A painting hangs in my younger daughter’s room: it’s a picture of the spines of 10 books. These are books that her mother and I imagine her reading by the time she is 18. One she’s heard aloud many times: Where the Wild Things Are. Some others she might hear aloud in a few years: Matilda, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Others I hope she will read on her own: Graceling, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landou-Banks, The Handmaid’s Tale.

painting with the spines of ten books

One of the books I’d never read myself, until now: The Left Hand of Darkness. I’m glad it’s there, and it occurs to me that at a certain point, she might ask about it, along with all the others. What will I say to her about the book spine with the splendid mysterious title by Ursula Le Guin?

“It’s a story about how men and women are both very different and somewhat similar”, I might say, if she is still young. “But it’s also a story about a man who flies very far away in a spaceship to a planet where everyone is both a man and a woman, and he tries to make friends with the people there. And by trying to make friends with the people who are both men and women, he thinks a lot about how people like us and like him—who are often boys or men or often girls or women—how we often treat each other in ways that don’t make sense, or are unfair or wrong, just because of some silly ideas about men and women. And the place where all this happens is cold. Really, really cold and snowy and covered in giant rivers of ice.”

An imperfect summation, but parenting seems to consist of a lot of imperfection.

If someone older asked me about The Left Hand of Darkness, I might say that two themes of the myriad strands running through the book stand out for me. First is the interrogation and destabilization of the man/woman dualism that is perhaps the first oppressive dualism that we apply to children. The narrator Genly Ai explains the social structures on the planet Winter like this:

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

Second, there is the question of how space-faring societies might go about connecting with one another. Ai, the protagonist and emissary to Winter, has traveled in hibernation at near light speed for 17 years from the nearest outpost of a collective of worlds called the Eukumen. His human friends and family are as a result aged and dead; time passed much more quickly for them while he speed across the galaxy. As the sole ambassador on the surface of this cold, remote world, what must motivate him as an explorer? What would it take—not just as an individual, but as an exploring society—to venture far out into the reach with such great intentions but so little to grasp onto, and try to convince alien peoples to trust that you did indeed magically speed across the stars, leap-frogging from one incomprehensibly different planet to another?

The loneliness Ai feels as a human locked into one gender (inhabitants of Winter refer to him as a “pervert”) is a mirror to his loneliness at the edge of the world(s).

But I also hesitate to say that those are the two big ideas, because there are several themes woven together, and while two stick out for me, I’m constantly wondering if my own biased view as an Earthing human man is what makes me see those themes in boldface. After all, my own identity affords me a kind of freedom that is still unique in Le Guin’s universe. On Winter, every person has a monthly sexual cycle that turns them, temporarily, fully into a man who can impregnate or a woman who can be bear a child. No one has a choice about which role they take when in a state of “kemmer”—it is random each time. Again, Ai reflects:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) “tied down to childbearing,” implies that 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; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.

As the partner permanently performing the male role in a hetero human relationship, I’ve spent the months and months of my partner’s pregnancies and the years of my young children’s lives trying to empathize with how childbearing structures who you are and who you can be in American society. But who would I be if I were the one who could get pregnant? Would I feel less free? Probably. Strange and disarming to imagine that not through a story where men instead of women can bear children, but through a story where the “burden and privilege,” and the work, of childbearing is spread across the entire society.

I suspect I would feel very much as Ai feels. “One is respected and judged only as a human being,” says the narrator, “It is an appalling experience.” Even in my progressive liberal skin, how could I not feel that an equalizing of social responsibilities feels at the same time like a lessening of my privilege?

So the book is dense with ideas like this, but bundled in a compact story that I feel is a hallmark of Le Guin’s style. Indeed, she made an argument in a 1986 talk that the very structure of a novel can be to simply act as a container holding a variety of ideas together. The anti-imperial shape of a novel, she argues, is that of a bag. The talk, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” is both worth reading and quoting at length (emphasis mine):

The novel is a fundamentally unheroic kind of story. Of course the Hero has frequently taken it over, that being his imperial nature and uncontrollable impulse, to take everything over and run it while making stern decrees and laws to control his uncontrollable impulse to kill it. So the Hero has decreed through his mouthpieces the Lawgivers, first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative, including the novel, is conflict; and third, that the story isn't any good if he isn't in it.
I differ with all of this. I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.
One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd. (I have read a how-to-write manual that said, "A story should be seen as a battle," and went on about strategies, attacks, victory, etc.) Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.

Her larger argument here is that the male-centric, imperialist theories of anthropology and literature alike privilege the kids of stories that emphasize maleness, and the attendant ideas of heroism, violence, and empire. In contrast, she attaches to an alternate anthropological theory: that rather than the spear as the important object in human evolution, we ought to consider the “carrier bag” that enabled prehistoric people (likely females) to forage for food and bring it back to the hearth.

While there is conflict, and a narrative arc, and a conclusion to Ai’s story on Winter, those pieces, those concepts in the carrier bag, are not there to achieve stasis or harmony. They are in “continuing process.”

I love Le Guin’s analysis of literature nearly as much as I love her literature, and I’m reminded of another observation from an essay about the history of fantastic literature, “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists.” “The literature of imagination, even when tragic,” she writes, “is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.”

I think about Ai, alone on Winter, and maybe that’s where his hope comes from: being out on the very edge of the imaginable. I think about the oppressive ideas that privilege men—who can’t do the amazing and magical thing that is bearing children!—in societies around our planet. But imagining what a world might be like where the burdens and rewards are more equitably spread across society, that gives me hope as well.