3 years ago this month, I had my first exposure to Ursula Le Guin through her foundational novel, The Dispossessed. The way Le Guin demonstrated her understanding of humanity in a future world was inspiring and beautiful. It was all I needed to become the type of fan that would buy a book of Le Guin interviews.
Two years ago, Tracy gifted me the Le Guin’s other famous novel for my birthday: The Left Hand of Darkness. I had put it aside in favor of other types of Science Fiction & Fantasy, but I’m glad to have made my way back to this book.
The Left Hand of Darkness is neither about hands nor darkness. It is a story of our traveler/ambassador Genly Ai exploring the frozen world of Gethen, and realizing the beauty of duality of all things in life. Light always casts a shadow. Wisdom isn’t necessarily in knowing, but also unknowing. In Gethen, male and female are two states of a single androgynous being.
This duality doesn’t mean the Gethen are more enlightened, more sophisticated, more intelligent than our traveler’s world. The Gethen civilizations are less technologically advanced than Genly’s home, and they struggle with a variety of internal and external political conflicts. However, Genly is a stranger to this world, and we follow his culture shock and slow acclimation with Gethen philosophy, which we hope isn’t too little too late.
Le Guin is the gold standard of soft science fiction, for which the science is unexplainable yet the world feels so tangible and at your fingertips. Her books don’t focus on physics, or known biology, or chemistry or political science outside few simple anchors. Her books care about our humanity, in a way that can only be expressed by the book itself.
A classic like Left Hand of Darkness has been reviewed to death, but the one I really loved was Becky Chamber’s article in 2018, in which she noted “This book changed me, in the sort of way that only books can do. It’s the catalyst that pushed me from being a fan of science fiction to wanting to write it myself.” Chambers’ article resonated in a way that makes me excited to read some of her works of science fiction. Other great supplemental pieces have been Le Guin’s New Yorker interview in 2009, the book introduction/foreword that’s one of the best I’ve ever read, a pretty solid summary on Tor, and for those of you cheapstakes it seems like the full text is easily discoverable online as well.