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What Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness taught me about science fiction writing

Contributed by
Jan 25, 2018

I will be the first to admit that I’m a "self-professed blerd," however, I will also admit that I don’t know everything there is to know about science-fiction/fantasy. I’m not easily moved by it, and it takes a while for me to learn what the nerd community has to offer. The primary way I learned about sci-fi novels was through movies, and much like Lord of the Rings or Dune, I learned about Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness through a film: The Jane Austen Book Club (also based on a book).

Yes, I am a fan of that movie. Sue me.

While watching the film, Grigg (played by Hugh Dancy) tries to woo the hardened Sylvia (Maria Bello) by introducing her to the world of science-fiction literature and all the amazing female novelists it has to offer. One of the books he purchases for her is The Left Hand of Darkness and Sylvia surprisingly finds herself in love with it.

After watching how it brought the couple together—and knowing Ursula K. Le Guin was a pretty big deal in the sci-fi lit world—I told myself to buy the book.

Spoiler alert: I haven’t read many sci-fi books. While my bookcase is filled with them, I am more partial to comedies, or the classic dramas one usually reads for English Lit classes in high school and college.

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It took me a while to get started with the book. When it comes to literature, I can be very fickle unless it’s something I really want to dig deeply into, and The Left Hand of Darkness wasn’t too high on my reading list—especially when I learned it was a part of a larger book series. Eventually, I got around to it, and it challenged the way I looked at science-fiction novels.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness boils down the journey of Genly Ai, a Terran (of planet Earth) to the planet of Gethen (also known as "Winter") in order to get its people to join the Ekumen coalition of humanoid planets. It's much more than that, but I'll leave you with that much so you'll have to read it yourself (or look it up on Wikipedia).

At first glance, the book can seem rather dense, and actually makes you feel dense with all the vocabulary tossed about. But then you realize half the words are the brainchild of Ursula herself, woven in flawlessly, and it makes you marvel at how someone could have the brain capacity to create a colorful galaxy with the smallest pieces receiving just as much intricate detail as the larger whole.

The book reads very politically at times and reminded me of Frank Herbert's Dune -- the only other genre book I'd read that dealt so heavily in politics -- but as I continued to read, I grew to appreciate Le Guin’s ability to use almost poetic storytelling to make the bureaucratic aspect of the plot easy to digest.

I became even more intrigued by her imagination in the Gethenians (a human race on another planet) and their sex cycle. The fact she thought to create a species of individuals who were “ambisexual” or had the capacity to be either male or female during a specific sex cycle was mind-boggling to me.

Was this the result of the 1960s feminist movement and a direct reflection of Ursula’s critique that men and women could be equals in a time where stereotypically heteronormative societal roles had been enforced for so long? Or was this Ursula’s way of saying there was a bit of femininity and masculinity in us all? Was she trying to insist that if we put gender roles and "norms" aside, we could have a world more serene and understanding than our own? I wasn’t entirely sure what was to be unpacked with that theme, but it sure as hell was pleasing and entertaining—and it’s obvious I wasn’t the only one who thought so as this element of the novel has spurred many essays, even to this day.

Looking past the gender-bending aspect of the novel, there was also a religious/spiritual element which resonated heavily with me and made me want to highlight lines in my book constantly. The novel was really superb at making you think.

From the introduction to the ending, this woman had my brain working overtime. First she gave me an androgynous/sexless/hermaphroditic society, then posed questions about the consequences of equality, and then she talked about the duality of a person while weaving in all these sociological and political undertones, with the switches between narratives. It was almost enough to make my head spin—but in a good way.

Then came the end of the book. And my head—and heart—had to endure even more.

The last bit of the book deals with the journey of its main two characters—Estraven the Gethenian and Genly Ai the Terran (Earthling)—across this vast iceland. I won’t give anything away, but it was enough to tug at my heartstrings and even pull a few tears from my eyes. It didn’t help that I was listening to Sixpence None The Richer’s “I’ve Been Waiting” and “Breakeven (Falling to Pieces)" by The Script on repeat when reading, either.

Only then, when I'd read what I'd read and understood what I'd consumed, did I know that a science-fiction novel could be so relatable and emotional, generations after it was written. Additionally, it re-enforced in me (a pseudo aspiring writer) to never be afraid to make a story as rich as possible and push beyond the envelope.

If a woman in the 1960s could write a tour de force such as this and make a young black woman in the 2010s feel inspired, then maybe I could do the same for those after me. Thank you, Ursula.

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