When I think back to my Women’s Studies classes in college, I remember one professor talking about how we perform our gender every day. I’m going to be simplifying this a lot more than the entire week we took discussing it in class, so forgive me. Each person’s sex is, of course, either male or female regardless of how someone chooses to act or dress. But being a man or a woman is a gender performance as much as it is an identification. This is a really striking thought that is part nature, but also results from what our culture nurtures. Little girls are taught to wear dresses and are told they are cute and pretty and little boys are dressed in camouflage and are called “buddy” or “tough guy.” Almost from birth we program people to act and look a certain way based on their gender.
But what if gender didn’t exist? How would a culture look and act if there were no men or women, only humans? This is the primary question that Ursula Le Guin raises in her fascinating book, The Left Hand of Darkness. The story takes place on the planet of Gethen, called “Winter” by outsiders, because of its extremely cold temperatures. It begins many tens of thousands of years into the future when humans have colonized innumerable planets in the galaxy. The colonizers of Gethen, however, experimented with genetic manipulation and created a sub-species of humans that are completely hermaphroditic. All people are born with the potential to become either male or female. Adults come into a monthly period of fertility where they become either the male or the female. As one partner changes to female, the other would change to male. If a child is conceived the female continues the pregnancy and breastfeeds the child, but the male would revert back to the hermaphroditic state after mating. Each individual does not always become the same gender either, so the same person can both sire children and become pregnant at different times.
The main characters in the book, are Genly Ai, an envoy from a consortium of planets that is trying to make contact with the Gethenians to share information and technology, and Estraven, a Gethenian native whose motives are misunderstood at the beginning of the story. Ai, being a human male, is perceived to be a “pervert” in Gethenian society because he is always in the male state, which to them is unnatural. He is also taller, stronger and darker skinned than most Gethenians, and they do not know what to think of him. Estraven starts out as Ai’s “sponsor” of sorts in one of the Gethenian kingdoms, but when the king banishes Estraven as a traitor, Ai must also head to another kingdom in search of a leader that will listen to his unbelievable claims of other planets, spaceships, and worlds beyond Gethenian imagination.
An adventure begins, as our protagonists must escape persecution and prosecution. They travel from kingdom to kingdom, and across a glacier to find a willing ear to hear Ai’s story. It’s a survival story and a friendship story as much as it is a course of gender studies. As these two characters traverse the planet, they learn about each other’s cultures. We learn several things that are unique on Gethen. Unlike most humans who learn to value themselves in terms of being male or female, Gethenians do not have that distinction, so people are valued for their qualities as a human being. And even more interestingly, the Gethenians have no word for war. There is no rape, no seduction, no sexual abuse. It simply doesn’t exist for them.
It does make you wonder what life would be like if that whole part of our lives didn’t exist. I remember a joke I heard once: What would the world be like without men? A bunch of fat, happy women and no crime. Of course the Gethenians aren’t fat on the whole, and they have their fair share of crime, but the gender issue was one of the most fascinating parts of this story. As Ai and Estraven become friends and start to explain their world to each other, Ai tries to describe how women are in his world. I’d never thought how you would describe the opposite sex to someone who would have zero frame of reference. Of course in our world this is irrelevant, but the idea was thought provoking. On the whole, this was a great adventure story made even greater by its unique setting.
Ratings (For an explanation of my rating factors, please visit the Rating System Key page.)
Crack Factor – 8.5.
Distraction Factor – 9.5. The gender identification issues in this book are so thought provoking that you’ll remember this book when you hear a news story about transgender people, watch Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars, or otherwise encounter gender identification questions, issues, stories and etc. in you own life.
PeopleFactor – ?. The characters are usually my favorite part of any book. I love strong, rich characters that are well described and well understood. This doesn’t feel like a character book to me. It seems more about the journey these characters take.
Story Telling Factor – Like many sci-fi books, the reader is pretty lost throughout the first umpteen pages, as the setting is established. That part of a sci-fi book always bugs me, and this book is no exception. Getting thrown into a world of make-believe is irritating when you feel more lost than amazed, and I felt lost for longer than usual in this book. With that said, for being written more than 40 years ago, I only found a few instances where the content felt “dated.”
Writing Skills Factor – 8.5. Le Guin’s style is more complex than most writers, which I enjoy. This is not an easy, brainless read. It makes you work. It makes you think.
Bad Ass Babe Factor – 9. There are zero women in this book! But I don’t think I can mark it down for that. So the BAB factor here is given to LeGuin, whose intellect, creativity and writing skill shine brilliantly in this story.
Total Rating: 8.875