Monday, November 15, 2010

The Left Hand of Darkness

Vulnerability. That was the first word that came to mind this morning when I was thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. The book earned both a Hugo and a Nebula award. I won’t even pretend to write a review; hundreds, if not thousands, of people have done it before me. But I can tell you my particular experience with the book.

The Left Hand of Darkness was yet another step in my goal to read all the Hugo winners between 1959 and the present. I found the beginning cumbersome. I had a hard time getting into the setting and the story. Winter, a planet in the middle of an ice age, is inhabited by androgynous people who go through kemmering once a month. During this time they experience a type of estrus and may temporarily become male or female, depending upon circumstances at the time. Most of the plot revolves around Genly Ai, a male envoy sent to Winter, as he tries to understand the culture of Winter and attempts to convince the governments to join the Ekumen, a collective of worlds. I was lost in names, places, folk stories and terms. Ursula K. Le Guin, as I remember form reading her books years ago, has a great talent for creating a world; but it was not my world, and I was confused.

Towards the middle of the book, the story came alive for me. When Ai and Estraven, one of the people of Winter, are traveling through one of the uninhabitable parts of the planet, during the coldest season of the year, I was fully engaged. This is the part of the story that I will remember because it brought out the vulnerability of both the man Ai and the genderless Estraven. The potentially lethal environment, politics and culture, biology, trust and their relationship to one another all add to their vulnerability. While this was the part of the book with which I resonated, I am sure that other readers connect with other aspects of the story.

I plan to read The Dispossessed, also by Le Guin and also part of the Hainish Cycle, before the end of the year. I will be interested to see how my experience of that book is influenced by The Left Hand of Darkness.

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