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Masculinism in Science Fiction

Science fiction has always been a masculine genre, no matter that Mary Shelley invented it in her novel Frankenstein. Until fairly recent times, most science fiction writers were men, and they dealt with subjects like technology, power, space battles, featuring male heroes, explorers and adventurers. In film, science fiction has been a perfect subject for ultra-masculine actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, although Lieutenant Ripley in the Alien trilogy proved that women could be masculine heroes as well and very effective at destroying hostile creatures that threaten humanity. Joe Haldeman's novel Forever Peace certainly fits within this conventional masculine narrative in science fiction, since the story is related by a male narrator named Sergeant Julian Class, an alienated soldier of the First World who opposes his own government and society. He is a class type of alienated and disillusioned male hero who nevertheless hopes that the world can achieve peace and prosperity through better use of technology. Even though it was written thirty years before, Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is a radical departure from these types of themes and characters, since it takes place on an underdeveloped planet called Gethen far in the future. In this world, permanent genders do not exist at all since the natives are all bisexual and hermaphroditic, and are neuter for most of the month except for a few days when they can become either male or female. In this novel, even the characters that appear to be purely male in personality and appearance are also equally female, while the male narrator from earth, Genly Ai, is the outsider who has to struggle for years before he can truly understand this society.

Ursula LeGuin was one of the first of the women science fiction writers in contemporary times, and her themes, settings and characters often bent the traditional rules about gender and sexuality. In The Left Hand of Darkness the inhabitants of Gethen (Winter) had no gender at all, at least as earth people would understand these terms. They were neuter most of the time, except for a few days each month, when they underwent a change (kemmer) in which they could be either male or female. All of them were hermaphroditic and bisexual, and also capable of bearing children, so in this world the earth envoy Genly Ai is considered strange, suspicious or even perverted because he is male 100% of the time. This novel takes place at least two thousand years from now, and although the Gethens know nothing of their true origins or even about flight, the earth people suspect that they have been genetically engineered for survival in a very harsh environment. Bisexuality and gender-bending were quite a radical and risky subjects when the novel was first published in 1967 and LeGuin was definitely a pioneer in this type of science fiction, although feminists criticized her for making most of her main characters basically male in speech, behavior and appearance.

Le Guin was brilliant at attempting to imagine alternative worlds that often had radically different cultures and societies from present-day earth. Despite their bisexual and gender-bending nature on the planet Gethen, though, the narrators in the novel are mostly male as are the main characters. Ong tot Oppong is the only significant female narrator, but she hardly appears at all. Le Guin also used purely masculine terms like "he," "him," "man" and "mankind" to refer to both genders, which was the norm in 1967. Genly Ai is a purely masculine figure who represents the Ekumen, a federation of earth worlds, and has served as a diplomat on many planets. He is a man on a mission, having been sent to Gethen to invite them to join this club, but with little success. At this time, Gethen was in the middle of an Ice Age, and tensions were growing between the two major powers, Karhide and Orgoreyn. He visits both of these during his two years on the planet and receives only very suspicious and hostile treatment from virtually every Gethen he encounters. Part of the reason is his unusual appearance, since he is tall and black while they are short and brown-skinned, and he is unable to change his male gender. All of this makes him seem like a dangerous mutant to the natives, who do not even believe in space travel of civilizations on other planets. They are quite content in believing that Gethen is unique and at the center of the universe, even though in reality it is a very remote and isolated planet.

Lord Estraven, the prime minister of the Kingdom of Karhide, is Genly's only real friend and supporter, and Le Guin presents him as a powerful male politician who is tough, athletic, and uninterested in his family or children. His political philosophy is Machiavellian rather than feminist, as demonstrated by his statement that "only fear rules men. Nothing else works. Nothing else lasts long enough" (LeGuin 40). Virtually every tyrant and dictator on earth had similar ideas, and Estraven also serves a demented a paranoid king, Argaven XV, who regards him as a traitor and a potential security threat for befriending Genly. Of course, this king is also able to get pregnant, which raises questions about his (and her) masculine, authoritarian image. LeGuin is particularly subtle in this way, since the message she was attempting to convey was that humanity was in reality a composite of both genders and many different types of sexuality and relationships. She ties this to the Taoist concept of yin and yang, and even the title of the novel implies that darkness is the left hand of light. In the end, Genly comes to grasp this concept when he tells Estraven that "fear, courage, cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one" (LeGuin 197). Men and women do not have to follow traditional gender roles on Gethen, and this creates a society of unusual complexity.

Genly and Estraven never consummate an intimate or romantic relationship, though, and the thought makes Genly uncomfortable even when the possibility is implied. Estraven is very likely in love with him, but their friendship is more one of the male bonding found in many science fiction and adventure tales. At the same time he (and she) is an important political leader and as LeGuin puts it "even in a bisexual society the politician is very often something less than an integral man" (Le Guin 15). Le Guin probably meant to use the word "person" her instead of "man" since Estreven is male, female and neuter, but the English language itself often makes it difficult to convey this in one noun or pronoun. King Argaven removes Estraven from his position as prime minister and exiles him as a traitor, causing Genly to lose what little influence he has in Karhide.

For this reason, he then decides to visit Orgoreyn, a bureaucratic, authoritarian state than often fights skirmishes with Karhide and very much resembles the old Soviet Union on earth. Genly's reception is even more hostile and suspicious there, despite the fact that it claims to be a more advanced society than Karhide. When its rulers send him to a concentration camp, his mission appears to be over until Estreven risks his life to rescue him. They make a courageous escape over the polar ice cap, and during this time Estreven undergoes the change into a female. Even so, they do not have a sexual relationship, although Genly final comes to understand the Gethen culture. As they ski to the border of Karhide, the guards recognize Estraven as a traitor and shoot her (him) and she (he) dies in Genly's arms. In the end, Karhide agrees to join the federation of planets and the new earth envoys arrive on a spaceship. Even so, the novel concludes on a masculine note, with the statement "it is a marvelous thing…for them as well, the coming of a new world, a new mankind" (LeGuin 297).

Joe Haldeman's Forever Peace is a far more traditional type of science fiction than The Left Hand of Darkness, and features a conventional male hero, Sergeant Julian Class, who teams up with his lover Amelia "Blaze" Harding to save the world from technology run amok. Even though this novel was written thirty years later, it does not question or alter gender roles and sexuality nearly to the same degree as Le Guin's story. Forever Peace is set on earth in 2043, and depicts society and the global system in ways that are not all that different from the present. Just like today, the First World is always fighting some war for control of resources in the Second and Third Worlds, deploying its most advanced technology against armies of peasant guerillas, insurgents and 'terrorists'. Haldeman fought in Vietnam and was wounded there, and has returned to similar themes many times in his writing, including The Forever War and Forever Free. He is the narrator in Forever Peace as…[continue]

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