Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The first envoy

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Note: The legendary author Ursula K. Le Guin passed away on Monday at the age of eighty-eight. This post on her novel The Left Hand of Darkness originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 10, 2017.

And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of…and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?

—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai, the central character of The Left Hand of Darkness, is a lone envoy sent from Earth to convince the people of Gethen, an isolated planet of perpetual winter, to join the Ekumen, a confederation of eighty-three inhabited worlds. His mission seems absurdly difficult, and perhaps inherently impossible. He doesn’t carry any technology aside from an ansible, a communications device that can transmit messages instantaneously across the galaxy, and he’s set apart from the Gethenians in fundamental ways—the planet’s inhabitants are ambisexual, with no fixed gender, and the idea of being permanently male or female strikes many of them as a form of perversion. Not surprisingly, few believe his story. His spacecraft is confiscated upon his arrival by the government, and although he could, in theory, call down a mother ship at any time, he refuses to do so until the Gethenians have agreed to join the coalition. (The situation is only complicated by a growing rivalry between the neighboring countries of Karhide and Orgoryen, which prompts a character to wonder: “How does one hate a country, or love one?…What is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”) Genly’s only option is to somehow persuade them on his own, which could take years, if it happens at all. Envoys to other planets have even been killed. When asked why the Ekumen takes this seemingly irrational approach, Genly explains: “I was sent alone, and remain here alone, in order to make it impossible of you to fear me.” Later, he expands upon this: “The First Envoy to a world always comes alone. One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion.”

At first, inevitably, it goes poorly. The prime minister Estraven, who is the only person in the kingdom of Karhide who seems to believe Genly, is abruptly exiled, and his place is taken by another politician, Tibe, who is hostile to the envoy, openly nationalistic, and eager to manipulate a vulnerable king. As Genly recounts in his report:

Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn, vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the kingdom’s borders”…He talked much about pride of country and love of the parent land, but little about shifgrethor [mutual honor and respect], personal pride, or prestige…I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse elements of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”

In this passage, Le Guin, whose novel was first published in 1969, seems even more prescient than George Orwell. Genly continues: “It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer…hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness…Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.” And the situation in Karhide has obvious parallels to that of America today, which Le Guin lived just long enough to see come to pass:

Slow as their material and technological advance had been, little as they valued “progress” in itself, they had finally, in the last five or ten or fifteen centuries, got a little ahead of Nature. They weren’t absolutely at the mercy of their merciless climate any longer; a bad harvest would not starve a whole province, or a bad winter isolate every city…Now Karhide was to pull herself together…and the way to make her do it was not by sparking her pride, or building up her trade, or improving her roads, farms, colleges, and so on; none of that; that’s all civilization, veneer, and Tibe dismissed it with scorn. He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make people into a nation: war.

And here’s the sentence that chills the blood my most: “[Tibe’s] ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound.”

Yet I think that Le Guin is in some ways greater than Orwell, whose work I admire enormously, because she hints at a way forward—although it isn’t an easy one. It lies in Genly’s ultimate understanding of his mission, which he only realizes toward the end of the book:

I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou…[The Ekumen’s] doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. It proceeds, therefore, by subtle ways, and slow ones, and queer, risky ones; rather as evolution does, which is in certain senses its model…So was I sent alone, for your sake? Or for my own? I don’t know.

Le Guin’s solution, which I won’t discuss, isn’t entirely satisfying, but the problem that she poses remains very real. The predicament that she describes is an extreme one, but on some level, we’re all in Genly’s position. We may acquire a few allies along the way, but we’re fundamentally alone, and we’re attempting to deal with impersonal forces that seem too large for any one person to change. In all too many cases, they are. But it’s only on the individual level, and one day at a time, that true change ever happens. There have been envoys before us, of course. But whenever we reach out to make a connection with another human being, it’s as if it’s happening for the very first time. And we owe it to Le Guin to try.

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2018 at 8:48 am

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