The first book I chose for the Tempest Bradford Challenge is The Left Hand of Darkness by the late, much lamented Ursula K. Le Guin. I read this book when I was in high school, and I wanted to see if I understood it better as a middle-aged adult.
I’m not posting spoiler warnings for a fifty-year-old book. One has to draw the line somewhere.
First of all, I’d say, no, I did not achieve a deeper understanding of this book on re-read. I think I got it well the first time: men and women are basically the same; humaity trumps gender. This is something I have always believed, and I daresay reading this book as a teenager probably influenced my thoughts on the subject. As well as my own life experience. I was already leaning that way anyway. Someone raised with more strict gender boundaries might find this book quite threatening.
This is a very serious book, seriously written by a serious author, about serious people doing serious things, with a serious theme. No humor in this book. I remembered most of the big set pieces, and some individual details, like Genly Ai, the Terran protagonist, calling the gender-neutral proprietor of his apartment building his “landlady,” because they were pudgy and gossipy. (That annoyed me.) I’d forgotten that Estraven, Genly’s native friend and guide, is killed at the end.
In brief, this book is about a diplomatic mission from Le Guin’s human space league, the Ekumen, to a world, Gethen, where the people, although of Hainish “ancient astronaut” human stock, still have a sexual estrus cycle with an unusual twist: when not in heat, the Gethenians are sexually neuter, with no visible sex organs and no sex drive. When they come into heat, or kemmer as they call it, once a month, they become either male or female, influenced by the development of their sex partner and random chance, with no way to control or anticipate which gender they will manifest. All people, therefore, are at times both male and female, and can both bear or sire children. The children one bears are considered closer than the ones you sire, and inherit property first. The Gethenians are scandalized by Genly’s permanent male sexuality; they call people who are stuck in one sex “perverts,” and consider them disabled at best, dangerous at worst.
The book doesn’t actually go into detail on the sexual rites and practices as much as you might expect. Written by a less wise author, this book could have become very prurient, even pornographic. In one scene, Genly is trapped in a snowstorm with Estraven, who is in kemmer, but they don’t have sex, even though it is supposed to be very painful and distressing for a Gethenian in heat not to engage in sex. This seems like a missed opportunity to me, upon re-read. It wouldn’t have to be explicit, but it could have illuminated human sexual relationships on Gethen in a whole other way.
This was a landamrk book when it was written, winning both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. It was part of the “New Wave” of “soft” or “anthropological” science fiction that developed in the 1960s, that rigorously examined social and cultural issues and transgressed stylistic and thematic boundaries of science fiction, as part of the whole counter-cultural movement back then. It is considered a classic of science fiction, and as far as I know, has been continuously in print since it was first published.
One thing did come to bother me over the course of the book. Le Guin chooses deliberately to refer to the Gethenians, genderless beings, as “he” throughout the book, writing that “he” is the most “neutral” of the pronouns, instead of creating or using a Gethenian gender-neutral pronoun, or switching the pronouns around, or saying “they,” or any other such scheme. But that is not the effect in the book as written. Because Genly, the narrator, is a man, he tends to perceive and write about the Gethenians as men, and the constant use of “he” reinforces this. The scene where Esatraven is in kemmer is the only time that Genly is forcefully reminded that Estraven, or any Gethenian, is as much a woman as a man. It undercuts Le Guin’s point, to me. I’m reminded of Ann Leckie’s much more recent book Ancillary Justice, wherein the default pronoun in the narrator’s language is “she,” and how completely disconcerting it is to see that in practice, everyone always referred to as “she,” and not know whether the character being referred to is male or female. (And how it drove many of the angry Rabid Puppy types right round the bend – especially when it won all the big sci-fi awards.)
But to be fair, I have to admit that Le Guin writing and thinking about this idea at all in 1969 was revolutionary, and Left Hand won many of those same awards in its time. It’s still a good book, and still has useful things to say. As classics do.
There’s also this quote from near the end of the book, that I found quite relevant to our time, and wanted to share:
… I had asked him if he hated Orgoreyn; I remembered his voice last night, saying with all mildness, “I’d rather be in Karhide…” And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?
Where indeed? One might write a whole other science fiction book about that.