The Left Hand of Darkness. Ursula Le Guin.

Le Guin, Ursula. The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace (Penguin) New York. 1969. F; 2/14.

Ms. Le Guin was interviewed in a recent Paris Review. Science fiction is not ordinarily a big interest of mine, but I was intrigued by the seriousness evident in the interview, so I read the book and also took a quick look at the trajectory of science fiction in light of technology in the last 50 years or so. Sadder and wiser is, I guess, the outcome.

The story centers on a far-distant future human envoy, sent from a federation of inhabited planets to persuade the Gethenians to allow their freezing cold world to join the others. He encounters political intrigue between the two nations on the planet, recognizes that though human they are hermaphrodites and are sexual only for short times each month, is arrested and thrown in a dreadful prison, PLOT ALERT escapes through the intervention of a friend, and travels over immense polar ice to the more friendly of the two countries, there outflanking the pretty well psychotic king and getting his waiting starship with presumed earthlings on board to land. END PLOT ALERT.

There is fictional exploration of foretelling the future, honesty in mental telepathy, the value of ignorance and uncertainty (there would be no religion if we knew God existed, it would be a mere fact) as a profoundly peaceful state, friendship, power politics, and some eroticism within the female-reproductive-cycle-like periodic sex lives of the locals. Ms. Le Guin’s story-telling builds suspense and holds interest as effectively as any thriller.

The writing however is stylized and I think needs to be appreciated from its contemporary perspective. Today its formal-archaic diction typical of mid-20th-century science fiction (“I am Gothomanak, King of the Warfaz. Heed me for I have powers beyond your imagining…”) has been rendered utterly idiotic by electronic games, so it sounds like the kind of thing that interests eight-year-olds. But like the apparently affected verbal communication in Mrs. Dalloway once we get past it this writing is obviously the work of honest thoughtful imagination. Assassin’s Creed IV imitates Le Guin et al, not the other way around, and unlike it she deploys all the character, suspense, intrigue, and ambiguity of a real novel.

The metaphysic suggested in the background of this book (the left hand of darkness is light by the way) is that humans or humanoids were at some point seeded onto approximately 80 planets and have since evolved but still bear similarities. It’s certainly a human known universe, asking us creatively to consider a different but conceivable climate, sexuality, and religious orientation on one of its small worlds.

I was a little boy in the 1950s and, as brief respite from vigilance for air raid sirens announcing the Russian nuclear attack which I expected and was deeply terrified of every day, I would bounce up in front of the black and white TV (was it Wednesday) evenings fervently hoping that this week’s Disneyland episode would hail from “Tomorrowland”, my favourite. I picture in visual memory the realistic moon rocket animations, and remember Werner Von Braun explaining with his German accent and a pointer how such a vehicle worked.

Le Guin’s novel was published a bit later, around the time that Apollo 11 achieved America’s goal of beating the Russians to the moon. But since then her intergalactic light-speed space travel has gone the way of artificial intelligence, and science fiction has been transformed through the magic of computer animation into dystopian cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic nightmares. America formerly an endless California freeway ascendant, is now a confused and dangerous downtown Detroit. How surprised thoughtful 1960s adults must now be that their dream of reaching other worlds has slipped back to preoccupation with human communication and information on earth.

Our much more technically sophisticated real future world seems to me somehow contracted. Safer for sure. “Thermonuclear holocaust” apparently pretty unlikely. But even beyond personally facing the last quarter or so of life here, it’s not as much… fun. I guess in a way we helped ourselves to most of the low-hanging fruit and now that it’s gone we need to find another tree.  It won’t be on the planet Gethenia. 7.6/8.1.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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