No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

2010/82: The Left Hand of Darkness -- Ursula Le Guin

I certainly wasn't happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can't earn, and can't keep, and often don't even recognise at the time; I mean joy. (p. 241)
Reread for bookclub: I first read this novel as a teenager, and have reread it a couple of times since, though not for a while. I was surprised by just how much I'd forgotten, and by what had stuck with me. (My recollection focussed on the trip across the ice, which is actually less than a third of the book. I'd forgotten about Estraven's son. I'd forgotten, or possibly not even registered, the allusions to Soviet-era communism.)

I still think this is one of the finest SF novels I've ever read: for atmosphere, for characterisation, for plot, for invention and for Le Guin's prose, which is so deceptively simple that it's easy to miss the precision and power.

There is a lot in this novel about self and other: about how patriotism's dark underside is fear of the other. The Gethenians, being both male and female (and, most of the time, neuter, so they're not driven by the sexual urge), necessarily have novel definitions of 'other'. Their society displays some marked differences to other known human societies that Genly Ai, a solitary emissary from the Ekumen (a confederacy of over eighty worlds, all inhabited by the 'normal' -- Le Guin uses 'bisexual' -- human species), struggles to comprehend. There is no war (which he interprets as a lack of masculine organisation). There are true and accurate prophecies which don't 'seem to matter' (aha, thinks Ai, that's feminine passivity). The Gethenians, inhabiting a planet without other mammals, without domesticated animals of any kind, are a race alone: they have addressed this situation by defining themselves as the centre of things. It's always Year One: they live in a continual present.

The word shifgrethor, which describes the underlying code of conduct that governs Gethenian society -- "prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship" (p. 14) -- is rooted in a word for shadow: and The Left Hand of Darkness is about shadows and light, from the bland Orgota ('it was as if they did not cast shadows', p. 147) to the depthless disorientation of a snowscape without sunshine -- without shadow, which aids perception.

Genly Ai gradually learns to see the Gethenians as people, rather than trying to force his (somewhat misogynist) gender-based dichotomies on them. Near the beginning of the novel, he uses 'effeminate' as a perjorative; describes somebody as 'graceful as a girl'; tries to force individuals into gender-based roles ('my landlady'). The prejudice isn't unidirectional: the Gethenians think of him as a pervert, someone who's permanently stuck in a single gender, and is permanently in a state of sexual potency. Eventually, through his friendship with Estraven, he begins to realise that he has more in common with any Gethenian than he has with a human female.

There are some interesting observations on gender roles and stereotyping: Gethenians spend the majority of their lives in a state of somer, sexual inactivity, thus sex is separate from everyday life, 'a room apart'. Plenty, too, on Genly Ai's growing realisation of his own gender biases.

As I said above, what I remembered most clearly from this novel was the trip across the ice. Now I'm wondering if Le Guin had read the same accounts of Antarctic exploration that I encountered some years later: if those narratives felt familiar and right to me because I'd experienced them before, filtered through Le Guin's spare, elegant writing.

I seem to recall that Le Guin was criticised for using the masculine pronoun throughout: as she has Genly Ai explain:
lacking the Karhidish 'human pronoun' ... I must say 'he', for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine. But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman. (p.94-5)

Le Guin later revised a short story set on Gethen, 'Winter's King' (in The Wind's Twelve Quarters), using the feminine pronoun to refer to Gethenians throughout the story. I remember reading this and finding it more consciously odd than The Left Hand of Darkness.

(There's also an essay by Le Guin, somewhat poorly OCR'd, on The Gender of Pronouns)

Le Guin's introduction is an excellent essay on why science fiction is not escapist, predictive, prescriptive:

Yes, indeed the people in [this novel] are androgynous, but that doesn't mean that I'm predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I'm merely observing, in the peculiar, devious and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. ... I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist's way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies. (frontmatter)
I think it's about time I reread all the Le Guin novels that I haven't revisited for years. I wonder what new things I will find in them.

(And I note that this review, or collection of thoughts, barely mentions Estraven: but I find him one of the most likeable, intriguing and rounded characters in fiction, and I would love to read his backstory in more detail than Le Guin gives it.)

1 comment:

  1. Le Guin is a genius. I have read some of her short stories about 15 times. There is also all the politics which I 'got' more when I re-read as an adult. What nobody can do better than Le Guin is the reaching out across a gulf. This is what I crave in stories about aliens: not the alien-ness (we are well acquainted with that) but the reaching out. She does it in Left Hand of Darkness and in Tombs of Atuan and in The Other Wind and also in the short story 'Forgiveness Day'.