Tuesday, March 1, 2011

War, Technology, and their Reasons

While I'm sure that many of my classmates will write on gender dualities in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, I thought I might approach the topic on a different trajectory. Two facets of Gethenian society fascinate me: their apparent lack of war (until the time of Genly Ai's arrival) and lack of significant technology despite it being far enough into the future that our people (Terrans) have developed Nearly as Fast as Light (NAFAL) ships. Gethen is defined by it's expansive Arctic and Antarctic tundras and a generally cooler-than-Terra climate. However, despite this environment, the native Gethenians seem at best hesitant to adopt technology that would improve their quality of life.

"Gethen is defined by it's expansive Arctic and Antarctic tundras and a generally cooler-than-Terra climate"

While they have heating technology, advanced fabrics, and "excellent and economical" stove/heater/lamp units, ground vehicles are few (and usually reserved for snails-pace winter travel while air vehicles are nonexistent. Similarly, radio is widespread yet television is unknown. Thus it begs the question of why Gethenians, who are clearly technologically advanced in mechanics, chemistry, and fabrics, have failed to develop something such as the airplane. However, in their own words, why would Gethenians develop a flying machine if there was nothing on Gethen that would suggest that they could leave the ground (as there are no birds, etc...)? Similarly (but undiscussed in the book), why would they develop television if radio works just fine?

"I am skeptical that there was never a Gethenian who dreamed of flying"

The first point that these questions raise is "what is nature of human curiosity?" Throughout history, human curiosity has spawned the various branches of science, mathematics, art, literature, and engineering. Solitary inventors/artists/scholars work to understand or express our world and universe, and subsequently generate either physical products or knowledge which advance humanity. Using the aforementioned case of the Airplane, humans observed creatures flying and sought to emulate them. On Gethen though, there are no birds and thus this inspiration is lacking. Nonetheless, I am skeptical that there was never a Gethenian who dreamed of flying. More broadly, there is definitely not a lack of art, mythos, religion, or scientific understanding on Gethen. What then, has caused the technological rift between Terrans and Gethenians?

There is something to be said about technological advancement though, and that is that it is inexorably tied to military conquest and conflict. On Gethen, wars are nonexistent and the only conflicts (at least until Tibe becomes Prime Minister of Karhide) are between individuals and clans. On our Earth, pieces of technology have advanced beyond the prototype stage because we have sought newer and more efficient ways to either kill each other or to communicate our success and/or propaganda. Continuing our example, the airplane was not perfected until it was tested in the fires of two World Wars. On Gethen, the lack of conflict is hypothesized by Ai to be a byproduct of natives' androgyny, preventing a saturation of male-related aggressiveness, territoriality, and sex drive. In an androgynous society, there is not impetus for global conflict and thus no pressing need to further develop technology that lacks a clear survival purpose.

"They are vastly outclassed technologically by the Ekumen"

In this respect, I believe Le Guin sought to praise Gethenian society for its "Nobel Savage" like purity because its society is not dominated by the agressive male stereotype that has seemingly built humanity a dangerous and divisive world. However, there is a certain irony to this claim. While indeed Gethenians live in a simple, noble, and peaceful world, they are vastly outclassed technologically by the Ekumen who have presumably developed along lines derived from our (Terrans') present course. Fortunately for the Gethenians, the Ekuman simply prioritize the exchange of culture and information, something which the former, like all forms of humanity, possess to an inordinate degree.


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