What makes Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness Science Fiction?

11 Mar

                The debate over exactly what science fiction is as a genre is of high concern to many of the authors writing in the ’60s, ’70s, and beyond. The critical conversation deliberating the definition of science fiction is and has been conducted by fans, authors, and critics. In “1945: The Technocultural Conjuncture,” Lockhurst explains “SF as a genre that provides a very particular cultural commentary on the new post-war dispensation in America and Britain” (81). Later in “From Atomjocks to Cultural Critique: American SF, 1939-1959,” Lockhurst continues tracing the development of science fiction. He questions “How is it possible to assess the realism, the versimilitude of the representation of nuclear war, when nuclear war has not taken place and could not take place without destroying the possibility of representation?” (101). Framed by his discussion of science fiction as cultural commentary, Lockhurst’s later question emphasizes the connection between cultural realities and the imagination. So cultural connection is an important characteristic of science fiction.

However, there is more to science fiction than cultural relation. As Larbalestier points out in “The Women Men Don’t See,” the links to reality are cultural as well as scientific. She looks to the problems within the field of science fiction explaining, “This split between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science has its equivalence in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction. ‘Hard’ science fiction is frequently portrayed as ‘real’ science fiction because it is more ‘scientific’ than ‘soft’ science fiction. ‘Hard’ science fiction is predominantly mapped on to the male, and ‘soft’ sf, on to the female” (148). While Larbalestier is engaging gender (and queer) concerns in the development of her argument I would contend that the discrepancy she is pointing out has larger and much more foundational implications. Larbalestier’s argument outlining the traditionally perceived inferior position of ‘soft’ sf harkens back to Le Guin’s earlier work in analyzing the construction and relegation of science fiction as a genre in American Literature. Le Guin explains that the hierarchy regarding the ‘creative’ explorations of ‘soft’ sf are a result of “[…] something that goes very deep in the American character: a moral disapproval of fantasy, a disapproval so intense, and often so aggressive, that I cannot help but see it as arising, fundamentally, from fear” (39). While Le Guin’s analysis still invokes gender arguments, she returns questions of science fiction as a genre to Lockhurst’s issues of cultural relation and scientific basis. Science fiction seems to lie somewhere in the balance of these arguments then. It is based in reality and particular cultural interactions is infected by the imagination. The text is simultaneously defamiliarized by the imagination and ‘re’acquaints its audience with his/her world. So if science fiction works in and through such a complicated textual/worldly interactions, how does Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness support and challenge such a definition.

Many of the same qualities that qualify Le Guin’s work as ‘science fiction’ relate to an interrogation of humanity, which I would argue is a much more crucial element of Le Guin’s fiction. Considering the framework she provides of Estraven’s background and the focus on intimacy among many of the characters, I would argue that part of the work The Left Hand of Darkness does is suggest a reconsideration of humanity and how it works. A couple of the ‘hard’-er or more common science fiction elements in her piece are Ai and his space ship as alien (232), the episode of extra-normal strength/altered state of existence of Estraven (192), and Ai’s timejumping (222). These potentially scientific plot events introduce notions of humanity and Otherness. They engage feats which science could potentially induce or explain, but have not yet been accomplished (to the public’s knowledge). However, more importantly all of these events point to introductions of concerns with humanity as the motivations of Ai and Estraven surface. Ai has chosen to come to “this world” to accomplish what might be considered humane goals (182). Estraven assumes “doethe” to save Ai and perhaps his (Estraven’s) own humanity (132).

The results of these Other-ed and alternate experiences of ‘reality’ initiate broader social questions and concerns in the text, particularly concerns with intimacy (socially and sexually) as well as the non-transparency of language. These notions relate to the construction and manifestation of humanity. Gender is one of the important social spaces Le Guin challenges and imaginatively reinvents. Biologically gender still exists in terms of reproduction. For Ai, his society is still gendered, but in Estraven’s world it is observed that Ai’s pictures of women “looked like pregnant Gethenians, but with larger breasts […] Are they like a different species?” Ai responds “No.Yes. No, of course not, not really. But the difference is important.” (234) Ai goes on to discuss the many ways gender affects the lives of individuals in his society. While gender is not genetically manipulated it is critiqued within generic conventions of science fiction while simultaneously being erased, reinforced, explained, and manipulated.

Le Guin analyzes language and its relation to humanity within her storyline. Ai reflects after being recognized and denied the status of anonymous prisoner that “I was named, know, recognized; I existed” (111). Contrasting this semi-prisoner moment with a later one illustrates the significance of Ai’s thoughts, “It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have […] Kindness there was and endurance, but in silence, always in silence” (170). Where initially humanity seems to require epistemologically knowable Others, later humanity seems to become a universal essential condition. The switch language undergoes from a confirmation of existence to an unnecessary social construct plays with notions of civilization, knowledge, and power.

So I seem to have navigated away from my original question of how Le Guin’s text engages the genre of science fiction. But really I haven’t. Language is the medium stories are told within. Stories are grounded through reference points of reality manipulated by the imagination. Le Guin’s work uses both potentially ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science in her work. What I would consider to be more important, however, is the baring of humanity that her characters conduct. An activity which becomes even more important considering that neither of them is really human (they are either beings who experience kemmer or are an alien to the society the reader is launched into). Humanity, or its contentious definition, then seems to become an important concept explored through and by texts which fall into the genre of science fiction.

*I didn’t do a works cited since all works I used are either on the syllabus or the website, but can provide one if requested.

One Response to “What makes Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness Science Fiction?”

  1. Dr Lothian March 17, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    Great post, Erin; it makes me ponder some more questions. I wonder why it matters how and whether we characterize Le Guin’s work as science fiction: what is at stake in the use of the term and genre, and what demands does Le Guin make of its flexibility (or of the flexibility of “science,” perhaps) in naming her writing as such? In the passages you quote she seems to have something different to say about what it means to be human than some of the writers we’ve been reading and will read, who explore the technological edge cases at the border of humanity and machine….

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