Graphic by Kit
This past March marked the 50th anniversary of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. Originally published in 1969, this work of science-fiction follows Genly Ai, an envoy from Earth whose mission lies in convincing the people of Gethen to join the intergalactic trading community known as the Ekumen. Gethen is an icy planet stuck in perpetual winter, and the people who inhabit it are much like the humans Genly knows from Earth. However, they differ in very significant ways.
For one thing, the concept of gender does not exist in Gethenian society. People only possess sexual characteristics during kemmer, a brief period of sexual activity that occurs every month. Because each person’s acquired attributes are subject to change each time they enter kemmer, an individual can impregnate a partner one month and then get pregnant themself the next. However, kemmer aside, nobody on Gethen identifies as strictly male or female. In a way, then, this book represents an early, albeit flawed, portrayal of genderfluidity.
Regardless of its more outdated and potentially offensive concepts, The Left Hand of Darkness continues to entertain and inspire its readers, notably people within the LGBTQ+ community. In order to gain some insight into why this story has stuck with people fifty years after its publication, I created a survey to gauge how some folks today view The Left Hand of Darkness. My goal is not to represent everyone who has read the novel. In fact, in this article, I will only be discussing the results of seven LGBTQ+ readers — and myself — all aged eighteen to twenty-five, who were kind enough to fill out a custom survey I created. By organizing their answers within this article and contextualizing them with my own, I hope to uncover a few reasons why The Left Hand of Darkness continues to have such a profound impact on its readers.
One of the first questions I asked was when and why people read this book. All seven respondents reported they first read it either in their late teens or early twenties, and the majority did so for school. However, a couple read it for fun or at the suggestion of someone close to them. Similarly, I first read this book when I was nineteen, as part of a project for a college class about the queer community in the 1960s and ’70s. The novel’s presence in modern classrooms attests to its academic values. Not only does The Left Hand of Darkness raise thought-provoking questions about the legitimacy of gender in human society, but its historical placement in 1969 — the same year as Stonewall — can help modern readers better understand the culture of that time.
It is interesting to note, in addition to commenting on gender, Le Guin’s book has a lot to say about U.S. politics. Written during the Vietnam War, it touches upon many themes of patriotism and betrayal, represented in large part by the cold, snowy landscape of Gethen. Coupled with Le Guin’s belief that science-fiction is descriptive, not predictive, it is no great stretch to say that this novel reflects the disillusionment many Americans felt with their government during the ‘60s.
Next in my survey, I gauged people’s attitudes and opinions toward The Left Hand of Darkness, namely if they would recommend the story to other people and why. The answers were overwhelmingly favorable, though it must be kept in mind that it is highly probably people were more willing to fill out this survey if they felt positively about the book. In other words, those who would not recommend the novel might not have taken the time to say so. Still, everyone who filled out the survey expressed a special fondness for the story and said they wish more people would read it.
“I loved it!” wrote one anonymous participant. “I lost my entire mind reading it. Despite its faults, it’s one of the few books I’ve read with a majority non-binary cast, which is crazy cause it was written in 1969! And besides the representation and gender stuff, it’s just a really well-written book. It’s very engaging, and the prose and plot are heartbreaking and beautiful.”
“I would recommend it because I think it is a part of queer science-fiction history, and what it does wrong and what it does right is important for writers to examine,” another participant named Aurora H. said. “Also, the world-building and description are strong elements of craft for Le Guin, so that is wonderful to experience on its own.”
Just as these respondents said, Le Guin has a unique and incredibly descriptive writing style. In my opinion, it sets the mood perfectly and avoids overloading readers with too much background information. Yet it is important to note that most readers won’t understand everything right away. However, never fear, because this is all according to plan. The Left Hand of Darkness throws its audiences into the world of Gethenians without much preparation and endorses hands-on learning. Despite any difficulties some people had in getting started, the novel remains a fan-favorite.
“It’s one of my favorite books,” said a survey participant named Tal. “[It] has been very important to me, and I think it’s aged remarkably well, even if there are a few parts that don’t hold up perfectly.” Yet Tal conceded, “I don’t usually recommend it as an LGBT book. I’ve recommended it a lot on the strength of the writing and the beauty of the prose and as an important part of sci-fi history.”
However, in spite of the book not being promoted on the basis of queer content alone, the survey’s results show it is possible for gender non-conforming people to see themselves within the story.
For instance, Tal continued, “I always related to it a lot even before I identified as trans. I’m bothered by how it was a thought experiment to Le Guin and she clearly didn’t connect it to trans experiences. . . But that never stopped me from finding a lot of comfort and emotional catharsis in the book.”
Just as Tal said, in the 1988 revisions of her 1976 essay “Is Gender Necessary?” Ursula K. Le Guin stated “the real subject” in The Left Hand of Darkness “is not feminism or sex or gender or anything of the sort.” More than anything else, she sees it as “a book about betrayal and fidelity.” Then she specifically discusses how she treated the creation of this story as “a thought experiment.” Le Guin wanted to investigate what, if any, innate differences exist between men and women, so she devised a society where such distinctions do not exist. From there, she imagined what would occur, and the majority of the novel, despite its backdrop of genderfluidity, deals with politics, relationships, and human nature. As mentioned earlier, a lot of this probably stems from the distrust many people felt towards the American government in the late 1960s.
Still, the queer themes addressed in this novel have helped many readers explore their own identities. Personally, I identified as non-binary long before I first picked up the novel. But years ago, when I was first questioning my gender, a book club I was in nominated this story for our monthly book. I remember being intrigued by the concept of a whole civilization of people who do not conform to the gender binary, and I tried to show my support for the book without seeming too emotionally invested. Interestingly enough, my book club chose not to read the story back then, not because we didn’t want to talk about gender — in fact, a good deal of us now identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community — but because too many of us were suspicious about what could go wrong or be offensive in a story like that, especially considering it was written in 1969.
However, now that I’ve read it, I can definitively say that The Left Hand of Darkness gave me a sense of belonging rather than alienation. There are some flaws in Le Guin’s portrayal of non-binary characters that bother me, but I am still able to enjoy the fact that non-binary people are represented at all. In fact, I often feel a camaraderie with the characters whose feelings about gender resonate with mine. Because of this, what was meant to come across in this science-fiction novel as mind-blowing and unheard of feels surprisingly familiar for me and many other queer folks.
Survey participant Hannah G. explained, “As a queer person, the portrayals of intimate relationships didn’t feel as odd or alien as they were clearly intended to. Right from the beginning, the idea of kemmering and of shifting gender roles felt a lot more relatable than the ‘typical’ heterosexual marriage.”
More than anything, this shows that, regardless of what Le Guin intended with the publication of this book, The Left Hand of Darkness has found a home within various members of the LGBTQ+ community, who have accepted what is disappointing about the non-binary representation and embrace the novel anyway.
A third part of the survey involved rating The Left Hand of Darkness out of 10 stars, with 10 signifying that the novel is a personal favorite and 0 signifying that it is on people’s hit lists. The average rating amongst the seven participants was 8.57 stars, an incredibly favorable review. This rating, in spite of some questionable aspects of the book, reflects enough good content for members of the LGBTQ+ community to form a meaningful connection with the text and to recommend the novel to other readers.
This may relate to the concept of disidentification, which, simply put, refers to the partial acceptance of a form of representation. (Coincidentally, disidentification was also the theme of OutWrite’s 2018 Spring Print!) In other words, audience members may strongly identify with certain aspects of something — be it a movie, novel, or protagonist — and wholeheartedly reject other portions of it. The result is often a personalized version of the story or character in question. For example, in the context of The Left Hand of Darkness, there are some people who embrace the non-binary characters yet disapprove of the way Le Guin wrote them. Thus it is not uncommon to see people in the fanbase using they/them pronouns for the Gethenians — even though Le Guin referred to all of them using he/him pronouns — and altering the way they talk about their gender, while still retaining most other aspects of their canonical personalities.
As Amelia put it, “I would have preferred gender-neutral pronouns for the Gethenians, but I recognize how important this book was in its time, and I appreciate the book’s take on humanity’s relationship with gender compared to that of aliens. I really like how the Gethenians’ view of gender affects the rest of their society and how Genly’s worldview is challenged again and again by the Gethenians.”
Another respondent brought up what I see as one of the novel’s most interesting aspects, its “social and cultural, rather than technological, themes.” When I read this book for a queer college class, my teacher explained how works of science-fiction often have a guiding science. Some like to focus on physics, perhaps to explain space-travel, while others emphasize biology and alien forms of life. However, The Left Hand of Darkness takes anthropology as its base science and uses its concepts to construct a novel society and explore its ramifications. This makes it a unique and interesting read for people who are more humanities-oriented, and it can help those who dislike complicated or technical language to enjoy science-fiction.
As to why this book remains so impactful, the survey’s seven participants had a lot to say, all in the book’s favor. Among other things, they discussed the current political climate — increasingly relevant to discussions of The Left Hand of Darkness, largely due to the current administration’s restrictive definitions of sex and gender. Yet the ideas in this novel can be applied to more than just U.S. politics.
“The themes of loneliness, overcoming fear of the Other, and nationalism are always going to be universally relevant, I think,” remarked Tal. “[And] Genly’s specific journey of overcoming his fear of other genders is going to be relevant as long as we have genders.”
In light of these connections, it is possible The Left Hand of Darkness is so often read in an academic setting because it explores such a wide variety of captivating issues. Indeed, it can be read with a focus on community, queerness, politics, isolation, trust, knowledge, family, and so much more.
One thing this survey reveals above all else is that The Left Hand of Darkness remains a beloved book a full half-century after its publication. Teachers continue to feature it in their classrooms, and some LGBTQ+ communities have embraced it for its welcome, albeit flawed, representation of genderfluidity.
In line with this positive reception toward Le Guin’s novel, Hannah G. commented, “[The Left Hand of Darkness] still represents a very progressive exploration of gender in particular, but also the idea of the Other, of being an outsider. This book is meant to explore how we connect to people that we might consider so different from us as to be incompatible. It’s about being able to think beyond ourselves and the biases that keep us alienated not only from others but ourselves, ultimately.”
Personally, I find that merely thinking about this novel makes me more comfortable in my own skin. As I challenge the default masculinity of Le Guin’s nonbinary characters, I more strongly internalize the fact that femininity doesn’t have to denote a binary gender — something I’ve long struggled to accept in light of my own gender presentation. Moreover, I find myself embracing personal attributes I shunned before reading the book. Just as I am able to accept the fact that non-binary Gethenians can present femininely and perform stereotypically gendered tasks, I know I can do the same, without invalidating my own identity.
As a brief side-note, the BBC produced a radio drama for The Left Hand of Darkness back in 2015, which UCLA students can get as an audiobook through the Los Angeles Public Library system if it’s not available on the BBC’s official website. One thing I love about this production is the voice chosen for the main non-binary character Estraven. Rather than adopt a voice that sounds androgynous, the radio drama uses a voice that would usually be coded as feminine. To me, this reinforces the idea that people don’t have to prove their gender by denying their femininity. Someone can sound feminine, and this doesn’t negate the fact that they’re non-binary. After all, there is no one way to sound non-binary. If that’s how someone identifies, their voice is a non-binary voice, no matter what other people might say.
Overall, in light of my experiences and those of others, The Left Hand of Darkness is a wonderfully productive read — or listen. Not only can it teach people about the world at large, but it can also help them learn about and explore their own identities. Now is an especially important time to appreciate this story, considering Ursula K. Le Guin passed away in 2018, one year shy of her remarkable book’s 50th anniversary. I, for one, would like to thank her for her innovative work and express my gratitude that it has left such a favorable legacy behind!