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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.
If you’ve ever been at the mercy of public transportation, you know this feeling. It happens when you’re a minute or two behind your normal schedule and hurrying to the bus stop. If the bus is even a minute ahead of the usual time, you’re screwed. So you hurry. You walk briskly toward the bus stop, peering at the cross street as if you could see around or through the buildings at the corner where the bus will appear. You lean forward over your center of gravity, ready to make a run for it, even though you know that by the time you see the bus, it’s already too late. It’s a peculiar form of anxiety, waiting for the bus to cruise by and leave you stranded. It could go by at any moment. You can almost feel it coming.
As I wrote the final volume of the War of the Second Iteration I felt a strange sensation building; a quiet, formless and yet strangely familiar anxiety that could never quite be banished. At first I dismissed it as a consequence of the constant troubles of the past year. I never seemed to be able to stay focused on the book, and the longer that went on the more concerned I became for the quality of the finished product. But when I thought about it I realized worries over quality didn’t fully explain what I felt. One afternoon, while feeling the aches and pains left over from a traffic accident, I realized what was bothering me. This anxiety gnawing away at me was the fear of not finishing this book at all. Of not being able to finish it. So many problems had struck out of the blue in recent months, including that automobile accident – which could have been so much worse – what was next? Would the next calamity be disabling? Or something more terrible? And wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony of my life to get four of the five books done and then be taken out by some pointless accident or illness? It would have seemed a far-fetched concern a couple of years ago. By the middle of 2015, thoroughly shaken out of whatever complacency had crept into my life, it felt otherwise.
It felt like I was running a little late, and the bus could roll by at any moment.
Overreaction? Morbid thinking? Some would certainly say so, and council a more “positive” outlook, but I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I’m a realist, and to me the possibility of such an irony is all too real. The troubles of last year merely reminded me of something I already knew. I took them as warning shots. It just makes sense to be mindful, and to not take life for granted.
I quietly celebrated my 60th birthday not long ago. The simple reality is that I probably have more years behind me than ahead of me, at this point. The chance to get into print via the modern version of self-publishing came to me rather late in life. There’s a positive aspect to this. At a time when many people would be winding life down and wondering what to do with their “gold years,” I’m launching something new and – for me at least – tremendously exciting. I’m being challenged in new ways and dealing with new situations. I’m told this is a good thing, a healthy change, and it certainly feels that way! But I have a lot of books in me, a multitude of stories, and I have – how much time left to write them? Does anyone know? Can anyone know? To make the assumption that I have the time I need would be, to put it mildly, foolish. Too many people at or near my own age have suddenly come to an end, of late. People I’ve known or known of have died, cut down by something they couldn’t have seen coming, much less prevented. Over and over again I mutter, in response to news from a friend or news of the larger world around me – “Too young! Much too young!” It’s happened recently to the daughter of an acquaintance. Living her life as usual and suddenly gone. No one saw it coming. It’s the sort of news that makes you rethink many things. It made me write this piece.
I have no reason whatsoever to believe that I am exempt from the possibility of an untimely demise. I’d be a fool to assume such a thing. So I’ll keep moving briskly forward, ever mindful of that bus. The War of the Second Iteration is, for all practical purposes, done. But there are other books, other tales to tell. The clock is surely ticking. I need to write faster. But then, doesn’t everybody, really?
Isaac Asimov was once asked, in an interview, how he would respond if he received a terminal prognosis. “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” Though it was said with tongue-slightly-in-cheek, there’s truth in those words, so I’ve always been inspired by that statement. There’s been no bad news from my doctor, but it could happen. Or something worse could occur in the proverbial New York minute. Brood about it? No, absolutely not. I’ll use these reminders that life is a chancy business, and that there are no guarantees, as motivation.
And I’ll type a little faster.
The Man in the High Castle: Thoughts on the Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1963 Leave a comment
It’s been at least 30 years since I first read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The only detail I could recall, when I picked it up to read for this series of reviews, was that someone got his throat cut. Strange, the things that stay with you from a book.
Stranger still, now that I’ve reread The Man in the High Castle. It has a solid, well-developed plot and the story moves right along, as all good stories do. The characters are well-developed, with motives readers can relate to, even if the alternate history setting might seem hard to grasp more than sixty years after the Second World War. Even so, the only moment of familiarity offered during the rereading was that incident involving a single-edged razor blade.
The first thing that needs to be kept in mind, when reading this novel, is that WWII was still all too fresh in the minds of many people in the early 1960s. As always, when reading an older novel, a modern reader needs to keep in mind the context provided by the times in which it was written. Dick’s presentation of Japanese characters, in particular, might strike today’s readers as somewhat racist, but the way he handles those characters, and the culture they represent, doesn’t really support a racist interpretation.
In this alternate reality, the war ended with the United States of America and its allies defeated. Japan has control of the west coast, while Germany occupies most of the eastern third of the nation. In the middle is a shadow nation that is to various degrees under the influence of the war’s victorious Axis powers. The world as a whole seems divided between the sophisticated influences of Japan, and barbarism of Nazi Germany. In this setting, a tale of cultural conflict and survival unfolds in parallel with political intrigue that threatens to set off a holocaust, while people ponder a popular novel that seems to reflect our own reality, the one in which Germany and Japan were defeated. It’s a post-war slice-of-life alternate history, with elements of what might these days be called magical realism. The book easily held my attention to the very last page, and then left me wondering just what the hell happened.
This is a strange book, a story that at first left me with the feeling that my copy was missing chapters at the end. It took me a while to understand that the book actually ends as it begins. It fades in, and then fades out, without a sharp hook at the beginning, and no dramatic stroke of the pen to underscore The End. I find myself thinking of the story between the covers as comprised of a single object, instead of a flow of ideas. Or a flow of words and ideas that became, when I was done, a single thing in my mind. It’s as if this story were a small wood carving or a bit of jewelry you could hold in the palm of your hand and appreciate with one long look. This concept comes to mind because of a plot element in the book itself. A purveyor of historic Americana (the Japanese in the story are crazy about the stuff) tries to interest a Japanese client in something different, jewelry made by local American craftsmen who create designs like nothing seen before. The Japanese client (and later another of the main Japanese characters) is at first inclined to dismiss the item, but finds himself unable to do so. There’s a quality or property possessed by the thing that simply cannot be ignored. The Japanese client declares that the object contains “wu,” a concept from Chinese philosophy that seems open to a certain degree of interpretation. As the character in the book expresses it, an object that has wu is complete in itself, balanced in a way that cancels dualities. It isn’t one thing or another, it doesn’t begin or end; it just is. (It can also apparently mean that a thing is lacking in distinguishing characteristics, not necessarily something an author would want associated with his work.) A quick bit of research in Daoist philosophy more or less supports this, though – not surprisingly – it would seem there’s a bit more to the concept than what is employed in the novel. But if I stick with the explanation given by the character Paul to Mr. Childan, I seem to have a concept that fits the underlying oddness of The Man in the High Castle.
Like the bauble that mystifies the Japanese client, and later entrances – literally – one of the primary characters, The Man in the High Castle would seem to be a book possessed of wu, that certain something that makes it work as a whole, even though the components seem to be a little hard to distinguish. Since the author was obviously familiar with the concept, it’s natural to wonder whether the novel itself was an attempt to imbue a work of literature with wu, or if that knowledge informed the writing process as the story unfolded, and wu was the result.
Or the concept of wu merely caught my fancy, and became a straw to grasp while trying to comprehend this strangely compelling, well-written tale. Or both. I can’t really say. In any case, a rereading of this winner of the Hugo Award has given me something more subtle than a single-edged razor blade to carry away in the end.
Believe it or not, a year has passed since the last time I attended a science fiction convention. I’m about to amend that by attending TusCon again this year.
I will be attending TusCon 40, this coming weekend, November 8, 9, and 10. My novels The Luck of Han’anga and Founders’ Effect will be available for sale at the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore table in the dealer’s room.
Check here for the current program: http://tusconscificon.com/
I’m currently scheduled to participate in the following:
Has Future Shock Turned Into Future Fatigue? Sat.9am Ballroom
Mass Autograph Session Sat. 4pm Ballroom
Good Twists and Bad Twists: What are the keys to making plot twists unpredictable but still believable? 10pm Panel Room 1
How to Rewrite Right Sun. Noon. Ballroom
If you’re in town, check it out!