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

“Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying”.

Le Guin, in her own introduction to the novel

My journey to Le Guin started with a dim awareness of her via a Ghibli adaptation, falling in love with Earthsea, and then carving my way through her science fiction novels like a starving man through a chicken.

The Left Hand of Darkness is so good the current edition has three introductions: one from David Mitchell, one from China Mieville, and one from Le Guin herself. Mitchell focuses on character, Mieville on ideas, and Le Guin on truth and imagination.

Le Guin’s is the best.

I write this having just finished reading the novel, and so I am still swimming in the currents of its world and characters, and blinking at the cats and flames that seem to exist outside its pages.

The book is about gender, but it is also not about that at all. It’s a love story about two people, and their long, freezing path to mutual understanding. It’s also about loneliness, and being the other. And it’s about the kind of societies we build and how the role of sex and childbearing help shape them. Because out there, a man’s lifetime in light years distant from earth, a King is pregnant.

The Hainish Cycle, the universe in which The Left Hand of Darkness exists, is a huge and perfectly realised place. This novel shows us one of its furthest flung corners – Gethen, or “Winter”: a harsh, ice age planet where life is tough and the cold is never far from your bones.

Genly Ai, anthropologist and envoy, is here as representative of the Ekumen, a federation of planets bound by mutual interest, support and trade. But on Winter he is very much alone. Though communicating back “home” is instantaneous, thanks to the miraculous “ansible” device, travel takes years. First contact is a job, seemingly, for life.

Ai’s chief ally on the planet – though it takes him much of the book to realise it – is Estravan, a politician who is both more and less than he[1] appears.

A brooding figure, Estraven is wise to the big implications of Ai’s arrival and the likely consequences. Ai, meanwhile, is presented as a naive figure, who misunderstands Estraven due to the lingering gender prejudices of his future earth. But to be flawed is to be interesting, and both Estraven and Ai strive towards understanding on an extraordinary journey across the ice.

The Left Hand of Darkness, like all of Le Guin’s novels, is rich and subtle; clever, but never lacking in heart. Hers are wonderfully realised worlds, with characters you believe in and concepts that linger. I suspect it will reward rereading; but even if I never return to the warm beer and grim red walls of Karhide, this book will stay with me forever.

[1]Le Guin sticks with he/him for Winterians, which is one of the book’s few missteps, as the author herself later acknowledged.

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