Landscape, Change, and the Long Road Ahead

Le Guin’s 'The Left Hand of Darkness' is a classic for its portrayal of gender, but is it also sometimes, for the modern reader, a climate change parable?

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, her main character, Genly Ai, lands on the remote planet called Gethen, also known as Winter. He comes bearing an offer of membership in the Ekumen, a federation of dozens of far-flung worlds. But Genly’s federation requires that at least one country on Winter demonstrate belief in Genly’s claim that he comes from the stars—a show of faith, of good will, before he can offer up more definitive, overwhelming proofs. 

First contact is fraught. Misunderstandings occur. Genly’s mission is built on the premise he may become a sacrifice, in the cold, among strangers.

The ansible, a device which allows instantaneous inter-galactic communication, Genly uses to contact the federation is insufficient evidence—in part because it is cryptic in its decryptions. Where does it broadcast to? Is it sending a message or is that just an illusion? The ansible might as well be a Ouija board to the powers on Winter. Even the physical fact of Genly—a physiology deviating from the Winter norm and a static gender status—may suggest “not of this world,” but enough similarity still exists to create doubt. 

But, then, perhaps proof isn’t the whole story.  

This becomes clear when Genly travels from the nation of Kerhide to Orgoreyn. 

In Orgoreyn, a bewildering number of political and economic factions vie for power, including the secret police. Within these alliances and complex hierarchies, the truth of Genly does not serve all ambitions equally—or perhaps any. Instead, Genly’s value to that country’s elites, appears to exist somewhere between genuine and fake. The kinetic energy of his usefulness no longer exists if “all” he brings is a message from a civilization beyond the stars. 

The fact that exists outside of the established narrative of a system, and may threaten that system, must plead its case with extra vigor, and even with acceptance may never achieve the level of agency equal to its importance. In a sense, a fact rejected by the majority becomes nothing more than an upstart opinion.

And so Genly, whether believed or not, is sent to the prison camps.


1: The Narrow Range

Le Guin, in creating both this world and this situation, meant to interrogate the politics and logic of countries, and how societies deal with the outsider. Even the long, harrowing journey by Genly and his erstwhile friend from Winter, Estraven, across barren ice can be interpreted as a traditional Jack Londonesque extreme wilderness survival tale, rather than anything more modern.

Yet, the reader changes a book because the world changes, and so when I read of the “facts” of Genly being disputed in Orgoreyn, I could not help but think about the “disputed” facts and proofs of the climate crisis.  

Climate crisis is about extremes, and in The Left Hand of Darkness cultures are shaped by an immeasurably hostile physical environment. The coldness of the place, which forces adaptation to its conditions and discourages certain kinds of risk. The fact the nations of Winter do not engage in war constitutes one unique manifestation of this adaptation to an extreme environment. Full-scale conflict, as opposed to minor sorties, skirmishes, individual feuds, simply seems alien to the nations of Winter. 

Genly describes war as “the opposite of civilization,” and this is literally true on Winter—if not on our Earth. The planet’s inhabitants cannot afford the destructiveness of war or risk Death by Planet, by diverting or destroying resources needed for survival. They do not have the luxury of surviving both the climate and war.

Writes Genly in Left Hand of Darkness: “On the fortieth day and the two succeeding we were snowed in by a blizzard. During these long hours of lying blotto in the tent Estraven slept almost continuously, and ate nothing, though he insisted I eat, ‘You have no experience with starvation,’ he said. I was humiliated. ‘How much have you—Lord of a Domain, and Prime Minister—’ ‘Genry,’ he replied, ‘we practice privation until we’re experts at it. I was taught how to starve as a child.’”

Here on Earth, we are blessed, or have been blessed, with living on a planet with a range of climates, many of which have been mild or fairly easy to adapt to. This is not to say that there have not been terrible periods of famine and privation even before the climate crisis, but we have also been allowed the luxury of a range of acts of the imagination not available to the planet Winter. We have, for example, in truly terrible ways, been allowed the “luxury” of war. Even if recovery from this luxury has varied depending on circumstances of resources and landscape as well.

Another, ongoing war we often don’t acknowledge comprises deforestation, devastation caused by contamination by the fossil fuel industry, and the loss of the natural world in so many ways. This war is one largely defined by invisibility or by its sudden absence, which is difficult to quantify or to make manifest in people’s minds even as ghost. How do you memorialize or refer to a nothing that may not have been documented as a verdant forest to begin with? 

In Tallahassee alone, where I live, over hundreds of acres of forest have been clearcut within city limits in the past two years, wiping out trillions of organisms, including the topsoil, and will be replaced with unaffordable houses on the now terraformed landscape. This isn’t happening in the Amazon—it is happening everywhere.

We call this ecocide, but we need a better word or words. Just as the inhabitants of Winter have dozens of words for snow and ice, we need as many words for ecocide. 

How do you memorialize or refer to a nothing that may not have been documented as a verdant forest to begin with? 

If fiction can be useful here, it is rendering the crime more visible. Fiction can even profitably engage with areas of pseudoscience off-limits to scientists, like Thoreau’s ideas on vitalism or extrapolation about plant intelligence—or view war in general not “just” as a history of human conflict but as a history of the inexplicable enacted upon natural ecologies. 

Fiction writers, to engage, may find established tactics like “defamiliarization” useful in seeing anew what has, sadly, pathetically, come to seem commonplace. For example, Vladimir Nabokov in his novel Bend Sinister, uses the syntax of the travel brochure to describe a death camp. In doing so, he made it impossible for the horrors therein to be reduced to the standard backdrop of human suffering.

In Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, a philosophical novel in which U.S. special forces claim to have uncovered evidence that oil is alive, an even more immediate personification of the inert has an incredible power to lay bare the inequities in our energy system and all of the foundational ills this brings with it. Sometimes, fiction can make us not just see the invisible, but feel it in our bones. Sometimes what is true for activists is true for novelists: in the messaging, whether didactic or living beneath the surface, it must somehow register, it must be internalized and be felt in the body.

Even with these and other tools at our disposal, it is hard to say what impact fiction writers can have on our current crisis. What I know to be certain is that here, on Earth, we are approaching the condition of the planet Winter: Our environment is becoming too extreme, our landscapes too volatile, to sustain both our own survival and war. Of any sort. We are now closer and closer to all living in that narrow zone on Winter that can support life and any acts that work against the landscape, against our natural resources, makes it less likely that we will survive.

The distance between the here, where the weather is balmy and we feel the warm sun (but not too warm) on our face, and the some other place, that floods or where wildfires blaze, is collapsing. 

What happens when there is no distance left?


2: Earth Systems

Estraven, Genly’s companion and friend, at one point quotes from a science text:

“’CO2 released by the volcanoes into the atmosphere will in time serve as an insulator, holding in the longwave heat-energy reflected from the earth, while permitting direct solar heat to enter undiminished. The average world temperature would in the end by raised some 30 degrees till it attains 72 degrees. I am glad I shall not be present…’ [he then comments] All such theories remain largely irrefutable and unproven; no one knows certainly why the ice comes, why it goes. The Snows of Ignorance remain untrodden.’”

This quote occurs in the middle of the epic thousand-mile journey that comprises the last third of the novel, across seemingly a limitless ice field. It occurs, I might add, as their situation has worsened and their survival begins to seem doubtful. Le Guin’s placement of information that one might call exposition or even “planetary backstory” benefits as narrative from occurring during the most dramatic sections. This placement not only turns it from information into story, but in the middle of endless if riveting descriptions of the cold presents the warming flame of the contrast of a future world that is not cold—and, ironically, a vision of hell to a native of the planet used to that cold.

In other words, the information has a point of view that doubles, creates echoes: that of the character quoting it and the character who originally wrote it, and then also an overlay that is also Le Guin’s.

According to a New Yorker interview, Le Guin, living in California, didn’t see snow until she was seventeen, but for Left Hand, “got hooked on the narratives written by the early (unmechanised) Antarctic explorers, Scott, Cherry-Garrard, Shackleton, etc. And my research consisted largely of knowing that literature. Plus, reading books about how they handle winter in Finland and such places.”

So, in an odd transmutative sense, coming to us through her novel, through back channels and across the ice, is a vision of the Antarctic transformed, during our lifetimes, by climate crisis.

It also feels true that the reduction of focus caused by harshness allows for certain environmental truths to shine through in all of their complexity. Much as the act of traveling across a largely homogenous landscape of ice sharpens the feelings of threat and endurance in Genly and Estraven’s journey, these narrow vastnesses allow sight into greater depths.

The novel Dune’s arid desert landscape serves much the same purpose: If survival depends on conservation of water, then we will see revealed in even the most basic plot a kind of intimation of our future under climate change. The society or culture in question will be unable to ignore the basic needs for life—and the incredibly wasteful expenditures of energy by off-world powers like the Harkonnens will stand out in sharp relief and be subsumed by our modern condition as metaphors for fossil fuels. The latest movie version in a sense speaks to this as Harkonnens appear to actually bathe in motor oil.

Geologic time, too, as in The Left Hand of Darkness, comes into play in extremis. Earth systems we never think about appear in the foreground. This kind of emphasis feels real to our era as feedback loops and extreme weather allow us to perceive the true laws of Nature and the price we pay for ignoring them. 

If survival depends on conservation of water, then we will see revealed in even the most basic plot a kind of intimation of our future under climate change.

In such a situation, what becomes visible in fiction, interestingly and tellingly, becomes visible in nonfiction in ways more reminiscent of fiction than fact. 

For example, William T. Vollman’s The Imperial is purportedly a thousand-page history and examination of the ruination of the Salton Sea—another discrete and narrow focus. Yet it is also a rumination on the psycho-ecological cost and a vast and apocalyptic haunting. The author confesses he could not remove his personal perspective because he was too affected by what he was observing. This manifests in the book through repetition of descriptions of ecological impact and loss, which begin to live in Vollman’s body as physical stress and nightmares. 

The value of the book may lie as much in that confession as anything else—that a history project has become a living chronicle of mid-collapse devastation, which the narrator must exist within and thus engage in narrative strategies that actually work against the acceptance of The Imperial as a credible work of nonfiction.

If, in both a material sciences and psychological way, the distance between fiction and nonfiction is collapsing because of crises like climate change, then the instinct in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to turn “nonfiction” and “geological fact” into storytelling feels prescient.


3: The Limits and Promise of Perception

Not only geological systems come into play in Left Hand of Darkness. As a kind of tension pushing from the opposite direction, Le Guin also invests her characters with the point of view of the landscape, of their experience surrounded by an entire world of influence. 

At one point on that pulse-pounding, harrowing ice-field trudge, Genly laments the lack of aircraft, how they could have shortened their journey.

“How would it ever occur to a sane man that he could fly,” Estraven said sternly. It was a fair response, on a world where no living thing is winged, and the very angels of the Yomesh Hierarchy of the Holy do not fly but only drift, wingless, down to earth like a soft snow falling, like the wind-borne seeds of that flowerless world.”

What riches the imagination can deliver—whole worlds are built of it, but still the imagination needs a spark.

Le Guin tells us with this passage how completely fiction is anchored in the real. She also tells us that, on some levels, her world is more real than our perception of our own. By which I mean, both Estraven’s inability to think of flight without Genly and Estraven’s ability to explain why Winter has no aircraft speak to an awareness and self-awareness that we often lack about Earth. For how often do we really think about the foundational underpinnings of so many things we do on this world and to this world. Why this and not that? 

Winter has a somewhat simple biosphere compared to Earth. The climate has constrained the possible fecundity and variety of nonhuman life. And, therefore, I would argue aspects of the human imagination.

But here on Earth we have so much life, so many habitats—trillions of different species, many millions of them still unknown to us. We have so many creatures that fly—bats, squirrels, birds, even lizards and fish—that no wonder the ancients dreamed of flight. There were so many models available to them, it was no great feat of extrapolation.

In thinking about this passage from Le Guin, I’m also struck by how much science fiction depicts aliens that could not exist without real-world terrestrial examples—why, if in some byproduct of time travel we wiped out the lineage of cephalopods, the lack of squid in our reality would also wipe out a good third of science fiction about alien contact!

Here, in a sense, sometimes without the authors even realizing it, they are in their fiction reporting back in a fractured, Wonderland way from not the universe beyond, but Earth—and, often also providing data on the status of our sometimes fraught relationship with the nonhuman on this planet. Oh how inglorious that an author’s received ideas about the concept of “shark” manifests in shark-like alien antagonists! Why should we export our prejudices off-world? And yet we do.


In my novel Acceptance there is a kind of inversion or response to the impulse expressed in the angels’ quote from Left Hand of Darkness.

At one point, the biologist’s doppelganger, far from home, on her own kind of quest through the odd alien exclusion zone known as Area X, writes: 

“What if an infection [by Area X] was a message, a brightness a kind of symphony? As a defense? An odd form of communication? If so, the message had not been received, would probably never be received, the message buried in the transformation itself. Having to reach for such banal answers because of a lack of imagination, because human beings couldn’t even put themselves in the mind of a cormorant or an owl or a whale or a bumblebee.”

In other words, and meaning the dominant monoculture in particular, the divide on Earth in the human mind between Culture and Nature has grown, in my opinion, over the decades without thought of the damage. 

This has had serious consequences for issues like climate crisis and other environmental catastrophes—amid a situation in flux regarding both the dismissal and thankful acceptance of indigenous ideas and science. 

Thus, we project our scarcity back across the past and call it abundance.

We have become adept in the US, whether for fiction or technology, at using Nature as a raw material or resource, but not nearly as adept at seeing through the eyes of the nonhuman to find common ground, identification, ways we are similar, not different. We’re also often bad at thinking about how the world reveals itself to the nonhuman and what we might miss, just as Estraven admits the humans on Winter “miss” things as well. 

What aspect of what is missing, due to the limits of our imagination, might be the “aircraft” that would get us across the melting ice faster?

By some estimates, fifty percent of terrestrial wildlife on this planet has been liquidated by human actions since I was born in 1968, one year before publication of Left Hand of Darkness. Twenty-one percent of carbon emissions come from deforestation and other destruction of habitat—not including additional emissions and catastrophic effects from the uses such land is put to after clearcutting.

This happens in part because we do not value or empathize enough with the nonhuman life with which we share this biosphere. (It also happens because we don’t empathize enough with our fellow human beings.) We cannot see truly through their eyes, from their perspective. 

Examples are limitless, but I’ll give just one. How can Harper’s Magazine run without fact-checking against current studies a piece by a usually astute fantasy writer in which he goes off on an extended riff about how animals cannot perceive death or mourn?

Even a seemingly innocuous movie like Terence Malick’s New World creates agitprop by depicting a past starved of animals, despite accounts from that era of sheer numbers of wildlife that the modern mind would reject as ridiculous.

Thus, we project our scarcity back across the past and call it abundance.

Portrayals of the nonhuman in fiction reflect to some degree how far we’ve come not come in understanding our world, which in turn feeds into how we think about and act on climate crises. These portrayals in existing fiction often function as lost narratives, beings described as inert objects. They wait like sleeper cells to be activated by our new awareness of the truth—ghosts that will stare back at us from the page while we stare in, always a vital, indispensable part of our world despite our fatal lack of recognition.

Perhaps I have moved too far afield from Le Guin’s marvelous quote. Perhaps I have read too much into it. But if so, I would say humbly that, in the world of fiction, the value of a spark is where it takes you, not how close it is to where you started.

Sometimes the conflagration that rises up and spreads contains no trace of the spark at all.


4: The Long Road Ahead

We are often, those of us who engage with the climate crisis in fiction, assailed by a whirlwind of generalities in response to what may hopefully be subtle and contradictory on the page. We are asked: Are you hopeful about the future? Are you pessimistic? Why dystopias? Why not utopias? 

If I sidestep the question when asked, or turn it into another question, or even take the question and fashion it into some strange blossom and hand it back to the questioner… it is because I believe continuing to write at all about these subjects is inherently a form of hope. I am not frozen. I am engaging. I am still moving forward along the ice field. And if too often we must grapple with the world as it is rather than the hopeful world that could be…this is because we still have not broken free from or untangled and cut through the flawed foundational assumptions that have locked us into this terrible outcome.

If Le Guin fortifies me in her fiction, it is because I see this pragmatism in her work, including The Left Hand of Darkness

Around a campfire in the cold one night, Genly says to Estraven, “We’re beginning to cut it rather fine, aren’t we?”

Estraven looked at me. His firm, broad face showed weight loss in deep shadows under the cheekbones, his eyes were sunken and his mouth sorely chapped and cracked.

He smiled. “With luck, we shall make it and without luck we shall not.”

It was what he had said from the start. With all my anxieties, my sense of taking a last desperate gamble, and so on, I had not been realistic enough to believe him. Even now I thought, surely when we’ve worked so hard—

But the Ice did not know how hard we worked. Why should it?

Similarly, why should we assume the ice acknowledge the effects of fiction? 

Fiction has grappled with climate change for many decades, despite claims to the contrary. Even when the focus lay on some other environmental catastrophe, situations that spoke to the crisis of biosphere destruction grappled, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unwittingly, with the interrelated crisis of climate change.

Some part of Le Guin’s own 1971 Lathe of Heaven, set in Oregon in the early 21st century, depicts climate crisis conditions, and not long after Left Hand.. her story “New Atlantis” from 1975 is overtly about climate change and by then it began to be mentioned in theme anthologies about the environment and appear, even if not always named, in work by J.G. Ballard and others.

During this same time, one thing we can say is that the majority of people have come to believe in human-created climate crisis. Belief may not be enough, but it is something. We can believe that fiction can make a difference, then, as well, even if it is so, so hard to measure. Whether optimistic or pessimistic. Because we know if we do nothing, nothing will become our overriding condition.

“Light is the left hand of darkness,” Le Guin writes. “And darkness the right hand of light.”

We must be able to imagine our own end to find our way to the light. We must be able to articulate the fragile joys of this age as well as the tragedies. We must hold onto what is important to preserve even as part of that will fall away, as inevitably as ice sheets crashing into the sea in the Arctic.

I am heartened by how Charlie Jane Anders, in her essay on the novel in The Paris Review, right before the pandemic, reminds us that “the book is suffused with an optimism that feels especially brave [now]. We’re never given cause to doubt that the [Genly’s federation] is an enlightened society. Or that everyone can make the rough, messy journey from ignorance to awareness. Or that sharing knowledge among different cultures will lead to the advancement of science. Or that spirituality and scientific curiosity can go hand in hand.”

“Alone, I cannot change your world,” Genly says to Estraven, “But I can be changed by it.”

Joy reminds us why we fight. Friendship reminds us why we fight. Family, however we may define the word, reminds us why we fight.

Making common cause under difficult circumstances reminds us. It is, in fact, essential.

To sustain us on the long road ahead.

A longer version of this essay was presented as the keynote to the Loyola University Maryland’s 2022 Humanities Symposium, on March 17 of this year.


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Jeff VanderMeer is the author of Hummingbird Salamander, Dead Astronauts, Borne, and The Southern Reach Trilogy, the first volume of which, Annihilation, won the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award and was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland. He speaks and writes frequently about issues relating to climate change as well as urban rewilding. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, on the edge of a ravine, with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, and their cat, Neo.