Elegy: The Left Hand of Starkness


“They have nothing to give. They have no power of making. All their power is to darken and destroy. They cannot leave this place; they are this place; and it should be left to them. They should not be denied nor forgotten, but neither should they be worshiped. The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds; there places are made in the world where darkness gathers, places given over wholly to the Ones whom we call Nameless, the ancient and holy Powers of the Earth before the Light, the powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness… I think they drove your priestess Kossil mad a long time ago; I think she has prowled these caverns as she prowls the labyrinth of her own self, and now she cannot see the daylight any more. She tells you that the Nameless Ones are dead; only a lost soul, lost to truth, could believe that. They exist. But they are not your Masters. They never were. You are free, Tenar. You were taught to be a slave, but you have broken free.”

Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.

I knew her a very long time before I ever heard of Donald Westlake.  Her name became sacred to me, is sacred now, and will be until the day I die.

So this morning, the ansible on my work desk rang.  A call from home, which is only an hour’s commute away, but it can feel like parsecs some days.  I hadn’t had time to glance at the Times online.  She was in the obituary section.  At the top of it, in fact–a rare distinction for a writer of science fiction and fantasy yarns.   My significant other, who has dabbled in those realms herself, thought I’d want to know.  Nobody in my life had ever called me with the news a writer I loved was dead.  (I called my mom once to tell her Fred Astaire was dead, but that was a special thing between us.)

I first encountered her in my high school library–The Left Hand of Darkness beckoned to me from a revolving rack, and when I opened it, a world opened up before me, unlike any I’d seen before, though I’d been reading science fiction for several years by then.   A world of winter, stark, uncompromising, alive–and transgendered.  Where anyone could be male or female, at a given time, and most of the time they were neither.

And instead of shock, or revulsion, I felt curiosity, compassion–wonder.  Why not?  Why would that be any worse than the tumult of my own sexuality?  When the Terran protagonist explains to one of them the way his people reproduce,  he’s met with sympathy, almost horror–how awful, to be in the grip of desire, all the time, never free of it for a moment, never fully satisfied, never at peace with your own physical needs.  How could any human adolescent not relate to that?

I still had almost no consciousness of the growing movement for gay rights, or even of what it meant to be gay, bisexual, or trans, and they are still coming up with new terms–it occurs to me ‘non-binary’ isn’t all that far from what she described in that novel.  I could not tell you which of my classmates were gay, though I could make some retrospective guesses.

But because she taught me that different is just different, I was prepared when that world presented itself to me, and I could just see it as other ways of being, and I felt no hate, expressed no derision–just curiosity, compassion–wonder.  Okay, I wasn’t that cool, but I was willing to learn, put it that way.  The ground had been prepared.  A mind had been opened.

I knew very well what it meant to be different, to be mocked and ostracized for it, and I decided then, only half-realizing it, that I was on the side of everyone different, even if they weren’t different in the same way as me.  As long as they were on the side of difference, of variety, of life in all its diversity, they were my brethren.  And perhaps they could even be my friends.  (Perhaps I could even have friends; you’ve all been through the nightmare of maturation, let’s not dwell on the obvious, this isn’t about me.)

So I had a new teacher, but being a slow learner, with many tutors, I took my time.  She had other lessons to teach, and I got to them slowly across the years, and there are still many I haven’t gotten to  yet, but I would keep running across her, unpredictably, in a bookstore, in a library, in a pile of orphan books on a sidewalk table, and I’d pick her up and read, that being one of the more useful of the dark arts, as one of her heroes wryly quipped.

There was the lesson about self-discovery, in a world of dragons and wizards and dark caverns of evil.  A hero angry at the world and himself, making peace with both, and then sharing what he’d learned with a sister who needed a steadying hand in her own journey towards the light.

The lesson about equality, taught by one man’s exploration of radically different sister worlds, one orbiting the other.  How beautiful equality is in the abstract, how savage and uncompromising in reality, and how the more resources we have, the harder it becomes to share them equally.  That was also a lesson about how worlds of plenty can exist right besides worlds of barren privation, and each can bring about its own form of blindness.  And about how the striving of the individual is just as important as that of the collective, reminding us the two must find a way to co-exist, since neither is complete without the other.

There was the lesson I first encountered as a TV adaptation, then much later as a book, about a man who learns the secret of bending reality to his will, which we all think is something we want, but maybe not so much.  A story worthy of Philip K. Dick, who had, in fact, already told a similar story years earlier, and to compare the two is to see how two master shapers can approach the same subject in entirely different ways, and  yet reach the same basic conclusions.  There was more emotional depth to her vision, more complexity–less satire (though psychoanalysis came in for a ribbing)–more starkness.  Not better.  Just different.

And there were other lessons, and many I’ve yet to tackle.  I don’t know if I’ll get to them all, at the pace I’m going.  There’s a forest world waiting for me.  There’s another story about the wizard (I’m tempted to avoid that, since I’ve found that when SF writers craft beloved trilogies, then return to them years later, it doesn’t always work out well, but she was the exception to so many things).

There’s some stuff that I’ve read reviews of (she somehow managed to get written about by mainstream critics as if her genre scribblings were important, perhaps her most astounding feat of all) that sounds maybe a bit too schematic, too idea-based.  Her best stories were always about people, and the many worlds she made for them were just there to show them who they were.  But to this date, I’ve never read anything of  hers that didn’t teach me something.

We relate to different writers differently.  I started reading Westlake a few years ago, and I found I had to read all of him, as quickly as possible.  I started reading her as a child, and may not finish until I’m a child again.  A wildflower meadow can spring up in a week; a redwood takes centuries to mature.  Not better.  Just different.  But strangely, both are about a state of endless becoming.  And both can get very stark at times.  But she’s the left hand of Starkness.  (Even though she wasn’t a southpaw, I’m disappointed to note.)

She lived as many years as there are keys on a piano.  She’d have liked that.  She didn’t live to see the end of the latest reign of the Nameless Ones, whose names we hear ad nauseam of late.  But she lived to see her sisters rise up in their millions, just a few days ago, to say to the world that they had broken free.  And they needed no brother to tell them that, but brothers helped them, all the same, because that’s what brothers do.

Why were most of her heroes male?  I suppose partly because of the genre she wrote in, the generation she came from.  Partly because she didn’t want to distract from the real points she was making that applied for any sentient (“Oh look!  Female empowerment!”)  Partly because her dream was not women who would be more like men, but men who would be more like women (Can we ever be that strong?  I wonder.)

But really, just out of hope everybody would be themselves, at last, all the labels gone, discarded, meaningless.  No one better.  Everyone different.

She was a dreamer, and that particular dream is over.  But because her dreams mattered to me, I’ll repurpose a poem Brendan Behan once wrote (in Irish) for a certain rabble-rousing labor leader in Dublin. (I fondly suppose that Portland is as close as America is ever getting to Dublin.)

She was me–she was every mother’s child of us.
Ourselves–strong, as we would wish to be
As we knew we could be
And her, naming dragons, opening dimensions

Following her coffin through the mouth of the empty city last night
In great roars of fury
Following her coffin through the mouth of the city last night

Is it we who are in the coffin?
Certainly not!
We are in the streets, marching
Alive–and thankful to the dead.

The very first lesson she crafted was about a scientist, a man of learning, culture, strange talents, and exceptional courage, who comes alone to an alien world beset by occupiers of his own species.  He joins with the sentient species of that world to repel the invasion, blending their ways with his, and in so doing, gives up any chance to return to the world he came from.  He dies before he can learn that the world he helped save has been named after him, will be listed in every star chart as Rokanan.

I now declare that throughout the galaxy, this planet we live on, variously called Earth, Terra, or Gaia, shall be known as Ursula.


It could happen.

Let’s just make sure there is a someday.  She’d ask no more than that.


Filed under science fiction

7 responses to “Elegy: The Left Hand of Starkness

  1. Nicely written.

    I read a handful of Le Guin books over the years, including Rocannon’s World. If I remember correctly, the invaders on the planet were human, but were known enemies of the country/alliance the Rocannon came from. So he certainly absorbed the culture of the planet he was stranded on, but I don’t think he switched sides.

    Anyway, The Dispossessed was the book that left the largest impression: I definitely identified with Shevek’s frustration at having his ideas stymied, or even stolen, by his superiors. His society eliminated the haves-and-have-nots in a material sense, but not in an abstract sense. But even when he went to the other planet, he learned than an idea communicated can’t be an idea owned.

    I believe I understood why he joined the demonstrations and eventually left for home. I wouldn’t have done the same thing – I don’t happen to think that life goes in a circle – but understand why he did. All in all, a very challenging and satisfactory masterpiece.

    • Oh I read the Wikipedia synopsis before I wrote that paragraph. It’s been many years since I read the book, but parts of it stayed with me, particularly the ending. This wasn’t a book review, and of necessity, my synopses were going to be very brief and detail-free. I was sticking with the essential plot elements, the story beneath the story. You’ll understand, after some of the reviews I’ve written, it was a nice change of pace to just cut the crap, and boil it all down to the basics.

      No need for The Le Guin Review (The Ursulline Update, maybe?), since she, unlike Westlake, has received a vast amount of critical and scholarly analysis–well deserved, but I just wanted to say what I got out of her. I’m by no means qualified to analyze her in-depth. I’ve read like ten of her books. I’ll probably read a few more this coming year.

      I didn’t even mention Rocannon was telepathic. To be honest, I’d forgotten that part. Which means it’s not essential. You could tell the same story set on earth, with no advanced tech or paranormal powers. In fact, no question Le Guin was thinking of certain historical figures who did something quite similar to Rocannon (Roger Casement comes to mind, though his end was more tragic by far).

      But the power of SF is that you can tell a story that deals with knotty problems of the past and present, set it in a distant future, and see it more objectively. Which is not to say unemotionally.

      The Dispossessed isn’t an answer to anything, even the problems of Urras and Anarres. It’s just presenting some age-old questions in a very unique fashion, using Shevek’s perspective. I was young when I read it, and much of what I remember involves Takver (ah, Takver) and all those bare-breasted society gals on Urras. And she’d like that, I think. She’d say that’s Life, speaking up for itself, in the midst of all the turmoils and tangents of History.

      But I still got her overarching point, ill-versed in socialist/anarchist history as I was then. “A collectivist society is worth striving for, but understand the problems before you go that way. It can go horrendously wrong, and already has, many times. And make room for the oddballs, because the real goal is empowerment of the individual, not his/her suppression.” Anarres is an ideal left unfulfilled, the dreams of its founder having been banalized by mediocrity and mendacity, as has happened with all dreamers when their ideas have been put into practice on a large scale.

      But we’ll keep dreaming, and see what happens. Just don’t forget to find a Takver along the way. I didn’t have to look her name up, anyway.

      So how’s the weather in your part of Ursula?

      • Getting warmer, finally – not that I should complain …

        Anyway, I didn’t mean to nitpick on a minor point. I just thought that Loyalty (to an a idea, political system, etc.) was an interesting theme running through some of Le Guin’s works.

        • I think you’re right. I also think loyalty to people mattered more to her. Ideals don’t mean much without something tangible behind them. You have to make the system fit the people, not the other way around, or it will never work.

  2. Wasn’t sure where to put this, but a recentish science fiction entry seemed most apt. I picked up an old issue of IF magazine recently because it had a Westlake in it, Call Me Nemesis. Moderately amusing superhero parody with a nifty premise and some heist action. If it’s rare and you don’t have it, I could scan it or something probably…

    • I’ve read that one–a lot of Westlake’s work for the pulps seems to not be copyright-protected, so e-publishers compile it and put it out in inexpensive small anthologies for Kindle and such. “The Scorpion Fights Crime!” An early example of his interest in precocious whiz kids. Which frankly only really worked for him in Jimmy the Kid.

      Thanks for the offer, but it’s out there already. Now if you find a story called “Knife Fight”–that one I want.

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