Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Left Hand Feels Different

I have recently read Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Kind of a spooky title considering the actual subject matter in the book. The story is about a (normal) human’s adventures as an ambassador to a planet peopled by beings who are part of the human family (a genetically engineered subbranch), but are all of neutral/changeable gender. The ‘left hand’ of the title is part of a quote in the literature of the planet’s take on the philosophy of dualism similar to our concept of yin/yang.

While this book was written in 1969 it manages to still be largely relevant (I think) to the 21st century reader, in theme and subject as well as avoiding anachronism. LeGuin isn’t really concerned with technology or, given the subject matter, really technical aspects of genetic engineering. She lays down the hard science and hard science fiction bits down with somewhat broad strokes so there’s not a lot of fuel for nitpicking, and the ‘science’ isn’t the point of the story anyway. Where she packs in details is the world building aspect, especially the society and history of the Gethenian (planet Gethen or Winter) peoples. She has a pretty clever seamless knack for alternating between present narrative, and relevant myth and history chapters.

LeGuin is known for a feminist slant to her stories and a distaste for violence. Both of these traits are on display in LHOD but they aren’t particularly heavy handed or preachy. In fact, the feminism aspects might be surprisingly level and almost understated for readers whose concept of the term is more strident or who are able to place the story in its real-world historical context. LeGuin speculates on both male and female aspects contributing to social constructs, positing the usual ‘men equal aggression’ trope (Gethenians lacking male identities most of their lives have no war), but also finding that the Gethenians are rather lifeless and stagnant without this male dynamic. Gethenians are shown to be a socially concerned, nurturing society… stereotypically feminine traits, but it was never clear to me why a neutral-gender population would default to this feminine standard… probably the only glaring question I really had reading the book. Probably LeGuin didn’t intend it to come off as feminine specifically—more as ‘neutral’ and that if the Gethenians had instead been feminine-dominant there’d have been some other societal imbalance indicated. Obviously I have to view this as a male reader seeing this with a mindset forty years after it was written!

Her handling of violence was also done well. The (main) protagonist comes from an ‘enlightened’ galactic confederation, and in time-honored SF tradition that means violence-disinclined, more Picard than Kirk as it were. But the ambassador is also cognizant of more primitive society’s need to grow up and through their violent tendencies. Gethen, lacking male aggressiveness and hindered in warfare possibilities by the bitter, lethal nature of their planet’s climate, keep their own violence frequent but relatively low-level… on the nature of raids into rival territory or as aspects of politics, assassinations and the like. LeGuin manages to somehow make violence (and punishment in general) futile and distasteful, without avoiding or ignoring it unrealistically or going with the ‘but sometimes it is necessary’ that most peace-espousing good guys seem to need to fall back on in American-fictive conflict resolution/rationalization.

(This actually brings up an interesting reminder to me about Lukyanenko’s Night Watch novels that I’m also reading. It is a horror adventure series set in Russia written by a Russian author, and half of what makes it so interesting is the completely different moral stance from which it is written. No attempt has been made by the translators to Americanize the books, which is all the better. But Wow! Russians sure don’t think like we do. Not that I expected them to, but it is still quite a nail in the forehead some of the conclusions the Russian heroes come to, or the decisions they make. As a white Euro-descended male, the typical Russian doesn’t look that far off from myself or most people I see every day, but it is easy to forget the EASTERN European/Asian history and context that is SO different from our anglo/gallic/latin bedrock. Lukyanenko is considered quite popular as a street-wise, every-man author too… so I’m going to assume his views are NOT atypical of modern Russians. I could be wrong about that, of course.)

I think one of the greatest things about this book is that it is one of the many examples that packs a lot of story in a spare space. I think this shit is a lost art. Authors like Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and LeGuin here could world-build complete with myth and history in a fraction of the page count of more modern authors. And I don’t feel like I’m lacking anything after I finish one of their books either. I’m not saying I don’t want to know more about the worlds, or that thick books are all beneath consideration. I just find the ‘old ways’ admirable. Spare plotting, picking up the details along the way, minimal exposition… all demanded by the minimal page counts demanded by paperback marketing of the day. LeGuin has some pretty big books out there now, as does Moorcock, whose ‘plot is everything’ philosophy really scores points with me. But those fat-ass novels still really move. Its not really about putting your characters through a breakneck pace series of events. Hell, Tanith Lee is the queen of purple prose and she still got the work done in sliver-sized paperbacks. It more about focused, concise writing that doesn’t wallow in indulgent bullshit. If someone was just learning the basics of writing and their chosen genre was SF, fantasy, or horror (hell, any genre maybe) I think they’d do better looking to this style than to the Tolkiens or Eddings. Not only will these old authors show how to get to the nuts and bolts of the craft, but if one is breaking in by contributing shorter work to fanzines or webzines one needs to know how to get the job done with space to spare.

LeGuin won just about every SF award you can get for this work, and it holds up. In a time where we like to bloat just about everything we touch; books, movies, serving sizes for food, it was quite a refreshing turn. Too bad you have to reach back so far for this kind of workmanship, but good there are so many examples to be had.

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