sophia_sol: drawing of Combeferre, smiling and holding up a finger like he's about to explain something (Default)
sophia_sol ([personal profile] sophia_sol) wrote2017-06-02 12:20 pm

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K LeGuin

This is one of those books that I've been intending to read for a lot of years, have actually owned a copy of for multiple years, and just could never quite get around to reading it because I kind of got the impression it was the Serious Literature of the SFF world. And okay yes it kind of is that but it turns out it's also very readable!

This book is most well-known and widely-discussed for what it does with sex/gender. Namely: a planet of people who five-sixths of the time are sexless/genderless and also do not experience sexual desire, and the remainder of the time become either male or female for the purposes of reproduction and sexual activity.

It's disconcerting to me then that actually this stuff is what I care least about in this book? I have arguments with its treatment of gender (and sexuality). But I really enjoyed everything else about the book!

It's a great book about the difficulty of communicating, interacting, and building relationships (both politically and personally) across a deep cultural divide. And also it's got really good nature porn in its lavish descriptions of the deadly weather and scenery of the planet Gethen. Gethen is a character in and of itself in this book, really, and a very powerful character with far-reaching influence, and the narrative does a great job of this.

The part of the book involving Genly and Estraven's months-long trek alone across the ice in wintertime is the best part of the book imo because it does a particularly excellent job of focusing on both of what I describe in the above paragraph.

But every time the book tried to talk about what gender/sex/sexuality mean about humanity, I couldn't help mentally arguing with it. And I'm like... at least 80% sure that the reader is supposed to disagree with at least some of Genly's perspectives on this stuff, but even at the end of the book when he's become familiar and comfortable with the Gethen way of being, his narrative pov is still espousing binary and essentialist perspectives. (eg: "he had a girl's quick delicacy in his looks and movements, but no girl could keep so grim a silence as he did," as a description of Estraven's child on one of the last pages of the book.)

Genly keeps on analyzing the Gethenians' cultural differences from him as being entirely based on their different biology, but tbh I was seeing a lot more influence from other factors, like their terribly deadly natural world. A lot of the stuff Genly interprets as being because of the Gethenians' ambisexual nature, to me reads more like the natural variation in human culture. Genly's ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman are VERY much culturally based, but he interprets them as being inherent.

And it's weird how the assumption of the book seems to be that the Gethenians' functional asexuality when they are not in kemmer is specifically because of their lack of gender/sex.

Also oh gosh the way that the book uses male words and male pronouns for the people of Gethen is super uncomfortable, wow. I mean I absolutely believe that Genly would make that choice because he is, uh, not very enlightened, but it made for an offputting reading experience for me, and it really does not allow the reader to properly internalize the fact that you're not just reading about a world of men.

ALSO also, I'm pretty sure that the reader is supposed to feel more in common with Genly, that Genly is supposed to be the kind of everyman viewpoint character who helps to introduce readers to things outside their understanding, but uh *waves* hello agender asexual person here, the people of Gethen during their non-kemmering times make a million times more sense to me than Genly ever does.

So in conclusion I did really enjoy this book, but though I'm sure its thoughts about sex/gender/sexuality were important and relevant in its time, reading it nearly 50 years after publication I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn't been trying to do anything with sex/gender/sexuality. But also I probably wouldn't have ever gotten around to reading it if it wasn't famous for this stuff, and I am glad to have read it. So.
cahn: (Default)

[personal profile] cahn 2017-06-03 02:38 pm (UTC)(link)
I read this book... oh gosh, 25 years ago now! So it was rather more important to my development of sex/gender/sexuality thoughts than if I'd read it this year. :)

*nods* to the male words and pronouns. Le Guin herself regretted that a lot and in a couple of short stories set in the same world, she used the female pronoun and male words (e.g., king, etc.) I do think that got rather more of the non-masculinity across.
pauraque: bird flying (Default)

[personal profile] pauraque 2017-06-05 02:12 pm (UTC)(link)
I first read this when I was a teenager. Though I was aware I had some gender stuff going on by that point, I was surprised to find that the gender aspects were the least interesting part of the book.

To the extent that we're supposed to notice how Genly mentally shoehorns the people he meets into gender roles that don't apply, I guess it sort of works on that level. But the bigger problem to me was that gender ultimately didn't have that much to do with the story, which makes it feel tacked-on — like she had the idea and it seemed cool, but then she wasn't sure exactly what to do with it.

LeGuin is usually very good at weaving sf/f elements into the narrative seamlessly, so I'm not sure quite what went wrong. It's so much more than the jarring use of "he" (which I know she regrets), it's also just the fact that very nearly the same book could have been written, with the same memorable characters, vivid setting, and exquisite prose, but leave out the ambisexuality, and nothing that important would have been lost.