Approximate Thinking Books Creativity Culture Knowledge Stories

Creativity, Stories, Culture : Ursula LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness”

Ursula LeGuin’s stories show how creativity can be used to explore culture and societies by constructing new universes, and offer great thought experiments. “The Left Hand of Darkness” is an adventure that does so on a very intriguing world with peculiar dwellers!

Below are some thoughts, comments, and quotes from the book.

The Book & The Author

Gethen is a world still well into an ice age. It is inhabited by a race generally ambisexual for most of the month (lunar cycle), adopting male/female sexual attributes once a month, with no predisposition towards either, but depending on the context. Ai is an explorer/envoy from a commonwealth of ‘human’ planets visits to convince them to join the ‘Ekumen’…

The Left Hand of Darkness

Having a writer interested in anthropology, culture, and Taoism develop the above plot makes it promising! (click the photo for the bio)

LeGuin : A creative story-teller and explorer of culture
Ursula LeGuin

“Speculative Fiction”, Literature, and Reality: How much creativity should stories have?

This is quite personal and very controversial, but I really think that literature should focus more on imaginatively creating worlds and universes… There are few boundaries for the imagination, and like all art, literature can make us look beyond the confines of daily existence.

In this novel, as with the ‘Earthsea’ collection, LeGuin does that with elegance, style, and intelligence. The writing and plots are very creative, yet coherent, thoughtful, and well-constructed.

Fictional worlds introduce a lot of ‘fuzziness’ to situations and characters, which increases the room for creativity. Stories in these worlds can be molded in different ways. It makes it easier for writers to run interesting thought experiments, which – in the case of LeGuin – span culture, the psychological, social, and – sometimes – the spiritual realms.

Through the eyes of Anthropologists : Stories as exploration of peoples, culture, and societies

LeGuin’s father was an anthropologist, and he – evidently – instilled in her a love for the field. This is evident in many of her stories. Many of her protagonists have roles that resemble the role of a cultural anthropologist or observer.

This juxtaposition allows for an interesting exploration of a culture and its artifacts through relatively strange eyes.

In “The Left Hand of Darkness”, Genly reflects on the cultures in Karhide and Orgoryen, their political and spiritual traditions, and tries to wrestle with the ideas of loyalty and trying to decipher these ambisexual people he is interacting with.

Can the absence of a fixed gender lead to the eradication of war? How would being androgynous affect trust, friendship, and loyalty? How would family structures differ without constant gender roles?

These are some of the ideas that “The Left Hand of Darkness” explores. See the list of quotes from the book and comments on them next (don’t worry – no spoilers… to an extent).

Quotes from “The Left Hand of Darkness” – On Culture, Intuition, Countries, Spirituality, and Existence

Culture Stories Creativity in "The Left Hand of Darkness"
The Left Hand of Darkness – Original Cover of the 1969 (first) edition

On Intuition, Perception, and Predicting the Future

Oracular ambiguity or statistical probability provides loopholes, and discrepancies are expunged by Faith.

“You don’t see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?” “No—” “To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”

This kind of rather highflown speculation is an essential part of my job. Without some capacity for it I could not have qualified as a Mobile, and I received formal training in it on Hain, where they dignify it with the title of Farfetching. What one is after when farfetching might be described as the intuitive perception of a moral entirety; and thus it tends to find expression not in rational symbols, but in metaphor. I was never an outstanding farfetcher, and this night I distrusted my own intuitions, being very tired. When I was back in my apartment I took refuge

Genly describing his intuitions

On Religion, Faith, and Spirituality

“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion… Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable— the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?” “That we shall die.” “Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer.… The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

Knowledge and Faith

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.

A Taoist gem

As he did so he murmured a short and charming grace of invocation, the only ritual words I had ever learned of the Handdara: “Praise then darkness and Creation unfinished,” he said, and there was darkness.

On the Human Condition

I certainly wasn’t happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy.

You know I told you that except in the case of the born Sensitive, the capacity, though it has a physiological basis, is a psychological one, a product of culture, a side-effect of the use of the mind. Young children, and defectives, and members of un-evolved or regressed societies, can’t mindspeak.

The mind must exist on a certain plane of complexity first. You can’t build up amino acids out of hydrogen atoms; a good deal of complexifying has to take place first: the same situation. Abstract thought, varied social interaction, intricate cultural adjustments, esthetic and ethical perception, all of it has to reach a certain level before the connections can be made— before the potentiality can be touched at all.”

Genly tries to explain ‘mindspeak’ ( ~ telepathy)

To those fishermen-villagers who live on the edge of the edge, on the extreme habitable limit of a barely habitable continent, honesty is as essential as food. They must play fair with one another; there’s not enough to cheat with.

Will people living in adverse conditions be more honest ?

I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that.

Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou. Not political, not pragmatic, but mystical. In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings, and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. It proceeds, therefore, by subtle ways, and slow ones, and queer, risky ones; rather as evolution does, which is in certain senses its model… So I was sent alone, for your sake? Or for my own? I don’t know.

The Beauty of being ‘alone’ : Why send a lone envoy to a new world ?

On Stupid Nationalism

How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession… Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”

Boundaries, ‘Countries’, and fanaticism

I probably missed many gems in this book, but these were some words that I thought were quite profound.

50th Anniversary edition : The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

The blend of social and cultural observations, added to strangeness of the setting make LeGuin’s books really worth the time/effort/pleasure!

A quote from “Earthsea” (LeGuin’s most famous universe/series of stories)

Stories Culture Creativity in Earthsea
Earthsea – An excellent collection by LeGuin

Lebannen, this is. And Thou art. There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.

A beautiful quote from “Tales from Earthsea”


I think that narratives and stories can convey ideas in a unique way. I sometimes write stories to explore the themes of creativity, culture, knowledge, and growth – some can be found here

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