Sunday, 2 October 2011

Essay: The critical reception of Ursula K. Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness"

Whilst the literary history of science fiction (SF) has been marked primarily as a male domain, ‘women have been writing science fiction for as long as science fiction has been around’ (Larbalestier 2006:xviii). Indeed most commentators agree that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818), was the first genuine example of SF. Thus, it could be said that the genre of SF was inaugurated ‘with a woman’s critique of scientific or technological development within a patriarchal society’ (Mellor 1982:244). With the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, feminist SF emerged, which embraced ‘the political “sexual revolution”, uncovered the genre’s ingrained sexism, and challenged male supremacy through time and space’ (Jones 2009:485). In this essay I will be discussing the critical reception of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), one of the most read texts in the feminist SF canon, if not SF as a whole. In particular, I will be focusing on examples of the early criticism that arose, with particular attention on the supposed failures of Le Guin’s imagining of an androgynous society, and her widely criticised use of the male pronoun. 

The relationship between science fiction and feminism becomes apparent when you consider how both fields engage with discourses that repeatedly challenge ‘the stability of boundaries between categories and concepts’ (Seed 2005:n.p.). One of these concepts is gender. Feminist thinking which is inherently utopian, in seeking to eliminate discrimination on the basis of gender, ‘posits a gender-free alternative world that does not now exist but which is possible within historical time and space’ (Mellor 1982:243). In this way, feminist writers have turned to SF as a genre, which ‘provides the opportunity to test various hypotheses concerning societal organisation and ethical codes’ (Mellor 1982:244). As noted by Annas (1978:144; my emphasis) 
Implicit in science fiction literature is a non-ethnocentric and dialectical vision of society: non-ethnocentric in that a fundamental premise of the genre is that things-as-they-are should be questioned rather than merely accepted and described; dialectical in that alternate paradigms are played off against any given reality. Science fiction…is structurally suited to a role as revolutionary literature. 
According to Le Guin (1979:162), The Left Hand of Darkness, ‘is the record of my consciousness, the process of my thinking’. It is a ‘thought-experiment’ in the same way that Schr√∂dingers’ cat was in quantum physics. She notes that ‘one of the essential functions of [SF]…is this kind of question-asking: reversals of an habitual way of thinking, metaphors for what our language has no words for as yet, experiments in imagination’ (Le Guin 1979:163). The radical and revolutionary thought-experiment Le Guin was interested in posing was a society in which gender is eliminated ‘to find out what was left. Whatever was left would be, presumably, simply human. It would define the area that is shared by men and women alike’ (Le Guin 1979:163). However, she notes that, ‘as an experiment, it was messy.’ Regardless of how messy it was, The Left Hand of Darkness has been immensely important ‘for people writing from a feminine perspective or looking for ways to question discourses of gender and sexuality’ (Pearson 2010:139).

The winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, The Left Hand of Darkness not only established Le Guin as a major science fiction writer, but it also drew significant critical attention to her work, and indeed ‘[m]ore academic work has been written about Le Guin than about any other SF writer, including H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley’ (Pearson 2010:136). In November 1977, the academic journal Science Fiction Studies, dedicated its entire issue to “The Science Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin”. As a self-declared feminist, Le Guin has ‘influenced and inspired several generations of SF readers, writers, and critics…and is credited with being influential in showing that SF has literary merit’ (Pearson 2010:137). This has mostly been due to the attention that has been paid to her by critics outside SF. For example, in Robert Scholes’s essay, “The Good Witch of the West”, he asserted that Le Guin was ‘the best writer of speculative fabulation working in the country [at the time], and she deserve[d] a place among our major contemporary writers of fiction’ (cited in Bittner 1979:37).

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin imagines the possibility of biological androgyny; that is, a single reproductive sex fused with male and female characteristics’ (Mellor 1982:251). Set on the imaginary planet of Gethen, also called Winter, Gethenians are biologically neuter. In the chapter, “The Question of Sex”, the female narrator, in providing an ethnographer’s field report, theorises and describes Gethenian sexual physiology. Thinking the alien race ‘an experiment’, we are told that ‘the sexual cycle averages 26 to 28 days’, for which ‘21 or 22 days the individual is somer, sexually inactive, latent.’ On about the 18th day, the individual enters a period called kemmer. In this 6-day period of fertility,
the sexual impulse is tremendously strong…controlling the entire personality, subjecting all other drives to its imperative. When the individual finds a partner in kemmer, hormonal secretion is further stimulated…until in one partner either male or female hormonal dominance is established. The genitals engorge or shrink accordingly, foreplay intensifies, and the partner, triggered by the change, takes on the other sexual role…Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether they will be male or female (96-97).
In regards to childbirth, ‘the mother of several children may be the father of several more’ (97). It is in this way that Le Guin is able to write one of the greatest sentences in the history of literature: ‘The king was pregnant’ (106).
The narrator of the chapter then looks at the social consequences of this biological androgyny. Given that any Gethenian is liable to be
tied down to childbearing…no one is quite so thoroughly “tied down” here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally…Therefore, nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else (100).
On Gethen, ‘there is no unconsenting sex, no rape.’ There is ‘no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive’. In fact, there is ‘no tendency to dualism’ (101). Perhaps the most remarkable conclusion of this is ‘the elimination of war’. The narrator quotes an ancient source: “did they consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped?” (102).

Critical reception of The Left Hand of Darkness has ‘displayed a tension of opposites appropriate to the novel’ (Spivack 1984:57). According to White (1999:47), when the novel first appeared, it did not garner completely favourable reviews.’ For example, Alexei Panshin, reviewing the book for Fantasy and Science Fiction, deemed it a ‘flat failure’, and was the first critic to object to Le Guin’s use of masculine pronouns when referring to the androgynes (cited in White 1999:47). The feminist scholar and science fiction writer, Joanna Russ, in her article, “The Image of Women in Science Fiction”, laments that whilst Le Guin was able to imagine how a people’s culture and institutions would be very different from ours, she fails in leaving out the family – ‘childrearing is left completely in the dark, although the human author herself is married and the mother of three children.’ Russ (1972:89-90) also criticises the use of the male protagonist, Genly Ai, a human anthropologist on Winter, and the fact that the Gethenian main character, Estraven, is represented primarily as masculine – ‘at least, “he” is masculine in gender, if not in sex.’ With regards to the use of the male pronoun, she concedes that due to ‘a deficiency in the English language…these people must be called “he” throughout’ (Russ 1972:90).

The controversy continued in 1971, when Australian science fiction magazine SF Commentary, published an article by Stanislaw Lem. In “Lost Opportunities”, Lem criticises the novel, noting that ‘[i]t carries an important message, but it does not develop the message.’ He notes, [a]lthough her anthropological understanding is very good, her psychological insight, on the other hand, is only sufficient and sometimes even insufficient’ (1971:22). Lem feels that the novel is ‘psychologically unsound because the Gethenians’ constant gender change should wreak havoc on relationships and personal identity’ (White 1999:47). He takes further umbrage at Le Guin’s failure to represent the Gethenians as anything other than wholly masculine – ‘because Karhider garments, manners of speech, mores and behaviour, are masculine. In the social realm, the male element has remained victorious over the female’ (Lem 1971:24).

In a later issue, Le Guin (1972:91; original emphasis) vigorously defends Lem’s challenges. She invites Lem, or anyone else, to ‘point out one passage or speech in which Estraven does or says something that only a man could or would say.’ Instead, she blames cultural conditioning, such that ‘we tend to insist that Estraven and the other Gethenians are men, because most of us are unwilling or unable to imagine women as scheming prime ministers, haulers of sledges across icy wastes, etc.’ As for Gethenian clothing, she notes that she modelled the garments on typical Eskimo attire (Le Guin 1972:92). In reply to the common argument over the use of the male pronoun, Le Guin (1972:91) acknowledges how the ‘use of the masculine pronoun influences the reader’s imagination’, but defends her use on the basis of the limitations of her medium, and not wanting to ‘deform English’. She even gives an example of the difficulty of deploying a neuter pronoun by re-writing a passage using se/sem/sen. It should be pointed out that the Australian SF author Greg Egan successfully used a neuter pronoun in the impressive post-human novel Diaspora (1988), where he used ve/vim/vis.

One of the most interesting aspects about Le Guin as a writer is that she is also a critic, and open to changing her mind. She says, ‘it is rather in the feminist mode to let one’s changes of mind, and the processes of change, stand as evidence – and perhaps to remind people that minds that don’t change are like clams that don’t open’ (Le Guin 1989:7). In response to her many critics who all brought her to task on her decision to use male pronouns, her unwillingness to allow Genly and Estraven to have sex, and the masculinity of her imagined world, she wrote two essays. In the first essay, “Is Gender Necessary?”, Le Guin (1979:163) identifies herself as a feminist, and explains the process by which she eliminated the Gethenians of gender to ‘find out what was left.’ The essay is mostly a defence of her decisions, including the use of the male pronoun, but she does admit that she might have been more clever in creating the Gethenians.

In the second essay, “Is Gender Necessary? Redux”, Le Guin (1989:15) notes that in the first essay, ‘I was feeling defensive, and resentful that critics of the book insisted upon talking only about its “gender problems”. She also changes her mind on the use of pronouns, noting the exclusionary effect of ‘the so-called generic pronoun he/him/his’, which ‘exclude[d] women from discourse’ (1989:15). Le Guin ultimately capitulates, accepting that ‘this is a real flaw in the book.’ She also gives in to the critics who noted that sexuality for Gethenians is necessarily heterosexual – ‘I quite unnecessarily locked the Gethenians into heterosexuality. It is a naively pragmatic view of sex that insists that sexual partners must be of the opposite sex!’ (Le Guin 1989:14). With regards to the male point of view, she notes that the book ‘allowed men a safe trip into androgyny and back, from a conventionally male viewpoint. But many women wanted it to go further, to dare more, to explore androgyny from a woman’s point of view as well as a man’s’ (Le Guin 1989:16).

In conclusion, this essay has provided a discussion on the critical reception of one of the most important and widely criticised texts in feminist SF, and SF in general. Examples were provided from critics who noted the limitations, gaps and problems in Le Guin’s imagining of a biologically androgynous society. Whilst many other examples could have been provided, the discussion has been limited to criticism situated around the early reception of the work. Understanding how The Left Hand of Darkness has been received critically also sheds light on how SF as a genre is received both within the genre, and outside it. Finally, as a canonical text, further enquiry into the history of the critical reception of the novel may also bring into question the processes of canonisation, and where SF stands in the literary firmament. 

Annas, P.J. (1978) “New Worlds, New Words: Androgyny in Feminist Science Fiction”, Science Fiction Studies, 5 (2): 143-156.

Bittner, J.W. (1979) “A Survey of Le Guin Criticism” in J. De Bolt (ed.) Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyages to Inner Lands and to Outer Space. New York and London: Kennikat Press: 31-49.

Egan, G. (1988) Diaspora. London: Millenium.

Jones, G. (2009) “Feminist SF” in The Routledge Guide to Science Fiction. e-book, accessed 21 September 2011, .

Larbelestier, J. (ed) (2006) Daughters of the Earth: feminist science fiction in the twentieth century. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Le Guin, U.K. (1969) The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books.

Le Guin, U.K. (1972) “Re: Lost Opportunities”, SF Commentary, 26: 90-93.

Le Guin, U.K. (1979) “Is Gender Necessary?” in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons: 161-169.

Le Guin, U.K. (1989) “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York: Grove Press: 7-16.

Lem, S. (1971) “Lost Opportunities”, SF Commentary, 24: 17-24.

Mellor, A.K. (1982) “On feminist utopias”, Women’s Studies, 9 (3): 241-262.

Pearson, W.G. (2010) “Ursula K[Roeber] Le Guin (1929-)” in M. Bould, A.M. Butler, A. Roberts and
S. Vint (eds.) Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. London and New York: Routledge: 136-141.

Russ, J. (1972) “The Images of Women in Science Fiction” in S.K. Cornillon (ed.) Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press:79-94.

Seed, D. (ed.) (2005) “Introduction: Approaching Science Fiction” in A Companion to Science Fiction. e-book, accessed 21 September 2011,

Spivack, C. (1984) Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Various contributors (1977) “The Science Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin”, Science Fiction Studies, 2 (3).

White, D.R. (1999) Dancing with Dragons: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Critics. Colombia: Camden House.