2016 Reading Challenge Book 47

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Book 47, a book with non-human characters: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le
Guin

“Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light. Two are one, life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer, like hands joined together, in the end and the way.”

Ursula Le Guin is a well-known and beloved author of the science fiction genre. Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel that was published in 1969 and helped to cement her status as one of the most well loved science fiction authors of her era. The novel was extremely well received and earned several awards. Most notably, it was recognized for her examination of binary gender roles through the lens of androgynous alien characters.

The story begins with our narrator, Genly Ai, relaying his experience as an emissary of the interplanetary consortium called the Ekumen. This collection of planets sends emissaries through space to reach other lifeforms and offer an alliance. Ai’s mission leads him to Winter, an alien world inhabited by a species called the Gethenians. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s transition into the Ekumen alliance, but he must first overcome the difficult task of bridging vast cultural differences to earn the trust of the Gethenians.

The most notable difference between Ai and the Gethenians is the Gethenians’ asexuality. Ai is a male of his species, which like humans, has two genders: male and female. The Gethenians are both genders simultaneously. They have both sets of reproductive organs and once a month during their mating cycle, they become either male or female depending on the person they are mating with (or, in “kemmering” as they say). Whichever “becomes” the “female” during this cycle may become pregnant. However, during the next cycle, the roles may be reversed. During the rest of the non-kemmer periods of the month, they resume asexuality. As Ai states, this is a concept those of us trapped within a gender binary system struggle to grasp:

The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for  our imaginations to accept. After all, what is the first question we ask about a newborn  baby? There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves,  protected/protective. One is respected and judged only as a human being. You cannot  cast a Gethenian in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a  corresponding role dependent upon your expectations of the interactions between  persons of the same or opposite sex.

Imagine–judging people solely on the merit of their personality rather than on arbitrary gender roles assigned by a society with its own motivations for privileging one over the other. It’s hard for us to do since our own genders are snarled up this way. Le Guin highlights the absurdity of trying to characterize humans by their gender in several passages throughout the story. In one example, Ai is trying to explain to the asexual Gethenians what a woman is like. He finds himself unable to do so because after observing a society without gender, he quickly realizes that his own understanding of gender is bound up in socializations, not biology. He concludes that the difference between male in female is truly very slight, perhaps only in physiology. Everything else is conditioned by society and is thus false.

In 1969, this would have been a very controversial statement to make. Let’s be real–even now in 2016 this is controversial. While women may have equal rights in name, if anything, 2016 has illustrated more than ever that women are not on equal footing with men in this country. Our society LOVES to create divisions and hierarchies. Look at all the fuss being made about transgender people using certain bathrooms! We love labels and have constructed our society upon these castles in the air so delicately that when someone comes along to point out that these “truths” have no substance, we get defensive and cling to them even more closely. Pointing out that there are people of both genders, or the possibility of more than two genders, really rocks the boat in this country. People get very upset if they cannot label you male or female. It’s because questioning these basic “truths” people have held so dearly calls into question the very fabric of society.

Like all good science fiction, Le Guin manages to illustrate the absurdity of our own culture through the lens of an alien race–as author Junot Diaz stated at a lecture I once attended, science fiction gives us a “safe space” in which to discuss some of the very real, very horrible aspects of our own lives with enough distance to see things more clearly. I feel Le Guin accomplishes that and much more, plus a fun adventure story to boot.

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About alycemsustko

Reader, writer, catmom extraordinaire
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