Week 3 “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin

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This book of Science Fiction was originally published in 1969. This edition, with a series introduction by Neil Gaiman, was published by Penguin Books in 2016. The six classic books included in the series are The Once and Future King (1958), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Dune (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and Neuromancer (1984). Of these, I had read only Dune.

Neil Gaiman’s introduction, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Science Fiction,” is well worth reading. He prefers to call SF Speculative Fiction. He says that Speculative Fiction “normally aims to illuminate the world by depicting something quite different from the quotidian and day-to-day reality; instead, it shows us our world reflected, our lives extrapolated…But if SF is a literature of ideas, that does not mean there will be no characters we care about, no beauty to the language, no human growth or change in the plot.” This is certainly the case with The Left Hand of Darkness.

Genly Ai is an Envoy to planet Winter from the Ekumen, a group of some eighty inhabited planets that covers a hundred light years, from border to border. Winter is seventeen light years beyond that border. Genly’s mission is to bring Winter into the group, not to exploit it or set up trade of goods (the distances are too great), but to share ideas, instead.

The reader is in the position of Genly, struggling to understand a civilization that is foreign. Life is varying levels of cold, depending on the season. The people are not gendered as we are: they are androgynous, except during a period each month when they enter the state of “kemmer.” This is when they have sex and reproduce. Genly Ai is considered by them a Pervert, he being a person who is permanently male and who is theoretically interested in having sex all of the time.

The story became a page-turner for me when Genly and Estraven go on a seemingly impossible trek across forbidding territory in order to save Genly’s mission. They are of different species, but like mind. It’s a tale of deep friendship and understanding in the end.

This book was written in the sixties, but is this not forever relevant? Estraven says this to Genly during the journey, for there are territorial divisions on Winter:

What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession…Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

6 comments on “Week 3 “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin”

    1. Le Guin is frequently quoted on a website I subscribe to called “Brain Pickings.” She’s a thinker who communicates beautifully. I would like to read some of her nonfiction.

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  1. Thanks for your review. I’m not a SF reader, but Stranger in a Strange Land was very popular in the 60’s, and I did read it in college. I haven’t thought about it for years. It would be interesting to reread it. I’m inspired to put some SF classics on my reading list. Also, I learned about Neill Gaiman and his wife Amanda Palmer (and Le Guin) through Brain Pickings. Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) started an annual poetry reading in NYC called The Universe in Verse. It connects science and poetry. Neill Gaiman wrote a poem for each of the first two programs and his wife recited them. I highly recommend Brain Pickings and The Universe in Verse!

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    1. Barbara, I don’t read much SF, either. One of my goals for this Summer Reading Challenge was to read outside my normal paths. By happenstance, I’m also in the process of listening to the audiobook for “Seveneves.” “Seveneves” is a SF book I put on my reading list a few years back & this was the moment it rose to the top. It’s very long–25 discs–too long, I think. But that doesn’t mean I’m not absorbed in the story & focused on finding out how it will end. The event that sets this story in motion is the sudden breakup of the moon by an unknown invisible force in the universe. That will get your attention!

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