No Manís Land: Feminised Landscapes

in the Utopian Fiction Of Ursula Le Guin.

 

South

The sound of the word South is the sound of softness and plenty. South is the preferred aspect for an Emperorís palace in traditional Chinese geomancy. South is the direction in which people of the northern temperate zone turn, when they want to imagine relaxation, warmth, repose. We head south, like the birds in winter, to escape from hardship. The South is a garden world where there is no conflict between nature and culture; where sweet fruits drop from the bough; where food plants grow and domestic animals give their service as if of their own goodwill, without any need for the violence and coercion of the plough that cuts open the earth, the goad that drives the cattle. Feminised utopias, whether or not imagined by women, are full of the warm south. Tolkienís entwives -though their ideal land is criticised by their creator, who prefers a masculine wilderness- are the guardians of a garden world. In the eighteenth century idyll Paul et Virginie, a work that profoundly influenced George Sand and the whole pastoral Utopian tradition, a Caribbean island is the paradise in which the children of nature live without sin, nurtured at the bosom of their mother earth. The South is a place where dominating masculine attitudes to the world and to other people (nature red in tooth and claw: you have to be cruel to be kind) are proved unnecessary, and soft feminine values -gentleness, affection, tenderness- can thrive.

Feminised and feminist utopias of the twentieth century have this same character. The best known of early twentieth century feminist utopias, Charlotte Perkins Gilmanís Herland, describes a country in the South (somewhere in Central America, to be more precise) where men have been unknown for two thousand years. Though Gilmanís authoritarian and elitist Utopia has its distasteful side for modern readers, the female-only culture presents itself as a commonalty from which violence and coercion have been banished. Herland is a garden world, where compassionate farming and the gentle but intensive education of children are perceived as the most important activities of public and private life. In the period when Ursula Le Guin was producing her most important and most influential Utopian writing so far, examples of the feminised pastorale abound. Joan Slonczewski A Door Into Ocean, Vonda McIntyreís Dreamsnake;

Marge Piercyís Woman On The Edge Of Time, imagine feminist or feminised cultures where advanced scientific techniques are handled with authority and confidence by the female utopians. Sally Gearhartís The Wanderground gave feminised spirituality and communion with the (female) earth the status of magical power. Suzy Charnasís Riding Women, in Motherlines are more like guerrilla survivalists than farmers. But they too have a communion with the earth, with their animals: a non-coercive relationship and affinity with nature. Even Joanna Russ, the great polemicist, dreamed of Whileaway, her high-tech supported all-female colony (or alternative earth) as a world of the south, a serene garden paradise.

Ursula Le Guinís most purely Utopian narrative, Always Coming Home inhabits this gentle land. It describes the culture of the Kesh, a people who "might be going to have lived" in California, at some time in our future. The Kesh are pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, gardeners. Their society does not exclude men. Instead some masculine activities -making war, hunting, promiscuous sex- are restricted to special enclaves or special licensed reversals -feast days when men are allowed to behave badly for a few hours, just as a treat. Other traditional masculine preserves -intellectual and spiritual authority- have simply been hijacked; they belong to women now. Advanced technology, another male-gendered preserve, is no longer a human concern. It is pursued by intelligent machines, for their own purposes. The world of the Kesh is not literally a "No manís land", like Herland or Whileaway. Nor is it an exclusive club like Sally Gearhartís Wanderground , or like the Mattapoisett farming commune of Marge Piercyís Woman On The Edge Of Time, which a few men may enter because they have proved that they are not going to behave badly. But it is a world which is ruled by no man: in which no man can construct himself as master of any aspect of the universe, without being perceived and treated as a psychopath.

Always Coming Home is exhaustive and practical as a gardening manual. With some cunning it disguises the softness, the wish-fulfilment of its inner landscape, by giving the Kesh a fairly harsh, though beautiful and rewarding natural environment. The future California in its pages is imagined so thoroughly, from zoning regulations to trade relations, and with such sparing use of magic, that it brings paradise very close to real world Utopian thinking and practice. Small is beautiful. Consume less. Grow your own food, make your own power by sustainable means. Put a big share of your resources into childcare. Recycle everything. Show your wealth by giving gifts. Enjoy and celebrate your domestic life, abandon arid intellectual and technological aspirations... It might be looked on as the farthermost development of the feminised ideal world that has ever yet been attempted. Certainly the appearance of this compendium in

1985 -with its anthology of Kesh poetry, richly decorated text, its glossaries, dictionaries; even a companion tape of "Kesh" music played on "Kesh" instruments, seems to have marked the end of something: the end of one Southern voyage of exploration. Nothing quite like Always Coming Home has been produced since. Feminised worlds and enclaves where everybody eats their greens and practises non-violence still thrive in the genre of science fiction and fantasy. But they are less significant, no more than an option among others for self-congratulation or comforting escapism.

Always Coming Home is a classic Utopia: not so much a novel as a collection of descriptive writings. The framing narrative, the life-story of a young woman whose father is a member of a recidivist, militarist, male-dominated tribe, the Condors, provides the only plot logically available to Utopian fiction: a challenge from the world outside paradise, that allows us to compare and contrast the ideal system with the bad old ways. The time, insisting on the need for practical, immediate Utopian change, is close enough to our present for the Kesh to feel the lasting ill-effects of male-dominated twentieth century excess. But the palimpsest of cultural reportage, from character-portraits to recipes, includes a running commentary in the voice of "Little Bear Woman" -that is, Ursula- expressing doubts about the whole project. Utopia, as Le Guin herself told us in the earlier story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas", is an idyll that we may imagine, but we are not allowed to enjoy. In "The Ones Who Walk Away" the existence of an ideal society mysteriously depends on the sufferings of a starved and filthy child kept sobbing in a dungeon. The gloriously happy and perfect young people of Omelas are each taken to see this child, as an initiation into adulthood. Most of them are able to accept the bargain. Some of them (only a few, we are told) are not. To immerse yourself in Utopian thinking is to refuse to engage with the real, suffering world. Thereís something smug about the exercise. Isnít the society where "everybody" is good, simply a society described from the point of view of those who stand to benefit most? The essential conformism of Utopia would shock many of us, in any other context.

In another major novel, Ursula Le Guin imagines a different Utopia, and one which avoids most of these strictures. In The Dispossessed an explicitly unnatural society, a community of anarchists, has left the splendidly fertile but wordly world and society of the planet Urras, to set up an Utopian colony on the inhospitable surface of Urrasís moon. Anarres is far from being a rich, soft, paradise. It is a barren semi-desert where existence is a painful struggle. Yet relaxation, warmth and repose beyond the hopes of non-Utopian mortals are found in comradeship, and in the moral certainties of a political code. The Dispossessed is complex and subtle

 

in its treatment of the anarchists and their worldly neighbours; and the dilemma of a man of genius, torn between freedom and responsibility. To discuss the novel as a whole is beyond the scope of this paper. But the division of labour between the Utopian husband and wife, Shevek the physicist and his wife Takver, is striking. Shevek is a genius, and therefore a law unto himself. The political Utopia canít hold him, nor can the worldly world. Takver is not a genius, therefore she is left behind to keep house and raise the children, in conditions of considerable hardship. She accepts her lot with serene self-confidence and plenty of political rationale. She is not a victim. She is an ordinary, willing footsoldier of the Good State. Itís just her luck to have fallen permanently in love with an extraordinary person. But it is rather difficult for a feminist to read The Dispossessed without noticing Takver -without noticing that Ursula Le Guinís Utopia offers the main female character nothing that she couldnít have any day of the week, as a compliant woman, in the normal working of any society in our familiar, non-Utopian old world. Homelife, her children, her garden: a low-status job that doesnít interfere with her childcare; sometimes a little spare time for her art.

In Always Coming Home, a womanís traditional domestic sphere is glorified. In The Dispossessed, Takverís confinement in the domestic sphere is something that Utopia doesnít regard as a problem. Most men of Anarres, arguably, share most of her fate. In another, less substantial novel, The Word For World Is Forest the feminised landscape itself becomes a character, and women are mainly absent. In this story the south is another planet: a Garden of Eden world cloaked in soft, secret mysterious forests and inhabited by a gentle people -the Athsheans- who spend much of their lives in a magical, subconscious dreamtime continuum. In Athshean society (we are told) the males have the spiritual authority, the females have civil and political power: sex roles are immovable but have parity of esteem. But the Athshean protagonist is male. Explicitly (his wife has been killed in a brutal rape) and implicitly (his whole planet is being raped by capitalist exploiters from earth), his heroic task is to defend the womanhood of his world, the suffering, helpless female landscape. The Word For World Is Forest is Le Guinís direct, impulsive reaction to several concerns: the war in Vietnam, the recalcitrance of the nuclear weapons lobby; the wholesale destruction of the natural environments of this world. And of course, the Athsheans are finally goaded beyond endurance. The little, soft-spoken modest jungle people get organised (digging tiger pits, vanishing into mazes of tunnels) and conduct a swiftly successful guerrilla campaign against the stupid, loud, ugly, militarist, male-supremacist American invaders. (Nominally the human invaders, but the cultural identity of these villains is never in doubt). In her foreword to the 1977

 

UK edition, Ursula Le Guin declares that she regards The Word For World Is Forest as a failure, and blames herself for "succumbing to the lure of the pulpit". In fact I find the book a cheerfully cathartic fable. Agreed it would be simplistic to read this as real-world commentary. But Captain Davidson, chief white male, is a splendidly horrible baddie -and why shouldnít the reasonable people be simplistic about their ideas once in a while? Everybody else does it. Why shouldnít there be counter-cultural pantomimes, with villains for us to hiss and heroes to be cheered?

The south is a beautiful country. But the problem for feminists, in the feminine Utopia -the problem recognised in the unease expressed by "Little Bear Woman" in Always Coming Home- is twofold. One aspect is historical. The anger expressed so directly in The Word For World Is Forest is equally present in Always Coming Home. It is hard not to feel angry, when contemplating the plight of the beautiful, bountiful earth at the end of the twentieth century. But when the world without men, or the world in which "male nature" is treated with contempt, is described as a paradise to which we can escape, then women, explicitly and implicitly, find themselves denying responsibility for everything that has happened until now. To declare oneself incompetent is an uncomfortable position for a feminist. And if women have no share in the blame for what has gone wrong, if their part has been to represent wholly ineffectual goodwill, then what guarantee do we have that a feminine regime can change anything?

The other aspect is conceptual. The feminised landscape of Utopia: loving and giving, unselfish and uncomplaining as a compliant woman (like Takver in The Dispossessed) is a dangerous construction. In accepting this model feminist writers embrace an age-old tradition, in which "woman" and landscape are one. This is a seductive idea. Much of feminist thought is bound up in a love of the earth, and -more broadly- in a fearless acceptance of continuum, not separation; a rejection of paranoid boundaries between humans and other systems. But it has disquieting implications. To put it succinctly: gardens do not write books. Landscapes, however beautiful, do not get up and read out critical papers at conferences. They may act upon us passively and gently, if we are receptive. They do not act.

Shortly before I was asked to write this paper I had discovered, or re-discovered, another Ursula Le Guin story about women in a landscape, discussed in a study of Utopian fiction by women called Worlds Of Difference. The story is called "Sur", that is "South". It describes an imaginary feat of antarctic exploration performed by a group of South American women in 1910. It reveals that these women secretly, shunning all publicity, reached the southern geographic pole before Amundsen and his party, (but concealed the fact ever afterwards, for fear of upsetting the poor gentlemen). An excellent essay by Naomi Jacobs, "The Frozen Landscape",

 

presents this story of extreme hardship in a violently inhospitable landscape, as feminist Utopian fiction. For the rest of this paper, I plan to examine in detail what grounds there might be for such a proposition.

The Ice Barrier

We travel south, from the temperate north, into warmth and comfort. But if we continue the journey, eventually there is a change. The first well-to-do Scottish settlers in New Zealand built their houses and gardens facing south. Naturally: what other direction would they choose, for warmth and shelter? It took a while before anybody noticed what was wrong. If we progress beyond daydreaming, penetrating deep into the hinterland of Utopia, we find that the Good State is not easy or soft or passive. It is a hard place to live, and a hard state for human beings to maintain. A journey through the soft south and onwards, leads us to the ice.

The Kesh suffer only because of the sins of the past; and from minor recurrences of male-militarist sickness. The anarchist colony of The Dispossessed has the problems of real-world twentieth century political Utopias. The fluid, individualist anarchy of the founder, Odo has fossilised into a fixed creed called Odonism, imposed by bullying social pressure if not by force. Kibbutz-communism has hardened into a centralised economy run by self-serving bureaucrats. The famines and droughts that plague the Anarres colony, the unforgiving harshness of the terrain, reflect the unremitting difficulty of Utopian life in a complex human society, a society where people still act, still have aims and schemes that go beyond the timeless cycles of the Kesh. Women in such a society; women trying to live such a life in any society, have a more difficult time than men. They have to satisfy the demands of the ideal, and also the demands of their traditional role. They must become both the earth and the plough. This is the experience of any woman who attempts to combine "natural" womanhood with a life of ideas.

Science fiction is supposed to be inimical to women readers. But there are many women who started reading science fiction as girls, precisely because there are so few women in the stories. Since Mary Shelley, female writers and readers of speculative fiction have enjoyed the freedom of stories in which womanhood is marginal or absent; and Ursula Le Guin belongs, or belonged, to this tradition. Perhaps the wholesale denigration of supposedly male activities in Always Coming Home can be read partly as a deliberate correction of the absence or marginalisation of female interests in her earlier work. The Left Hand Of Darkness,Ursula Le Guinís justly renowned and most famously "feminist" novel is an Utopian fiction that tackles directly the problem of female presence in the male-supremacist story

 

of scientific romance. The Gethen, inhabitants of a planet called "Winter", are a variant of the human species in which individuals remain neuter most of the time, becoming sexual for short periods in a regular hormonal cycle. Each individual may become either male or female for his period of "kemmer", depending on the timing of the hormonal changes (individuals who become pregnant remain female for the pregnancy and some time after). Any Gethenian may become pregnant, or father a child: many have had both experiences. Thus for the Gethen the conflict between (female) nature and the life of the mind should not exist. And yet, unfortunately or significantly, this is not the effect in the narrative. Let me say again what has been said before: there are no women in this ground-breaking study of sexual roles in sf. The single womanís voice is that of the outgoing planetary observer, who frankly washes her hands of the whole affair: and indeed the whole novel confirms rather than disputes the proposition that female characters have no place in a scientific romance. Our viewpoint is that of a male ambassador from earth. He has arrived alone, unarmed: his mission is to convince the Gethen that other inhabited worlds exist, and gather them into the human fold. He is, from the Gethenian point of view, constantly "in kemmer" -sexually aroused as a male. A Gethenian coming into the sexual period in his company is bio-chemically compelled to become female (if there are any homosexually oriented Gethenians, they arenít discussed). Since Genly Ai, the ambassador, has the typical reactions of a more-or-less decent but conventional human male, a Gethenian who "becomes a woman" like this suffers a fairly catastrophic loss of face. But Genlyís friend Estraven, who provides the Gethenian side of the story, has nothing disparaging to say about Genlyís permanent maleness -in which he finds a lot to admire The project is assimilation: but the burden of proof (in spite of the ambassadorís deliberately modest and suppliant approach) is with the female. Can Genly accept the semi-female Gethenians, the "men" who are also women?

Winter is not as harsh as Anarres. It has its seasons of richness. But it is cold: much of the land is cold desert and tundra. Finally, Genly Ai and the Gethenian, Estraven, have to cross the icy wilderness together. This journey, a pure feat of will and endurance in defiance of inimical natural forces, brings them together. But still, Estravenís female sexuality is explicitly rejected by the both the adventurers. The female character (here I paraphrase Joanna Russ) may write the scientific romance, may appear in it as a neuter person. Her predicament may be discussed. But she may not take part in the adventure as a woman.

To become a woman is to lose face, to lose persona; to give up the role of the protagonist. This loss, accepted with humility by the whole human

 

society of the Kesh in Always Coming Home, is the blank ice that lies at the end of the southern journey. But to go into the ice and survive represents the pursuit of personhood. This is the struggle and dilemma that Genly Ai, the male voice of this feminist novel, calls "the heart of my life".

No Man's Land:The Story "Sur"

The story called "Sur", subtitled "A summary report of the Yelcho expedition to the Antarctic, 1909,1910" is simply constructed and easily summarised. The unnamed narrator describes how she became fascinated by tales of Antarctic exploration. Finally she and her friends, a company of South American gentlewomen of several nationalities, set off together, financed by a munificent benefactor (again unnamed) in the steamer Yelcho. They are landed at Orca bay on the shore of the Ross Sea. They build a camp by digging sleeping cubicles in the ice; and a party sets out to cross the Ice Barrier and reach the south geographical pole. The Pole party returns triumphant, to find that their youngest comrade, Theresa, is heavily pregnant. Having been kept ignorant of the facts of life she was not aware of her condition when she set out. The baby is safely born, they are taken off by the Yelcho and return home. Later, news of the Amundsen Expedition and the tragedy of the Scott party reaches South America; and they know they have been the first at the Pole. But they have concealed the trip under various explanations, and no one ever knows what they have done. This report, the story "Sur", is a keepsake the narrator plans to tuck away in the attic, with her daughterís christening dress and her sonís first rattle.

"Sur" is a fine story. The feminization of a masculine legend is both funny and very moving. Of course it goes without saying that the women have extraordinary powers of endurance, immense reserves of womanly common sense, and prove equal to the most horrendous conditions. "Sur" is even more fun to read if you happen to be familiar with Antarctic exploration lore. Some mysterious items called "finneskos", casually mentioned as part of the attic trove in which the story will be buried, are the Norwegian reindeer hide boots (with the fur outside) that were used by all the Antarctic explorers of that day. The "Yelcho" was the steamer lent by the Chilean government to Sir Ernest Shackleton to rescue his stranded crewmates, after his partyís epic journey to fetch help, in a tiny open boat, when the "Endurance" had been broken up by pack ice in the expedition of 1914 It was the Northern Party of Scottís 1911 expedition, who were not involved in the doomed polar attempt, who dug the ice-burrows in which they spent the antarctic winter and survived. The Adelie penguins affectionately described by the narrator are regarded, touchingly, as people, and their kindly, intelligent manners recounted minutely, in

 

several of the male explorersí reports. The agony of the Ice Barrier journey -the blizzards, crevasses, lost goggles, the cocoa and spirits eked out in terror of starvation; the psychological horror of the Ice "good God, this is an awful place...": all these details are taken from the real-world records.

But we are also reminded, continually, that these are women. Our narrator says, on the difficulty of putting the expedition together "Of those few who shared our folly, still fewer were able, when it came to the point, to leave their daily duties and commit themselves to a voyage of at least six months... An ailing parent, an anxious husband beset by business cares, a child at home with only ignorant or incompetent servants to look after it: these are not responsibilities lightly to be set aside. And those who wished to evade such claims were not the companions we wanted in hard work, risk and privation." Elsewhere we are assured that the Expedition had only notional "officers", and all decisions were taken in common. The narratorís claim that she and her companions were all "by birth and upbringing, unequivocally and irrevocably crew" is at first sight curious, given their obvious social status. But they are women. They are not free agents, they have never been free agents. They are the property of their families, or their husbandsí families: and this stolen journey canít change that situation.

"Sur" may be read superficially as celebration of female power, a glorious role-reversal. Here is a group of women taking on a male adventure: doing something completely pointless and insanely difficult, out of that naked, Faustian desire to extend human boundaries which only men are supposed to feel. And they succeed. They do it better than the men, because unlike male explorers they havenít abandoned family responsibilities to take this trip, and they donít dominate or coerce each other. But all the wealth of convincing detail and emotional appeal should not distract us from the fact that these Argentinian, Peruvian, and Chilean ladies, didnít do it. Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott, did. This is not a story of achievement. It is a story of longing, longing for the forbidden. And a story of mourning, mourning for those lives, long over now, of women whose hunger for adventure, whose Faustian desire to go a little farther, to find out what lies beyond, was stifled through endless years of home duties, childcare, husband-cosseting. The narratorís repeated denial of any desire for fame or renown cannot be taken at face value. She tells us that this report is going to be hidden away in an attic. But of course that isnít what happened. This report appeared in the New Yorker. The purpose of the story "Sur" is exactly the opposite of what the narrator declares it to be, it is precisely a claim to fame. It is a claim to the forbidden territory of achievement, endeavour, exploration.

 

The Female Choice Hypothesis

There is a theory current in the science of human sexual behaviour, that says all forms of human creativity -art, music, science, adventure- have their origin in the male need to attract the female. Like a male bower-bird a man tries to have something a little extra, so that the females will choose him as a mate for their pragmatic female reasons: a man who can afford to waste time that could be spent on hunting food must have good genes. This is why men do the extending of the boundaries, exploring, making more: more wealth, more art and thought, more territory, and why women do everything else, everything rooted and real. Women perfect and enjoy what they have, they do not explore the unknown. This is the view reflected in The Dispossessed; and in Always Coming Home -which takes the extreme view that the Faustian desire is always destructive, always leads to madness and desolation. But there is more to be said about the female choice hypothesis. For of course women are genetically descended from men and women, and vice-versa. We are not dealing with two separate species here. A woman who chooses an artist as her mate -maybe for pragmatic reasons, maybe even for a stupid reason, maybe she likes the pictures and she reckons she can hunt for two if heís going to spend his life painting-, runs the shocking risk of having artistic daughters, and pragmatic sons.

The story "Sur" reclaims a womanís inheritance from the father. It opens wounds, not only in its stifled longing for adventure, but in the way it invokes the desperate plight of all those millions of girl-children who are and have been denied their rights, who are not considered part of their fatherís family. "Sur" is not strictly an Utopian story, because it does not present another world, better than this one. Instead it offers the Ice: a blank, an empty place on the map. Laying claim to No Manís Land, Ursula Le Guinís explorers are claiming to be the daughters of men. Inventing No Manís Land, which means to create more mind, means going into the Ice and leaving the soft south behind. Exploring No Manís Land means accepting that to be a woman, with all a womanís earth-grounded and gentle values, who is also a person, a protagonist, is to attempt something new, unknown, difficult. And this is where the journey south, through Ursula Le Guinís fiction, ends: and begins.

back to Essays page