So linking to this interview is… complicated. This version of the interview has part of it. This version has another, different part.
So as not to just dump the link and run, a couple things that might be cool to look at:
- (2nd link, page 167)
Once I figured out what he was even talking about, Jameson didn’t really sit well with me, and I think the second question posed on this page does a fair bit to explain why. The interviewer, Larry McCaffery, remarks that “the mythology or background sections in The Left Hand seem to have been created with specific intentions in mind.” And I agree. Even though le Guin goes on to deny that this was conscious, in the sense that she wasn’t consciously academically analyzing her story while writing it, to me the sections not narrated by Genly or Estraven are absolutely intertwined with the plot elements. Those sections serve as a lens onto the actual action, and vice-versa, allowing us to understand plot and myth and science and anthropology as part of a text that feeds into and interacts with itself (the most obvious example: the second chapter about brothers vowing kemmer, and the final revelation that Therem and Arek had done the same). But Jameson bases his theory of ‘world reduction’ on his analysis of the text as lacking any real narrative cohesion, anything to unify it other than reduction. I don’t see that lack at all.
- (1st link, page 40)
Gregory: A number of feminist critics, including Joanna Russ,** criticized The Left Hand of Darkness for being too “masculine” in its presentation. How do you respond to that sort of criticism?
Le Guin: […] I was writing that novel back in 1967 and 1968, and we’ve all moved on a long, long way since then.* When I’m at work on a novel I’m not trying to satisfy anybody who has a specific program they want propaganda for. I dissatisfy a lot of my gay friends and I dissatisfy a lot of my feminist friends, because I don’t go as far as they would like.
*interview date: 1982 **emphasis mine
Suddenly Ethnicity and Deliberate Values Dissonance were particularly interesting (primarily because upon reading the former I laughed out loud), but I think considering them in connection can be beneficial, especially in the context of part of our conversation on Thursday, when we talked about what we perceived to be a blending of cultures in Genly’s home world. Most of the time when we read something, we perceive the default characterization to be set as white male. Genly’s name isn’t codified as white male however, so this does play with our perceptions of him as a character, but the added notation of his “dark skin” (which we perceive as “of African descent” black, not possibly “Desi” black) is another offhand detail that produces a sense of….disassociation, I suppose? In which we can see similarity between ourselves and Genly, but not enough to the point where we can slide comfortably into his skin. Granted, this is a bit problematic, because one of the reasons why the white male is the default is purportedly because it’s just easier to identify with white males (not that decades upon centuries of social conditioning has put that into place or anything), so….as a result of this, are we meant to not identify with Genly because he’s different? Or because he’s just similar enough for it not to matter?
While all of these tropes were fascinating, this is what I found the most interesting on The Left Hand of Darkness page: “Info Dump”. The tropes page writes “the expository chapters may feel like one”, and describes the trope as “particularly long or wordy”; I feel as if they add to the story and to note, not all of them are long. The stories and notes in the chapters might be an overload of information, but they add to understand why some of the reactions and situations happen in the novel itself. The chapters say what it needs to say in Le Guin’s poetic style of writing, whether it’s a report from a character or a myth from Gethen lore.
For example, in chapter seven, it is lengthy field notes on Gethenian sexuality, but it gives insight about how the people of Gethen are, from another outside view other than Genly. The way it is written explains why Genly reacts the way he does and has assumptions about the people who live on that planet. In the chapter, Ong Tot Oppong uses the term he, because “it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine.” (Le Guin 101) This is the start of human interaction with Gethen, which clearly affects future generations.
So, the tropes that stuck out to me as issues or just as interesting:
- Gender Neutral Writing – I’m kind of conflicted about this. I spent a little while angrily googling things like le guin interview pronouns, and found out that she herself advocates for the use of singular ‘they.’ So I’m inclined to think that the weird, annoying retrofitting into the ‘he’/’she’ linguistic gender binary was intended as a way in which none of the non-Gethenian narrators are fully reliable narrators – they’re imposing their own structures of understanding onto a people to whom those structures don’t apply. But on the other hand… there was nothing I can think of in the text that discussed the issues of doing that, and because I’m really invested in getting singular ‘they’ more widely accepted, it makes me uncomfortable to think that readers are coming away without ever questioning why a reliance on binary pronouns might be problematic.
- Medieval Stasis – I just really question the actual importance of what the reasoning for the super slow technological development is, in the sense that the in-universe explanation could be basically anything. It seems a little handwavey to me: yeah, it’s cold, we’re busy surviving, whatever… Really it’s had the technology it does for as long as it has, in the end, because le Guin wanted it to. (And I’m not saying that as a criticism! I like the setting. I think what I mean is that excessive musing or worldbuilding on How This Came To Be would actually detract from the fact that it is.)
- UST – Yeah, I definitely thought they were going to kiss.
Not my TvTropes post yet, only that I kept forgetting to post this ever since I found it last Thursday and thought it was interesting in terms of worldbuilding: his name is essentially ‘Henry Love’ transmuted through three changes in two existing Earth languages. In her introduction, Le Guin casts herself in opposition to the tendency to define science fiction as inherently extrapolative, but what else is this but one potential development of human language? Not predictive, sure, but there’s that inclination to want to push existing culture in a direction, to see where it could go; I was really surprised to see her blanket dismissal of extrapolation, considering.
(And in a way it reminds me of the system of names in Lovecraft. ‘Francis Wayland Thurston’ sounds as likely to be a foreign devil-worshipper as ‘Henry Love’ sounds like a time-jumper from an interplanetary space democracy. Use a different name – Castro, Genly Ai – and suddenly the whole character is more plausible. It’s connotative shorthand.)
“It was a particularly bad dream, the kind in which you run down a strange street in the dark with a lot of people who have no faces, while houses go up in flames behind you, and children scream.
I ended up in an open field, standing in dry stubble by a black hedge. The dull-red halfmoon and some stars showed through clouds overhead. The wind was bitter cold. Near me a big barn or granary bulked up in the dark, and in the distance beyond it I saw little volleys of sparks going up on the wind.” (p.110)
Ai’s use of language suggests the whole war-torn refugee sequence to be an unreal dream. It is only in the narrator never telling of waking up and the intricate level of detail that the reader understands his account to be a real-life continuation of the narrative. This blurring of reality and dream is indicative of Ai’s own unstable consciousness in having been abruptly and confusedly awoken. Such incidents question the reliability of our narrator, but the language validates Ai’s self-proposal of his account being story-like as opposed to factual.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1969. Print.
“Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a male, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own” (Le Guin 12).
I think that one of the most essential aspects to Ursula Le Guin’s writing in The Left Hand of Darkness, is how despite it following multiple narrations, a benefit towards impartiality, it simultaneously expresses implicit cultural biases which turn Ai among others from being objective into subjective perspectives. In this instance, the use of gendered nouns, like “male” and “female” play to the latent human biases that we as a society have, placing great emphasis on gender as a tool determinant to how we see others. Now, this ambiguity from the norm for the reader, places someone reading the text (as a human) in the same confusion Ai feels, and makes the reader feel as though they are unraveling the same questions and learning along with Ai. Further, the fact that Genly admits to even having problems differentiating after “two years,” further ingrains the dichotomy of gender in our minds as the reader, and makes us wonder about what how Gethenians function without something that society has dictated to being so important and how the solution they have must be so complicated and different from the norms to which the reader and Ai are used.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1976. Print.