Friday, July 22, 2011

Adventure classics -- Neither male nor female

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula LeGuinn

In the introduction to her Hugo and Nebula-award winner, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula LeGuinn tells us she’s not trying to predict the future. Instead, she asks us to treat this book, about a world of perpetual winter whose people are without sexual identity for much of their lives, as a thought experiment.

“This book is not about the future,” she says. “Yes, the people in it are androgynous but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous. . . I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are.”

In other words, the future is now.

Admittedly, her book takes on the concerns of its times. And the 1960’s had a lot of concerns, often concerns that earlier years had barely hinted at. What Frank Herbert’s Dune did for planetary ecology, The Left Hand of Darkness did for nuclear winter and the changing roles of the sexes. Especially the gender role changes, which, honestly, was all I remembered when I looked at the book again decades after my first reading.

Once upon a time, men were men and women were women. Not everybody conformed to the rules but they knew what they were. And then, suddenly, they didn’t. And we worried a lot. Until LeGuinn came along to say that’s all right -- you’ve always been like this.

Looking over the book again also reminded me of the racial diversity of LeGuinn’s stories. Her casts resemble the crew of a “Star Trek” episode, but with Captain Kirk black or brown and white people definitely in the minority.  

Undoubtedly, she received that awareness from her father, Alfred L. Kroeber, who earned the first doctorate in anthropology in the United States and founded the second department of anthropology, at the University of California, Berkeley. I spotted his book about Ishi, a man some believed to be the last California Yahi Indian, in the Americana section of Larry McMurtry’s independent bookshop on a recent visit.

But why use fiction to make important statements? How does a novel differ from an anthropological treatise?

“In reading a novel,” LeGuinn states, “we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word. . . When we’re done with it, we may find -- if it’s a good novel -- that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before.”

So the protagonist of The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai, opens the story by saying,  “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

(Next Friday: When I first started reading science fiction, I didn’t know whether the androgynously named Andre Norton was a man or a woman. I just knew I wanted to read more -- like The Time Traders.)

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