Book: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
(this review contains mild spoilers, but nothing that will ruin the book for you if you haven’t read it)
The Book Review
What we all know: it’s a classic of speculative sci-fi literature. It’s slow-paced and hard to get into it, most people don’t until a second or third reading. There’s not much that haven’t been said, this book has been around for quite a while and it’s a classic for good reasons, what else can I add? I can add that upon picking this book up, at my dad’s insistence that I read something, anything, by Le Guin, I also didn’t get into it. But I didn’t put it down and give up, I just took a few breaks to read other things (which I normally do anyway). I came into it without knowing anything about it except that it was a classic. I didn’t know when it was written, what it was about, or even what the premise was. And to be completely frank, I didn’t understand any of those things either by the time I finished it. I didn’t love or hate the book, I thought it was slow-paced, yes, but not in a bad way. The story was introspective and beautifully written, I highlighted so many quotes from it because I truly loved how Le Guin wrote. But I still had no idea what the heck I was reading. So when I was done, I looked for other reviews and found out, and then suddenly the book became clearer.
Maybe it would have helped if I had read this as part of a class or book club and had people to discuss it with, I think I’d have gotten more out of the read. But I read a review on goodreads where someone explained the premise: what happens when you strip people from gender labels and just get to the thing we all have in common: that we are humans. The story is told from the point of view of a male character, an “alien” in the planet of Winter, trying to convince the leaders of Winter to join a galaxy community and trade knowledge. But Mr. Ai, the alien, is full of biases, and has some issues understanding and connecting with the people of Winter, which are neither male nor female, and he just can’t wrap his head around it. The real hero of this story is Therem (or Estraven), who believes in Mr. Ai’s mission even more than he does, and goes to extraordinary lengths to help Ai.
I usually only select one stand out quote to share, but this book had too many good soundbites. The following are just a few of my favorites.
From the intro of this edition:
“Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?”
“In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little.”
From the book:
“I’m not sure. I’m exceedingly ignorant—” The young man laughed and bowed. “I am honored!” he said. “I’ve lived here three years, but haven’t yet acquired enough ignorance to be worth mentioning.”
“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
“The man was like an electric shock—nothing to hold on to and you don’t know what hit you.”
“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
“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?”
The Cover Redesign
I read this book on the kindle, and the cover is a very 90s affair. It’s perfectly suited, but I wanted with my version to modernize it a bit. I kept a lot of the same elements: wintery photography, typography heavy, more weight on Le Guin’s name than book’s title.
Towards the end section of the book, the central character Ai comes to a revelation about his friend Therem and the people of Winter. He sees in them a duality, in which they are all things
“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.”
I liked the visual of this quote, and that’s what I wanted this cover to look like, yin and yang, light and darkness. I found this beautiful image on Unsplash (it’s linked above) and thought it would work perfectly for this. Then I kept the rest simple with minimal typography work.