Thursday, August 07, 2014

The fitness of that city

Following the east bank of the great Rive Kunderer I came on my third morning in Orgoreyn to Mishnory, the largest city on that world.

In the weak sunlight between autumn showers it was a queer-looking city, all blank stonewalls with a few narrow windows set too high, wide streets that dwarfed the crowds, street-lamps perched on ridiculous tall posts, roofs pitched steep as praying hands, shed-roofs sticking out of housewalls eighteen feet above ground like big aimless bookshelves — an ill-proportioned, grotesque city, in the sunlight. It was not built for sunlight. It was built for winter. In winter, with those streets filled ten feet up with packed, hard-rolled snow, the steep roofs icicle-fringed, sleds parked under the shed-roofs, narrow window-slits shining yellow through driving sleet, you would see the fitness of that city, its economy, its beauty.
Big aimless bookshelves! The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin, is a remarkable novel and already I look forward to rereading it someday.

It is a beautifully written love story set amid a harsh environment against a backdrop of political intrigue. Which has to do with interplanetary contact. Also, there's a strong feminist message in the portrayal of a genderless society.

Aside: I think The Left Hand of Darkness bears a remarkable similarity to China Miéville's Embassytown, which is one of my favourite books, across all genres. The novels bring a studied anthropological perspective to alien contact, and the problem of communication across languages and cultures, which greatly appeals to my inner linguist. Both novels play with words, and the relationship between language and concepts.

Le Guin's Weaver — who weaves together the psychic energy of the foretellers — also reminded me of Miéville's Weaver in
Perdido Street Station, though his is absolutely weirder and more poetical. It would not surprise me to learn that The Left Hand of Darkness was a tremendous influence on Miéville.

Le Guin builds her world on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, showing how language determines its speakers' worldview. This is particularly evident in the concept of shifgrethor, an untranslatable term for a kind of honour code or code of conduct, which governs the behaviour of the Karhidians and their resultant estimation of each other, while the Terran visitor fails to fully understand its mechanisms and implications. She also demonstrates how the Karhidian language reflects the environment on this planet the Terrans call Winter; borrowing from Whorf's examples, she presents a culture that has a multitude of terms for "snow."

The same concept is evident in the excerpt above — the style of architecture has evolved under the influence of the environment — and Le Guin extends it to all facets of life. The people have not developed flight, because there are no birds.

The sexual behaviour on this other world didn't make a particularly strong impression on me — to me this is not the main focus of the novel. Perhaps because I'm naturally openminded regarding people's sexual choices. Perhaps because since the novel was written our society really has changed and established some level of gender equality (at least in theory), and is coming to realize that biological sex need not determine social roles or even sexual roles. The novel is perhaps best known for its exploration of gender, which is fine, but I just want to go on record as saying that The Left Hand of Darkness is so much more than that.

[Oh! I just read Jo Walton's take, and it seems we agree.]

And really, the whole business of crossing the glacier, the blizzard, and no shadows — spectacular!

I read this novel as part of the coursework for a MOOC (Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World). I can't tell you what exactly I'm learning from this course (in the professor's view, every rocketship is a penis, and some feminists are angry) apart from some trivial facts, like that Le Guin is American (I'd always assumed she was British). But I have been enjoying the reading and the discussion.

I suppose Le Guin is significant on the SF landscape for being among the first to bring real anthropological theory into the text (which is one the things I most love about the genre), shifting the genre away from straight-up action-adventure. (Although, many writers had already done that, no? Maybe it's the feminist angle that's supposed to be so groundbreaking. Frankly, I don't understand the logic behind the curriculum and I'm disappointed that it's so American-centric. )

I'm so relieved this novel lived up to the hype, and surpassed my expectations. You can bet I'll be reading more Le Guin over the months to come.

See also:
Sarah LeFanu, The Guardian: The king is pregnant
Jo Walton: Gender and glaciers: Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness
The Paris Review: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221

And here's a list that may be (mostly) worth working through: 21 Books That Changed Science Fiction And Fantasy Forever.

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

I read this book in my early 20s and was blown away by it. But that was a very long time ago and I think a reread is in order.