04 | The Left Hand of Darkness
Transcript for the episode 04 | The Left Hand of Darkness
Gwen: Alright, we’re in business! Hello, and welcome to another episode of “Hey, You Should Read This!”. I’m Gwen, and this is “Hey, You Should Read This!”, the podcast where I take recommendations from my friends and the internet on the books that I should really be reading already. Today, we’re discussing The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, and I say we because this time I have a guest again! Joe, would you like to introduce yourself?
Joe: Sure, my name is Joe Sheller. I met Gwen when she was one of the student editors of the Mount Mercy student newspaper, and I’m a professor at Mount Mercy. I think it was just in casual conversation that I brought up this book, and I remember reading it when I was a teenager and really, really, really enjoying it. And that’s the reason I recommended it to you Gwen.
G: Love that. I fully remember that conversation, actually. I was turned around before a class started and talking to the guy behind me about how I hadn’t read any hard sci-fi, and you heard us talking about Ursula K. Le Guin and said I should read this book, and now (significantly after graduating) I have! So, for background, I don’t really read a lot of books with a lot of political intrigue and like–and I guess political intrigue would suffice–but all of the sort of Games of Thrones style drama of who has power and who is trying to get power. Not usually a thing I go into. So the first hundred pages were a little bit much for me, but once we got to about Chapter 6, the action started, and I was all in.
J: Oh good, good.
J: Yeah, I think it was just the imaginative world taht really appealed to me–the idea of a winter planet and a whole sub-species of humans that don’t have a sexual identity in the sense that people usually do. ANd the title, the Left Hand of Darkness, is sort of explained I think near the end of the book, where it’s the idea that good and bad are intertwined, and there’s a quote about the left hand of darkness being the light, and that sort of plays with the whole idea of duality. And besides being about gender, the book (as you note) kind of has a political bent, but it’s a rumination on the way in which people treat each other, and the good and bad relationships too.
G: Yeah, once I got to point where it wasn’t just people talking over dinners, I had fully bought into the concept of these people. And Chapter 7–which is the question of sex, for those people who don’t necessarily have the book in front of them–is the sort of scientific report by the investigators who come before our main character on his mission to this planet. The scientific report is sort of the preliminary “what you need to know before you come to Winter” and it discusses all of that not having relationship to concepts of gender and things, and that to me made so much of the worldbuilding much more clear in a way that I’m like “Would it also work if this had been Chapter 1?” Would things have been clearer to me than being dropped into political intrigue. But it was useful, and it was very interesting to consider from–because it’s an outsider perspective looking in, it’s meant to be seen from the human perspective and kind of relatable, I guess, that this is strange and other. But it does, it’s an interesting place to question the assumptions made by that investigator as well about sex and gender.
J: Yeah I think it’s funny that strict maleness or femaleness is considered a perversion on that planet and that there’s a small minority that sort of revert to that form.
G: Yeah, one of those things that was interesting to me about that particular chapter especially, but also throughout the book, is that our human characters refer to the people on Winter using masculine pronouns, as that’s somehow less gendered than any of the other available pronouns? The whole time–and maybe it’s just because I’m in 2023–I was like, can we- can we- is singular they not an option?
J: Yeah, yeah, of course–
G: –like the whole time–
J: This book was written in the 1960s, and I think linguistically the idea of using “they” as a singular pronoun wasn’t really much of a concept yet.
G: That’s true, and I did take that into account in my “Okay, this was written before the time in which you are reading it, and things have obviously changed since then. Mid-century America was the basis for all of these gender roles”. And it’s interesting to read as a young person well past that point in time. But not in a bad way–that was, I guess, what I was getting at with the sort of questioning the investigators assumptions about sex and gender roles, because it brought up things to me that are like, normal for me to consider using singular they for someone, that did not occur to either mid-century Ursula K. Le Guin or the characters within the book.
G: So, I don’t know. But once the action started happening with the people going from country to country and getting kidnapped and arrested and all of that, it got a little bit more intriguing–also I think because it was kind of past that explanatory chapter, I had a little bit more firm sense of how things were put together as far as not just being dropped into an alien world full of alien words and concepts. I don’t know.
J: I’ve read a number of Ursula K. Le Guin books, although it’s been a very long time so I’m not really up on them, but one thing I appreciated–that I tend to appreciate with a lot of her novels–is I think she does a very interesting job of imagining the world and the worldbuilding in the novels. It feels like a place that is inhabited, that has a history, that is on some trajectory, and is not–it is almost Tolkien to me in that way, in that it is a fairly complete picture of a long history.
G: Yeah, actually as you say that, I’m looking at the copy of book that I own, and on there is a blurb on the back that says, “As perfuse and original an invention as the Lord of the Rings”, so you are not the first person to have this thought.
J: Yeah, and again, when this came out in the 1960s, the Lord of the Rings was not all that old and was still a big deal, foundational literature in the fantasy/sci-fi world, so thinkers of the time comparing it to Lord of the Rings–almost everything written then was compared to Lord of the Rings–but it does have a bit of that flavor.
J: No wizards or orcs or elves or anything like that, but still, kind of a complete different place, an alternate universe.
G: Yeah, and you call it a foundational text of like sci-fi and fantasy, and it’s one of those things of like, I don’t always–like you occasionally get this feeling of “Am I a proper nerd if I haven’t read Lord of the Rings?” Which I haven’t, I remember trying to read them as a 10 year old and failing miserably, but I now own copies of the Lord of the Rings, they’re on the bookshelf behind me, so that might have t o be a thing I go at at some point.
J: To be fair to Ursula K. Le Guin, I think that this book was probably much less of a slog than taking on Lord of the Rings would be.
G: That is–it’s definitely shorter. I was a bit surprised that it was only 300 pages. Not in a bad way, I was like “Oh, I’m used to big works of sci-fi being big, physically, that you kind of have to be prepared to sit though for a while” but this one–my own dislike of political intrigue aside–goes fairly quickly. In full disclosure, I did end up using a site called “LitNotes” to make sure I had everything together in my brain and sort of captured that last 100 pages, and it was really succinct and useful, I’ll link it in the show notes. Yeah, it was much less dense than I think I was expecting an older work of sci-fi to be.
J: Well good. Yes it was, it is a pretty quick read. In that sense, it reminds me a little bit of the shorter Asimov novels of that era too, not being as big–course some Asimov novels got really big later on, the Foundation trilogy–but you know, I,Robot and other books he wrote in that time period are not monumental.
G: You said you had originally read this book as a teenager, what drew you to it then? Since I don’t really have anything new to say about it, besides what I’ve already said.
J: My parents actually–my father was an engineer, very much into science, and my parents both enjoyed science fiction, and so we had a lot of science fiction literature around. And I’m not 100% sure why I picked this particular book, probably it was something that one of my sisters had read–my older sisters would recommend books to me–and I don’t know exactly why I picked this particular one at a particular time. I do remember the cover, because I looked up cover images and the paperback version that we had was the one of the two faces sort of leaning on the side a little bit, and it’s a different cover than the one you’ve got, and I like the cover art and that might have been something that you know a fourteen year old partly judges books that way I guess.
G: Yeah, I mean it’s useful sometimes because it pulls you into things you wouldn’t have otherwise read. Like, one of my co-workers had left a copy of Neuromancer by William Gibson on a table with a sticker that said, “Take me!” and that is not a thing I imagine myself picking up, but the cover art was cool to me–it’s a bright green, cyberpunk (it’s the original cyberpunk novel). That’s as much as I know about it. It’s still sitting on my to-read shelf. I have a large to-read shelf, no one judge me for not having read all these big science-fictions.
J: I’m I read it in a time period where science-fiction was most of what I read. I very much diversified since then, and I honestly (although I still read it), I don't’ read it as exclusively as I did at the time. That was kind of my free-reading, that and Donald Westlake novels, but it was mostly science-fiction. I was really into Asimov and Heinlein, but really respected this book too.
G: Interesting. I grew up, especially as a teenager, a big fantasy reader (as people who’ve listened to the introduction of this podcast will know). I was a big Harry Potter fan, like everyone in my generation, which is complicated now and for political reasons (we’re leaving that all aside, that is not a part of this), but there was also like Rick Riordan novels, which were huge. I’ve just been introduced to Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud by way of the television show–everyone watch it, I think it’s excellent. I tended towards fantasy novels and maybe a little bit of paranormal stuff, so this is my first foray into complete science-fiction, I suppose. I think Le Guin is a good place to start. I have heard good things about EarthSea, which I’m sure to some people feels like a very obvious statement, the A Wizard of Earthsea is like a huge deal, but I don’t know, that one could be a fun one to do.
J: I know, I know I read those too. Again, a long, long ago, but for some reason, the Left Hand of Darkness made much more of an impression on me and stuck with me as being a book that I thought about a lot and that I’d really enjoyed. I think that Ursula K. Le Guin was very much ahead of her time in terms of thinking of the meaning of gender and gender roles, and that this is–she herself was a feminist but this is almost a… it is, to me, pretty amazing to think this was written in 1967, 68.
G: Yeah, there were parts of it that I was like, “Oh that’s a modern discussion of gender that society is having now,” –that was really interesting. There was some stuff that I was like, “Oh this is kind of limited by the scope of the time”, and some of it that I was like, “Oh, we’re still having that conversation, okay, note that for later.” But I know of sort of the idea of Ursula K. Le Guin, like I know she is a feminist science-fiction writer, she is very prolific, and all of these things, so I mean, one can only spend so much time on Wikipedia before you start to be like, “I need to actually read her works to understand what she was actually getting at.” But I think this was a good place to start!
G: I think it was a good recommendation. I might not have been smart enough after several hours of a workday to sit down and fully comprehend everything, but I wouldn’t mind giving it a re-read and sort of seeing if any more of it sinks through my brain. Because it did have a lot of interesting concepts, also, as you’ve said, the worldbuilding is fascinating. The people who inhabit this planet of Winter (so called because it is near constantly winter), their vehicles, their transportation, goes at a limit of 25 miles per hour because why would it- why would it go any faster? And our human main character contracts this to humans of Earth, where we have a tendency to go, “Why should it not go faster?” And so he frequently comments on their sort of slowness in a way that–like, it’s unhurriedness, not slowness in a bad way or like deliberately tripping someone up, but like, does it need to be better? Does it need to go faster? Does it, you know, that sort of thing, which is also separate from the gender conversation–A very interesting to think about, does it need to be constantly changing just for its own sake?
J: Sure, sure. Well one of the things that stuck with me from the book was the closing of the book, when he basically is succeeding in his mission and his spaceship from the other planets is landing, and the first person that walks off the spaceship is a woman. And he has the weird experience of viewing her as almost an alien herself or something, because he has been on this planet where there isn’t gender for so long that encountering somebody that has a different gender than his is jarring to him.
G: Yeah, and in contrast, towards the beginning of the book, he refers to the person he’s sort of renting an apartment from on this alien planet as, like, he thinks of them as his landlady, he thinks of them as feminine even though they are completely androgynous because they are doing a kind of hospitality based job, which is interesting. He views–I don’t know what to call him, his political colleague?– Estraven as “deviously feminine”. He can’t label him as masculine, or them as masculine– See, now I’m getting tripped up by what- Do we call them by the pronouns in the book or do we go with the singular they? But because he views this person as–he can’t figure out where to sort them–he is inherently distrustful of them. Which is interesting, because it says a lot about his, like, it accomplishes the goal of the thing, right? It says a lot about his views of gender, and then outside of that society’s views of gender, it accomplishes the goal of the book. Well done.
J: Yeah, well, okay, you seemed to have enjoyed it. I’m glad I made the suggestion to you.
G: I did! Granted, it took me a bit to get into it, but sometimes some of my favorite books are that way so.
J: Good, good.
G: I think we might wrap up this recording, unless you have any thoughts you’d like to add?
J: Well, you mentioned that you, that the political intrigue of it was a little bit difficult for you to get into. I did have another old science-fiction book from this era that I thought might be interesting to you, I don’t know if you regret it or not.
G: Ooh, excellent.
J: If you want another recommendation?
G: Of course! That’s what the podcast is!
J: Did you ever read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein?
G: I did not. I have never read any.
J: Okay, well Heinlein is very mixed in my opinion, but I think that this is one of his better works, and he is imagining–basically, he is writing again in the 1960s, and so his future didn’t come to pass–but he’s imagining that in mid-century of the next century Earth has colonized the Moon. And basically the Moon decides to break away from the Earth, to declare its independence. To me, the plot is just very interesting and fascinating. Very much Heinlein is thinking of America and the American Revolution, cause he draws lots of parallels, and he’s a bit of a libertarian so the politics in it, in my opinion, gets a little weird, but it’s still interesting and gripping to me. The characters are very interesting and the thinking about the nature of how would the Earth react if it had colonized the Moon and the Moon suddenly said, “We don’t want to be a colony of Earth anymore.”
G: Wild! I love it! I will look into it and add it to my list–you might end up being a guest, a repeat guest, so that will be fun. This is a reminder for people listening that the podcast can be found pretty much wherever you get your podcast, but you’re already listening to it so good for you. Transcripts will also be available at thegirlinthechair.com/podcast, and we hope you had a good time listening! I think we’re going to call our recording there!