‹ Maneesh Madambath

Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. LeGuin

Aug 02, 2022

On Reading the Left Hand of Darkness

Light is the Left Hand of Darkness

In the edition that I read (from 2019, fifty years after this book was first published) there is an introduction, an author’s note and an afterword to go alongside the story.

I had purchased it in November last year, read it in March this year, and managed to read the introduction, the note and the afterword only today in June of 2022. It is possible this note gets coloured by those essays more than the story. How do I avoid that? Do I need to?

While reading the afterword, I made a mental note that this is what I should do when I talk about writing about what I read - capture the story’s larger context and my understanding of it. And above all share the idea of what reading the story felt.

But hey, this note is about the book, not me.

(But hey, LeGuin says a good novel changes the reader (from the author’s note), in a manner not immediately described or understood. So a note about a book is also a note about me?)

The other authors have read the book multiple times, I have but once. What can one understand of the complexity and dexterity of a piece of literature when one is racing to know the story? I can’t answer that. But I can answer a simpler question -

Why did I read this book?

I picked this book up to read a good science fiction story. I have barely read any SciFi novel, and last year I was keen to fix this. Having read a major part of her fantasy series - The Earthsea, I thought it would be interesting to look at how LeGuin approached science fiction. I thought I could learn lessons in writing space operatic stories and her style of writing.

Did I get what I sought from the book?

I did hope to get entertained from this book, and that by the author’s own design was lacking. It was slow and, much like in The Wizard of Earthsea, lacking in action that you (mildly) expect from the genre. It is devoid of the pure superficial elements of entertainment, the thrill. In that the book is literary, and the joys of reading it are the modern values of modern novels - the oxymoronic speaking the unspeakable truths of their time with words. This contradictions of novel writing, the saying of truth with lies is on full display in this book.

In that sense, a reader who reads this to become a better writer gains their money’s worth.

But below the surface of plain entertainment, the layers that LeGuin creates makes this a tremendous work of science fiction. There are unimaginable levels of science that is explored and used to create an intimate story, and in that it addresses the second half of SciFi, a beautifully crafted fiction.

Science in LeGuin’s hands isn’t just technology, in fact technology barely finds a mention in this space odeysey. Instead we have the sciences of geology, geography, anthropology, biology, even the occult, if one may consider it science, serving the story. They create not just the atmosphere, but the detail needed to make a far off imaginary world in an imaginary time come alive.

There is a trek the two protaganists of the story take towards the latter half of the story across what could be assumed as an artic ice territory in the fictional planet Gethen. I have never encountered such a richly detailed experience of traversing inhospitable conditions by ill equipped characters. Some of the scenes in the book are so vivid, that you get a feeling you won’t ever forget them, that you lived them. What more can a writer ask of her words?

There are of course, more matters at play here than purely a fictional account on an extra terrestrial planet. The themes LeGuin explores are very interplanetary. Questions that govern the time of our life here, relevant even after 50 years of its publishing. But devoid of the context of when she published this book, and my lack of learning in the history of science fiction, I found the complex questions of feminism, gender, violence, patriotism lacking in an impact.

I took for granted that this is how this world is, without seeing it as a metaphor for how my world is. I found the misogyny of Genly Ai caricaturish. How can a young representative of an evolved society that doesn’t come to conquer a planet, but instead seek an alliance, not be feminist, or carry gendered views. How is that a civilisation changes, but its society doesn’t? Maybe it was necessary to summon a point of view, to describe planet earth as it was and as it is. And what about the conflict between Karhide and Ortoga? To me it felt that war wasn’t far away on Gethen. How does that explain violence as a fall out of gender?

I believe I will find my answers if I revisit the book. That’s the faith I have on LeGuin.

And to that extent, The Left Hand of Darkness is a book worth revisiting. It does change you, in ways that you won’t immediately understand, and in ways the author perhaps never intended.

Would I recommend this book?

As I said at the outset of this note, I am coloured by the introduction, the author’s note and the afterword in my memory of reading this book. I took more out of Le Guin’s note at the beginning than anything else in the book. I subsequently came to know to know that the note was written in 1975 in a second or third edition of the book. For writers, this note is gold, but to read it without the context of the story that follows it will leave your learning incomplete. Ideas, and I paraphrase, such as, ‘things taken to their logical extreme always turn depressing’, ‘the novelists tools are lies, symbols and metaphors’, ‘a good novel changes the reader in a manner not immediately describable’, ‘science fiction is not about predicting the future, but about describing the present’, are few of the many lessons littered in those succinct four or five pages.

I don’t consider myself a misogynist, but I am aware I haven’t moved away from gender based identities and stereotypes of the environment I grew up in. Like an alcoholic, I am drawn to my vice despite recognising it as one. I am caught falling with inappropriate statements based on gendered notions, sometimes with unhelpful disclaimers of don’t want to be gendered, but….

I have a long way to go in understanding my own biases. But sadly I have to conclude that this book didn’t alter or change any of it. I know the history and the impact it had on feminist conversations and activism, but it didn’t get me thinking about them. Now who is to blame for that?