No. 11 Ursula Le Guin, Darkness, Exile, Dispossessed, and Human Sexuality.

Dear Miss Kidd,

Ursula K. Le Guin writes extremely well, but I’m sorry to have to say that on the basis of that one highly distinguishing quality alone I cannot make you an offer for the novel. The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material. My thanks nonetheless for having thought of us. The manuscript of The Left Hand of Darkness is returned herewith. Yours sincerely,

The Editor

21 June, 1968

Miss Kidd received this rejection letter as the agent for The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin’s first major science fiction work, which, just by happenstance, won the Hugo and Nebula awards the year it was first published.

What makes The Left Hand of Darkness so interesting? Is it the aliens? The world she created? Is it the tortuous maneuverings of social creatures seeking advantage from momentary political opportunities?

I remember a certain calm shock amongst my reading associates at her description of the mating rituals of the alien hermaphrodites. It left a patina of unquiet upon those considering the nature of human sexuality. Some acquaintances were unnerved about what this portended with their own sexual politics. Their silence was more silver than golden; brighter, and less lustrous … but also less absolute.  How do we feel about alien metaphor on sexuality?

Planet of Exile: Part of the Descendants of Hain cycle. Le Guin explores human sexuality further in this commentary about an isolated colony of Earth humans who consider the taboos on interspecies breeding … or face extinction.

The Dispossessed – An Ambiguous Utopia: Please note the odd numbered chapters grouped in the second half. Although set in the Tau Ceti system, historians will recognize the US-Soviet cold-war plot of Capitalist versus Communist. The physicist Shevek leaves home from sparse Anarres to return to his parent planet. Rich Urras is more competitive and Shevek finds discussions about his research, on temporal equations, are impaired by language barriers. His utopian anarchist perspective sees power structures locked in stagnating bureaucracies. As an Anarres citizen, Shevek understands that the lack of resources, combined with ecological constraints, has dispossessed his culture of material wealth. Their spiritual wealth is compared to the parent planet, Urras, whose ideals they cannot share. For Shevek, his is a journey of return.

City of Illusion: Falk, with an infant-like mind and amber cat-eyes, has no memory. Villagers raise and educate him, but eventually, they instruct him to discover his origins, sending him out … to the city, Es Toch. Through a shared mindspeech, he learns of the Shing. A young woman, Estrel, agrees to travel with him and when she betrays him to the Shing, she laughs.

The Shing assure him that he is crew on a starship, but Falk mistrusts these liars. His subconscious is certain that what they want, with dark design, is the location of his home planet: Earth.

As powerful telepaths, the Shing install a second personality, Remarren, into Falk’s mind, using mindlying to better control him telepathically. But Falk learns to resist. As a Shing seizes control of Remarren, Falk seizes control of the Shing.  He is successful in turning the Shing to his own purposes, using a starship to escape.

The Lathe of Heaven: George Orr is an “effective” dreamer … dreams that transforms reality, changing the landscape of reality into alternate versions. His enforced sessions with a psychiatrist, William Haber, experimenting with an augmentor that enhances dream effectiveness, directly result in some startling changes.

To eliminate racism, everyone becomes gray-skinned; overpopulation is curbed with a plague; a dream for peace on Earth creates aliens who invade the moon, unifying Earth. In a series of correcting dreams, wanting the aliens gone from the Moon only results in their occupying Earth. A litany of solutions follows. The results prove disappointing.

When George resists William’s visions of a perfect world, the psychiatrist makes his own path, making his own attempts at “effective” dreaming. Chaos ensues with the concerned patient at odds with his troubling psychiatrist.

The novel has seen two versions of teleplay: an approved the PBS version (that was plagued with rights and clearance releases) and an A & E version Le Guin thought was “misguided and uninteresting.”

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin’s parents were the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and the writer Theodora Kroeber (author of Ishi). Perhaps writing is in her blood. She’s worth quoting at length.

Had Le Guin’s writing been less skillful, her journey in discussing human sexuality could have been received with far greater hostility. Darkness is a courageous exploration of a touchy and sensitive subject.

Once a member of the Author’s Guild, she resigned on principle, regarding Google’s digitization of books project a “…deal with the devil.” The concept of copyright, she believed, had been abandoned without a fight.

“All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.”

______Ursula K LeGuin, Introduction: The Left Hand of Darkness, (1976).

Le Guin’s works are re-readable. I suppose I should preface that with a caveat: for now. We live in an age where definitions about gender issues are fluid and the breath of acceptability in human sexuality has opened new possibilities for our possible futures.

But we have no way of predicting how permanent this state of affairs may be. I think we all accept that human sexuality is a volatile subject and we can expect it to remain so. Science Fiction works often cross the boundary of social convention, spark debate, and initiate political changes. They open up new possibilities simply by bringing a subject up, by starting the cultural discourse.

It’s something we don’t perhaps give writers, like Le Guin, enough credit for. It’s a form of social revolution to bring touchy subjects into the light … instead of letting them fester in the darkness.

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  1. JJJ

    Good stuff. I had a Shakespeare instructor back in college, that also taught writing, who recommended the Left Hand of Darkness to me. She had no way to know that I was a science fiction fan. Nor did she ever recommend anything else even remotely related to fantasy or science fiction. She always discussed and asked us to read the literary giants for the writing class and obviously Shakespeare for the Shakespeare class. Her husband was one of those editors that "translated" the "original" Shakespeare manuscripts for the academic publishers.

    All this being said, I find it extremely high praise for the writing ability of Le Guin and in particular for Left Hand of Darkness that she would recommend her book. Le Guin is truly a Grand Master of Science Fiction.


    1. She really is.

      I think your instructor picked her, in part, because the book lends itself to an intellectual discussion. Yes … you're reading it because it's a science fiction yarn, but underneath the surface, disturbing forces are at work. You become unsettled during your read because you find yourself "thinking." And it's not just frivilous stuff, like" O…I forgot to feed the goldfish. Better go do that." It's more like: "How do I feel about sex and homosexuality? Do I have an opinion? Should I have an opinion? Who am I, really?"

      With SF writers, in particular women SF writers, it often take time for readers to fully digest the issues being addressed in their work. And their value.

      Some of the things I'm always looking at is the re-readability of a work. Ultimately, I find that the re-readability derives from presenting ideas that persist, that have a life of their own. Le Guin's works simmer. Her ideas keep bubbling up from below.

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