Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) and Ursula K. Le Guin (1929—) tie as my favourite authors of all time. I read Butler when I was a teenager and discovered Le Guin in my twenties – and now, in middle age, I am reading them again. These writers created amazing stories that gave me, as a growing girl and maturing adult, an array of diverse opportunities to expand my understanding of human beings and how we relate to one another… and now as a growing-older woman living in a different century than the one the authors and I were born in, I am re-experiencing their works with a whole lot of living behind me and new perspectives. They are still fascinating and challenging, and of course thoroughly entertaining!
Butler and Le Guin are the bright lights of the literary sub-genre sometimes known as anthropological SF/F (science fiction and fantasy) or, as Le Guin likes to call it, social science fiction. These works explore what it means to be part of the grand notion Humanity, by way of exploring kinship, social organisation, sexual relations, psychology and power. Butler’s and Le Guin’s characters live in societies facing ‘alien’ admixture and challenges to the norm: such as interracial relations; the centralisation of non-heterosexual identities; the juxtaposition of male/female with non-binary gender relationships; the comparison and contrast of monogamy with polygamy, polyandry, polyamory and a variety of other modes of loving and mating; and the radical expansion of the definition of what it means to be a family. All the while providing us with some of the most mesmerising characters in fiction.
In stark contrast with their peers – and quite in sympathy with the imagination of a brown-skinned girl growing up in the 70s & 80s – Butler and Le Guin wrote stories whose characters were not just young, robust, white spacemen with more than a passing resemblance to John Wayne, but people of varying ages and hues (mostly brown and black and grey); people of female, male, asexual, intersex and third-sex biology; and people who formed ‘alternative’ partnerships and families of two, three, four or even five loving mates and (literally, in Butler’s Lilith’s Brood and Seed to Harvest novel series) villages of children and extended relatives.
Their characters were simply people – intensely realised people, both humane and inhumane, from many complexly imagined societies. And they were absolutely fascinating in their ability to evoke a dazzling array of thoughts and emotions, theories of how we are who we are, and challenges about what we human beings have turned out to be vs. what we could evolve into being.
Which do you prefer… really?
Many have speculated on Butler’s sexuality and claimed her as one of their own, not out of idle curiosity, but because she was so adept at depicting people of any sexual orientation with an even-hand and a sense of given-ness or naturalness that was not the hallmark of her times or even (yet) ours.
This passage, from her first published novel, is a dialogue between the protagonist, Teray, and his new lover and fellow warrior in exile, Amber. They are patternists, humans genetically bred by a near-immortal to have telepathic and healing powers. They travel on horseback through hostile territory on a quest for sanctuary in the land of the Patternmaster. As they speak of their unusually close bond and their pasts, lives and loves, Teray is nervous that Amber may not find him mature enough and wonders whether she would prefer another female lover over him.
Butler’s depiction of Amber’s response brilliantly resonates with the experiences of many bisexual people. Whether Butler herself was bisexual or not, she certainly knew how to pithily and accurately describe one of the central drama’s of a bisexual person’s life when in a relationship with someone struggling to understand them:
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“Which do you prefer, Amber, really?”
She did not pretend to misunderstand him. “I’ll tell you,” she said softly. “But you won’t like it.”
He looked away from her. “I asked for the truth. Whether I like it or not, I have to know….”
“When I meet a woman who attracts me, I prefer women,” she said. “And when I meet a man who attracts me, I prefer men.”
“You mean you haven’t made up your mind yet.”
“I mean exactly what I said. I told you you wouldn’t like it. Most people who ask want me definitely on one side or the other.”
He thought about that. “No, if that’s the way you are, I don’t mind.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“You know I didn’t mean any offense.”
She sighed. “I know.”
Even in a bisexual society the politician is very often something less than an integral man.
Sex is a natural or biological feature and gender is the cultural or learned significance of sex. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin leads us through a world, Gethen, where the humans are neither male nor female. She asks us to take a look at how our lives are defined by which sex and gender positions we each occupy and the power relations that emerge as a result.
In the novel Le Guin uses the terms ambisexual and bisexual, but not in relation to sexual orientation as we think of it today. Le Guin’s characters, in effect, are biologically without sex. They are bi-sexual or trans-sexual in that, for a brief period each month they take on the sexual characteristics of either a male or a female and then after a few days return to being non-sexed.
Linguistically, Le Guin was faced with a problem: what pronoun would she use for the non-sexed characters? She rejected ‘it’ as too cold and unsuitable for human beings and settled on having her main character -- Genly Ai, a young black man, an envoi from Terra (or Earth) to Gethen -- use the pronoun ‘he’ as a matter of expedience. This is a decision Le Guin, years after publication, says she regretted, wishing she had created or found a more suitable set of non-gender-specific pronouns to use. This dilemma, I always thought, shows us a great deal about ourselves and our limits in being able to describe, label and negotiate our world.
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And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was.
Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality... I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man…
… it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love…
But it was from the differences between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)