Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

I have written before about Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, which are deep in my literary DNA. I read others of her books as I came across them, never seeking them out or adding them to my shelves. I think I was comparing them all to Earthsea, and found them wanting.

As I've been reading more science fiction and fantasy, I've come to understand better Ursula Le Guin's place in the canon. I've also learned that some of the books I read along the way are part of her "Hainish Cycle." I decided that this was the year I would read the Cycle (it's not a series, as I understand it, more a loosely-connected cycle of stories). Her Hainish books have just been republished in two fat Library of America volumes. I was tempted by them, because they include stories and articles as well as introductory materials, but I find those kinds of heavy compendiums hard to read. That's true, but it was also an excuse to start collecting the individual books, which has substantially increased my TBR stacks and decimated my book buying budget.

I decided to start with The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969, purely because I came across it first in a bookstore. I read an article that Charlie Jane Anders wrote about it for the Paris Review, as well as a post she wrote about the Cycle on the Tor website. The articles convinced I'd made a good choice, but also suggested I'd been too quick to dismiss those other books of hers (and added more books to my shelves).

I have been slowly reading The Left Hand of Darkness over the past week, stretching it out, both because it is such an amazing book, and because I didn't want it to end. It is the story of two men. Genly Ai has been sent as the First Envoy from the Ekumen to the world of Gethen. The Ekumen are something like Star Trek's Federation (and written years before the TV show) or the United Nations, a collection of planets bound together by treaty, to share knowledge. They seek other inhabited planets to join them, but again like Star Trek they only invite and offer - they have their own Prime Directive. Ai has spent two years in Karhide, one of Gethen's established countries, unable to make much progress despite the support of the prime minister Therem rem ir Estraven. Estraven has tried to help Ai understand both the local politics and the fraught situation with the neighboring country of Orgoreyn. It is collectively governed, unlike Karhide with its monarchy. If Karhide is not interested in an alliance with the Ekumen, perhaps Orgoreyn will be.

The narration of the story alternates between Ai and Estraven. There are also interspersed short chapters of Gethen stories, history, myths, even a section from the first Ekumen Observer to Gethen. This is to me one of Le Guin's greatest strengths as a storyteller: she creates worlds with the weight of history, tradition, language, which feel real and three-dimensional. They have a past as well as a present. She never overwhelms the reader with information, we discover it - and she trusts us enough not to explain everything. Here Ai is learning about Karhide, and then Orgoreyn. But he is human, he judges things and people through his own perceptions. I appreciated that Le Guin made him fallible, imperfect. There are fundamental misunderstandings, on both sides, which cause enormous problems for both Ai and Estaven. It takes Ai much longer to realize his own mistakes.

The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and I can absolutely see why. So did one of the later books in the series, The Dispossessed. I think there are some stories that return to Gethen, but I am looking forward to discovering the other worlds that Ursula Le Guin created for the Ekumen.


  1. Her Earthsea trilogy are the only books of hers I'm familiar with. I'm glad you enjoyed this one so much. :)

    1. It's actually a double trilogy now, if you haven't come across the later books :)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!