Holding The Left Hand of Darkness
With our last post, we disgruntled some readers by taking examples from mainstream fantasy rather than LGBT fantasy and you may be thinking that I’ve done it again. It’s probably true, because The Left Hand of Darkness, or LHD as I’ll call it for short, is not an LGBT book. But it is a Q book. Or at least, it has been, for me, the only book I have ever read that gave me a glimpse of what life would be like in a society where people were more like me.
This is a personal reminiscence, because this is a book very personal to me. It’s taken me a long time to work out what exactly it is that I am, because neither of those things are very high profile – I am genderqueer and I am asexual (though het romantic). These things took a long time to figure out because in my day (yes, I am that old) and in my suburban culture we didn’t have words for any of that stuff. I’ve mostly identified as ‘weird’ and ‘frigid’.
So intellectually I had no idea why, when I read this book first, twenty or so years ago, it hit me like a breath of paradise. It hit me like finding out I had somewhere where I was home. I still haven’t read another book that did the same thing (though some of my love for Sherlock Holmes comes down to recognising him as a fellow ace. Oh, I hate it when they give him a girlfriend!)
Anyway, scene setting aside, let’s talk about the book:
If you don’t know it already, it’s the story of Genly Ai, an ambassador from the Ekumen – a league of human planets – who is dropped off on Gethen (also known as Winter, from the climate) in an attempt to get the natives to join the league.
The inhabitants of Gethen are human, but for the majority of the time they are non-gendered and non-sexual. Every so often they go into a heat called kemmer, where they will manifest whichever gender fits their mood at the time and/or fits their chosen partner. They’ll get it on for a few days and then, if they become pregnant they and their extended family will raise the child. But when the child is born or if they don’t become pregnant, they’ll go back to being simply human again.
Genly Ai has remarkable difficulties with this. He also has difficulties with the subtle politics of the court of Karhide – the monarchist nation he tries talking to first. He mistakes his closest supporter, Estraven, for a sneaky double-dealing enemy, bums around for a while investigating Karhide’s practices of meditation and telling the future, and then decides to try his luck with the totalitarian nation over the border. There, he initially thinks everything’s going swimmingly well until he’s interred in a camp for dissidents, madmen and perverts. (‘Pervert’ meaning someone who is stuck in one gender.)
Estraven rescues him and they make an epic icy journey back to Karhide, where a shocking plot development means that Genly Ai succeeds in convincing the Gethenians to ally with the Ekumen.
When I read the book in my youth I thought that LeGuin was aware that Genly Ai was a dipstick, with his constant attempts to categorise Gethenian’s behaviours as either masculine or feminine. I thought it was obvious to everyone that everyone exhibited, or had the potential to exhibit, both kinds of behaviour – that the mere concept of gender was a crock, and she was aware of this.
This article suggests that I was wrong about that, and says “Stanislaw Lem (whose name carries the same sort of potency hers does) accused her of basically painting a false picture of Gethen — writing the Gethenians as men who very occasionally exhibited womanly characteristics, and thus hardly exploring the intriguing notion of what people who were both sexes at once would really be like.
And he is totally right. She kinda blows it.”
And here I have to hold on to my blood pressure. Really? People really think that gender is that binary? People really think that there is some mystic way in which men are real men and women are real women, and it differs from the fact that they are both human? Well, I don’t understand that idea, and you would think that having been born female would give me some insight into how mysteriously unknowable men are. The truth is that I find men and women identical, except that women are physically weaker, and therefore they have had to learn some survival techniques typical of slaves, oppressed groups and other people who are vulnerable to domination by force.
But as I say, maybe I feel this not because I’m right about gender, but because I am genderqueer myself. I feel no echo of recognition with the gender binary – I can’t place myself on one side or the other. That being so, I see Gethen not as “a bunch of dudes hanging out” but as a place where people are free to be people without being shoved into ill-fitting boxes by virtue of sex.
I do think that LHD slightly muffs the aspect of sexlessness, though, because most of it is told through Ai’s eyes and he – being a sexual person – is typically obsessed with it. To be fair, I suppose it is an aspect of society which has to be handled, and LeGuin needs to show how it would work in the context she has set for it. But surely not all Gethen’s stories revolve around kemmer? Perhaps that’s Genly Ai’s selection process at work. Certainly a society that is sex-free and gender-free remains a utopia for me, even though, since I’ve grown up I’ve gathered that LeGuin herself didn’t think so.
Although I concentrate on the sex and gender stuff, because that’s what makes this book resonate with me so much, there’s so much else in it which is wonderful. If I ever get a text tattoo it may well be “If this was the royal music, no wonder the kings of Karhide were all mad.” But I can see I’ve gone on too long already. What do you think?