Chill Out With Wonkette's Book Club And Le Guin's 'The Left Hand Of Darkness'
This weekend, fifty years ago, human beings landed on the Moon and left a plaque saying they'd "come in peace for all mankind." Also this weekend, the eastern United States is experiencing a heat wave of the sort that's likely to become more common in the unfolding climate disaster humanity has brought upon itself. And during the past week, the "president" of the USA explained that some Americans just plain don't belong here, and deserve to be expelled. Seems like as good a time as any to discuss Ursula K. Le Guin's visionary 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a story about climate and civilization on an inhospitable planet, gender politics, and for that matter, patriotism and exile.
Plus, the book is set on a planet in the midst of an ice age, so perhaps talking about it will help you stay cool.
For this week's Book Club, we'll be focusing on the first eleven chapters of Left Hand, so as a courtesy to folks who haven't read ahead, please try to avoid spoilers about the second half of the novel, mmkay? You're also more than welcome to join in even if you haven't read the book, or haven't read it recently, because if there's ever been a real-life book club meeting where everyone finished the book, we haven't seen it! And remember, there's still plenty of time to catch up for next week's discussion! You can buy the nifty 50th anniversary edition with a nice kickback to Yr Wonkette, or grab a used or library copy, or even dust off that cool old copy you read decades ago, like this Wonkette reader did:
In a terrific 2009 New Yorker interview, Le Guin recalls where she was when she heard about the moon landing. She said she didn't particularly connect it in her mind with the publication of Left Hand, which she'd finished the year before anyway. International concerns were a far more immediate context for the news:
I was in England that year, so the publication of the book was a slightly remote event to me, though a happy one. While Apollo was on its way to the moon, I was on a Russian ocean liner with my husband and three kids on our way home to America. The Captain came on the ship's sound system one morning and told us (in Russian and English) that Americans had walked on the moon, and ruefully but politely congratulated us. The kids, not really knowing what a blow it was to the Russians, put up a little cheer—and the Russian passengers on deck were kind or unprejudiced enough to cheer with them.
It's a scene that you could imagine happening to Left Hand's Genly Ai, the envoy to the icy planet Gethen, or Winter. His mission to invite that world to join an interplanetary federation, the Ekumen, is complicated and nearly derailed by terrestrial tensions between the planet's two major powers, although neither is an exact analogue to the USA or USSR. We first see the turbulent feudal monarchy Karhide, where Ai landed two years before after a decade of investigation by observers from the Ekumen. Later we travel to the bureaucratic police state, Orgoreyn (like "Omelas," yet another place name impishly derived from Le Guin's home state, Oregon).
But let's back up a bit and look at the central science fictional conceit of Left Hand. Gethen is a world colonized in the forgotten past by the Hain, a spacefaring human civilization that seeded the worlds of Le Guin's fictional galaxy with human life. The planets of that galaxy have slowly come to find each other again, and that's why Genly Ai is on Gethen, and can pass as a Gethenian. But unique to the Hainish worlds, Gethenians are androgynous most of the time, except when individuals come into heat, or kemmer, when they randomly become either male or female, purely for reproductive purposes. A Gethenian's kemmering partner will take on the opposite sexual characteristics, and any individual can be both a father and a mother, though of course those are the gendered Earth words.
Genly Ai, with his fixed biological sex (and even more, his offworld gender assumptions), is considered a "pervert," as are the few Gethenians who are born with permanent male or female genitalia (in a nod to earthly anthropology, such outliers also take on an ambivalently-accepted mystical significance). On Gethen, family lines are passed on through your "parent in the flesh" -- In Karhide, that also determines inheritance, with other offspring ("kemmering-sons") coming while Orgoreyn is at least formally egalitarian since all children are raised from shortly after birth. Nonetheless, it's also very much an oligarchy -- but wealth is not inherited.
Left Hand's "genderless" gender politics are very much of the 1960s, and Le Guin was quite aware, later on, of just how problematic her invented world was. For all the biological androgyny, the Gethenian characters read as male by default, a matter not helped by the use of "he" and "man" throughout. That's been critiqued, justifiably, by feminists and by trans readers, even as Left Hand has become over the years an icon of trans identity -- it's OK for touchstones to have some cracks and moss.
Le Guin tried to address some of those problems in later works, using "she" as the default pronoun in a later story set on Gethen, "Winter's King" -- but only in a 1975 reprint! She also wrote a short story, "Coming of Age in Karhide," aimed at addressing what critics saw as another shortcoming of the novel. Left Hand posits that child-rearing would be far more egalitarian than in a gendered society, but the domestic sphere is nearly absent in the novel.
Lines like "The king was pregnant," which may have seemed astonishing in 1969, feel like a bit of a contrivance today, and Le Guin acknowledged in that New Yorker interview that perhaps she'd been a bit too timid in constructing her androgynes:
In 1968, I don't think anybody could have imagined an Earthman feeling at home with and welcoming the alien gender situation of Gethen. I did think about sending an Earthwoman there—and she would have reacted very differently from Genly...
But science fiction in 1968 wasn't about women. It was about men. It was a man's world. I felt I was taking a huge risk as it was, presenting a largely male readership with these weirdly re-gendered people. I thought the guys would hate it.
I was wrong. They liked it fine. It was the feminists who gave me a hard time about it for years. They wanted me to have been braver. I guess I wish I had been. But I did the best I knew how to do. And Genly does learn a lot!
Asked whether she considers Genly Ai, one of the book's two narrators, a sexist, Le Guin readily agreed:
Oh, yes. Not a mean one. Not a misogynist. He just has accepted and identified with his society's definition of women as weaker than men, more devious, less courageous, etc.—physically and intellectually inferior. This gender prejudice has existed for so many thousands of years in so many different societies that I had no hesitation in carrying it on into the future.
If we were making up a Left Hand Of Darkness drinking game (we probably should!), "Genly says something sexist" would call for a sip, not a shot, because nobody would be able to finish the book. We'd also recommend only a small sip (of hot beer, or the more potent Orgota beverage, lifewater) whenever Genly densely misunderstands the one character who really believes in his mission, the Karhidish noble Estraven.
To a degree I didn't really realize the first time I read Left Hand, 30 years ago, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven is the novel's true hero. Le Guin doesn't let Estraven take up duty as a narrator until Chapter Six, and even then, Estraven's voice remains in the background until the second half of the book, when Genly and Estraven make their journey across the Ice at the top of Gethen's main continent (Look! A map, from Le Guin's website, which is still curated). Only then do the two narrative voices alternate chapters.
It's a pretty smart construction: we start with the consummate outsider's perspective, and gradually begin to identify with Estraven -- and indeed, only after the journey does Genly think of the Gethenian as a friend, and by first name, "Therem." In between chapters, we get bits of Gethenian legend and lore, as well as the odd scientific report from Ekumen anthropologists who preceded Genly Ai's mission through covert visits to Gethen. It's worth noting just what an unusual, fragmented structure that was at the time. In fact, Le Guin said in the New Yorker she was ready to abandon those bits if her editor insisted, since she'd written them mostly to help flesh out her own vision of Gethen. Fortunately, the editor liked 'em.
We're going to allow Le Guin to go easy on her own character. But we nonetheless agree with Charlie Jane Anders, from the 50th anniversary edition's afterword essay (also available in the Paris Review if you're reading a different copy), that Genly is an outright misogynist:
Le Guin's thought experiment about gender is still rooted in essentialism. Everything about the Gethenians' gender identities is driven by their biology, and even the Perverts are different only because of a biological happenstance. Even as this book drives you to question all of our assumptions about male and female bodies, it never raises any questions about how gender shapes us independently of our biological sex (the way a lot of science fiction has, in the decades since.) If anything, The Left Hand of Darkness reaffirms the idea that biology determines your gender and sexuality.
But these weaknesses in the book's approach to gender are also strengths, because they help us to understand what's wrong with the book's severely flawed narrator, Genly Ai. Genly Ai is a misogynist. This becomes more apparent to me every time I reread The Left Hand of Darkness, and it's the main reason why Genly is bad at his job.
Le Guin makes this very apparent early on in the book, and keeps giving us little hints thereafter. Anytime Genly notices any traits that he considers feminine in the Gethenians, he's disgusted. Especially when he talks to Estraven, who's actually trying to open up to him, Genly sees these attempts to communicate as "womanly" and thus lacking in substance.
Genly's sexism seems at least partly necessary, for a couple of reasons. Maybe it's intended as something for the presumably male science fiction reader of 1969 to identify with -- and see subverted; let's talk more in the comments about whether that's really necessary.
But Genly's misogyny is also key to a central driver of the plot, his boneheaded failure to understand Estraven even a bit. Here's Anders again:
It's not just that Genly Ai is incapable of seeing Estraven as both man and woman—it's that any hint of femaleness revolts him, especially in people who are supposed to be powerful. Genly can't respect anyone whom he sees as having female qualities, and thus he recoils from Estraven, the one person who tries to be honest with him. And Genly's character arc is about getting over his hang-ups about women and his macho pride, every bit as much as learning to understand his friend.
It's fascinating, and very realistic, that Genly Ai is an enlightened representative of an advanced, harmonious culture—while also being a deeply messed-up individual who cannot see past his own limited ideas about gender and sexuality. He's curious and open-minded about everything, except for the huge areas where his mind has been long since closed. He doesn't even glimpse all the things that his privilege has allowed him to avoid looking at.
In this context, the use of the male pronoun for the Gethenians feels like an extension of Genly Ai's own issues. And his slow progress toward opening his mind is part of one of the main overarching preoccupations of The Left Hand of Darkness: the attainment of wisdom.
That seems like plenty to discuss for Part One of our Book Club, but let's throw one more in, shall we? Going back to the moon landing whose anniversary we're marking, in 1997, Carl Sagan would write, of Apollo 11,
For me, the most ironic token of that moment in history is the plaque signed by President Richard M. Nixon that Apollo 11 took to the moon. It reads, 'We came in peace for all Mankind.' As the United States was dropping seven and a half megatons of conventional explosives on small nations in Southeast Asia, we congratulated ourselves on our humanity. We would harm no one on a lifeless rock.
Which reminds us that Gethen is a world innocent of war. Murder, revenge, fights over territory, sure. But no war. One of Le Guin's Hainish anthropologists speculates that could be due to the planet's harsh climate, where species survival is so tenuous that slaughter for nationalistic purposes just never developed. Or maybe it's a matter of genderlessness. The scientist is certain the ancient Hainish designed Gethenians as androgynes, and wonders:
Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? Or, like Tumass Song Angot, did they consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped? God knows. The fact is that Gethenians, though highly competitive (as proved by the elaborate social channels provided for competition for prestige, etc.) seem not to be very aggressive; at least they apparently have never yet had what one could call a war. They kill one another readily by ones and twos; seldom by tens or twenties; never by hundreds or thousands. Why?
As we'll discuss more next week, in addition to all the gender stuff (and its problems for readers on this world,) Left Hand also plays with questions of patriotism, loyalty, and love, all of which were as pressing in 1969 as today.
Oh, gosh, and we haven't even talked at ALL about Le Guin's beautifully pricky introduction to the book, in which she argues that science fiction isn't about predicting the future so much as telling stories about now, which happen to be set on other worlds.
And yipes, we also haven't even touched on Le Guin's decision to make Genly Ai a black man, from an Earth that has left racism, but not sexism, in the past. For that matter, since the people of Gethen are all brown-skinned, there are literally no white people in this novel. I'll copypaste a relevant passage from the New Yorker piece in the comments.
Oh! Oh! And we also haven't yet discussed Left Hand as an environmental novel, either! Maybe we should do a seminar!
Looks like we have some stuff to talk about! Just a reminder: As with other Wonkette Book Club pieces, we'd appreciate if, for the sake of staying focused on the book, you'd save your off-topic comments for the real Open Thread, which will go up in about 45 minutes to an hour. Yr Friendly Neighborhood Comments Moderator will be fairly aggressive in flagging off-topic posts and asking you to take 'em to the Open Thread. No malice or marks on your permanent record; we just want to be sure this discussion is about Left Hand and Le Guin -- and DO feel free to discuss her other works, as well as stuff you think makes good supplementary reading!
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin. 1969, Ace Science Fiction. Buy the 50th anniversary edition to support Wonkette! (No, you don't HAVE to!)
And FYI, this is NOT your open thread! That is coming later! So try to keep this comment section for discussions of the book only!
[Paris Review / New Yorker / "Coming of Age in Karhide" (at The Short Story Project) / Illustration based on photos by US Bureau of Land Management and Marian Wood Kolisch via Oregon State University, Creative Commons License 2.0]
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