Descriptive Science Fiction and Ursula K. Le Guin: An Appreciation

The first time I read The Left Hand of Darkness, I did not get very far.

I didn’t make it past the first thirty pages the second or third times, either. Something about Ursula K. Le Guin made me stumble and stop. She discomforted me, made me anxious—as, I would later learn to appreciate, some of the best authors do. So I put it down for a few years, went to university, and read other books. Then, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I gave it one last try—fourth times the charm.

And it was.

Science fiction and fantasy were mother’s milk to me growing up but it made sense that I’d had so much trouble getting through The Left Hand of Darkness. The book is about Othering and that sense of discomfort about other worlds—all sorts of them: social, gendered, analogical, and physical.

“I’ll make my reports as if I told a story…” Genly Ai, one of the novel’s protagonists, begins. Genly’s awareness of his own story-telling—of his myth-making, his fact-fabricating—allows the book to circumvent escapist reading, to circumvent the expected manner of reading speculative fiction. Le Guin herself writes in the introduction that science fiction is often described as escapist by those who do not read it. But science fiction, she corrects, is “not predictive”—it is not fantasy, not a whimsy of the writer. Instead, it is descriptive, analogical, and allegorical; it is about the “real” world.

Genly, an explorer of worlds, does not know the planet Winter—where winter is eternal and the inhabitants take on genders only in order to procreate, biologically and socially. He reports on it as a pair of stranger’s eyes, is alienated by it, and, eventually, is exiled by the very culture he has been trying to document. He is almost as distanced from Winter as we are, and, based on his self-acknowledged reporting, just as aware of his experience being a fiction.

I was incredibly impressed that there was a text that could cross the bridge between literary classic and genre masterpiece—something my pre-university-institutionalized self thought was rare. Now, however, I am often surprised by the way writers and critics of fantasy seem to feel the need to defend their works: they are not only under the scrutiny of whether it is good literature but also under the scrutiny of whether their work should, on the whole, even be considered literature at all.

Left Hand of Darkness, with its talk of fact and fiction, points its finger at realism and shouts that it is little more than an unimaginative analogy (and so no different from their more imaginative cousins, speculative literature)—for what is any literature, regardless of genre, Le Guin seems to ask, other than signifiers structuring close approximations to the stories so privileged as to receive the title of “the real”?

Le Guin’s attachment to post-structuralist semiotic tendencies is glaringly obvious. Every time I return to Left Hand, I smile to myself at the heavy-handed ways in which categorical constructions are analyzed so blatantly—Genly laments, when Estraven asks him the difference between women and men on Earth, that he “can’t tell [him] what women are like…[and that he’s] never thought about it much in the abstract”. Left Hand of Darkness aggressively attacks the boundaries between man and woman, dislike and like, description and extrapolation, dragging readers into the fuzzy blurry space between recognized categories. Under the war-cry of science fiction description, and the importance of imagination in creating worthwhile literature, The Left Hand of Darkness threw me into a world where I was faced with a type of reading I hadn’t encountered before.

When I started trying to read Left Hand, I wasn’t used to speculative fiction that straddled the (supposedly opposing) realms of fantasy and literature. Strangely, even as a fan of fantasy and science fiction, I often valued the genre for its seeming simplicity. Growing up with kids who filled binders full of Harry Potter research, I was never so gauche as to believe that it actually was simple, but the ease of reading popular fantasy was appealing to me. Young Adult literature, especially: I was never a fast reader, and simple genre fiction let me go through books more quickly than I was used to.

The Left Hand of Darkness compromised that. It threw slow, more difficult reading at me when I wasn’t expecting it, and it offended my sensibilities regarding contemporary speculative fiction. Despite this offence, though, Le Guin still managed to inspire me. She challenged me to accept this new speculative fiction that refused to let me escape, and the marriage Left Hand proposes between literature and speculative literature has given me an incredible amount of pleasure. Once the book that I couldn’t pick up, it’s now the one I can’t put down—and the one I force into the hands of the friends and family around me.

The title of the book comes from a saying in Winter, and Estraven shares it with Genly:

“Light is the left hand of darkness/and darkness the right hand of light./Two are one, life and death, lying/together like lovers in kemmer,/like hands joined together,/like the end and the way”.

It is a marker of alienation—Genly’s, Estraven’s, and the reader’s. And when we, as readers, join with the The Left Hand of Darkness, we also come together with the concept of the left hand of darkness. Awareness of the Other seeps into every page of the novel, and Others us from the novel; it draws attention to our relationship with texts themselves, and how their descriptions of the world differ and are Other from our own. It tells the story of telling stories, of potential facts we might take on and wear, of meeting with these stories and—just maybe—becoming more whole having done so.

-contributed by Kerrie McCreadie

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