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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Science in Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness

I have recently posted (see here and here) on Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (LHD). I wish to continue this series, by musing briefly on the science in this work.

LHD is science fiction, in that Le Guin attempts to extrapolate from the science of today to the science of the future, on other worlds. It is hardly original with me to note that the products of magic and science might be difficult or impossible to distinguish (imagine Frodo trying to understand a cell phone). But there are no wizards in LHD. (Le Guin does have such in her fantastic Earthsea -- see here for one of my posts on that fictional world.)

Although she didn't invent the ansible for LHD -- she had already written about it, and, since she imagined it, so have others -- this device to communicate instantaneously across immense distances plays a role in the book.

The Gethenians are said to be the result of genetic engineering, carried out by the Hainish, a long time before the time of the action in LHD.

Le Guin, as usual, pays attention to the ecology of Gethen, and includes descriptions of how the climate might have influenced the biology. She also has a character say that the rapid adaptation of machines by humans on earth had a significant cost, a cost which the slow development of Gethenian industry has avoided.

Le Guin also pays some attention to psychological or neurological science. Telepathy is one of the abilities of Genly Ai, the Envoy to Gethen, and he is able to teach Estraven to develop this ability to some extent. The most remarkable mind power of the Gethenians is their ability to Foretell the future. They do this by combining minds, in a more or less controlled way, although there seems to be some art in the practice, not just science.

There is mention of various inventions, including electric automobiles, guns, radio, and the Chabe stove, a remarkable device that weighs a few pounds, yet can heat and light a room for months. Le Guin doesn't explain how this device might work, unfortunately.

Thanks for reading.

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