A Bridge Cemented in Blood (Queering SF #14)
“The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” (Audre Lorde)*
In 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin published The Left Hand of Darkness. By that point in time, Le Guin had published four novels (three in the Hainish SF series, and one in the Earthsea fantasy series) and eight short stories. But this one won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for best novel — the first time that had ever happened?
Le Guin was the daughter of Theodora Kroeber (writer) and Alfred Kroeber (anthropologist). As many a student has noted, it reads like an anthropologist or sociologist might have written it. Not exactly a fair criticism, by my lights, but I can see their point.
Le Guin considered herself a feminist. It shows it in her work. She, along with Joanna Russ and others, fought the fights around representations of gender and sexuality in SF and fantasy for decades. Although a product and a part of the second wave of feminism, her version of feminism never stopped evolving.
According to Le Guin herself, the novel was a scientific experiment. She posited a hypothesis: what would a society look like if the inhabitants had no (permanent) sex? How might it affect gender? Familial structures? Government, politics, war? Reproduction? She set that idea in motion, and constructed the frozen world of Gethen.
The planet is occupied by human descendants (or antecedents) who are adapted to a very cold climate. Scientists from the Ekumen (a loose conglomeration of other human-inhabited planets) studied the planet for several years, wrote their reports. They then, 42 years later, sent a single envoy onto the planet, Genly Ai. He lives among the Gethenians, studies them, and tries to convince them to join the Ekumen. Nearly all the Gethenians distrust Ai, except for the king’s council, Estraven. But for deeply misogynistic reasons, Ai distrusts Estraven.
Apart from the extreme cold, the lack of game animals, the lack of flying animals, and the lack of war, the most salient feature of the planet is that the inhabitants have no permanent sex. Most of their lives, they are unsexed; they have no sex organs, which they call somer. However, they regularly go into kemmer, the state in which their sex organs develop and they can engage in sex and reproduce. Moreover, they do not know WHICH sex organs will develop. It depends on a lot of environmental and social factors, but any given person might be female one month and male the next. That person might impregnate someone one time, and might be impregnated the next.
The effects of that, it would seem, are profound. As a scientist, Le Guin provides field reports on Gethen, folk tales and myths, and other background material for understanding Gethen. In Ong Tot Oppong’s field notes, she writes of these social differences. According to Oppong, Gethenians have no preference for male or female when they enter kemmer. Can you imagine? Is that feasible in a patriarchal and sexist society? In the US in the late 60s, and in the US today, being female has enormous consequences — social, political, personal, financial. On Gethen, none of that is true. No wage gap. No glass ceiling. No sexual assault. Completely different persepctives on childbearing and childrearing. None of the consequences of gender that we see. Oppong notes that, on Gethen, individuals are not seen as “masculine” or “feminine” but, rather, “One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience” (94) [emphasis added]. Indeed, we are so accustomed to these biases, these social norms, that the idea of “giving them up” can be appalling. Through this device, Le Guin signals that Genly Ai, our “eye” into Gethenians and a genderless society, brings our biases to planet.
So, Genly continues to see Gethenians as women and as men, and it takes over a year and a harrowing experience crossing the Gobrin Ice sheet for him to begin to see the Gethenians as something other than women and men. The only term he has for this third gender is “manwoman.” Nevertheless, he comes to love deeply this “manwoman.”
While I love the novel, and my students generally did, too, it is far from perfect. Le Guin has been criticized for her use of the masculine universal pronoun “he” to describe the Gethenians. While she initially defended her choice, she later recanted and agreed that the story would have worked better had Genly used gender neutral pronouns to describe the Gethenians. Consider: the Gethenians are neither male nor female, neither woman nor man. And, yet, Ai can only see them that way. Because he is from Earth, because he holds views about sex and gender from the late 1960s, he sees masculine as the universal and as the preferable. He always views any sign of feminine (as he sees it; “feminine” makes no sense to Gethenians), he views with disgust or suspicion. But as readers, Ai’s viewpoint is our view on the Gethenians, and his perspectives shape our own. I suspect that this was less of an issue in 1969 than it is in 2021. Readers’ views of gender in 1969 were closer to Ai’s than ours are today. My students today have a hard time getting past Ai’s misogyny and don’t understand the “universal” masculine “he.” However, at the same time, reading Left Hand today demonstrates the importance of pronouns. We see how thoroughly Ai’s use of “he” determines our view of Estraven. It makes ta strong case case for gender neutral pronouns.
In addition, Le Guin does not explore the range of sexualities on Gethen. The scientific reports acknowledge that people exist who pre-determine which sex they will be during kemmer. They are viewed as perverts. The reports also note that some Gethenians will be with someone of the same sex, though they are called “half-dead” and marginalized in Gethenian society. We know that human sexuality is varied and multiple. If the Gethenians are of the same stock as humans, then it is likely that they would have a variety of sexualities, as well. For one, Le Guin suggests that the severe climate of Gethen shapes and limits some human practices. So, maybe, but probably not sexual desire. She also focuses here on the reproductive features of the somer/kemmer system. Human sexuality, however, is about much more than reproduction, and Le Guin makes little space for non-reproductive sex on Gethen. And, yet, for readers in 2021, it is a hard conceit to accept. Here, too, Le Guin has noted that she should have made space for a more varied sexuality.
Audre Lorde suggests that simply changing regimes is not enough. Simply ending oppressive situations or structures is not enough. She argues that we must also confront and eliminate the hint of the oppressor within us. That we throw off the old ways of thinking that reside within us. Ai tries, over time, to expel those internalized beliefs that he brings to Gethen — with some success. Lorde’s may seem to be at odds with Le Guin’s dualism, in which “Light is the left hand of darkness / and darkness the right hand of light.” A bit of the other is in you; a bit of you is in the other. I would suggest that The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin, and Lorde all want us to see the human in the other. But they also want us to expel that which prevents us from seeing the other as fully human.
The novel begins with a scene in which the King of Karhide, Argaven, ceremonially completes a new bridge by cementing the keystone. Estraven explains that keystones were once set with mortar mixed with the blood of a human sacrifice. In the logic of the narrative, then, Estraven cements the bridge between Gethen and the Ekumen with his own blood, his own sacrifice. This metaphor seems to apply to all those who have come before in the fight for recognizing gender differences, in the fight for acknowledging sexual difference. For my students today, their understanding of gender and sexuality, their everyday lived experiences are made possible by those who came before them. Not that they willingly sacrificed themselves as Estraven did, but their lives did matter. May we recognize in Estraven’s cementing the bridge of understanding with his own life the path laid down by those who came before us.
*Thanks to the amazing Lysa Rivera for the reminder of this quote.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.