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Love note to: The Left Hand of Darkness

January 08, 2023

c/o Ursula K. Le Guin

Dear The Left Hand of Darkness,

Is it too much to say you changed my life, and are changing it still? I don’t think it is. When Ursula Le Guin introduced us, she said:

“In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.”

So no, it’s not too much to say that you changed me. In fact, it seems you meant to.

Of course, as Le Guin says, it’s very hard to say how. Your words are better than mine (which is why, in these letters, I try to say as little as I can, but let the book do most of the talking). So I will echo back a few of your words that have left their mark, not just on my thinking, which is rarely the problem, but on my believing and my being.

First, you introduced me to the Handdara, a people biased in exactly the opposite way as me and my people—toward inaction rather than action. Toward not knowing rather than knowing. Toward passivity rather than productivity.

“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.”

What if inaction is what lays the groundwork for right action? What if we have it all backwards, here?

Ironically (or maybe fittingly), out of the Handdara come the Foretellers—people who play different roles in a ritual, mystical circle of seeing into the future. You come with your question, pay what the answer is worth, and after the ritual is performed, if the question is answerable, the Foretellers give you the answer.

How can a people who ascribe to permanent, fundamental uncertainty be the right ones to perform a function that makes known the unknowable?

“Well, we come here to the Fastnesses mostly to learn what questions not to ask.”

“But you’re the Answerers!”

“You don’t see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”


“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.

In fact, the Handdara believe it is not only useless to know the answer to the wrong question (or perform an action in ignorance), it can actually be harmful, even if you are trying to right a wrong.

“To oppose something is to maintain it.

They say here “all roads lead to Mishnory.” To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.”

“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

What would a life be like that’s based on this principle of inaction? How would that change things? These are the questions you have me asking myself now, deep in the night.

Another seed you’ve planted (and the last one I’ll talk about here) has to do with fear. There were certainly echoes of Dune< in our time together—“Fear is the mind-killer” is a truth I’ve been clumsily parsing through for the past several years. But you went beyond that, to fear’s usefulness. Fear as control mechanism, fear as warning, fear as clarion call in the dark. Both in negative and positive ways.

“Fear you?” said the king, turning his shadow-scarred face, grinning, speaking loud and high. “But I do fear you, Envoy. I fear those who sent you. I fear liars, and I fear tricksters, and worst I fear the bitter truth. And so I rule my country well. Because only fear rules men. Nothing else works. Nothing else lasts long enough.”

“Fear’s very useful. Like darkness; like shadows.” Estraven’s smile was an ugly split in a peeling, cracked brown mask, thatched with black fur and set with two flecks of black rock. “It’s queer that daylight’s not enough. We need the shadows, in order to walk.”

What is the price I pay for fear’s usefulness—its promise of protection? Do I believe it will keep its promise? Even so, is it worth it?

These questions are haunting me, in the way of a friendly ghost who understands what specters are, and what’s involved in an exorcism. I hope I have what it takes. I think I might now.

What is it you said, that I remembered just as we were parting?

“One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time; plenty of time.

You have been that truth for me, as this new year begins. Thank you for sharing a gift so precious.

—Sarah Avenir

Note to reader: If you’re intrigued by this love letter, consider this a personal introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. There is so much more I could have said about it, but your time would be better spent reading it!

In the spirit of POSSE, this was also published at: