Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

I want very desperately to see what others have seen in this book. I reread it this month to find out if I had just missed things on first readings, if my frustrations and disappointments and distance would fade away on a second visit.

But no. I remain disappointed. I continue to think that this book tries valiantly at something very difficult and amazing, and fails. I am not grabbed by the characters. Goodness knows I want to be. I loved The Dispossessed. Why don't I love this?

It's a very lonely feeling, to sit out feeling mediocre about a book that has generated such raves and such love from other people. I want in on the party!

So, why do I have problems with it? The issues are twofold:

1) I think she fails at portraying genderlessness. It's a very difficult thing, I fully admit that! It might have been miraculous had she succeeded. But to me, she never did. Instead, this book constantly read (both times) to me, as a book about a planet full of men who occasionally had babies. That would be interesting, if that was what she was going for. But I don't think it was.

For every time she added Genly saying something about how the person he was talking to was somehow a bit like a woman, there are dozens and dozens of male pronouns. And despite Genly's assertion that "he" is a gender neutral term, I call bullshit. It isn't. It has never been. The gendered assumptions packed up in such a tiny word may be unacknowledged, but they exist. If "she" is a bearer of meaning that includes gendered expectations, so is "he."

Every time someone has tried to come up with a gender neutral pronoun, the results have tended to be inelegant and strained. But I think that might be what she needed here. She could have made up a Gethenian pronoun and used it, and that would have brought the gender issue to the fore, instead of hiding it behind the male.

But even worse is the part where, even when perfectly good gender-neutral words existed in English, LeGuin chose not to use them, using instead the specifically male forms. Gethenians are not parents, they are fathers. Their children are not children, they are sons. Siblings are not siblings, they are brothers. Parents, children, siblings. Why not those words?

Males who occasionally get pregnant.

I will omit the part where every time someone first interacts with a non-Gethenian person, whether as an image or the reality, the example always starts with someone finding the female form strange and offputting. It's going to be a bit repetitive, given what I've already stated.

If LeGuin had just set this on a world that, instead of genderless, was gendered entirely male, I wouldn't be having these difficulties. It wouldn't have mattered if their masculinity was far different from the ones I know. Masculinities are rarely constant and never universal. I hoped beyond hope that I'd be swept up in the story this time, that her use of pronouns and nouns would bother me quite so much. It never happened.

2) Once the above started to get under my skin, there wasn't enough emotional attachment to the characters or the story to override it, and allow me to get immersed. It was too restrained, too cerebral, and I never really cared very much about what was going on.

The Dispossessed captured and held me. The Left Hand of Darkness left me cold. I wanted to care about Genly, about Estraven, about their world and their struggles. But whether it was my brain getting stuck on pronouns and refusing to budge, or that there wasn't enough there for me to grasp on to, I was adrift.

I didn't mind reading it. I think it is a magnificent attempt at something incredibly difficult. But for me, it never succeeded at its most basic premise, and there wasn't enough else to become enraptured by.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees


  1. I enjoyed the book, didn't love it, but for a different reason. I just found it really slow going. I didn't notice the things you're talking about here, but I know that where I am now they would bother me. I read it a while ago and it was the first book I'd read that tried to do the genderless thing so I know I was in a different place then. Now that you've mentioned these issues I'm inclined to go back and re-read the book to see if it bothers me the way it bothered you. It happened to me with Dune, once I realized how male centric it was, for all that it had great female characters, I was done with the book and I can't go back and re-read it anymore.

    Have you read Necessary Ill by Deb Taber? I thought it did a pretty good job with the idea of a genderless character. Though in this case the characters are completely genderless, as in neuter, no sex at all.

    1. Have you read the later Dune books? From what I remember, they center a lot more around Alia and eventually, the twins.

      I haven't yet! I will have to check it out at some point!

    2. Years and years ago, yea. What bothered me about Dune was the idea that the only person who could reach true enlightenment was a male. Scores of powerful women, really powerful women, couldn't reach their the most powerful zenith because of ovaries. It bugged me during one of my rereads a few years back and I haven't picked up the series since.

  2. If you haven't seen it yet, check out's series pm post-binary gender is SF/F:

    Also, on the pronoun point, I've been finding it interesting that, while I love the Z version of Spivak pronouns (zie, zir), in real life, persons who don't want to use traditional binary pronouns seem to be going to "they" rather than anything else.

    1. Cool! I will spend some time browsing that!

      Having just read Delany's Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, I am struck by how much he was able to foreground issues of gender (although everyone is biologically male or female) in ways that Le Guin didn't. They're roughly the same time period.

      I had noticed that. It's not as grammatically incorrect as people think. Still a tiny bit inelegant, but that's a small price to pay.