Friday, March 07, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin "The Left Hand of Darkness": FACT reading group discussion

11 people attended a FACT reading groupdiscussion of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin on October 1, 2007. Most of the group, except 2 people, had read this novel before. Some had read it when it first came out in 1969.

In this book, a human named Genly Ai who is an Envoy from Ecumena, a multi-world union, is sent to a planet Gethen to convince its government to join Ecumena. The most unusual quality of Gethenians is that they don't have two sexes, at least not permanent ones. Most of the time they are sexless, but for a few days each month they go into a state called kemmer, where they acquire either male or female characteristics and are able to reproduce. Their ambisexuality influences Gethenian social and political life in ways unpredictable for Genly. Fate brings him together with Estraven, a local political figure, and they embark on an unexpected journey.

"You are only judged as a human being. It is terrifying."

Most people liked the book, and some felt profoundly influenced by it. A reader regretted there was no Tiptree award at the time The Left Hand of Darkness came out, because, in his opinion, Le Guin pushed the gender-bending envelope way harder than most Tiptree award recipients. He said, "Le Guin made an incredibly clever choice in the sexuality of the Gethenians. She truly understands that the alien is us, far more than the aliens I've ever read in any SF story."

Somebody remembered a couple of years ago there was a panel at ArmadilloCon on women who grew up on this book. Women were saying, this book changed my whole life, this book is the reason I'm writing. One reader said her favorite line from the book is "you are only judged as a human being. It is terrifying." "It captures the longing that a lot of us had," she said, "when we first became aware that we women were not been judged as human beings, that we were not judged on our work. [We had a longing for a world where] everybody is in the same boat, where 5/6 of the time sex doesn't matter."

A few people were not as impressed by this book. One reader said he vaguely remembered The Left Hand Of Darkness as a novel where "nothing really happens in the end. It's just describing the alien culture that goes through it." Another reader said while he admires what Le Guin is doing and the way she's dealing with important issues, for some reason her work doesn't connect with him.

Memorable gender- and mind-bending episodes

Some people reminisced about their favorite scenes from the novel. One reader's most memorable part was the one where Estraven went into kemmer during the ice trip. Up until then Estraven, despite his sexlessness, was perceived by Genly as a man. Having entered kemmer, he temporarily becomes a woman. This happens against Estraven's will, as neither he nor Genly want the complications of changing gender perceptions, but now they have to deal with them. It is especially hard on Genly, who, despite the years spent among the Gethenians, is still not used to thinking of gender as fluid. This reader found that episode really mind-twisting. Another reader thought the scene where Genly teaches Estraven to "bespeak", or communicate telepathically, was especially vivid. The mind communication between them had a strong erotic aspect, even though their relationship remained platonic. Yet another reader found the Foretelling scene especially interesting, and wished there was more about it in the book. He liked the comment of the futility of getting the correct answer to the wrong question.

My own impressions

I read "The Left Hand Of Darkness" around 15 years ago for the first time; upon rereading I had to admit I liked it less than I expected. Though even the first time around this book seemed kinda slow to me. Slow and full of politics I didn't much care about. I guess I remember liking it mostly for its mood, very dark, chilly, intense, full of sexual undercurrents the two main characters did not seem to realize, and did not speak about. Ursula LeGuin gives you a vivid, visceral feel of what it is like to be in a very cold, harsh, stark place, with nothing but ice and snow for thousands of miles. I liked the mysticism that surrounds the characters' daily existence; the family legends, the cult of prescient priests / seers; the metaphors, such as "casting a short / long shadow"; remember wondering what it meant symbolically that Genly and Estraven were not casting any shadows when they were crossing the ice. Not that I completely understood why casting a long shadow was considered a good thing among the Gethenites. There is certainly a huge metaphorical depth to this novel. One can easily speculate that a species that's neither male nor female must have a different view of duality, of light and shadow, than a bi-gender species. "Left Hand Of Darkness" can inspire you to speculate until the end of the world about how their perception of the world would be different from ours, and what we can learn from them, and vice versa.

Exploration of genderless society did not go beyond expository lump

At the same time, I can't say the book did a lot to explore the socio-political aspects of an ambisexual society. It says somewhere briefly, almost in an expository lump, that their society knows nothing of gender-based discrimination; that there don't exist stark differences between two halves of the society in terms of their career opportunities, etc., because bearing and raising on children does not disproportionately fall on half of the society; the single most important thing that determines a human person's life -- whether they are male or female -- is not true about Gethenians. I wish the ramifications of this were explored further, and illustrated more abundantly. Because it is the most interesting thing about this society, and it was mentioned only in passing.

Genly put the mission at risk not because he harbored unconscious expectations about the natives acting male or female; no, I think his troubles came from not understanding political games played by the Gethenian powers, and how they used him as their tool. But I think an outsider is always bound to misunderstand the nuances of local political games, regardless of how many sexes there are in the society.

Genly: saint or gay?

It was interesting to see how people's opinions about the protagonist reflected their own notions about gender. I pointed out that Genly, despite his mission to bring a more enlightened era to Gethen, harbored a few backward stereotypes about women. For example, he sees Estraven as feminine because Estraven is indirect, devious, and scheming; later he says that women don't have much capacity for abstract thinking. Shouldn't an Envoy see beyond such stereotypes, especially if you keep in mind that the book is set in a much more enlightened era of far future? He was sent by Ekumena to bring progressive attitudes to the little "backward" corner of the universe that was Gethen, to convince the Gethenian states put aside their little petty differences, to open their minds and become part of a greater whole; but on the other hand, his own attitudes towards women are backward. So I wondered if Ursula Le Guin deliberately meant to create a character with these contradictions, or if she thought Genly's views of women were accurate.

Two readers pointed out to me that Genly's attitudes towards women were far more generous than those of most men in the US today. I replied that this may be true of men of our era, but the book is set in far future; the fact that Ekumena is succeeding at its improbable mission to bring peaceful cooperation to all alien races, must mean this world is based on far more enlightened attitudes than ours. And Genly, an Envoy to an alien planet, must be even more enlightened than most! So I see a contradiction here. Nonetheless, the other two readers insisted that Genly's views make him a saint, especially as compared to an average man of today. One reader even said this saintliness makes Genly not a credible character, definitely not as a young man. He also wasn't clear on whether Genly was straight or gay, because he thought Genly behaved in ways we associate with gays. However, he concluded Genly was straight, "because Le Guin is trying to write a strong male character". This elicited laughter from several women: do you have to be straight to be a strong male character?

So, while the discussion never degenerated into a war of the sexes, there were a few opportunities for that, which I guess is more than you say about most books. :-)

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