I intend to write science fiction. Hence I am reading it.
Ursula K Le Guin's 'The Left hand of darkness'.
She wrote this in 1969.
If she were to write it now, I would think it would be a completely different novel.
It is a story set on a cold planet where people do not have one gender. For the most of the time, they are neither male nor female. Once a month, they go in kemmer, a state of being either male or female and desirous of sex. And when they meet an earthling, they think of him as a pervert for being always in kemmer, always male.
This perspective though revolutionary, remains the setting and never quite drives the narrative. And that was disappointing for me when i read the book.
When i picked up the book, all I knew about the book was this perspective on gender. And it made me really curious of what can happen differently in this world. Instead, I got a story that emphasizes the similarity of the human condition across the planets, across the different evolutionary possibilities. Maybe, that was her point, that the power struggles, the smallness of men, the yearning for connection and love are universal. But then why base the story on a planet with such a peculiar people?
I would love to imagine the politics, the technology, the social structures, the emotional makeup of this gender fluid world. (Perhaps that would be a good exercise for me to write). Unfortunately, in this book, none of these things are quite different from earth's past cultures. there is a bureaucratic communist country and another that is a kingdom. i can't believe that there isn't a third or fourth or a fifth option. And yet, so many sci-fi stories can't go beyond these few ideas of governance.
This novel felt confused - it begins as a political saga, takes a turn towards adventure and then tries to be a love story. The three can co-exist, but i imagine Iain Bank's Inversion or Ursula's own 'the dispossesed' did a better job at that.
The narrative structure
The story is written from two perspectives, the two protagonists. The book is essentially a collection of diary entries from both. Reading this book was helpful for me to get a sense of how a story can be developed with this narrative style. But sometimes it got tiring to read a few sections - geographic details, repeating of the challenges posed by the cold elements, the timekeeping of that planet, the shifgrethor... This approach necessitates flat expositions. Since these are diary entries, the narrator is simply writing for records, not recounting the vivid experience of now, but a recollection of past happenings and concerns.
The exposition happens a bit flatly. We don't get to feel the impact of the world's peculiarities (hyper-cold, at year zero always, primitive tech), we get told. The protagonists travel a lot. and since this a world where there are no airplanes and the incessant heavy snowing slows down transport considerably, the narrative also slows down in these journeys. The trouble is, half the book is about these journeys. Instead of being absorbed in the adventure of the journey, i was finding myself speeding up my reading to know if anything of consequence happens or not. Maybe it is a reflection of the differences in generation. This book was written in an era that did not have widespread visual mass media. The content was consumed slowly. I live in an age where visual culture has become fairly sophisticated. Good movies have taught us through many glorious examples of how to 'show not tell'.
But then again, Doris Lessing's 'the golden notebook' was written at around the same time and its narrative structure & its innovative narrative devices to make you feel what the protagonist feels and experiments with, is unparalleled to this day. Damn, must read that book again. It was mind blowing for me when i read it the first time around 15 years back.
Does the difference matter?
Many of the novel ideas in this book remain a curious difference, rather than something that fundamentally changes the way people behave. Take for example the time keeping - it is always year 1 on Gethen. They adjust the past and future years accordingly. Interesting idea. so what though? It is a different way of keeping time. but it is not relevant to the movement of story.
Perhaps there is a lesson here. because i think too much about consequence of my differentiating ideas, i get stuck with story arches that are not fulfilling enough for me. Maybe i should stop bothering so much with it. Ursula writes for her enjoyment. maybe i should write for my enjoyment too and not to satisfy imaginary audiences.
The scope of imagination: This is a story of an envoy from ekumen, a collective of multiple planets inhabited by humanoids. This made me think of the Culture series by Iain Banks. The scope of imagination in Culture is vast, kinetic and awe inspiring. In 'Matter' for example, the story is set on a planet that actually is multiple spheres within each other, inhabited by multiple kinds of species at various stages of evolution. That planet is visited by members of 'Çulture', a far advanced society that you can imagine through their technology being used in the story, their shape shifting necessitated in the story, their travels & adventures also integral to the story.
In this book, we don't get to know much about ekumen. they are patient, yes. but what in their past made them patient? and why do they let Genry be at complete mercy of the Gethenians? In contrast, look at the book 'Inversion' by Iain Banks again. There too, there's a woman doctor (an alien) living on a certain primitive planet. She hides her tech. But when she encounters danger, a small robot comes to her rescue.
Here, the envoy is far too naive, won't take the barest of precautions or plan for contingencies. The ansible is far too easily 'dispossessed'. It felt lazy writing.
I know she wanted to get the two aliens together, but it had to happen with tighter causality.
She chose for the ekumen to be collective of humanoids and not collective of different kinds of aliens like the Culture is. So she has a point to make about humanity's possible futures. Gethen is a world that has evolved differently with its ambisexuality. These were deliberate choices. But, then for full force of that choice, she could have contrasted the ambisexual psyche and politics with that of gendered sexuality. that doesn't happen. There is slight friction of expectations & frustrations, but that's it.
She chose to not explore the sexual tension beyond a paragraph or depict the sexual experience between the two protagonists. Perhaps it is a reflection of the times when the book was written. But there was scope for something meaningful to be revealed with that blossoming of love between two aliens.
The beauty: two people from different planets, together fighting for life and possibly finding love, out in the wilderness. The idea is beautiful. But again, that beauty is not experienced. I am now thinking of 'Written on the body' by Jeanette Winterson (another of my favourite authors). In that book, the narrator sings paeans to his/her/its (we never know the narrator's gender) lover and in the process fall in love with their love. You feel their pain, their anguish, their yearning. I believe, if the central theme of the story were about meeting of two alien hearts, that possibility is truly beautiful and deserved a bit more of their internal explorations. Their diaries were good tools to give voice to their emotional confusions, frailties and strategies. But we don't get any of that. We get two people who are very practical, sexually perhaps naive and not particularly animated by love/ hate/ greed etc. They are colorless, blameless, boring.
How to read, so that one can write?
I now realise that I don't read well enough. I mean, I ended up critiquing the book, but that's not enough to help me write. I need to be conscious of the choices that the writer is making while writing the book.
Sartre writes to bring alive the internal mechanisms of psyche, Jeanette Winterson makes the yearning of love and belonging real and raw, Ursula K Le Guin observes anthropological possibilities... What do I write for?
Sartre can write 200 pages about a night spent by a man trying to put together the money needed for abortion for his mistress. He does so while keeping us hooked, while making us ponder. Jeanette makes one invested in her love, her yearning for love and you end up reading first class literature in hours and yet the scent of that beauty remains for years in our psyche. Ursula inspires a vision for humanity. How do they do that?
When i sit to write, I end up with strong big ideas but without the ability to sustain them over 100s of pages. I need to observe these writers and see how they manage to build characters, worlds, situations.
So here's the framework i will use to help me in understanding their craft better.
1. what's the point? why did they write that book? what was their politics?
this book didn't have a strong point. it had a strong setting.
2. Why did they choose the characters they chose?
An envoy & a prime minister feels like an obvious choice. It helped her explore the politics of Gethen more closely. But why did that politics really matter if the story was about love? for a more intimate exploration perhaps a situation that forces the two individuals together right at the start of the novel would have been more interesting?
what could i have chosen? Perhaps a farmer who rescues the alien from his ship's wreckage? well, obvious again.
Why did the alien choose to come un-spectacularly? why is the king in doubt if he is really an envoy or not?
if the karhideans didn't believe that the alien really was an envoy from a certain 'ekumen', how did he get to be so close with the Prime minister in the first place? why did Ursula choose to not explain this?
3. Scope of story
I would have prefered to keep the story about the possibility of love between a person from an ambisexual world and a person from a heterosexual world. A tighter focus would allow me to explore the psyches, the gender's implications better.
4. The narrative structure
A diary is a decent way to structure the story. But then to be faithful to that structure, need to allow for characters peculiarities, emotions, assumptions, lies too. This structure is best suited for characters with interesting personalities, grappling with interesting questions, confronting/hiding from their fears. We don't see that here. I would use this structure and build a love story through the lens of two aliens negotiating their differences and finding common ground.
very interesting situations - banishment, imprisonment, change of fortunes, misunderstandings, journey of 800 miles...
The narrative structure of diary limited the scope of development of situations though. For example, the imprisonment of Genry Ai felt too sudden and under-explained. Why did the Orgoreyneans all of sudden felt that he was a liability? i mean Ursula does explain it, but not convincingly enough. There is politics at play, but it can't be explained away. That political machination needs a bit of setting up and the wheels should move and the gear should fall in place somewhere. it didn't feel like it.
also, the adventure through the cold climes, crevasses and volcanoes of Gethen weren't exciting enough. Why can't the planet have interesting animals? there was just one, that too a hunted animal whose shape, size, peculiarity i don't remember any more. its tough to find a prey in cold deserts. Why can't an animal seek to eat them tenaciously? or why can't a crevasse fall lead them to somewhere? perhaps to a permanent injury? perhaps to a lake full of fishes they can feast on after days of hunger? perhaps they lose their only stove to a landslide and have no way of turning the ice into potable water. what would they need to do find that warmth, that elixir of life?
the exiled pm dies, genry manages to institute contact. then he goes and meets his friend's father and child who is curious. well, i am happy with the ending to an extent. i don't like the post-modern obsession of keeping the ending open, ambiguous.This was not ambiguous. But, again, it didn't satisfy. Why meeting his friend's son matter to Genry? what were the emotional stakes and how did his meeting resolve his anguish?
anything else i am missing? what else should i consider?