The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

May 20, 2024

Interstellar visitor finds humanity in differences.

At first I didn’t see what the big deal was, almost bored with the unfolding story. But the last third or so, built on the preceding events, had me riveted.

It was the stuff that makes science fiction so much of a joy to read, taking what I know and finding ways to turn and re-examine it. By that last third of the story, however, it didn’t feel like science fiction but an intimate interpersonal journey with vivid moments small and large.

I loved that the protagonist was sort of a wandering jerk, or at least a person limited by his own preconceived notions. Central to the story is a bond not in spite of but because of how this limitation combines with compassion.

But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us.

The story earned remarks like this and never felt heavy-handed. The protagonist just as often wondered aloud and plainly expressed some small-minded assumptions, which left a lot of room to wander as a reader without feeling led closely.

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?

I love traveling to new places and seeing how people live. A new environment requires a heightened awareness that enriches my appreciation for where I came from, exposes choices I’ve made with little or no consideration, and shows me things I might approach differently. I collect little moments of shared humanity with complete strangers.

This story felt like that: it didn’t have a whole lot to tell me, but it was packed with moments and ideas to explore—obviously written with a great, gentle care. And at least later on, surging chapters that made it hard to put down.

I’m glad I read this and I’m eager to read another of Le Guin’s books.