Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Where is Winter?

The Left Hand of Darkness seems to me to be particularly interested in the act of naming. In the first few pages of the novel I noticed LeGuin’s adoption of the sci-fi trope of giving seemingly everything a strange, unpronounceable name. The talk of Gossiwors and kyorremmy reminds me of a particular criticism of Atwood’s The Blind Assassin: the book was replete with silly “sci-fi” names that were meant to make the world seem alien, but they only really served to distract the reader, rather than immerse him. While this is a stylistic tic that I do personally find somewhat frustrating in sci-fi, its use does not seem too egregious to me in The Left Hand of Darkness.

It is less the strange, invented alien words that struck me, but the ambiguities that were given to names. At the end of his conversation with Estrevan, they come to the name of the planet. Estrevan asks Ai “what do you call it, this world, in your language?” At first, Ai answers with Gethen, the technical name of the planet. Then, upon further provocation, he reveals what he has called it several times in his interior monologue: Winter. Up until that point, I was not even sure whether Gethen and Winter were interchangeable, and not in fact different places. This seems to be a simple analogue for the ambiguous sexuality of the Gethens, where their gender truly is only what an outsider decides to call it, which they inevitably only do so based on their outside appearance, but it seems to me that the naming of Winter resonates more on its proof that this dilemma of the naming of things occurs on every scale in the story. Not only does the gender of a man/woman rely on semantics, but an entire planet can chameleonically change aspects with a single turn of phrase.

To return to the alien words, in terms of ambiguity they do serve an important purpose in science fiction in general. One could argue that these ambiguities are a literalization of the primary appeal of sci fi . A common tactic of immersion is to throw the reader into the setting, to make them experience a narrative without understanding it. Nonsense words are an instantaneous way to achieve the confusion and intrigue required for this form of immersion. Then, the revelation of their meaning parallels an equal understanding of the narrative, characters and background for the story. The appearance of this trope, an apparent sci-fi “shortcut,” makes me wonder what other people think about the phenomena. Do you find the fanciful, invented terminology to be successful immersively, or just annoying, or both? For me, I feel that it can’t help but succeed in immersion, with the unbeatable “throw the baby in the pool” approach, but I also find it to be a consistently annoying tic that, if not erased completely, I wish would be toned down in some cases.


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