Thanks for tuning in! After a brief hiatus, I'm officially back and better than ever. I hope you missed me, because I sure as hell missed all of you.
In this episode of The Time Machine, we're going to be taking a look at the 1960s: a time period in American history that saw absolutely no political turmoil or social upheaval. Nope, none whatsoever. And being such a calm and peaceful time, naturally, the science fiction literary genre followed suit.
I hope you picked up on my sarcasm, because this month’s episode, and its corresponding decade, is a doozy. When we left off back in Part V, the science fiction literary genre had just made its way through the Golden Age, a time period driven by pre- and post-war concerns over atomic bombs, space travel, and complete global destruction. The science fiction written during this time was altogether more scientific and specialized than the “pulp” writing of the 1920s and 30s. But as with any age deemed “Golden”, this too must come to an end.
The New Wave
Enter: the 1960s, and with it, the New Wave of science fiction–a time period marked by literary experimentation, both in substance and style, and a rejection of the “hard” sciences of the Golden Age. As the Western world was diving head first into sexual liberation, civil rights, anti-Vietnam War protests, and the rise of the counterculture movement, science fiction was taking notes from the avant-garde style of modern and post-modern literature in an effort to produce a darker and edgier approach to the unexplored and future worlds that we inhabit.
As is with everything that I write about in this column, the true origins of the New Wave are contested. However, Michael Moorcock’s science fiction literary magazine New Worlds, which was responsible for publishing a significant amount of New Wave fiction, made quite the impact on the movement. Some other notable contributors to the movement (from both the 1960s and the 70s) include: James Tiptree Jr./Alice Bradley Sheldon (Up the Walls of the World); Joanna Russ (Picnic on Paradise, We Who Are About To…); Judith Merril (England Swings SF anthology); Harlen Ellison (Dangerous Visions anthology); Samuel Delaney (Babel-17), J.G. Ballard (The Drowned World, Crash); and William S. Burroughs (Nova Express).
Overall, the 1960s produced an overwhelming list of science fiction that is widely recognized today (and that may or may not be associated with the New Wave): Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon. Also of importance is my personal introduction to 1960s science fiction: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang.
With all of the incredible works listed above, it was difficult to narrow my focus down to just one author. Yet, after months of covering the the male-dominated Golden Age, I figured it was time for a lesson in feminist science fiction. And who better to take us through that lesson than science fiction powerhouse Ursula K. Le Guin and her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness.
Feminist Science Fiction
While the liberating nature of the 1960s made it ripe for feminist discourse in literature, feminist science fiction was certainly not limited to that decade. It has a long history that began well before the 60s, including notable pieces that I have discussed in prior episodes (e.g., Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World), and it continued to have an impact on the genre well beyond the 60s (e.g., Margaret Atwood's 1985 feminist dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale). However, the 1960’s New Wave of science fiction just so happened to coincide with second-wave feminism. For those of you rusty on your feminist history, the second-wave feminism of the 1960s moved beyond the first-wave focus of women’s suffrage in favor of more critical examination of male-dominated institutions, along with issues surrounding the family/domesticity, reproduction, and sexuality. The movement was propelled forward by important works such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the journalist work of Gloria Steinem, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
On the science fiction front, the second-wave feminist and the New Wave movements provided a platform for the genre to begin exploring some of these same concepts. Specifically, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, along with Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, used classic science fiction plots (other worlds and alternate dimensions, respectively) to examine gender by situating their stories within genderless societies. While the concept of gender as a social construct wasn’t solidified until much later (see: West and Zimmerman’s  Gender and Society article, “Doing Gender”), social constructionism was very much one of the predominant social theories in the 1960s. For science fiction authors, this meant the opportunity to challenge the commonly-held social and gender roles by bravely, and simply, asking why? Why are things the way that they are? And why can’t we change them?
In the afterword to the edition of The Left Hand of Darkness that I read (which was also republished in The Paris Review), science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders perfectly captures the role that science fiction plays in our collective liberation: “A huge part of the value of a science fiction story like The Left Hand of Darkness is that it allows you to imagine that things could be very different. And then, when you come back to the ‘real’ world, you bring with you that sense that we can choose our own reality, and the world is ours to reshape."
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books that makes me feel really dumb. Let me explain. This book is a classic. American author Ursula K Le Guin is a literary genius. Regrettably, the book is slow enough at the outset, but so highly regarded in the annals of science fiction, that when you struggle to really get into it, you're apt to think that the problem lies with the reader rather than the material. Maybe I'm just not smart enough to read Le Guin? With two failed attempts under my belt, I decided to finally see it through to the end. It turns out that the story picks up quite nicely in the second half. Plus, one of my good friends, whose intellect and opinion I greatly trust, was quick to recommend Left Hand. So, I forged on… and I’m glad that I did.
Told mainly from the perspective of Genly Ai, a human envoy from a coalition of inhabited planets, The Left Hand of Darkness reads as a sociological or anthropological treatise of space travel. Even though his stated goal in visiting Gethen (the novel’s setting) is to convince the nations of the planet to join the Ekumen (the coalition), Genly takes on the role of the participant observer. He lives in and studies his new world and its people, all the while trying to reconcile their culture not only with his own, but also with his preconceived notions of what culture should be. The biggest shock to Genly? The people of Gethen are ambisexual: they are sexually neither male nor female. Once a month they enter kemmer, a period of sexual reproduction where individuals develop traditionally male or female sex organs and characteristics in a way that is mostly random and is not fixed throughout life. Genly, whose particular race of human adheres to the rigid gender binary, with a fixed biological sex, is even seen as a sexual deviant on Gethan.
What begins as a travelogue, quickly morphs into an examination of the very condition of humanity. Le Guin encourages us to consider what could happen to a society when its citizens are not constantly distracted by the differences between men and women, or by the sexuality that flows in and through those differences. The world of Gethen is far from idyllic–that's not the argument that Le Guin is trying to make. It still has politics, although it is absent of war, but overall, the inhabitants are far more preoccupied with surviving the frigid climate of the world than they are with maintaining the binary approach to sex and gender that was pervasive in the 1960s.
Having not been alive in the 60s, but having read an adequate amount about it, it absolutely blows my mind that Le Guin was able to write what she did when she did.
What initially came across as a long-winded, thick description of an unknown world, I now see to be a subtle way of dropping in details and understanding of a society and the people that inhabit it. Le Guin’s writing, when you commit to it, is beautiful in its purest sense. It is poetic. It is full. And it is delivered as if it is the description of a true world–a world that you can believe in. It is a world that exists beyond the pages of the novel. And while this isn't a book review, I find it necessary to point out the timeless nature of her writing because the writing cradles her words–her dangerous words. They are words that talk of human sexual androgyny. They are words that challenge the very notions of sex and gender. During a time in American society when people were desperately shouting about gender equality, an argument based on a socially constructed, sex-based binary, Le Guin was instead poking at the nuance. Her argument? Consider a world where humans are both male and female, men and women, sexually, socially, inherently. To clarify: Le Guin was not anti-feminist. Far from it. Rather her method of advocating for gender equality was to dismantle the very notions of gender and sex altogether. Essentially, she challenged us to see the absurdity in reinforcing inequalities based on such a flimsy concept as biological sex.
This argument is reiterated during a conversation between Genly and his Gethenian travel companion, Estraven, who asks Genly to explain what women on his planet are like. After a year of living on Gethen, without any interaction with a woman of his race, Genly stumbles. He has almost forgotten what a woman is like, particularly their supposed differences, because suddenly those differences don't seem all that important.
You may notice that in my discussion of Left Hand, I tend to use sex and gender interchangeable. I want to be very clear, from both a feminist and sociological perspective, that sex (an amalgamation of biological characteristics that are used to assign individuals as either male or female at birth) and gender (identities, behaviors, and expression of masculinity and femininity that are typically associated with being male and female) are not the same thing. I use them in this way because Le Guin, for everything that she does right in Left Hand, often fails to distinguish the difference between the two. The androgynous beings of Gethen sometimes only express more feminine characteristics when they are in kemmer and they are taking on female sex characteristics, therefore completing ignoring the way that people can and do express a whole range of gender characteristics independent of their biological sex.
Even with this shortcoming, The Left Hand of Darkness is still an exemplar of how science fiction can and should continue to challenge our notions of gender, and more broadly, everything else in our world.
About the role that science fiction can take in this conversation, Charlie Jane Anders offers:
Gethen's vastly different genderscape feels real enough that it casts a reflection on all the fixed ideas in our own world. Maybe our rigid gender binary is just as made-up as their neutral-except-once-a-month gender is. Maybe our government issued pronouns and official stereotypes don't have to define us always. Especially for my fellow trans and nonbinary people, a story that undermines the assumptions behind coercive labels feels magical.
And isn’t this the beauty of science fiction? This is what Ray Bradbury did when he questioned the colonization of Mars, or what Aldous Huxley did when he questioned our notions of conformity and societal control. Science fiction is about questioning everything. If we are going to go through the effort of imagining a distant world, either in space or time, why not make it into something truly new? Something for everyone.
Somehow we made it to the end of the piece without a single quote from The Left Hand of Darkness. So, I’ll leave you with this nugget of wisdom from Genly Ai: “when action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.”
I’ll see you next month as we continue our deep dive into the New Wave of science fiction with one of the most prolific American authors of the 1970s: Octavia Butler.
By JL Snyder