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The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula le Guin


Science fiction has never been one of my particular favourites in terms of genre reading, although I have gone through phases that included a Pern binge and an attempt to read every novel in the Star Wars universe. However, though the characters are aliens and their planet very far away from earth, this novel felt more like contemporary political fiction, or a gritty true-life story navigating a foreign culture than it did a part of a “first contact” time and space traveling cycle of novels.

In this, an earth-born human Envoy from an education alliance of planets called the Ekumen has made first contact in one country of the planet called “Winter” — aptly so because its climate is inhospitably cold to visitors, though the population of humans has adapted to the harsh conditions. The story of his struggle to be accepted and to have his offer of educational and economic trade heard by the inhabitants is alternated with excerpts of indigenous mythology and history, notes and observations from previous undercover expeditions, and speculations from observers regarding the origin and evolution of the humanoid species on the planet. His encounters with various leaders and persons of importance are complicated by the difficulty of understanding what is unsaid in conversations, the customs and social norms that are, in fact, alien.

This book is another one of those listed on the NPR list that I’m very slowly chipping away at, and it was highly recommended by someone whose reading judgment I appreciate; therefore, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that it turned out to be one of the more enjoyable reads from the list thus far. I found the political and cultural nuances of the storytelling to be intriguing, the plot by turns nerve-wracking and infuriating. This is definitely a recommended read for those who enjoy substance and complexity with their science fiction.

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