Gender and its discontents

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Memorable literature has always had the ability to effect real social change through its addressing contemporary social and political issues, and science fiction is no exception. Published a mere five years apart, both The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula La Guin and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman interact with issues of sex and gender head-on in ways indicative of the feminist movement’s influence on the authors and on culture as a whole. Both convincingly and compellingly engage with the mutability and abstraction of gender in two contexts—one as an alternate evolutionary path taken by an extraterrestrial species, the other as an evolutionary and technological inevitability for our own human species. Most interestingly in light of the Vietnam War whose shadow fell dramatically on the politics, art, and culture of the half-decade during which both novels were released, both novels offer the elimination or absence of either biological sex or heteronormativity as a possible solution to war. Perhaps most surprising and illuminative of all, the alien worlds and scenarios explored by the male, heterosexual protagonists of both novels cast heterosexuality and sexual dimorphism as the “other,” offering powerful examples of our own culture’s notions surrounding orientation and gender identity. In both Le Guin and Haldeman’s novels, the mutability and elimination of gender or sex help to shed light on our own civilization’s political treatment and expectations of gender identity and sexuality.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, our Earth-born male protagonist interacts with a species, the Gethenians, whose biology omits secondary sex characteristics, and indeed, dimorphic sexuality altogether. What remains is a routine ritual during which the entire species is arbitrarily assigned a sex and are compelled to copulate for the purpose of procreation, carrying on the species. Regardless of the likelihood of this sort of arrangement evolving naturally, this interestingly also eliminates any cultural understanding of gender, supporting the cultural notion that sex begets gender and in so doing subverting some modern feminist theory on the subject. Gender, unlike biological sex, is culturally constructed in human society, and determines quite a bit in Western culture about how an individual is perceived and how they represent themselves. For this reason, a culture without gender would be fundamentally alien to our American gendered understanding of humanity—pun intended. Its absence, of course, has ramifications that influence every aspect of Gethenian society, as there is no particular stigma attached to either gender and every citizen is essentially made equal. In their alien society, homosexuality is an impossibility as sexuality is virtually nonexistent—that is, until kemmer, at which point sex organs are randomly assigned and therefore carry no positive or negative cultural value or connotations.

As cultural acceptance of homosexuality and alternate gender identities becomes commonplace, a post-gender society is perhaps conceivable in our own lifetimes. However, since some combination of biological sex and sexual orientation are usually the determining factors for how humans represent their gender identity—gay, lesbian, heterosexual male or female, et cetera—it is borderline impossible for the human race to achieve the same level of uniformity. For the purposes of a science-fiction thought exercise, such a society operates surprisingly well and allows for a wealth of interpretations and ideas, even if they don’t apply to our own civilization. But as this conglomeration of different sex and orientation combinations gives rise to a plethora of gender identities even in contemporary humanity, the contrast which arises when our irreversibly gendered culture meets a simpler, altogether more alien one is curious to behold. When a representative of our own civilization encounters this alien society and attempts to acclimate himself to their way of life, he is labeled perverse as the Gethenians interpret his ever-present sex organs as evidence of his perpetually being in a state of kemmer, which in some respects I suppose humans are. This classifies what we perceive as traditional modes of sexuality and gender as “other,” a stark divergence from the institutionalized heteronormativity to which we humans have grown accustomed. Functioning as a stranger in a strange land, Genly Ai represents not only the entire human species in his missionary work for the Ekumen, but also as a representative to an entire subset of evolutionary biology which dictates that dimorphic sexual characteristics are the norm.

But how would such changes really operate within our own civilization, albeit a fictional version thousands of years in the future? Joe Haldeman’s novel, through time dilation related to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, introduces us to a future version of humanity wherein, for purposes of population control to stem scarcity-driven conflict on Earth, homosexuality has become the government-sanctioned norm. Obviously stripping homosexuality of any of its negative religious connotations or cultural taboos, society manages to stabilize gender identities into one of two categories: homosexual male and homosexual female. These biological sex assignments persist, but the tree of gender associations is simplified more than 100%. Despite what compulsory homosexuality might say about the author’s views about sexual orientation, the novel shows what our own civilization might look like when altered in the direction of the Gethenian pseudo-utopia without traveling all the way there, maintaining biological sex characteristics. Further into the novel, human culture evolves to the point where, first, homosexuality is not only the norm but the all-encompassing standard for every human person, and, later, to the point where a collective race called Man reproduces via cloning—becoming a species more akin to some kind of hive-mind bacteria in their asexual reproduction than modern-day humans—and heterosexual humans are relegated to colonized worlds where they can proceed in diversifying the gene pool for the rest of humankind.

Much like Genly Ai’s being labeled perverse by the almost-always-asexual Gethenians, Mandella experiences some backlash from his command of homosexual soldiers at his being heterosexual. Again, this is a profound and important subversion of present cultural norms which help modern readers contextualize the modern struggle of gay rights advocates. Since the movement was barely in its infancy when Haldeman penned his novel, this element can also be applied to other forms of gender, and the societal expectations and negative stereotypes surrounding women, not just homosexual ones. Once again, and perhaps more profoundly, Mandella represents the entirety of heterosexual humanity against the overwhelming majority programmed into compulsory homosexuality, an orientation which causes him resentment and misunderstanding on the part of his troops. By reversing the normative dichotomy and casting homosexuals as the judgmental majority, Haldeman either sheds light on his own homophobia or becomes a standard-bearer for the burgeoning civil rights issue of our time. To assume the latter might be to lend the author too much credit, but his work pulls the social-stigma rock up to reveal important cultural assumptions and biases hiding beneath.

The eventual inclusion of a post-sexual society operating exclusively by cloning raises questions about whether artificial insemination and genetics research could offer an answer to gender roles in the not-too-distant-future. Could test tubes really realign the notion of necessary motherhood away from women and into the laboratory? Could the various options a future world might offer by way of procreation and child rearing—cloning, artificial insemination, traditional copulation, adoption, and whatever else has yet to be imagined—help to nullify or eliminate the cultural expectations that religion and other institutions have managed to place on gender? Coupled with the rise of orientation acceptance and a decrease of emphasis on biological sex in the workplace, it’s entirely likely and, indeed, an inevitability that the world of 2022 will be dramatically different from today in terms of gender roles. And feminists will be happier for it.

Oddly, both novels offer an omission or reduction of genders as a possible solution to prevent or curtail war on a global scale. To avoid oversimplification, the nations of The Forever War encouraged homosexuality to curb the population and put an end to class wars borne of inequity in a scarcity-based economy while the androgynes of Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness had historically never known war, despite the fact that two of its nations seemed to be approaching it over a border dispute. Still, both authors seem to contend that gender is a component of what causes violent conflict between nations. While I feel both of them would deny any assumption that the Vietnam or any other war was caused by sexuality or gender identity, their writing sheds light on what humans believe a world without gender would look like. They envision a simpler and more peaceful world in both events, worlds more in tune with one another and less prone to quibblings over rations or land disputes. And while the homosexual denizens of Earth still do battle with the Taurans for many hundreds of years and the androgynous Gethanians seem prepared to enter the first armed conflict of their planet’s history, the relative societal harmony of each planet speaks to our civilization’s conception of the role gender plays in international interactions. Could humans really be pacified against growing problems of rationing and resource scarcity by curbing population growth? Could every war in our global civilization’s history have been prevented if sex were no object, if roles within sexual activity were arbitrarily assigned once every few weeks? It’s unlikely that either scenario would do the trick, but the fact that the authors wrote about them says more about their perceptions of our present human society than it does about future or alien ones.

And for that reason—that these fantastic worlds are intrinsically and unavoidably related to our own—the two novels are timelessly interesting and relevant for decades after their original authorship. The mere fact that these two novels contain, intentionally or otherwise, so much content related to modern dialogues concerned with gender and feminism illustrates the fact that science fiction can offer serious political and critical discourse serving as the underpinnings for the stories of interstellar spaceships and extrasolar war. By portraying a culture removed from biological sex and therefore ignorant of humankind’s gender expectations and gender power imbalances, La Guin presents an engaging and enlightening alternative to our culture’s current institutionalized gender roles. Similarly, Haldeman’s novel helps readers contextualize gender and sexual orientation biases which exist in contemporary America by reversing the longstanding heteronormative dichotomy and demonstrating the bigoted society that contemporary homosexuals are routinely subjected to. This is what not only the best science fiction, but really also the best literature in general, has always aspired to—causing through fiction the reader to reexamine him or herself and the biases and assumptions that he or she holds about the world and the way it operates. Any book which raises this many interesting questions and has the capacity to alter so profoundly the reader’s perception of society has certainly earned its place within the literary canon, aliens and all. Hopefully, in the course of a few dozen generations, these issues will seem as archaic as problems of race and ethnicity seem to the younger generation, and future science fiction will illustrate the similarities and unfair cultural divergences between humankind and robots or humankind and some undiscovered alien race. Whatever its political agenda, it goes without saying that science fiction will continue to serve as a powerful and essential force for positive cultural change for generations to come.