The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula Le Guin’s quiet anger animates this freezing cold novel that upends our expectations of gender and developed countries (as more cruel than less modern ones).
I will never forget hearing Ursula Le Guin on BBC Radio 4 arguing playfully: “I am a man.” The world she was born was one where everyone was, by political and legal default, a ‘generic he’. In her typical style, she admits that, unlike Ernest Hemingway with his beard, guns, and short sentences, she has made a terrible man, especially since she cares about syntax in writing and uses semicolons.
When I read Le Guin, I often think of another author closer to home, Amitav Ghosh. There is this quality — an intense humanism — that suffuses their work.
Due to an odd coincidence (perhaps more synchronicity in action), I learned academic anthropological theory through the study of science fiction and horror films. That understanding has stayed with me much better than if I had attended a formal set of lectures followed by a written exam. Fantasy stories and mythology make excellent pedagogic instruments for understanding human culture because they are theory in motion. What academic anthropology knows about humans beings, the subject domain, is really what has much earlier been understood in arts, culture, and stories. Many other disciplines, especially economics and law are barely aware of this.
Science, the most backward in its conceptualisation of human emotions, is only confirming now: that the idea of race has no factual basis (whether in genes or any other ‘science’; the idea of race is the best example of bad, made-up kitchen science; a myth); gender roles are constructed identities and rely least of all on genitalia, and that money doesn’t buy wisdom. Ghosh is a trained academic anthropologist and Le Guin was the daughter of one. The humanistic quality of this academic discipline is suffused through their work, and present a unique, but accurate, view on what really matters. They provide clarity on issues which are heavily obfuscated by political interests, whether one speaks of gender, imperialism, or climate change.
The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, is recognised as a classic of science fiction. It details the travels of a emissary named Genly Ai (the First Mobile) on a strange planet, Gethen. Gethen’s humans have evolved a unique feature, singular amongst all the known planetary civilisations in the intergalactic world: they have no gender. However, they enter ‘kemmer’, something between menstruation and a mating season, where a Gethenian develops the features of gender, becomes either male or female, and becomes capable of reproduction. Over a lifetime, a Gethenian acquires both genders over various kemmer periods. This set up allows Le Guin to craft the exquisite sentence: “The King was pregnant.”
As a high priest of fantasy, Le Guin deftly sketches an exquisitely detailed portrait of a civilisation, very similar to an ethnographic report. Genly Ai, as a representative of alien civilisations of the Ekumen, is an outsider and he has to navigate a complex social situation, especially the concept of shifgrethor which is akin to dishonouring or giving offence. There is an esoteric community of the Handdara who initiate Ai into the occult of the planetary culture. Ai finds something of value amongst soothsayers that politicians cannot provide.
There are two principal nations on the planet, the Karhid and Orgoreyn, and in detailing their responses to the existential question of not being alone in their galaxy, Le Guin makes a very astute observation about how power is organised across countries. The more backward Karhid, a monarchy with low-tech agrarian economy, is impetuous but honourable. Orgoreyn, which is republican and ruled through representatives and possesses a more developed economy, is far more scheming and insidious. Le Guin seems to suggest that organised and advanced societies can be murderous in a way that backward nations simply cannot be.
One aspect of the novel which is not much commentated upon is how cleverly the aspect of time, relativity and time-travel is worked in. Le Guin’s planning is so immaculate that she worked out a whole calendar, the length of the year, the pattern of the months and seasons (the planet is freezing cold), the number of hours in a day, and how time spent on this planet would affect an outsider’s age when he returns to his own planet.
A slim, unprepossessing work which reveals an astonishing depth of observation and feeling. If this is what unmanly authorship is, then we need more men like Ursula Le Guin.