done with actual book one of the online correspondence course I’m taking!

oh, if only my copy looked like that. And came signed with a handwritten introduction (predating the 1976 copyrighted introduction of every subsequent edition, which builds from this friendly scrawl):

“Facts are no more solid, coherant, round and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.”

And so the book begins with a whoosh from Ursula, and we soon descend into the world of Winter. Seen as frightening at the time (probably for casual references to kings becoming impregnated, and having its main character deny many sexual advances from aliens after considering them a couple times), it now reads as more comical than anything else. Modern desensitization teaches us to look at tragedy from a mirror, so this novel becomes a vehicle for wish fulfillment now than any abject horror. Whenever the main character remarks at one of his foreign planet’s inhabitants having both feminine grace and masculine initiative, one is hard pressed to find the horror of this world.

Indeed, the initial public reaction, (incredible interest and a small amount of outright revulsion) really seems to have shifted to the view of Ursula K LeGuin’s cult, who viewed the novel more as an utopian view of the world.

Suddenly, reading this novel, I’m struck by how important gender becomes to these characters, still. As much as the novel can become a polemic for getting men to see their fellow human in their fellow woman, a novel for equality between the genders and seeing them as the same, it is also a novel that, at some parts, celebrates the gender. When the king is described as having babies, they remark that he was no good as a father, but perhaps he may find his true calling as a mother, after having become impregnated. So much for calling him a “king”, the feminists reading this novel for a utopia, cry out.

And the usage of male pronouns in the novel really deserves some attention, because it’s a subtle, brilliant move. (mostly) Told from the perspective of an ambassador visiting an alien planet whose inhabitants only have physical reproductive organs a couple days out of a month, the ambassador has also gathered oral histories of regions from its inhabitants, as well as incorporating the story of a native Gethenian throughout the story.

Really, it reads as field notes more than anything else, so the perspective still rests on ambassador Genly Ai, (pig latin for Guy, right?), although he often wishes other voices would speak for him.

And these field notes come from the voice of a gruff alien, unaware of what to do in his environment. He means well, and he even says he can’t call them “it”s without dehumanizing them. It’s a way of characterizing him, and letting him, (who often refers to characters sitting down as having feminine bovinity, or some other such insulting pellet), of seeing how gender is important to a person as well as the ability to view them as people beyond their (often communally formed ideas about) gender. He knows that it’s important to view them as men to him, just as the Gethenians still cling to distinctions of motherhood and fatherhood in their society.

What’s more interesting is that all of these people are hypothesized (and never clearly dismissed) as an experiment by an advanced alien race that was left behind for others to pick up and visit. Could these people just be conceptualized to prove an ethical (but, ultimately aesthetic) point?

Well, duh. Ursula K Leguin did that. It’s never answered because, as the culture of the novel often intones, “nusuth”, which translates to “it’s best to not worry about it/ccccchhhhhhhilllllll/nevermind”, and often reminds the listener that it is often irrelevant what the answer to the impossible questions are.

Science Fiction that can inspire Paul Klee

Indeed, when asked to say what this novel means, although it certainly has some social importance, I can’t help but be struck by its artistry in describing the human condition. Try as it might to be polemic, Ursula will drip a story that cracks the most socially formed of urns, splintering memories of lucid genderless utopias that spend all their lives in a harsh and cold environment, forcing them to be subsistent. To say that her world building is epic and grandeur, well, you might not believe me because her books aren’t very long.

And yet they have plenty of world to spare. I’m sure that I’ve missed out on Gethenian lore through not remembering the names that connected or paying enough close attention to every small detail in this elaborately embroidered sacred cloth.

Please, feel it for yourself.