estraven’s, and Gethenian historical records which include myths and folktales. Importantly, this means that nearly all of the narration comes to the reader through the voice and mind of a character. With the exception of one report written by another, earlier Ekumen visitor, the only non-Gethenian perspective the reader gets is Ai’s. Because of this, Le Guin has a potential for a double layer of commentary: Ai explicitly commenting on Gethenian culture and then Le Guin implicitly commenting on how Ai perceives, interacts with, and understands Gethenian culture by how she presents his accounts. In writing this, I’ve enjoyed seeing Le Guin’s iterative engagements with and interpretations of her past self and the novel (see, for instance, her 2009 interview or her revised/annotated essay “Is Gender Necessary” in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989). In the second version of “Is Gender Necessary?” she reflects that “it doesn’t seem right or wise to revise an old text severely, as if trying to obliterate it, hiding the evidence that one had to go there to get here. It is rather in the feminist mode to let one’s changes of mind, and the processes of change, stand as evidence — and perhaps to remind people that minds that don’t change are like clams that don’t open,” i.e. dead on arrival.

When he arrives on Gethen (called “Winter” in the Ekumen due to the only newly receding ice age) he presents himself honestly and openly. He allows the Gethenians to examine his ship, and his communications device. He attempts to learn about them, through observation and from their own accounts of themselves. He also shares about his people and the Ekumen, emphasizing that the aim of the coalition is knowledge-sharing and coordination, not top-down governance (or even material trade, given the constraints of distance and subluminal travel). Sometimes aided by his (sometime) advocate, Estraven, Ai’s journey takes him from communal housing through the royal palace of Karhide, to a prison camp in Orgoreyn and across the brutal, glacial ice sheets of the arctic north.

Usually when I hear people talk about The Left Hand of Darkness, I hear them say that it’s a book about nationalism and a book about gender (though, interestingly, I realize now that, from how I just summarized it, one might not guess either; Le Guin is an expert in making a strong statement without beating the reader over the head with it). In the book, Le Guin harshly critiques nationalism. Gethen doesn’t know war. Killing on an individual or small scale is not uncommon, but killing on the scale of war as we know it is unprecedented. A border dispute between Karhide and Orgoreyn serves as political backdrop to much of the direct action of the novel, with high-ranking politicians on both sides increasingly understanding and performing nationalism, patriotism, and nation-state identity (and eventually violence in its name). Often, characters directly muse on the meanings and implications of patriotism. Ai hopes that integration into the Ekumen (consisting of over 80 separate worlds working together) would help unite all Gethenians and subdue their nationalistic tendencies. During their trek across the ice sheets, the two main characters reflect on the political situation in terms of how humans understand and engage with others (Ai quotes Buber’s distinction between “I-It” relationships and “I-Though” ones).

This idea of how to relate to an Other is also central to the reading of the book as about gender. Gethenians are is unique among the humans known by the Ekumen in that they are intersex and, for most of the time, agender. Once each month, all Gethenians enter a state called “kemmer” in which they become sexually active and in which their bodies change based on the partner they choose and their specific relationship with them. This situation allows for the famous line “the King was pregnant” and allows for diverse and multiple relationships: one person can be both a mother and a father, and (though, as I read it, not at the same time) a wife and a husband. During one month’s kemmering, an individual could biologically change to have a functioning penis and produce semen (which Le Guin-through-Ai equates to becoming a man) and during the next could change to have a fertile uterus. It wasn’t always clear to me how heteronormative these pairings were, since Ai used he/him pronouns as the default; I couldn’t tell if what appeared to be homosexual relationships retained their heterosexuality thanks to the Gethenians’ ability to change their organs and their correlation between those organs and gender roles. Was Estraven’s former kemmering partner (also spoken of with he/him pronouns) a woman for their particular pairing? (She clarifies this in “Is Gender Necessary”: yes, it seems, that the other parent of Estraven’s children was a woman with a vagina and uterus during that time.)

On this world, Ai — who has a fixed gender and no schedule to his sexual activity — is labelled a “pervert” (p. 36) Ai similarly has trouble engaging with people who don’t fit neatly into his (and the Ekumen’s) categories of man/male and woman/female. Throughout, he uses he/him pronouns to refer to (most) Gethenians in their genderless, inter-kemmer state, despite explicit mention that the Gethenian language has a neutral pronoun for that state. While I read this as a result of Ai’s cultural background and misogyny, Le Guin has commented in an interview that, the time of writing, she did not believe people could handle neopronouns; she later wrote a short story set on Gethen using only she/her pronouns and rejected her early aversion to the singular they. He remarks on the singularity of such gender-fluidity and clearly has moments when he tries to understand Gethenians as behaving in more “manly” or “womanly” ways (and, unsurprisingly, Ai clearly values those kinds of behavior differently). Ai reads to me as a misogynist — perhaps I should make that a stronger statement: Ai is a misogynist. We see this in the heavily gendered way he codes values traits of the Gethenians

When I first heard the premise of the novel described as “a world where people don’t have fixed gender” I was very excited, especially given the book’s 1969 publication. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was a little let down. Before going any further, I want to be clear: I really enjoyed this book and I think that it does remarkable things. I think that its approach to gender is important now and not just in its historical context. I see how Left Hand of Darkness was revolutionary when it came out, and I think that it’s still radical. Our collective understanding of gender — and its relationship to biology — has grown enormously in the past 50 years, but not uniformly. As a queer and enby reader in 2020, I was hoping for a more radical gender fluidity, specifically one that wasn’t biologically essentialist like this was. I was hoping to see Gethenians who were biologically “regular” humans, but whose gender varied depended on who they loved (and didn’t change their biology). In such a world, you could see someone born with a uterus and ovaries grow up free from the sexism and stereotyping that constrains women in our world. This person could, iteratively at each kemmering cycle, freely figure out what gender they were, and their attraction wouldn’t be limited by heteronormative and reproductive concerns (i.e. if they felt attracted to someone with a penis, the uterus-owner wouldn’t be required to present as a woman/female).

This is what I hoped for as a queer enby, but not everyone who reads sci-fi from the 60s shares my understanding of gender (though I don’t mean to say that I think the book’s value is only as a stepping stone to more radical gender ideas). I don’t think that Le Guin was under any obligation to readers or anyone else to write the most radical gender book possible — she rightfully complains about critics responding to it “as if it were an essay not a novel” (Is Gender Necessary, Redux). Gender is not the book’s only theme, and maybe not even its primary one. Le Guin created a rich, exciting, visceral, and thought-provoking world. In her Author’s Note, she claims that the job of sci-fi writers is describing: “describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies” or, put another way, “thought experiments” (p. ix). And thought experiments situated in very specific temporal and cultural contexts. The iterative, recontextualizing engagement with those experiments is part of what Le Guin meant, I think, in calling on us to value the process of changing one’s mind. I think she did an excellent job of this — Left Hand of Darkness confronts the reader with biases that people in our world hold and forces them to consider how we do and should engage with Others. The story she tells asks us to reassess aspects of our lives — patriotism, prejudice, gender, violence — which we often take for granted. “These are questions, not answers; process, not stasis” (Is Gender Necessary, Redux). Science fiction, I believe, asks us to consider how things could be otherwise by confronting us with our reality, by conducting such thought experiments on unquestioned assumptions, and I think she did that in a brilliant and interesting way, even if it feels less impactful now, 50 years later. As Jo Walton said in her review, “The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books that changed the world, so that reading it now, in the world it helped grow, it isn’t possible to have the same experience as reading it in the world it was written in and for.”

And, of course, my experience is limited. I’d love to hear what other people, especially agender, polygender, trans, non-binary, and intersex folx think about it!

The reviews I read while processing my thoughts on the book:

ex-academic (physics -> science history/policy) working in harm reduction. they/them

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