"The Left Hand of Darkness" is a work of science fiction published by Ursula Le Guin in 1969.
At the time, it sought to differenti...moreNo Mere Extrapolation
"The Left Hand of Darkness" is a work of science fiction published by Ursula Le Guin in 1969.
At the time, it sought to differentiate itself from most other science fiction in two ways.
Firstly, as Le Guin explains in a subsequent introduction, it didn’t just take a current phenomenon and extrapolate it scientifically into the future in some predictive or cautionary fashion.
Secondly, it explored the nature of sexuality as a subject matter from a sophisticated, feminist point of view.
She goes beyond semiotics, the linguistic significance of gender, and ventures into the philosophy, psychology and aesthetics of gender representation.
From a psychological perspective, she examines the symbolic role of gender. From an aesthetic perspective, she uses it as a metaphor.
From all points of view, she is interested in gender as the arena of power and its abuse.
Just My Imagination
Le Guin's dual ambitions were supportive of each other.
In order to explore the possibilities of "ambisexuality", she had to construct a whole new sexual, social and political world that was materially different from the known world.
To do so, she had to eschew the simplistic and rationalistic approach of traditional science fiction, and invent a new, alternative society (in fact, more than one), that could throw our own society into sharp relief. The novel had to be a fully-fledged work of the imagination rather than a work of methodical extrapolation.
The imaginative qualities are what makes "The Left Hand of Darkness" a great work of literature, regardless of genre.
Read now, almost half a century later, the novel still achieves its goals in style. The prose is economical rather than effusive, often lyrical, but sometimes dry, especially in some of the more descriptive passages. Overall, Le Guin is a master of the craft of elegant, if understated, writing.
The inhabitants of the planet Gethen are "double-sexed" human beings (possibly the descendants of an experiment conducted by Terran (Earth-based) colonizers).
What does this mean? [This is a purely technical explanation which is revealed fairly early in the novel.]
(view spoiler)[During the course of a 26-day sexual cycle, their sexuality changes: for around 21 days, they are "somer", sexuality is latent and inactive; for the balance, they enter "kemmer", during which they remain androgynous for all but a few days, when they acquire both sexual capacity and drive. Nobody knows whether they will acquire the sexuality of a male or a female. They could be either, month by month. A human could be both the mother of one child and the father of another.
Because sexual activity is confined to a limited period, the bulk of their life is sexually indeterminate and inactive. (hide spoiler)]
So it’s not appropriate or relevant to refer to Gethenians as "he" or "she". This is not just significant from a semiotic point of view. As a direct result, the chauvinism of Terra (Earth) is unknown.
The Style of Its Telling
There are two chief protagonists: Genly Ai, a "Mobile" or Diplomatic Envoy assigned to negotiate a Treaty whereby the Gethenian state of Karhide joins a multi-world federation called Ekumen; and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide.
Negotiations do not go smoothly, and the ordeal turns into an 81 day journey across the freezing glacial environment of an inhospitable planet.
The plot, such as it is, is functional. It is largely a vehicle to allow the differences in sexual, social and political characteristics to be showcased.
Most of it is portrayed in alternating journal entries by Estraven or sections from Ai’s official report:
"I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.
"The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust.
"Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
"The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story."
Even in these concise introductory sentences, Le Guin neatly summarises her approach. She is concerned with facts, the truth, imagination, story-telling, the collaboration of different voices that might or might not form a harmonious composite.
The Gethenians are not socially aggressive or even, it seems, acquisitive, in a personal or collective manner. Technological progress is incremental and measured. They don’t know war. They have eliminated the masculinity behind the rapist and the femininity behind the rape victim, resulting in the elimination of rape and sexual abuse.
This leaves them as a people free to concentrate on their one shared enemy, the environment, the cold, the Winter, the Ice.
Subject to the perils of the climate, their religion (Handdara) allows them to concentrate on an intensified trance-like experience of the present, what they call the Presence, which involves a loss of self through "extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness".
Pleasure derives from sensitivity rather than subjection or submission.
What is missing, absent two genders, is the subjugation of one by the other.
As a whole, the Gethenians are competitive, though more in pursuit of "shifgrethor", their measure of personal esteem, pride, status, prestige, honour, integrity, "face".
The word derives from the old word for "shadow". Each person must "cast their own shadow".
A shadow requires both light and dark to exist. Even though they avoid the dualism of gender, their whole or "holism" is still dualistic.
This dualism is in fact the source of the novel’s title:
"Light is the left hand of darkness And darkness the right hand of light. Two are one, life and death, lying Together like lovers in kemmer, Like hands joined together, Like the end and the way."
Ai recognises the resemblance to Zen Buddhism, and shows Estraven a familiar symbol:
"It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness… how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, [Estraven]. Both and one. A shadow on snow."
This dualistic holism summarises the paradox at the heart of their ambisexuality: they are "both and one".
I and Thou
There is another way in which dualism manifests itself. Gethenians can still pair off, in love and by vow:
"Ai brooded, and after some time he said, 'You're isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.'
" 'We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn't it? So long as there is myself and the other.' "
Later, the personal becomes political, and the political becomes personal. Ai applies the language of loneliness to his own mission as a lone Envoy trying to persuade Karhide to join Ekumen:
"I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy.
"But there's more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it.
"Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political.
"Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou. Not political, not pragmatic, but mystical.
"In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings, and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means."
As posited by Martin Buber, meaningfulness derives from our relationships.
And a successful relationship, a diplomatic one just as much as a personal one, must have the right beginning.
Into the Mystic
One aspect in which the Terrans are more advanced than the Gethenians is their capacity for "mindspeech", a form of telepathy.
Its origins are not explained. However, if you wish to hold together and govern a federation of 83 planets, you must be able to protect yourself against lying and dishonesty:
" 'Mindspeech is communication, voluntarily sent and received.'
" 'Then why not speak aloud?'
" 'Well, one can lie, speaking.'
" 'Not mindspeaking?'
" 'Not intentionally.' "
At a personal level, then, just as much as a political level, mindspeech represents the ability of two to communicate sincerely, of two to become one, of the ability of I and Thou to bond, of I and Thou to become We, of We to become something not just political, not just pragmatic, but something mystical.
In this sense, Le Guin’s great achievement is to demonstrate that the conquest of gender difference holds within it the potential to transcend the material, to escape abuse, to leave behind the darkness and to embrace the light.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I don't know whether I'll try any more. I'm too frightened.
It cast me into some weird existentialist...moreThe Frightenomicon
This was only my second Rankin.
I don't know whether I'll try any more. I'm too frightened.
It cast me into some weird existentialist quandary, possibly not even of its own creation.
I thought I would love the sense of humour and the music references (and I did enjoy a few guffaws), but it was a bit like being in a bar with a guy who has a very similar sense of humour, except he thinks his sense of humour is way better than yours and he won't shut up or turn-take.
For some reason, this novel reminded me of me. That guy in the bar might be me. And it made me sad. (How sad? Real sad.)
Maybe I'm just feeling low, down, reflective and/or self-deprecatory. In other words, hung-over.
The Ad Infinitomicon
I thought this would be the ideal way to come down off a David Foster Wallace high.
Instead, even moreso than "Infinite Jest" should have, it made me question myself and all (both?) of my pretensions (is it because Rankin shares some of my pretensions or because he doesn't have any at all?).
Maybe I am not as [choose one: intelligent/ stimulating/ witty/ charming/ polite/ gentlemanly/ funny/ incisive/ succinct (or if not succinct, MJ, relevant)] as I think I am or pretend to be online or hidden behind my [choose one: veil/mask/3D goggles/x-ray specs]...and I realised it first by noticing the same qualities or lack thereof in someone else.
But then maybe this is Dog's way of telling me to be less judgmental? Judge not lest ye shall be judged. Stop assuming the role of critic. Embrace the lowbrow. Embrace trash. Unselfconsciously. Without irony. Meta-free.
This novel would demand a lot of my mettle. And my Stephen Hawkwind collection.
The Reflectionomicon (You'll Be My Mirror, Reflect What I Am)
My meta-free resolve didn't last long.
I kept noticing what Rankin the author was doing, the way he was trying to write the story, at the expense of the story itself.
Ironically, I stopped thinking about his story, and started thinking about mine.
How to describe the feeling?
It's like looking into a mirror and seeing the fat version of yourself, or if you're fat or muscular, the thin, tedious, gangly version. (The first name "Ian" is supposed to be Scottish for thin and tedious. I was once thin, but no more.)
Worse still, it might just be a 20/20 vision of the fat version that you really are. (Well, surely that can't be right, not since I purchased my ab crunch machine with unique swivel action in four easy payments. Which reminds me, I must assemble it.)
The book itself?
It just kept coming at me, it bored down at me from the future in my quest to finish it.
I was trying to focus on the book, but selfishly I kept thinking of me.
Had Rankin created some kind of black hole that was emitting negative energy or black body radiation (aka "Hawkwind Radiation") in my direction?
It was like having somebody shove a packetful of jelly beans down your throat and you stopped chewing half a packet ago.
Then I realised I was the one holding the packet.
The following Postscripts were added a few days after my original review, once I'd finished the book and my prescription metacine had kicked back in.
I bought this book for $2.
Another reason I bought it was that I thought it might be part of some continuum with Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" (which I haven't read yet).
I was fascinated by what the suffix "-nomicon" might mean.
I still don't know, apart from the fact that the title of Stephenson's novel refers to the "Necronomicon", a fictitious work referred to by H.P. Lovecraft in some of his works.
Anyway, I think that while I was in this weird time-space continuum, a little bit of Aleister Crowley or some occult personage penetrated my soft thinking machine and made me say some stupid, dumb, over-sensitive things, for which I apologise.
I realised when I was looking at the back of the book for other people's inspiration that the "Morning Star" had called Robert Rankin "the English Spike Milligan".
Up to this point, having learned that these stories had been converted into radio plays, I had been thinking that they sounded like "Goons-Lite", so it was interesting to see that I was not the only person who had formed some sort of view like this.
For a moment, I questioned whether Spike wasn't English in the broad sense (he was born in India and educated in India and Burma, but spent most of his life in England, which in my opinion justifies the English moniker for him).
Then I wondered whether putting the adjective "English" in the description was supposed to imply inferiority or an element of dilution (e.g., a "poor copy" of some characteristic of a racial grouping better or greater than the English, such as the Scottish, Swedes, Swiss, Americans or, better still, Australians).
To illustrate this theory, imagine what you would think if someone described One Direction as an English Backstreet Boys or Shakira as a Colombian Beyonce. (Or for the oldies, Robin Trower as the English Jimi Hendrix.)
Anyway, whatever, I still feel that Robert Rankin is a Lite version of something heavier that he is not quite.
I don't want to demean him or his efforts. He's not bad, it's just that he's not great. But that's OK. Good on him for at least trying.
Me, I'm on the road to recovery, and I'll tell anyone who comes to my hospital bed that I'm feeling great.
Besides I have to get better in time for the "Gravity's Rainbow" group read.
That'll really blow my mind.
Here are a few laddish chuckle berries that appealed successfully to my sense of humour:
"Pacey-pacey, Rizla...the worm of time turns not for the cuckoo of circumstance."
"I straightened my shoulders, cocked my fedora to that angle that is known as rakish, straightened the hem of my trenchcoat and entered the bar in the first person..."
"If the shirt fits, lift it."
"I shook my fedora. And wondered what the world might look like if you were standing upon your head and viewing it between the straps of a tart's handbag."
"The gilt was coming off the gilded youth."
"I am Hugo Rune. I think therefore I'm right"
"Who is to say who is real...you and I might just be characters in a book. "That is absurd," I said. "And if it were true, who is reading about us now?" "Perhaps a character in someone else's book. Who is in turn just a character in someone else's book. And so on, ad infinitum."
Oh no, did Rankin mean this as some infinite jest? A meta-joke?
"Pacey-pacey, Rizla...for surely as the quixotic seagull of haste besmirches the tart's handbag of time, so too does the spaniel of hesitance foul the footpath of destiny."
"Pacey-pacey, Rizla...the knotted condom of self-congratulation may well be..."
OK, that's enough.
Oh, look, there was another one that I'll have to quote from memory, because I've hidden the book back on my shelves.
It went something like:
"The bright sunlight came in through the distant windows."
I'm sure he wrote it for a laugh, but I still wonder how big a room in your home would have to be if it had distant windows.
But I digress.
Like a pint of large? Call in at the Flying Swan, Talk a little toot.(less)