Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Left Hand of Darkness

To say that one of the best ways to revisit the politics of the past is to read old novel about the future. But science fiction - proper science fiction, that is, not space opera - typically takes the social and political climate of its day and transposes it onto a future, fictional world. How do we understand the implications of what happens today? We take them to an extreme and transpose them. Looking back at the beginnings of social movements through their portrayal in fiction may seem overly academic, but usually these subtexts aren't hard to suss out, and changing the lens we read through every once in a while just helps to keep things interesting. Enter Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, about a planet called Winter and the people who live there.

The set-up for the novel is that, in the future, the life-supporting planets have formed a kind of coalition. They're all pretty far from each other, but with new space travel technology the planets have been accessible enough for contact to exist. Seventeen light years from the edge of the coalition's area is Winter (Gethen in local language, but because it is aptly named for its climate), and Genly Ai has been sent as an envoy to try and convince the Gethenians to join the Ekumen. So, there is an outsider who is working alone on Winter to convince the governments to join up.

There are a few interesting things about this scenario right off the bat: firstly, Genly is not from Earth. He is from an Earth-like planet called Terra, but still, I liked that in Le Guin's future Earth is not the all-powerful colonizing planet. Secondly, Winter is a planet with more than one country on it. Typically, in science fiction, foreign planets are seen as united wholes, without different languages, cultures, or political structures. I really liked that Le Guin complicated things, especially because it lets her play with a lot of Cold War tensions (the planet is called "Winter" for heaven's sake) in a way that creeps up on you.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Winter, though, is its population. Gethenians are all intersex - or hermaphrodites, as Genly calls them. Their sexuality is explained in detail (although it is not explicit) and essentially, once a month Gethenians go into kemmer, which is kind of like an animal going into heat, although also not. Anyway, during this period of kemmer, a Gethenian will find another person to mate with, and as part of their courtship the sexual role they will fulfill announces itself. This means that the same person can, in their life, perform both female and male sexual roles; this is true also in monogamous relationships, both partners can become pregnant and be the impregnator (although not at the same time, of course). The rest of the time, they are simultaneously no sex and both sexes at once.

Throughout all the political intrigue and confusion, Genly has the hardest time truly grasping this aspect of the Gethenian character, and he frequently tries to assign the people he meets with gendered characteristics. Feminist theory was gathering steam at this point in history, and a lot of the details about gender attributes and roles seem like a direct response to that. It's fair to say that female characteristics are seen as overwhelmingly negative by Genly for most of the novel, but it's done in a way that the reader sees the flaws in his logic, which reaffirms feminist principles for the most part.

The most compelling aspect of the plot, though, happens after Genly has been arrested and taken to a prison camp on the far edge of the inhabitable terrain. He is drugged repeatedly and barely alive when an old political ally/enemy rescues him. The two of them must then escape over the Northern ice, a huge glacier alive with volcanoes and crevasses and storms. This storyline makes the book for me, because although this is an interesting theoretical novel, it isn't until the adventure really gets going that I got hooked on the characters.

The Left Hand of Darkness is, in a lot of ways, about balance: between genders, between sexes, between political factions. At its heart, though, it's about the necessity of human relationships and learning to trust someone who you cannot understand. Genly's success on Winter was predicated on this, and whether we're talking politics or gender and sexual identity, that certainly applies to our world today as much as it did in the 1960s. This is not an easy book to become involved in, but it is such a rewarding read that it's worth the time you'll spend with it.

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
First published in 1969 (cover image shown from Ace Books edition)

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