Ice, Ice, Baby: Ursula Le Guin's 'Left Hand Of Darkness'
This week, writer Jenna Karvunidis, who popularized the notion of the "gender reveal party" a decade ago, said she's a bit horrified at what has become of them, and wrote about her own ten-year-old, the focus of that party, who is now happily nonbinary in many ways, thank you very much. Karvunidis said maybe it would be better to simply celebrate the fact that you'll soon get to meet your amazing little critter, and that baby will become a person with so much more "potential and talents that have nothing to do with what's between their legs." So why get all het up about pink or blue icing inside the cake? Today's brave new gender fluidity isn't for cissies.
That little news item seems worth mentioning as we finish reading Ursula K Le Guin's 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, in which the people of the planet Gethen, a world in the midst of an ice age, have no fixed sex, only becoming briefly and randomly male or female once a month when their hormones kick in. Every Gethenian has a gender reveal party when they come into kemmer, and then they just go on with the business of living. Even pregnancy and childbirth are transitory states, since most Gethenians will be fathers and mothers at some point. Some typical science fictional themes are here, like first contact with an alien world, near-lightspeed travel (and relativistic time -- if you go halfway across the galaxy, everyone you left behind ages and dies), and telepathic communication. But as with Le Guin's other great SF novel, The Dispossessed, most of the "science" here is about people: what might the world look like if societies were arranged differently?
As we said last week, if you haven't finished the book, jump into the discussion anyway! Book clubs are about the coffee and community as they are the reading!
Last week's discussion mostly focused on how much thinking about gender has changed since 1969, and what role Le Guin's novel may have played in those changes. Here's a factoid: we learned on Twitter last week that Rebecca Sugar, the creator of the beautifully queer TV series "Steven Universe," frequently tells interviewers that Left Hand is her favorite book. Dare we hope for an Easter egg scene of the character Stevonnie reading the novel with a highlighter?
This week, while we'll definitely keep talking gender -- how can we not?! -- we'll also look at some other themes, also too. Like the novel's not incidental discussion of the linkage of environment and society, questions of patriotism and loyalty, and of course race: apart from knowing they're out on other planets somewhere, there aren't any white people in this book.
The novel centers on two central characters: Genly Ai, the envoy to Gethen from the Ekumen, an interplanetary coalition of worlds; and Estraven, a Gethenian noble from one of the planet's two largest nations. Much of the plot involves Ai trying to convince the Gethenians that there really is a federation of worlds to join, and that its intentions are benign. The one person on Gethen who really believes in Ai's mission is Estraven, and wouldn't you know it, Genly Ai doesn't trust Estraven one whit.
As several readers noted last week, Genly is a staggeringly unreliable narrator, but Le Guin is tricky about that: since he's also the primary narrator for the first half of the book and we're seeing this new world through his eyes, some of his misreadings of what's going on around him may be missed on a first reading. His discomfort at the genderless Gethenians comes through all too clearly -- he's an open sexist. But it's easier to miss his obliviousness to how he's being manipulated by political factions in both major Gethenian states, the fractious monarchy Karhide, and the police-state bureaucracy Orgoreyn.
For his attempts to promote Genly's cause, Estraven, Karhide's prime minister as the novel opens, is exiled by the mad Karhidish king. Genly, who really doesn't know how to read people, mistakes Estraven's attempt to warn him about the king, and thinks Estraven has betrayed him. He's kind of a terrible diplomat.
Once in Orgoreyn, Genly makes a similar mistake, trusting oligarchs who are using him for their own purposes, and disregarding Estraven's warnings that they're bad news. Hell, even after Estraven rescues Genly from a prison camp that would have killed him, Genly still sulks and resents Estraven. Only when they have to survive a journey on the continent-spanning glacier do the two finally manage to communicate clearly. On the Ice, Estraven writes in his journal, they're both aliens.
We're just going to crib a couple paragraphs from Charlie Jane Anders's excellent afterword essay from the 50th Anniversary Edition of Left Hand; if you have a different edition, go read the full essay at the Paris Review. Yes, that's required).
[The] highest praise I can give The Left Hand of Darkness is that Le Guin captures the texture of life. This book is full of little moments, bits of sensation and emotion, that show what it feels like to be alive, day after day. Something about the kindness and curiosity in her voice gives substance to all the breadapples and roast blackfish and hot showers and frozen trucks in this book: all the little pleasures and discomforts, the endless struggle and occasional relief of living.
And this is especially true during the long sequence where Genly and Estraven trek across the Gobrin Ice, the frozen waste to the north of Orgoreyn and Karhide. Every inch of their journey is beautifully described, with phrases like "mincing along like a cat on eggshells" and "cinders patter, falling with the snow." These little moments of poetry go hand in hand with the unrelenting grind of hauling a sled, pitching a tent, eating gichy-michy.
Le Guin gets a lot of the vivid details of an ice journey from the firsthand accounts of Antarctic explorers that she studied. Two of her previous novels, Rocannon's World and City of Illusions, also include lengthy sequences in which the hero travels across a frozen wasteland along with one companion—but in both those books, the trek feels somewhat sketched in. Here, she packs in so much indelible imagery that you feel like you're risking frostbite right alongside Genly.
The same goes for the rest of Le Guin's world-building -- one of the small details that stuck with me from the first time I read Left Hand, 37 years ago, is the Gethenians' relationship to technology. They have books and the tech for television, but prefer oral tradition, so every home has a radio, not TV or a library. They have powerful electric cars and trucks, but see no need for their machines to go faster than 25 miles per hour. What's the hurry? On a world where no animals have wings, they've never thought of building an airplane, and have no word for "flying" -- their angels drift down from Heaven, "like a soft snow falling, like the windborne seeds of that flowerless world."
Le Guin also has her characters wrestle with patriotism, a very contemporary issue for a novel written mostly in 1968, that year of American insanity -- just as our nation is going insane today, albeit in different ways. Before he's sent into exile, Estraven asks Genly if he knows what patriotism is:
"No," I said, shaken by the force of that intense personality suddenly turning itself wholly upon me. "I don't think I do. If by patriotism you don't mean the love of one's homeland, for that I do know."
"No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year. We've followed our road too far. And you, who come from a world that outgrew nations centuries ago, who hardly know what I'm talking about, who show us the new road—" He broke off. After a while he went on, in control again, cool and polite: "It's because of fear that I refuse to urge your cause with the king, now. But not fear for myself, Mr. Ai. I'm not acting patriotically. There are, after all, other nations on Gethen."
The topic arises again on the Ice -- throughout the novel, really. Genly observes the best meals he's had on Gethen were all in Estraven's company. Estraven replies, "Not at that banquet in Mishnory," the capitol of Orgoreyn.
Genly asks whether Estraven hates Orgoreyn. No, says Estraven, the Orgota simply aren't very good cooks.
Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? How does one hate a country, or love one? [...] I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry? Then it's not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That's a good thing, but one mustn't make a virtue of it, or a profession. . . . Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.
Out on the Ice, the two aliens make their own nation, of sorts; if either is loyal to a nation, it's humanity. Again, from Anders's afterword essay:
Genly and Estraven's shared journey is what gives this book its emotional arc, and also its brightness in spite of all the misery in the actual story. The novel's title comes from a Gethenian proverb about light and dark existing together, which Genly relates back to the yin-yang symbol of Taoism. And it's true that the darker the events in this book turn, the brighter its spark of hope and friendship becomes.
Even beyond the uplifting story of Genly and Estraven building a friendship, the book is suffused with an optimism that feels especially brave in 2019. We're never given cause to doubt that the Ekumen 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.
It was a fairly radical notion for the late Sixties and now, but one that cropped up even in a mainstream entertainment like Star Trek. To a degree, at least, when the USS Enterprise isn't engaged in Cold War battles with the Klingons or enforcing New Frontier colonialism. That's another discussion, huh?
And then there's this radical environmentalist intrusion of real science into the novel, when early in their journey, the two must travel through a chain of volcanoes. Estraven writes in his diary:
[A Gethenian scientist] hypothesized that the volcanic activity in N.W. Orgoreyn and the Archipelago has been increasing during the last ten or twenty millennia, and presages the end of the Ice, or at least a recession of it and an interglacial period. CO2 released by the volcanoes into the atmosphere will in time serve as an insulator, holding in the long-wave heat-energy reflected from the earth, while permitting direct solar heat to enter undiminished. The average world temperature, he says, would in the end be raised some thirty degrees, till it attains 72°. I am glad I shall not be present. Ai says that similar theories have been propounded by Terran scholars to explain the still incomplete recession of their last Age of Ice. All such theories remain largely irrefutable and unprovable; no one knows certainly why the ice comes, why it goes. The Snow of Ignorance remains untrodden.
We certainly read that differently in 2019, don't we? (Discussion question: Compare and contrast Left Hand with Frank Herbert's 1965 epic Dune, and/or with Le Guin's own The Dispossessed, as "environmental" science fiction.)
And then of course there's Le Guin's fairly radical -- for 1969 -- decision to mention that Genly Ai is black, and Gethenians are all varying shades of brown. In a 2009 interview in the New Yorker, Le Guin said that was
a bit of deliberate activism. Most readers of science fiction (then and now) are white. Science-fictional characters, then, were white (and nothing said about it.)
So, my evil activist plot: Let your hero have a dark skin, but don't say anything about it, until the reader is used to identifying with that person, and then suddenly realizes, Hey, I'm not white!...But what do you know?—I'm still human!
This sneaky approach has paid off recently for me personally, in some very touching letters from people of color who wanted me to know that my books (particularly the Earthsea series) were the very first s.f. or fantasy novels from which they did not feel deliberately and hatefully excluded: This World for Whites Only.
In a 2017 essay on Left Hand and the "Radical Imagination," Tuesday Smillie praises the "powerful gesture" of Le Guin's removal of racial hierarchy as a factor in the novel by simply writing white people out of it altogether. But Smillie is left wanting more -- more exploration of how the non-exploitative First Contact with Gethen by the Ekumen contrasts with the disastrous, genocidal colonization of our own planet by Europe. LeGuin, very much a liberal white lady writing from her own context, decided not to go there, except by omission, which again, was a big step at the time.
Fortunately, there are always more books to be written, and more writers eager to use SF to play with such questions.
We hope you have some recommendations for more reading! Remember: 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. Nothing personal, and no marks on your permanent record if we delete you for off-topicking. 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!
UPDATE: Talk about timing! This coming Friday, PBS's "American Masters" will be about Guess Who?
(Oh! And FYI, this is NOT the open thread! Robyn will have that up in a few, but if you want to talk about things other than the book, just go to yesterday's open thread!)
[HuffPo / Polygon / New Yorker / Ada / Paris Review / "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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