Under my byline

Just imagine

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 26 December 2009

OVERLEAF 61

Forty years ago, man landed on the Moon. Also in 1969, the Vietnam war ground on, Martin Luther King Jr was recently dead, high hippiedom ruled Western youth culture, feminism was in its so-called second wave, and the collectivist kibbutz movement in Israel was at the peak of its post-war efficacy. In 1969, Ursula Le Guin was just gaining renown as a writer. In that year she turned 40, and published her best-known science fiction novel. In 2009 the author turned 80 and her book, still in print and now a classic, turned 40.

The Left Hand of Darkness,” said the Guardian in January, “was the novel with which Ursula Le Guin metamorphosed from an intelligent writer of planetary romances into a sage.” Its author did that by staking out forward positions on some of the live issues of the day, including those listed above. But she chose an entirely different world in which to do so, not our Earth, and a time identifiable only as being in the far future.

The story is not easy to summarise, so I will describe the setting. Left Hand is part of Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, a series of novels which orbit the central fact of the Ekumen, a collective of 83 “worlds” occupied by human races.

According to the backstory, the people of the planet Hain spread out over tens of millennia across dozens of Earth-like worlds, including Earth itself and Gethen, the planet on which this story is set. Over further millennia each world developed separately, its inhabitants evolving apart in cultural as well as biological terms and forgetting their common origin.

The Ekumen aims to slowly bring these estranged worlds together again, not under a government but within a loose intellectual and trade association. Each new world is introduced to the Ekumen and invited to join it by a trained envoy sent out, alone, to break the news gently and inform the natives of the benefits.

Genly Ai, a native of Earth, is the envoy to Gethen, a planet of near-perpetual winter divided between two major states. One state is a kingdom, still feudal but beginning to form a nation; the other is a “bureaucracy”, apparently based on the Soviet model.

As you can see, Le Guin sets this up as a bit of a thought exercise. But it’s not so cold: there are radical elements in the mix. Such as the fact that Ai is “black” in racial terms; that all the Gethenians are hermaphrodite, and only attain gender (it could be either) when they are in heat every few weeks, which allows Le Guin to explore and break male/female stereotypes; that the Gethenians have no “family” in Earth terms but live a life between the nuclear and the collective; and lastly that, partly because there are no “men” and the planet is so bitterly cold, there is no war (yet) on Gethen. More conventionally, Genly Ai has to negotiate dangerous political waters between factions in each capital and the governments of either state.

Much of this sounds dated in 2009 — feminism is less militant and more directionless, race is a less pressing issue, fascism and collectivism are both discredited, nationalism is a little weaker than it used to be — but because this is a finely observed, well-written, complex and internally consistent book, other aspects will strike the reader in 2009 with fresh force. Such as:

It’s really past time for a strong tradition of teaching and understanding local history, so that citizens feel rooted and less subject to the tide of events. That rootedness is what allows the imagination to flourish. But our pattern is the United States, and not the best of what that civilisation has to offer.

Idealism really is dead and cynicism unbounded when a promise like the one the Ekumen holds out seems merely romantic, and silly. In 2009, inventing the United Nations would be impossible.

Fiction is one good way of weakening social boundaries. But it needs idealism, and a constituency.

The longer our recorded history becomes, the less it will weigh on our present. This world, and India, are still young.

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