Friday, July 24, 2009

Book 39: The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

In my junior year of college, I got a great job. The theater department had gotten a grant to create an acting troupe. Work study. Other departments could then bring us in to perform in classrooms as a teaching tool. We were to be called 'ETC', the Educational Theater Company' and 6 of us made the squad.

I think I made $1,000. I only remember one scene.

A science fiction class was reading 'The Left Hand Of Darkness' and wanted to have some of the information presented as a debate. Three of us had to quickly read the book and dissect the chapter in question into a 'scene'...needless to say, we had a blast.

What started as a job quickly became an obsession for all of us. The book tells the story of Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen, a new ruling group which is based in equality and social order. There are planets that had once been part of the empire that have fallen out of contact with the rest of interplanetary society so envoys are sent to observe in secret before trying to reintroduce these runaways back into intergalactic community.

Long story short. Genly Ai goes to observe a planet where the inhabitants have a very unique sexuality. They go into a kind of 'heat' 2 days out of every 26. For most of the time they are androgynous and asexual. But on those 2 days they morph into either male or female form. One month they might be male, the next female. The father of one child could be the mother of many more.

This book has continued to resonate in my heart almost 20 years later even though I remember NO details of the plot other than that one.

LeGuin, in inventing this different mode of sexual living, points out just how fixed and trapped we can be in our own version. This isn't judged, merely presented. The complications that arise in this book are COMPLETELY impossible here. Imagine. You meet someone. You like them. For almost a month you get to know them. The moment of transformation occurs and you may be the male, you may be the female. But your knowledge of that person HAS no sex attached to it, the sex is completely OTHER. Which, when you think about it, is not all that foreign at all.

We met in dingy college rehearsal rooms and hashed out three different characters who were debating the information brought back by Genly the observer. One of us was a functionary, determined to keep his conservative view of sex and sensuality. One of us was a purely scientific mind who merely wanted to investigate the information as dispassionately as possible. And the third, I think, was a more artistic soul who was interested in the emotional aspect of this anomaly above all.

We were also in the middle of rehearsing 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' (see 'As Datchery I Did My Bit' elsewhere on the blog for an amusing anecdote on that subject) so my friend David and I had big mutton chops and long unkempt hair that could be slicked back to approximate Dickensian style. This added to our alien appearance since this was before grunge swept the nation and shagginess became chic again.

Imagine if you will a classroom of sci-fi literature nerds seeing us sweep in wearing robes and hotly debating 'kemmer', the 'Ekumen', 'mindspeak', and Genly Ai's relationship with Estraven, especially what happened out on the ice when Estraven 'transformed' during his 'heat' period and Genly Ai was the only other being around...

And the State paid for it! I love America.

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