Monday, April 14, 2008

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

After reading a series of politically intense nonfiction books, I recently decided it was time to lose myself in some fiction. Desiring more of an escape than the type of novel I usually read, I picked up a cheap yellow-paged old copy of Ursula Le Guin's science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness and delved into another galaxy.

Written in 1969, the book is considered an early feminist science fiction novel. Yes, I'm a dork. And yes, I know, this totally ups my feminist cred, for better or... worse.

Anyway, my interest in this novel was peaked upon learning the characteristics of the inhabitants of the planet where the novel takes place. To me, what was more interesting than the actual plot, was the fact that the citizens of this remote planet called Gethen are androgynous beings. They have neither a biological sex nor a gender.

We can all make our own predictions of what a sex- and gender-less society would be like. In Le Guin's mind, and what I found most fascinating to think about, is that such a society lacked the capacity for war. (I know, it sounds simplistic and cheesy, but... keep reading). Le Guin's argument is that we, as beings with a (mostly) binary conception of sex and gender, tend to see the world in dualistic and opposing black/white terms. If you are not with us, you are against us. Good and evil. Yin and yang. In a world lacking the binary sex/gender concept that (arguably) leads to this dualistic worldview, the capacity to see an entire group of humans as "the enemy" is non-existent. Where we have a strong sense of "us" and "them" which may be based on the distinctions between male and female, the Gethenians see all people on their planet as "us"- as essentially the same, with no real differences. So, while the inhabitants of Gethen have the capacity for violence, this violence is limited to personal vendettas and other individual acts as opposed to mass acts of war, holocaust, or genocide which depend on demonization of "the other."

That idea is certainly something to think about. Politically, it has been my experience that those most insistent that "inherent differences" exist between the sexes and that the sexes have prescribed roles based on those differences, are those who also tend to have largely dualistic, absolute worldviews. In debate, for instance, they refer to gay people as "enemies of America" or as "worse than terrorists" rather than just as a group of people with opposing viewpoints.

A second interesting point is that Le Guin envisions this sex/gender-less society as being equal. Or, at least, there are no unequal divisions based on the category of "gender." At this point, it's worth mentioning how the Gethenians reproduce. Sex/gender inequality cannot be discussed without mentioning pregnancy, child-rearing, and the act of sex.

Le Guin writes,

"The sexual cycle averages 26 to 28 days.... For 21 or 22 days the individual is somer, sexually inactive, latent. On about the 18th day... the individual enters kemmer, estrus. In this first phase of kemmer he remains completely androgynous. Gender, and potency, are not attained in isolation.... When the individual finds a partner in kemmer, hormonal secretion is further stimulated until in one partner either a male or female hormonal dominance is established." (90)

Gethenians, you see, are androgynous and incapable of having sex (because they lack sex organs) most of the time. One turns into either a male or a female depending on who the partner is. Thus, one month one may become a male, the next month one may become a female. And further,

"Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether they will be the male or the female, and have no choice in the matter." (91)

Because there is no such thing as male or female outside of kemmer, and each person is capable of either sex role, societal sex/gender roles do not exist. Interestingly, the narrator (a male from Earth) refers to all Gethenians as "he." It is unclear whether the narrator believes that males are the "default" Gethenian or whether he is using "he" in the generic sense to refer to androgynous beings. This usage is relevant as it reflects the male-centric thinking of a man from Earth, as he is assuming that a standard being without a sex/gender is the same as a "male" being. This assumption is challenged when a Gethenian asks the narrator what a "woman" is, and the narrator hesitates and realizes he cannot do so. In light of the fact that Gethenians are capable of briefly turning into men or women while retaining the same essential personhood, the narrator seems to realize that the distinction between "male" and "female" was more arbitrary than he thought.

But back to reproduction, because Gethenians can turn into either a male or female sexual being, they can produce a child as either a man or woman. But, since they revert back to androgyny after childbirth, there really is no concept of mother or father. Such a scenario, of course, has interesting implications for parenthood and the claim that a child requires a mother and a father. Does it count if the parent is both a mother and a father? :-) In addition, I wonder if a society in which anyone could become pregnant would take the role of motherhood and care-taking more seriously. I certainly think so. I can imagine the parental leave and pregnancy allowances would be much more lenient if everyone in the world could potentially become pregnant.

Finally, as some brief but interesting notes, Le Guin asks us to consider the following about her invented society: Unconsenting sex is non-existence as, from a physiological perspective, sex is only capable of occuring between two consenting people. In addition, there is no division of humanity between "strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, and active/passive" (94). That whole "tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking" is different on Gethen.

So, now that I'm reflecting back on The Left Hand of Darkness, I realize it wasn't quite the "escape" from political reading that I was searching for ;-) Although fictional, the novel helps me examine our world, our society, and the worldviews that we are trapped within. In her intro to the novel, Le Guin alludes to this as she writes, "Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive." And, even though Le Guin states that she is not predicting a future world where we are androgynous, she observes that in some ways "we already are."

Fiction, it seems, is sometimes more true than "fact."

No comments: