July 13, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "The Left Hand of Darkness," by Ursula K Le Guin

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
By Ursula K Le Guin
Book #18 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
A highly unusual and controversial book at the time of its release (but more on that in a bit), Ursula K Le Guin's 1969 science-fiction head-scratcher The Left Hand of Darkness takes at its start an only slightly changed version of Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" and its United Federation of Planets; named the "Ekumen" in Le Guin's case, they are an enlightened collection of peaceful humanoid societies from around the galaxy, which over the centuries of contact now have all come to realize that they were in fact all started by the same master super-race, the mysterious and highly advanced Hainish people from millennia ago. The book itself, then, starts with "first contact" by one of these specially trained Ekumen, with a new planet called Gethen who the federation hopes to convince to join them; from just a plot standpoint, in fact, the entire book is not much more than an observation of this ambassador's time on the planet for his first few years, learning more and more about this incredible race as he does. Because that's the thing that got this book a lot of attention when it first came out, and in fact still gets it a fair amount of press -- the people of Gethen are in fact androgynes, not hermaphrodites but rather lacking any gender at all for most of the month, instead going into a kind of "heat" for a few days at which time various chemicals in their body produce both genitals and a sex drive, the gender based on a complicated mix of biology, partner status, personal preference and the like.

As such, then, this book is almost a sociological study more than anything else, letting us experience through this black Earthling's 1969 eyes what this ice-planet full of Eskimo-like androgynes must be like, and how their society must be so different from ours; for example, how there's no such thing as gender imbalance in the workplace because of there literally being no genders, but how they see the entire concept of voluntary sexual desire to be the height of disgusting perversion, making them in some respects actually much more conservative than Earth's permanent-gender society. Without giving away too much of the plot, then, let's say that Le Guin basically imagines two main types of society on Gethen, much like Earth, an "East" and a "West" that are fundamentally different in some ways from each other; the novel, then, spends a third of its time in one society, a third in the other, the ambassador changing his opinions about them and bouncing from one to the other due mostly to the boisterous male Captain-Kirk-like wrong assumptions he is constantly making about the things going on around him; the last third of the novel, then, is a trippy late-'60s tale about him and one of these natives making a long and arduous journey by foot over the icy wasteland connecting these two societies, using the bleak desolation as a way to finally "grok" how the other's mind works.

The argument for it being a classic:
As I've mentioned at CCLaP before, there are basically two awards within science-fiction (or SF) that realistically compete for the title of "most important," the Hugo and the Nebula, meaning that these groups are usually loathe to award their honor to the same book on any given year; so the few times in history they have, like they precisely did with The Left Hand of Darkness, brother believe me when I say you should pay attention. Because the book is not just a fine tale unto itself (but again, more on that in a bit), but signaled a very important moment in SF history; the first time the "Establishment" recognized the growing power and influence of the so-called "New Wave" within the genre, rising by no coincidence at the same time of the general youth counterculture of the '60s and '70s, dealing with many of the same themes in many of the same ways as such other "Movement" details as psychedelic music and independent films. It was not the first set of SF authors to attempt to speak of "serious" issues, as some guides erroneously put it -- genre authors had been tackling weighty and complex issues as far back as the '40s, after all -- but they were definitely the first authors to say that a book could be set in the future and still mostly deal with sociological issues and the human condition, versus the "hard science" space-opera details assumed by the genre in the decades before. And it was a movement that was started years before The Left Hand of Darkness, too; it's just that this book was the first time the old guard officially recognized it, and officially recognized that it was in fact the wave of the genre's future.

Ah, but like I said, even if you take all this away, there's still the matter that this is a kick-butt book, its fans will say, one that will get you thinking about all kinds of issues in a way you never have before, one that like Tolkien's Middle Earth just ever-so-slyly references real human history in an impossibly ingenious way when meshing it into a fictional planet's fake history. (Take, for example, how Gethen's western half is a curious mix of democracy and fascism, basically the best and worst that real Earth's western half has to offer, a bizarre combination we've never actually seen in real history but that is a definite reflection of what combining the two might look like; while her fictional planet's eastern half is a mix of Buddhism and Confucianism, basically the Asian equivalent of what I just said about the West.) And let's not forget, this is also an extremely important pillar in the history of the relatively new academic field of Feminist Studies, as fundamental as something like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale which usually gets a lot more press -- a book released in the middle of the '60s women's movement which dared to picture a society without gender, without pay differences or work differences or hiring differences between men and women whatsoever, and telling the entire story from the viewpoint of a sexist old-school male at that, even if he does happen to be black.

The argument against:
Not much, to tell you the truth, other than the usual argument that this is a genre novel, therefore perhaps not appropriate for a traditional "Canon" list for the general population. But we agreed here at the CCLaP 100 a long time ago that we're going to count genre literature as eligible for "classic" status, so this is not really an applicable argument for us.

My verdict:
So first let me just confess my personal bias right away -- that since I was raised by people who attended college during the Kennedy administration in the early '60s, I myself was raised with an appreciation for such pre-counterculture things as Mid-Century Modernist architecture, Dave Brubeck, and such so-called "Silver Age" authors as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and more*, giving me a tendency to dismiss a lot of New Wave SF writing in a cranky old-man style as "that hippie trash." So please take it as sincere when I say I was absolutely blown away by The Left Hand of Darkness, and that it's immediately in my mind become one of the best novels I've ever read; because every single good thing you've heard about this is true, every single accolade, every single reason you've heard for why you should read it. In fact, I think it's very telling what Le Guin has admitted many times in past interviews, how it was the exact opportunity to do fictional world-building that mostly led her to SF in the first place; because that's the most interesting thing about this book as well, is the exquisitely complex portrait of a fictional global society she constructs here, which of course is really an immaculately unique look at our own society, seen through the kind of highly original prism that you can only get away with in this particular genre.

In fact, there are a hundred different examples I could pick and expound on, so let me just pick one; let's talk, for example, about how amazed and turned-on and creeped-out I was by the oracle-like fortune-telling ritual described in this book, among the shamanistic tribes on the Eastern side of Gethen that have been practicing their religion for over 13,000 recorded years now. Basically, imagine a holy man who has learned how to read minds telepathically, in a sorta mystical way that makes for good trippy '60s literature; now imagine surrounding him with the insane and retarded, all of them naked and around a campfire, feeding them all psychedelic drugs, then letting them rut like animals in an uncontained orgy, the telepathic shaman feeding on the collective energy of these deranged orgasms until exploding in a frenzy of metaphorical futuristic visions. Yes, and this won the Hugo and Nebula! In fact, this book celebrates its 40th anniversary next year, if you can believe that, which makes it even more astounding; a highly experimental, barely comprehensible survey of humanity's worst and best tendencies, wrapped into a fantastical storyline that almost as an afterthought provides these sweeping mental vistas of ice-locked landscapes, that has nonetheless stood the test of time for two different generations now and eagerly entering a third. It was a real surprise, a huge treat, and something I heartily recommend to each and every one of you.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Candida, by George Bernard Shaw
In two Fridays: Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
In three Fridays: Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift
In four Fridays: The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*For those who don't know, a very general overview of science-fiction would include a so-called "Golden Age" ('20s, '30s and '40s, when the genre first became popular), a "Silver Age" ('50s and '60s, a time of smooth Mod stories about the Cold War and skinny ties), a "New Age" (or "New Wave," '60s and '70s, when SF too waved its freak flag, grew out its hair and burned its bra), and then a "Dark Age" ('80s and '90s, influenced heavily by punk, when SF was fused with noir and nihilism, the same period when "The Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" were popular in comics). Many believe as I do in fact that we're in the middle of yet another great age in science-fiction history, which I guess you could call the "Diamond Age" for lack of a better term, coined from the fantastic novel by Neal Stephenson; an optimistic, shiny, Web 2.0 age, but one owing a strong debt as well to the ornate exquisiteness and neurotic hangups of Victorianism.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:14 PM, July 13, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |