The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Does the novel's use of "lies" or "fables" provoke us to reimagine our world and criticize social injustice through a feminist posthuman(ist) lens?

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The title of Ursula Le Guin's 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, is a nod to the dualism that the novel embraces with respect to gender. The poem which gave the novel its title is recited by one of the main characters, Estraven. Estraven is a Prime Minister from the planet Gethen, where the protagonist, Genly Ai, is on a political mission. The poem is from the tradition of an ancient religion on the planet Gethen, called Handdara, which states that

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
. (195)

The title itself, when closely examined, demonstrates the theme of dualism. The novel follows envoy Genly Ai (a native of the planet Terra) who travels to the planet Gethen in order to invite the inhabitants to join a political alliance of planets, Ekumen. The inhabitants of the planet Gethen are androgynous. Only once a month, either one of two sexual traits becomes pronounced, and the individual seeks out a mate with whom to join in "kemmer." In this process, "normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer" (74). Le Guin astutely and thoroughly examines the ramifications that this genderless-ness has on society: there is no word for male or female, only words for the male and female stages exhibited during "kemmer."

Though the androgynous nature of the characters is the primary feature that invites a feminist reading of the novel (which was published amid the second-wave feminist movement), the utopian characteristics of Genly Ai's world are given greater scope. When Genly Ai meets with the king of Karhide, Argaven, the king asks, "are they all as black as you?" to which Genly replies, "we come in all colors." When Genly explains further that "Gethenian sexual physiology, as far as we yet know, is unique among human beings," the king asks boldly whether "all others are in permanent kemmer? A society of perverts?" (28). The proud king uses this relative value judgment as grounds for a political defense against joining Ekumen (the confederation of planets whose ambassador is Genly Ai).

This compelling and representative dialogue invites the reader to recognize Genly Ai's combination of diplomacy and circumspection ("as we yet know"). As a protagonist, Genly Ai might be considered a paragon of a utopian and forward-thinking world; however, Le Guin doesn't allow for such a facile interpretation. The king's passing comment that Genly Ai and his species from the planet Terra (i.e., Earth) are "a society of perverts," prompts one to ask whether our gender distinctions—or the extent to which they pervade modern society—do in fact constitute perversion.

One could argue that science fiction is a natural and common locus for reimagining (and so understanding to a greater extent) our own world. Le Guin is a science fiction writer par excellence, and so her acclaimed novel is no exception to this invitation to reimagine. It is a provocative reimagining indeed.

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