Thursday, April 9, 2009

Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. LeGuin

I only just read this book recently, after years of wanting to. I had no doubt that it would be good, but I also feared it would be preachy. It has notoriety as a "gender-bender" and the people who recommend this book can seem very attached to that notion. One typically has to be in the mood for such things.

What I forgot to take into account was that LeGuin is an excellent writer. I don't know why I keep forgetting. I don't read her often enough. Each time I do I go through the same shock, like I have stumbled upon this great unknown talent. Her prose is so good it makes me want to stop reading and go write something of my own in challenge.

Maybe this book was preachy back in 1969 when "grudging tolerance of homosexuality" was an edgy enough idea, let alone something crazy like "an entire planet of genderless hermaphrodites." Forty years later we, (thankfully), live in a more libertine society where vampiric romance is not only acceptable for kids, it merits bank-busting mainstream acceptance and success. Nowadays LeGuin's ideas can seem sort of par for the course, especially in the arena of speculative fiction.

To use workshop parlance, The Left Hand of Darkness is neither a mileu story nor an idea story, and thank goodness for that. If it were it might not have endured the way it has, perhaps instead finding itself banished to the reading lists of Women's Studies courses alongside the likes of Charlotte Perkis Gilman's Herland - remembered for being feminist, but not for being particularly good.

As is the charge of any speculative fiction author, LeGuin puts a lot of effort into fleshing out her world, (a planet named Gethen in this case), using the idea of a genderless society not as a plot device, but as color. Equally important to the Gethenian cultures, (that's plural), is the fact that the planet is amidst an ice age, and LeGuin explores how harsh climate on a global scale might influence society just as much as she examines the gender issue. Factor in religion and government and architecture and how they all affect social mores, and Gethen really comes to life.

Additionally, LeGuin may explore the idea of genderless society, but she does not make it seem especially Utopian. Gethen is a far cry from perfect, from its two-faced propaganda machines to its debilitating government bureaucracies to its Soviet-style gulags. Even at the social level there still exists sexual prejudice - Gethenians who, by genetics or by choice, become permanently one sex or the other are labeled as perversions and, while not completely ostracized, are subject to the same fringe treatment homosexuals, transgenders, androgynes and the like are on our heteronormative planet Earth.

The plot is at turns political suspense and survival adventure. The early parts of the book are more plot oriented and world-building, but by the end we are left to focus more on the relationship between outsider protagonist Genly Ai, (gendered male), and Estraven, a Gethenian politician-turned-outcast. Here is where gender issues touch the plot most directly, as Genly is made to examine his feelings for Estraven as both a friend, romantic partner, and most importantly, the idea that maybe those two options are a little limiting - that there can be love without the qualifier of romance.

LeGuin herself has lamented that she did not explore feminine behavior more in this novel and that is not an entirely unwarranted concern. I say nothing's perfect, this book is still excellent, get over it. I also say that the female gender is more constructed than the male, and many feminists might agree with me. I think there is much less missing from Gethenian behavior than LeGuin might fear.