Warning: this post contains spoilers for Ursula K Le Guin’s science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness
There are certain novels that you can read again and again, and you’ll always get something a little different out of them. It can be because you’re at a different point in your life, or because you’ve read other things and are approaching the story with a different context, or simply because the story is that intricate and beautifully written that, like any other great work of art, there are always more mysteries to be revealed. When it comes to literature, these are often the books that first got you into the genre, and that you come back to time and time again. These are the books that are thumbed through and dog-eared and well-worn. There might be pages trying to fall out, maybe even a tear here and there. These are well loved books.
For me, one of those stories is Earthsea, which is an Le Guin fantasy trilogy, and one of the seminal works of fantasy, right alongside The Lord of the Rings, and Wheel of Time. I’ve read the Earthsea trilogy probably half a dozen times. Yet, for some reason, it never occurred to me to see if there were other Le Guin books I would enjoy. This is a mistake I make far too often, not searching to see if certain authors I really enjoy may have written other things I haven’t read yet. I wish I could claim that I discovered The Left Hand of Darkness as part of an attempt to rectify that oversight, but I can’t; I came across a reference to it in something else I was reading, and sought it out from there. Regardless, I am certainly glad that I did.
This book is nothing like Earthsea, and not just because it’s science fiction instead of fantasy. It actually has a fairly fantasy feel to it, despite being science fiction, and certainly it features Le Guin’s wonderful mixture of transparent prose and rich description – what she does so masterfully is give the impression of a much larger world of which the story is just scratching the surface – but because it’s a very different kind of story. Earthsea is many things, but I can’t help but think that at its heart it is a coming of age story. The Left Hand of Darkness is something different. It’s more introspective, more inquisitive. It seems to be more about having a set of well-established beliefs that are so ingrained it is difficult to even think of them as beliefs, and yet they are challenged by something totally different that is just as ingrained in someone else.
There are all sorts of essays out there that talk about The Left Hand of Darkness being a very “progressive” story for how it challenges gender norms with its semi-androgynous culture/species, but I don’t think that’s what the story is telling us. At least, that’s not what it’s telling me. Everybody gets something different from a story, but to me, this was a story about the difficulties of understanding. It can be incredibly challenging to truly come to understand something that is so very alien to you, especially if it comes in a familiar package. Whether you are the minority trying to understand the majority, or the majority trying to understand the minority, you can probably never completely grasp the full essence of what it is to be that which you are not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. It is in the trying that bridges are made.
This is a book that deserves to be shelved alongside science fiction classics like Asimov’s Foundation. I don’t know what you might get from this story, but whatever it is, I hope that you go out and read The Left Hand of Darkness.