Monday, February 28, 2011

On Genre and Narrative

In “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre”, Suvin argues that fantasy is a genre which imposes “anti-cognitive laws” on its environment, whereas science fiction is characterized by a framework cognitively consistent with the author’s surroundings. This implies a tension between these genres which causes them to be mutually exclusive, but The Left Hand of Darkness shows that they cannot be neatly compartmentalized in the manner Suvin suggests. Though the main narrative – told from the perspectives of Ai and Estraven – can certainly be identified as employing a cognitive framework insofar as the technology, social structure and physiology of the Gethenians are constructed and presented in an internally consistent, logically plausible manner, the sections referencing Gethenian mythology, which might be properly characterized as fantasy, are not as “anti-cognitive” as Suvin might claim. For instance, the mystical and seemingly unscientific ability of the Handdaran Foretellers to predict the future, referred to in “The Nineteenth Day”, is reconciled with the Gethenian environment when Ai suggests that this strange ability might be somehow related to his mindspeech, which he has a biological explanation for. Similarly, the Gethenians’ discovery of the expanding-universe hypothesis as a result of “The Sayings of Tuhulme” provides cognitive, scientific grounding to an otherwise fantastical religious scripture describing Meshe’s ability to foretell what would happen ten thousand years from his time. Indeed, the very fact that myths and legends are a highly significant part of the oral literary tradition in Karhide, a technologically developed nation, suggests that the fantastic and the scientific need not always exist in opposition to one another. Thus fantasy is not necessarily as “anti-cognitive” as Suvin claims it to be, suggesting that the boundaries between fantasy and science fiction may often be blurred by their similarities.

Another aspect of The Left Hand of Darkness which I found interesting was how the tone of the narrative very closely reflected what Ai was thinking. While in Mishnory, Ai finds that the buildings are somehow “insubstantial”, and his host Shusgis “vague around the corners and edges, just a little bit unreal”, suggesting he is somehow detached from his surroundings, and finds his environment uninteresting. His narration of his time in Mishnory reflects this, as he glosses over details of the city around him, focusing instead on the conversations he has with the city’s politicians. Conversely, when trekking over the Gobrin Ice to return to Karhide, Ai is fully aware of and engaged in his surroundings, often describing the terrain and weather conditions he and Estraven were facing in great detail (“Sove snows in flurries, and thick ash with it”; “A peak rises up out of the Ice, the sharp graceful barren cone of a young volcano”). Because Ai and Estraven were struggling to survive in the face of difficult weather and terrain conditions, their physical surroundings must have seemed particularly real to them, and this is reflected in the tone of the narrative. Thus constructed in this way, the narrative of The Left Hand of Darkness provides us with an additional layer of insight into Ai’s mind, telling us not only what he is thinking, but how his thoughts are influenced by his surroundings as well.


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