Sunday, April 25, 2021

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

It's impressive that a book written fifty years ago (1969) still seems to have fresh ideas to examine about gender identity and gender dynamics. Gender and sexuality was a key theme of a lot of media I grew up on: Friends (1994-2004), Sex and the City (1998-2004), How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014). These shows are hard to watch now; it is cringe-inducing how many jokes in Friends have the punchline of "a man did something stereotypically feminine." Even in more recent media that discuss gender identity, such as Orange is the New Black (2013-2019), the conversation starts premised on the idea that the social construct of gender exists and will always exist.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, we explore a world where the very concept of gender is literally alien. In Gethen, the humans are ambisexual, sometimes taking the male role in reproduction and sometimes taking the female role. Genly Ai, the alien envoy to Gethen from the rest of the human race, is a man who grew up steeped in the sometimes toxic social constructs of gender dynamics, and isn't able to recognize the bias he brings to his ambassadorial attempts. The people of Gethen call him a 'pervert' because he is always fertile and always in a male form, but even this term doesn't have quite the same amount of negativity as it would in our world. They're suspicious of him from a political view, but overall quite accepting of his physical differences. The people of Gethen make social mistakes too but they are in assuming that he has the same concept of honor and shame as their own.

I loved this exploration of a gender-free society, and the implications this has for social organization. If anything, I wish we saw a little more of it. Fewer political dinners, more Genly hanging out with the common folk, particularly with Gethenians in stereotypically womenly positions. I found the choice to use male pronouns for all the Gethenians to be a little odd; it isn't simply Genly imposing male identities, Estraven uses these too. (Although, I suppose, it is Genly translating Estraven's diary; perhaps there is a reasonable in-world explanation for this.)

Woven in with the commentary on gender, there are also meditations on nationalism and loyalty, and on "first contact" and how to approach it thoughtfully. For example, a single envoy is sent, which Genly realizes is not just because a single person is nonthreatening, but because if an envoy is sent with colleagues, there is always an "us" and a "them." When a person is sent alone, they must to some sense integrate into the social organization of the new world, and allow it to change them along the way.

I was lukewarm on the story itself until Estraven and Genly began their trek across the wild from the labour camp to Karhide. The story of the two people, both exiles and aliens in a sense, learning about each other and forming a friendship was beautifully told. Their intimate conversations in the tent about their experience of gender reminded me of similar conversations I've had with guy friends. I was a little heartbroken at Estraven's death. I was surprised that at the end Genly hadn't fully shed his own notions of gender norms. For example, he sees a young child that hes describes as looking feminine but remarks that no girl would be so untalkative. Perhaps the commentary here is that your social training is hard, if not impossible, to unlearn.

This is not to say the book aged perfectly. There was a line about how sex drive is necessary to be human (although it was the flawed Genly who posited this, I think). The use of male pronouns also seems a bit dated or odd. But overall, I thought it was an excellent read.

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