Reading Group: The Left Hand of Darkness

The first time I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness years ago, I focused on the way in which gender, sex, and sexuality were portrayed in the novel and how they affected the ways in which the off-world envoy, Genly Ai, interacted with the people of Gethen.

This time around, I was primed to read the novel with a view to politics.  The Left Hand of Darkness is a novel about gender, but it’s also an exploration of governments and their machinations, and how those involved in politics can destroy one another for personal gain.

As I noted in an an earlier post, Estraven’s view of patriotism is a dark one.  Later in the novel, Ai meditates on the views of this former prime minister of Karhide:

And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, and how that yearning loyalty the had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry.  Where does it go wrong? p. 300

Though Estraven is proclaimed a traitor by his political enemies, we see that he is far from it.  Rather, his attempts to prevent war between Karhide and Orgoreyn– as well as his belief in Ai’s mission–that appear to work against the sovereignty and strength of Karhide are acts of loyalty to the nation.

But even this exploration of patriotism wasn’t the most poignant and politically relevant section in my reading.  Instead, it’s when Ai is jailed, and he is languishing after interrogations near a dying fellow prisoner in Pulefen Farm in the bureaucratic nation of Orgoreyn.   For days, Ai and Asra share tales from their respective homelands.  Ai reveals the differences between the genders and sexual expressions of the people of his planet and those of Gethen:

A night or two after that, he went into a coma, and presently died.  I had not learned what he had been sent to the Voluntary Farm for, what crime or fault or irregularity in his identification papers […..] p. 197

It’s easy to read the second line in light of Texas Senate Bill 6, the “Bathroom Bill,” which, if passed, would legislate use of bathrooms based on biological sex, which the bill defines as follows:

“Biological sex” means the physical condition of being male or female, which is stated on a person’s birth certificate.

Are we facing a time when birth certificates becomes identity papers of a sort?  Ones that are not only descriptive, but that help legislate a type of patriotic ideal?  What unnerves me about politics in the US at present and the supposed “greatness” national and in some cases, state, governments aim for is that this “greatness” implies a homogeneity within the population.  To be patriotic, to love and serve this great nation, implies that one must look like, must act like a patriot.  Any deviation from this “norm” is not merely a personal matter; rather, it’s an affront to the nation.  It’s criminal.  And this is where the purported love of country turns into “so foolish and vile a bigotry.”

As LeGuin asserts in her 1976 introduction to the novel, “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”  That is, SF functions as a way to for the author to present a critique of the world as it is through the lens of speculation and metaphor.  So too the reader brings their present to the imagined future.

Climate Change is Real, Y’all

After the last few days of confirmation hearings, I’m wondering if something’s in the water, or in the environment anyway.  Anyone else think it’s odd that climate change deniers Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, and Rick Perry have all changed course on their total skepticism about anthropogenic global warming?

One can hope that it’s because they’re listening to scientists on this issue.  But I fear other forces may have contributed to these reversals.  I suppose we’ll find out when we see what policies are put into place by the agencies they’ve been nominated to head, and, ultimately, who those policies favor.

Open Book for 19 January 2017

Most recent stack of letters that went out to elected officials.

The most recent stack of letters that went out to elected officials yesterday.  Yes, that’s a Star Trek stamp above the New Horizons stamp. 

Though I’ve been writing quite a bit lately, the bulk of what I’ve written has been to my elected officials regarding the confirmation hearings and the Affordable Care Act, among other things.  The same for reading: it’s all been about proposed bills and potentially disastrous nominees.

That said, I am trying to read more poems, especially political poems.  There’s something energizing about political poems that manage to capture both the urgency of the situation as well as the personal, even if the speaker of the poem isn’t the author.  So it was with this morning’s poem from Rattle, Abby E. Murray’s “Poem for My Daughter Before the March.”

Which brings me to the first of the Open Book posts, in which I ask, “What are you reading?”

From the Archive: Space, Science, Stamps, and Storytelling

Just used up the last of my stamps on letters to elected officials.  Time to order more.  This freethinkingahead.com post on postage stamps is from January 2016.  I’ll order more flag stamps, given my audience.  Though I have thought about going with Wonder Woman next time….

Admission: I buy far more postage stamps than I’ll ever need for the cards and letters I mail. Something about the imagery—these neat presentations of nature and history and culture—combined with the utility of stamps makes them irresistible. To me, anyway. So, of course, I was excited to see the preview of the USPS’s 2016 stamps, specifically the ones that feature present and former planets and the moon.

Messenger stamps, still unopened

Mercury Messenger stamps, still unopened

The images on these stamps are fascinating, but the visuals interested me less than what I’m hoping their presence signals. Given that many in the US Congress engage is so much science denial, for instance, it’s good to see images of the eight planets and Pluto accompanied by information on the missions and technology that made these images possible. We as citizens need to support this sort of research. And putting eye-catching representations of the results of that research on something as public as stamps will, I hope, bring this need to our collective attention, if in a small way.

Here’s where you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about something as trivial as postage stamps, even if they can promote the wonders of science. Letter writing is essentially a luxury hobby engaged in by a rather small subset of the US population. And most stamps won’t be used for letters but for mailing bills and other business correspondence in circumstances wherein the imagery most likely won’t be noticed.

That said, let’s look at another of the 2016 stamps: those celebrating Star Trek. Yes, Star Trek is science fiction, not science. It’s become part of our national mythos, part of the story that we tell about ourselves as Americans. We’re willing and able to go to the moon; we’re contemplating going to Mars. Why not further out? Why not work—peacefully, with other nations, with a focus on discovery—toward the sort of future Star Trek allows us to imagine ourselves in?

This story telling is the sort of conscientious activity that letter writing is: we craft who we are, who we want to be. Sticking a stamp on a letter may be a minor part of that process, but it is very much a part of it. So yes, there are postage stamps with images of planets and information on how those images were obtained, and that’s a good start. But it’s not enough. Quite often, people deny scientific claims for religious reasons, and religions abound with stories that their respective followers can find themselves in. Anecdotes function in much the same way to promote unfounded health claims. What we need as a nation is more ways of getting ourselves individually and collectively into the stories science tells us.

Can a postage stamp do that? Probably not. But it’s a start.

From Around the Web: 16 January 2017

A few links of interest from around the web, plus an update on the reading group:

  • I wondered if this would happen: “John Lewis’s clash with Donald Trump sends the civil rights hero’s book to No 1“.  Yes, it happened.  After hearing about the initial exchange, I reminded myself that I had planned to get a copy of March myself some time ago, but hadn’t yet.  So I’ll be adding to the sales….
  • So much is happening right now in US national, state, and local politics that events can be difficult to follow.  Here’s a useful article from The Texas Tribune on how to narrow your focus: “Analysis: When watching lawmakers, think of the high school cafeteria“: “Here’s a trick for observers who want to keep up with at least some of what’s going on: Figure out which group you want to follow, and then watch what they’re watching. Think of your high school cafeteria: cool kids, nerds, band kids, tough kids, jocks, cheerleaders.”
  • Reading Group: I will have this month’s reading group post up on the 21st for The Left Hand of Darkness.  And as a reminder, the book for February will be Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist, by Lola Robles and translated by Lawrence Schimel.

Q&A with The Future Fire Editor Djibril al-Ayad: Problem Daughters Anthology

The Future Fire, a speculative fiction journal and press, is raising funds for their next anthology, Problem Daughters, to be edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael and Djibril al-Ayad. This intersectional feminist anthology  will contain speculative stories and poems focusing on marginalized women.  Djibril al-Ayad answered a few of my questions about the anthology, and the Q&A is below.  Chip in if you can–it’s a much-needed project in a time when the voices of the authors need to be amplified all the more.

Freethinking Ahead: I’m curious about the title, “Problem Daughters,” as it’s been noted that the “you should care about this woman because she’s someone’s daughter/mother/sister/wife/etc.” argument obscures the personhood of the subject of this argument (as opposed to “you should care about this woman because she’s a person”). How do you see daughterhood functioning in the anthology?

Djibril al-Ayad: That is an interesting question: we hadn’t thought (well I hadn’t, anyway) of the title in terms of the word “daughter” humanizing women, which as you say is a distraction from considering all people human in the first place. Nor do we necessarily expect stories to focus on daughters in a family context (we’re just as interested in featuring mothers and grandmothers, for that matter!) or to take the title literally in any other way. For us, the title started with the word “problem,” both because we were highlighting issues with exclusive feminisms (most obviously the kinds that focus on white woman, or that exclude trans women or sex workers or any other “problematic” category), and because we wanted to problematize feminist conceptions and speculative genres by including stories and voices that are marginalized and excluded by some gatekeepers in one or the other world. We wanted to highlight women, yes, as humans in all their complexity and relation to each other. The word “daughters” came later to our working title, partly I suppose because it has a nice ring to it, echoing “daughters of the revolution” and with connotations such as heiresses, receivers of the baton. Daughters are not always listened to, are often expected to be seen and not heard (and ideally not seen either), but they are the future, they are stronger than their families think, and when they’re willing to make trouble, they can turn everything upside down. (And we need that, don’t we?)

FTA: In light of the current US/UK political climate, some who would have not previously voiced bigoted opinions publicly are doing so, and others who have are feeling more empowered. How might fiction, and in particular speculative fiction, work against this trend?

DA: Yeah, in this dangerous political climate all over the world we need a hell of a lot more than art to fight for progressive values! But I think you’re right that there is a place for fiction in helping to encourage and empower people who push back against bigotry, who believe in inclusiveness and diversity and tolerance. Just as hearing people in a position of power (whether political or in art/media/Hollywood) normalizing fascism is giving courage and voice to an ugly undercurrent of society that has never really gone away, so hearing people speak up loudly and successfully from a variety of platforms in publishing and other arts with a more liberal, feminist, intersectional and social message can help to remind those of us that are terrified by world events that we’re not alone, that there are others who want to hear our voices, that we are also here and strong. In Ursula Le Guin’s words: “If we don’t keep preaching to the choir, the choir will stop singing.” (In this case, of course, it’s not we who are preaching at all—rather we’re inviting the choir up into the public to let the world hear what they have to say.)

FTA: What would you like readers to take away from this anthology? What can they expect?

DA: I hope the first thing every reader who consumed this anthology thinks is, Wow! That isn’t what I expected. I hope the stories blow them away, fill them with fear and wonder, confound them, shatter preconceptions and open horizons. I’m sure every reader will fall in love with some stories and be left shaken (or even cold) by others. I would love readers to come out thinking, This is a story I’ll never forget! For good or for ill. I hope we will all (editors included) learn about experiences and marginalizations and intersections that we hadn’t considered before, as well as recognize problems and personalities and emotions that we thought we were alone in feeling. But we also won’t forget that we’re reading an anthology of excellent science fiction and fantasy—and related genres—and we’ll be carried away by escapist adventure, thrilled by magic and gods and monsters, dazzled by astrophysical and xenobiological mysteries, oppressed by dystopias and apocalypses, terrified by nightmares and tyrants, caught up in struggles of good against evil. Or y’know, maybe even less cliché than that!

FTA: In turn, what do you hope writers—including those whose work is accepted and those whose work isn’t—take away from writing stories aimed at this anthology?

DA: There are a few different ways to look at this question. For one, authors of “own voices” stories—who are writing about marginalizations and intersections of discrimination that they live—already know the issues they face, and have probably written and talked about them before, and don’t need our invitation to work through issues, dreams, utopias, healing, or whatever in fiction. That said, sometimes the opportunity to write something for a particular call can open the floodgates, be cathartic, or lead to new ideas that you might never have written otherwise. I hope it will also be encouraging to have a publication ready to pay 6¢ per word (which is not a living wage, by any means, but it is the SFWA qualifying professional rate) to hear voices that are sometimes actively sidelined and excluded even from feminist venues. For writers who are filling their stories with marginalizations and intersections different from their own (as well as travel to planets they’ve never visited, dragons they’ve never fought, laws of physics they’ve never broken…), I think every time we try to write the other, to walk in differently shaped shoes/look through different colored lenses, we learn to use our primordially evolved empathy that much better.

Defining Patriotism: From The Left Hand of Darkness

While rereading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for this month’s reading group post, I found a quote that seems all too appropriate for the current political climate here in the US.  Estraven, the king’s adviser, asks Genly Ai, an envoy from off planet, if he knows what patriotism is.  When Ai answers that he doesn’t know, aside from love of one’s country, Estraven explains:

“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism.  I mean fear.  The fear of the other.  And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression.  It grows in us, that fear.  It grows in us year by year.  We’ve followed our road too far.”

I’ll have the reading group post up later this month, but I wanted to note this passage before then.  How do we keep ourselves as a nation from following our own patriotic road too far?

From Around the Web: 8 January 2017

A few links of interest from around the web:

  • Roxane Gay has a wonderful essay in Poetry Magazine regarding her appreciation of poetry: “Reading poetry is such a thrill that I often feel like I am getting away with something.”
  • Greta Christina’s post, “Depression and Novelty,” explores the importance of new experiences to those of us who get caught in the loop of harmful moods: “As long as it’s reasonably pleasant (or at least not actively unpleasant), novelty of almost any kind knocks me out of my self-perpetuating spirals, fairly reliably, at least for a while.”
  • In this week’s letter to an elected official, I wrote to my state senator to express my opposition to Senate Bill 6, the so-called “Privacy Protection Act.”  Here’s an article from the Texas Tribune on the bill: “With bathroom bill, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick plows into ‘tough fight’“.  I’ll post more on this in the FREETHOUGHT RESISTANCE blog.

On the topic of writing to elected folks, I may start posting the content of my letters if that would be useful–let me know.  Caveat here is that I’m writing to my Texas state representative and senator, so the content may not always be relevant to everyone who’s writing letters.

This is Not a Food Blog: Spice Cookie Edition

Yesterday brought our first snow here in north Texas in a couple years.  Snow around these parts is never the pretty sort: the shocked brown grass tends to poke through whatever snow accumulates, which isn’t much.  And so it was on Friday.

three spice cookies on a plate

Spice cookies in what appears to be a driver’s license photo.

 

And yet, there’s something nostalgia-inducing about snowfall for me, even though I didn’t spend any of my “formative years” in a place that saw winters that bit harder than light freezes.  There’s something about the sudden silence that fosters a turning inward, perhaps.  Or something about the imagery of snow that is so associated with the holidays this time of year.

Regardless, when the nostalgia strikes, or that particular kind of nostalgia strikes anyway, it’s time to break out the family recipe for spice cookies.  I’ve made my own updates to the recipe over the years–a whole bag of really good dark chocolate chips, oatmeal whenever I can remember to add it in, double the spices.

And like trying to reach back for the origin of the nostalgia, the cookies never turn out the same way as the original, nor do they turn out the same from one batch to another.  Which is what appeals to me about them.  The act of remembering changes the memory; so too the act of baking–the act of creation, really–changes the recipe.  Fortunately for me and all who eat them, they pretty much always turn out decently regardless.

From Around the Web: Coming Home for the New Year Edition

After holiday travel that entailed spotty internet access, I’m happily back home and in front of my trusty PC.  Here are a few links of interest for the new year.  I’ll be back to blogging about SF shortly.

  • The Future Fire, a speculative fiction journal and press, announced the launch of a fundraiser for their next anthology:Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, with a specific focus on the lives and experiences of women of colour, QUILTBAG women, disabled women, sex workers, and any intersection of these.”  I’ll have an interview with the editors of this anthology posted soon.
  • All three editions of Lightspeed‘s People of Colo(u)r Destroy special issues (Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy) are now available.  From their website: “The People of Colo(u)r Destroy special issues exist to relieve a brokenness in the genre that’s been enabled time and time again by favoring certain voices and portrayals of particular characters.”  Also check out the Women Destroy and Queers Destroy series.
  • Since I thought I might be away from the internet a while, I loaded up my mp3 player to catch up on podcasts I haven’t listened to in a while.  Among them were BBC Radio 4’s episode of Four Thought, in which poet Hannah Jane Walker (no relation) “makes the case for being a bit sensitive [….S]he thinks that people should embrace their sensitivity, and not pretend to be tough if they’re not.”  Refreshing listen for those of us who are told (again and again!) that we’re just too sensitive….
  • And speaking of The Future Fire, I have a novelette over there that was published in late December, “Over the New Horizon.”  Pluto, alien signals, conspiracy theories, and the woman at the center of the discovery surrounding them.

All the best to you all for a happy 2017!