I have three Insider posts up on recent moves, one on the Heyward/Miller swap, one on Toronto signing Russell Martin, and a third omnibus post covering Hellickson, Moncada, Burnett, and La Stella/Vizcaino. Also, if you missed my annual boardgames ranking, I posted that on Tuesday.
Ursula K. Le Guin won two Hugo Awards for novels, one for The Dispossessed, which I read earlier this year (and loved), and one for the book I just finished, The Left Hand of Darkness , a much stranger book in almost every respect. Set on a planet that suffers near-permanent winter, the novel manages to explore questions of political philosophy and economy while also delving into the still-current question of gender identity and whether gender is a biological or social construct, even though she wrote the book in the late 1960s.
On Gethen, the planet where the entire novel takes place, the still-human residents have evolved over tens of thousands of years to become hermaphroditic, mostly sexless until their mensual period of “kemmer,” a point in the hormonal cycle when that person’s male or female reproductive organs become capable of procreation for a few days. That means that a Gethenian can be a mother to one child and father to another, producing a different societal concept of families. The protagonist, Genly Ai, is an envoy sent from the Ekumen, the book’s united federation of planets (so to speak) that is hoping to invite Gethen into its alliance, which focuses primarily on the sharing of knowledge and limited trade. Ai is distrusted by two separate governments, one a loose, feudal monarchy, the latter a Soviet-style command structure, and finds he has just one Gethenian he can trust, the disgraced adviser Estraven. The second half of the book puts the two of them on a life-or-death journey across desolate, snowbound country, where Ai is forced to reconsider his own aloof, perhaps ignorant attitude toward the character of the Gethenians, including the influence of their mostly genderless existence on their development as humans.
While The Left Hand of Darkness is largely praised as an early feminist sci-fi novel, reading it today it came across as a broader exploration of gender identity questions and to what extent growing up in a two-gender society (that is still relatively intolerant of anyone with gender dysphoria, or even folks who aren’t strictly heterosexual) defines our characters as individual. In a society where roles are not defined by gender because gender doesn’t exist, many questions of equality go away, as do the narrow types of personalities considered acceptable for each gender. All Gethenians Ai encounters exhibit tendencies he considers “effeminate” – the use of the term itself even indicates the trouble he has defining people as “he” or “she” – and others he calls “masculine,” but those terms come from his own experience and have no meaning outside of the two-gender context. Increasing his understanding while suffering the privations of a trip across a glacier with Estraven – who, like most Gethenians, lacks the testerone-driven strength of a biologically male human – becomes essential to the success of his overall mission, if and when he survives.
The political aspects of Ai’s quest dominate the first half of the novel as he first fails to achieve his objectives in the monarchist nation of Karhide, then travels to the totalitarian Orgoreyn, only to get caught up in the infighting among that nation’s 33-member politburo. Much of his difficulty stems from widespread skepticism that he’s actually an alien – he looks similar to Gethenians, just taller, darker in complexsion, and of course of a single gender – and the rest comes from doubt over the peaceful nature of his mission. He spends two years in Karhide, but is hesitant to commit to bringing the ship with the rest of his trade mission (eleven others, all kept in stasis so they aren’t aging while waiting for the call) to Gethen, even though it would likely seal the agreement with the Karhidish monarch. Le Guin’s aim here is vague until Ai crosses the border, at which point she unloads on the Soviets, which I’m sure was a lot more powerful or shocking in 1969 when the book was first published than it is today. We’ve been too desensitized to the abuses of authoritarian regimes to be affected by Ai’s plight in a forced-labor camp.
My one complaint with Left Hand is Le Guin’s use of phony dialect and terminology, something a lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers do, presumably to make the whole setting seem more real to readers but instead just coming off as confusing and, to my eyes, a little juvenile. I don’t know why Le Guin needed to create a whole new calendar with names for months and days, all summarized in a appendix at the end of the book. I don’t know why she needed so many new terms for government officials; it seems like an imagination run wild, without the guiding hand of an editor to say, hey, you’re just going to make readers lose their focus on the plot. It’s too strong and thoughtful a novel to waste time on trivial word changes, and given how well the gender identity themes still hold up over 40 years later, a book that deserves a much wider audience than just the sci-fi crowd.