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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin that was published in 1969. The story is set within the Hainish Cycle.

The Left Hand of Darkness' narrative revolves around an envoy named Genly Ai from the Ekumen (which is a confederation of planets of sorts), as well as the story for Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide. Genly's mission is to convince the people of the planet Gethen to join the Ekumen. However, the people of Gethen are vastly different than the people from Terra (Genly's home planet). For example, not only do they appear androgynous, they change sexes, they are ambisexual. Once a month they enter a phase called kemmer, where an individual becomes either male or female, and it is only during kemmer that a person can have sex. Le Guin's work is mind-bending imaging how such a society would function—no war, open hospitality for strangers, Kings may be both father and mother, and at least in one nation, everyone starts off as equals.

No child over a year old lives with its parent or parents; all are brought up in the Commensal Hearths. There is no rank by descent. Private wills are not legal: a man dying leaves his fortune to the state. All start equal.

On the planet there are also at least two major religions—the Handdara and the Yomeshta. Yomeshta spawned from the Handdara, the quick tale behind this is found below.

Do you know the story of the Lord of Shorth, who forced the Foretellers of Asen Fastness to answer the question 'What is the meaning of life?' Well, it was a couple of thousand of years ago. The foretellers stayed in the darkness for six days and nights. At the end, all the Celibates were catatonic, the Zanies were dead, the Pervert clubbed the Lord of Shorth to death with a stone, and the Weaver ... He was a man named Meshe.

Meshe was the founder of the Yomeshta religion, and after the foretelling of the meaning of life question, Meshe could see the past, present, and the future. Meshe teaches us to look towards the light, whereas Handdara embraces wholeness, opposites, the yin and the yang. One seeks knowledge, the other seeks unlearning. Even the book title derives from the following saying:

Light is the left hand of darkness

and darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

together like lovers in kemmer,

like hands joined together,

like the end and the way.

Does the book actually answer the question, "What is the meaning of life?" No, it does not, but what it does do is imagine a world not constantly defined by gender and the roles assigned to genders in most societies. It imagines a confederation where patriotism is a foreign concept—a thing of the past, where people see beyond borders. It re-imagines religions such as Taoism and perhaps, even Christianity, and it reconceptualizes these subjects woven into an amazing story, an amazing adventure of two individuals from different worlds determined to change the fate of humanity, and to understand each other.

The Handdara believe there are no questions worth asking, because there is really only one knowable question that can be answered, will we die—yes. The Foretellers give answers only to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question. Yet, it was only when Lord of Shorth forced the Foretellers of the Handdara to answer the question on the meaning of life, that the Weaver saw the light and inspired a new religion—Yomeshta, and in this religion, death ... well....

There is neither source nor end, for all things are in the Center of Time. As all the stars may be reflected in a round raindrop falling in the night: so too do all the stars reflect the raindrop. There is neither darkness nor death, for all things are, in the light of the Moment, and their end and their beginning are one.

Another important concept in the book is Shifgrethor, which does not have an English translation. Genly thinks to himself as he struggles to understand and defines it internally as, prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen.

Other great quotes in the book:

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.

To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

The Left Hand of Darkness ranks on many lists as one of the greatest science fiction books ever written, and it is easy to see why—it is ground breaking, futuristic—yet, rustic; combines adventure and philosophy weaving tales of mystery and fascination. There are enough articles and analyses on the book out there to fill libraries. So much so, that this blog article doesn't do the book justice, and at some point, I will definitely have to reread the book just to dive into the philosophies further. If you read the book, how do you think it answers the question of meaning? What did we miss? Comment below and let us know.

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