So, Ursula Le Guin passed away yesterday, so I guess this is as a good time as any to publish my unfinished Left Hand of Darkness fanfiction where I try to engage with the linguistic choices she’s made in the book (which, granted, I like how she’s gone back and revised her opinion). Both are variations on a similar theme; trans anthropologist arrives on Gethen, and explores Genly’s story through there eyes where his arbitrary conception of the gender binary is much more blurry for her. The first iteration is in prose.
My first steps on Gethen felt like stepping into an airlock. The cold forced the air from my lungs and for a split second I could not feel my body as my blood retreated to protect the important parts of me. Standing on this alien planet, however, I knew warmth was not the only thing being chased away by the unrelenting cold.
As I took the first tentative steps on solid ground—the first solid ground I had touched in many months—I felt my gendered past slipping away. I wasn’t sure if I was glad or not. Gone was the judgment I had endured for so long, but gone too was the identity I fought to keep. The corpses on the battlefields, as well as the accounts, were all erased.
A stout Gethenian was there to meet me. They were shorter than me, middle-aged, with a body more suited to the tundra than mine. Yet we shared the same black hair and brown eyes, and once more I marveled at how obvious it was that we all came from the Hainish. I smiled and tried to swallow the tears forming in my eyes, half joy and half jealousy. I quelled those feelings, the root phantasms of fetishization, and greeted my host.
“My name is Wang Mu,” I said, taking their hand. “I am a Terran socio-linguist. I came here to meet the descendent of Storve Harth rem ir Estraven?”
My host nodded. “I am Lom Narsa rem ir Gorin, the kemmering of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. We are to go to Estre as soon as you have rested.”
“Yes,” they nodded. “That is the name Storve chose to give their child.”
Time passes differently through ansible and through the vast reaches of physical space. I had spoken with Storve, then and further then a young politician, whose parent had traveled with the first envoy of the Hain across the Gobrin ice sheath. We were both young when we had spoken last; they filled with wonder at the prospect of alien worlds, I with longing towards a body I could not achieve. When I promised to come to Gethen, the consequences had not settled into my mind. For me to travel so long a distance meant to arrive meeting not Storve but someone else, a descendent stranger. I am now on Gethen, and I am still relatively young. Storve Harth rem ir Estraven was ten Terran years dead.
I closed my eyes and basked for a moment in the word, a common signifier for humanity. A word that did not divide or categorize but rather united the speaker and the spoken individual. It was for this word that I made the journey, and from this word Storve and I forged a connection.
“I cannot change the past. It is set in stone like a glacier at a precise moment in time. But the glacier itself moves—and that’s what I can do. I cannot change how it happened but I can change how it shapes the present. I can rip the seams from which the imperfect past connects to an imperfect present, and I can critique and I can argue with people long dead. That is my aim. I am a critic of the past.”
“They call you a heretic, in some circles. The iconoclast.”
“I prefer the word Storve and I agreed upon in one of our long conversations. Revisionist. One who takes an imperfect work and proofreads it, edits it. Like the library I told you about, with literature filled with circumstantial hate. To change their texts would be to deface them. In lieu of committing that crime we write papers and dissertations and introductions to them. Not erasing the past, but engaging with it.”
“‘Not Us and They, not I and It, but I and Thou,’” I whispered Genly Ai’s words as I stood at his grave. “Not I and They, collective, but I and They, singular.” I looked on at the man whose presence alone brought a new world into the Federation, I who may not change the course of anything. Once again I was struck by how far removed I was in time; how it was possible for the living to communicate with the dead.
Excerpt of ansible communication between Wang Mu, of Rigelan University, Linguistics Dept., and Genly Ai, First Envoy to Gethen:
A cold wind blew across my face, and I adjusted my fur muff to shield against the chill. I knelt at Genly Ai’s grave for a while, in remembrance of the past.
And then I went back with the character and fleshed out her backstory. Wang Mu’s mother, like Genly Ai, was an emissary to a water planet. With her deadline drawing near, Wang Mu’s mother made the decision to have a child with one of the leaders of the Uosi to solidify their entrance to the Federation. Which, honestly, is a fucked up backstory to have and I guess is where I’m analyzing the anthropologist’s gaze as something inherently foreign and voyeuristic…
Also, I’m not a linguist and I really haven’t done much work with what ssedori means. I’d like to think that the Uosi, like many other cultures, have a word for trans women that is rooted in culture and tradition.
I also set the story forward another generation. I’d like to think that the name Arek (Estravan’s sibling/lover) would be used again in their house.
I pray this letter finds you well.
I arrived on Gethen four weeks to this day. I waited this long because of bureaucracy, altitude sickness, and my inability to find words cohesive enough to piece together into a concrete whole. Gethen is not so rich that ansibles are granted to every hearth and visitor, and so this may be the only word I will be able to send to you. You, still at the Academy, with the Hainish an uncountable number of lifetimes away. You, still three years my senior when you read this. You, hundreds if not thousands of years dead in my time.
I am an anthropologist, not a physicist. I do not understand the nuances of ansible communication, so all I can truly comprehend is this: I write to you after five months’ journey. I am now near thirty. In your time, I journeyed for sixty years. You are an old man, if not already a ghost, but through the ansible you too are only slightly less young than I. I am speaking to a ghost, as I spoke to the ghosts of my parents still on Uos, their bodies probably dispersed across the waves by now.
You did not lie when you told me about the cold. Your sun is so cold, Arek, so distant and deceitful, it stays in the sky but offers no warmth. The winds sting my cheek, biting. Your world, a ghost one hundred and sixty years old, does not welcome me.
I enquired after Harth, and was told it had fallen decades prior. I’m sorry, I cannot be your homecoming by proxy. Still, I took the journey north from the capital, on roads you never told me about, accompanied by others like you and me. The words “pervert” and “alien” have fallen out of use on Gethen. I still feel the word, a burden upon my body here. You say you have no concept of gender, but we aliens have forced you to draw new borders. Those of dual or singular sex; where am I then, sad sterile hybrid of arbiter and outcast?
Harth is gone, but the grave of Genly Ai remains, a small, humble stone of onyx. There was a photograph of him in the capital square, standing with Argaven as they leave for space. No word of Estraven the Traitor. That story will be lost to the white, white snow once you die, I suppose.
I should hate him, Genly Ai. You should hate him. How do you not see that what he and the Ekumen have done is nothing short of violence? The same violence with which treaty came calling us “he’s” and “she’s,” violating the sanctity that is gender to us Uosi? The violence my mother made me endure, hiding from me an identity I should have had as birthright. What I was born as is inconsequential. I am of the Hara generation of the seventh isle, and I ssedori, neither man nor woman, the carriers of food and shelter, the people of each generation.
My mother never wanted me to be ssedori. But she is a ghost, like you, and after all these years I still cannot bring myself to hate her. And as I stood at Genly Ai’s grave, I could only lower my eyes in remembrance of the past.
There is much to do in Karhide. There are days when I head out before sunrise, though in the months without sunlight that is not a worthy feat, and return half-frozen a good twelve hours later, my tapes filled once again with stories that have all melted together into one great declaration of “I.” There is the story of a different Estraven the Traitor, have you heard of it? I met a Therem once, and I thought of you. I am nearing the end of the letter, I have no space to tell you how I feel, though you may be able to guess.
Goodbye, my friend.
I remain yours,
Wang Rui-hara Minessh