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Behind the gorgeous new illustrated edition of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

Behind the gorgeous new illustrated edition of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness


The classic sci-fi novel comes to life in artwork for the first time

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The Folio Society has released a number of stunning illustrated editions of science fiction and fantasy novels in recent years, from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. One of its latest offerings is a new edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic sci-fi novel about a planet whose inhabitants have no fixed sex.

This isn’t the first time Le Guin — who died in January — has seen her work adapted in such a fashion. The Folio Society released a wonderful edition of her novel A Wizard of Earthsea a couple of years ago, and later this year, Saga Press will release an illustrated omnibus edition of the Earthsea saga. Artist David Lupton, who worked on the publisher’s edition of A Wizard of Earthsea, is also responsible for the art in the new edition of The Left Hand of Darkness. He spoke with The Verge about working with the late author, and how he imagined the look of the novel.

Tell me a little about adapting the scenes from the novel with your art. How did you go about capturing the characters?

My process for adapting scenes for a Folio Society edition always begins in the same way. I start by reading the book from beginning to end. Then I go back and re-read the book whilst making notes of the scenes that I’d like to illustrate. I also have to keep in mind that the illustrations need to be paced throughout the book and depending on the length it usually works out that an illustration is needed every 20 pages or so. Therefore I go through the book and note what occurs around these page numbers and begin to formulate ideas on how to interpret the imagery described.

For The Left Hand of Darkness, I initially chose approximately 20 scenes that I thought could help tell the story visually and then I worked with Sheri Gee (art director at Folio Society) and Ursula to whittle down what imagery would work and what wouldn’t. I also wanted to draw a variety of compositions from extreme close-ups of faces, to wider drawings of snowy mountains, and so had to balance that imagery throughout the whole sequence. In terms of the characters, I simply read the descriptions in the text, which are quite succinct and open for interpretation, and then talked with Ursula personally to get an understanding of what she wanted.

The look of the Genenthians in the story came from an attempt to visualize how a race of people who existed in a freezing, snowy environment might evolve to look like. Ursula had always had in her mind that these people would therefore resemble Inuit or Native American people... She described Genly Ai on the other hand as taller, dark-skinned, with an ethnicity that in the distant future would evoke a slight sense of racial mixing. I simply attempted to fulfill Ursula’s wishes and interpret her vision of the characters the best way I could.

Were you able to work with Le Guin prior to her death earlier this year? If so, what was that like? What types of input did she provide, and what did she think of the artwork that you produced?

I was able to work with Ursula from the offset on this book. Because this is the first time that The Left Hand of Darkness has been illustrated, Ursula was concerned and adamant that the people and places be represented correctly. It really was a lovely thing to be able to work so closely and I would share every step of the process with her, from initial thoughts and thumbnail sketches to more polished, finalized roughs. Each time she would be very respectful but also critical and specific if something wasn’t right. A couple of times I veered into sci-fi illustration cliché and she was quick to point out this was not the correct approach.  

Although her feedback could sometimes be critical, she gave me immense freedom within my own style and approach to interpret her ideas and descriptions and I couldn’t have been happier with the process. Unfortunately Ursula passed away before I had a chance to draw up the final illustrations, but we had got the rough sketches to a point where she was happy and confident for me to move forward. After her death, her son Theo became involved with the illustration process and over saw the final stages of the book. I’m saddened that Ursula never got to see the final book and illustrations printed in all their glory, but I hope that she would have approved.

You’ve worked on illustrating Le Guin’s work before with The Folio Society’s A Wizard of Earthea. Did that have any impact on your process or interpretation on the book?

I was first introduced to Ursula when the Folio Society put me forward for the job of illustrating A Wizard of Earthsea. At the time, I think she felt that the illustrations should not look like the traditional fantasy style of illustration. She was also very unhappy with how her characters’ ethnicity had been portrayed in previous versions and was hopeful that we could set things straight and create imagery that would reflected how she had written, described and visualized her world.

Therefore, the process was exactly the same as with The Left Hand of Darkness and I knew going into the project that I would be working closely again with Ursula and that she would be critical of anything that didn’t accurately reflect her work. I’m not sure if knowing this effected my initial interpretation of The Left Hand of Darkness, though, as I always tend to work in a relatively intuitive way. The process of working directly again with her (and Sheri Gee) did help guide me, though, and I feel we managed to produce imagery that evoked her world whilst playing to my strengths as an illustrator.

What strikes me about this edition is that the text is worked in around the art, rather than the opposite. Was that freeing? 

Sheri and I decided early on that it might be nice for the images to be somewhat integrated into the text throughout the book. In this way, we could keep the book more visually interesting with a variety of full page, double page and integrated illustrations. The process involved me working with Sheri Gee primarily at the rough stage to set the shapes throughout the book and quite often the composition and content of the drawing dictated what best worked in terms of its shape.

Once we had decided on the final sequence of illustrations, I drew up the rough sketches and then the typesetters shaped the text around my drawings. Although the initial process was relatively freeing, in that I dictated how the text would flow around the image, once the rough sketches were in place and I began to draw up the final illustrations, I was not able to deviate from the sketch and to stick rigidly to the rough shapes I had created.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel, set on a distant planet. But your art here feels very low-tech, as though it’s from the past, not the future. What was your thinking behind this?

Although The Left Hand of Darkness is set in the distant future on an as yet undiscovered planet; the environment in the story is very primitive. Ursula described to me how there wasn’t really anything futuristic about the world at all and although the towns and people were by no means primitive, their amenities were very basic. The only advanced tech that has been developed is in things like the lining of the clothes and footwear and in things like the food that Genly Ai and Estraven survive on throughout their journey, basically details that were difficult and unnecessary to evoke visually.

I did attempt to shoehorn an image of Genly Ai’s spacecraft into the cover and one of the compositions, to give it more of an air of traditional science fiction, but we felt that it didn’t really fit. Ursula also wanted to evoke the love story between Genly Ai and Estraven and their struggle for survival against the elements and I felt that a more intimate and simple set of drawings would achieve that more effectively than compositions filled with future technology and detail.

Photography by Andrew Liptak