After so many recommendations, I finally read a novel by Ursula Le Guin, a science fiction author who has received quite some positive attention, also by recent anthropologists. I was also lead to her books through my search for feminist sci-fi. After reading that ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ received both the Hugo and the Nebula Award, I decided that this should be a good novel to begin with.
It made quite an impact on me. Le Guin surely is a very skillful writer. Her sentences, dialogues, stories, they are beautiful and intricate. This is literature. The tension builds slowly, which is great for me, so I can actually still do other things while reading, and don’t get completely sucked it. This is a tale of an intercultural and interplanetary encounter. Maybe even an intersexual encounter. Genly Ai is sent on a mission to the planet Gethen, or winter, by the Ekumen, a sort of intergalactic UN, to convince them to join their union. He is on his own in Gethen, a planet with an arctic climate, constantly cold, and a different language, different norms and values. Le Guin paints a vivid picture of this strange culture, governed by shifgrethor, a kind of obscure honor related to responsibility and truth, which are never spelled out, and to kemmer, the sexual cycle. Gethenians are, and here lies the clue that made this book revolutionary in 1969, ambisexual: they are neither man nor woman, but both. They are only sexually active once a month, during kemmer. They can all become pregnant, be mothers and fathers, mostly both. This why there is no gender-based discrimination, obviously. To all this, Genly Ai has to adjust. He feels alone, often, and does not know whom to trust. He is negotiated with, pursued, incarcerated, and freed. He wants to succeed on his mission, strongly believing in the Ekumen. He goes on a long and risky journey through snow and ice with Estraven, a Gethenian, and becomes his friend. When he finally sees his fellow humans again, he is estranged from them, feeling more at home among Gethenians.
The story is told from Genly’s and Estraven’s perspective, interchangingly, and every few chapters a local myth or legend is told. This world of Gethen is built with so much precision and depth, much more than we actually learn as readers. It remains, to a certain degree, obscure.
The relation between Genly and Estraven is developed in a deep way. They become friends, but they never fully understand each other. There remains some holding back, certain values and ways of thinking and feeling remain unclear, and while they fiercely appreciate each other, they remain estranged,
I was a bit disappointed by the ‘feminist’ part of this novel. The outset of the ambisexuality of Gethen’s society does not receive too much attention. On half a page, Le Guin mentions that there was no discrimination in such a society. Apart from this, the central character, Genly Ai, is male, and he refers to all the Gethenians as men, even though he reminds himself from time to time that they are actually also female. He is usually reminded of this fact by some behavior or sight which he finds “feminine”, such as being a bit wobbly, soft, submissive, passive, accepting… not exactly positive traits. Almost all the pronouns used are male. This actually creates an image of a wholly male world, or at least a wholly male story, in which women are only present as negative stereotypes. I found this quite irritating while reading. I guess, however, that for 1969, this was still quite unusual. Today, the novel is just a very good sci-fi novel, which captures the difficulties and ambiguities of interplanetary and intercultural relations in a very sensitive way. Today, I wouldn’t really call the novel feminist.