Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

by Tom Ingram

This book’s premise is contingent on something that I don’t fully accept as true. I have always found claims to the effect that men and women are inherently different in temperament to be somewhat dubious. It offends my sensibilities; it feels like giving in to the bad comedians. We are socialized differently, and there are some biological differences that affect how people interact. But surely at bottom, in the mind, who you really are isn’t male or female, right? Surely the differences are just superficial.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a thought experiment on this very subject. Suppose, it says, there was a world of people biologically very similar to humans as we know them (in a panspermic universe), with only one difference: most of the time, they are asexual. At the end of a 26-day cycle, they go into a phase called “kemmer”, during which they become sexually aroused. When they meet a partner, their sexual organs reconfigure and one of them becomes male, the other female. This happens at random; most of them have no tendency one way or the other and the ones who do are considered strange deviants. The same person can give birth to some children and father others.

Gethen, the world on which they live, has winters harsher than anywhere on Earth. Roads are often impassable, and the snow can get several metres high. The Gethenians are a slow-moving people who lack much in the way of large-scale coordination. They have nation-states, but there is no war as such, only skirmishes along the borders: frequent but extremely small-scale. The people are generous. There is an understanding that travellers will be taken in, fed, and sheltered no matter where they stop. Descent is reckoned matrilineally, because the parent who gave birth to the child is understood to have a deeper and more important connection to them.

The plot, where someone who might as well be an ordinary Earthling circa 1969 attempts to convince the planet’s people to join the interplanetry Ekumen, is an excuse for exploring the all-important experiment. Each new detail complicates things further, and there is a tremendous interplay of ideas between the Gethenians’ sexual characteristics, their political arrangements, and their response to their climate. The implication is that the lack of dualistic gender roles is in large part responsible for their extreme differences from other planets, but in the end you never can tell exactly what causes what; the nature of these variables is that they are not isolable. Left Hand is a gem of old-school sci-fi worldbuilding. It’s short, but it encompasses a whole lot.