The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin (1969)
Introduced by Karen Abada from Montclair, New Jersey, USA , a regular reader of A Book a Day in Hay
I’m not sure at what moment I recently decided the time had come to re-read Ursula LeGuin; she must have been on my mind after being honored for her contributions to literature at the 2014 National Book Awards. Though it’s been over 30 years (gulp) since I last read The Left Hand of Darkness, I knew exactly where it was on the shelf, right next to all the Dune and Pern novels, yellowed and worn and barely held together with some crumbly pieces of masking tape.
It’s always a great pleasure to pick up an old book, and find that I still like it just as much as I remember – not to mention a relief to encounter my younger, simpler, more idealistic self, and to agree with her. But, strangely, in the case of The Left Hand of Darkness, I somehow forgot, over the years, the most important part of the book. I remembered the remote planet of Winter, the long and dangerous trek made by the two main characters across endless expanses of ice and snow, and crying at the end. As soon as I started reading, the first line came right back to me:
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.
Reading that line made me feel that inner aaah, that sense of being among friends, that I’m sure I felt when I first read it. But here’s what I forgot: On the planet Winter, people are not divided into two sexes, but rather shift many times from one sex to another, sharing all aspects of society from childbirth to politics, as equals. Sexual power, innuendo, flirting – all were non-existent on Winter. Given all the issues and changes swirling around gender identity in our world today, The Left Hand of Darkness was clearly ahead of its time. And yet, reading this was a new discovery for me. Of course, as I read further, it kind of came back to me – but how could I have forgotten it? To this day, I love mountains, and winter, and remote places. The snow, the adventure, the story – that’s what stuck. The gender part must have just seemed like a natural part of the world that LeGuin created, not shocking, not prescient, just well-written, part of that world. Lucky me, I got to basically read this book as if for the first time, and fall in love with it all over again.
The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of Genly Ai, ambassador to the remote planet of Winter, and his attempts to convince the people of Winter to join the Ekumen, an organization like The Federation of Planets. Assigned to guide and help him – and perhaps to harm, or at best, ignore him – is Estraven, the prime minister. Besides having to overcome the extreme cold of winter, Genly must learn to negotiate a social system where there may be no gender, but there are many layers of difficult and subtle interactions. He misinterprets just about everything, and trusts no one.
LeGuin is so true to her story, so confident in the world she has created, that the book reads almost like journalism. It is that believable – a fully imagined account of a world that, in the end, is not all that different from our own. Gender identity, environmentalism, the politics of power, the deepest meaning of love, even of life – these themes can all be found in The Left Hand of Darkness. It is truly the best that ‘science fiction’ can be – Science that is art, and fiction that feels like the truth.
Thanks to Karen for sending in this blog post. If you would like to introduce a book (it can be *any book*) please email 500 max or a video of up to 2 minutes to Emma at firstname.lastname@example.org. It helps if you can also send a high resolution photo of the front cover and a couple of other interesting photos as in this post. Thanks!