Thursday, 2 October 2008

Review: "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula LeGuin

"Light is the left hand of darkness, and darkness the right hand of light"

On a recent trip through Inverness, I was pleased to find a copy of "The Left Hand of Darkness" at Leakey's bookshop. I have enjoyed "The Lathe of Heaven", "The Dispossed", "Four Ways to Forgiveness" and other collections of her short stories in the past. What I've liked most in other works I've read is her ability to craft detailed and compelling personalities and cultures around a handful of key differences. An example would be the four-way marriage contract outlined in one of her short stories, in which each partner is paired with one opposite sex partner, one same sex partner, and has a platonic relationship with the remaining opposite sex partner.

The "Left Hand of Darkness" centers on the world of Winter, which has two key characteristics. One is that its climate is comparable to the lower arctic regions of Earth even at its equator. The other is that its inhabitants are asexual for 20 or so of their 26 month days, and only assume a gender when in heat (or kemmer).

Leguin takes these two vanishing points and paints a believable world. She is a gifted storyteller, and presents the worlds she writes not as dry facts and third-person narrative, but as a series of first-person moments and third-person histories. We see their present as a thing lived by people, and their past as a series of stories and rumours about people who lived before.

The story itself is slow to develop, but well laid out, much as "The Dispossessed" was. It is the journey as much as the waypoints that we are meant to savour. Through the person of an envoy whose world and world view are closer to our own, we come to appreciate the colour of the world, the subtle differences in personality and culture.

This is a great book by a gifted storyteller writing at the top of her form, and is highly recommended.

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