The Juxtaposition Of The Characters In The Left Hand Of Darkness

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

What differentiates science fiction for other genre of literary fiction is its ability to tell stories without the restrictions of the real world. The genre is never compelled to mimic real life in the way realist fiction must do. It has the vitality to create new experiences and the ability to blend them with old. This enables science fiction to make the strange seem new and familiar at the same time. The fifth season and The left hand of darkness are science fiction novels that showcase the propensities of this genre to represent modern society and culture through storytelling methods that are usually unavailable to realist fiction authors.

In a 1993 essay about her novel The left hand of darkness, LE Guin states that she “eliminated gender to find out what was left”. This was in relation to the novel’s plot which follows Genly Ai, an ethnologist from an earth-like planet observing the people of the winter- world Gethen. The Gethenians are described as androgynous beings. They are neuters 80% of the year and only become sexually male or female during the peak of their sexual cycle which is described as the Kemmer cycle. The transformation into either male or female during the Kemmer cycle is entirely random, meaning that an individual can become male in one cycle and be female the following year. These mimic the compulsory aspects of gender in our society as well as the heteronormative coupling that we have become accustomed to. As a science fiction novel, Le Guin’s story metaphorically isolates gender in order to dissect the ways in which men and women are conditioned to behave in accordance to their gender. This is perhaps one of the main advantages of science fiction. Le Guin is able to develop the story and assess a specific issue thoroughly without the reader’s conscious interfering with the narrative. This is because there is an urgency to fill in the gaps when consuming something that seems familiar to the reader. An urgency that is completely eradicated in science fiction.

The novel then incites the reader to question whether one can truly express their sexuality without any social pressures by juxtaposing Gethenians against Genly Ai. The Gethenians are described as both feminine and muscling whilst a previous explorer notes that “A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated [..]. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience” (Le Guin, 1969). The ‘virility’ of a man and the ‘femininity’ Of a woman indicates that there is a dual co-existence of the two qualities that the narrator expected to witness even on a foreign land like Gethen. There is a sense of reward that stems from exhibiting accurate gender expression as it is so closely linked to one’s identity. The closer one’s expression of their gender role is, the more valuable they become in society. As the novel was written in 1969, it is not difficult to understand the narrator’s perception of the Gethenians treatment as “appalling”. The 60s saw the rise of the 2nd wave feminism. Women across the western world were beginning to challenge issues of sexuality, family, workplace and reproductive freedoms that were available to women. Many pioneers of the movement fought for more awareness on domestic violence and marital rape. The movement highlighted the ways in which gender roles are used to maintain and facilitate the status quo. What the narrator finds “appalling” then is perhaps the ease within which the Gethenians disregard gender when it is an aspect that is so essential to his own identity.

Like Le Guin, Jemisin’s Fifth season employs science fiction elements whilst tackling many prevailing social issues in modern society. Throughout the novel, the treatment of the Orogenes as Other by the rest of the inhabitants of the still becomes increasingly more apparent. Their status as powerful beings with the ability to save and destroy humanity drives the main storyline. Though it is not difficult to make a connection between the Othering of the Orogenes and racial discrimination in our society, what is more impressive is Jemisin’s ability to demonstrate the utilisation of systemic oppression to maintain the hierarchy. The societal segregation of the Orogenes and the existence of individual guardians to monitor each orogene allows for a complete dehumanisation of their kind. This is particularly exemplified when Alabaster states that the perception of Orogenes as non-human is just “the lie they tell themselves, so they don’t have to feel bad about how they treat us” (Jemisin, 2015). The enslavement of the Orogenes is beneficial for the people of the still which can explain the lack of any backlash towards the fulcrum’s treatment of young roggas. The forced breeding of the enslaved female Orogenes maintains the presence of the Orogenes, whilst the fulcrum acts as an imperial-like system to ensure the continuous subjugation of roggas. By classifying them as non-human, Alabaster is aware of the futility of hope for an outside intervention. The people of the still get to benefit from the demise of the Orogenes whilst preserving a clear conscious. This mirrors the ways white supremacists have used fabricated science to classify African slaves as lesser beings as the cotton-picking business flourished and enabled America to establish itself as an industrial powerhouse. The suffering of black people was ignored because it was advantageous for the majority of Americans. Finding ways to prove the inferiority of Africans was just a desperate ploy to assuage the guilt of their suffering and enslavement.

As a science fiction novel, The fifth season benefits from its portrayal of the abstract world of the still. The racial classifications of the stills are familiar enough to relate back to real world classifications of racial groups, whilst the world of the stills is foreign enough to allow the author to freely explore racial discrimination without the taboo that often surrounds realist fiction that explores race. Csicsery Roney explains the popularity of science fiction by stating “Since the late 1960s, when it became the chosen vehicle for both technocratic and critical utopian writing, sf has experienced a steady growth in popularity, critical interest, and theoretical sophistication. It reflects and engages the technological culture that pervades modernized cultures” (Csicsery-Ronay, I., Jr 2008). Roney argues that science fiction rose in popularity because of its combination of technological advancement and unique storytelling. Science fiction stories hence became a common ground for authors to discuss sensitive topics without risking the aversion of their readers. This enabled the genre to act as both an escape from reality as well as a lens through which complex ideas could be further discussed. Because of this, Jemisin is able to link the multiple intricacies of the “still” with our own reality without sacrificing effective storytelling.

Similarly, Le Guin’s novel also demonstrates this ability to intertwine the strange with the familiar through Ai’s interactions with the people of Gethen. On Gethen, those who have a permanent gender expression are deemed deviant, which parallels the ostracism of LGBTQ individuals in our heteronormative society. Because Ai is permanently male, and Gethenians only exhibit sexual characteristics when they are aroused, the Gethenians label him as a “pervert” (Le Guin, 1969). Despite Ai’s permanent gender expression being deemed normal in his own planet, in Gethen, he is considered abnormal which Le Guin perhaps portrayed to highlight how the social labels of gender and sexual orientation are created for people to be identified by and not for them to identify as. Ai’s own perception of his gender is deemed irrelevant to the Gethenians who view it as a negative aspect due to its unfamiliarity. Luci Armitt suggests that this is a “necessary process if we are to challenge what are commonly taken for granted as ‘absolutes’ or ‘givens’” (Luci Armitt 1991). Science fiction forces the reader to question this aspect of our social cultures by isolating it against the world of Gethen to create a clearer examination. Ai’ masculinity is only considered abnormal in Gethen because it deviates from the Gethenian’s cyclical gender expression. His label as a “pervert” is not the result of his sexual behaviour, but due to his deviation from the norm. This then highlights the negative portrayal of non-heterosexual orientations in our reality. The specification of certain individuals abnormal is determined by the majority and is not reliant on any observed behaviours or inherent qualities. Through Le quin’s novel, the reader is able to deconstruct some of the seemingly convoluted cultural topics that are often difficult to discuss in realist fiction, without inciting any predetermined views to cloud the reader’s exploration of these ideas.

Through their novels, Le Guin and Jemisin re-imagine cultural normalities and the fixed believes of our society. Through the lens of science fiction, both authors are able to deconstruct and re-examine the layered issues of the modern-day without sacrificing the plot. Their novels present complex characters and strange lands whilst simultaneously questioning our obdurate unquestioning of familiar structures within our own reality.


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