Saturday, October 4, 2008

Genly Ai: A Ridiculously Close Look

Today I thought I'd take a look at Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. This is possibly my favorite book of all time; certainly it's a source of inspiration to me in my own writing. The opening is actually quite complex, because it involves three different voices. The first one appears in the title of the first chapter:

"1. A Parade in Erhenrang"

Let's start with the phrase "in Erhenrang." This gives us a location with an entirely foreign name, so it's clearly some alien place (assuming that we've come to the first page knowing we're looking at science fiction).

The second thing I'd like to point out is "a parade." The word "a" has a special function, that of introducing something that is new - specifically, something that is new to the reader. It's the word "a" here that gives me a sense of a narrator, and a subtle sense of "once upon a time." So this is the over-narrator's voice: as close as we'll get to hearing the voice of the author herself.

Then we hit the second voice:

"From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97"

This is a voice of ultimate authority, the notes that would head a scientific report, and thus it gives us the sense that what will follow is a completely factual account. Notice that there are no verbs in this excerpt. No verbs means no subjects, and thus no actors - the sense of agency, of identity and intent is completely removed, leaving us with a sourceless truth. This impression is strengthened by the word "archives," a place where history is recorded, and "transcript," a completely accurate re-copying of something not originally in text form.

Along with this we get "Hain," another unfamiliar place but obviously the source of this authority. The word "ansible" may be unfamiliar but it clearly must produce documents, and in particular, messages ("To the Stabile on Ollul...").

Think about the number of alien names in these few sentences. The feeling I get from all of this is that the protagonist, clearly indicated to be Genly Ai, is a small individual in the context of a very large and complex overarching institutional structure. This structure not only incorporates separate planets (notice the use of "on" in "on Ollul" rather than "in" which we saw in the chapter title) but it also dictates its own measurement of time.

So from the chapter title we've backed off to the voice of the greater institution, and then LeGuin takes us into this:

"I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling..."

Here, beginning with the word "I," suddenly we hear our point-of-view narrator's voice. LeGuin indicates that this voice belongs to Genly Ai by linking back to the previous piece with the phrase "my report." We get confirmation of the outer space setting in the world "homeworld." But rather than starting to recount events immediately, Genly Ai says, "Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling..."

This is a fascinating move. Le Guin sets us up to receive facts, using the lines from the Archive notes, and then immediately has her narrator question the nature of truth and fact. (By the way, we don't actually get to the parade until the fourth paragraph on page 2).

It strikes me that this is intended to be deliberately disorienting. It sets the reader up to take the story seriously, but to be prepared for alienness and a great deal of ambiguity. It prepares us for the voice of Genly Ai, who comes out of an Earth-born storytelling background, but does have the skills of a linguist and anthropologist, as well as (to some extent) a political negotiator. It also fits well with the way Genly Ai himself feels disoriented a lot of the time.

Throughout the novel, we get the very succinct chapter titles which give us a calmly reflective sense of the story's progress, but the complexity of the characters, the world, and the situation just grows and grows. That LeGuin is able to keep it all driving forward and pointing to a dramatic conclusion is a measure of her skill.

There's a reason this book won the Hugo and Nebula awards. Read it.

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