The Left Hand Of Darkness is sometimes held up as a 1960s premonition of modern and sometimes difficult — perhaps even problematic — phenomena such as gender fluidity, transsexuality, and sexual politics. The issue of trans rights – a hitherto minority sport – has exploded into something large and unwieldy, looming large over parts of contemporary culture like some sort of Lovecraftian God splitting people into warring factions led by unpredictable zealots. Sometimes it feels as though these issues, so bitter and tangled and divorced from reality at the individual and societal levels, can never be resolved. Le Guin might not have agreed with that. “We’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see the alternative of how we live now… and even imagine real grounds for hope,” she once wisely said.
It’s true that the artists often get to thorny issues first, moulding the collective dreams of humanity into a fictitious muscle to hang upon the skeleton of profound truth. It’s also true that Ursula K. Le Guin considered THLoD to be, in her words, a “thought experiment” to explore conventions of sex and gender, and how they play out in individuals and society, an issue which no doubt would have piqued the interest of —and perhaps was brought to her attention by — her anthropologist father.
It’s symptomatic of a confused society that immutable hardware of sex is being conflated with the mutable software of gender, which consists of a matrix of masculine and feminine qualities that are possessed in differing quantities by all individuals. In TLHoD Le Guin flips this, imagining the biological to be the fluid element and the gendered qualities to be immutable. The population of the planet Gethen are both masculine and feminine, which is to say neither masculine nor feminine to any real degree, but their physiology arbitrarily changes to one fixed sex for a few days each month for a period known as kemmer, when they become sexually active.
Set against this is the figure of Genly (pronounced “Genry” in Estraven’s tongue) Ai , a lone human diplomatic envoy from Earth who is seeking to bring the planet Gethen into an alliance of worlds known as the Ekumen.
All of this seems very modern, very much of the mode of science fiction of the 50s and 60s which looked aggressively forwards to imagine brave new utopian worlds in which humanity might claim for itself if it could but summon the intellectual and scientific (and political) heft to do so. Certainly Genly in one respect is emblematic of an evolved man: he is capable of telepathy (mindspeech), which he tries — with some eventual success —to teach to Estraven. Yet it’s the Gethenians, with their strange fluidic biology and immutable, “inbetween” (one might say “non-binary” but that’s not quite right, as I’ll consider later) gender, who appear to the modern reader as the more evolved creatures, the people that offer a glimpse of a possible future incarnation of humanity. Indeed, as China Mieville writes in the introduction to the 2017 edition, with one swish of her pen, in writing the line, “the King was pregnant,” Le Guin has “reconfigured society” and offered a glimpse at an alternative future. It’s a future that can instil in people a misplaced quasi-religious fervour to implement, and do away with the past.
But it takes more than futurism to be make a story great. In fact, futurism by itself is merely an empty promise, the very embodiment of inauthenticity (as it has no body). “The farther back you look,” said Winston Churchill, “The farther ahead you can see.” Not even a seemingly forward-looking novel such as TLHoD can untether itself from what comes before. Indeed, I now firmly believe that Le Guin never meant to extricate itself from history, and in fact meant to drag the tales and myths of antiquity, like Genly and Estraven drag their sledge across the great glacier, into the blinding light of the present.
Great works of art are often rich with symbolism that doesn’t always make sense to us, but strikes as somehow powerful, attractive, and even frightening. Religious art is particularly endemic with such strange imagery — I remarked upon one particular example of this, Nehushtan the snake, which makes its first appearance in the Bible in Exodus.
And it’s from Exodus, one of the most ancient and abiding of all human stories, that TLHoD draws its strength.
In the book of Exodus Moses, the great diplomatic leader, arranges sorties with the Pharoah of Egypt to free the Israelities living under the yoke of tyranny. The Pharoah refuses so Moses frees them. But after escaping the Egyptian tyranny the Jews are led into a seemingly endless desert, in which they descend into chaotic sniping, internecine conflicts and bitter complaint. And that’s before they start getting bitten by poisonous snakes. Still, all the while they are led by the theophanic pillar in the sky, which appears as a cloud in the light of the daytime, and a pillar of fire at night, leading them towards their destiny.
“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night.” Exodus 21: 12-13.
If this sounds familiar to the twentieth century SF reader, perhaps it should.
“Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.”
So recites Estraven when he and Genly Ai are alone in the icy wastelands of the Arctic Winter. Genly himself, having been that envoy sent on a mission of diplomatic persuasion, moves from one country —the relatively benign Karhide, ruled by a king and rife with internal politicking — to the other, Orgoreyn. Orgoreyn is to all intents and purposes a tyranny, resembling Soviet Russia in almost uncanny ways, from the disinformation sown by the central authorities by radio, to the seemingly arbitrary kidnapping of citizens and carting them off to some godforsaken gulag-style labour camp (called “Farms”) in the snow (Given that Solzhenitsyn’s great book wasn’t published until 1973, one wonders where Le Guin had the foresight to imagine such oppression).
“They do not kill people on their Farms; they let hunger and Winter do their murders for them.”
Genly is at last, like the Israelis in Exodus, broken out of jail and wrenched from Tyranny by Estraven, only to face an interminably long trek through the desert — in this case eight-hundred-and-forty miles across the vast icy wilderness of Gethen — in order to return safely to Karhide. This journey through hell, undertaken only by Estraven and Genly, dominates the last third of the book.
At the beginning of this journey they see each other as other, as different. Genly the human is frequently called a “pervert” for being permanently in kemmer and having his genitals always “available”. He is also derided for his permanent masculinity. Conversely Genly regards Estraven as somewhat feminine, because of his soft, round physiology, and his feminine personality, and yet he is not a woman, and so distrusts him.
“There was in [Estraven’s] attitude something feminine, a refusal of the abstract, the ideal, a submissiveness to the given, which rather displeased me.”
They begin their at positions of, if not mutual enmity, then certainly a mutual misunderstanding of the others’ otherness. But time and isolation wear down that misunderstanding, to the point where Estraven, in considering the strangeness of Genly’s biological maleness and masculine temperament, sees something quite unexpected.
“There is a frailty about [Genly]. He is all unprotected, exposed, vulnerable, even to his sexual organ, which he must always carry outside himself; but he is strong, unbelievably strong. I am not sure he can keep hauling any longer than I can, but he can haul harder and faster than I — twice as hard. He can lift the sledge at front or rear to ease it over an obstacle. I could not lift and hold that weight, unless I was in dothe. To match his frailty and strength, he has a spirit easy to despair and quick to defiance: a fierce impatient courage. This slow, hard, crawling work we have been doing these day wears him out in body and will, so that if he were one of my race I should think him a coward, but he is anything but that; he has a ready bravery I have never seen the like of. He is ready, eager, to stake life on the cruel quick test of the precipice.”
TLHoD of darkness does not bother with puerile definitions such as “toxic masculinity” or “terf”. Genly’s maleness and masculinity is strange to Estraven, but not ugly, certainly not toxic. It is beautiful, vulnerable, mutable, flawed, and yet of great utility. When it is so often a trope to imagine that aliens must think poorly of humans, it is quite the thing for a (female) anthropologist’s daughter to put herself in the mind of an alien and conjure quite the most beautiful description of the masculine temperament I’ve ever read.
So neither character remains static. How could they? How could any of us, when faced with the vast numbers of influences that press upon a life? In that sense, what becomes of the label “non-binary” to describe someone who feels neither completely masculine, nor completely feminine. Hell, does anyone feel that? If somebody is a man and is 100% masculine in temperament, you don’t end up anywhere good – Genghis Khan, perhaps? Contrarily, what is a woman who is 100% feminine? Barbie? The very idea of somebody who has zero qualities of the opposite gender is absurd. The truth is anybody can have “feminine” characteristics — sensitivity, the instinct to nurture, protectiveness, creativity, but also emotional volatility, and neuroticism — and anybody can have “masculine” characteristics such as encouragement, adventurousness, assertiveness, courage, but also dominance, and pride. For unity and proper orientation, like the lovers lying in kemmer in Estraven’s poem, one must be tempered by the other.
As if to make this explicit, at one point in their journey, Genly draws a circle on the ground and bisects it with a wavy line, before drawing a dot in each half. A column of fire in the darkness, and a column of darkness in the light, and makes mention of the yin/yang symbol from human (and specifically Chinese) antiquity.
Estraven and Genly are coming to each other from different societies, different biologies, different sexualities, and yet when all the rest of the world is forced aside and they are plunged into splendid isolation, they realise each is in some small way ensconsced within the other. And they realise that the only way to make it through the desert — and thus through life — is via this united balance. Jung would say it is to be integrated. They become as intimate as a married couple, each moving towards the other with grace.
Estraven’s great final act, to slalom headfirst into doom in order that his now-great friend may fulfil his destiny, cements the bond between the pair rather than severing it. They may be separated by death but are closer than ever, united in spirit against the darkness. It is through sacrifice that we may proceed, and the giving of oneself towards the other. Not through spite and the harbouring of resentment and the lust for damage, humiliation and victory.
This is the final, great achievement of TLHoD — the gender bending and sexual politics is to a certain extent superficial, or metaphorical. It’s a means to an end, the imposition of a binary system (male and female) not merely as hooks upon which to hang the tags of “good” and “evil” but the tags of “one” and “the other”, and then allowing them to come together in unity, love, and sacrifice.
In the final analysis the thing that drives us forwards, just as it drove Estraven and Genly across the ice, is reconciliation, in finding common ground with those who appear at odds with us. Finding the darkness in the light, and light in the darkness, and striving forwards, ever forwards, together. For a book that has no religion in it, it draws upon a very deep well of religious thought. It imparts upon the reader a sense of ancient hope of reconciliation, of love, and to face death, the ultimate accuser, with no sourness but acceptance, and more importantly gratitude, for the sufficiency of the life that preceded it.
“We stowed the wheels, uncapped the sledge-runners, put on our skis, and took off — down, north, onward, into that silent vastness of fire and ice that said in enormous letters of black and white DEATH, DEATH, written right across a continent. The sledge pulled like a feather, and we laughed with joy.”
Image credit: Muddy Colours