Left Hand of Darkness

Book Review

I wanted and want to like this book. Ursula Le Guin is this famous female science fiction author, and oh so many people like and love her writing and... and... and, well, I just don't. I recall reading other books of hers a number of years, okay, fine, decades ago, as a kid, and I didn't like those books then, and I'm not a fan of The Left Hand of Darkness now. I think Susan or Claire or both really like this book, which made me want even more to like it. I didn't. I am not a Le Guin fan, it seems. Even now, I wish I recalled what the other books were, so that I don't read them again. They were either A Wrinkle In Time or the Earthsea Trilogy, because, hey, they are considered Le Guin's kids books and I was a kid when I read them. Maybe I read both. I don't know, I don't recall. I do recall not being a fan of the story I had read, and that's fine.

So, this book.

Lots of terms that the reader is supposed to pick up from context (or, let's be realistic, search for the term on the Intarwebs these days) began to annoy me. There's a level of explanation required to properly world-build, and, eh, Le Guin errored on the too vague side. With an entirely foreign Envoy, surely explanations could be easier.

And the required suspension of disbelief that any sufficiently advanced planet wouldn't capture and kill any being who landed on their planet from the Void just boggles the mind. Consider our history, and, say, the Inquisition or the witch hunts or the level of blind violence in the last century? No, no interplanetary human, single or otherwise, would be allowed to live, much less have the freedom in the book.

Upside, the plot moves quickly, and is interesting. If only the words hadn't gotten in the way.

So, if a Le Guin fan, this book is worth reading. If a classic science fiction fan (this is the book that put Le Guin on the science-fiction map), this book is worth reading. If you're neither, eh, go ahead and skip, read Wrinkle or Earthsea instead.

But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman.
Page 94

Okay, why must an entity who is both a man and a woman in our classically defined gender roles be a manwoman? Why is she not a womanman? I'm more than a little annoyed that the male gender comes first, even from a woman author.

Here man has a crueler enemy even than himself.
Page 96

An enemy, in Karhide, is not a stranger, an invader. The stranger who comes unknown is a guest. Your enemy is your neighbor.
Page 97

“I didn’t expect to see you here, Lord Estraven.”

“The unexpected is what makes life possible,” he said.
Page 120

... small cups of a fierce liquor were served, lifewater they called it, as men often do, and they asked me questions.
Page 134

Yep. Alcohol. Totally life water. :eyeroll:

If you play against your own side you’ll lose the whole game. That’s what these fellows with no patriotism, only self-love, can’t see.
Page 144

To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus proof is a word not often used among the Handdarata, who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: and they have broken the circle, and go free.
Page 151

To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.
Page 151

Here, the government can check not only act but thought. Surely no men should have such power over others.
Page 152

I felt that the truck was going east, and couldn’t get rid of this impression even when it became plain that it was going west, farther and farther into Orgoreyn. One’s magnetic and directional subsenses are all wrong on other planets; when the intellect won’t or can’t compensate for that wrongness, the result is a profound bewilderment, a feeling that everything, literally, has come loose.
Page 168

It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give.
Page 170

Kindness there was and endurance, but in silence, always in silence.
Page 170

I was extremely ill after the last examination; the other, a middle-aged fellow, had some disorder or disease of the kidney, and was dying. As he could not die all at once, he was allowed to spend some time at it, on the sleeping-shelf.
Page 179

Imagine that. Someone dying, allowed to die.

I never had a gift but one, to know when the great wheel gives to a touch, to know and act. I had thought that foresight lost, last year in Erhenrang, and never to be regained. A great delight it was to feel that certainty again, to know that I could steer my fortune and the world’s chance like a bobsled down the steep, dangerous hour.
Page 190

Estraven asleep looked a little stupid, like everyone asleep: a round, strong face relaxed and remote, small drops of sweat on the upper lip and over the heavy eyebrows.
Page 201

I giggled at this one.

He lay in the tent, writing in a little notebook in his small, rapid, vertical-cursive Karhidish hand. He hadn’t been able to keep up his journal during the past month, and that annoyed him; he was pretty methodical about that journal. Its writing was, I think, both an obligation to and a link with his family, the Hearth of Estre.
Page 209

"You hate Orgoreyn, don’t you?”

“Very few Orgota know how to cook. Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? 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.”
Page 212

Ignorant, in the Handdara sense: to ignore the abstraction, to hold fast to the thing.
Page 212

“A man who doesn’t detest a bad government is a fool. And if there were such a thing as a good government on earth, it would be a great joy to serve it.”
Page 213

“I’m glad I have lived to see this,” he said. 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.
Page 220

“Fire and fear, good servants, bad lords.” He makes fear serve him. I would have let fear lead me around by the long way. Courage and reason are with him. What good seeking the safe course, on a journey such as this?
Page 228

Tormer’s Lay had been all day in my mind, and I said the words,


Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death,
lying together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

Page 233

“We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”

“I and Thou,” he said.

“Yes, it does, after all, go even wider than sex...”
Page 233

I certainly wasn’t happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy.
Page 242

Estraven meanwhile engaged in his customary fierce and silent struggle with sleep, as if he wrestled with an angel. Winning, he sat up, stared at me vaguely, shook his head, and woke.
Page 242

“Why did you come alone—why were you sent alone? Everything, still, will depend upon that ship coming. Why was it made so difficult for you, and for us?”

“It’s the Ekumen’s custom, and there are reasons for it. Though in fact I begin to wonder if I’ve ever understood the reasons. I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself post no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy.

"But there’s more to it than that.

"Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou. Not political, not pragmatic, but mystical.

:In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings, and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. It proceeds, therefore, by subtle ways, and slow ones, and queer, risky ones; rather as evolution does, which is in certain senses its model...

"So I was sent alone, for your sake? Or for my own? I don’t know. Yes, it has made things difficult. But I might ask you as profitably why you’ve never seen fit to invent airborne vehicles? One small stolen airplane would have spared you and me a great deal of difficulty!”

“How would it ever occur to a sane man that he could fly?”
Page 259

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” I went on, “except acute chronic fear.”

“Fear’s very useful. Like darkness; like shadows.”
Page 267

“It’s queer that daylight’s not enough. We need the shadows, in order to walk.”
Page 267

On the blank leaf glued to the inner back cover I drew the double curve within the circle, and blacked the yin half of the symbol, then pushed it back to my companion. “Do you know that sign?”

He looked at it a long time with a strange look, but he said, “No.”

“It’s found on Earth, and on Hain-Davenant, and on Chiffewar. It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness... how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.”
Page 267

We lay in the tent for three days while the blizzard yelled at us, a three-day-long, wordless, hateful yell from the unbreathing lungs. “It’ll drive me to screaming back,” I said to Estraven in mindspeech, and he, with the hesitant formality that marked his rapport: “No use. It will not listen.”
Page 268

His loyalty extended without disproportion to things, the patient, obstinate, reliable things that we use and get used to, the things we live by. He missed the sledge.
Page 269

Hunger can heighten perception, but not when combined with extreme fatigue;
Page 270

To those fishermen-villagers who live on the edge of the edge, on the extreme habitable limit of a barely habitable continent, honesty is as essential as food. They must play fair with one another; there’s not enough to cheat with.
Page 272

“Sometimes you must go against the wheel’s turn,”
Page 276

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?
Page 279

I did not know if I had done right to send it. I had come to accept such uncertainties with a quiet heart.
Page 280

I had not had in mind when I spoke the contemptibility of suicide to these people. It is not to them, as to us, an option. It is the abdication from option, the act of betrayal itself. To a Karhider reading our canons, the crime of Judas lies not in his betrayal of Christ but in the act that, sealing despair, denies the chance of forgiveness, change, life: his suicide.
Page 286

“Estraven would be a good man to pull with, on a crazy trek like that. He was tough as iron. And never lost his temper. I’m sorry he’s dead.”
Page 294

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