Essays and Criticism
The Problems of Androgyny
An Androgyne is a person possessing the traits of both sexes, a hermaphrodite—strictly speaking, a sexual aberrant. But on the planet Winter in Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, everyone is an androgyne, fully functioning as a male at certain times, a female at others, and favoring neither sex. This intriguing notion, so brilliantly conceived by the author, has elevated the Hugo-and Nebula-winning novel to classic status. Yet, androgyny is the element most often criticized in this landmark work, androgyny as it relates to plot and the choice of pronoun. The plot might have been made whole, although the pronoun problem remains, had Le Guin fleshed out a missing scene.
World-famous science fiction writer and critic Stanislaw Lem, of Poland, and critic David Ketterer have both questioned whether androgyny in The Left Hand of Darkness is integral to the plot. Ketterer gives a plot summary without mentioning androgyny as a way to demonstrate this. Even Le Guin, in her earlier defense of the issue in the essay "Is Gender Necessary? Redux," claimed the most fundamental theme of the novel was betrayal and fidelity. Her whole purpose in using androgyny was to eradicate sexual tensions of male dominance and female compliance and describe how a world would evolve without them. On Winter (or Gethen), the country of Karhide contrasts with that of Orgoreyn religiously, politically, and culturally, despite their androgyny, but neither has...
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The Left Hand of Darkness: Androgyny, Future, Present, Past
Much of the impact of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) results from the fact that the novel is an exploration of the concept of the dichotomous/androgynous one on three time levels: future, present, and past. First and most obviously, it is future directed, presenting a possible androgynous world on the planet Winter. Second, it is rooted in the present. As Le Guin affirms in her introduction to the Ace edition, the purpose of her science fiction is descriptive, not predictive: "I'm merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of the day ... we already are [androgynous]." Third, The Left Hand of Darkness is directed to the past. In her exploration of androgyny, Le Guin examines a subject whose origins are buried deep in our mythic past....
The very origins of the word, lying in our past, in ancient Greece suggest a beginning definition. Androgyny is a combination of andro meaning male and gyn meaning female. It suggests by its form a blending in which human characteristics of males and females are not rigidly assigned. One might simply assert then that the androgyne is the dichotomous one, incorporating male and female psychological duality in one physical entity. There are, though, more complex ideas currently associated with the word. Androgyny is an affirmation that humanity should reject all forms of sexual...
(The entire section is 2875 words.)
Science Fiction as Conscience: John Brunner and Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin works in a very different manner from John Brunner. Her fiction is closer to fantasy than naturalism, but it is just as grounded in ethical concerns as Brunner's work, despite its apparent distance from present actualities. Though some would argue that her political novel, The Dispossessed (1974), is her best work, and others might favor her ecological romance, The Word for World is Forest (1972, 1976), or her young people's fantasy, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), today's critical consensus is still that her best single work is The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).
In The Left Hand of Darkness Le Guin moves far from our world in time and space, to give us a planet where life has evolved on different lines from our own. This world, which happens to be in a period of high glaciation, has evolved political institutions in two adjoining countries that resemble feudalism on the one hand, and bureaucracy on the other. But the most important difference between this world and our own is that its human inhabitants are different from us in their physical sexuality. All beings on the planet Gethen have both male and female sexual organs. In a periodic cycle like estrus in animals, Gethenians become sexually aroused—but only one set of sexual organs is activated at this time. These people are potentially hermaphroditic. Most...
(The entire section is 614 words.)