Sunday, February 5, 2012

Book review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

X-posted to Cannonball Read IV

Genly Ai is visiting the planet Gethen, also known as Winter, as an envoy for the interplanetary council known as the Ekumen of Known Worlds. His mission is to convince Gethen to join the Ekumen, an action which Gethen has refused in the past. A native of planet Terra (Earth,) Genly is struck by stark differences in the political and social customs of Gethenians from those employed elsewhere among communicating planets. He finds a guide and companion of sorts in Estraven, a native Gethenian with an emotional backstory.

Gethenians, as a matter of fact, are sexless, genderless individuals. Once a month, they enter “kemmer,” a time during which they develop sex characteristics unique to one traditional gender, and they mate in what appears to be a pansexual fashion with no steadfast hereto/homosexual preferences. The immediate consequence of this is that gender politics as they are known to us (and to Genly) do not play a role on Gethen, and thus their society is constructed entirely differently from others in the Ekumen. Confounding this misunderstanding is the fact that every envoy sent to Gethen is fundamentally different from Gethenians, both physically and in social understanding. Gethenians who do not cycle through kemmer normally and retain the physical attributes of one distinct sex are their society’s perverts; therefore, though Genly is not ostracized, he resembles Gethen’s perverts and is often referred to as such.

It is said that Le Guin developed this novel in order to explore the idea of what a society might be like if biological sex/gender was removed from the equation. To parallel this idea, the setting of Gethen is, environmentally, how we imagine our Arctic region: constant winter. Without variation in sex or in weather, the inhabitants of Gethen are stripped down to embody and employ only the most essential aspects of humanity.

I had a mixed reaction to this book. I was drawn to the socio-physiological ruminations penned here, as I’ve in the past found myself jaded by unfortunate and stereotypical portrayals of women in science fiction. I admire Le Guin’s efforts in this and other novels to explore gender relations in the context of new and different worlds. I do think there were some interesting points made on that front here, but overall I was not drawn to the main plotline of Genly’s trials and tribulations as envoy to Gethen. Tension between nations, danger in exile, and tested loyalty — hallmarks of epic drama — were all there, but for me overall the pacing was kind of slow and the exposition a bit more flowery than it needed to be. My assessment on the whole is that if you’re interested in the gender idea here or in feminist science fiction in general, this is worth reading, but it’s not in my personal list of favorites.

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