#LoveHain: The Left Hand of Darkness

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It’s the last Friday of the month and time for a consideration of the next title in our read of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish fiction, #LoveHain. We now come to one of her more famous – or possibly more notorious – titles, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

Below will appear the customary three prompts to encourage you to discuss your response to this novel, just in case you don’t know where to start; but the chances are you will have no need of them, this being a very thought-provoking narrative!

Afterwards I’ll remind you of the next novel up for conversation and the date the next three prompts will appear.

© C A Lovegrove
  • If this was your first read of the novel what was your initial reaction? Surprise, confusion, alienation? or recognition, sympathy, understanding? And if not your first encounter, did your response this time differ at all from when you first read it?
  • What do you think is the significance of the novel’s title? And how is it reflected in the action, the descriptions and the principal characters?
  • The Left Hand of Darkness has garnered many prestigious awards (such as the Nebula and the Hugo) and ranked high in reader polls of SF fiction. Do you think it’s deserving of such prestige or not, and why (or why not)?

There’s so much else one could discuss in this narrative, so feel free to veer off at a tangent if need be – these are only prompts to initiate a conversation!

#LoveHain #UKLGs

My own review of The Left Hand of Darkness will appear presently. According to the announced schedule The Word for World is Forest (1972) is our next Hainish title, with prompts for this novella offered for your consideration on Friday 26th May.

By the way, I’ve just been informed that it’s been 11 years to the day since I started blogging.

18 thoughts on “#LoveHain: The Left Hand of Darkness

  1. Congratulations on your 11th blogaversary! Do you happen to have the WP Word Count module installed? It would be pretty cool to look at those stats.

    On to the book at hand, and thank you as always for the great prompts!

    1. Initial reaction: Like you, Chris, I think this is my third reading. But it’s been a few decades, and I didn’t remember anything beyond a vague impression of an arduous journey. The interspersed Karhidish tales surprised and delighted me. I’ve always been a fast and voracious reader, so I probably just read right over them in the past, heading for the plot. I love that Le Guin is already decorating and elaborating here (as she did full-on in Always Coming Home). But overall, it was a confusing narrative. Le Guin got so much clearer with time; her style is always transparent (with flecks of poetry), but along the way she learns to be equally so with the setting and plot. It’s not quite there yet.

    2. Significance of the novel’s title: What an evocative phrase it is – I think this is one of the best titles out there, especially for speculative fiction. I had forgotten the full context of Tormer’s Lay: “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 beautiful, and fitting to communicate Taoism. Interesting that she has Genly Ai draw the yin/yang symbol, after the Tao Te Ching translations in City of Illusions.

    3. Deserving of such prestige: Yes, but… to me it is fatally flawed by Le Guin’s embrace, as a young writer, of both the male singular pronoun and the male roles of the protagonists, which she ably analyzes in “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” (1976/1987 – it’s available online, highly recommended as a companion piece). If she had been able to use a new pronoun like “a,” which she mentions there, I might have *believed* in the Gethen androgyny, which in this form I did not. Fascinating to me that a ground-breaking feminist work is so dominated with characters that read masculine. Le Guin did political machinations better in The Dispossessed, and the growth of a relationship between two people who misunderstand each other in The Telling, both of which I look forward to reading with you all!

    I pulled a lot of quotes from this book, so eventually it will be a post on my own blog (eventually = ideally within the next decade?)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Hilary, I’m always surprised when these occasions are notified because I forget! But no, I don’t have the WP module installed, should I?

      I posed these questions based on my abiding memories of the book but I’ve yet to finish this latest read. I suspect though that I too dashed through the tales in pursuit of the main plot because they didn’t make any impact on me.I don’t normally fuss about detailed stats. I think I may now reread ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ from the The Birthday of the World in conjunction with the novel.

      The yin-yang symbol impacts on one’s reading of the gender theme in the novel, I feel. Le Guin’s use of he/his pronouns for the Genthenians misdirected me on my first read and felt uncomfortable the second time around, but I suppose the practice was a tie-over from common usage before the 60s. Incidentally, I’d like to know how, for example, contemporary French people cope with the bias shown in their language – I’ve always wondered why a mixed group of individuals would, like with an all-male group, be routinely called by the masculine “ils” while they would graciously deign to refer to a group of females as “elles”. The imbalance would scarcely be mitigated by the use of “on” and “leur”.

      I’ll have a look at that online piece presently, though maybe after the short story. Thanks again for commenting in detail here, and please do let me know if you post a commentary on your own blog, with or without quotes!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I could have sworn this book started with, “The King was pregnant,” and an image of a ceremony attended by diplomats watching the king do a bit of ceremonial masonry.

    I couldn’t find that line in the sample of the beginning of the book – but that image has stuck with me for over 50 years, along with the story of a world where procreation is very different from ours in the key detail of their being only one gender – except when people were in kemmer, and that something hormonal decided which gender the first person would be – and the second person, willy-nilly, would be the opposite. What is life about when you don’t even get to decide if you will be the one who might become enceinte?

    The whole existence of the houses of kemmer, where people who were no longer responsible could go until that phase of their current life was over, reminded me of the red tents where women having their periods were isolated in the Old Testament – as if the stage were temporarily both insane and contagious.

    I have a memory of winter so intense that there was no attempt to clear the snow; only to tamp it down so it could be traveled on.

    Genly Ai learns enormously on his travels. And the contrast with the Gethenians lets LeGuin talk about gender and sex when there are other options.

    The end of the story, with what happens to Estraven, always made me wish for something else – but give credit to the author for writing the hard scenes, making the hard choices.

    And the existence of another nation/state with such a different form of government and beliefs – a very utilitarian communistic government by comparison to the kingdom – made me think then and still now about what you do when the opposite options are both in some way bad.

    At the college/grad school age I read these novels in, I remember admiration for the amazing degree of inventiveness in Leguin’s work, to make something alien also feel human. Such a good story. It has stuck, when so much other stuff did not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lots of good insights here, Alicia – I hope to consider some of these in a review – but it’s the personal response that’s the key to her novels, I think, this one especially.


      1. My googling and yours must turn up different sources – I couldn’t find one that I liked. After two or three pages and several prompts I gave up; then a final attempt on the Amazon page Look Inside found it – but it was not the first line.

        As if LeGuin had saved that little tidbit until it would have a bigger effect (it did that way), something I’ve done myself when writing.

        Curious that I remembered it differently.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Bartographer

    This was the first Le Guin book I read that wasn’t part of the Earthsea cycle, and it blew my mind (I’ve since read the Lathe of Heaven, and that’s all I’ve gotten to so far, but it’s enough to cement her as my current favorite author). It wasn’t easy to acquaint myself at the start, but later on I began to feel incredibly invested in the story, sympathetic, and spellbound by Le Guin’s writing and the thought-provoking world, story, and characters. It is almost a year now since I read it (I’m still in my teenage years, a fascinating time to be reading all these great books and have easy online access to information and opinions about them) and I’m still in awe of the book. I returned it to the library after I read it, but I long for a permanent copy so I can revisit the finer details over and over again.

    As has been pointed out, the title comes from a significant saying in the book, a quite powerful one. Again, I don’t have a copy at the moment so I’m fuzzy on the details, but it’s very significant with the yin/yang and all that. Perhaps it also symbolizes the gender dynamic – two opposing forces intertwined so naturally, but perhaps confusing to an outside observer (like Eastern ways of thinking tend to mystify westerners, something pointed out a bit more directly in the Lathe of Heaven, which I recently read).

    I haven’t read enough science fiction to truly judge, but it is one of the most important books I’ve ever read and certainly deserving of its praise, even if it is not perfect. Yes, the use of the male pronouns was perhaps a clumsy though understandable decision, yes, her writing style and pacing isn’t for everyone, but I love it and think it’s a classic with much relevance to today’s world as well.

    I will also add, separately, that I love nothing more than spending the winter in the snowy mountains (the Colorado Rockies for me), and the book captures its snowy setting incredibly well, such that I have an almost romantic image built up in my mind of the world.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good to hear from you again, Bart. I’m sure the yin-yang symbol does link to the gender dynamic in this novel, but as I’m still on my reread I’m not clear whether the use of ‘he’ irks me or is acceptable in the context of the times it was written. Certainly the singular use of ‘they’ and ‘their’ as neutral identifiers might have helped but that can lead to difficulties when we’re faced with a group of characters.

      I’ve noticed wintry landscapes as a recurring motif in Le Guin’s writings, and even if she spent much of her life in Portland the looming presence of Mt Hood (which of course features in Lathe) would be a perpetual reminder of those landscapes. (My review of this other UKLG SF novel is here, if you’re interested: https://wp.me/p2oNj1-4D7)

      Anyway, I’m glad you’re enjoying her writing and have to agree, her novels do make one feel invested, indeed spellbound, even as she deals with difficult matters.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bartographer

        Yeah, while the use of “he” wasn’t the best decision, it is made to work well within the novel and it didn’t really bother me until after I read it – while the story was happening, it felt well-integrated. I hadn’t made the connection between Mount Hood and Winter, though they stuck out to me separately as important elements, but I think that’s a nice if unintentional connection. I’d read that review of Lathe already (I searched for it after I finished Lathe, having just found your site and knowing you were a Le Guin fan) but good to reread it.


  4. I didn’t reread the book this month, but to chime in on the discussion, I do think that it deserved its honors — at the time, it was certainly groundbreaking, expanding the range of what science fiction had so far been expected to do, and as always with Le Guin is beautifully written.

    On my own initial read, I was bugged by the supposedly androgynous characters being really default males, not only or even primarily because of the male pronouns, but because in the absence of pesky female phenomena like hormones, mood swings, and menstruation they could act as men in our world, interrupted only by bouts of pregnancy that turned them for a time into women (and, by her reasoning, would interfere with the general male tendency to aggression and war). True androgyny would be something more complex, I think, and her attempt did not quite reach it, as I think she herself realized and strove to work with further in later books.

    The most powerful and effective part of the book for me was the journey over the ice at the end, that “journey from A to B” (or A to A) that Le Guin so often loves to make. There, the dualities and prejudices began to fall away, and I had a glimpse of simple humanity, or personhood, in the mutual bearing of one another.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for adding your comments, Lory, they’re always very welcome for being insightful and considered!

      As far as I can work out – and it’s retrospective theorising – this was one of Le Guin’s tentative what-if explorations: what if Hainish (?) bioengineers once tried to create hermaphrodite hilfs, and what would be the consequences? We know – ignoring plants (which often are) and insects (apparently never) – around a third of animal species are hermaphroditic; worms, snails, fish etc. I understand there are two types of hermaphroditism, sequential and simultaneous, and Gethen inhabitants and kemmer seem to be her way of exploring this.

      But she was never really into ‘hard SF’, as we know from the vagueness of her NAFAL and ansible concepts, because it was all about the humans, the persons, and how their cultures reflected their psychology. I’m not expressing myself very well perhaps but I don’t think she bothered herself with trying to explain the physical manifestations of ovulation etc in Gethenians, though obviously subsequently regretting this and other considerations.

      The ice journey was (and may still be) my foremost memory of this novel back whenever I first read it, and the companionship, friendship and mutuality that it, um, engendered. I’m looking forward to completing and then reviewing it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess what I’m talking about is more the emotional and inner component of being female, which does have a lot to do with biology — being tied to a natural cycle which goes on constantly whether one likes it or not. The fact that the Gethenians seem to get out of all that, most of the time, is what makes them seem like more like “men” than “women” to me. I was able to suspend disbelief about the mechanics of it all, but something didn’t ring true in the psychology somehow. But she made up for that later.

        Anyway, certainly a fascinating book and ripe for discussion! I shall look forward to your complete assessment and review, and of course, to this month’s read of The Word for World Is Forest.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yes, I do see what you mean – I must finish my reread and sort out my thoughts for a review, bearing in mind what you’ve said, thank you! And also reread ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’…

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: April 2023 books read – Hilary's Book Blog

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