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Breakthrough or Breakdown: Transcultural Communication in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris

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Ursula Le Guin and Stanislaw Lem are two major figures of speculative fiction today. Le Guin’s novels, short stories and essays have received international praise and recognition. She won numerous awards during her career, the last being the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Related Work. Le Guin, however, has never hidden her political agenda, whether in her fantasy books set in the Earthsea world or in her science-fiction cycle based on the Hainish civilization. The daughter of an anthropologist, she was very concerned with the various ways civilizations, societies and individuals interacted together, a theme at the center of one of her most famous novels, The Left Hand Of Darkness, published in 1969. Lem is also one of the most famous figures in European post-war science-fiction. Solaris, his most famous novel, was published in 1961, and was adapted twice for the big screen, first in 1971 by Andrej Tarkovski, and in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh. What these two very different authors share in common, beyond their activities in the same genre, philosophical science-fiction, is their interest in how cultures communicate with each other. In The Left Hand Of Darkness, Ai Gentry is sent as an ambassador to the plant Gethen in order to have it join the Ekumen, the free federation of planets he represents. In Solaris, the psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent on a planet to try to find out if it is possible to communicate with the alien ocean that covers almost all of its surface. If both stories deal with the notion of contact, otherness and identities, their positions are almost exact opposites: In Le Guin’s fiction, differences, if accepted, can be overlooked, while in Lem’s darker vision, communication is ultimately impossible.The questions of the native and the cosmopolite, the possibilities or impossibilities of transcultural communications and ultimately the position of the cultural as accepted difference or absolute otherness are the conflicting dynamics in both works. Through a contrastive analysis of these two writers’ strategies and positions, I will try to show how their fiction reflects deeply today’s discussions about cultural communication and interpretation as we can find them in other humanistic fields, such as, for example, translation and cultural studies.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMigrating Minds : Theories and Practices of Cultural Cosmopolitanism
Place of publicationNew York
PublisherRoutledge
Publication yearNov 2021
Pages141-152
ISBN (print)9780367701123
ISBN (Electronic)9781003144632
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021

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