Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Series: Hainish Cycle
Author: Ursula K. LeGuin
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Walker & Company (NYC)
Release Date: 1969
A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose -and change – their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.
Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.
This story is, unsurprisingly, amazing science fiction. LeGuin asserts in the forward that scifi authors are prescriptive, but descriptive. In this case, holding a mirror up to our societal assumptions involving gender, patriotism, selfhood, truth vs. stories we tell ourselves, and attachment. And because it’s great scifi, there is no message, only the question, that mirror.
This book took me a month to read, despite being so short, because I stopped to ponder a lot. The ties between gender and everything were so well explored- not only how does gender shape our identity and interactions, but what affect would having no gender have on war, progress, invention, etc.
The story is good, but not emotionally compelling for the first half or so. Like Genry Ai, the reader feels among foreign customs and at arm’s length from all characters. But there’s a gradual de-frosting, until you feel sympathetic with Genry and anxious about his survival.
The ending seemed abrupt, initially, until I remembered that throughout the novel are short creation myths and oral histories. And that, in fact, they all tie together and the ending ties the main storyline to them. Which is poetic and fitting, and not what I’d expected for a science fiction novel.
Overall, I recommend it for fans of classic scifi. If you don’t mind the story dragging a bit for the sake of the themes, it’s well worth a read.
Also, because I think it’s beautiful, here’s the inspiration behind the title:
“Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.”