Thursday, December 18, 2014
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the planet Gethen, also referred to by outsiders as Winter because it is currently going through an ice age and a day over sixty degrees Fahrenheit is considered broiling. The story centers around an off-world visitor, Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen, an interstellar confederation of human-inhabited worlds united by FTL ansible communications. Ai has been sent to Gethen to invite the countries of that world to join in the shared knowledge and cooperation of the Ekumen. Understandably, the Gethans are fairly suspicious of Ai and the Ekumen's intentions, fearing his arrival merely a front for a far more nefarious scheme. Ai's efforts center around trying to get the people of Gethen to trust and accept him, and gradually enter an alliance with the Ekumen.
What is more remarkable, though, is that the human beings that inhabit Gethen are all one sex. For most of the month Gethans are in what they refer to as somer, where they simply possess no sex, have no sexual urges or desires, and live their life comfortably neuter. Once a month, however, each Gethan will undergo kemmer, and begin to develop sexual characteristics and hormones. During kemmer a Gethen can become what we would define as either male or female, sometimes adapting to compliment a partner who is already in kemmer. Biologically a Gethan can become either sex and can both sire and bear children in their lifetime. As a result, the Gethans are a largely mono-gendered society as well; child-rearing is a largely shared task, and as anyone can become male or female next kemmer, there are no widespread assumptions or stereotypes attached to sex.
It's an interesting thought experiment and could definitely be used to challenge assumptions regarding gender, but the implementation just feels fairly hollow forty years later. Ai definitely expresses frustration at being unable to classify Gethans into familiar male or female categories and finds them rather alien, just as they find him, but he also finds aspects of their cultures, such as a preference for speaking indirectly and obsession with personal honor, to be strange and confusing as well. I guess I didn't find it very odd that an alien culture would seem weird to an observer and that the Gethans reacted with suspicion when an interstellar visitor arrives claiming to want only their friendship.
But more importantly, I felt that the main thrust of LeGuin's thought experiment was to explore stereotypes and assumptions about sex and gender by simply removing them and providing a contrast. The result I am unhappy to say is not terribly convincing, and perhaps a little refinement of terminology (which may have occurred in the past forty years) will help clarify my frustration. Specifically sex and gender do not mean the same things, although people often assume that they do. Sex is biological and the overwhelming majority of people fall into either one category or another: male or female. Sex is defined by what set of organs you have in your pants and the predominate hormones in your bloodstream. Gender, however, is a social construct which is far more complicated. In mainstream Western society we tend to assume there are two genders which also go with the two sexes, male and female. In this dichotomy men like to talk about sports and beer and fix things with their tools and trucks and what not, while women by contrast like to talk about their feelings and like to bake and knit and what have you. We see this dichotomy every day from its use in sitcom humor, to advertising, to the rows of pink toys designed specifically for girls. However, a bi-gendered society which assumes that someone will fall neatly into the corresponding category because of their reproductive organs is restrictive for everyone and leads to sexism and all the horrible awfulness that comes part and parcel with that.
Furthermore, people do not always associate with the gender that is attached to their sex. Some people are transgender and identify as the gender opposite of their biological sex, while other people's preferred gender may vary from day to day, depending on their mood. In fact, some cultures even have three or more genders, creating a host of opportunities for people to develop their identity. The point of this little tirade is that throughout Left Hand of Darkness, Ai attributes peculiarities of Gethan culture, such as the absence of war, to their lack of distinct sexes and genders. Because Gethans are both man and woman, their naturally violent tendencies are mellowed by the kind, nurturing aspects. Although this might have held up in 1969 when the book was first published, it's definitely an outdated idea today in 2014. Continued developmental research has shown, just for sake of example, that boys and girls have just as much capacity for violence. The only difference is that in culturally defined gender roles violence is more tolerated, and even encouraged, among boys while it comes with strict repercussions for girls. While in American culture gender is still very strongly attached to sex, and we are still engaged in a struggle to break down gender stereotypes, what sex you are with does not determine your gender. A culture like the Gethans, which lacks defined sexes may lack defined genders and gender roles, but this doesn't mean they'll be any different from the other mess of humanity.
Other than the blurring between sex and gender, which may have not been as well-defined in 1969 as it is today, this book is okay at best. There's an opportunity to explore new ideas and break down assumptions about sex and gender, but it certainly doesn't get developed to its full potential. There's some exploration of religion, LeGuin's fascination with duality (a consistent theme in her works), and other odds and ends, but the brevity of the work means it lacks depth. I think this could be safely passed by for other works, as highly acclaimed as it is.