The Left Hand of Darkness

I don’t know why, but one day last month I wandered into the science fiction section at the main Powells. And while there, happened upon a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. In that moment, I remembered that Mandy had read this and I was intrigued by the book, so I picked it up and brought it home.

I finally started it a couple of weeks ago, was interrupted in the reading by a work trip where I didn’t read much at all. But finished it last night. I ended up loving this book, but it started out slow, the amount of back story in the first half makes sense when you get to the second half and I absolutely loved the final 150 pages of this book.

Genly Ai arrives on the planet of Winter as an envoy from a collection of planets to start building a relationship with the inhabitants of Winter. Winter is made up of several different countries that co exist for the most part peaceably, in a tough planet that is mostly ice and glacier. The inhabitants are neither male nor female, but asexual except when they go through the process to procreate and then turn into one gender in order to mate.

The book is a story of not just Genly trying to find his way in the society, but also he is trying to find people who will welcome others like him, who want to form a relationship with the cooperative of planets. In so doing, he forms an interesting and intriguing relationship with one particular person, Estraven. And through this relationship, we learn much about the people of Winter, Genly, and what being welcoming to another truly is.

I read the paper version of this book and highlights are below:

No, I don’t mean love when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And it’s expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year. We’ve followed our road too far.” (p. 18)

“But I do fear you, Envoy. I fear those who sent you. I fear liars, and I fear tricksters, and worst I fear the bitter truth. And so I rule my country well. Because only fear rules men. Nothing else works. Nothing else lasts long enough.” (p. 39)

“Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer…. The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” (p. 70)

How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession…. Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope. (p. 212)

I felt as he did. It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end. (p. 220)

And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong? (p 279)