Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
On Strangers and Strange Lands
By Roxanne Fequiere
Nearly everyone who offered science fiction recommendations mentioned Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness—even people who hadn’t actually read it. It seemed that this was the only place to start.
Once I had the paperback in hand, I made the mistake of flipping to the back of the book. I’d only meant to verify how many pages it contained—and therefore, how quickly I’d need to move through it—but I ended up discovering “The Gethenian Calendar and Clock.”
“The Yomeshta count in 144-year cycles for the Birth of Mesthe (2022 years-ago, in Ekumenical Year 1492) and keep ritual celebrations every twelfth year, but this system is strictly cultic and is not officially employed even by the government of Orgoreyn, which sponsors the Yomesh religion,” it read. Excuse me?
There were Gethenian names for months—Thern, Thanern, Nimmer, Anner—and even names for the days of the month—1, Getheny; 2, Sordny; 3, Eps; 4, Arhad. My God, did I need to know all of this in order to comprehend the story? I began to panic.
Luckily for me, the book starts off only moderately disorienting. Genly Ai, the book’s protagonist, has been on the planet of Gethen for two years. That is, long enough to make passing jokes about otherworldly instruments, but green enough to have to ask why keystones are locked into place with red cement. (It’s because the cement is mixed with blood.)
Ai’s done his homework, but he’s still learning. I clung to the opening chapter’s descriptions, trying my best not to dwell on the bits that didn’t make sense to me at first glance. From there, the story settles into one of political intrigue. Ai can’t be certain who is friend or foe in this foreign land, and nearly every conversation he has is tinged with halting caution as he attempts to win over the government of Karhide.
There are arrests and border scuffles and exile and parliamentary-style gatherings, but of course, I’m burying the lede. Genly Ai is a human man on a planet populated by beings with no fixed sex. As far as he knows, Gethenians are the only race of people that possess this physical peculiarity, and while he refers to most of his acquaintances with male pronouns, he associates their emotional moments with femininity.
Since the ambisexuality of the planet’s inhabitants was mentioned in every summary of the novel, I expected it to play a key role in the plot. I imagined that Ai would fall in love with one of the planet’s inhabitants and be forced to confront his own sexual fluidity, or perhaps that a government official’s leadership style might shift during the monthly mating cycle, altering Ai’s fate. Instead, Gethenians' unique biology mostly functioned as a comprehension obstacle for Ai, and by extension, me. Once he settled into referring to a certain Gethenian as a man, I'd also forget that that term didn't quite sum up that person's entire being.
After The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969, some critics took umbrage at this reliance on established, gender-fixed pronouns, but I found it to be fairly realistic. Who among us hasn't flattened the nuances of a travel experience a bit in order to more effectively share our story later? “The soundest fact my fail or prevail in the style of its telling,” Ai says at the book’s start.
When I first laid eyes on Paris, I was 19 and eager to drink up as much French culture as the city would allow. A month later, I was shocked at how eager I was to get back to the United States. I’d been (very politely) robbed by a vagrant, threatened at a nightclub, and scolded in all seriousness for not drinking wine. I’d visited homes filled to the brim with offensive slave portraits and figurines. My classmates were brought to tears by their hosts’ callous commentary on their home countries, their life plans, their politics.
Still, I’d also marveled at museum exhibits, danced until dawn, gorged myself on delightful meals, and enjoyed several Parisians’ genuine and unchecked enthusiasm over the then-potential presidency of Barack Obama. Which version of my experience do I reveal when someone asks me about my first time in France? Well, I usually pick one or the other, depending on how I feel. Years after writing The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin herself referred to Genly Ai as “conventional” and “stuffy.” So goes his record of events.
At one point, having crossed the border from Karhide into neighboring Orgoreyn, Ai finds himself at a lunch with various politicians, one of whom attempts to give him the lay of the land: “The fellow named Mersen is a spy from Ehrenrang, and Gaum there is an open agent of the Sarf, you know.”
“I had no idea what the Sarf was,” Ai remarks, recalling the conversation. Neither did I, but it was somewhat comforting to be figuring it out alongside a character who was doing the same. If someone were to ask me about the finer points of Gethenian mating cycles, I would probably be unable to get too specific—despite having just finished the book. As for the feeling of arriving in a new place and having it exceed and fall short of your expectations at the same time? That, I can certainly wrap my mind around. A small sci-fi victory for this reader, but I’ll take it.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.