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.