Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness

When it first appeared in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness boldly went where few other science fiction novels had gone before. For one, it opened the question of sexual identity, with a new race of humanoid creatures who only took on a specific gender when they went into a sort of sexualized state known as "kemmer." Thus, a single individual could be the mother of two and the father of three -- and, in the interim between, partake of a gender ambivalence that was deeply unsettling to some readers (and indeed to the book's own narrator, Genly Ai. Secondly, and perhaps as a consequence of this curious condition, the political prestige system of Le Guin's imagined planet was unusually subtle and stealthy; its very name -- shifgrethor -- seems to to echo its shiftiness.

In her later writings, LeGuin confessed that she'd thought about coming up with a new, gender-neutral pronoun -- after all, if someone could be he today and she tomorrow and he again the next day, any grammatical term that implied stasis would ring false to the novel's premise. Initially, she defended the use of "he" as the generic pronoun, but later rejected that view; in 1985, working on a screenplay for a film version of the novel, she experimented by using the pronouns a/un/a's to refer to Gethenians not in kemmer, something she thought worked well in speech but would have had a much harder time in print. Today, thirty years later, in the era of spectacularized transgender identities such as Caitlyn Jenner's, language again is troubled; while no set of non- or trans-gedered pronouns has come into general use, many are tried, and the prefix cis -- indicating someone who is culturally comfortable in their assigned gender -- does seem to be making some headway.

But in The Left Hand of Darkness, this aspect of Gethenian culture is but one of many differences; along with Genly Ai, we puzzle and stumble our way through this society, where, although war is unknown, the keystones of arches must be mortared with blood, politicians only invite you to dinner after they've ceased supporting you, and saying almost anything directly is probably a violation of protocol. It's a fully realized otherworld, whose strangeness never quite wears off -- and a long long way from either monks or space-guns!