Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The whole thing is nonsense

I've never read Ursula K. Le Guin. Not really. The Dispossessed was on the syllabus of a course I took in university, but we ended up skimming that unit, and the book. So: major gap in my SF education.

The Left Hand of Darkness has been on my radar for several years. I'm reading it now as part of MOOC (Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World); in fact, I enrolled in the MOOC precisely because I wanted to read this novel, else it would languish in my stack of unread books for a long time to come.

Le Guin's 1976 introduction to her novel is worth reading in its own right. In it she describes science fiction as something more than extrapolation; she considers it a thought-experiment, describing reality at a quantum level.
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist's business is lying.


Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That's the truth.

They may use all kinds of facts to support their tissue of lies. They may describe the Marshalsea Prison, which was a real place, or the battle of Borodino, which really was fought, or the process of cloning, which really takes place in laboratories, or the deterioration of a personality, which is described in real textbooks of psychology; and so on. This weight of verifiable place-event-phenomenon-behavior makes the reader forget that he is reading a pure invention, a history that never took place anywhere but in that unlocalisable region, the author's mind. In fact, while we read a noel, we are insane — bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren't there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?
The entire essay is worth reading in its entirety, if you can track it down. LeGuin's tone is very matter of fact; her style reminds me very much of Doris Lessing's (which is a good thing). It bodes well for this classic of science fiction.
In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

Hooray for insanity! I hope you enjoy the book!