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2006.02.01

[WTC_Bookclub: The_Left_Hand_of_Darkness, Part_1]

So? How's everyone feeling about The Left Hand of Darkness?

I'm really enjoying it.

This here's the first dedicated discussion thread for the book, and I'd like to ask that you all keep to discussions including only the first five chapters, because we don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't finished the book yet.

Chapter 5 ends with Genly Ai in conversation with Faxe, The Weaver, after his question has been submitted to, and answered by the foretellers; foretelling being a discipline perfected by its pracitioners for the purpose of exhibiting "the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question."

Beautifully (I thought), Faxe goes on to tell Mr. Ai:

"The unknown... the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God, there would be no religion... but if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion... What is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable -- the one certain thing you know, concerning your future and mine?"

Mr. Ai replies that only death is certain, to which Faxe replies:

"Yes. There's really only one question that can be answered... and we already know the answer. The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next."

There are plenty of resonant themes in that little snippet, and I think it's as good a jumping off point as can be wished for to kick off our discussion. Let's hear your thoughts!

And, if you had another favorite bit from the first 5 chapters, do tell!

Posted by Dierdre ~ in wtc_bookclub | Permalink

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Comments

Actually, you quoted my favorite part of the book thus far, as that's always an issue that I've grappled with in my life: basically my control-freakishness vs. my desire for surprise and adventure in my life. I used to get depressed thinking that the next 30 years were pretty plainly mapped out for me (a la "Every Day Is Exactly the Same"). Now I get depressed because I have no idea what the future will hold. I guess I want good surprises and the ability to steel myself for all of life's nastier twists and turns.

I found the introduction to the book to be very interesting. Is Ursula lying when she says that all fiction writers are liars? Actually, for most of the introduction, where she was explaining that this book was a work of fiction rather than a manifesto of her personal beliefs and predictions, I thought, "Uh...yeah. Hence it's classified as *fiction*" She must have a lot of very literal-minded readers. I think that when we read something that we know is fiction, we enter into a contract with the author, to share in that constructed universe, but I personally never necessarily assume that that's what the writer truly believes, especially with works of science fiction, which are, as she explains, more hypothetical than based on faith.

It took me a while to get more absorbed in this world, since the first chapter deals mainly with Karhidian politics, but I also like the shifts in points of view, as in chapter 2 when we read about Ennoch and his doomed love for his brother and the story of Berosty, who wants to know when he will die. Creating a mythology for this world that is not necessarily connected to the main plot involving Genly Ai makes the story richer.

I found the foretelling ritual to be very interesting--the necessary components being a sort of unchecked sexuality, self-denial of sexuality, and insanity.

Posted by: maise | Feb 1, 2006 6:59:56 AM

I really don't have a lot to add to what D. & Maise have pointed out.

I found the book's intro kind of odd. To have the need to explain that fiction is fiction, and not necessarily the views or beliefs of the author. I guess when this book was first published she felt the need?

My favorite places in the book are things like Chapter 2, as Maise describes, where a sort of sidebar is described, mythology, tidbits to try and paint a picture of where the culture on Winter is coming from. The overall storyline so far isn't really grabbing me as much as the sidebars. I agree with D. about chapter 5, the conversation with Faxe to highlight underlying themes. To me, what I'd consider the "main" storyline is really not that important, however, that could change later in the book?

Posted by: bex | Feb 1, 2006 9:23:18 AM

So far the chapters that deviate from the main storyline deal with themes that we traditionally think of as very interesting...forbidden love, death sentences, self-fulfilling prophecies. I have a feeling that the main storyline will eventually involve these ideas, rather than just speculations about land-grabbing and intergalactic political/trade alliances.

Posted by: maise | Feb 1, 2006 10:31:48 AM

Maise, I hope you're correct about this because so far the sidebars are the reason I keep reading.

Posted by: bex | Feb 1, 2006 11:31:54 AM

Well, here's a concept I couldn't get. Anyone want to help me on this one?

"Three thousand nations on eighty-three worlds, sir; but the nearest to Gethen is seventeen years' journey in ships that go at near lightspeed."

Then later...

He snapped, "Are you immortal?"
"No, not at all, sir. But the time-jumps have their uses. If I left Gethen now for the nearest world, Ollul, I'd spend seventeen years of planetary time getting there. Timejumping is a function of traveling nearly as fast as light. If I simply turned around and came back, my few hours spent on the ship would, here, amount to thirty-four years; and I could start all over."

Okay, what I don't get is...why does it only seem like a few hours to him? I guess I can see if Le Guin is proposing that one can travel 34 years in what appears to be a few hours, but then, why would Genly insist that the members of the Ekumen wouldn't invade each other ("Oh, it takes 17 years to go from here to there, so don't worry") if, according to the hypothetical invaders' perspective, it would only feel like a few hours?

I guess what I'm asking is, if you've got a planet that's traveling 17 light years away, and you're traveling at light speed, wouldn't you still feel as though you're traveling for 17 years?

(As you can see, I'm not the resident astronomy/physics major around here.)

Posted by: maise | Feb 1, 2006 11:45:35 AM

Oh, I screwed up that one sentence...I meant to ask, if you've got a ship that's traveling to a planet that's 17 light years away...

Posted by: maise | Feb 1, 2006 11:52:05 AM

Maise, that whole dialog gave me a headache! I'd think if you were time jumping...and it seemed like only a few hours...it would get you to the destination in a few hours..otherwise, what the point of time jump?

Yes, it would be nice to not feel like you are traveling for 17 years, but to me the objective would be to actually arrive somewhere as quickly as possible..just not the "appearance" that you had.

Where are the quantum physics experts when you need them!

Posted by: bex | Feb 1, 2006 12:50:38 PM

The reason it would only seem like a short amount of time to the traveler is because of a curious phenomenon called time dilation. The closer one gets to the speed of light, the slower the relative time frame passes for the traveler (although the traveler does not notice the difference). Members of the Ekumen *could* invade one another; however, what would be the point? It's not like a war could be fought over physical resources, since those resources or spoils of war would take so long to get back to the "conquering" planet. Imagine risking a war and then having to wait 40, 80, or 100 years to reap the rewards.

Posted by: Baal Glyttr | Feb 1, 2006 12:52:47 PM

Aha, that helps, Baal, thank you!

Posted by: maise | Feb 1, 2006 12:55:32 PM

I'm glad people are engaged with this book! As far as the strange intro is concerned, I think LeGuin published this work at a time when such apologies might have been necessary, especially considering the sexual content. I think she was also trying to lift her work out of the realm of Science Fiction, per se. Her work is not speculative, like so much scifi. It's more exploratory. I think that is the point she was trying to make.

Posted by: Baal Glyttr | Feb 1, 2006 1:02:19 PM

And as for the lovely, gorgeous, mythical "sidebars" I can assure everyone that they are the thematic heart of the novel! The politics and intrigue are really just a backdrop and catalyst for a particular relationship. This novel is about love and the lonely, impenetrable gulf that separates lovers. IMHO. :)

Posted by: Baal Glyttr | Feb 1, 2006 1:08:00 PM

Here's what I do during the time travel paragraphs: suspend disbelief, and take Mr. Ai's word for it. He's truthful.

But, thanks for explaining that, Baal.

Maise, that part I quoted is my favorite part, too. I know this will be egghead deluxe, but that willingness to embrace what is unknowable, and refrain from asking to know it, for me, such a big topic. I totally agree with Faxe that all the grounds for human action, and especially for the human action that most lights my fire -- making art -- is motivated by a sense of incompleteness or lack.

I love the "Nusuth" mantra of the indwellers of the fastness, and the poetry of the foretelling ceremony -- as Maise mentioned -- the sexuality, the insanity, the sublimation, and the weaver, to bring them all together into this ability to answer the question. I love that all that effort is taken, and the elaborate ceremony undergone to show how little use can be made of foreknowledge, but that despite that fact, the effort is unstinting.

I only have a minute right now, but... more later.

Posted by: Dierdre | Feb 1, 2006 1:22:07 PM

My little geek moment:

The part of the story where we learn about Berosty and his desire to learn the date of his death brought to mind "The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything."

Posted by: maise | Feb 1, 2006 1:29:13 PM

Yes! I think pretty much all of LeGuin's books deal with the the paradox which lies at the crux of *wanting* and *having*, whether it be (fore)knowledge, love, whatever. All of her heroes leave what they know in favor of what they don't. It's like she puts them between two poles of a battery to see what kind of personal transformation can be wrought. Her characters never come to any specific conclusions, because that sort of solidification is for her, I think, an Untruth. They still strive for a conclusion, however, knowing full well they'll never reach it.

Goal-less Practice. It's yogic, but in a way that does not at all turn away from Western intellectual traditions.

Posted by: Baal Glyttr | Feb 1, 2006 1:39:07 PM

Sorry I'm blithering right now. Bitches got me down today.

Posted by: Baal Glyttr | Feb 1, 2006 1:40:24 PM

Oh, here was another part I really loved: the description of Estraven at the start of the book:

"In Estraven, for instance, one feels the man's power as an augmentation of his character; he cannot make an empty gesture, or say a word that is not listened to. He knows it, and the knowledge gives him more reality than most people own: a solidness of being, a substantiality, a human granduer.

Beautiful description, no? It's so spiritually potent, and bespeaks such a level of avowal, in Estraven, of his position, and his commitment to it. Loved that bit.

Posted by: Dierdre | Feb 1, 2006 1:41:21 PM

Estraven is the hottest character in fiction. I can't wait to post my favorite passage describing him later in the book.

Posted by: Baal Glyttr | Feb 1, 2006 1:43:44 PM

When I read the word "Estraven" I just picture Trent, frankly. I mean, without the sexlessness.

Posted by: Dierdre | Feb 1, 2006 1:46:43 PM

Hmmmm...I still need to be convinced of his searing hotness, but he does become more intriguing in our next selection that I can't talk about right now.

Posted by: maise | Feb 1, 2006 1:48:19 PM

And Baal, I'm sorry that the bitches have got you down. I have felt as though I were attached to a chain gang all day. Mentally, that is.

Posted by: maise | Feb 1, 2006 1:49:16 PM

Some days are like that, maise. Ugh!

Posted by: Baal Glyttr | Feb 1, 2006 2:00:57 PM

Dude, for the record, Estraven is not as hot as Mr. Darcy. There is no hotter fictional character than Mr. Darcy. Oh! And, Mr. Knightley.

Also, Aragorn is pretty fucking hot.

Posted by: Dierdre | Feb 2, 2006 1:26:30 AM

Baal, thanks for the insight. I think as I read forward, it will be of great help.

Hope the Bitches have backed off today! My biggest enemy at the moment is massive sleep deprivation!

Posted by: bex | Feb 2, 2006 6:03:48 AM

I've been thinking more about what bex said regarding interstellar travel, and how much nicer it would be to *actually* get someplace quickly, rather than *appearing* to get there quickly. I think this is an important facet of LeGuin's world, especially in this novel. All of the human worlds are very isolated from one another on so many levels: spatially, cultural, in evolutionary terms, technologically, etc. And YET the Ekumen, itself, is a huge, ponderous, multi-generational project to unite the race despite the odds.

Genly Ai basically sacrifices the whole life he knew in favor of this project. If he ever returns home, his family and friends will likely all be dead or greatly changed. What is so compelling about this ideal of Community and Companionship that a man will give up his community and companions in the service of it?

Posted by: Baal Glyttr | Feb 2, 2006 6:32:03 AM

I have to admit my crush on that moody-ass Heathcliff.

I was pondering that aspect of Genly's project as well. Giving up your whole life to hang out on a remote planet with an inhospitable climate with people who don't even share your biology and who are generally skeptical, fearful, and hostile to you.

Actually, it doesn't sound all that different from my office...ha ha.

Posted by: maise | Feb 2, 2006 6:48:49 AM

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