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The Left Hand of Darkness

By Corina Breukel

Hello everyone,

I have felt honoured and pleased to choose a book for the PainGeeks bookgroup. As I have a very strong interest in Narrative approaches, I was immediately clear in my mind that I wanted to use a piece of fiction. If you are anything like me and read papers and popular science books, you may have found that fiction sometimes falls by the wayside and tends to get classified as “reading for pleasure”. But human beings are natural storytellers, and it is the information that we feel that tends to get absorbed and which becomes part of us.

This particular book is usually classed as science fiction, but it is more accurately described as a thought experiment. What if there was a planet in a universe on which its humans live for most of the time without being one gender or the other, except for a brief period of time each month, during which they can choose to become either. What effects would that have on a society?

Now do bear in mind that this book was written more than half a century ago (1969), before women could even open a bank account by themselves (1975). Feminists at the time thought the book did not go far enough in its speculation about a genderless society and took exception to the use of “he” for every person, as it makes it appear as if androgyny is the absence of femininity. Nowadays these ideas are far more culturally normal, and we have the language to express people being non-binary and using the pronoun “they”.

If you have started reading this book, you will have read the extraordinary introduction by the author, in which she claims, “A novelist’s business is lying” She states: “Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places and events which never did and never will exist or occur and talking about these fictions in great detail and at length with a great deal of emotion and then when they are finished writing this pack of lies, they say There! That is the truth.

She is speaking tongue in cheek of course, but nevertheless I profoundly disagree. Neuroscience has shown us that every time we tell a story, we recreate it from memory, but based on the last version of the story, not on the actual events. Thus, truth becomes a very slippery concept and in my mind the imaginations of an author, though they may not exist in the physical world, are more truthful than most other writing. Any scientific writing builds its case by selecting those studies that support it. As for biographies or first-hand accounts, they cannot be anything but extremely biases and could be seen as a lie, depending on who reads it.

She does go on to discuss metaphor in her introduction “the artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artists whose medium is fiction does this in words. The Novelist says in words what cannot be said in words”.

I think this is such a delicious concept, let me know your thoughts.

- Corina

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