Sunday, December 8, 2013

Scifi Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The sixties. Hell of a decade for science fiction. Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle" and "Slaughterhouse-Five," Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep," aka "Bladerunner," and "The Man in the High Castle," aka "The Nazis Won."

But like everything that ever existed, it's not all about white dudes. This week we're going to look at Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel, "The Left Hand of Darkness," which broke new ground for the exploration of feminism in science fiction. The book raised the bar for the sci-fi genre in general, reaffirming its importance in the family of literature as a vehicle for challenging deeply held societal concepts.

"Left Hand" takes the concepts of sex and gender--which are so fundamental to the identity of humans everywhere that they seem to fall under the category of "instinct" rather than "cultural norm"--and asks what would happen if they simply didn't exist. What would humans be like without genders or sexual identities?

I feel compelled to point out that this isn't like the Junior Anti-Sex League in "1984," nor is it the weee, free love let everyone fuck everyone else! in "Brave New World." Sci-fi abounds with societies in which sexual behavior is distorted or controlled by governments and outside influences--that's pretty much the world we live in now, which is why so many authors of all genres like to write about it.

Nor is it like that one episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" where the writers tried to make a point about gay rights by having an alien from ambi-sexual, genderless race "come out" as female and declare her love for Riker, only to be kidnapped by her family and go through gender conversion therapy to get rid of all the lady in her.
To be fair, who wouldn't turn lady for that face?
The examples above start with the assumption that humans have genders and sexual identities, and extrapolate situations in which those attributes are shaped or controlled to achieve various societal and cultural outcomes. "Left Hand" is significant because it begins with a different premise altogether. It asks readers to imagine a world in which humans don't think about those things because they simply don't exist. What if we really could just treat each other like "people"?

The world of "Left Hand" is populated by humans who are gender neutral the vast majority of the time. Once a month, they go into "heat," as it were, wherein their bodies are able to get pregnant or sire children. For those few days, their bodies have a "gender" or a "sex" as we might conceive it, but because people have an equal chance of being either gender every time they go into heat, such distinctions are largely meaningless. Except for those few days of the month, the humans have neither the urge nor the ability to have sex, so while the society has "room for sex, it is a room apart."

Ironically, I have to spend a lot of time talking about sex in order to introduce a society in which sex simply doesn't matter. Except for a few pages toward the beginning, describing what I've outlined above, the plot of "Left Hand" isn't at all concerned with sex, gender, or sexual identity. The most significant aspect of this book, the one everyone talks about when they talk about "The Left Hand of Darkness," is the least important part of the actual story, which is about a small planet's first contact with alien life. But that's how central sex is to our own society--it's there even when it's not.

So, the story is about first contact. A human from our Earth, Genly Ai, has come to the icy planet of Gethen as an envoy for this vague, benevolent organization of planets called the Ekumen (the United Nations or Star Fleet equivalent of this world). He is there to convince the people of Gethen that they are not alone in the universe and invite them to join the other planets in trade and cross-cultural exchange. One high-ranking member of the government, Estraven, believes in Genly's mission and what he represents, but Estraven is outmaneuvered by another politician, who wants to use Genly's presence to start a war with another country. Estraven and Genly both end up exiled to the other country, which is a totalitarian state. They have to escape from a concentration camp and get out of the country over a glacier in the middle of winter, with the slim hope of contacting Genly's ship and crewmates in orbit around the planet if they reach civilization alive.

I remember being somewhat perplexed the first time I read this book, because I thought it was going to be explicitly about sex and power, a la "The Handmaid's Tale." It's actually an adventure story, full of political intrigue, daring escapes, and treacherous journeys through merciless but beautiful landscapes. Gethen is in the middle of an ice age, so the characters are always on the razor edge of survival, and tiny decisions can mean the difference between life and death from exposure or starvation. (It's winter here in New York, by the way, and I hate it, which is why I decided to read this book.)

I read in a couple of different reviews that "Left Hand" is considered soft science fiction, meaning it's more concerned with characters and society than with physics or engineering. And it's true that while the narrator Genly Ai is an alien from a society that has mastered space travel, Gethen itself has about the same technology as the era in which it was written, minus television and air travel. However, I find it more challenging than other hard sci-fi works I've encountered, such as Isaac Asimov's "Foundations," because reading "Left Hand" requires a constant readjustment of the reader's relationship to the Gethen characters.
I had to view them as both male and female, and remind myself that their actions and attitudes have to be seen as coming from both sexual identities. It's quite a mind trip. I can't accurately describe how it makes me feel as a reader to work so hard at undoing my social conditioning about sex and gender, just to understand a character and a world that has neither. That, for me, is the very definition of "speculative fiction." And it is hard.

No pun intended.

Final Grade: B+. Lots to like in this book, and it's challenging without being boring. But it's essentially a buddy story, so people who go into it expecting to see advances in technology or sweeping societal changes may be put off by the intimate nature of the plot.

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