Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

[Wikipedia link for basic plot information and background]

Le Guin's introduction to this novel is a strange little creature; its resemblance to the forewords/prefaces of novels like Frankenstein or even Castle Rackrent may only be part of a fairly idiosyncratic reading on my part, but they nevertheless resonate strongly in my ears as I read, and not only because Shelley is directly referenced. Like those other writers' forewords, this is a sort of personal manifesto disguising itself as a justification for the novel's existence, Le Guin is acting to control the contextualization of her book by attempting to fix in the reader's mind a specific reading practice which she claims is the appropriate manner for reading her book.

"Science fiction is often described, and even defined," Le Guin begins, "as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future." Le Guin goes on to talk about the purportedly predictive nature many attribute to science fiction, but argues that predictive extrapolation is not, in fact, the true spirit of sci-fi:
Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn't the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer's or the reader's. Variables are the spice of life.

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let's say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let's say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let's say this or that is such and so, and see what happens… In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed…

All 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, and the relativistic and the historical outlook among them. 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.
Le Guin may have had in mind the journal Extrapolation, founded in 1959 as the first academic journal devoted to science fiction and fantasy, when attacking the predominant view of science fiction's style and purpose. What's more interesting than her derogation of extrapolation, however, is what she opposes it with: both experimentation and metaphor, epistemological categories which aren't yoked together very often, except, I believe, by pragmatists like Rorty (and Rorty's version of Dewey), but the invocation of his name generally opens a can of worms I'd like to avoid. I think there are also some similarities to Benedetto Croce's philosophy of aesthetics, but I need to read further into his work to bear that out responsibly.

At any rate, this coupling does not require that the terms be equivalent or synonymous: while it is clear that a thought-experiment becomes a metaphor, and a metaphor extended far enough becomes a thought-experiment, the terms pull the reader in the same direction but at different speeds. They are not completely harnessed in tandem, and it is this variability that provides the novel with a necessary degree of ambiguity and occasional irony.

What was most fascinating about Left Hand of Darkness was for me the answers it proffered regarding the origins and development of nationalism. How much, the novel asks, is nationalism a result of male codes of conduct, particularly those regarding the formation of honor structures? And what, precisely, are the alternatives, if there were/are any? Le Guin allows plenty of room for different answers, the thought-experiment waxing and waning in its metaphoricality, the metaphors tried in succession, but not discarded entirely as errors.

The best section of the novel and the worst moment in it, however, depart from this practice, both seeking to infuse directly into the novel a conceptual system wholesale. Le Guin's interest in and commitment to Daoism is, I guess, a well-remarked and obvious element of her philosophy of fiction, and it is present here marvelously in Genly Ai's exploration of the Indwellings of the Handdarata, but it is also here too bluntly when Ai draws a yin-yang symbol as an all-encompassing explanation for Gethen's culture. The chapter about the Handdarata is just an amazing, intellectually invigorating reading experience; the yin-yang symbol's appearance was groan-worthy. Yet it really spoiled nothing—the sheer intellectual power of the book runs over its few missteps easily and comfortably.

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