Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

left hand of darkness

There is a scene in 2007’s The Jane Austen Book Club where Maria Bello’s character, having stayed up all night reading a sci-fi classic recommended by Hugh Dancy’s character, drives to Dancy’s house in the pre-dawn hours to rave about how awesome it was and how much she regrets not reading it sooner. The context of this conversation is that Dancy, your prototypical geeky science fiction aficionado, has over the past few months been attending the Austen book club of which Bello is a member, even though he plainly doesn’t perceive the appeal of Austen. During this time he has repeatedly urged Bello to read his favorite book, going so far as to lend her a copy. Bello, whose primary objective in roping Dancy into the book club is to set him up with her newly divorced friend, is oblivious to his interest in herself – both on a romantic and an intellectual level. The film figures her decision to finally pick up Dancy’s book as a gesture of remorse but also of good faith – her way of saying that she’s ready to stop telling him what to do (thou shalt read Austen) and engage in an genuine conversation. The name of the book is The Left Hand of Darkness.

I am here to talk about genre; about what it is and isn’t capable of telling us about books and the people who read them. Austen’s fans are notorious for the intensity of their zeal; not, however, because they tend to be any more zealous than LOTR fans or Star Wars fans. Why is it that when a bunch of women like something, their passion renders them hysterical and possibly psychotic (see also: Twilight)? Why don’t franchises with a predominantly male fanbase see the same aspersions cast in their direction? Aja Romano describes the polarization of Inception fandom into “the mostly male side that congregates at forum-based sites like Nolanfans, and the largely female side that produces fanwork on LiveJournal, Tumblr, [and] Archive of Our Own.” This is, incidentally, an accurate overview of ASOIAF fandom, where the unrelenting misogyny of the westeros.org forums is legendary. My question is not, Do men and women gravitate towards different types of discussions about the media they consume? I think it’s pretty clear that they do; and that while women write plenty of mind-blowingly good meta, you don’t find a corresponding number of (straight) men writing fan fiction. That gender roles play a huge role in determining our interests is not news. Typically, girls who excel at traditionally male activities gain prestige as “one of the guys,” while engaging in traditionally female activities appears to be, for boys, a surefire way to commit social suicide. We are conditioned to see the genres of romance and speculative fiction as not just appealing to different demographics, but as eliciting different forms of discourse: fans of Austen and of LeGuin don’t engage with the text the same way. Such a comparison, which casts these writers as representative of their genres, is also complicated by the fact that Jane Austen boasts a robust literary reputation that few romance novelists enjoy; that Ursula LeGuin wrote a book about an ambisexual alien species in order to interrogate (among other things) the “naturalness” of gender as a social and biological category. Yet if The Left Hand of Darkness is a seminal work of feminist science fiction, Austen is no less the site of animated feminist criticism, both popular and academic. The notion that LeGuin (or maybe sci-fi in general) is somehow the antithesis of Austen is ridiculous. Let me be clear: The Jane Austen Book Club is not implying that women should stick to romance and men to sci-fi. But it is obvious that the Regency romance is Bello’s natural habitat as a reader, just as Dancy is at home among works of speculative fiction. It’s like the screenwriters sat around tossing names into a hat called “Which of these things is least like Jane Austen” and the consensus was “Ursula LeGuin duh.”

So having established that people who enjoy Austen and people who enjoy LeGuin are frequently the same people (how is this even surprising?! they’re both canonical works), I’ll turn to the book itself. The Left Hand of Darkness is often hailed as a novel that explores Big Ideas – yet this does not mean it lacks the quality of interiority that characterizes Austen’s fiction. In the preface to this edition LeGuin contends that “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” Like all literature, it aims to be descriptive of human nature, which generally means human relationships. LeGuin gives us, in The Left Hand of Darkness, the story of an epic friendship: Our narrator, Genly, is the (male) envoy to a planet inhabited by ambisexuals; Estraven is an enigmatic local politician who may be Genly’s greatest ally (he may also be planning to get Genly tortured/incarcerated/exiled). Genly is eventually incarcerated through none of Estraven’s doing; Estraven rescues him and their escape route lies across 700 miles of glacier in the dead of winter. In the course of this hike they become bros. They join Western literature’s pantheon of notable bros (cf. Arthur and Lancelot, Holmes and Watson). This is the kind of friendship that the phrase “blood brothers” was invented to describe.

Actually the word “brother” has multiple valences here. The motif of brothers – actual people who share genetic material through their common descent from one or more parents – kept cropping up in the interludes towards the beginning of the book, which are narrated in the mode of fairy tales or myths in the oral tradition. So we get all these stories about brothers whose relationships were in some way socially transgressive, and then we begin to find out more about Estraven’s deceased brother, whose death marked Estraven’s ascent into the role of Tragic Hero. Because you can’t have a Tragic Hero without a Tragic Doomed Romance. Of course, when the text says “brother” it really means “sibling” because everybody on this planet is androgynous except during the time of month when they come into kemmer: at that point they pick a partner and literally fuck for days. Although the presence of a partner hastens the process of coming into kemmer, it’s impossible to predict which partner will develop into which sex. You could be a male this month, impregnate your partner no big deal, and next month turn into a female and pop out a baby yourself. I mention this because the logistics of babymaking is a super salient factor in the way our society is organized – childbearing/raising is labor, even if it has not historically been recognized as such by men who haven’t had to do it. Here is an extraterrestial visitor (not Genly, a different one) musing on the implications of the unique physiology of the inhabitants of the planet Winter: “The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be ‘tied down to childbearing,’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere.”

So yes, Big Ideas abound in this book. My particular interest in bros, however, is informed by a culture where brotherhood is inflected by gender. Just say the word “sisterhood” out loud, and you’ll see what I mean. Wildly different connotations, no? Women’s relationships with women can never approximate the dynamic of men’s relationships with each other, and women’s relationships with men are always distorted by the elephant in the room, namely SEX. LeGuin draws attention to this when she introduces a relationship that has all the traits of brotherhood, and yet technically it isn’t because technically Estraven is both a man and a woman.

Some time ago a friend of mine reblogged a gif of X-Men: First Class’s Charles Xavier cuddling with Raven (Mystique), with the commentary #bros before hos #i will never not be bitter about him leaving her for erik. First Class is, of course, the story of how Charles befriends Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and how together they hatch a plan to save the world. In the process Charles alienates his childhood BFF, Raven. To say that some people ship Charles and Erik is involves about the same level of understatement as saying some people ship Kirk and Spock. And to reconfigure Raven and Charles as the “bros” to Erik’s “ho” is to subvert the gender politics that urge us to prioritize “bros” before “hos” in the first place: how can a boy and a girl be bros? Colloquially such usage is common, but when you say “Me and X and bros” and one of you is a girl, you are extrapolating from a relationship between males. That relationship lays the template for yours. So yes, girls can be bros – but only if their relationships reproduce the dynamics of the normative male-male bond. What we get, then, is a pale imitation of brotherhood. I’m not satisfied with that. Ursula LeGuin, bless her soul, picks this problem apart and shows us other possibilities.

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