Uncanny Valley Digest: The Left Hand Of Darkness

lefthanddarknessLast night’s The Left Hand Of Darkness discussion turned the genre on its head! A bevy of enthusiastic readers pitched in to rock some pizza and admire the handiwork of this deep and multifaceted novel.

In precisely the way Bacigalupi does not, Le Guin actually goes through a lot of trouble to imagine other ways of being. She has crafted a world that does not [yet] know war, coupled with a powerful vision of a world where genders are removed from gender roles.

An interplanetary human Envoy has landed on the planet Gethen, with invitation from the stars to join the interstellar planetary community, the Ekumen. The natives of Gethen are a snow dwelling ambisexual species of humanoid which – though their radios work – have not invented flying, or war. Will complex political intrigue threaten the success of the Envoy’s mission, or rescue it?

Ursula K. Le Guin takes us deep into the pliable notional mysteries of human relationships and meditates on our inclusion in the tapestry of life. Now for the notes!
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David: From Le Guin’s introduction. How sci-fi is not limited to extrapolation. Sci fi is thought experiments! Le Guin wrote in the intro, “Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”

Meg: Le Guin uses elements of the travel narrative and anthropological soft science fiction to justify her rich and verbose info dumps. She sets the tone for this as a collection of field notes, more than a novel. Erik, who has read “more anthropological field notes than I have read science fiction books,” said that much of this novel read very naturally as if it were field notes and did not smack of a novel. Interesting to note that Le Guin is the child of two heavyweight anthropologists, not just scholarly types, but real celebrity status anthropologists in the Bay Area. (Alfred L. and Theodora Kroeber. In addition to many other things, the Kroebers are the scholars who cared for and documented the life of Ishi.)

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Which genres is she blending? Fantasy and Sci-fi, of course, but many more. The travel narrative, hard sci-fi, political intrigue, romance novel. It’s so fantasy in some regards that readers crave a glossary and maps, the way lots of fantasy books give. But she leaves it to the reader to deduce the world around Genly Ai. Readers are along for the same ride as Genly Ai, to figure out how this world operates, and where its variations are.

Where is the romance novel? Which two main characters begin by disliking and distrusting one another, but discover by the end a deep loving intimacy, but because of their social circumstances are prevented from acting on their newly discovered love…? C’mon, it’ll come to you…. Exactly! A romance novel.

Le Guin’s using high-falootin’ Big Idea sci fi here, like Asimov in the Foundation works. Big political and social spectrum considerations. Getting the reader to think about social structure in the abstract, yet so strongly grounded in these everyday characters.

Erik remarked on the contemporary anti-war climate of the writing at that time (This book was published in 1969.) She is laying out a very strong thought experiment to imagine a world without war. Killing and crime, sure, but not war. (Or as she does in The Dispossessed a thought experiment of an anarchist world and how it might actually operate.)

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Powerful theme of questions and answers. The value of not asking unanswerable questions. P.70 “the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.” P.151 “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

Tangent about Cordwainer Smith as a very important author of the New Wave, and a discussion about reading some of his short stories this Autumn.

Erik: Tangent about Micheal Saler’s book, As If, which discusses the growth of fandom in literature. “Enchanged disenchantment.” Playing with the idea of literary characters being partially factualized and tracked, like with Sherlock Holmes, and later with Lord Of The Rings stuff.

The Foretellers’ ceremony: WOW! It’s about the question, the journey. The answer doesn’t matter. A good question is more valuable than its answers. Just knowing that the planet will join the Ekumen does not tell enough. Nothing about Estraven and Genly’s character changes. Even knowing the Foreteller’s answer does not shorten the road.

She’s advocating a great model of the anthropological approach to everything, being changed by the other and them being changed by you.

p.135, The Ekumen “is an attempt to reunify the mystical with the political,”
We talked about the implication so that short statement for sometime. When were they ever united in the first place? Perhaps in pre-literate oral cultures, where all documents were spoken and remembered only?

Erik: Regarding the Ekumen, Erik mentioned “a sensibility that encourages an incounter with the Other. That interaction has a mystical and spiritual dimension.” Also, A “Human quality of being open to otherness, but with care. To be open to the other, you have to in a sense be broken open to the other. Be at ease with the tension and uncertainty (including the erotic tension) that comes with the charge of difference.

Suhail: Le Guin is even dispensing with the assumption that we have to resolve or somehow flatten or homogonize that charge of otherworldly difference before we can begin meaningful interactions and exchanges. The uncertainy is permanent. Dualities are experienced simultaneously instead of with mutual exclusivity.

See you next time!

HA!

Struck off on a tangent of other sci fi writers culminating in the most humorous comment of the night, from David Gill: “If you’re into Dick, you can’t go deeper into Moorcock.”

Commentary about the modern syndrome of needing security, security fetishization, security theater (in Naomi Klien’s words), and how creepy it is.

Meg: By being ambisexual androgenes, the Gethenians are an embodiment of the contradictions. Making peace with permanent uncertainty.

Meg: When this book 1st came out it was derided as a radical feminist screed. Le Guin actually had to write an apology article to the male sci fi scene. Male sci-fi writers attacked her for being a feminist. But she did not describe herself as feminist, as much as they introduced the label into the discourse for the purpose of sullying it and her. She was criticized for the sexuality and kemmering stuff, and the foretelling. But they did not note her very powerful vision. Or maybe their attack is how they did note her powerful vision. As Le Guin says in chapter 11: “To oppose something is to maintain it.”

Le Guin’s incredible versatility. She writes all sorts of stuff: Poetry, children’s books, YA, essays, etc.

Meg: “She brings optimism, but she is not sentimental, and that’s why it’s so great. She deftly illustrates the sophistication of all these mixed emotions and THAT is the greatness of literature.”

Erik: “She’s super smart, super aggressive, but not sentimental.”

This novel actually tries to imagine “other ways of being,” a phrase Le Guin uses in her National Book Award Acceptance speech. We ended our session by watching this elegant 6 minute speech. Now here’s a link for you to watch it:

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

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About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
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