Are you ready for a confession? Because this girl has to eat some humble pie. I read a science fiction* book, and I loved it. Who would have ever thought this would happen? I admit that my dislike of the genre is based mainly on prejudice: I just don’t care that much for star ships. But as with all genres, there’s usually something out there that’s just right for you.
What drew me to The Left Hand of Darkness was, an article in the Guardian, advertising it as feminist science fiction and stating that it “arguably marks the point where SF came into its true political strength.” Together with a fellow political scientist’s recommendation, that had me intrigued, so I decided to venture outside my comfort zone and into the world of Gethen, a planet of genderless inhabitants. “Genderless” only most of the time though, because once per month they come into “kemmer”, during which they take on either the role of a man or that of a woman, and they appear to have some choice in the matter.
The reader sees Gethen through the eyes of Genly Ai, a (male) Envoy of a planetary alliance called the Ekumen that wants to take Gethen into its fold of 80 worlds. Genly is in charge of making the second contact – an explorer had been sent previously – and convincing Gethenians that joining the Ekumen, a loose federation of planets focused on economic and cultural exchange, is a good idea. He begins his journey in one of Gethen’s four countries, Karhide, hoping that his quest might be successful in a country that knows no war. However, when things begin to go awry in Karhide, he’s forced to go to Orgoreyn and try there. But Orgoreyn is only welcoming on the surface, driving Genry into a long and dangerous journey, accompanied only by one Gethenian: Estraven.
The Left Hand of Darkness was entertaining, very thoughtful, and to my surprise (I know, I know, sitting on a high horse about genre fiction and all that… shame on me) very well-written. I really enjoyed this novel, and I want to highlight two aspects. The first is the one it seems to get the most credit for: that of constructing a world where our binary perception of gender does not exist. What does this mean for a society?
This aspect, in my view, is the weaker one though. There are some properties of the gender aspect that somehow made it seem less relevant than others. Le Guin uses the pronoun “he” to refer to Gethenians. Although this is discussed – in a language where only either one exists for people, and “it” is completely objectifying, you need to make a choice – I felt that this took away some of the book’s “shock potential”. We’re so used to protagonists in novels being male that by using “he”, the Gethenian setting is more normalised than it would perhaps be had the author opted for the female pronoun. Also, many of the societies’ properties do not seem to stem from the social construction of gender: while the residents of Karhide do not know war, those of Orgoreyn seem to be much more militarised and prepared to face it. Also, Karhidish society is, despite the existence of a king and a governing council, fairly non-hierarchical – outside the capital, the king does not seem to wield a very great deal of power. Orgoreyn, on the contrary, is a totalitarian state, quite reminiscent of Soviet structures with its cadres, secret police, and labour camps. Differences to our society thus don’t seem to be all that determined by a lack of gender duality, but rather depend on national choice. Other aspects, like the slow speed of vehicles (“Gethenians could make their vehicles go faster, but they do not. If asked why not, they answer ‘Why?'”) are maybe just a bit too stereotypical.
That’s not to say that I disliked the way Ursula Le Guin dealt with the issue, I just thought she might have made a stronger point. Then again, this book is from 1969 and its dissolution of gender would probably have been perceived as much more intense back then. There are some reflections that I really appreciated, such as the reflection on the absence of different “roles” we tend to assign to men and women:
The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be […] ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewere, are likely to be – psychologically and physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.
This passage is fantastic. It describes exactly some of what is, in my view, wrong with today’s gendered world: that women are tied down by childbearing, putting them at a disadvantage compared to men who are able to roam freely, so to speak.
Still, what drew me in more than the gender issue was the political side of The Left Hand of Darkness. As a political scientist who has worked on regional integration (the association of states into groups, the strongest example of which is the European Union, but which also includes – according to many definitions – groups like Mercosur, the African Union, ASEAN and so on), this is where I could geek out. The Ekumen and the ideas behind it reminded me a lot of the founding ideas of the EU, and I wondered whether Le Guin had something similar in mind. After all, European integration was already in full swing when she wrote the novel. Indeed, a loose alliance of trading states existing alongside each other in peaceful exchange sounds like what many thinkers would like the EU to be. The Ekumen is supposed to be stronger than the sum of its parts:
But the Ekumen doesn’t rule, it co-ordinates. Its power is precisely the power of its member states and worlds. In alliance with the Ekumen, Karhide will become infinitely less threatened and more important than it’s ever been.
Roping other states or, in this case, worlds into the fold of the Ekumen through conviction and by making it seem highly attractive, secure, and advantageous… EU enlargement, I’m looking at you (at least until before the crisis – nowadays that task is somewhat more difficult). This is a novel EU scholars or integration scholars more broadly should read. She has some very interesting thoughts there.
The conclusion of all this babble, friends, is that I stand corrected. Science fiction is not all about “beam me up, Scotty”, star ships, and aliens with triangular faces and huge eyes, it can be a lot more.
* What a terrible genre label, by the way. It should really be called “outer space fiction”, right?