#readingwednesday: the left hand of darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those classics that’s always hovered along my peripheral vision as a casual reader of science fiction. I’ve always tended to be a little pickier about my sci-fi than about my fantasy (though I’ve gotten pickier about that in my ~old age~ as well), likely because mainstream science fiction always feels a lot like a boys’ club that just kind of reinforces all the same old tropes and structures of existing society. Jane Espenson, one of my very favorite TV writers in sci-fi, said it better than I could:

“If we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.”

To me, science fiction, at its core, should be about exploring concepts in interesting ways, finding ways to explore the reaches of human diversity and imagination. Gender is one of the most interesting concepts to twist and examine and play with, yet so much of science fiction just falls into playing out the generally accepted sex binary. Boring, team. Just…boring.

One of the reasons I think I’ve kept The Left Hand of Darkness on the back-burner of my “to-read” list for so long is that its status as a “classic” made me suspect it would be more of the same “rugged individualistic wonder-of-space” cliches that have made me skirt around so much of classic science fiction. Recently, though, it turned up on a list of “feminist sci-fi” that included people like Octavia E. Butler (another major favorite), and that made me do a double-take, because no way does someone who plays into “white dude looks at space” tropes end up on the same list as Octavia E. Butler, Feminist Literary Queen of My Heart.

And yes, that is how I refer to her in my head.

Reading The Left Hand of Darkness cover to cover took me about four days worth of commutes, which is to say, not very long. In a lot of ways, this book felt like more of a philosophical text than a novel, which isn’t to say that I didn’t like that part–in all honesty, I think it made me like it more. The world (universe?) building was original and interesting, with the Ekumen taking more of a coordination role rather than one of law enforcement (see: the Galactic Senate, the United Federation of Planets, etc). Le Guin creates universes of culture, religion, government, sex, gender; her worlds are multifaceted and fascinating in a way that manages to elicit the quiet objectivity of a researcher woven with the subjective reactions of a tourist experiencing constant low-grade culture shock, or, more accurately, an ambassador who has spent some time at their post but continues to find themselves continuously surprised by the differences between the culture of their current environment compared to that of their native world.

The exploration of sex, gender, and sexuality in The Left Hand of Darkness was fairly groundbreaking when it was published, and, in all likelihood, probably still would be if it had been published today. The Gethenians, the humans who inhabit the planet Gethen, or “Winter” as the protagonist calls it, the name the planet was given before contact was made, are sexually androgynous. They are able to be sexually active only during certain parts of each month, similar to a menstrual cycle, and it’s during this period, kemmer, that they take on what we would call “binary” primary sex characteristics in order to mate and conceive. Because during each kemmer period the Gethenians could take on male or female characteristics, there is no sex or gender binary in the way that we think of it, no gender identity in the way that we think of it. To our protagonist, who comes from a “bisexual” (here referring not to sexuality, but to sexual dimorphism) society, it’s a constant cause for comparison, as he regularly encounters scenarios in which his own socialization in a gendered culture butts up against the desexualized culture of Gethen. There is no masculinity to protect, no battles for sexual dominance, no sexualization of bodies and products and commerce. Sexual violence doesn’t exist; unplanned pregnancies all but unheard of, reproductive violence nonexistence. As a reader, it’s baffling, but at the same time, not utopic–after all, an exchange was made: everyday sexuality sacrificed in exchange for sexual safety and an egalitarian society. Our protagonist wonders, outright, if explicit sexuality and true egalitarianism can co-exist, and doesn’t come up with an answer. It’s questions like this that make The Left Hand of Darkness stand out as a philosophical science fiction text–after all, sci-fi, at its core, is designed to make you wonder, to ask questions.

Lazy sci-fi answers those questions for you. Good sci-fi leaves you wondering, and makes you do the work yourself.

As a reading experience the book has been criticized by some readers over the years for spending too much time on exposition and internal monologue and not enough time on “real plot”, but personally, I don’t find this to be a down side. The book has plenty of action in its own time, but it’s not the space battles and explosions we usually get in sci-fi–it’s a cooler (ha, weather joke!) sort of action, political intrigue and character-vs-nature. This isn’t to say that the plot itself is boring, but that what moves the book along is the strength of the characters, their relationships to one another and to the environment, and the strength of the questions and concepts that the book explores. For my own part, I’ll take interesting characters, philosophically interesting world-building, and geopolitical intrigue over space battles any day of the week.

The argument has also been made, more recently, that Le Guin could have gone farther in exploring the gender concepts in the book and dismantling patriarchal ideas. To that, I’d say that I think that those critics might be missing the point. While I don’t doubt that Le Guin set out to write a transformative text and that she took great enjoyment and fascination with yanking the rug out from under those who take sexual dimorphism and patriarchal gender roles as given in any and all stories, I don’t think her goal was to say fuck you to the patriarchy so much as to invite questions and curiosity so that people could give their own fuck yous to the patriarchy. In her introduction, Le Guin points out that,

“science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future… a prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist… the outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer… somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life… Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”

Le Guin’s goal, at its purest point, was to take an interesting idea, and a fascinating question, and turn it into a story. She isn’t an academic, she isn’t a scholar of feminist theory–she’s a storyteller. And an excellent storyteller at that.

Team, if you, like me, have been avoiding The Left Hand of Darkness due to worries that it might be old-fashioned or trope-y or full of dude-bro cliches, give it a shot. Do be aware that, for all its progressive gender ideas, it was published in 1969. One of the things that jumped out at me, the use of he/him pronouns in a society that was hypothetically gender-less, probably would have been written differently today. But for me, at least, that wasn’t a deal breaker, and paved the way–as Le Guin probably would prefer it–for me to ask my own questions about what this story would look like if the concepts in it were explored today.

Like I said: good science fiction makes you work for the full experience.

But I think the work is the fun part.

Don’t you?

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