Before the start of this summer, I decided on a project that I was going to do. As a fan of science fiction, I felt I should give attention to some of the classics of the genre, so I put together a list of probably a couple dozen or so well-regarded science fiction works—Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and so forth.
Well, the goal fell short, and in the end I’ve spent most of the past couple of months reading the same two Jane Austen novels over and over. (Classic novels are my other favorite genre, especially if they’re the sort with clever satire and witty characters.) However, I did manage to finish a few science-fiction books before I left them by the wayside, among them a favorite which I decided to reread: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
I’d forgotten how good this book was. This, I suppose, is something I say of a lot of things I reread or rediscover, but that makes it no less true in this instance.
It’s fairly easy to give a very general gist of what The Left Hand of Darkness is about: a man from Earth goes to live on a planet where all the people are near-human, but for the fact that they have no gender. Or rather, no permanent gender. Any person can become either male or female, temporarily, before returning to their natural genderless state. And to read most synopses of the book, you would think that’s the one great detail of the story, but interestingly enough: it’s not.
Ursula Le Guin is one of the great masters of worldbuilding. One of the reasons her stories are such a pleasure to read is that not only are the characters thoroughly developed, but so is the world they live in and interact with. In the case of this novel, the narrative itself is interspersed with excerpts from other texts that exist within the world of the story—anthropological notes from earlier explorers, native folktales, historical anecdotes, et cetera. These people are not just their biology; their language, geography, political structures, theology, and social organization all play a role. In that way, these neuter, male-and-female-and-neither-and-both people are more completely human than many a fictional society has managed to be. That is partly why The Left Hand of Darkness is, in my opinion, one of the greatest examples of what science fiction can do: inform us of our humanity, by placing us in a world outside of it. All great meaningful art, I think, does that in one way or another—remember the Jane Austen books I keep reading, which use entirely human environments but tweak the characters in such a way that their stories become something more than just a series of events, or a list of quirks. Those books inform us of our humanity by placing us closer to it. The Left Hand of Darkness, and books like it, are something just slightly different.
There’s a moment in the book I really love. Genly Ai, this one man on the planet Winter, meets with a Foreteller of the Handdara, a priest of a religious order that knows the secret to predicting the future. He is fascinated with this concept, and thinks of the great changes it could make for the other societies of the galaxy, were the practice introduced to them. To know one’s own destiny, or whether one’s goals will come about! But as he comes to realize, it doesn’t quite work out that way:
[Note: The characters’ names are Faxe and Genly; however, Faxe can’t say L.]
“But we in the Handdara don’t want answers. It’s hard to avoid them, but we try to.”
“Faxe, I don’t think I understand.”
“Well, we come here to the Fastnesses mostly to learn what questions not to ask.”
“But you’re the Answerers!”
“You don’t see yet, do you, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”
“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”
“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God, there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven there is a God, there would be no religion. . . . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”
“That we shall die.”
“Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer. . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
I can’t help but sympathize with Genly, as I, too, want to know the answers. I also recognize that there’s a small amount of ridiculousness in Faxe’s statement that they try to avoid answers, as finding some kind of answer would seem to be the entire purpose of having questions. As for myself, I am in a constant search for Truth.
I’ve come to realize that, perhaps, the part that improves me is not so much the Truth itself, but the search for it. After all, if we already knew all the answers, what would be the point of our being here now? (I may be a cynic, but I’m not enough of one to believe there is no purpose.) If not for the need of scientific discovery, there would be no need for a Scientific Method, and we would learn nothing. If I am to honestly state that I believe the purpose of life is continual improvement—and I do, honestly, believe that—I must practice honesty with myself and admit that I can’t know everything now.
It’s possible that, when speaking to Genly, Faxe only meant that a life wherein one already knows the outcome would be unbearably difficult to live, and that by “possible”, he only means so in a figurative sense: emotionally impossible, but literally doable. However, the more I ponder the quote, the more I start to think that he meant, quite literally, that life—in a meaningful form—could not exist in a universe where one knows everything, or at least not in one in which we know everything without first living to get to that point. If we entered the world with a perfect knowledge of all things, there would be no reason for the growth or learning that life is meant to provide.
In my own religious context, this starts to make more and more sense. I believe, as does the rest of my Church, that life on earth is intended to be a period of individual growth, in which we each learn to be more perfect and godlike. Furthermore, we are specifically prevented from remembering life prior to birth, because then we would already know too much to have the chance to learn meaningfully. “If it were proven there is a God, there would be no religion.” These words are from Ursula Le Guin, but I’ve heard the same concept expressed by others countless times: if we all had unquestionable evidence of God’s existence, then why would we ever need to develop faith in him?
“Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” (Alma 32:21)
Well, now this discussion is taking a more explicitly theological bent than I had intended for it, but I think this quote is necessary. If the purpose of life is greater than simply the sake of living, and there is a specific goal beyond just “doing good things and maybe deciding we believe in Christ”, then it should follow that there must be a thing left to discover or achieve, in order to make that purpose real.
So again, Faxe’s comment about avoiding answers is at least a little bit ridiculous. But he is right on one part: there are answers that we certainly don’t need now, and which we might not be ready to know at all.
I will close with one more quote, also a verse of scripture. This particular verse is one that I hold very dear, as to me it sums up perfectly the concept of what it is to have and seek Truth.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
I don’t like not knowing things. But I certainly choose not knowing, but having hope, over knowing, but never having a hope of improvement. Change is frightening, to be sure; but change is also part of what life is about.
I don’t know everything, but I know enough. Tomorrow, I might just know a little bit more.
Now, as for the other science fiction I intended to read—well, there is time left in the year yet; I might manage to get through a good portion of my list. And maybe I’ll think of some interesting things to say about it. Or maybe I’m just going to read Emma for the fifth time this year; we’ll see.