The Left Hand of Darkness

December 19, 2013

You can learn a lot from what makes you uncomfortable, if you can just get over that discomfort.

Idea: You can learn a lot from what makes you uncomfortable, if you can just get over that discomfort.

One of the virtues of science fiction is its promise to bring us into contact with worlds very different from our own. Thus, it’s often disappointing to read sci-fi about distant worlds which are basically just Earth but with a better-funded space program. However, more than any other work of sci-fi that I’ve read, The Left Hand of Darkness delivers on that great promise. It’s a novel not only about difference, but about the possibility of relationships across great difference.

The narrator, Genly Ai, is a human ambassador from the Ekumen, a loose federation of worlds in Le Guin’s Hainish universe. He’s been sent to the planet Gethen to convince its inhabitants to join the Ekumen, to the ostensible cultural and economic benefit of both parties. One of the first people he meets on Gethen is the Prime Minister, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, whom he tries to befriend. But Genly isn’t sure what to make of Estraven, either politically or sexually.

You see, the Gethenians are humanoid, but with one major difference. Their bodies express a sex for just a few days of each month according to a biological cycle; the rest of the time they are androgynes. During this period, called kemmer, if two Gethenians desire to mate and reach a state of arousal, one will become male and the other female, though a given Gethenian has the potential to become either one. At the end of kemmer, the Gethenians return to their previous sexless state, a dormant period called somer. Sometimes, though, two Gethenians will choose to prolong kemmer, to remain male and female in order to continue their relationship, though this is viewed on Gethen as a kind of sexual deviance. Thus, you can imagine how the Gethenians view we Terrans1, incredulously:

So all of them, out on these other planets, are in permanent kemmer? A society of perverts?

Le Guin plays delightfully with this gender fluidity, beginning sentences like “My landlady, a voluble man…” Though, for the reader, it takes some getting used to. Genly expresses some of this difficulty:

Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphroditic neuters.

However, it’s apparent that any difficulties we or Genly have in understanding the Gethenians may be due to our own society’s hang-ups and not theirs. Take Genly’s advice to his government about what his successor should be prepared for on Gethen (or Winter, the planet’s colloquial name):

The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

Indeed, if you can get over the initial weirdness of life on Gethen, you almost immediately see how their way of life—in which five-sixths of the time it’s impossible to be distracted, frustrated, or manipulated by sexual desire—is much saner than life, say, where I come from. And that’s a motif in The Left Hand of Darkness: that we have much to learn from that which is radically different from us, if we can just get over our initial resistance to it.

Genly comes to befriend and even love Estraven, but the story begins with the Terran’s initial resistance to him and has much to say about resistance itself, the mirror-image of relationship. I use the term “mirror-image” instead of “opposite” because in a way, resistance is itself a kind of relationship, one that may even sustain the thing resisted:

Slose heads a committee that purposes to suppress the obscene plays performed in public kemmerhouses here; …Slose opposes them because they are trivial, vulgar, and blasphemous. To oppose something is to maintain it.

If we oppose something, we give it legitimacy as a thing worthy of opposing (and not just ignoring). By attacking it, we galvanize its supporters. We can not rid ourselves of that which is different, that which makes us uncomfortable. And so, the only rational response is to try to understand it, to enter into a relationship with it, not to hate it. Estraven has a wonderful response when Genly asks if he hates Karhide’s rival:

Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? How does one hate a country, or love one? ...I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession.

Ultimately, we need what is different. In a sense, we are what we are because of this difference. And thus the sentence from which we get the book’s title:

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.

  1. A common trope in sci-fi to refer to us, from the Latin terra for “Earth”.