Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

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.

Ursula Le Guin’s recent death has set me on a rereading journey (and a reading journey: there’s still plenty of her work I’ve never read). I decided to start with Left Hand of Darkness, and it was fascinating to reread it. It stands up to the passage of time, and yet has not aged well. It is still a suspenseful tale, and it proposes thought experiments that are still relevant today. But the gender norms that the terran diplomat Genly Ai expresses (written in 1969 and projected into some unstated but future time) are already out of date. Conceptions not only of roles but also of gender identity have changed in major ways that make parts of the narrative distracting.

This reread made me wonder why movies and television shows are routinely rebooted or redone but books rarely are (with the exception of parodies or pastiches that combine classic books with wildly different genre tropes). I’d really love to see a progressive, visionary, feminist author retell this story today.

My perspective on the two main characters has shifted since I first read the novel. The protagonist Genly Ai so struck me previously that I’ve used the name “Genly” in several online locations when I needed a handle. On this reading, however, perhaps because I’m now middle‐aged and was then more Genly Ai’s contemporary in age, I identified with Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. Estraven is the moral center: restrained, patient, mature, visionary, committed to a greater good, capable of intentional self‐sacrifice. Ai is no less fascinating as a character (indeed, flaws are often the most fascinating things about characters); it’s just that I’ve gained a fuller appreciation for Estraven.