Friday, July 17, 2009

The Left Hand of Darkness

I heard there was something asexy about this book, so I read it (which took awhile). The book in question, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, might be the first sci-fi novel I've ever read. Left Hand is about Genly Ai, an envoy from a confederation of worlds called the Ekumen. He's sent to a faraway planet called Gethen in order to pursuade the countries there to join that group. On Gethen, the people have evolved in a unique way in which they are neither male nor female most of the time, and basically asexual. But for a few days a month, they enter "kemmer", in which they develop male or female sexual characteristics and are interested in sex with others and able to engage in it. The rest of the time, they're not interested in sex at all. Whether people take the "male" or "female" role seems to be random, and people switch from month to month.

Gethen has no concept of gender or masculinity/femininity, which Genly, a man from a "bisexual" society, constantly struggles to comprehend. People like Genly are described as "perverts" who are "constantly in kemmer". There's also a bit of an unconventional love story that blurs the lines between friendship and romance. This was the part of the book that most touched me emotionally. I was really pulling for the relationship between these two people, and I won't tell you what happens, but the ending is a sad one. For someone who doesn't like Hollywood endings, I did want them to live happily ever after together. Maybe because in that society, there's no pressure for everyone else to do the same.

Aside from the constantly cold temperatures (people from other worlds call Gethen "Winter"), Gethen is definitely a place I would like to visit, especially the country of Karhide where the book begins. If you're into extremely intricate "worldbuilding", you will love this story. The detail makes you wonder where the book is going sometimes, but you'll become, quite uselessly, an expert on all things Gethenian. LeGuin called her world "a vision of genderless justice" and it does hold elements of wish fulfillment for me. Sex on Gethen, whether you have it or are celibate, is just so matter-of-fact, not mired in all the judgement that we put on it. While some people take a "vow of kemmering" and have a monogamous relationship with that person, there's not a lot of "romance". There's no dating or marriage, and everyone has an equal chance of bearing children. In Karhide, people seem to live in some sort of communal arrangement called Hearths, in which children are cared for. At any rate, you're seen as a person first, not a man or woman-- there's no other way. I know that gender has shaped me, as it's shaped all of us. Could we ever move beyond that baggage? It sounds like a great thing to leave it all behind.


Raymo.E-J said...

Superb! This book is going to the top (20) of my list.

I appreciate such a site with distilled, articulate content. It's inspiring, you're inspiring. One of the things I like most about your site is your name "Asexy Beast".

I'm going to start a blog called Asexy Buddhist, for personal expansion and to contribute to the conversation between Buddhism and Asexuality. Peace.

Again, great stuff! Thanks for the inspiration.

Myself--Who Else? said...

Ily, thanks so much for your review. I had heard of the book but had kind of forgotten about it. Now I know I definitely need to read it.

Ily said...

Aww, thank you Raymo! Looking forward to checking out Asexy Buddhist. MWE, I'd actually forgotten about the book too, it was on my list for a few years before I actually read it. Glad I finally got around to it though!

Raymo.E-J said...

You're welcome :)

just made my first 'legit' post. part 2 (venturing into asexuality) will be up in the morning.

NancyP said...

Subsequent short stories have expanded on Gethenian behaviors around kemmer. Try LeGuin's website, I can't remember the names of the stories offhand.

Ily said...

Interesting, I didn't know that.