It’s celebration time. One of the brightest literary stars of the last century passed away recently, and it’s time to sit down and praise the works she’s left for us. Ursula K. Le Guin was a stalwart defender of genre fiction for decades and helped to set the bar for what good, thoughtful science fiction could be. That is, Le Guin was an icon who paved the way for some of the most excellent literary works of our times, not to mention her own.
My favorite part about Le Guin’s works is just how thoughtful and compassionate they are. Science fiction is a boundary-pushing genre, but it is plagued by ejecting the human element of stories in favor of the quest for getting “out there.” Even worse, the human elements that used to dominate the genre were those of the white conqueror. Classic “golden-age” sci-fi was about space and rockets, sure, but it was also about entitled white men strapping into their ships and fighting or fornicating with whatever they could find out there.
Le Guin wasn’t the first to push against this idea of sci-fi, but she was one of most prominent proponents of tearing it down. She was also, in my opinion, one of the only sci-fi writers to routinely excel in her portrayal of her characters. From the shores of “Earthsea” to the forests of Atshe, Le Guin never let the readers forget about the human (or alien) souls that inhabit these words. It’s a beautiful gift that Le Guin expressed wonderfully.
Even outside of fiction writing, Le Guin displays a sort of affinity for understanding characters in our world and the worlds of others in a way that makes me green with envy. Her takedown of Philip K. Dick’s early books and her critique of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” make me practically water at the mouth for their emotional clarity.
With a career as prolific and influential as Le Guin’s it’s impossible to pick any one book and say, “This is the book which has all of Le Guin in it.” So instead of trying to justify my choice for Le Guin’s best novel (which is found somewhere in “Earthsea”), I’d like to focus on Le Guin’s most popular work: “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
If you’re a fan of worldbuilding and worlds filled to the brim with imaginative creation, then “Left Hand of Darkness” should be your bible. Book series like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Song of Ice and Fire” and “Dune” are intoxicating for the feats of creation that happen within them, but they are undoubtedly bloated books. Le Guin, in this masterpiece, amazes readers with the leanness of her creations. Everything in “Left Hand of Darkness” is there for the sheer necessity of it being in that specific place.
Along with this leanness, Le Guin imbibes a feeling of refreshing originality in the text. The concept of ice planets is one of the tritest tropes in all of science fiction, but Le Guin manages to make the tundras of Gethen feel as fresh as the snow that continually covers the planet.
Over the course of the book, Le Guin and protagonist Genly Ai transport us from equator to ice caps and back again, showing us the vast depths of culture that stem from Gethen. Prophecy is shared with mythology, politics with adventure, and all culminate for a finale that forgoes the more animalistic drama for a transcendental experience (transcendental by way of Whitman, not Kubrick). So far, this review has made the book sound like “Walden” by way of Hoth-esque adventure, but there are other aspects of this book that push it out of the orbit of other sci-fi novels and into a realm of its own. I’m talking here of the characterization of the protagonists and the race of aliens on display.
First off, the protagonist Genly Ai is one of the only Black protagonists in science fiction to come from this era. This book does not explore any sort of contemporary Black experience, but rather, features a Black protagonist as a response to the rampant whiteness of the genre at the time. With Genly Ai, Le Guin was stating that for a genre attempting to get as far away from Earth as possible, holding whiteness as the status quo was a way of subliminally reasserting the hurtful histories of Earth’s past onto a genre attempting to move past these traumas.
The other, more celebrated aspect of this book is the aliens of the novel. It’s kind of hard to discuss this aspect because the novel’s popularity brings with it a misconception of the aliens. I’ve heard this book described as “the one with the trans aliens,” and while that technically isn’t wrong, it implies a sort of disrespect that just isn’t there. People only care about the queerness of the aliens as much as they can discredit it as another “weird” sci-fi novel. But it’s an attitude like that that Le Guin is writing against. I loved learning about the Gethens, and still find them to be one of the most fleshed-out alien races in literature.
The supremely ironic fact about this novel’s popularity is that for all of its gender-bending aliens, the book is primarily concerned with the male character’s masculinity and how he presents it. I’m not saying this because I’m a man and I think that the male is the most important part of the novel or anything to that effect. Rather, I think that what Le Guin meant to portray with this book was that gender fluidity and queer identity weren’t the things that needed to be critiqued, but it’s the novel’s sole male character’s ideas on these topics that need to be rethought.
This book pulled at my heart in ways few books ever had. I felt this familiar tug when I learned that Le Guin had passed. The world would be a better place if more people read Le Guin’s books, and I hope that this review has turned some people on to her works.