Recent Reads: “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Left Hand of Darkness cover

The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin
Science Fiction

Synopsis:

A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can change their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

Rating: 4.25 / 5, and *Unputdownable*

I’ve read (and adored) a number of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels over the past several years. But with the exception of Changing Planes, I hadn’t read any of Le Guin’s science fiction. It was about time that changed. So, I started with a novel that’s considered not only one of Le Guin’s most acclaimed stories, but an all-time genre classic: The Left Hand of Darkness, one man’s struggle to build an alliance with the people of the planet Gethen (a.k.a. Winter) while grappling with the cultural and physiological differences between his kind and theirs.

The Left Hand of Darkness follows two characters: diplomat Genly Ai, the said Earthling who comes to Gethen to broker a social and trade alliance; and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, the only Gethenian politician who supports Genly’s mission – yet the only one Genly doesn’t trust. When Estraven is exiled from his home country of Karhide, Genly quickly finds himself embroiled in a battle of wits and politics that threatens his goal as well as his life. He recognizes some of the danger, but not all of it. His path later crosses with Estraven’s again, and more than once. The question is: Will Genly learn to accept Estraven’s help as well as the androgynous nature of the people he’s been tasked to negotiate with?

The Left Hand of Darkness is as much a story as it is a sort of fictional anthropological study. Genly’s internal struggle for most of the novel is his fear, awe, and repulsion of the Gethenians’ ability to change gender during their sexual cycle, known as “kemmer.” He also describes the Gethenians’ physical appearance, governments, beliefs systems, and other cultural aspects. Basically, when Genly learns something about the natives, so does the reader. In addition, the novel’s structure consists of chapters alternating between Genly’s viewpoint, Estraven’s perspective via diary entries, and brief myths that shed light on Gethenian history and religion. There’s also an appendix in the back of the book (in the edition I own) that outlines the Gethenian calendar and time-keeping. This allows readers to immerse themselves in the world of Winter almost as fully as Genly may have.

While Genly’s evolution is compelling and essential to the story’s plot, I connected much more strongly with Estraven. He’s empathetic, logical, sagacious, and loyal to Genly and his purpose for being on Gethen. That last trait of Estraven’s is so obvious that, at a couple points during the novel’s first half, I wanted to grab Genly by the shoulders and yell, “Wake up! You’re trusting the wrong men!” Estraven is also resourceful and meticulous, which comes in handy when he plans his and Genly’s perilous trek across the Gobrin Glacier late in the story. Finally, Estraven carries an air of mystery and shame because of his past. Even before I fit all the puzzle pieces together before the end, I got the impression that Estraven sees his opportunity to help Genly as a way to redeem himself personally for his transgressions earlier in life, and I admire him for it.

Unfortunately, there were times when The Left Hand Of Darkness left me disengaged. The stretched-out periods of exposition went on too long at times, so my attention skipped over certain paragraphs to find where the actual story picked up again. I had to keep reminding myself that writing / publishing standards were different back when the novel was published in 1969. Also, an appendix of Genethian words in addition to the calendar would have been extremely helpful. I forgot what “shifgrethor” and other terms meant after a while, and was disappointed that the book didn’t contain something like this for the reader’s reference.

That, however, didn’t change how The Left Hand of Darkness touched me as a human being. It makes the reader think about how behavioral and cultural differences are trivial details in the end. I’ll even repeat what I’ve said to friends recently when I described this book: “You know a science fiction story works when you the reader can sympathize with one of the alien characters.” This and other discoveries haunted and resonated with me well after the book ended. Even if you’re not a fan of science fiction, I implore you to reconsider and let The Left Hand of Darkness be your introduction. Because sometimes, we need an alien perspective to learn what makes us human.

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Deciding whether to buy The Left Hand Of Darkness from Amazon? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”

Recent Reads: “Tales From Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Tales From Earthsea blue

Tales From Earthsea
Ursula K. Le Guin
Fantasy / Short Stories / Novellas

Synopsis:

The tales of this book, as Ursula K. Le Guin writes in her introduction, explore or extend the world established by her first four Earthsea novels. Yet each stands on its own.

“The Finder,” a novella set a few hundred years before A Wizard of Earthsea, presents a dark and troubled Archipelago and shows how some of its customs and institutions came to be. “The Bones of the Earth” features the wizards who taught the wizard who first taught Ged and demonstrates how humility, if great enough, can contend with an earthquake. “Darkrose and Diamond” is a delightful story of young courtship showing that wizards sometimes pursue alternative careers. “On the High Marsh” tells of the love of power – and of the power of love. “Dragonfly” shows how a determined woman can break the glass ceiling of male magedom.

Concluding with an account of Earthsea’s history, people, languages, literature, and magic, this collection also features two new maps of Earthsea.

Rating: 4.5 / 5, and *Unputdownable*

First things first: I adore Ursula Le Guin’s work. I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read of hers so far (you can read my reviews of Lavinia, Changing Planes, and The Tombs of Atuan here at the blog), and I usually read them shortly after purchasing because I can’t wait to find out where her imagination will take me next. The latter point explains why I was shocked when I couldn’t recall a thing about Tales From Earthsea, even though I swore I’d read it a couple years ago. Now I have, and I can say with confidence that it’s found a place in my heart and bookshelf next to Le Guin’s full-length novels.

Tales From Earthsea expands the Earthsea universe with five short stories taking place before and in between Le Guin’s previously written novels. Two novellas bookend the collection: “The Finder,” which recounts the life of the mage Medra, including his role in the founding of the prestigious wizardry school on Roke Island; and “Dragonfly,” where the eponymous heroine defies the long-held “Rule of Roke” (prohibiting women from receiving formal training on magic) while discovering her true identity. The other three stories explore a young man’s desire to follow his heart instead of others’ expectations (“Darkrose and Diamond”) and bring back beloved characters such as the wizard Ged (“On The High Marsh”) and his first mentor Ogion (“The Bones of the Earth”). Finally, “A Description of Earthsea” is Le Guin’s equivalent to Tolkein’s Middle-Earth appendices, presenting some of the author’s world-building and history of the lands she’s so vividly created.

Overall, I enjoyed Tales From Earthsea, though two of its tales touched me more deeply than I would have ever imagined. I really connected with Medra in “The Finder,” as he evolved from a vengeful untrained boy-wizard to a courageous, empathetic man who respected and feared his gift. When Medra was in danger, I was terrified for him; and when the darkness and suffering he endured had broken him down to his state in the final “chapter,” my heart wept for him. “On The High Marsh” evoked a similar reaction from me with Otak / Irioth. He comes across as kindly yet deeply troubled at first, but it’s not until late in the story that I understood his discreet search for self-redemption and prayed for his success. The only tale that didn’t resonate with me was “The Bones of the Earth.” It bored me after a few pages, though in hindsight I’ve had a hard time pinpointing why.

What I love most about Le Guin’s work, though, is her distinctive writing style. Graceful yet clear, concise yet at times abstract, it strikes a delicate balance between imagery, wisdom, and the soul. While writing short stories requires a different knack than writing novels, the prose in Tales From Earthsea doesn’t suffer from the shorter length or timespan covered or the snappy pacing. It’s similar to the ease Le Guin shows when switching between fantasy and science fiction – and witnessing such consistency from a versatile writer is a rare delight.

And when an author you love continues to surprise you each time – or spark possible short story ideas for your own work (*raises her hand high*) – you know they’re a master of their craft. Tales From Earthsea is yet another jewel to add to Le Guin’s writing crown. She offers new glimpses into the people, settings, and conflicts of Earthsea, while maintaining the spirit that makes this beguiling universe – and Le Guin’s writing in general – so unique and beautiful. Long-time “visitors” of Earthsea will relish this volume and its insights. For newbies, however, I recommend reading the first four Earthsea books (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu) before reading Tales From Earthsea because of the returning characters and concepts from the earlier novels.

NOTE: The Studio Ghibli / Goro Miyazaki film “Tales From Earthsea” isn’t based on the book Tales From Earthsea. Instead, it’s loosely adapted from Ursula Le Guin’s third Earthsea novel The Farthest Shore and contains elements and characters from other Earthsea novels.

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Deciding whether to buy Tales From Earthsea from Amazon? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”

Chronicling The Craft: 70,000 Words

Don’t Make Your Female Character (Too) Strong – Make Her Believable

Chapters Completed: 18

Chapters In Progress: 4

Chapters Not Started: 12

“Chronicling The Craft” is an article series where I share my experience with writing my current work-in-progress (WIP), which is a fantasy novel. Every 5,000 words, I let readers know what I’ve accomplished since the previous article and share advice, discoveries, techniques, etc. Besides the word count in each article title, a “chapter ticker” at the top also tracks my progress as I use the skip-around / “writercopter” method to write the novel. Today’s installment celebrates the book reaching 70,000 words in length.

Wow. Has it really been less than one month since the novel passed 65,000 words? It feels like it’s too soon to write this article for 70,000, especially with the non-writing commitments I’ve had the past few weeks. (Then again, when are summers not a busy time of year?) I even combed through the current draft chapter by chapter with the word counter after finishing Saturday’s session, just to make sure the math wasn’t off somewhere on my Excel tracking sheet. It wasn’t. So I sit here now, convinced I’m wearing bemusement on my face because that’s 1000% (yes, one-thousand percent) how I feel: baffled yet flutteringly happy.

Here’s what I’ve worked on since the previous Chronicle:  Continue reading