Before Sweden made their gender-neutral pronoun, there was Le Guin.

In season 2 episode 3 of Literary Punk we’re discussing Ursula K. Le Guin’s SF Fantasy experiment in post-gender politics, The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969. I’m joined in the podcast studio by the much admired previous Literary Punk guest: outstanding Melbourne writer and SF scholar, Chris Palmer. True to form, Palmer’s luminous reading of this text will delight both fans of Le Guin’s work, as well as those of you who’ve never encountered either feminist Science Fiction or Fantasy literature.

In the 1987 Modern Critical Interpretations collection of essays featuring The Left Hand of Darkness, literary critic Harold Bloom argues, “Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time.”

scan0015 (2)Le Guin’s novel is much awarded, and also controversial for its use of language concerning the gendered honorific and pronoun. The colonising ‘module’, Genly Ai, refers to all Gethenians as ‘Mr’, and this despite their gender-neutral orientation. It’s a stylistic device that the author has revisited in the introductions to successive reprints of the text.

Chris Palmer and I discuss how this apparent gendering conflict within the novel, along with other ambiguities and fallibilities, enact Genly Ai’s Terranly discomfort at letting go of ideological structures surrounding his own dominant sexual power; as Palmer puts it in his brilliant reading: “The narrative is insatiable. Nothing is irrelevant. It wants to include and imagine everything.”

In tension with Genly Ai’s more obvious project to modernise Winter by friendship-as-stealth, we consider how his unconscious resistance to non-gendered intersubjectivity displays the darker side of his goal: the default othering that comes embedded in the violence of his (and our own) phallocentric-sexed (“Pervert”) language system.

“The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” Le Guin, Introduction to the 1976 edition

This is a work of fiction that gives you philosophy as story: “Truth is a matter of the imagination” (1994, p9). In the novel the outlawed hero of the tale, Lord Estraven, says of the compelling need for all Gethenians to get with the times and incorporate difference: “What does it matter what country wakens first? So long as we waken.” Chris and I discuss what Le Guin’s truth as story has woken in us; the way her narrative has changed the way we think about gender and sexual politics, life and death, and storytelling, possibly in ways that are difficult to articulate.

“Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different…But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.” Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to the 1976 edition.


 [Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, Great Britain: Orbit, 1969.]

Image: Winter, © H. Milte, Olinda, Australia, 2008.