Category Archives: Le Guin, Ursula K.

Human fallibility, an important concept (Le Guin)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness, newer printingAfter all the writing I’ve done on this book, one more thing sticks with me.

The main character of this book, Genly Ai, a man from Earth, is on the cold planet Gethen where humans (yes, he calls them humans) are androgynous, far in the future.  Instead of being male or female, they turn so only for a couple of days of their 26 day month in a continuous cycle where they can be male or female depending on who is in their environment.

It’s a fascinating idea, a world lacking in the burden of childbearing being only on one-half of the population, no rape, and where there is no male-female duality.

But what I want to address here is that Genly Ai’s life is saved by a man whom he disliked throughout the book until the man saves his life.  We are fully 2/3rds through the book before this happens.  This man, Estraven, is stiff and unfriendly, in the eyes of Genly.  Genly distrusts him and greatly misjudges his character.

For a main character to make this kind of mistake is a great tenet of this book.  In reality (Le Guin might say “And whose reality are you referring to?”) we make these kinds of mistakes all the time.  We look at someone and make a judgment and the worst of us never veer from that judgment even when faced with opposing facts.

Estraven is a forward-thinker.  When all others are fighting among themselves over nation borders, he looks to the future as a member of a galactic organization and imagines:

“Our border now is no line between two hills, but the line our planet makes in circling the Sun.”

He also talks about “patriotism”:

“What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry?”

And later, when he is asked a question that he cannot answer, says:

“Silence is not what I should choose, yet it suits me better than a lie.”

If only we could get away with that answer, when applicable.

Genly Ai, a good man to begin with, is greatly humbled by the end of the book, after experiencing the generosity and unbiased nature of Estraven.

The book itself is the report Genly Ai puts together for the organization that he represents, which is a terrific way of creating a book in my view.  It’s a step Le Guin must have taken on the way to Always Coming Home, the novel that I will reread and post about soon, one that is basically written in text book style, a study of a future culture, and a fascinating read, as is The Left Hand of Darkness.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Ekumen”

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessThis book is about a human in the far future who goes to a planet called Gethen, where people are androgynous except for several days a month when they turn either male or female depending on the circumstances, and during this time can either father or mother a child.

An infinitely interesting idea, and Le Guin examines it well, but another “thought experiment” she begins is the “Ekumen”, a relationship of many planets who have chosen to join together.  Genly Ai, the narrator of The Left Hand of Darkness, is an Envoy for the Ekuman to the planet Gethen, hoping to obtain their agreement to join the grouping of planets.  He explains what this organization is:

The Ekumen is not a kingdom, but a coordinator, a clearing house for trade and knowledge; without it communication between the worlds of men would be haphazard, and trade very risky…

The main characters argues that “we are all men… all sons of the same Hearth.”

Only one person is sent to a planet that has already been deemed a potential member, and this person, the Envoy, is designed to be non-threatening, nonjudgmental:

“…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.”  He says that beginnings, to the Ekumen, are very important, that “Its doctrine is just the reverse of the end justifies the means.”

How unlike any planetary council or federation I have ever read about.  One that considers each action and step to be important and crucial to the end result.

Surely good sense.  Proven by this endearing quote:

As they say in Ekumenical School, when action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep. 

So wise.  And a great book.

Artists & “the god within them” (Le Guin)

To be an atheist is to maintain God.  His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof.

The Left Hand of Darkness, newer printingThis is a quote from The Left Hand of Darkness, a book by Ursula K. Le Guin.  It is one of many profound statements in this book.  We can rely on Le Guin to take us to a new and different place than most sci-fi writers.  She has stated several times in introductions that she is an atheist but that she often speaks of God.  Mostly god with a small g though, like when she said in the introduction to this book that artists feel “the god within them” using their hands, when they are inspired.

I like the idea of the god within us.  I’ve always thought that atheists can still pray, they can pray to themselves.  To some extent, that might even be what believers are doing when they pray.

“The god within us” is a metaphor for tapping into our higher selves, the power we have inside.

As an artist I have felt the “god” working through my hands.  You could call it “flow”, or being in the zone, where your focus is handed over singularly to one project, or one goal.  Time has little meaning, except to return you to your goal, your project.  I remember thinking “I’m really onto something here” but it was more than that.  When you’re in the zone, you don’t over think things, at least I didn’t, but you have a direction.  Your hands know exactly what to do.  All you want is to be allowed to continue in that direction.  I will even go so far as to say that I had “faith” of some sort, in my ability, or that I was being true to myself, or in something else that cannot be described.

That flow will happen again for me, “god” willing.

An “enlightened” view from the 1960s (Le Guin)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

(con’t from last post)

The Left Hand of DarknessKeeping in mind it was the 1960s when this book was written, Le Guin writes, in the main character’s voice, when a Gethenian asks how women and men are different:

“I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female.  In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything.

The Gethenian asks whether females are mentally inferior.  The main character answers:

“I don’t know.  They don’t often seem to turn up mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers.  But it isn’t that they’re stupid.  Physically they’re less muscular…”

As I’ve asked before, should we attribute statements made by authors in books as their own opinion?  Should we attribute this view to Le Guin herself?  More likely her opinion of what a male would say if asked this question.

The comment is made by a male who is the main character, the protagonist.  He is a man of the future, an enlightened man by any measure.  So if it is Le Guin’s opinion that a man like this would spontaneously say “stupid” as what women aren’t, as if to remind himself, then she definitely underestimated how far equality would come by even our times, the 21st century.

Perhaps Le Guin would respond that she was simply opening a dialogue, or making a point that even in that far future, men still don’t understand women. 🙂

I don’t like to think that Le Guin was a victim of the prevailing notion of the past that women were mentally inferior than men, but of course it’s possible.  Just because she’s an amazing writer and storyteller doesn’t mean she is immune against “prevailing notions”.

Needless to say, I believe it would be written differently if written today instead of in the 60s.

Update:  A fellow blogger (comments below) helped me to see that it isn’t so much that Le Guin was a victim of “prevailing notions” of the time but more that she was showing the imperfections in her main character.

The Future as Metaphor (Le Guin)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin  (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinIn the last post I stated that Le Guin’s books are about differing perceptions of reality.  In the 1976 introduction of this book she writes that writers, thinking themselves truth-seekers, write down a bunch of lies, accompanied by scientific facts that make it seem more real, and put them out there as “the truth.”

In The Left Hand of Darkness, the beings (essentially humans but with a major difference) on the planet Gethen are androgynous, turning into males or females only a couple of days during their 26 day month.  Genly Ai, the narrator of the book, is a human who spends years on Gethan, and the book is a reporting of his experience.

Seeming to address my question of whether we should attribute statements made by a character in a book as opinions of the author, in the 1976 introduction she says that she is not saying that she is predicting that we will become androgynous, or that we should be androgynous, but that in a certain light we already seem to be so.

I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies

Fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor.  What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life – science, all the sciences, and technology…  Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another.  The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and [the main character of the book] would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

I strongly recommend The Left Hand of Darkness if you enjoy complexity of truth.



A history that never took place anywhere (Le Guin)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessAs I’ve said before, Le Guin as a science fiction and fantasy writer takes us to a deeper emotional and philosophical place than most.  Her stories, while set in the future, are about humans in the here and now.  Her books are about the perceiving of reality, the perceiving of truth, the perceiving of what is around us currently and in our imaginations.

In the introduction of The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin speaks of the relationship between writers and “the truth”:

Ursula K. Le GuinFiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth:  to know it, speak it, serve it.  But they go about it in a particular and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did or never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There!  That’s the truth!

She goes on to explain how writers’ use of scientific details makes it seem more like the truth, but it’s really “a history that never took place anywhere” except in the author’s mind.  Can authors, artists, be seers when all they do is tell lies?  Yes, in moments of inspiration, they feel “the god within them use their tongue, their hands”.

She sums up the complexity with:

I talk about the gods, I am an atheist.  But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar.  Distrust everything I say.  I am telling the truth.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessLe Guin is my favorite author.  She takes the science fiction genre to a different level, one with more emotional and philosophical depth than most.  I love sci-fi and will read, to some extent, even books that have little emotional depth.  But when I read The Left Hand of Darkness it pried open my brain in a way that no other book had.  And to think, it was published in 1969.  It boggles the mind.

Humans on the icy planet Gethen (they are explicitly called human beings even though they live on a different planet) generally look like us but are androgynous most of the time.  Only a few days of the 26 day month do they turn into the equivalent of males or females at which time they can either father or mother a child depending on what they develop into. 

The narrator of the book is a man from Earth who visits Gethen in order to persuade them to enter the grouping of planets called the Ekumen.  After spending some time there, over a year, he comes to certain conclusions.

(Genly Ai, the narrator, must use the pronoun “he” for an individual even though they are not males or females, for lack of better terminology.  This caused me to inadvertently imagine all of the Gethenians as males even though Le Guin addresses the issue.)

This society’s daily functioning has little or nothing to do with sex (talk about higher productivity!).  Each person has an equal chance of becoming “tied down to childbearing”, hence equality exists to a greater extent than on Earth.  No rape exists, and no male-female strong-weak dualism either.

To meet someone without immediately placing them into a category seems impossible for us, and is for the main character, though he strives to overcome it.

“A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated… on [Gethen] they will not exist.  One is judged and respected only as a human being.  It is an appalling experience.”

Gethens also lack “war” as we know it.  Intrigue, murder, revenge, torture, all exist, but not war because they lack the ability to mobilize.  The narrator says they behave “like animals, in that respect, or like women.”

Another human who had visited Gethen introduces the idea that some entity, perhaps humans, created the Gethen sexuality as an experiment, possibly in order to eliminate war.  No other planet that the Ekumenical peoples have encountered has this kind of “androgynous” human life.

Fascinating, excellent read.  Le Guin calls it a thought experiment, and that it certainly is.