Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Alien Mythology and Psychology

The Left Hand of Darkness
The Left Hand of Darkness 

"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."
- pp 223-4 

This is in large part a novel about a friendship -- one that crosses the barriers of gender, race and stars. It tells the story of an envoy, Genly Ai, who in the process of observing the people of the planet Winter ("Gethen" in the language of its own people) is is drawn into a relationship with this strange world and some of the people in that world. Winter is, as its name indicates, a planet that is always cold, and its citizens are neither female nor male: they have gender identities and sexual urges only once a month. These conditions have affected the development of civilizations on Winter with the most notable effect being that though there are two very different nations (Karhide and Orgoreyn), there has never been a war on the planet. From the opening pages unique aspects of Gethen begin with the notion of time different with a focus on the present that is so intense that each year is always year one with the past and the future redefined the beginning of each year. Genly narrates his situation thus:
"So it was spring in Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide, and I was in peril of my life, and did not know it."(p 2)
Le Guin explores what life would be like without the dualities, such as summer and winter or male and female, that form our way of thinking: the book's title comes from a Gethen poem, which begins, "Light is The Left Hand of Darkness … " Even the idea of progress is lacking as the society is defined by the concept of presence. However, it is the friendship of Ai with a local resident named Estraven and the resulting courageous actions that flow from that friendship that I found the most appealing aspect of this fine novel. After Estraven is exiled from Karhide Genly visits Orgoreyn as part of his investigation of the planet. His visit does not turn out well in that place and the adventure that ensues is one of peril and discovery for both Genly and Estraven.
The story is moving, in great part because it is beautifully written by an author who would win awards for her writing no matter in what genre she wrote. It is both one of the truly great science fiction novels of the twentieth century and one of my favorites. Harold Bloom wrote in the introduction to his anthology of criticism on the book that "Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time". It won the 1969 Nebula Award for Best Novel and 1970 Hugo award, and is considered by some to be one of the first major works of feminist science fiction.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Ace Books, 1976 (1969)

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