A ‘Fatal lack of risk’: Le Guin’s Early Conservative Plot and Gender Tropes
When John Clute wrote that Ursula K. Le Guin was ‘‘eminently sane, humanitarian, concerned’ but went on to lament her ‘fatal lack of risk’’ he was being entirely fair about her inability to synthesize her concerned humanism with progressive plot-lines. Ursula K. Le Guin has been regarded as one of the most successful writers of fantasy and science fiction in the twentieth century, utilizing a heavy reliance on anthropology and environmental awareness. But with regards to sexual equality and non-traditional family units, Le Guin falls painfully short of challenging male dominance. The plots follow the classic masculine hero’s journey of adventure and discovery. Her earliest novels rely heavily upon male protagonists in male-dominated societies, as if the rest of the galaxy were no different from medieval Earth, and Le Guin did not trust her readers to accept any other setting. The ‘lack of risk’ in Le Guin’s writing is that each society she lays down appears misogynistic, with each cast of characters led by male protagonists who follow the strictures of heterosexuality, monogamous love of fellow men, heroism, and defense of the nuclear family. In the following, I examine the early science fiction stories that started Le Guin’s career, those set in the Hainish universe: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions and The Left Hand of Darkness (along with the short story ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ which later attempted to answer criticism of this novel). For each of the texts I will look for societal standards, such as family units, sexual conformity, and the role of women.
Le Guin herself is aware of the standardized influences that shape Western society, making her lack of narrative risk even more disappointing because she did not act against this male dominance of culture and mythology. She writes, ‘In our hero-tales of the Western world, heroism has been gendered: The hero is a man. […]Since it’s about men, the hero-tale has concerned the establishment or validation of manhood. It has been the story of a quest, or a conquest, or a test, or a contest. It has involved conflict and sacrifice.’ This may have been in response to her Earthsea stories, but all of Le Guin’s work seems to follow this pattern, to the point of painful redundancy. Never is a woman found to be making the same harrowing journey as the men.
Darko Suvin put forth the requirement of the novum for science fiction, a strange newness, but Le Guin relies on mythological formats still firmly rooted in masculine tradition. She does not explore the novum of the alien because, in her words, ‘all my worlds, in the novels anyway, are populated by human beings. […] Part of what a novel does is make you feel with the people in it–so that you really can get into their skin and be a different person for a while, while you’re reading the novel. If the person is too remote from human experience, I think that’s not possible.’ Le Guin is unwilling to push readers to accept an alien perspective, and for this, her characters rarely stretch the bounds of the imagination or break with our social conventions. Having the Hain serve as the seeders for all intelligent life in the League simplifies the matter of explaining too-similar ‘alien’ life; they become variants of the Earth-bound cultures Le Guin has studied, and historically speaking, most cultures have always been male dominated. Another aspect of her failure to stretch the imagination is the life on alien worlds, as ‘Le Guin has no real interest in inventing bizarre fauna and flora. […] Just as her aliens are almost always recognizably human […] so are her animals and plants almost always recognizably based on those we know on Earth.’ This admitted un-inventiveness and failure to embrace the possibility of fantastic variety of life in the universe is symptomatic of Le Guin’s unwillingness to take risks with her characters and societies.
From her own life, it is possible to see the influences that have shaped Le Guin’s conservative approach to writing characters. As the child of anthropologists, utilization of anthropologic methods in her stories has led Le Guin to stick too closely to human social patterns; this may be why so many of her early worlds appear primitive and male-dominant. The critic Joe De Bolt notes, ‘Le Guin has been taken to task by some persons in the women’s movement for her infrequent use of women as leading characters and an inadequate feminine point of view in her works.’ This lack of risk is interesting, as Le Guin has never been ‘a volume producer. But, then, neither has she had to support herself and her family by writing: thus, she has escaped the output/income bind that plagues so many other fine writers in the genre.’ Because Le Guin was not dependent on income, she should have been able to take greater risks with her work and challenging readers’ cultural notions. There also appears to be an element of self-deception, when Le Guin states ‘the “person” I tend to write about is often not exactly, or not totally, either a man or a woman. On the superficial level, this means that there is little sexual stereotyping – the men aren’t lustful and the women aren’t gorgeous’. This seems a dubious claim in light of the fighting/ voyaging men in these novels, fiercely loyal to their male companions (expressing monogamous love), and protection of women (when Le Guin bothers to insert female characters) and families. To say the women are not ‘gorgeous’ is to deny the goddess description attached to Semley and her people. Nor is it proper to categorize all men as lustful, as Le Guin is merely utilizing the sexual stereotype of the celibate, sexually reserved hero. And the tasks performed by her characters are still segregated by gender. An active heroine in these Hainish books is nowhere to be found.
The Hainish Novels
Le Guin’s earliest work was in her Hainish universe. Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions were the primary trilogy. All utilized mainly male protagonists in deeply misogynistic, primitive worlds. One might question why Le Guin held to these redundant settings for all three novels; it certainly does not require any stretch of the anthropological imagination. These were followed by the award-winning novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, which, if examined closely, still adheres to conservative male-dominance, the hetero male hero-journey, and the nuclear family.
An episodic hero-journey story, Rocannon’s World opens with a short story based upon the Norse myth of the goddess Freya and the Brisingamen necklace. Instead of improving upon an ancient myth, Le Guin still employs a vain and beautiful woman/goddess – Semley – chasing after a stolen necklace to improve the family wealth and social standing. Upon her return she is devastated to learn of her husband’s death and generation that has passed her by. (It would have been more interesting if Le Guin has employed gender reversal, but she sticks to the idea that it must be a woman searching for lost jewelry.) From this short story the rest of the novel develops, casting aside Semley and utilizing male protagonists in the form of Rocannon (the Hainish ethnologist who follows Semley back to her home planet) and his companion Mogien (young Lord of Hallan). The risk-free, stereotypical plot, as the critic James Bittner states, follows ‘the heroic adventures of a white male protagonist.’ An early indication of the dominant role of the men is in a common curse repeated several times, ‘May our enemy die without sons’, emphasizing a culture of primogeniture. Little is explored in the way of sexual mores as Rocannon and Mogien ride around the planet looking to avenge Rocannon’s murdered friends and stop the enemy threatening the League. Men are treated as the agents of action and vengeance, as the Lady Ganye noted about her husband’s murder, ‘we have no revenge. […] And there is no man to make these Strangers pay for Ganhing’s death.’ Rocannon obliges, obliterating the enemy camp and riding home the conquering hero to marry Lady Ganye, thus enforcing the nuclear family. Le Guin’s female characters are background decoration in this novel. It is difficult to go into too much detail about the sexual and social structures in this novel because of its hero-adventure framework and the lack of female characters.
For Planet of Exile Le Guin allows female characters to play a larger part, but in the more violent, repressively male dominated society of Asketevar, which stands in contrast to the Terran colony that is supposed to represent a more equal society (though Le Guin’s execution of this ‘equality’ is questionable). Rolery is a young woman born out of season, a native of Tevar city, and the youngest daughter of the chief, Wold, who practices polygamy (his Terran wife referred to as ‘the exotic one in Wold’s female zoo’). An indication of the hostility Le Guin has cultivated against women in this story is emphasized when Jakob Agat warns Rolery to stay away from him lest they ‘castrate me or ceremonially rape you.’ Jakob says this in disgust, to lay out the difference between his society and Rolery’s, and the racial pride his people have felt over hers. She never acts so much as she is acted upon; a reflection of Le Guin’s Taoist leanings, but it makes this female character appear out of control, Rolery’s fate in the hands of men. Her father Wold muses that ‘some Spring-born fellow would take her for third or fourth wife; there was no need for her to complain’ – again emphasizing the lack of freedom among the women. Rolery’s only act that stands her above her kinswomen is to marry Jakob, but even when she moves into the city of Landin, she is seen doing domestic tasks of mending and nursing. Among the colonists in Landin, despite the supposedly equal social structure, Rolery notes of Jakob, ‘none of them knows how to take six steps without you’ – so a man is still in charge. And while the so-called ‘fighting men of Landin were gone […] Twenty women went together’ to round up cattle, a blatant sexual division of labour. When Jakob marries Rolery, Le Guin is perpetuating the more favourable nuclear family (not practiced by Rolery’s supposedly barbarian people) and dismissing the openly homosexual feelings of his friend Huru as a consequence of ‘over-communication.’ This brief mention of Huru is the only attention Le Guin pays to non-hetero sexual relations in the book, choosing to go no further. Of all the books explored in this paper, Planet of Exile offers the most in depth use of female characters; unfortunately, Le Guin does little with them except employ them in traditional domestic roles while the men are occupying centre stage.
City of Illusions is another hero journey for Le Guin, in the solitary figure of Falk-Ramarren in multiple male-dominated societies. She offers her own disappointed commentary on this novel, as ‘incomplete’, that ‘I should not have published as it stands. It has some good bits, but is only half thought out’. The mindless lost ‘alien’ Falk is found in the forest of eastern America and cared for by Parth in traditional woman-as-caregiver form, instructing him as one would raise a child. Zove is the Master of the House, decides whether Falk should live and who the women under him should marry. During his journey west to confront the Shing and his past, Falk-Ramarren encounters only other men until the brutal Mzurra – where he participated in the ceremonial ‘sexual abuse of one woman by all the males in turn’. At this point he meets Estrel, ‘the gentle, docile, unwearying woman…by his side’, and they escape the Mzurra together, though in typical distressed maiden fashion, she requires a good deal of help on the trek west to Es Toch. The submissive female form is cast aside when they reach the Shing city, and Le Guin turns Estrel into an Eve, a traitor who lured Falk-Ramarren to his enemies. In the other novels examined, the monogamous bond between male traveling companions is never betrayed, but Le Guin allows the female companion to turn on the man who saved her life. Her own drug induced guilt over betraying Falk later turns Estrel against the Shing in a fit of too familiar female hysterics. The other Shing that readers encounter are all male, with no exploration of their society or women. Upon remembering who he was Ramarren remembers the wife he left behind, long dead now, reinforcing his hetero-male status within the nuclear family and the self-sacrifice of a hero. He leaves behind any hope of reuniting with Parth to return to Werel and warn them about the Shing.
From these three mediocre books that quickly went out of print, The Left Hand of Darkness emerged. Though far better written, The Left Hand of Darkness still falls short of breaking gender stereotypes in the male hero-journey, its androgynous characters constantly referred to in the masculine form, and coming off as men who occasionally don a feminine veil. After all, a society can hardly appear misogynistic if everyone in it is male. Le Guin explains the ‘use of a male lead in LHD as the result of her fear that men would “loathe” the book and “be unsettled and unnerved by it”’ – so she was unwilling to risk upsetting a male audience. When Le Guin does slip into feminine uses, she allows herself to be bound by standard social occupations, referring to the owner of the house where Genly stays as a ‘landlady’ and stereotyping him/her as having a ‘fat buttocks that wagged as he walked, and a soft fat face, and a prying, spying, ignoble, kindly nature’. When he is captured and in a truck of prisons, a young Gethenain kemmering as female is described as ‘pretty, stupid, […] smiling timidly, looking for solace.’ As descriptions of female characteristics go, Le Guin is not offering flattering or fair examples. Nor was Le Guin really pushing herself with the plot, as Genly Ai and the Gethenian Estraven are the same as Rocannon and his companion Mogien: a male League representative on a quest across an alien world in the company of a native, his best friend, trying to stay alive, yet in the end his friend will bravely sacrifice himself. Estraven is meant to be androgynous, but Le Guin always uses masculine pronouns when referring to the Gethenians. When Estraven kemmers as a women while crossing the northern ice sheet, she slips into stereotyping again, describing the feminine Estraven as ‘vulnerable, as remote as the face of a woman who looks at you out of her thoughts’ – as if Estraven is someone different while kemmering as a woman, because he is never treated to this description at any other point. Le Guin refuses to let the relationship between him and Genly turn sexual (perhaps making the males readers squirm) and instead maintaining the status of heroic male friendship found in the previous novels.
Twenty-five years later, ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ was meant to respond to the criticism that The Left Hand of Darkness was not truly an androgynous society. It is perhaps a more socially liberal book, as there are no marriages – keeping kemmer – in the Thade family, so no one knows their father, but in the attempt to find some balance, Le Guin goes too far in the direction of the feminine. The narrator, Sov, refers to her family members as ‘mother’ and ‘grandmother’ and notes that ‘Thades always kemmer as women and always get pregnant’. Instead of providing the sexless society she sought, Le Guin is still caught in traditional sex roles and perspectives. Sov complains like a women entering her menstrual cycle; ‘Why did I want to cry all the time? Why did I want to sleep all the time?’ Le Guin is unable to reconcile her own ‘genderless’ society in her work, constantly relying on standardized tropes of her view of how the sexes behave.
Le Guin’s lack of risk with her early writing has led to a sense of redundancy among the plot-lines of the novels and casts of characters that are dominated by men. Her carefully designed worlds are all too similar in their reliance upon primitive societies (both Terran and alien) practicing varying levels of misogyny, or in the case of The Left Hand of Darkness, expressing characters in standard masculine tropes. Perhaps her earlier success was dependent upon not upsetting male readers and keeping an available market open, but Le Guin could have made a greater effort to develop more assertive female characters in tandem with her traditional male heroes. Even The Left Hand of Darkness reads like a world dominated by men, with the occasional weak feminine trait popping up, but passing quickly; and the attempt at balancing this with ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ simple tips the scales into a feminine dominated perspective. Unwilling to upset male readers in her early work, trying to appease feminists in her later work, Le Guin’s most profound ‘lack of risk’ lies in the absence of a society of equals, which might not appeal to anyone.
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