I write this as Juno the blizzard wreaks havoc outside. It has been almost a week since I finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and I can’t help but feel that we have suddenly been transported to that far away planet, Winter, where our sexes don’t exist, at least not permanently.
The story, told in first person, follows an envoy, Genly, that arrives on Winter, representing an association of planets, The Ekumen, which wishes to have Winter join their league of nations. Though the Ekumen promises the transfer of knowledge and technology, it means very little for the people that survive on Winter’s icy and unforgiving surface.
I have spoken about the fantasy and science fiction elements of the novel in a previous post- how Ursula creates an isolated world without technologies on Winter and the science fiction one of the Ekumen.
Ursula succeeds in immersing us in a world where people war over land and power unaware of the larger universe and its people. Sprinkled with parables, legends, and notes of Winter, the book is slow and steady in its pacing.
Though I know the political questions- those of Winter joining the league of nations-like Ekumen are important- the most intriguing component of the novel was the love between Genly, the envoy, and Estraven, an alien politician of Winter. Their journey through Winter across mountains and precipices was beautiful and mysterious. What would it be like to meet a being whose sex was undefined until the moment of copulation? They spend hours together in the same tent and not even a kiss comes of it.
The love story at the center of the book is what really mattered to me, and I almost wish Ursula had developed it more rather than focus on the political questions of the world. What can I say- I’m a hopeless romantic that believes humans and aliens should have the right to marry and procreate.
While the political tectonic shifting was interesting, it mattered little in the face of burgeoning love between human and alien. The scene where Genly and Estraven emerge from the Winter wilderness and look back at the glaciers and crags of their journey only to realize that it is over was truly magnificent and heartfelt and sad.
It would be unjust to not talk about the absence of sex on Winter and the reading experience. Ursula’s thought experiment sometimes had strange effects on me because I caught myself imposing sex on Estraven and the narrator, often in unexpected ways. For example, I sometimes thought the narrator Genly was a female since I knew that Ursula was writing it, and I often fixed Estraven as a male even though the biological mechanics of Winter contradicted that. As I experienced this desire to impose a sex on characters, I realized what a powerful and mysterious and dangerous thing our binary ways of thinking can be. What kinds of prejudices and biases do I, without acknowledging it or even being aware, impose on females and males.
The power dynamics between males and females are apparent in the workforce, where men have less to worry about it in terms of harassment and sex appeal. We just throw on a suit and go to work. Even before I interact with a woman, what kind of ideas are already at play?
The only thing I can liken the issue of sex to is that of race. Ursula creates a world where sex doesn’t matter, but our minds are programmed to give it importance. I have often wondered what it must be like to be white and not think about race on a day-to-day basis. Being able to pass like the narrator in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man could be likened to the sexless world of Winter. Despite how conscious we are of our actions, the schemas and prejudices our mind imposes elude our understanding though they persist in their ability to color our world.