Posts Tagged ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’

On re-reading Ursula Le Guin

September 17, 2019

81yGpmCphML._AC_UY218_ML1_   We lost one of the greatest SF writers ever when Ursula Le Guin died earlier this year, and I promised myself I’d re-read some of her Hainish novels: I did this in a bit of a binge-read while I was on holiday in the Ardennes a week or so ago, and enjoyed Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed all over again. They are very thought-provoking, and you can see the influence of her family background and personal interest in anthropology.

I found myself trying to decide just how good she was, and what exactly she had achieved. The Library of America publications of her works which have come out recently are helpful because they contain her introductions, and also some interesting notes on the novels. Even in the earliest works, Le Guin manages to create very powerful and very moving characters, which, as many critics have noted, does not often happen in science fiction.

The idea that various Earth-like planets were ‘seeded’ with humanoid life at some point in the very distant past, and left to develop, gave Le Guin scope to explore a range of different aspects of human potential and societal organisation: never didactic, she leaves her reader to make comparisons with our own particular world, and way of living, leaves us to make judgements, too, if we have eyes to see.

The last two books I listed are those that most people would recognise as her best, I think. The Left Hand of Darkness puts our human sexuality under the microscope in a way no other writer has done, through the creation of the Gethenians who are truly androgynous: in a work of fiction, a writer can explore and invite a reader to imagine, in way that no textbook or academic work can. I found this idea so interesting that an analysis of this novel formed a major part of an academic thesis I wrote over 35 years ago now; I found myself wondering if I would write the same way now as I had then…

I also wrote about The Dispossessed in that thesis. Coming back to the novel again, I was taken aback to see how much bleaker her anarchist society was than I had remembered, how much more complex, too. Le Guin’s vision of the future of planet Earth, seen through the eyes of its ambassador on Urras, is truly grim, and chillingly recognisable in where we find ourselves heading now – yet Le Guin wrote over forty years ago. Powerful stuff, indeed.

I have pretty much moved on from my fascination with science fiction of forty years ago. I’ve kept a small number of books that I have come to regard as classics of the genre. But I still stand by what I felt all those years ago when doing my academic research at the Science Fiction Foundation, that the genre can make us think deeply about our world, and perhaps lead us to make it a better one, and I still have Ursula Le Guin up there among the very best writers.

Ursula Le Guin: The Language of the Night

February 8, 2018

517awu8bS6L._AC_US218_I’ve had this collection of essays for over thirty years, and finally dug them out to read after the death of the author, realising I’d never read anything other than her fiction. It’s an annoying book in many ways. Firstly, it’s a very bitty collection, of essays, speeches and early introductions to some of her novels; secondly, it’s broken up by numerous ‘introductions’ from the editor which do nothing other than add a little context, but fragment the whole, and lastly, the pieces are all from forty to fifty years old; some have dated badly.

Quite a lot of it is quite preachy, as in those long-gone days, the case still needed to be made for science fiction as a real branch of literature. Le Guin also makes a very strong case for fantasy, which is where she began, and I got rather fed up of her constant championing of Tolkien. I have problems with the entire genre, and whilst The Lord of the Rings was a cracking good read once (forty years ago, in two days, during a nasty dose of flu) I have never felt moved to return to it… She is good and interesting in analysing the language and style of fantasy.

Things improved as I progressed through the essays; she’s interesting on the genesis of Islandia, one of my all-time favourites, and a strong advocate for Zamyatin‘s We, which I must return to sometime soon. She also champions another of my all-time favourites, Philip K Dick, long before many thought him worthy of real acclaim. As a practitioner of the genre, Le Guin has a lot to say that is worth reading on the nature of the SF genre and its limitations, and becomes more personal and more revealing when she comes to reflect on her own creative processes and writing methods, which not many writers do.

Similarly, as a woman who wrote both before and after the advent of the new feminist consciousness of the 1960s/70s, she reflects thoughtfully on her own shortcomings as perceived by some feminists of the time, who took her to task for basically writing about men, even in androgynous societies she created, such as in The Left Hand of Darkness. The essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?‘ is a landmark. Such honesty and openness is rare in a writer, and for me is a mark of her greatness.

However, in the end I must say that a good deal of this collection is necessarily very dated, and if you are interested in any of her thoughts on either the genre or her own writing, skim-reading is recommended.

Astonished to notice this edition sells for £98 (used) on a certain website… make me a sensible offer!

Ursula Le Guin

January 24, 2018

I knew that one morning I would wake to the news that Ursula Le Guin had died, and that did nothing to lessen the shock of this morning’s news. A woman who had been the greatest living writer of science fiction is no longer with us.

As I’ve written elsewhere, my acquaintance with SF began during my childhood; at university I moved on to adult SF, and it was then that, moving on from the rockets and intergalactic exploration, I first encountered her work. Many people have enthused about her Earthsea trilogy, which is more fantasy than SF; I did enjoy it but have never felt the need to return to it, although it is still on my shelves somewhere. It was what I call her speculative fiction that always attracted me, and in my research degrees, I spent a serious amount of time and space exploring and analysing her work.

The best literature, and the best SF, makes you think. Otherwise, what’s the point? Speculative fiction asks the ‘what if?’ questions that attract the curious, and with her anthropological background, Ursula Le Guin encourages us to think about aspects of our humanity, our gender and our sexuality. Other writers have done the same, but I think she was a pioneer in the field.

Over time, Le Guin created an entire universe – the Ekumen – populated with a number of different worlds, all homes to slightly different variants of human beings, at various different stages in their developments as societies and civilisations, perhaps all descended originally from one race, the Hainish, after whom all the stories and novels in the group are known, the Hainish cycle. Some communication and some actual contact between these worlds has become possible. This huge canvas allows Le Guin to explore a range of different issues that plague our world, such as gender and sexual differences, reproduction, political organisation, wars and violence, authority, the environment…

My two favourites have always been The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. The former explores how society and economy is and might be organised, using a planet whose society largely reflects our current capitalist world with all its oppressions and evils, and its moon, to which those who reject such a way of life have fled. We see the difficulties they encounter on a harsher world, trying to build a more equal society along anarchist lines: their way of life has always seemed challenging but more attractive to me, and to many readers. As a writer of speculative fiction, Le Guin is encouraging us to imagine, to think other ways of being and to accept that they aren’t easy or utopian, but they are possible and available to us with effort. And, unlike some writers in the broader genre, she writes well, creates vivid places and characters with which we can fall in love, with whom we can empathise.

The Left Hand of Darkness works differently: we humans cannot ever become the andogynous inhabitants of the planet Gethen who randomly assume male or female gender on a regular cycle. But we are pushed to re-think many of our attitudes and preconceptions about biological gender and social conditioning through the Earth-born character’s experiences as he visits the planet. It’s a marvellous story, a masterwork of the imagination.

And then there are all the other novels and stories, not just in the Hainish cycle. And all her essays, which I have not yet read, but which are now on my list, along with a re-read of her fiction. I have warmed to her humanity, her humane-ness if you like, I have been made to think deeply, and I have been entertained; I cannot ask any more from a writer. A day to be sad, and deeply grateful.

Ursula LeGuin: The Telling

October 7, 2015

51pnzOxgvHL._AA160_I think I’ve now got to the end of all Ursula LeGuin‘s Hainish stories with a re-read of this novel, which I have to say I don’t think is one of her best, as the plot is a bit thin.

She writes about a world where developments seem to echo what took place in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and in Tibet since the Chinese occupied the country, exploring the importance of one’s cultural past to a people, as well as the consequences of trying to erase a people’s past wholesale, with the damage that ensues. The issues are complicated by enforced development (echoes of The Great Leap Forward, perhaps) so perhaps you can see that I have found it just a little too obvious and didactic in places.

Having said that, nothing LeGuin writes is trite or trivial, and The Telling is no exception: there is plenty to make one think here. The envoy from another planet this time is from Earth, but a future Earth where the consequences of religious fundamentalism that we see so much of nowadays has not really played itself out.

So here are some familiar LeGuin tropes: what is religion, and how useful is it to a people, what is one’s past and one’s history and how important is that? Along with reflections on comsumerism and planetary destruction, and what rights one has to interfere in the affairs of other places, peoples or worlds, there is plenty to dwell on. And one nugget, which is perhaps easily overlooked: her imagined world is a single continent, therefore a single nation, so there are no aliens, no-one is different, or an outsider…

Overall, it’s clear, as LeGuin has herself said previously, there is no definite plan or construct to the series of stories and novels (quite considerable, as you have seen if you’ve followed all my posts). The idea of a league of worlds, a loose-knit federation, the Ekumen as she sometimes calls it, is an appealing one, romantic in a sense when it’s created and described by a writer of her talent. It has given her the opportunity to reflect on, and present to her readers, all sorts of gender- and culture-related issues which cause any intelligent reader to consider their own world and how it might be different. This is one of the things that good science fiction does best; it’s seen most convincingly in LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, and it was the brilliance of those two novels that led me to hunt out everything she has written in the Hainish cycle.

Ursula LeGuin: Four Ways to Forgiveness

March 30, 2015

512VerrEiIL._AA160_Catching up with unread Ursula LeGuin stories has been more of an eye-opener than I had expected, and has certainly confirmed my feeling that she is probably the most thoughtful and imaginative writer of science fiction I’ve ever come across.

I’ve read several volumes of stories over the last few months (posts here, here and here), all part of her Hainish cycle, and I think this is the last volume (if you know different, please let me know!). The stories are loosely linked by the ideas of betrayal and forgiveness, which makes them moving enough before you start to think about the broader issues she is approaching.

The Hainish civilisation is three million years old, we learn, and has gone through many, different, peaceful stages. Two million years previously it had seeded various suitable planets in the vicinity; those worlds are now coming into contact with each other, having developed differently physically, socially and culturally; there is a very loose-knit federation of planets called the Ekumen. This complex – and not completely developed – system gives LeGuin enormous scope to reflect on how humans live, or don’t live, together. One realises that her father’s having been an anthropologist has perhaps shaped LeGuin’s approach to science fiction somewhat.

The four stories in this book comes across as tantalising fragments, disjointed, disconnected and yet that doesn’t do them justice: there are numerous subtle links and connections between them as she explores and recognises how hard and yet how necessary it is for peoples to understand how they develop and are conditioned over time, and how a deliberate effort to change behaviours may be needed. She puts gender relationships, relations between races, and issues about slavery and freedom under her microscope. This may make LeGuin seem didactic; only a limited and churlish response would stop there, however. She is optimistic about people and the possibility of emotional as well as scientific and technological progress.

Ideas: a world that has not known a war for several millennia; that it’s fine to be part of your own limited and circumscribed little world if that is where you are happy, but that the entire universe is open to you if you want that; that hard and painful choices have to be made and that we cope with them and move on, as what is important to us in our lives changes as we grow older. In many ways, as I read the stories, I came to think that they are actually deeper, more profound and more challenging in a way than the fully-fledged novels, such as The Dispossessed, or The Left Hand of Darkness are. If you haven’t read any of her science fiction, you have missed something great.

On feminism

March 19, 2015

I was prodded into thinking about this topic by a former student; I spent several years studying and writing a thesis on feminist science fiction in the nineteen-eighties, and read a good deal of theory, analysis and criticism. Although I’ve never gone back to it, it has informed – I think – my attitudes and behaviours over the years. I have been a little surprised at how some of the key theoretical texts from that time seem now to have faded into obscurity, along with a lot of the literature, too; I suspect that much of it was very much of its time, and has consequently dated. Novelists such as Marge Piercy explored a wide range of different relationships between women and men, and women and women, and she wrote an excellent utopian novel called Woman On The Edge of Time, which I’ve never gone back to (though I’ve often thought I should) unlike other utopias and dystopias I’ve enjoyed.

I have also been struck by the way that feminism has been dismissed, or sidelined, by women and by the media, as if it had done its job and was therefore superseded, no longer necessary. This seems to have been a rather superficial – and therefore not very surprising – response, in a world where responses to so many things are temporary, fashionable and superficial.

I am also beginning to wonder how much one’s attitudes change, or are modified, as one grows older. There are certainly ways in which I perceive myself as rather more reserved, conservative, old-fashioned, although I don’t think that this impinges on my commitment to gender equality as far as that is possible. I am still sent back, as I was thirty or more years ago, to the differences between the biological givens (which technology hasn’t really changed thus far) and the culturally and socially-conditioned attributes of gender, over which we do have rather more control, if we choose to notice, and to take it. Where I think I am more reserved than I once was, is about how much biological gender shapes and affects the ways we interact with and judge the world; though we can be aware of this, I’m unsure of how much we can change, how far we (men or women) can be different.

This is where I have found, and continue to find, the science fiction of Ursula LeGuin most challenging and thought-provoking, showing as it does one of the ways in which this genre can contribute something significant to literature and humanity that no other genre can. She is the only author about whom I wrote then, to whom I have returned. Recognising human biology for what it is and how it shapes us, in her Hainish cycle of novels and short stories, but perhaps most particularly in the award-winning The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin imagines human types on other worlds, whose biology, physiology, psychology, sexuality and culture are very different from our own; it is a stunning effort of the imagination not just to realise such people but also their own problems and shortcomings in relation to each other and to other species. Of course, it’s fantasy, you may say, all imaginary; yes, and it helps us, precisely through the imagination, to reflect on ourselves and perhaps gives us new perspectives, shedding new light on old problems…

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about my reading choices as a male reader. I find myself wondering about gender determinism: just how much freedom do I or any other male have to change the ways in which I think and behave, with the hope of moving towards a fairer world? And then I am also brought back to the Marxist analysis of the gender question, which basically says that feminism, though important, sidelines the real issues facing humanity, which are, of course, class issues. The gender problem will be solved after the revolution… hum! The older I get, and the more history I have lived through, the more I am drawn to thinking that Marx was right about the class issue being primary. But that’s another question

Ursula LeGuin: The Birthday of the World

October 29, 2014

9780060509064As I’ve got older, I’ve sometimes been surprised, when coming back to a writer or a book that I’m familiar with, how vague my recollections have become over time. I’ve always liked Ursula LeGuin: I’d forgotten just how astonishing she is, but this collection of stories brought it back to me.

I’ve mentioned, in recent posts, her Hainish novels and stories, and most of the stories in this collection link into that universe. She has imagined a number of variations on the human species, all descended from the same ancestors way back in time, but that have undergone separate development on their various planets. LeGuin is convincing in a Swiftian or Defoean sense, almost journalistic in the way she writes about these people; we receive glimpses into their possible lives, tantalising us, and then they are left: often her narrators are ambassadors or reporters sending information back to base, as it were, so their writing has a specific purpose, one different from ours as consumers of fiction. Sometimes we are left feeling frustrated, but we have our own imaginations…

LeGuin’s main idea is to explore a whole range of different gender and sexual possibilities in her almost-human types. There are androgynous races, races which are asexual most of the time, but then assume – randomly – a gender temporarily for the purposes of sexual pleasure and/ or procreating, races which have complex marital arrangements and sexual preferences. Yes, it’s all fantasy, if you like, yet LeGuin puts our own world, our own gender and sexual issues under a microscope, in the sense that there could be other possibilities and just because we are what we are doesn’t mean that we can’t think outside our own cultural and social conditioning. She challenges her readers: I wish that rather more of these stories had been available when I was researching my MPhil thesis back in the early 1980s: I had only come across The Left Hand of Darkness then.

There are a couple of other, unconnected stories in the collection; the title story The Birthday of the World imagines life on a spacecraft travelling to an Earth-type planet over a period of two centuries. How does contact with the home planet change, become less relevant as new generations who have never lived on Earth grow and run the ship? Why should their priorities be the same as those of their originators? What can they know of the risks and dangers of life on a planet when they finally get there? Isn’t the luxurious and safe coccoon of the craft a heaven, away from danger. Brilliant!

 

I’m tempted to go back and re-read everything I have by her…

Ursula LeGuin: The Wind’s Twelve Quarters

October 19, 2014

51CTnN8CWPL._AA160_I’ve enjoyed Ursula LeGuin’s science fiction for many years, The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness being among my all-time favourites. Something recently prompted me to look her up on the internet, and part from discovering that she will be eighty-five in a few days, the bibliography suggested several volumes of short stories that I immediately wanted to read.

Her imagined worlds are carefully constructed, starting from the premise that, many thousands of years ago, lots of worlds (Earth-type planets) were ‘seeded’ with different types of hominid races by one highly developed species; these races and planets are gradually reaching a level of development where they are discovering each other and coming into contact. There is a loose federation of worlds. What this very clever set-up does is allow LeGuin to put our specific Earth humans (us) under a microscope by comparing them with other possible tracks of the development of a similar species. I’ll make this a bit clearer by referring to The Left Hand of Darkness as a particularly good example: it is set on a planet where the humans are both male and female – androgynous – and at certain times, depending on a range of factors, temporarily ‘become’ one or other gender. Sex, sexuality, gender and relationships are clearly going to be rather different from what we are familiar with, and if you add a visitor from our Earth, then you have the possibility to explore many aspects of our own lives and conditioning…

Similarly, in The Dispossessed (you will find an entire post devoted to this fascinating novel somewhere on this blog if you search for it) LeGuin imagines a society run along truly anarchist lines: it is hard work, but appealing in many ways, especially when contrasted with a society like our own.

Anyway, I discovered that, along with the several novels I was familiar with that are set in the Hainish worlds, there are also many short stories that look at various aspects of those worlds, vignettes, if you like, rather than complex narratives. And they are a wonderful addition, that I was previously unaware of. LeGuin is obviously a highly political (with a small ‘p’) writer; she is also able to touch the reader (this reader) very powerfully through the worlds, the peoples and the complex relationships that she sets up in a few pages: I like the characters and their worlds and was drawn in and involved very rapidly. She moves beyond the narrower confines of more traditional science fiction very quickly, and, for me, does what a good writer in any genre should do: she makes me think.

So, this was a very enjoyable collection of stories, whether you are familiar with either of the two novels I’ve mentioned above or not. I’m already onto the next collection…

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