The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin – a science fiction classic and deservedly so

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin is a science fiction classic and has been since its publication in 1969. It was an unusual and ground-breaking book at the time and the years since may have resulted in many other books tackling these issues as well but few have done it with such elegant and heart-breaking prose. As usual with the best science fiction this is not a book about the future but it is a book which uses the future to tell us about people today.

An ambassador, Genry Ai, from Earth travels to the planet of Winter to try and encourage its leaders to integrate more with the galactic community. Winter is a little regarded planet and Genry’s mission is not terribly important but he soon becomes involved in internal politics and has to make a journey across the planet in terrible conditions with a sole companion. Their mission becomes involved with their love for one another and in embracing that love Genry begins to understand the planet and its people – and himself.

This is not a fast paced book. It is a book to linger on and to appreciate and when you do so you pick up other, more subtle, messages in Genry’s narrative. The author manages to create a planet and a culture which appears to have some superficial resemblance to some of those in Earth’s past but soon reveals itself to be very different – most of those differences are about sexuality and partnerships but this is not an explicit novel – it asks questions about how we see love and who we should be allowed to love which were particularly appropriate when the book was first written but still need to be thought about today. There is also a lot about race and oppression – again apt for the 1960s and issues which have not gone away in more recent times.

I encourage anyone who loves science fiction or who likes to explore some of these issues to read this book. It answers few of the questions it raises but there is always hope.