If I Were To Let A Toddler Title A Post It Might Look More Like "gooee==ee/CinNNMOn"

As someone who does not care much for science fiction — OK, doesn't like it — or, OK, maybe hasn't read the right science fiction — or at least reads what people say is supposedly the right science fiction and then still doesn't really care for it — I think it's saying something that I really enjoyed Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.

So there's this world that exists far from Earth which people from Earth can get to because they have super-awesome flying machines and they also know how to hibernate and, anyway, the thing about this world is that they're sort of human (I think) except that they're all androgynous and they have sex once a month (think like a woman gets her period except for a day or two) and sometimes they take on the female role and sometimes the male role. I skipped over the particulars about their sex organs because, frankly, it sounded really unappetizing.

The key is that this is a world not only without sexes but also without omnipresent sexual desire. So sort of like Denmark.

Hand was published in 1969, when it seems like topics such as gender were being explored — from my close reading of Mad Men, at least. As such, the whole thing seems sort of dated. Which is to say, if the concept is to imagine a world where sexes literally don't exist and sex is a completely absent variable in day-to-day life, it seems like in the forty-plus years since then the pendulum has swung back the other way (sort of; maybe until a few years ago) and people tend to account for rather than seek to eliminate those variables. The dividing line may have been (spoiler alert) Peggy's workplace romance with Stan.

[The heady anthrophilosophical commentary aside, Darkness is at its core a great story, with a harrowing adventure in the middle there and some cool spacetastic Star Trek-style doo-dads and whatnot.]

So anyway, I came away from reading Hand of Darkness thinking that the idea of a sexless species was a kind of corny sixties-era relic and interesting primarily as a time capsule of that era, and then the next book we read was West with the Night by Beryl Markham.

I don't think we need to perseverate on the inherent weirdness of English people setting up shop in British East Africa, or what we now know simply as Kenya. It hangs over the book so much that you kind of quickly ignore it. At one point, page 60, she writes, "I made what niggardly salutations I could bring forth from a disinterested memory and left the house at a gait rather faster than a trot" and you're kind of like, lady, I know damn well what that word actually means, but seriously? (For what it's worth, she actually spent the rest of her days in Kenya, where she seemed more at home than England, so there's that.) But eventually it just kind of seems like a thing that happened. Some more quinine, please.

So right, once you get past that and you settle into these fuckin' bomb-ass tales about being a preteen and battling lions and flying planes and training racehorses and shit you're like this lady's a fuckin' pro. Holy shit. It's something.

Which is exactly where The Left Hand of Darkness comes in: one of the most jarring things, for me at least, was how free of gender West was. I don't expect some Oprah-style emotionalization of what it meant to be a female among the lions and elephants and whatever else, but that it never came up not even once (it came up once, actually, vaguely in passing, where someone told her that some other person might not think much of an 18-year-old woman's horse training prowess, but as far as I can tell that's it). It's at least as obvious as the racial politics, and maybe more so. Her gender ends up hanging there like a [can't come up with a good comparison]. In a way it is cool: I'm a lady, so fuckin' what? But ultimately it's a little strange. Or at least I thought it was.

It's so jarring and so notable that I was thinking — without knowing her biography — that she must be hiding something. My first thought was that she was gay or something — that's just how it reads: something published in 1942 would simply omit that aspect of one's life. My copy of West didn't even have any pictures, so it set my thoughts spinning.

Little did I know that in reality — or at least Wikipedia — she had relationships with dukes, big game hunters, pilots and whoever other manliest of men on the planet in the first half of the 20th century.

Look, I understand and totally 100 percent respect the notion that your private shit is your private shit, and I get that Britishy people in the era of The English Patient are all, like, there's no reason to know about my shit, but what the fuck, I want to know about your shit. Even if it is published in 1942.

And then there are the theories, kind of convincing, that Markham was maybe somewhat less involved with her memoir than one would expect. Which is to say, if you're working with a ghost writer it's probably going to sound less "gendered," right? You come away thinking that Ursula K. Le Guin was onto something.

And then — and then! — there is that whole thing with her being the first woman to fly over the Atlantic. Talk about burying the lead! I spaced out during the discussion about this book about who this lady was, so I forgot that she was "the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west" — it creeps up on you like crazy and presents itself like the most elegant fart in the history of literature. If you read this in the 1940s thinking you were getting some sort of highlight you would likely be disappointed — but it's such an awesome touch, like "and oh, by the way, then I became the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west."

Posted: May 27th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , ,