10 min read

Reflections on... The Left Hand of Darkness

Disclaimer: The 'reflections on' series is better appreciated if you've read the source material, though it isn't necessary. You can find the book here or here, the audiobook here, and a summary here. Also, SPOILER ALERT.

“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a 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, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

After reflecting on The Dispossessed to further our discussion on 'fairness' in our ideal future world, we turn to Le Guin's more - and therefore most - famous work, The Left Hand of Darkness. Published in 1969, it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and in 1987 Locus Magazine ranked it second all-time among science fiction novels, after Dune. While all of the best science fiction raises more questions than it answers, the goal of the 'Reflections on..' series is to draw out the lessons and conclusions to help us say something about what our ideal future world ought to look like. That will not be the case here. The Left Hand of Darkness introduces such radical themes that all I can hope to do in this article is draw out the many poignant questions it raises. We'll look at the role of gender and inclusivity, sexual intercourse and procreation, globalism that maintains culture, and a handful of other ideas that will influence our vision. Future articles will do the heavy lifting necessary to propose what our answers to those questions should be.

For those in need of a refresher, here's the plot summary from SuperSummary:

Genly Ai is an ambassador from the Ekumen, a galactic confederacy of planets that includes Genly’s native Terra, a future version of Earth. Genly arrives on the planet of Gethen with the intention of discovering whether it is willing or able to join the confederation. Genly arrives alone to emphasize his peaceful intentions, but this also makes him vulnerable to the planet’s inhabitants. After a year of being an envoy, the ways of the Gethen nation of Karhide are still mysterious to Genly. They are a politically minded and secretive people led by King Argaven, who shows signs of dementia. Their climate is extremely cold, an atmosphere to which the Gethen have adapted and Genly has not. Many in Argaven’s court, even Genly’s friends, do not speak plainly, a fact which continually thwarts the envoy. Genly is also alienated by Gethen physiognomy, which is so like his own that he often passes for one of them. However, the Gethen are genderless, only presenting sexual characteristics during a monthly period of mating called kemmer. This genderlessness makes the Gethen and Genly mysteries to one another.

Among Genly’s closest supporters is Estraven, Argaven’s current prime minister. Estraven is one of a long and tumultuous succession of the king’s political appointees. Estraven finds it difficult to explain to Genly how precarious his position is among a nation of people who consider him so different and unassuming, but Estraven’s code of rhetoric and ethics prevents him from speaking plainly, and Genly alternately trusts and distrusts Estraven. When tensions break out between Karhide and its closest neighbor, Orgoreyn, Argaven becomes paranoid and exiles Estraven. Genly, angry and confused by his failure to communicate the benefits of membership in the Ekumen, leaves with the intention of convincing Orgoreyn to apply.

Estraven’s travels are perilous, but he is welcomed as an advisor and guest to the highly ordered and technologically advanced Orgoreyn political council. Mainly, Estraven is kept there as an information resource for the secret police force of the Orgoreyn, always on a knife’s edge between being useful and expendable. Soon, Genly finds himself in the same awkward circle, seeming to make progress toward his goal while making little concrete headway. When the tides turn, Genly is captured and thrown into an Orgota prison work camp to die of overexposure to cold and to alien anti-kemmering treatments, which are toxic to him.

Estraven risks everything to break Genly out of prison. Using his skills as an outdoorsperson, political operative, and follower of the intuitive religion of Handarra, Estraven succeeds in bringing Genly out into the cold Orgota wilderness. From there, they both decide to make the harrowing trek back to Karhide by foot, an 800-mile journey through ice and snow. The two become close friends on the nearly three-month hike, talking through the evenings and sharing cultural knowledge.

Reaching Karhide, Genly contacts his ship to come out of stasis and return to Gethen. As they wait for the Ekumen ship, Estraven is discovered violating his exile on Karhide soil. To Genly’s dismay, border guards shoot Estraven as he attempts to cross back through the border to Orgota. Genly’s ship arrives, and both Orgoreyn and Karhide begin to alter the course of their politics to accommodate the new galactic partnership. Genly now feels closer to Gethen than to his birthplace, and he continues to mourn the loss of Estraven.

Sex, gender and inclusion

The Left Hand of Darkness was one of the first novels in a genre now known as feminist science fiction and is the most famous examination of androgyny in science fiction. "The king is pregnant" is heralded as an all-time quote in science fiction, and yet did not shock me anywhere near as much as it must have shocked readers in 1969 for it to gain that status. Does the fact that it no longer strikes such a chord show that we are growing/progressing as a society? I like to think so.

As individuals on Gethen are ambisexual, there are no 'gender roles' as we've come to understand that term, which is a large reason why Genly Ai struggles to gain a full understanding of society. Even the gethenian body has physically evolved to be something of an average of human male and female physical traits. These differences makes the story feel less about the emancipation and equalisation of women - as it was heralded at the time - and rather a destruction of our concept of gender. It also feels different from a gender-fluid society due to the biological differences between humans and gethenians, which is the core of many interesting questions this theme raises.

The nature of biological sex differences

The book contains the idea that gethenians are each one single 'whole' by being hermaphroditic, in contrast to humans each being a 'half' - completed by one of the other sex. This idea feels of its time - it is rooted in a biological understanding of gender and is inherently homophobic. That aside - and Le Guin did address and accept the criticism - the theme of the book is how the existence of biological sex differences have shaped society, and what an 'optimal' society ought to look like given the existence of biological sex differences. It raises a host of important and difficult questions about the role of biological sex difference in the ideal future world we envision. I won't attempt to answer any here, and acknowledging my straight-white-maleness I will be drawing on significantly greater expetise whenever I do.

In an ideal world, should people be free to choose their gender and sexual-orientation?
What is the moral obligation to pro-create? Now, and in an ideal future world?
Are we/when will we be technologically advanced enough for gender and sexual orientation to be irrelevant for procreation?
What is the optimal approach to gender choice in children/adolescents?
What traits will be seen as 'attractive'?

Acceptance of the 'other'

The love between Genly Ai and Estraven is a journey of two very different people to see what they share with the other, and accept all of who they are. It is a personal journey for each main character: Genly fights the notion that Estraven can be both man and woman, while Estraven fights the notion that Genly is not a 'pervert' - a common perception and insult of gethenians with a single gender. Gethenian society is presented as being superior in this regard - gethenians treat each other simply as humans - they lack the trait that has caused a deep divide, sexism, in humanity. Genly reflects on how his outlook is shaped and marred by interpreting gethenians through a gendered lens, a notion they cannot comprehend.

What would it take to eradicate the perception and negative impact deriving from gender differences?
What other negative impacts of differences exist in global society today that we would not want present in our ideal future?
What differences have positive impacts that we would we want to maintain?
What other stories imagine worlds without such differences, and what could we learn from them?

Role of sexual intercourse in society

Sex on Gethen looks very different. The nature of kemmer restricts sexual temptation to seven days in each ~28 day cycle. During that time, gethenians go 'all-out' and let their physical desires consume them. Orgies are normalised. Homosexuality is normalised. It is culturally appropriate, even expected, to be incredibly open and direct with ones sexual desires while in that state. And for the rest of the month, they are 'celibate', not even possessing reproductive organs. In this time they are focused, productive, and thoughtful beings. Because of this, they struggle to understand how human society can function when always in kemmer - their perception generated from their two-state existence.

In a post-work future, how much time will people dedicate to recreational sex?
What is the risk that humans appetite for sex pushes us into the hedonistic dystopia imagined, for example, in Huxley's Brave New World?
What would it take for our society and culture to reach full acceptance of sexual desire and freedom?

Integration and cooperation

The Left Hand of Darkness is as good as any example of nationalism being shown to be a petty and self-defeating belief set, here contrasted with pan-galactic cooperation. Le Guin makes the benefits of integration seem so obvious, with an isolated world being offered access the combined knowledge of the populated galaxy through Genly Ai. She makes it explicit that the nationalism seen on Gethen is driven by fear; fear of losing status and power that might be exploited by others, of losing a sense of self-worth if not relatively superior, and ultimately of losing identity. Solving for national superiority created two leading societies; one based on bland indifference (Karhide) and the other a state ruled by secret police (Orgota). Even with a common 'enemy' - the Ekumen - the two countries don't unite, and Genly Ai only achieves acceptance and integration by playing them against one another.

Would the nations of earth would come together in the presence of 'alien life'? If this were true it would suggest we should see greater geo-political cooperation. Intuitively, there is always a common-enemy/partner at whatever level of organisation you have (city, nation, bloc). There are efficiencies, economies of scale, and security through greater cooperation and trade, so the lack of cooperation given capitalist incentives suggests there is something significant missing. Likely this is a misalignment of core values between nations. We see cooperation when there are alignment of values (US-UK) and not where there is misalignment (US-China). It is difficult to believe that current countries of earth would ally immediately in the face of alien life - look only to the geopolitical response to the COVID-19 pandemic for evidence of a gross failing of coordination when it was a clearly favourable strategy. Instead there would likely be jockeying/strategy dynamics to be the first-mover nation and gain power from the situation. If aliens landed in China and they made first contact, they could have the power to conquer the rest of the world, or equally force Chinese norms on the world, much as the nations of Gethen had to align with Ehrenrag. This same hypothetical can be applied to whatever nation first creates human-level artificial intelligence - hence the need to progress AI governance research. If we believe a global society is ideal, we ought to progress research into values optimisation and alignment - as we are doing with WFW? - at a much faster rate.

Is a global society a shared vision of an ideal future world?
Are shared values a prerequisite for a global society?
How might one balance a global society of shared values with the desire for new ideas and innovation?
How do we get to a society of shared values?
Are we trending toward or away from this outcome?
Are there economic motivations for alignment of values?

Some clues might be found in how the Ekumen expanded across the galaxy.

The best of all worlds/cultures/societies

This humanist philosophy captures the shared values of the Ekumen, the galactic society that seems to have highly developed ethical practices. For example, while they possess the means to invade and capture, they never force integration. They send just one single envoy to ensure they are not intimidating, whose task is to listen as much as speak and be prepared to wait indefinitely for the world to opt-in to the Ekumen. They offer value, and make no demands or contracts. Karhide only agrees to the integration when it is clear that the gain from technological sharing will outweigh the loss of inter-planetary competition, and certainly that of inter-national competition.

Is it important to maintain unique cultures and histories within a global society of shared values?
If so, is it necessary to have all nations opt-in to the society, rather than have any join through coercion or force?
Are we willing to accept that some cultures will need to change to reflect a set of global values?

Imagination bound by experiences

Gethenians don't have planes, helicopters, or spaceships, because nothing within their nature flies. They don't have birds, butterflies, or pterodactyls to be inspired by. Their stories of deities have them floating to earth as sycamore seeds do. Their imagination is bounded by examples they can point to.

Where might our society be bounded by the nature of our thinking?
Have we demonstrated our ability as humanity to think beyond what we have physical examples of?
Is it a futile question, because we cannot hope to see outside of it?

Human augmentation

Duluth - technologically enhanced super-strength - raises questions of technology-augmented humanity. Estraven uses duluth to bust Genly out of the concentration camp, which is clearly ethically justified in this example but raises obvious questions about the nature of society. Genly Ai's mindspeech ability isn't presented as a technology, but given human beings do not possess this capability, we can interpret it the same way - as human augmentation.

What level of human-augmentation is ideal?
How would this impact society?

Galactic expansion

Le Guin presents a vision of galactic society that could itself be described as utopian compared to the vast majority of space sci-fi. Humanity has established a shared set of values and expanded through the galaxy on a basis of ethics rather than force - seemingly a net positive for all involved. The existence of ansible technology -  the ability to communicate instantly across lightyears of distance in space - and the different commentary on galactic society between this book and when the ansible was introduced in The Dispossessed, raises questions about the role of technology in ensuring a stable and fulfilling interplanetary future. The sharing of technology without physical intervention and interplanetary verification are presented as greasing the wheels of intergalactic society and expansion, but it is up to us to determine their full role.

Is human expansion beyond Earth part of our ideal future vision?
What technology would be required to make this ideal?
What are the risks of galactic expansion?

The Left Hand of Darkness asks many questions relevant to our vision of an ideal future world, and only in some areas hints at what the right answer might be. For now, we have a lot to add to our research agenda, principally maybe the idea of developing a global set of values for our future world to be built around. In the future, look out for when we tackle these big questions.

Please share your thoughts if you have any feedback on this article, or leave a comment below.