Archive for July 2016
Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970
Science fiction has always been a genre that embodies change. A genre built on the question “What if?” could hardly be expected to remain static, after all. By the time I was a teenager something called The New Wave had already swept over and through the sci-fi landscape, altering it forever. I’d already traveled through some of that altered landscape, having read Frank Herbert’s Dune, among other books. If I noticed that the genre was changing, however, I have no recollection of it. Frankly, my adolescent frame of reference didn’t give me the perspective I would have needed to notice the transition. My reading was too random – old works and books more recently published all jumbled together. I just knew that the more sci-fi I read, the better I liked it – somewhat to the distress of my parents and my home town librarian. Looking back and considering the times during which I grew up, I can understand that discomfort to a certain degree. Some of the fiction I devoured back then, especially by the New Wave authors, asked “What if?” questions that most of the people around me would rather not see asked, much less answered. Questions regarding human sexuality provide an example that looms large in my memory (I was a teenager, after all), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness serves as a case in point.
I was coming up on being finished with high school, and looking forward to having it a thing of the past, when I first read anything at all by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness was my introduction to her work, and it was one of those instances in which one book made me a fan of the author while altering my impression of what science fiction was – or could be – all at the same time. It was an experience much like my first reading of Dune. This book was different. It made a very deep impression on me at the ripe old age of 18 years, and I was just old enough to appreciate some of the things the author was saying. It felt that way at the time, at least. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness at the somewhat riper old age of 60, I have to admit that more went past me, back then, than into me.
This isn’t an indictment, of course. After all, I had the frame of reference of an 18-year-old from a small Illinois town. I was also something of a loner and misfit, into the bargain. Having made very few (mutual) emotional attachments outside my own family, the very human interactions of the characters that populate The Left Hand of Darkness involved levels of relationship that were pretty much outside my experience. For instance, it did not register on me until this rereading that the relationship between Estraven and the Ekumen envoy Genli Ai could be considered a love story. Not a conventional romance, but the story of a deep, complicated, confusing, and powerful bond; a love that grows between two intelligent people who never quite seem to recognize how they feel. And yet, they somehow come to accept each other’s humanity, in the face of their profound physical and cultural differences.
In a nutshell, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of a man sent to be an ambassador of sorts from a starfaring civilization to a planet just emerging from its rendition of the Industrial Revolution. All human worlds are the result of colonization by an earlier, lost civilization, and the envoy of the story is part of the slow process of bringing all these worlds back into contact with each other. The world called Gethen (a.k.a. Winter – so named for its Ice Age conditions) is populated by a race of humans who are a form of hermaphrodite. Gethens are, most of the time, androgynous. Once a month they become either male or female. Which gender develops is influenced by situations and relationships, but no one Gethen tends to become either male or female with any consistency. This civilization is divided into a pair of competing nations, one a sort of constitutional monarchy, the other bearing a strong resemblance to the collective society the old Soviet Union thought it was. (The people in the story don’t get it right either.) How the envoy navigates through the cultures that have evolved under the influence of the planet’s conditions and the reproductive biology of the natives makes up the plot. Along the way, the story examines the very nature of gender perception and relationships between genders in a way that is remarkably timely, considering what we see in the headlines these days.
There’s a depth and meaning to this story that I simply could not have understood when I read the book in 1974. (And I can’t hope to do it justice in one essay. That such a slim volume could have such depth is a tribute to its author.) The memories I could call up from that earlier reading centered on the adventure of Estraven and Genly Ai crossing the great glacier that dominates the landscape. What the book said about how we see gender in other human beings, and how that perception shapes us as individuals and members of a culture, went right past me. This time around my understanding of, and appreciation for, what the author had to say was very different. I think that this time, I get it. But maybe I’ll have to read it again after another twenty or thirty years of experience, just to be sure.
It’s been my goal, from the beginning, to keep these pieces on the short side, to make them quick and easy reads. This entry refused to cooperate, so it’s being posted in two parts.
When I pulled The Way of Leyra’an from the file, my intention was to go through it to check for typos and such, and clean it up for self-publication as soon as possible. While doing so, I continued my investigation of the so-called “indie” author movement. What I learned convinced me that simply cleaning the manuscript up and turning it loose probably wouldn’t do. I needed outside input on the story, its qualities and shortcomings. Professional editors had been impressed by the book, but that wasn’t exactly a critique. Hiring an editor was not an option. My employment situation had become precarious and I had good reason to believe I would soon be unemployed. (I was, unfortunately, proven correct in this.) I needed to set money aside, not spend it. I latched onto the concept of beta readers, and pondered how to make use of it. All the while, I read through The Way of Leyra’an, correcting errors and making notes as ideas came to mind.
At the same time, I pulled together some amateur astronomy material I’d written for, but never posted to, my favorite astronomy forum. With some work I was able to blend it all together into a short memoir of my experiences as a star gazer in my teens, and how I came to pick up the pastime again as an adult. The idea had occurred to use this small book to test the waters of self-publishing. It became Mr. Olcott’s Skies – An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession. While I revisited the novel and began to first revise and then completely rewrite it, I used the memoir to learn what I needed to know in order to actually make a book. You know, those little things like fonts and formatting, cover art and design, product descriptions and tables of contents. (Actually, this part was a journey unto itself, and I found myself exploring things that I’d never considered would be part of the publishingg experience. That’s worth an essay to itself, someday.) The experience proved valuable down the road.
Meanwhile, The Way of Leyra’an became another book altogether. Rereading and reworking it, I discovered a different, and longer, story in the material. Cleaning up or even just expanding the book wouldn’t do. This was a trilogy, no doubt about it. On the day that this thought occurred – I’d been working with the original manuscript for more than a month – I decided to take the original idea and just start over. The Way of Leyra’an had served its purpose, and it was time to write The Luck of Han’anga. As I gained momentum and a story began to evolve, I remembered how deeply I’ve always enjoyed the process of making words do what I needed them to do. I remembered how good it felt to write. Life seemed less bleak and purposeless.
One day, while working on this new novel and enjoying that feeling of having gotten a scene just right, there occurred one of those moments of absolute clarity that we all experience a few times in our lives. I understood something and knew this thing absolutely. The gloom of the previous years was well and thoroughly banished, the lack of purpose completely expunged because I was writing again, and doing so not only with the intention of publishing but in full knowledge that it would be published. In that moment of clarity I understood the nightmares and the black moods. When something defines you, when that something exists as the very core of your being, as writing has always done for me, it’s more than merely disappointing to leave it aside and walk away. It is, for some of us at least, impossible to do so without harm. The moods and bad dreams were a manifestation of the mental and emotional damage being done by my attempt to walk away from writing. The new world of self-publishing came along just in time, and I’m pleased to say no permanent damage was done.
These feelings of relief, of finally being back on the right track, were heightened with the publication of my very first book. Mr. Olcott’s Skies was released in March of 2012 and was well-received. By then I’d completed a draft of The Luck of Han’anga and found some beta readers, all of them people I knew well enough to expect they would provide honest criticism. They did; some of it made me cringe a bit, but when I read what they said and re-examined the book, I couldn’t argue the points. So I made revisions and tried to learn from it all, with my eyes already on the next book. My wife went though the final manuscript and checked it for errors, resulting in a very clean copy and a much stronger ending for Book One. I applied the knowledge I’d gained publishing the memoir and hit the publish button, and the first book of the War of the Second Iteration series went live on June 7, 2012.
By then I was well into the first draft of Book Two, and was having trouble figuring out how to end it in a way that would allow the next book to wrap up the trilogy. I actually sat down at one point and sketched out a sort of timeline to illustrate roughly the sequence of events I needed in order to reach the final scene, which was already fixed in my mind. To my surprise the overall story arc fell into not three but five sub-arcs. This was more than I’d bargained for, but I accepted what the story was telling me and forged ahead. I couldn’t help myself. There was no angst or hand-wringing involved; I was having too much fun.
And so it went, through books Two, Three, and Four. The story evolved as I wrote it, and each book built on those that came before. I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of the details and maintain continuity. By Book Four I was rereading material in the previous volumes, in self-defense. I’d had no idea what I was getting into and the climb, while manageable, was pretty steep. Then it came time to write Book Five, and it was like heading straight for a wall.
How do you end a story that’s gone on for so long? I’d done so, in a manner of speaking, four times by then. But in each of those cases there was a next book ahead to carry things forward. There was no going forward after this, and I felt oddly constrained as I wrote. (The fact that the year in which I wrote Book Five was a troubled time surely didn’t help.) I needed this to work, to be the grand payoff, and I’d never done anything quite like this before. Previous experience with individual books just didn’t seem to carry any weight. How to stop this train without turning it into a train wreck?
The story itself eventually gave me the answer. As I wrote and figured out more of what the implacable foe was and could do, and led the characters through the discoveries they needed to make within the plot, the end shaped itself. And then it was written, beta read and revised – and the end of the process seemed to come on all of a sudden. I’m satisfied with how it turned out, and rather pleased to have pulled it off. Whether or not I truly succeeded, well, you’ll have to tell me!
When I hit the button and published Setha’im Prosh, it was a strangely anti-climactic experience. Yes, it was enormously gratifying, and yes, I feel a great pride in what I’ve accomplished, but… How is it possible this is really all said and done? This has been the center of things for more than five years. Where are all those characters I’ve come to know so well? It feels strange to walk around and not be wondering what tune Robert MacGregor should play on the bagpipes next, or what new tricks the Faceless have up their sleeves. The impulse to do such things has not abated, but this story is done. Where am I supposed to go from here?
Elsewhere, of course. Into another imaginary universe, of which I have no shortage, believe me. And I already know which one it will be.