Sunday, January 15, 2017

Chicago Nerds- The Left Hand of Darkness

For the first 2017 meeting of the Chicago Nerds' book club, we met to discuss Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

A modern science fiction classic whose influence is hard to overstate, Le Guin's novel is set in her Hainish future, in which different branches of humanity are reconnecting after millennia spent developing on different planets. The Left Hand of Darkness follows the first official contact between the Ekumen—a loose government of many worlds—and the people of Gethen. Gethenians have developed on a world in the grip of an ice age, and differ from the rest of the Ekumen in their social and biological sexual natures.

Sex and gender exploration is kind of the big-ticket draw of The Left Hand, but it's also brilliantly-written, packed full of profundity, and unusual (for science fiction) in how much it comes down to a deeply-drawn relationship between two people.

Also, it's very appropriate for a January Chicago reading, involving as it does great treks across the ice and snow. Notes and possible spoilers below:

We started off with some great cover comparisons—quite a few versions of this, from the classic two-faced ice sculpture to the minimal glacier, and the embossed text-only of the Penguin Galactic series.

Although he never did a Left Hand cover, also wound up talking about the style of John Harris, who's done iconic covers for Leckie's Ancillary books and Card's early Ender series, among others.

Circling back around to its seasonal appropriateness, we talked about other good wintery-y work, including scenes from Gaiman's American Gods. That led into a discussion of the upcoming series, and the possibility of a CNSC field trip to the House on the Rock.

Also talked about the effect of reading the journey sections of this book while on a treadmill, which sounds delightful.

We talked for quite a while about the mechanics of the Ekumen & this world. We really liked the NAFAL abbreviation (nearly as fast as light), as well as the possibilities offered by instantaneous communication via the ansible (a Leguinean term that has since become standard, including prominent use in the Card's Ender books). We talked about how the Ekumen works, wondering about Hain & the other cultures—they get a bit more of a look in some other works, especially Four Ways to Forgiveness, but are a bit of a mystery in Left Hand. Spent some time comparing & contrasting the Ekumen (what we know of it) with the Prime Directive from the Star Trek universe. In conclusion, "the Prime Directive is problematic AF", though perhaps well-meaning.

Phase 1: Use SF premise to talk about sexual freedom,
legislation, and closeting.
Phase 2: Nah, just have Riker fuck'em
Unsurprisingly, gender & sex relations took up a huge part of our discussion. We noted that the Gethian sexual system made a lot more sense after we get to spend time with Estraven, tried to find a better word for the condition—the novel primarily uses "bisexual", while "periodic cyclic hermaphroditism" is more accurate but hardly succinct—and noted that the novel has a "remarkably small amount of sex for being about sex". More Star Trek comparisons, including referring to kemmer as the "monthly Pon Farr", and talking about TNG's epically fumbling attempt to talk about sex & gender in "The Outcast" (s5e17, 1992).

We talked for quite a bit about the masculine bias in the book—Genly refers to all Gethenians as "he" and uses other masculine terms throughout (king, boy, man, etc.). While Le Guin does enjoy troubling those assumptions on a sentence level ("the king was pregnant" or "my landlady, a voluble man"), and while elsewhere she has questioned that decision—The Winter King & attached essay in The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975)—the effect in the book is to obscure or lessen the real sexual nature of the Gethenian characters. We talked about how much pronoun usage does to our mental images while reading, contrasting the "he's" of The Left Hand of Darkness with the "she's" of Leckie's Ancillary novels—the disruption Leckie achieves with that simple device is telling of how male-normative most English narrative is.

Talked for a while about how effective this novel is, and how easily the same premise could have come off heavy-handed or plain bad. Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean (1986), which a CNSCer accurately blurbed as "lesbian separatist mermaids", suggested as the complete opposite of this (in terms of stylish execution). We also talked about some other feminist SF that's tangling with some of the same issues, including the Mattapoisset community in Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988), and Tiptree's Houston, Houston, Do You Read? (1976), which is essentially a more aggressive stating of the premise that cultural violence flows from men, or at least the male/female duality. Vaughan & Guerra's Y The Last Man (2002-8) also mentioned as tackling some of the same issues. There's really a huge and varied sub-genre of of "gendercide" SF.

Some debate on the question of why the Gethenians haven't (so far) gone to war: the book leaves it a little bit of a question whether that's entirely attributable to the lack of males, or possibly just the weather. Referenced Izzard's take on the impossibility of invading Russia, and Steven Pinker's take on why commercially entangled countries have good reasons to be friendly.

The Left...side of your face...of Darkness?
We also talked a bit about the aging of the Karhide/Orgota tension—Orgota being a pretty clear (at the time) analog to Soviet totalitarianism. More Trek references, as the conflict between the two nations compared to "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (TOS s3e15, 1969). The changes that the Ekumen might bring to Gethen—and the kind of long-term planning that the Ekumen takes, by virtue of both its age and the time required for interstellar travel—compared to the introduction of lying in Mieville's Embassytown (2011) and the long vision of social change in Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (1999)

We also contrasted the depth and brilliance of this novel's approach to gender with many classic SF works that are deeply sexist, which many of us read without noticing when we were young and re-read with a mix of horror and hilarity as adults—Heinlein & Niven particularly came under the gun, and we also talked about problematic gender roles in McCaffrey's Pern books.

A question we asked midway through that I thought really instructive was: what makes this a classic? And we had a pretty good idea of an answer:

1.) An important Big Idea: examining humanity free of sexual roles.

2.) Beautiful writing: Le Guin is so far beyond most writers, perhaps particularly SF/F writers, that it really elevates Left Hand to a different level.

And other adaptations.
(Treehouse of Horror II, 1991)
3.) Many smaller, quieter, but profound ideas. We love the anthropological & mythological sketches, Estraven's off-hand aphorisms, and the religious/philosophical ideas very gently introduced. The concept of shifgrethor, for instance, which is a kind of "honor" that's not the usual reductive take, and the use of Taoist & Jungian ideas in the mystical traditions. The approach to "psi" type abilities here is very cool, too—the limits of the Foretelling being a good example. Compared the foretelling stories to the "wish gone wrong" trope—The Monkey's Paw type deal (W.W. Jacobs, 1902).

4.) Character. Really, this is what cements this novel as such a classic. Tons of fascinating ideas, but it's how Genly & Therem's relationship plays out that's really compelling.

Really wonderful discussion, and we also welcomed a few new folks to the group. Hello! Next time, we're reading Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. Keep up with CNSC on their website and Facebook page.

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