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Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin


Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: Science Fiction
Pub. Date: July 2000
Format: Paperback, 320pp
Publisher: Ace Trade
Series: Hainish Series

�Light is the left hand of darkness.� There is yin and yang, some good, some evil in everything, no matter the outward appearance. This is the philosophy of The Left Hand of Darkness the Hugo and Nebula award-winning book by Ursula K. Le Guin. Originally released in 1969; I came across a reissue while browsing a Barnes and Noble.

As a fan of the Earthsea Cycle, I knew Le Guin�s writing to be odd, even eccentric, with high prose and philosophical meanderings woven into the plots. Her books feel like the old legends, the myths, sometime lacking description, sometimes with too much, but always telling a story.

The introduction written by Le Guin found in this reissue, states that science fiction is actually �descriptive not prescriptive�. She means that science fiction tells the story of what is, not what might be, although it may seem that way.

The Left Hand of Darkness relates the story of the planet Winter, a frigid planet populated by a separate race of humans that have evolved over millennia into androgynous people, neither fully male nor fully female but both in one body. Into this planet enters Genly Ai, a human like us, with separate gender. He has come to offer membership into a society of space-faring humans to the planet Winter.

The juxtaposition of types is prevalent throughout the novel. Along with gender there is politics (hints of the Cold War in the differences between Karhide and its opposite, one a monarchy, the other a bureaucracy like communism), cultural differences, and even the weather.

Ultimately, this book seeks to show that humanity, no matter its type, belongs as part of a whole. The development of the friendship between Ai and Estraven, through the suffering endured as the crossed the ice alone, shows that humanity should be able to reconcile its differences. Much of this book gives a glimpse into the era often just called �the 60�s� wherein civil rights, free love, and new philosophies gained much traction in our history. The Left Hand of Darkness fictionalizes these struggles for identity, for purpose and meaning by creating a world so opposite and yet so like our own that we cannot help but see the inherent qualities of man, no matter his race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation.

As to my own opinion, I think that in some ways, this book is an apologetic for atheism, New Age philosophies, and the civil rights movement of those who would prefer to choose their own gender. In this I cannot agree. I do not believe in the yin and yang of man, but rather in its total depravity. I support the uniqueness of humanity, its difference from the lower animals, but I attribute it not to ourselves, but to a higher power. It is good to seek equality, to understand and accept those different from ourselves, but not willy-nilly or without guidance from above. I will not, as this novel asks me to do, place culture or the idea of equality into the seat of God.

Beyond this, it is simply a well-woven story, enjoyable for that in its own right. Although I have taken it apart somewhat in this review, it need not be picked apart, although for any literate reader, its assumptions and assertions are clear, if one wishes to see them. Its challenges are good; its answers to them leave the reader with a vague sense of something missing, as if the story were not really complete.

I will recommend this book to you, dear reader, as an excellently crafted work of fiction. Do not accept its assumptions without forethought, and beware its overly simplistic answers. Learn its challenges, for we all face these, and understand the strength of friendships in its words, for we all need these.