A family quarrel: #LoveHain

‘Das Eismeer’ (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula Le Guin.
Orbit Books, 1992 (1969).

Karhide is not a nation but a family quarrel. Early on in Le Guin’s famous speculative novel Estraven characterises his home nation as a place of potentially internecine conflict, but it proves to be universally applicable on the planet Gethen as Genly Ai, the Envoy from the Ekumen, discovers, to his cost.

Genly’s task as Envoy is to encourage first the rulers of Karhide, and then of Orgoreyn, to consider joining the Ekumen – a kind of United Nations of many worlds – for mutual benefit; but he has to contend with in-fighting, with claims that it’s all a hoax, even with his own imprisonment.

And then there’s the question of trust: he tries to be as open as possible, to persuade the powers that be of his own peaceable intentions, but as time goes on he doesn’t know who to put his faith in. On a chilly planet justifiably known as Winter he has, paradoxically, to judge whether he’s going from a frying pan into a fire.

Photo by Dylan Thompson on Pexels.com

Following covert observation of a new world it’s Ekumen practice to avoid suspicion, antagonism or panic on inhabited planets by overtly sending a single Envoy to put the case for joining the interstellar association. Our principal narrator Genly Ai has volunteered to make the introductions on Gethen. After waiting some time to have an audience with the monarch of Karhide – the largest polity on Gethen – internal faction-fighting means that his facilitator, Prime Minister Estraven, suddenly falls out of favour, forced into exile on neighbouring Orgoreyn. When Genly decides to visit Orgoreyn his stay there ends in a confinement that may lead to his death.

Regardless of the politicking on Gethen, which is no different from what one may expect on our world, what makes its inhabitants distinctive is that they’re androgyne, being neither male nor female but both genders; unlike hermaphrodites their sexual organs aren’t external or visible, but they periodically become sexually receptive (‘in kemmer’) with a partner, taking on corresponding female or male characteristics. While Genly considers this may be the result of a Hainish breeding experiment eons ago, his clearly male physique and dark skin means Gethenians often look askance at him.

Writing this novel in the 60s the author opted to use ‘he/him’ pronouns as a supposedly ‘neutral’ descriptor of all Gethenians, though she later regretted this choice. Still, it’s interesting that the principal protagonists in most of her early Hainish stories tend to be male, especially when she usually invests them with thoughts and considerations that largely reflect her own philosophic viewpoint; so here I suspect that Genly (one assumes the ‘g’ in his name is hard, as with Ged in the Earthsea novels) is actually meant to be a stand-in for Le Guin herself but with the syllables reversed.

Le Guin’s map of the two main polities of Gethen

Because the underpinning of Genly’s appraisal of Gethen is ultimately Daoist – at one point he draws Estraven’s attention to the ancient Terran yin-yang symbol – much of the novel focuses, symbolically as well as physically, on dualistic concepts (light and dark, fear and courage, cold and warmth, female and male) being subsumed into what Arthur Koestler called a holon, a ‘whole’ that is simultaneously part of a larger ‘whole’. As a visual example, one of Le Guin’s Gethen maps shows the planet’s Great Continent shaped like a mermaid’s purse, with Orgoreyn as yin to Karhide’s yang; and at one point Estraven quotes Tormer’s Lay, a phrase from which furnishes the title of the novel.

“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.”

Tormer’s Lay

I’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness at least three times over the years, and twice new aspects and previous misrememberings are revealed to me, almost as if I was then reading the novel anew. This time, for example, I was reminded of how political an animal Le Guin was: writing at the height of the Cold War she clearly had the Commensals of Orgoreyn reflecting Soviet or Chinese Communist systems and Karhide the differently flawed democracies of the West; similar political overtones were reflected in her Orsinian narratives and would be repeated in Hainish stories like The Dispossessed.

Much of The Left Hand of Darkness is taken up with journeys – from Karhide to Orgoreyn and then back again to Karhide over frozen wastes, an epic Arctic trek by Genly and Estraven dominating the final stages of the novel. But what most struck me this time – even more than Le Guin’s worldbuilding which, incidentally, is magisterial – was the theme of connection: between families, friends, lovers, humans, even aliens. Connection is what we yearn for, connection with that which complements us, makes us somehow more whole than we are when alone. This is what I take from this superb fiction, the theme which makes up its abiding leitmotif.

#LoveHain #UKLGsf

The next #LoveHain discussion will be on The Word for World is Forest, scheduled for Friday 26th May, and that will be followed by a repost of my review from 2017.

15 thoughts on “A family quarrel: #LoveHain

  1. A splendid appreciation, Chris. It makes me want to read the book again, though I skipped it this time around, as I’m concentrating on the Hainish stories I’ve not yet read or read so long ago I have no memory of them. “Connection is what we yearn for, connection with that which complements us, makes us somehow more whole than we are when alone.” By pointing up the falsity of our opposing binary structures, which in our own world are deeply connected to the supposed given of dual gender, Le Guin helps us explore new inner worlds, where what we thought inexorable turns out not to be after all, while the true ground of our being becomes clearer.

    As always, I love your attention to names, and confess I never noticed what now seems obvious, the inversion of Le Guin into Genly. UKL’s little joke?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Le Guin helps us explore new inner worlds, where what we thought inexorable turns out not to be after all…” I absolutely concur, Lory, for all that she writes about other worlds and other peoples she’s actually writing about this world and about us.

      As for the Genly/Le Guin identification, I’ve been pondering about how the protagonists in her early stories – Itale Sorde, Ged, Rocannon, Jakob, Falk, and Genly – are all male. She may have still been influenced by contemporary male authors whose heroes were inevitably men, but I wonder if in addition she was expressing her masculine side.

      Yes, she was happily married with children, but then there’s also the image of the pipe-smoker with the gamine haircut which she sported most of her life. I feel like LHD is a reflection of her yin-yang make-up, rendering it as personal a novel as the Daoist philosophy enshrined in other works (like City of Illusions). This is pure speculation of course but it does help me appreciate this novel more!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As someone who loved SF back then, and found it uneven in supplying characters I could identify with, I ignored that most of the protagonists were male and, like Heinlein, had quaint ideas about women/motherhood/children…

    I read the stories, identified with whatever characters seemed like me (I’m pretty standard issue female, with a PhD in Nuclear Engineering (fusion) from the 1970s when ALL but maybe one per each year’s cohort of students were male), and just moved on with the stories being the important part.

    So it was all interesting, but not necessarily ground-breaking, to find male characters assuming some female characteristics. You always kind of know that your side produces and takes care of most of the children; and that you don’t really fit in either the all-female groups or the male ones (and that both can be pretty boring). The gender-bending or gender-fluid expressions were all fascinating – and unlikely to happen in my life.

    I think it’s helped my novel-writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so glad that we – both female and male readers – have been getting a plethora of positive and often proactive female protagonists in speculative fiction in recent decades after the dominance of men in those roles in classic SF and fantasy titles. The skewed scenario of active males and passive females did nobody any favours, least of all impressionable yet –I hope – sensitive males like me, so I’m glad there’s a range of role models penned by a range of authors in these genres. Le Guin was certainly instrumental in giving me new perspectives in this respect.


      1. And Octavia Butler gave us something different for our genders’ stories.

        And may I recommend Jayge Carr’s Leviathan’s Deep? Humans try to bring a planet under their hegemony – only to have to give this one up because it’s too much trouble. There are parts I still cry at, sacrifice for the common good.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t make time to reread this yet but now I’m thinking I should, maybe before you discuss The Word for World is Forest, which I remember as another favorite. What spurs me to this as much as anything is your observation that “Genly is actually meant to be a stand-in for Le Guin herself but with the syllables reversed.” If I missed or have forgotten that, what else would I pick up from a rereading?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rereading worthwhile titles has nearly always revealed details and perspectives I’d missed or misunderstood from earlier reads, so in general I’d be in favour of revisiting, Jeanne! But I wouldn’t ever consider this a blanket policy – some titles aren’t simply worth the effort. My Genly / Le Guin correspondence is pure speculation of course, just a neat coincidence if nothing else. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A fascinating read, Chris. It’s decades since I read this book, so I can recall little apart from struggling to get my head round the pronouns and the fact that they got in the way of me thinking of characters as androgynous. But I suspect I would read much, much more into it if I found time for a revisit!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was less put off by the pronouns this time round than I’d been led to expect from commentaries, Karen, having made the necessary mental adjustments. But Le Guin is always worth re-acquaintance, so I’ll continue hanging on to my copies for a while longer!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Bartographer

    Fantastic review of the book that convinced me Le Guin was a master beyond just Earthsea. I had never seen that map before (I pictured the geography a little differently, so it was cool to see Le Guin’s conception, and I’m always a sucker for fantasy maps anyway), so thanks for including that. And your other observations are incredibly astute as always. I didn’t reread the book for this (I just finished reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for the first time instead, what a book that was!), since I have more Le Guin to digest for the first time anyway, but I know I will be revisiting her works many times.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There’s another (earlier?) attempt at a cartographic representation of Gethen on the Le Guin website (here, if you’re interested, Bart: https://www.ursulakleguin.com/map-of-gethen) less detailed and uncoloured. The continental outlines have significant differences to the one I’ve shown, though the relative positions remain the same. But I’m pleased you got something from my comments!

      And I’m chuffed you enjoyed the Susanna Clarke – I’m feeling close to contemplating a revisit because it’s, well, quite a book – as you say!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: A few book recommendations and … | Lizzie Ross

  7. conmartin13

    I really liked the Earthsea books but could not get through this one, which my book group read about 20 years ago when someone said she’d never read any science fiction. Maybe I just wasn’t patient enough.

    However, I have always felt that LeGuin could be one of those answers to the “Pick three authors you’d like to have dinner with!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She certainly comes across as a very interesting person from her books and from interviews I’ve seen, but I suspect if I’d had her to dinner I would’ve been completely tongue-tied from heroine-worshipping! Also, I got the impression – wrongly, possibly – that she didn’t suffer fools gladly, so maybe best to worship from a distance. 😄 Earthsea, meanwhile, is a series I happily revisit every once in a while…


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