Reading “Winter’s King”

Hainish NovelsI ordered a copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Novels & Stories from the Library of America and received my copy in a couple of days, even though the book is not yet officially in print. (You can order yours here, if you’re as eager as I was.)

I have read most of these works, but some I got from the library and others are tattered mass-market paperbacks (I’m a reader, not a collector). I knew I wanted to have all of them at hand for reference and re-reading.

Being one who likes to start from the beginning, I read Ursula’s introduction to Volume I, and immediately came to her discussion of The Left Hand of Darkness and the story, “Winter’s King,” which is set in the same world.

She writes that some feminists criticized the novel because she used male pronouns for her characters, who are, of course, not male or female. So, when she published the short story in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, she decided to make a small change:

It occurred to me that I might make some amends for all the hes in Left Hand by using shes in a revised version of “Winter’s King.”

She goes on to observe:

Yet if anybody noticed, nothing was said. Nobody got angry and nobody sighed, “Ah, now that’s better.” The experiment seemed to have no result at all. I still find it odd.

I noticed.

My noticing didn’t make any difference in the SF lit crit world, because I read both The Left Hand of Darkness and “Winter’s King” in the late 70s and early 80s – some years after they both came out. And I wasn’t doing any critical writing about what I read at the time. I was just reading.

While I liked The Left Hand of Darkness very much, it did not affect me in a feminist way. I noted that the characters were neither (or both) male or female, which I found interesting, but I was mostly captivated by the story and the clash of cultures. It did not affect me nearly as much as The Dispossessed, which nailed my experiences in co-ops and leftist politics, and made me think hard about the way things could be.

But the combined use of male honorifics (“king” “Mr.”) and female pronouns in “Winter’s King” stunned me. It was in reading that story that I truly realized the Gethenians were not men who happened to be able to reproduce, but something very different. The default view of them could as easily be female as male, and a more sophisticated reading made it clear that neither binary was an appropriate short-cut.

That’s a lot of power from changing a few pronouns.

Ursula goes on to say:

I wish I could write a third version that truly represents the character’s lack of gender.

I’d like to see that, too, but I agree with her that the English language is still deficient in ungendered pronouns. Singular they works in some contexts, but it can cause confusion and may require info dumps in some stories. I find they works well in essays in place of the more cumbersome “he or she,” especially since it leaves open the possibility of “neither he nor she.” It’s also the pronoun of choice for some folks, and I find that effective.

But what I’d really like to see gender-neutral pronouns and honorifics that can be used for anyone, regardless of their gender, and regardless whether we’re dealing with specific people or talking generally. That way we wouldn’t need to pay attention to gender when it isn’t relevant, which is most of the time.

I have done my own experiments with such things. I wrote “Walking Contradiction,” my story about ambigender people, in first person and avoided pronouns in speaking of any ambigendered characters. The story runs some 13,000 words, and it took time and the modern advantage of search and replace to do it. (It’s in my collection of the same name.)

In The Weave, I used “it” for my aliens when I was in their point of view. I wasn’t completely happy with that choice, but it seemed like the best fit. My humans were making guesses about alien gender for a good section of the book, so I had them use “he” and “she” until they discovered they had made a bad call. Perhaps if my humans had started out with a good gender-neutral term they wouldn’t have made that mistake.

I’m still hoping we’ll eventually get good all purpose gender-neutral pronouns and honorifics. Widespread acceptance of singular they is a start, and “Mx” may work on formal letters, but we can do better.

Given my reaction to “Winter’s King,” I’m sure changing gender terms is going to change how people think and respond to each other. A good thing.



Reading “Winter’s King” — 5 Comments

  1. I remember when “Left Hand of Darkness” was new in the early ’70s. The reaction among our friends who also read it was a truly human summation: “It never occurred to me how much of our lives are gender based.” No examination of the characters, an examination of ourselves. That’s what the best SF/F does. It allows us to look at our lives sideways around a wall of prejudice rather than through it.

    I’m glad these classics are getting a new airing.

  2. Back in the day, I read a book on dog care written by a very modern vet. In support of gender-neutral language, all pronouns used were “they” or “their.” I found this pretty awkward, and really very funny when I reached the chapter on breeding and gestation.

    • There are places where gender terms referencing biological sex are important and dog breeding is probably one of them.

      But I don’t find singular use of they all that confusing. It certainly works well for things like job advertisements, just as an example.