Note: This is a blog post based on my initial thoughts after reading Left Hand of Darkness and is not the actual close reading essay for my MFA.
As part of the MFA coursework, we are required to close read twelve separate books and write a short essay analyzing the craft of the books in a way that can help us with our own writing. My first close reading was of Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. One of the challenges of writing science fiction and fantasy novels is how can an author convey back story and world building in a way that’s engaging to the reader without large blocks of explanatory exposition.
Ursula K. Le Guin sets The Left Hand of Darkness on a far off planet called Winter. During the course of the novel, she must introduce the reader to a planet, the planet’s system of government, a federation of planets and the federation’s system of government, the environment, the history, the religions and cultures of the indigenous peoples, and the physiology of their species. That is a lot of information to impart in a relatively short novel. Le Guin solves this narrative problem using multiple techniques.
Narrative Structure Serves Function
The entire structure of the novel serves the information to be imparted to the reader. Le Guin uses a combination of chapters from different perspectives, structured as reports from the Archives of Hain, diaries from other characters, recordings of “hearth-tales” of the North Karhidish people as archived in a university, old stories, and other “records.” The primary story is told from the point of view of both Genly Ai, First Mobile to the planet Winter (in the official records that he lodged with the Archives of Hain), and Therem Harth rem ir Estroven, former Prime Minister of Karhide (through his diaries). These two narrators cover alternate looking in at Winter as an alien and looking out as a member of the culture being examined. Interspersed among these two perspectives are other records that are interjected as separate chapters. It is almost as if the reader has been researching this story and is reading not only the stories as told by the two individuals involved but also relevant records that may help the researcher understand details of the story as told.
Le Guin hasn’t worried whether her random chapter structured as a research report for a random investigator describing the ambisexuality of the people of Winter and how their physiological sexual relationships work distracts the reader or takes them out of the story. Le Guin knows that the story “is” the world in which the characters are interacting. The world itself is a major character in the story, and its history and the history of its people cannot be a distraction from the narrative, because it is the narrative.
As an author, it is liberating to consider that we do not have to limit ourselves to a narrative arc in the traditional sense. This is a lesson that directly applies to my writing and to Compendium, which I am readying for release, and it gives me an entirely new perspective on how I can further integrate the back story of my world into my narrative.
Follow an Outsider, but not an Ignorant Outsider
Le Guin does not stop with the narrative structure of Left Hand of Darkness when she explores the tools at her disposal in creating an immersive world. She also provides us with an outsider, someone who is not native to the culture and not entirely comfortable in his surroundings. This is a common device used by many great authors to reveal all sorts of useful information to the reader. One of my favorite instances is J.K. Rowling’s use of Harry Potter in her novel series. Harry grew up among muggles, so he knows nothing at all about the wizarding world. We learn everything as he learns it. Rowling does this masterfully, partially because of the age of the narrator and partially just because she’s that good at it.
Le Guin takes a different approach. Genly Ai is an outsider, but has been living in Karhide on Winter for two years as he tries to convince the King that it is in Winter’s best interest to join the Ekumen, which as collective of 80 plus worlds that have created a free trade zone. Inviting us into Genly’s life after he has already been living on Karhide gives us the best of both worlds. We are not dragged through the minutiae of learning everything Genly needs to know to do his job (which is essentially what we do when we follow Harry through the series), but he is still an outsider. He still misses some of the nuances of society’s social cues. He doesn’t know all the answers. Thus, we are immediately taken past all of the details and into the real substance of the cultural differences between Terra (our Earth) and Winter. These anthropological differences are revealed through the reports, through thoughts that Genly has, and through description of how Genly navigates Winter’s environment. But, we are thrown into the narrative at the highest point of tension, not dragged through the two year journey it took to get there.
To up the ante even farther, Le Guin takes Genly from the culture he has been living in for two years, Karhide, and has him cross the border to the country of Orgoreyn, which is entirely new to Genly. Thus, we learn even more about Karhide through Genly’s struggles to cope in Orgoreyn. Two cultures written at once.
I could go on, and I will go on, since I have another week or two to think about the techniques Ursula K. Le Guin uses to weave her universe for us to enjoy before I have to commit them into an essay for my MFA. In the meantime, I have a lot of ideas to take from Le Guin and consider in my own writing.
About the Photograph: This photograph was taken on Virgin Atlantic Flight 27 as we flew over Canada in January, 2015.