Tag Archives: Le Guin

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.

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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.