The Right Hand of Light

This year for Christmas I only received one book: Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe (trans. Alexander O. Smith). However I also got a Kindle, which gives me access to loads of books which can then be carried around in a scarily flimsy magic box much smaller than your average book (although also without a lot of the idiosyncracies inherent in a physical object). I’m not yet ready to write about my thought on ebooks verses real books, by the way. No, this preamble is an introduction to a blog on the basis on which I considered writing several times in the empty months when I didn’t use this blog: based on notes in my journal about books I’ve been reading. Because while I have my magical book box and Brave Story rearranging my room has left me in the mood to re-read one of the books taking pride of place on my shelf: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. (Also this article on the Guardian website).

This mood is particularly stupid as despite the fact that one of my stated aims for this year was to read the last of the Ekumen* books to which I have access I haven’t read The Dispossessed, which might be the best, and since finishing Left Hand in January I have only managed to read The Word for World is Forest, in October. On the other hand, in my diary I did say that Left Hand “will probably need re-reading quite a bit”. The urge to re-read will be resisted, however, primarily on the basis that I don’t want to have to take it back to Oxford and I have too many other things which I’m already reading. I think I will try to next year, but I have given an impression of how good I am at sticking to these intentions I think.

I began 2010 by reading the Earthsea books and I think that I intended to end it by reading the Ekumen – this I suspect was putting too much expectation into Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusion. They were, after all, some of Le Guin’s earliest works, and the Earthsea books, a later series, should have built upon this whether consciously or otherwise. The plots of the Ekumen books tend to (with the exception of City of Illusion thus far) centre on anthropological research and the explorations of either ethnographers or colonizers on new worlds with other human-like populations (after the universe was originally colonized by the Hainish, hence their place in the title of the saga/cycle). In contrast, the Earthsea books (especially A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, which is my favourite of Le Guin’s books which I have read) are simply based on ideas about cults and rites of passage which come from anthropological research, which makes them much better. Left Hand, written I believe at around the same time as Atuan and so perhaps it is unsurprising that I consider this her best streak, successfully combines the two, as I believe much of Le Guin’s feminism is based on what I think of as “feminist realism”**, which is the identification and study of women’s role in history and their importance in social evolution, as opposed to feminist ideology, which is the motivation to change things to produce equality between male and female. I’m a bit too tired to fully explain this, but I hope it makes sense.

Several of my comments on that first “trilogy” (although it isn’t really anything of the sort): Rocannon’s World isn’t brilliant, but it is a first novel and so perhaps I should not be so harsh; Planet of Exile is a big improvement but is “linear, with no great idea of any geography that didn’t involve straight lines” (or, as I put it on 6th January, “a bit Joe Abercrombie”); City of Illusions is exciting if you study a post-apocalyptic society (as I tend to consider the Early Iron Age). If you happen to be reading this as a guide to reading Le Guin’s books, then I do recommend reading these three before reading Left Hand as set-up, but they are not as impressive as individual novels as the Earthsea books. Perhaps the most interesting comment in my diary about Illusions is “not killing is not the same as having reverence for life, the latter is much more.” I can remember these issues in the book a little, and I think that it is the seed of a higher purpose to science fiction literature which Le Guin really came to encompass in the later Ekumen books.

I said in January that I thought that Left Hand read like a conscious reassessment of the previous Hainish novels, mimicking the ethnographer on an uncolonized planet of Rocannon’s World, the journey and Taoism of City of Illusions, and the harsh winter of Planet of Exile. This is another way in which I find that the background of these three novels increased my enjoyment of the later work.

The Left Hand of Darkness has been described by Le Guin as “a thought experiment”. In their articles about the book from the past couple of years the Guardian have refered to this in quotation marks (um, as I just did) but I think this is peculiar. Surely all great science fiction could be described as a “thought experiment”? Perhaps it can be described as Le Guin’s first real science fiction novel, while the first three “Hainish” books are more like future-set fantasy (reading them I came to understand how Le Guin could possibly think Gene Wolfe did what she did only better – he does better than the “Hainish”, not than Earthsea!). The Word for World is Forest and I imagine The Dispossessed follow on from this. And one of the features of Left Hand, the planet which has never had a war, is explored much more saliently in Forest.

“So The Left Hand of Darkness turns out to be a book about duality and oneness, the self & the other, and the role of the male and female within that. The title comes from a telling phrase: “Light is the left hand of darkness, darkness the right hand of light.” Genli draws a Yin-Yang and tells Estravan that it’s him.” Thus was my judgment on the book when finishing it on 15th January. I didn’t have a lot to say, and I’m not sure that i can build on it now. I commented while reading it on how I wasn’t noticing the issues with which I expected the novel to deal, until I came to the section where Genli and Estravan travel across Gethen alone and isolated, which I called “the nub” of the novel. This is one of the areas which I would like to reassess by re-reading the book – I am sure that there must be more build up to this, but that it was too subtle for me to notice.

The earliest comment I made, which I did not make particularly elaborately, is that I like Le Guin’s use of the first person. Comments have been made about the use of the male pronoun in Left Hand to describe the Gethen even though they have no fixed gender – I am a little bit sceptical about genderless pronouns myself*** but surely there is a point that Genli is supposed to think of the Gethen as basically effeminate men who become women during their reproductive cycle sometimes, so surely “he” is the pronoun which he would use? This is perhaps one way in which Le Guin uses the first person to great advantage without apparently realizing, if her introduction is anything to go by. As I said in January: “I’m already beginning to see how I’ve been affected by Genli’s perspective, the judgement of the Gethen as if they were male but occasionally female, rather than a oneness.”

I need to re-read Left Hand, and while I am unlikely to do this immediately I think I will post more thoughts when I do. I would suggest that The Word for World is Forest is not as accomplished a work as Left Hand, showing more similarities in style to the earlier Ekumen novels, while being more thought-provoking and suggesting that more thought may have gone into it. It was also relevant to my thesis, a bit, as I had read a little about the society which Le Guin mentions in her introduction (but I can’t remember the name of, damn!) which was without war – she discovered it, apparently, after the original short story was written. It is the question of the innate nature of warfare – is it learned behaviour? Do the Athshe only practice war because they have seen how Terrans do it? It is good, but while the question remains fundamental it seems somehow less relevant than the gender issues of Left Hand.

I compared the Hainish Cycle as a whole to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (probably a better anti-Vietnam War novel than Forest) but I imagine this is a common element to pre-Star Wars hyperdrive science fiction – the difficulty and time span of getting around, the limitations of distance, the issue of relativity. This was a feature I loved last year when I read Forever War and had never experienced it before. I followed Left Hand with Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, an altogether less comprehensible work apparently written in response to Left Hand. My first comment on it in my diary is that these two books together left me very underwhelmed by the female characters in volume 1 of the comic book The Walking Dead (“Lori explains that she ‘couldn’t have made it to Georgia without the help of big strong man Shane who protected her and knew what to do which she didn’t because she’s a woman and they can’t cope on their own.’ Uh, that’s not a direct quotation exactly, but it might as well be.” 16th January 2011). Female Man lacked plot, but was overflowing with theme, it appears. I condemned it as “of it’s time” suggesting that the “present” woman, Joanna, feels quite “past” now, as Jeaninne is intended to in the novel. [aside – the plot of the novel is that three versions of the same woman from different periods of time meet one another. Or something. That’s what I read somewhere, it’s not clear in the book]. Ultimately I believe my conclusion is that Left Hand is much better, if only on ground of lucidity.

* I believe it is generally the case that this series of books is called the “Hainish Cycle”; however Le Guin herself, in I believe the introduction to The Birthday of the World, says that she calls them “Ekumen” or something – I don’t have the book with me to check. This seems a bit odd, as the term Ekumen isn’t in use in the original three books or two of the other three novels. Then again, this FAQ on her website shows that she doesn’t really think of them this way anyway, so why should we? I call them the Ekumen Cycle out of habit. It’s probably not important.

** I think it’s important to point out at this juncture that these quotation marks are intended to indicate that I am quoting myself, not because I believe the term feminism belongs in quotation marks. It doesn’t, it’s brilliant. Not that I think quotations make things not brilliant. But it looks like I’m being sarcastic or ironic or something. I’m very worried about tone in written works on the internet.

*** This is a bit too long to put in brackets so I am giving it a footnote. I think the English language desperately needs a genderless pronoun. But when discussing Left Hand in the opening meeting of the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group (OUSFG for short) this term the discussion of extra gender pronouns came up, and a work of Charlie Strauss (which I have not read) which includes nine (or something). This strikes me as a. excessive and b. too far beyond reality to be as relevant as Le Guin’s work. The proposed genderless pronoun which I have picked up from other OUSFG meetings is, I believe “xe”. I understand that some people object to the female honorific “Ms” because it is too difficult to say (it isn’t, but whatever), so “xe” is hardly likely to catch on (I think it’s pronounced “ze”). The point of this is that if we don’t have an acceptable pronoun in 2011, what was Le Guin supposed to use 42 years ago?

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