Monday, February 6, 2017

Weird & Wonderful- The Left Hand of Darkness

Art by Ratvis
January was one of those fortuitous months where some book-clubs synchronized for me: City Lit Books' Weird & Wonderful club discussed The Left Hand of Darkness, shorlty after the Chicago Nerds discussion. Winter is a good time to read "Left Hand", and it's pretty much always a good time to read Le Guin, regardless.

Well: if you're not familiar, The Left Hand of Darkness is a bedrock work of modern science fiction, exploring deep questions of gender and much beside. Set on a world where all humans are "cyclic hermaphrodites"--neuter most of the month, then briefly sexually active--the novel has as its Big Issue the question of what a truly sexually-equal human society might look like. But, as one might expect from Le Guin, it dives into tons of other ideas as well, and it's issues of betrayal and friendship that stick with me, at least, even more than the gender investigation.

Also, it's set in a society adapted for an ice age, which feels appropriate for a Chicago January read. I was so into the conversation that I didn't take the most comprehensive of notes, but you may find them, and possibly spoilers, below:

We started off with a discussion about the book's title, looking at the poem it comes from, and talking about the concept of "wholeness" and how Gethenians are perhaps more whole than we Terrans.

Much discussion of the pronoun issue--Le Guin chooses to gender the Gethenians almost exclusively as "he/him", as men, even though we know they are really menwomen, womenmen... We talked for a bit about why she probably did this (easier, less scary for people to read, at least at this time of publications), how much using a male narrator excuses/explains it, some of the perhaps unintentional anti-woman passages and interpretations. We also contrasted this with Leckie's use of pronouns in her Ancillary series, which do a good, jarring job of showing how male-normative English is even when we don't think about it. Le Guin wrote a short story on Gethen using female terms instead, and also talked a bit about the issues she has, in hindsight, with Left Hand:
...the central failure in this area comes up in the frequent criticism I receive, that the Gethenians seem like men, instead of menwomen. This rises in part from the choice of pronoun...the pronouns wouldn't matter at all if I had been cleverer at showing the "female" component of the Gethenian characters in action...I think I did this because I was privately delighted at watching, not a man, but a manwoman, do all these things, and do them with considerable skill and flair. But, for the reader, I left out too much. One does not see Estraven as a mother, with his children, in any role which we automatically perceive as "female": and therefore, we tend to see him as a man. This is a real flaw in the book, and I can only be very grateful to those readers, men and women, whose willingness to participate in the experiment led them to fill in that omission with the work of their own imagination...
-"Is Gender Necessary?" in The Language of the Night

We also talked a bit about Elizabeth Bishop, a poet who refused to be categorized or anthologized as a "female poet", and how that impacted reception of her work along gender lines. In a similar but more science-fictional vein, talked about the reportedly "very masculine" writing of James Tiptree, Jr.--before that was revealed to be a nom de plume for Alice Sheldon. Also mentioned some of the other, more aggressive feminist SF of the same time period as The Left Hand of Darkness, like Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To... which Weird & Wonderful read last year.

Of the many concepts we were fascinated by--the idea of "Year One", the Gethenians' focus on "presence" rather than "progress", among others--we spent a good bit of time trying to figure out what shifgrethor is all about. It's a bit like honor, like "face"...but it also has elements of that "wholeness" and "presence" that Le Guin is driving at with the Gethenians, and while Left Hand isn't as apparently Jungian as, say, the Earthsea books, there's definitely something important about the idea of owning/being at peace with one's "shadow"--we mentioned Genly's sense that in Orgota people "lack shadows", and the idea of the place on the ice--both mythologically and actually--where the lack of shadows makes travel impossibly treacherous.

We also talked at some length about:
  • the (quite critical) notion of patriotism here
  • the mad king Argraven as distressingly Trump-like
  • the idea of the Ekumenical government, compared it to Star Trek's Federation (and the general Hainish renaissance to Asimov's later Foundation tales
  • how great the winter scenes are here, especially the final voyage. Noted that this is a good book to have copious snacks for (as one reads about near-starvation on the ice)
  • lots of interest in how "vowing kemmer" works vs. marriage
  • how continually relevant Le Guin's writing is, and how continually bad-ass she is in her essays and speeches
Really great discussion, and we were also pleased to welcome some new folks to group. Next time, we're discussing Kai Ashante Wilson's A Taste of Honey. Don't forget to check out City Lit Books for their many other clubs and events!

1 comment:

  1. I thought it was a shame that Le Guin didn't embrace the neutral pronoun. I thought that in many ways it undermined her own project. She's writing a book about a society where gender and sex doesn't matter and yet everyone becomes masculinely gendered. That said, it's an interesting choice in my opinion because it aligns us with the narrator. The narrator is a human from a gendered and sexed world, and a man. He can't comprehend a neutral entity, and as a result, he genders everyone he meets, giving them both pronouns and a gender depending on how feminine or masculine he believes them to be. I wrote a paper on this in my 70s feminist sci fi class—while I don't agree with Le Guin's decision, if you read carefully enough the book places both you and the narrator into a separate category, one that can't help but need gender pronouns and identification. I think it speaks to how hard it is for some people to let go of the ideas of male and female.