Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why the Stuff?

As much as I appreciated the glimpse into Gethenian life with the archival chapters, I found these chapters to be somewhat puzzling. Why were they there in the first place? Part of the work these chapters do within the text is to pull back from Ai's perspective, which is, after all, just another archival document (Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2, if you want to be specific). The narrative that dominates the text (in terms of page numbers), Ai's extended struggle both to survive and to incorporate Gethen into the Ekumen worlds, is but one primary source document. Ai's story can never dominate the reader (in terms of being the only perspective).

I am somewhat reminded of Atwood's essay, "My Life in Science Fiction", where she discusses the importance of the perspective shift that moves the narrative into the past. She poses the essay on Newspeak at the end of 1984 and the epilogue of her own Handmaid's Tale as historically distancing elements that turn these dystopic worlds into "merely a subject for academic analysis" (Paragraph 35, here). Similarly, the narrative form of the (if not really epistolary then somewhat epistolary) Left Hand of Darkness, made up of various archival documents, troubles the dominance of Ai's personal narrative. There is another narrative that can only appear when all of the chapters are read in concert. Sure, it would be easy for Le Guin to publish an edition of this text where the only chapters are Ai's journal, where the text is another first-person narrative of betrayal, redemption, and loss and success--but it isn't. Why isn't it?

Perhaps the biggest change that happens with the introduction of these other materials is, rather than a perspective shift, a perspective loss. Instead of Ai being the avatar of the reader (author!) in the text, guiding our reading and providing the necessary information, he is one of the voices competing shrilly for our attention. We read this not as friends, but as historians, sifting through primary source documents and piecing together the narrative of a conflict that is bigger than Ai and Estraven and the Ekumen worlds. (Okay, sure, you could read it as a friend... *waves hand dismissively*) Though two of the myths and legends are recorded by Ai ( judging by the "G.A" in the subheadings of chapters 4 and 9), they are not integrated into his own journal, but set aside from it. He does not introduce these chapters, and his narrative breaks off cleanly at the end of the previous chapter.

So who has compiled this book, if not Ai? The narrative suggests a historian in the future, perhaps working with a mass of primary source documents, picking out the ones that deal with Gethen and with the question of gender duality-gender binary. The narrative suggests a historian from one of the Ekumen worlds, writing at a time when Gethen seemed to always have been part of the Ekumen, but curious about when it wasn't. Why these documents in particular? Why documents at all? And why not a map? (At least not in my edition; Seth's link to Le Guin's site suggests the same lack.)

I think Ai comes close to answering these questions when he opens the narrative:
"The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact that you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story." (1)
When he says, "you can judge better", he is asking the reader (of his journal) to provide the totalizing narrative gaze that he cannot provide. He is asking the reader to distill from the various elements of the tale a vision of the world in which this tale took place, and what that world means now for the reader.


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