The Left Hand of Darkness
By Ursula K Le Guin, Finished .
The copy I got had three different introductions; one by Le Guin herself, one by David Mitchel, and one by China Miéville. Miéville’s stuck with me as I read, in which he opens by lamenting books that, far from receiving no attention, are acclaimed as classics. Once something is a classic everyone things they know it, even if they haven’t read it. I have read it however so I am allowed to have opinions.
I don’t know what you want from me, it’s easily Le Guin’s most acclaimed work after the Earthsea quartet. It is a classic, and worth reading. My observations are nothing new. Although it’s known for how it deals with sex and gender it is quite backwards looked at from a modern queer perspective. Even at the time some of it’s views on gender seem a little antiquated, which is something Le Guin didn’t shy away from. The book reflects the dominant views of gender from the time, and one must see it like that or else it seems like a truly dystopian view of our future.
Genly Ai, the protagonist, is from Earth far in the future and is so perplexed by a species without fixed sex. The observers from earth decided that using he/him for a genderless species would make sense. If human society is still like this in a thousand years then I would despair. But it is not a prediction of the future, rather a reflection of Le Guin’s prejudices.
Though it is often acclaimed for how it handles sex and gender, which to be clear I do believe it is worth noting even if I’ve put it down for that, how it deals with nationalism is far more interesting to me. We see Gethen, Winter, at a time when nations are finally forming as we would understand them, and the horrors that come so naturally with that. There is a quote that really stuck with me from Estraven:
“How does one hate a country, or love one? […] I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun set in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession…Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre [his home], but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate.”
I think this quote speaks to Le Guin’s broader philosophy, of her anarchic tendencies. It is one of the finest examples of her beautiful style and clarity of her critiques. Left Hand of Darkness, though not about anarchism such as The Dispossessed is, does grapple with ideas of state and power quite effectively.
As a final thought, I will take you back to when I went to see Dune in cinemas. A trailer came on for another sci-fi adaption (I can’t recall which) and I thought “oh no so many are getting made, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to adapt Le Guin again!”. I may put down my thoughts on the difficulty of adapting Le Guin’s work elsewhere. However, I think The Left Hand of Darkness may be perfect for an adaptation. Give a queer director a modest budget and the freedom to use the concept of the book to tell a story as they wish, and I think you would get something amazing and interesting. Of course, I doubt that would happen and you’d probably get fucking “Zack Snyder’s Left Hand of Darkness!” where not a single idea of the novel is preserved. We can dream though.