“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.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin (from the novel The Left Hand of Darkness)
10th February 2012
I am afraid most of us had not read through the book. I had read it many years ago on the recommendation of my son Utsav and really loved it. I started re reading it and realised why it would not appeal to many. First of all the science fiction genre does cater to a niche market and many of us like our fiction to be rooted in a world and society which we can identify with . It is possible to deal with historical fiction and different countries and cultures because essentially human beings and the societies they are set in, are impelled by universal and familiar human motivations and emotions.
But a completely imaginary world where physical realities are outlandish and stretch the imagination ? They seem to be a waste of time for any serious consideration. There also appears to be a clear demarcation between science fiction and fantasy literature so that the same person may love Tolkien or Harry Potter but not Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Ursula Le Guin complicates things by writing both genres , so we have the Hainish series with LHOD(Left Hand of Darkness) as a sample of science fiction and the Earthsea novels as an example of pure fantasy( which I think all members of the book club would have liked).
The difference appears to lie in the fact that while science fiction asks you to suspend disbelief by accepting all weirdnesses as realistic mise en scene , fantasy acknowledges quite openly that we are dealing with magic and unexplained mysteries. Fantasy appears to be more acceptable than science fiction to non aficionados. I must admit I am an unabashed fan of both and indeed sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between the two. What I like is the very novelty of unusual situations and contexts and the responses and reactions of humans or humanoids to these situations.
To my mind , the difference is only one of idiom. Take away the language of pseudo science and the enchanting premises of magic and fairytale and you just have an imagined situation where the drama comes from the reactions of the human beings. It could be the conflict of cultures, beliefs , politics, economics , whatever. So it is, as Le Guin points out in the preface to LHOD, just a way to explore the dynamics of human behaviour, or ideas. She uses the idiom of science fiction to explore many of our contemporary issues and ideas and beliefs that she holds dear. We are reminded that she is a sociologist by training and her father was a renowned anthropologist . Taoist, anarchist , ethnographic, feminist, queer theory, psychological and sociological themes recur in her novels and the genres allow scope for free exploration. The impact of sexuality or the exploration of sexual identity is a major precoccupation in LHOD which is set on a planet peopled by an unpredictably androgynous race in . But it is also a story of love and betrayal.
She is a champion of the disempowered and the exploited and abhors discriminatory ethics. This makes her a feminist (not the bra burning type) anti apartheid , pro- environment and sustainable development. We don’t notice, but her heroes and heroines are predominantly coloured people because after all, the majority of humans are coloured and what could be more natural? Long term, conjugal relationships depend on more than sex and the permutations and combinations of functional relationships are examined through many novel social constructs. She appears to feel that the fear of ‘otherness’ as well as pure male aggression as a biological factor is at the root of senseless competition and organised warfare as well as the predatory nature of our society.
I am not going to analyse the story here as the internet has many good exposes, but I have to mention that I just stumbled on her website and her blogs , which are simply delightful . She started blogging two years ago and writes with so much humour and incisive clarity that it even my rusty brains starts moving with much clanking and groaning. The depth, clarity and trenchant logic of her perceptions and views are astounding. Matched only by humour, sensitivity, tolerance and a gentle satire and irony to leaven the whole. I wish I may have the same clarity at eighty two. I am going to give the link here for whoever want to refresh themselves every now and then with her down to earth candidness and voice of sanity
Also as a taster I am quoting below blog number which should interest all of us as a group of women :
7. A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters
I have come to see male group solidarity as an immensely powerful force in human affairs, more powerful, perhaps, than the feminism of the late 20th century took into account.
It’s amazing, given their different physiology and complement of hormones, how much alike men and women are in most ways. Still it seems to be the fact that women on the whole have less direct competitive drive and desire to dominate; and therefore, paradoxically, have less need to bond with one another in ranked, exclusive groups. The power of male group solidarity must come from the control and channeling of male rivalry, the repression and concentration of the hormone-driven will to dominate that so often dominates men themselves.
It is a remarkable reversal. The destructive, anarchic energy of individual rivalry and competitive ambition is diverted into loyalty to group and leader and directed to more or less constructive social enterprise. Such groups are closed, positing “the other” as outsider. They exclude, first, women; then, men of a different age, or kind, or caste, or nation, or level of achievement, etc. — exclusions that reinforce the solidarity and power of the excluders. Perceiving any threat, the “band of brothers” joins together to present an impermeable front.
Male solidarity appears to me to have been the prime shaper of most of the great ancient institutions of society — Government, Army, Priesthood, University, and the new one that may be devouring all the others, Corporation. The existence and dominance of these hierarchic, organized, coherent, durable institutions goes back so far and has been so nearly universal that it’s mostly just called “how things are,” “the world,” “the division of labor,” “history,” “God’s will,” etc.
As for female solidarity, without it human society, I think, would not exist. But it remains all but invisible to men, history, and God. Female solidarity might better be called fluidity — a stream or river rather than a structure. The only institutions I am fairly sure it has played some part in shaping are the tribe and that very amorphous thing, the family. Wherever the male arrangement of society permits the fellowship of women on their own terms, it tends to be casual, unformalised, unhierarchical; to be ad hoc rather than fixed, flexible rather than rigid, and more collaborative than competitive. That it has mostly operated in the private rather than the public sphere is a function of the male control of society, the male definition and separation of “public” and “private.”
It’s hard to know if women’s groups would ever gather into great centers, because the relentless pressure from male institutions against such aggregation has prevented it. It might not happen, anyhow. Instead of rising from the rigorous control of aggression in the pursuit of power, the energy of female solidarity comes from the wish and need for mutual aid and, often, the search for freedom from oppression. Elusiveness is the essence of fluidity.
So, when the interdependence of women is perceived as a threat to the dependence of women on men and the child-bearing, child-rearing, family-serving, man-serving role assigned to women, it’s easy to declare that it simply doesn’t exist. Women have no loyalty, do not understand what friendship is, etc. Denial is an effective weapon in the hands of fear.
The idea of female independence and interdependence is met with scoffing hatred by both men and women who see themselves as benefiting from male dominance. Misogyny is by no means limited to men. Living in “a man’s world,” plenty of women distrust and fear themselves as much or more than men do. In so far as the feminism of the nineteen-seventies played on fear, exalting the independence and interdependence of women, it was playing with fire. We cried “Sisterhood is powerful!” — and they believed us. Terrified misogynists of both sexes were howling that the house was burning down before most feminists found out where the matches were.
The nature of sisterhood is so utterly different from the power of brotherhood that it’s hard to predict how it might change society. In any case, we’ve seen only a glimpse of what its effects might be. The great ancient male institutions have been increasingly infiltrated by women for the last two cenuries, and this is a very great change. But when women manage to join the institutions that excluded them, they mostly end up being co-opted by them, serving male ends, enforcing male values. Which is why I have a problem with women in combat in the armed services, and why I watch the rise of women in the “great” universities and the corporations — even the government — with an anxious eye. Can women operate as women in a male institution without becoming imitation men? If so, will they change the institution so radically that the men are likely to label it second-class, lower the pay, and abandon it? This has happened to some extent in several fields, such as the practice of teaching and medicine, increasingly in the hands of women. But the management of those fields, the power, and the definition of their aims, still belongs to men. The question remains open.
As I look back on the feminism of the late twentieth century I see it as typical of feminine solidarity — all Indians, no chiefs. It was an attempt to create an unhierarchical, inclusive, flexible, collaborative, unstructured, ad hoc body of people to bring the genders together in a better balance. Women who want to work toward that end, need, I think, to recognise and respect their own elusive, invaluable, indestructible kind of solidarity — as do men. And they need to recognise both the great value of male solidarity, and the inferiority of gender solidarity to human solidarity — as do men. I think feminism continues and will continue to exist wherever women work in their own way with one another and with men, and wherever women and men go on questioning male definitions of value, refusing gender exclusivity, affirming interdependence, distrusting aggression, seeking freedom always.
— UKL 2 December 2010