Bending gender (till it breaks): Left Hand of Darkness vs. Ancillary Justice

lefthand ancillary

There are a lot of books, I think, that are classics in their field, required reading, not because they did their ideas best, but simply because they did them first. Lord of the Flies is my go-to example for this — it didn’t thrill me when I read it, because by that point I’d already read Galax-Arena and Battle Royale (among others) and seen those same ideas explored better elsewhere.

The critical buzz that greeted the release of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice suggested that it was doing just that to Left Hand of Darkness: that this was the gender-bending sci-fi of the new millennium, the long-awaited upgrade to LeGuin’s seminal work on the subject (by now nearly fifty years old). But after reading it, I couldn’t disagree more — Ancillary Justice doesn’t replace Left Hand of Darkness or retread that ground; rather, it complements LeGuin’s story in a way that I have never before seen two novels do, especially not novels written by different authors and separated by decades. In tandem, they explore how gendered pronouns influence the way we perceive and interpret human behavior. They come at the issue from different angles, and in so doing, call into question some of our most basic assumptions about masculine and feminine.

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GRATE literature, and me

So anyone who’s read me for a while has probably picked up on my ambivalence toward the literary canon — that long list of books that Critics have deemed to be Grate Literature, and that frequently gets derided for being overwhelmingly populated by dead white guys.

Although to be fair, I’m generally not that excited by what dead white ladies have produced either.

Stigma, by Erving Goffman

So there I am in my favorite gay dive bar, and I turn around and there is this fantastically hot guy standing there. Who’s seen Leverage, show of hands? This guy looked like Eliot when Eliot is doing his geek-chic disguise, with the glasses and his hair back in a ponytail. Commence gnawing on table.

Guy-who-looked-like-Eliot had been chatting animatedly with an obviously-straight girl, then at one point reached over to stub out a cigarette in the ashtray next to me. He glances up, our eyes catch, and I say,

“Hi.” :)

Which is apparently as good a pickup line as any, because he stayed and we got to talking. Got to talking about ~books!~, I don’t even know how, first about Fantasy That Doesn’t Suck, and then he said he tended to read more nonfiction, and I asked about his most recent reading and he said,

“Oh! Ah — yeah, it’s called, uhm, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

Sir, can I marry you? Like, right now?

Cuz usually I’m the one busting out shit like “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in bar chat, and then watching the other person’s eyes glaze over, sometimes accompanied with a vague, “Wow, so you must be really smart, huh? o_o” To which I’m so tempted to say, I KNOW I AM, BUT WHAT ARE YOU?

…Which is why I rarely get laid. And I am okay with this.

“Oh oh oh!” I said. “If you’re interested in that sort of thing, then you should read Stigma, by Erving Goffman — it’s about how stigmatized minorities control perceptions of their identity. It’s a bit dated in its language, but still extremely insightful.”

Which is how I got his number, and a date a couple days later.

So let's talk about 'Stigma: Notes on a Spoiled Identity'