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Hainish Cycle #4

The Left Hand of Darkness

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A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants spend most of their time without a gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.

Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

304 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1969

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About the author

Ursula K. Le Guin

937 books24.4k followers
Ursula K. Le Guin published twenty-two novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and has received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc. Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, an essay collection, Cheek by Jowl, and The Wild Girls. She lived in Portland, Oregon.

She was known for her treatment of gender (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Matter of Seggri), political systems (The Telling, The Dispossessed) and difference/otherness in any other form. Her interest in non-Western philosophies was reflected in works such as "Solitude" and The Telling but even more interesting are her imagined societies, often mixing traits extracted from her profound knowledge of anthropology acquired from growing up with her father, the famous anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber. The Hainish Cycle reflects the anthropologist's experience of immersing themselves in new strange cultures since most of their main characters and narrators (Le Guin favoured the first-person narration) are envoys from a humanitarian organization, the Ekumen, sent to investigate or ally themselves with the people of a different world and learn their ways.

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Profile Image for Nataliya.
785 reviews12.5k followers
July 4, 2022
2021: At this point it’s hard for me to even imagine that just a decade ago I was reading Ursula K. Le Guin for the first time. This book overwhelmed me with how good it was, and how different it ended up from what I expected. Le Guin’s measured and contemplative anthropological science fiction was so incredibly memorable in how it presents the world, challenges the assumptions and reaffirms essential humanity of all of us that it touched my very soul and probably changed something in me forever.

This book needs to be read starting with its wonderful introduction, written by Le Guin herself. This part is so important, especially for those who from the advantage of society that has moved on after decades since the book came to be may view it as tame, as not going far enough, not being visionary in the way that calls to our wishes and current views. Let’s give the spotlight to Le Guin’s own words:
“This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. […] The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrödinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world. Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”

Le Guin described the world as viewed not from the Ekumenical year 1491 but from the Earth year 1969, and there are still elements that are painfully recognizable.

But what I see, what gives me hope, is that essential humanity that triumphs over the smallness of prejudices and conventions. The humanity that Le Guin was so good at bringing to forefront.
“It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give.”

Dream on, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. Dream on, and I’ll dream on with you.
”Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars—the other kinds of men, the other lives?”


2012: The question that permeates Le Guin's 1969 sensational for its time novel about the ambisexual society is what remains once the male and the female labels are stripped away? What is underneath the labels - is it simply humanity?
"A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience."

Like some readers, Genly Ai, the protagonist of this brilliantly written leisurely-paced cerebral sci-fi classic, for a while just cannot seem to move past the ambisexuality aspect. Ai is an ambassador to the planet Gethen to convince its leaders to join the interplanetary union Ekumen. The inhabitants of Gethen differ from other humanoid races in two aspects: (1) they have adapted well to tolerate the Ice Age climate of their world, and (2) they are ambisexual. For the majority of lunar cycle they are essentially neuter, and for several days they enter a sexual phase, kemmer, during which they attain either male or female characteristics and become capable of sex.
"What is a friend, in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility: no friend to Therem Harth, or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand's touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us."

Ai, a male proud of his “virility”, does not feel comfortable among the Gethians. He is always suspicious, always mistrusting of these people whose essence he refuses to understand. He views himself as "a stallion in harness with a mule", chuckles at the idea of a pregnant King. He tries to view the Gethenians as male, and is appalled at all the femininity that he sees in them, feeling that it is wrong, inferior, alien to him. In the world of wholeness, not of duality, he feels lost and isolated without the familiar stark division that rules our lives. After all, the first question that people immediately ask at birth is - boy or girl? Man or woman?
[Sidenote: Remember the whole relatively recent conundrum about Canadian parents who decided to raise their child without telling the society the child's gender? They received death threats for that attempt, so ingrained is the gender division among us].
Ai is not a bad guy. He is just lost, confused, and isolated - a human, in the other words. He is so out of his comfort zone he does not comprehend how to deal with the society that he views as passive, where there is less competitiveness, and where crying is perfectly fine. He finds it so hard to accept this world without the quientesential 'maleness' or 'femininity' - even though he struggles to define exactly what it is that separates men from women.

Ai becomes so terribly isolated in his alienness, longing for something familiar. In this strange and unfamiliar world of wholeness, he clings to the eternal human "Us vs. Them" divide, refusing in his loneliness and fear to look beyond the usual, the prejudice. Until circumstances force him to get to know Estraven, and Ai finally sees in him "not a man's face and not a woman's, a human face."
"A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt."

But it's really Therem Harth Estraven, who, in my opinion, is the true hero of this story. Estraven sees the promise that the union with Ekumen has for his world. In his attempts to help Ai, he becomes viewed as a traitor . But it takes a long time and many trials and tribulations for Ai to recognize Estraven for what and who he is - just HUMAN, to move past the uncomfortable and the prejudice and discover simple human love.
"It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness... how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow."
The language of this book was initially a stumbling block for me. It was dry and very cerebral, making it difficult at first to become immersed in the story. But that was the language of Genly Ai, the man who was not meant to be likeable at the very start. But then I got to the first interlude - short and very poetic legends of Gethen which help shed light on the nature of this world and help us see the events of this story in a different context and different light. The beauty that Le Guin's language reaches during these interludes is breathtaking. The segments of the story written in Estraven's voice are also very distinct, very urgent, simple, and filled with so much dignity and quiet resolve that it made my heart leap and weep at the same time.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a deep story of humanity, love, betrayal, alienation, and acceptance. But it is not an easy book to read. It is not meant to take you on an exciting whirlwind ride. Instead its aim is to make the readers think and reflect. It may be slow to start, but it's hard to put down as well. I walked away from it feeling that a part of me has been changed forever - and for the better.

I walked away from it with more questions than I had when I started - and that's a very good thing, as far as I am concerned.
"And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was."

Recommended by: Tracy
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,993 reviews298k followers
October 12, 2018
“I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

I can't say why it's taken me so many years to finally get to The Left Hand of Darkness. Perhaps because every time I passed it in a bookstore or library it looked like a typical dated 1960s sci-fi novel. But it is so much more than that.

This book is quite astonishing. Hannah Gadsby has made me reluctant to say "ahead of its time" but if any book is ahead of its time then this one is. It's a fascinating read, complete with rich world-building, detailed descriptions of the Gethenian customs, an exploration of an ambisexual society, and an examination of how political and cultural norms can force a wedge between societies.
“No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression.”

This alone is extremely interesting, but it wasn't until I'd sat wide-eyed through many chapters of the book until I realized that somewhere along the way Le Guin had snuck in and stolen my heart, too. Perhaps ultimately I had put off this book because I had expected "interesting" but not "moving". Not "emotional". And definitely not "heartbreaking".

The Left Hand of Darkness is definitely a tough read at times, especially in the beginning when Le Guin throws in Gethenian terms without explanation and leaves us to work out what they're referring to. But you do work it out eventually, and even at its most challenging it is not unenjoyable. The world is so rich in detail that it becomes an adventure to explore it, and the nuanced character dynamics keep the pages turning.

The story is about Genly Ai, a male human envoy, who is sent to Gethen to persuade the Gethenians to join the Ekumen union. He believes they can both benefit from the trade and exchanging of technology this would lead to. He first appeals to the Karhide king - who refuses - and then later to the Orgoreyn politicians. Alongside this mission is the story of Gethen's developing relationship with Estraven - a disgraced former prime minister.

I can usually quite neatly separate books into those driven by characters and those driven by plot, but it is not so easy here. The plot is definitely dynamic and a lot happens over the course of 330 pages, but I do think the book's strength lies in how Le Guin explores character interactions. The Gethenians are genderless and essentially sexless (or, perhaps more accurately, they are intersex- as they can take on either sex during mating season) but Genly finds it hard not to force the Gethenians into the gender binary. He constantly examines their behaviour for traditionally masculine and feminine traits, which affects how he views and treats them.

It is a fabulous exploration of fluid gender and sexuality. And race, too. I've got to be honest-- this being a 1960s American novel, and a science-fiction novel at that (a still depressingly white genre), I was expecting to experience the usual pearly whiteness of the characters, with a jarring absence of people of colour. On the contrary, Genly is black, and the Gethenians are described as having a whole range of skin colours.

If you've been on the fence about this book like I was, I highly recommend it. It's a thought-provoking, highly-original story that is as relevant today as it ever was. And between the political and social commentary, in the icy landscape of Gethen, there is an unmistakably human story of loyalty, tragedy and love.

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Profile Image for Liz.
93 reviews38 followers
June 1, 2017
I've become rather bitter with sci-fi over the years, as it used to be my favorite genre. But you can only read so many space operas and pretentious near futures before it gets to you a little.

And then you decide to give an author a go because of some weird research string you were on... and it rekindles your love of why you started reading it in the first place.

LeGuin approaches sci-fi as it should be; a thought experiment. Instead of spending pages upon pages describing the minutiae of every aspect of the future, she integrates snippets of mythology, politics, and does it in a way that you don't feel is droning on.

There are parts that aren't very action oriented at all, and yet, they don't drag. I have no idea how she does it and am now rather enamored with this author.

As for the book itself, it approaches more than the simple issue of gender; it's almost zen-like, with an exploration of a duality in a whole. And the main character was the type a cranky sap like me could really relate to.

Best book I've read in a long while.
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
967 reviews6,862 followers
June 11, 2023
“If civilization has an opposite, it is war.”

In the nascent days of summer, I read a book that I can’t stop thinking about and can’t stop recommending. I’m stirring from my Goodreads silence to tell you about this book, Left Hand of Darkness, by the late Ursula K. Le Guin. Written in 1969 and the winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, this book is just as relevant and important today as it was when it first hit the shelves. Left Hand of Darkness is a gorgeous sci-fi novel of political intrigue, heroism, and humanity that works like an anthropological study complete with folktales and history as Le Guin creates a unique society, enabling her to take a probing look at gender roles, religion, and bureaucracy and their configurations in oppression and nationalism. Left Hand of Darkness is a philosophical and anthropological treat in which Le Guin deftly creates social, political and religious layers to examine a fascinating new world on the brink of war.

Set in a distant future, Left Hand of Darkness is another tale in Le Guin’s universe of the Ekumen--an 83 planet union with slight governing laws designed to increase communication and philosophy-sharing throughout the universe--in which Genly Ai is sent alone (“One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion”) as an envoy to convince the planet Gethen to join the union. His arrival alarms the Kardish King, who fears acknowledgement of larger, universal societies as a threat to his might and power, and intrigues the king’s rival nation, who consider how Genly can be used as a political pawn. Throughout the novel, the understanding of a new world is most succinctly conveyed in the growing friendship between Genly and Estraven--a man cast out as a traitor. The book itself is a collection of Genly's journal while on Gethen along with Gethen tales and history intermixed. “I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination,” Genly writes at the start. He reminds the reader that this not his story alone, “nor told by me alone..and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story.

Le Guin creates not only a fantastic, textured reality of civilization, but also a unique lexicon with which to explore her world. Ideas such as kemmering and the social currency of shifgrethor--vaguely meaning ‘prestige-- as well as the untranslatability of many of the Gethen terms is one of the novel’s purest joys as it reminds us that language is not only a means to communicate and commune, but also a barrier without a one-to-one ratio that emphasizes the uniqueness of cultures. These terms point towards a deeper cultural significance that, as the observer, we can only fumble to understand. While never confronted head-on as in some of Le Guin’s other novels of Hannish colonization and the Ekumen--such as The Word for World is Forest--there is a subtle backhand at the ills of colonization and cultural oppression when one tries to conform the Other to meet their own standards or needs. Speaking of culture, one of Le Guin’s better points is her use of racial diversity in her works. Genly Ai is a black man while the Gethenians are described as appearing much like Inuits. Even when other “humans” arrive, none of them are white--the only other prominent human being an Asian woman. In an essay condemning the SyFy TV miniseries adaptation of her Earthsea series for whitewashing--among other issues--Urusla Le Guin comments on the deliberateness of the diversity in her novels:
My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn't see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn't see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had "violet eyes"). It didn't even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn't they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?
While the racial issues in her books are not perfect, the acknowledgement of them and inclusion of many races is a step forward during a time when most (there are exceptions) science fiction was predominantly white and male.

Gethen is a curious world to Genly, one that he suspects may have been the result of early experiments on gender. On Gethen there is no gender--all beings exist in a genderless, non-sexual state called somer for most of the time except during their monthly mating cycle of kemmer. During kemmer, their sexual organ take the role of either a male or female--there is no choosing--before reverting back to a genderless, or ambisexual, state. A person can father a child one month and become pregnant the next, leading to the wonderful line “the king is pregnant” midway through the novel. This genderless society is not a perfect examination of gender, and many early critics have been underwhelmed that Le Guin did not take it further, but there is still a lot of unpack here. Le Guin herself, in her essay Is Gender Necessary, regretted her pronoun choices that made Gethenians seems more predominantly masculine. “I call Gethenians ‘he’ because I utterly refuse to mangle English by inventing a pronoun for “he/she”,” she writes in her reflective essay written seven years after the novel (and then updated in footnotes to further dissect her decisions over a decade later), though she did later attempt genderless pronoun choices for readings in the 80s. Despite some setbacks (and the fact that the incest on Gethen is mentioned but not really examined), the idea really works. While the idea of a constantly bisexual community (her term) is wonderful, the lack of any discussion on any same-gendered kemmering or LGBT aspects are notably absent and underwhelming.

Genly, an ethnologist, spends much of the novel unpacking how the lack of traditional gender shapes society. Late in the book, Genly explains to Estraven how gender functions in his own, gendered world:
...the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlooks, ethics, manners--almost everything. Vocabulary. Semantic usages.,.it’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones
On Gethen, Genly describes a world where the notions of sexual domination and rape haven’t figured into society in any way he has witnessed (there is, naturally, an argument to be made that as a heteronormative human some of these issues could have occurred but were in his cultural blind spots. However, this is the novel as it stands). He details a world where a lack of gender-normative roles leads to one of unity. In the story Coming of Age in Karhide (from the collection The Birthday of the World and Other Stories), a story about the first kemmering of a youth in the Karhide nation on Gethen, kemmer is examined more directly as a driving force of unity. While Gethenians can make a vow of “permanent kemmer” with an individual--their form of what Ekumen planets consider marriage--for the most part the extreme sexual attraction during kemmer stage is not monogamous and bonds people with each other. “I loved them all and they all loved me and that was the secret...love is love,” the narrator thinks, realizing kemmer unites his entire community where anyone can be a lover.

Unity is important on this planet as survival is not easy. Gethen is a planet of perpetual winter--Genly is cold even during the summer months--and society seems built around a general sense of goodwill towards each other. While gender is a major factor for how society functions, the social interactions on a political level that take place in this book are some of the most powerful moments. Most of the novel concerns two major nations in Gethen, Karhide and Orgoreyn. The former is a monarchy ruled by a king losing himself to pride and paranoid madness, and the latter is a more sophisticated but similarly paranoid government where the multiple parties conspire against each other. While Le Guin laments having relatively cliched governing systems in her essay Is Gender Necessary, the contrast works quite well. The discussions on how the growing bureaucratic style in Orgoreyn opens the way for corruption is quite engaging and the general governing systems still allow for an important discussion on patriotism and the slippery slope into violent nationalism. This is a world where shifgrethor, or prestige of reputation, is extremely valuable and all communication configures around their cultural standards of respect. Much of Genly’s early frustration with Estraven and his elusiveness turns out to be communication barriers due to shifgrethor with Genly assuming Estraven’s attempts at respect are instead coldness. Also, in this society where reputation is a powerful social currency, notions like loyalty and betrayal become major signifiers in identity throughout the novel.

All in all, Gethen seems to be a relatively non-aggressive world where “they apparently have never yet had what one could call a war.” Throughout the novel, it is theorized that this could be due to the lack of gender roles and possibly the aim of a Hanish experiment to see what sort of society would grow from this. It is also postulated that “the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing: it is their environment...here man has a crueler enemy even than himself,” Whatever the cause--and both are likely part of the systemic whole--Gethen has not known war, though the King of Karhide does fear loss of power and many in both countries are scheming and cooking up ways to become mightier than the other. The answer to mobilizing a nation becomes not one of dominance but fear, fear of the Other and love for one’s own.
How does one hate a country, or love one?... 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.
Estraven often discusses the idea of patriotism and how it can be manipulated for power, fear and violence. “No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism,” he tells Genly, “I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression.” The two characters, one a stranger inspiring fear into both political bodies and the other a disgraced traitor, have to find a way to bring unity back into a growing warlike climate (one that starts over a border dispute) in order for Genly to accomplish his mission. To be accepted into the Ekumen, the planet must be at peace and agree to the inclusion. However, many factions are willing to make Genly disappear to keep the political power they are accruing through nationalistic propaganda. This sort of fear mongering is just as relative today as it was in 1969, and I suspect this theme will hit home when read during any era.

Beyond the political is a spiritual undercurrent that flows gorgeously through the novel. Duality is a major theme, as expressed in the Gethen poem from which the novel derives its title:

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.

In the world of Gethen, there exist two major religions, the Handarra and Yomesh. Handarra is akin to Taoism, and the themes of Taoism permeate much of Le Guin's works and are particularly key to understanding her novel The Lathe of Heaven. Handarra is the predominant belief system in Karhide, while Orgoreyens tend to practice Yomesh. Yomesh, a younger religions connected to the concept of ‘light’, started when a group of Foretellers split after being asked to see the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?”. This religion, full of parables, saints, and angels (there are no birds on Gethen and the concept of flight has never occurred to them. In their religious texts, angels do not fly but float down like snow) comes across as a metaphor for Western religions such as Christianity. Le Guin sprinkles the book with many stories of the two religions and their functions in society that add a dynamic texture to the understanding of the book in a way that manages to not distract or detract even when it interrupts the larger narrative. It becomes understood that the narrative is simply an aspect in a larger purpose of understanding each other and coming together in love and unity.

The duality of the two religions are very much represented in the politics of the opposing nations. Yomesh concerns itself with enlightenment whereas Handarra accepts being “ignorant” to the answers of life as a virtue. Handarra is much more complex than this, however, as it seeks to find a balance between light and dark, knowledge and ignorance. “Darkness is only in the mortal eye, that thinks it sees, but sees not.” Life must exist in balance and avoid the extremes, something that is threatened by the rising call to war.This duality also occurs in the ambisexuality (as termed by an earlier Hannish visit to observe the planet without making their presence known) of the Gethenians.

Shelved under science fiction (all the old arguments of stigmatized genre are worth considering), this novel works alongside any of the finest Literature-with-a-capital-L. Being more soft science instead of hard sci-fi, Le Guin creates a wonderful array of technologies--such as the ansible which allows immediate communication across space to any Ekumen planet--and an intricate calendar and time system for Gethen though the joy is seeing how people and society interacts with these sci-fi elements rather than having a clear, scientific understanding of how they work. This has never bothered me anthis is a novel to come to on it’s own terms as it, essentially, is about understanding a foreign community on its own terms.

Left Hand of Darkness is one of the most engaging books I’ve read in a long time. It’s what I come to books for most--finding the feeling of reading a favorite book for the first time and discovering a new favorite author. I’ve since devoured several other works by her and I only wish I had come to her before her passing. Le Guin was a master of the anthropological approach to science fiction and if one enjoys this novel there is a wide variety of other Hannish novels and short stories of the Ekumen to delight in. This novel is just the right balance of nuance, world-building and philosophical musings that culminate into a staggeringly empathetic work. Being a great work of feminism, it still has flaws in aspects of gender but the examination of it in the book is really worth the read. It is a rallying cry to go “against the wheel”, to see beyond the boundaries of your own cultural experience and meet what you find with nothing but love. Though most seem to use the ambisexuality of the book as the main talking point, for me it was the political intrigue and discussions on patriotism as an element of fear and hatred instead of love that really hit hard. Le Guin writes with such grace and charm that even the denser, descriptive moments dance upon the page. This is one to read and read again, I very highly recommend this trip to Gethen.


I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend's voice arises: and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,137 reviews4,181 followers
February 20, 2018
The meagre 2* is more a reflection of my enjoyment rather than an objective measure of the book (it has won prestigious awards). It wasn't to my taste, and that was exacerbated by mismatched expectations. It is not really sci-fi, the gender and sexuality were a bit of a side-show, leaving curious combo of political intrigue and Boys' Own tale of derring-do in an inhospitable climate. The setting is another planet in the future, but right from the start, mentions of rain and reign contributed to the non-sci-fi feel.

There were some some fascinating ideas, but I felt they weren't really developed. Also, the multiple names of many people and places made it a little less reader-friendly than it might have been.


Genly Ai is a single human envoy sent to very cold planet (Gethen, aka Winter) to see if the humanoids there want to join the inter-planetary alliance, the Ekumen (etymologically related to "ecumenical"). He isn't first contact, but he is the first overt contact. The idea of him being alone is that "One voice speaking the truth is a greater force than fleets of armies", and also that although the planet might change him, he won't be able to change it.

The planet does not have a single government, and Ai inevitably becomes enmeshed in power struggles between different realms. He starts off in Karhide, and compares subsequent events and encounters in Orgoreyn with those in Karhide.

The other main character is Estraven, a senior courtier in Karhide, who is the second narrator.


This is the book's USP: not people leaping in and out of bed with each other, but the fact that the Genthenians are ambisexual: most of the time they are both/neither sex (hermaphrodite neuters, or more positively, potentials or integrals), and when they go into kemmer (like being on heat), they can be either.

It's easy and convenient to pigeon-hole people based on sex, and Ai understandably struggles with that framework not applying. One manifestation is linguistic: he admits defeat and mostly uses male pronouns (in part because he often meets people in male-associated roles, such as King), but it makes it hard for the reader to view the characters as anything other than male.

Feminine qualities are rarely mentioned, but when they are, it is invariably pejorative, which feels strange coming from a female author. For example, "effeminate deviousness", "sullen as an old she-otter", someone's behaviour was "womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit". Furthermore, an earlier female investigator from Terra comments, "A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated... On Winter... one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience."

For Ai, awkwardness extends to distaste: "It was impossible to think of him as a woman... and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture." Much later, there is grudging acceptance: "I saw... what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him".

Gethenian sexual behaviour and taboos are necessarily different from those typical on Earth, though this includes very relaxed (though still regulated) traditions regarding incest.


In some ways, Winter is a very samey planet with one season and one/no gender (being fixed in one of two sexes is considered a peversion, though is tolerated). Does that make Gethenians more or less complete than Terrans?

The title of the book is said to come from a Handdara poem, and after hearing it, Ai says to Estraven "You're isolated and undivided. Perhaps you are obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism". The phrase is also likened to the duality of yin and yang.


There are feuds and rivalries on the planet, but no war, and no word for it. This is curious, but not really explained, other than that in Karhide hospitality, "The stranger... is a guest. Your enemy is your neighbour", along with another dig at women: they don't have war because "They lacked... the capacity to mobilize. They behaved like animals in that respect, or women"!

They may not have a word for war, but they do have 62 words for snow, so The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax continues... ;)


The book opens with the narrator brazenly stating that "Truth is a matter of imagination", facts are not fixed, so the reader "can choose the facts they like best". However, although the book is mostly told in the first person, by either Ai or Estraven, there appears to be little contradiction in their accounts, so the point is wasted.

Ai's people have developed mindspeech (telepathy), which clearly limits the scope for privacy and lying, but apart from one scene, this is another lost opportunity.


The first-person narratives are occasionally interspersed with snippets of Gethenian folklore. Two religions are mentioned: Handdara, which is "a religion without institutions" and which involves meditation, trance-like superstrength (dothe) and foretelling. The other is more monotheistic, and mentioned rather less.

The predominant religions and consequent (or caused) different cultures in the two countries may be a factor in their political differences.


A short appendix explains quirks of the Gethenian calendar compared with Earth's, but the only interesting aspect is mentioned on page one of the story: it is always year 1; all other years are counted relative to now, which is potentially confusing (though not in practice).

Another curious idea (even more so nowadays) is that "Karhiders don't read much... and prefer their news and literature heard not seen; books and televising devices are less common than radios, and newspapers don't exist"!

Gethenians are adapted to the cold climate biologically (enduring low temperatures) and socially, in that they live somewhat communally.

Their technological development has been steady, but slower than that on Earth. They have no flying vehicles, and it's suggested that, lacking any flying creatures on the planet (not even insects?), the possibility never occurred to them.

Karhiders also have an important system of protocol/face/etiquette, called shifgrethor, which is mentioned often, but somewhat opaque (which is fair enough, as it puts the reader in a similar state of disquiet as Ai is in).


There isn't much (it's primarily plot-driven), but some characters do change their opinions of others as events unfold. Although the King is often described as mad, he didn't seem particularly so.


I was reminded of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide", which is possibly an homage, whether conscious or otherwise. Here, there is a discussion of what sort of question one could or should ask Foretellers, including the danger of asking "What is the meaning of life?" In fact, they perfected foretelling "to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question".


* A powerful person "cannot make an empty gesture or say a word that is not listened to. He knows it,and the knowledge gives him more reality than most people own: a solidness of being, a substantiality, a human grandeur."

* A grand palace is "the product of centuries of paranoia on a grand scale".

* Patriotism is "fear of the other. And its expressions are political not poetical".

* "my landlady, a voluble man"

* "The coldness of it was perpetually incredible. Every morning I had to believe it all over again." (Shades of believing "six impossible things before breakfast" in Alice in Wonderland.)

The blurb from the GR description says in the final paragraph that this is "science fiction for the thinking reader", so I guess failing to like it must be a fault in me as a reader, rather than Le Guin as the author!

Also, David Mitchell cites it as one of the two finest science fiction novels (along with another le Guin, The Disposessed) at 10:30 in this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxq-F...
Profile Image for Dr. Appu Sasidharan (Dasfill).
1,271 reviews2,443 followers
July 7, 2023

Ursula K. Le Guin tells us the story of Genly Ai, a human native of Terra, who is sent to the planet of Gethen as an envoy of the Ekumen. Ekumen is a confederation of several planets. Genly is sent to convince all the nations of Goethe's to join the Ekumen. The ambisexual nature of the people of Gethen confuses Genly and becomes a hindrance in carrying out his duty. The world-building and how the characters of Genly and Estraven are portrayed are all done in a spectacular way.

If you are new to the Hainish universe created by the author, there is a chance that you might find this novel abstruse. This is the fourth in the sequence of Hainish novels written by the author.

The astute manner in which the author wrote it really requires a special mention. The way the author deals with emotions using plot tropes in Psychology is also stunning. In this book, multiple themes are discussed, like gender, love, sexuality, humanity, empathy, and race. This is incontrovertibly one of the most important science fiction books published in the 20th century.

What I learned from this book
1) The entanglement of art and lie
The way the author describes art and artists is intriguing. You can appraise this idea both literally and figuratively, depending upon your emotional quotient.
"I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor."

2) What is the most important thing in one person's life?

There is an area in this book where the author tells us about the importance of gender. She tells how the gender difference is considered in various societies. She is also mentioning the difficulties that women are facing in different societies.
"I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one's life, is whether one's born male or female. In most societies it determines one's expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners—almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food. Women... women tend to eat less... It's extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones. Even where women participate equally with men in the society, they still after all do all the childbearing, and so most of the child-rearing."

3) Civilization and war
Does more civilized make us less likely to participate in war? The author is saying that war is the opposite of civilization. Then we might have a doubt about the war that sometimes happens between two famous civilizations. Does civilized mean more propensity to follow the rules in the war? Where does terrorism fit in this contest? This is a cardinal topic to discuss. The author's exemplary ability to discuss such controversial issues requires special accolades.
“One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness… Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both."

My favourite three lines from this book
“Oracular ambiguity or statistical probability provides loopholes, and discrepancies are expunged by Faith.”

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next”

“One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies.”

What could have been better?
It was considered an unpalatable anachronistic work of fiction by some people when this book was published due to multiple topics that were debated, like feminist science fiction. The portrayal of ambisexuality was highly discussed. Some considered it a bastion of banality, while others considered it the apotheosis of science fiction.

The intellectual way in which the author wrote in some parts of this novel can only be understood by the erudite.
Even though this novel is a best seller, I think it could have reached more people if the author chose to write it in a simpler way. Still, I can't complain about it as the author's writing style makes it unique in its own way.

5/5 This is not an easy book to read, especially in the initial part. You will hear so many new terms and will be confused like a first-year medical student in medical school who is forced to hear all the new terms for the first time. But if you somehow overcome that portion, you are in for a spectacular journey through one of the best science fiction books ever published. If you are someone who loves science fiction, this is indubitably a must-read book.

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Profile Image for Lyn.
1,883 reviews16.6k followers
November 4, 2019
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin has a voyeuristic quality, as if a description to a studious observation. I could not help thinking that I was reading a National Geographic article about a reporter visiting Winter, or Gethen as its inhabitants know it.

Many readers cannot help but comment upon the Gethenians physiological androgyny, and this is certainly a central theme of the story, but there is so much more to fascinate the reader. Le Guin has demonstrated again how she can create a science fiction fantasy novel that is both entertaining and enlightening, using the fantasy as a vehicle to explore social and psychological themes, and to state observations about our culture as metaphor.

Ray Bradbury noted that to distinguish between science fiction and fantasy, fantasy is the larger genre, a mere impressionistic lens through which we can better view our world. Likewise, Philip K. Dick (Le Guin’s high school mate, though they were not then known to each other) uses his abstractions, not as a Kafka-esque absurdist portrait, but rather as shifting hyperbole to better highlight and caricaturize the real world.

In this sense, Le Guin uses TLHOD to speak to us just under the surface about a great many subjects: sexuality, social mores, violence, politics, psychology, religion, and anthropology. The final scenes where the two journey across a vast wasteland of ice took this experience for the reader to another level.

A thoroughly excellent book.

Profile Image for Leonard Gaya.
Author 1 book937 followers
November 29, 2020
It took me a few minutes to get a grip on myself after finishing this novel. The Left Hand of Darkness is a fantastic book. It has the quaint flavour of the old sci-fi novels, especially reminiscent of Asimov’s Foundation series (it’s just way better!), Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the Star Trek TV series (released at around the same time as Le Guin’s novel).

This book was published shortly after A Wizard of Earthsea, and both novels are similar in many ways. Both contain the same world-building tropes of fantasy: an alien planet with a specific geography, biology, culture, language, religion, calendar, political system. Both have the same storyline, about a voyage into the wilderness and about a friendship — Ged and Vetch, Ai and Estraven. Both have an obsession with names, either social or intimate. Above all, both stories are about an initiatory journey, a discovery of oneself.

But Left Hand is more fully developed than A Wizard. Especially because the whole novel is consistently built on the concept of a transfer between opposites, such as light and darkness or the Taoist dualism between Yin and Yang.

Firstly, this concept translates into the novel’s complex composition: there is a switch of point of view (Ai or Estraven’s journal entries) on almost every chapter break, which makes the narrative both challenging and captivating — some scenes are depicted alternatively, from both points of view in this way. And the whole thing is interspersed with myths and tales. We, the readers, in the middle of it all, are expected to construct and interpret what is going on.

This idea of translation or alternation is also expressed in political (and religious) terms. The frozen planet of Gethen/Winter is divided between two opposing powers — much as was the Earth at the time of writing. The two forces illustrate different forms of despotism: a mad king, on the one hand, a chilling bureaucracy on the other. And between them, an alien and a traitor, who travel between the realms, hoping to unify this world.

More importantly, though, still another alternation is at the core of Le Guin’s idea, which touches on the sexuality of the aliens. Indeed, the Gethenians embody a variation instead of opposition between the genres. They are not so much androgynous (at some indefinite point between male and female) as they are ambisexual, sequentially both one and the other, transitioning from male to female and from asexuality to overwhelming sexual arousal. This, of course, has profound consequences on the mentality of these aliens and is an invitation to question our prejudices. In this sense, Le Guin’s novel has had a significant influence on feminism, gender studies and, more broadly, on LGBTQ+ movements. I also suspect Margaret Atwood (another feminist writer) had this book in mind when she conceived of the sexually modified Crakers in Oryx and Crake.

As for me, I was particularly moved by the last quarter of Le Guin’s novel: the dangerous trek across the ice sheet and the growing love between the two protagonists. The ending is both hopeful and heartbreaking. A pity that the Penguin Galaxy edition (presented by Neil Gaiman) doesn’t include a map of Gethen. In any event, The Left Hand of Darkness is a masterful and visionary story, one of the most beautiful SF novels I have read.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
266 reviews279 followers
August 16, 2022
“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.”

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary sent to Gethen (Winter), an alien world whose inhabitants can change their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must embrace the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world.

It took me a while to get into this book, I found it slow to start but interesting. From the get go the reader is left to ponder unexplained terms and references. I got the feeling that I should have read previous works and I found myself looking for a glossary of terms. I put the book down and did some quick research, no previous works required and no glossary of terms existed. OK, I might be in over my head with this one…

Pretty soon though, I was drawn in to a beautiful tale with fascinating questions of gender and identify. The world Ursula Le Guin creates and its inhabitants are richly imagined and I found by the time I got to trek across the frozen lands of Winter with our two main protagonists, I was fully engaged. I found this novel to be a story of survival, love, friendship, exploration, and above all, a big thought experiment. What if and how would that work? What would this world be like and how would the absence of gender influence behaviours and culture etc. It was fascinating.

This is the first time I have read Ursula Le Guin, she came highly recommended by friends and family. I now understand why. What a beautiful imagination and a phenomenal writer she was. This is a book I can see myself reading again and getting more from each time. I’m so glad I read this and will definitely be reading more of her works in the future.

“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."
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
August 27, 2021
The Challenge of Sex

Sex is awkward no matter how you look at it - arguably yet another design flaw in our species. Solo sex is likely to be unsatisfying. Straight sex is fraught with gendered miscommunication. Gay sex presents serious reproductive issues. Transgender sex is... well, complicated. And all those don't even consider the morass of multiple simultaneous partners. But Ursula la/le Guin introduces a whole new level of awkwardness in her ambisexual humanoid aliens who shift gender monthly in response to their partners’ pheromones. No one knows if they’re hitting on getting hit on until the touching starts.

There are clear advantages of ambisexuality. Sexual equality is a matter of course. Since voluntary participation is necessary, rape is impossible. Everyone experiences the respective burdens of testosterone as well as child-bearing. Sexual jealousy and violence is eliminated. And the Incel movement has no reason to exist. Ambisexuality also probably reduces the propensity to war and the gender-induced machismo of two-sex societies.

On the other hand, there are a few problems. Gendered pronouns are out; but so is the neuter; the ambisexual are persons after all. Family relationships are rather more complex - one’s father may be one’s sister’s mother, for example (not even Yiddish has words for this sort of relation). Maternal and paternal genealogical lines can become indistinguishably mixed, leading to some rather interesting inheritance issues. Playing Mum off against Dad is unlikely to prove a winning childhood strategy.

Generally ambisexual individuals are about as ethically, psychologically, and politically diverse as binaries, even if a bit more emotionally intelligent on the whole. This seems to lead to less overt coercion but more covert intrigue. They tend to plot rather than hit each other. And while machismo is absent, a certain sort of complex politesse is essential for smooth social functioning. Subtlety for its own sake is de rigeur and tends to slow down discussion and decision to a crawl.

In her Introduction, la/le Guin provides an interesting explanation about the contents of this story. “Fiction writers,” she says, “at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That's the truth!”

The truth la/le Guin is referring to appears to be that while sex is an irresistible force that profoundly influences the institutional structure of a society, it is not the determining factor of individual personality, purpose, or neuroses. Society adapts to the reality of its members, or should. When it doesn’t, by designating difference as perversion for example, it fails in its function of creating peaceful flourishing within itself and between it and other societies. Blessed are the peace-makers after all, especially the literate ones.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,119 reviews44.8k followers
May 6, 2020
“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.”


This was written in the sixties, though it feels like it was written yesterday. Ursula K. Le Guin creates a vivid culture of ambisexual humanoids that come with a detailed history and culture. And it is truly fascinating to read about because such discussions and representations of gender and sex are strikingly relevant to modern society.

Genly Ai is a human envoy sent to the planet Gethen to persuade the natives to join an interplanetary trade alliance. Such a thing would benefit all involved as all cultures would expand intellectually and culturally. It’s about a shared exchange, about learning from one another in order to become better and more developed. The Gethenians as a people are gender neutral; they display no maleness or femaleness unless they go into kemmer (which is their biological mating cycle.) Whatever sex they display is entirely dependent on who they are partnering with at the time.

A pervert is what Genly Ai comes across as. To the alien eyes of the Gethenians he looks like he’s in a permanent state of sexual arousal and they are totally confused and offended by it. They don’t trust him, and he must rely heavily on his diplomatic skills to ensure them of his genuine nature. Language barriers and misunderstandings cause several problems resulting in his imprisonment and near death. The point is, the novel highlights the need for effective communication and discourse for opposite cultures (and political systems) to reach an agreement, rather than branding the other a villain simply because they do not understand it in its differentness. We need to learn from the "other."

However, for all the intellect the writing displayed, the plot was terribly slow for the first half. Very little happened, by way of action and dilemma. The progress that the book displays is a shifting of opinion, a development of perspective, as the two protagonists learn about each other’s culture and see their counterpoint as less alien: they begin to see the humanity in the other. And that’s kind of important because it transcends ideas of gender and sex, race and culture, looking only at what it means to be human and alive. Labels don’t matter, only the person matters.

“And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was at last, acceptance of him as he was.”


So, this is a book that will appeal only to a certain type of reader because it is quite difficult to read. Although it is clearly science-fiction, it breaks genre boundaries with its lack of standard tropes instead choosing to question existence itself. It’s not a story designed to sweep you away, but it is a story that will make you think. There’s certainly a lot of wisdom here.


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Profile Image for Kaion.
501 reviews105 followers
August 24, 2010
The Should I Read This Book Quiz: Ursula Le Guin is considered a Very Important science fiction writer for her anthropological chops, and The Left Hand of Darkness her classic in which a lone representative of the Ekumen is sent down to a heretofore un-contacted planet to convince its denizens to join this interplanetary human collective. Genly Ai’s mission is complicated by his inexperience with their society—the most significant difference with his own being that all Gethenians are neither male nor female, but have the capability to be either once a month in their kemmering period. But should you read it?

[Begin Here:] Do you care about avoiding spoilers? If ‘yes’, go to A. If ‘no’, go to B.

A. The phrase ‘Light is the left hand of darkness’ is deployed sans irony. If you just cringed, go to 3. If you were just pondering the duality of nature, go to 1. If you laughed and mentally composed the next line, go to C.

B. A character describes an intense bonding moment with an alien thus: how the two of them finally understood each other as different beings, but essentially human… and how they wouldn’t have sex despite the tension because they respected each other too much. If you just thought that was intelligent, go to 1. If you just called the writer a ‘TEASE!’, go to 3. If you’re still hung up on the hermaphrodite part, go to C.

C. Two characters talk philosophically about the themes of the book. If this happens in all your favorite novels, go to 1. If you think this is a overused and lazy device that usually leads to the plot paradoxically from confronting said themes, go to 3. If you’ve never realized this happened before, go to 2.

1. Congratulations! You are an idealist. You love ‘world-building’, ‘details’, books about ‘ideas’, and authors who really ‘think’. I really don’t know why you haven’t read The Left Hand of Darkness yet, unless you are a sexist pig or one of those people who think all science fiction is people in rubber suits and Star Wars and therefore not smart enough for you.

2. Congratulations! You are a waffler. You’ll read anything if anyone else is reading, which is what led you to such gems in past years as The Kite Runner. The problem is a well-known female science fiction writer holds as much widespread pop culture currency as a well-known Weather Channel anchor. So only undertake if you hang out in crowds where ‘LARP’ is a known acronym. Otherwise, you’re better off with tracking down the Swedish The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo movie.

3. Congratulations! You are a realist. You laugh at all the enlightened super humans of the future, you think writers who want to espouse their philosophies should just do so without hiding behind aliens, and you skip sentences that have more than one made-up capitalized word. Chalk this up to a ‘skip it’, and continue secretly wishing to live in Brave New World.

I fall almost completely firmly in category 3 on this test, with a side order of 2. Largely, I respect and appreciate what Ursula Le Guin brings to the table with her ideas of how gender shapes the very fabric of our society, be it through politics, morality, or philosophy. Ultimately however, I felt like these ideas didn’t lead anywhere. Like the ‘tease’ I brought up earlier, it was as if the novel were a large-scale violation of Chekhov’s-Gun principle.

A lot of this is a function of the plot side of the equation- is this a story of first contact? Political intrigue? Survival thriller? Speculative anthropology/sociology? The narrative can’t really seem to decide. Subsequently there were long unfocused patches full of Proper Nouns, and ultimately the climax fails to truly address any of these storylines with aplomb.

On a more personal note, this is my second Ursula Le Guin novel, and I can tell she’s not really the kind of writer that appeals to me. There’s a rarified style to her writing that prevents me from connecting to the characters. It’s something I brought up earlier in point C: I don’t need characters that talk about the ‘meaning’—I want characters that are recognizably human enough that when they illustrate the message, it needs no caption to resonate. Rating: 2.5 stars
Profile Image for Samadrita.
295 reviews4,678 followers
August 31, 2014
They should do away with these tags - science fiction, speculative fiction and all them other clever maneuvers designed to erect barriers between the strictly literary and the mainstream - when it's Atwood who is writing or a Le Guin. Woe betide anyone who begs to differ. This deeply entrenched contempt of the other and this instinctive loathing of anything we fail to understand after a perfunctory once-over are not only the center of the man-made hullabaloo of gender but the root cause of all friction in this very reality of ours.

A few years ago my cab had once been caught up in traffic at a crossing when I was taken unawares by somebody knocking on my window. I was startled at the discovery of the unexpected apparition who was the cause and source of this interruption - a sari-clad transgendered individual asking me for loose change. I must have flinched visibly because I recall the hopeful expression on his-her (see how our pronouns, too, betray the third sex?) face being gradually replaced by a look of mild mortification and apology. Apology for causing momentary distress to a young college-bound girl because apology is something owed only to the privileged and the ones born with society-approved sexual organs. Unable to successfully communicate, thus, he-she drifted away to another car window while I kept staring at his-her receding back, embarrassed at the sudden loss of my powers of speech. Fragments of this memory have risen to the surface of my consciousness time and again since then. But not until Le Guin familiarized me with Ekumen envoy Genly Ai and Gethenian citizen, ambisexual Estraven's mutual suspicion of each other was I able to pinpoint the cause of my visceral dread in that cab years ago. Like Genly and Estraven, I have been unknowingly initiated into the cult of fearing the unfamiliar.
"No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year."

I am the product of a patriarchal societal order which is only starting to awaken to the far-reaching implications of 'misogyny' and the sociocultural fallout of holding heteronormative gender roles in higher regard than humanity. 'Homophobia' is a term which is yet to acquire a firm foothold even in the imaginations of the Indian intelligentsia since both our judiciary and the executive have proselytized on the unnaturalness of loving whomever we want to. Maybe in a couple of decades we'll rectify this foolishness too.
But what about the members of the third sex, those hapless outcasts even our gender-biased language fails to address?

Our government believes that making it conventional for transgenders to extort money from parents of newborns at hospitals could pass for employment opportunities.* These young parents feel righteously terrorized by their appearance and breathe a sigh of relief after they have finished with their loud performances celebrating the birth of a healthy child and left with their 'payments'.
What seems less surreal? The daily enactment of this aforementioned ritual and the rationale (or lack thereof) behind it or Le Guin's ambisexual Gethenians who keep alternating between two genders?
Again, you and I will choose what we know of and discard what we don't.
"And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was."

Several realities clash violently every moment in this perplexing drama of life; which of them get to be bestowed with the stamp of normality and which of them get dismissed as aberrations depends on the will of the majority and what they identify with. And I can't imagine what could have been a more effective way of shedding light on this farce other than plotting this narrative the way Le Guin did - the meeting and eventual synthesis of two cultures, each fashioning its existence around contradictory value judgement systems.
"And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend's voice arises: and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry."

I thank that anonymous person years ago, whose humanity we have whittled down to the distinctness of his-her gender, for causing me to take notice of injustices I help perpetuate every moment with my ignorance and indifference. And I have Le Guin to thank for helping me realize that the apologetic look should have been on my face that day instead of his-her, that I can either hide behind these inherited labels of race, religion, gender and nationality or I can aspire to the ambition of becoming a citizen of the world and, in turn, the Cosmos. As ever the choice lies with me. With us.

*Only recently (April, 2014) has the Supreme Court of India stirred awake and given legal recognition to the 'third gender' who had so far been deprived of their fundamental rights as citizens.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
874 reviews2,272 followers
January 30, 2018
No Mere Extrapolation

"The Left Hand of Darkness" is a work of science fiction published by Ursula Le Guin in 1969.

At the time, it sought to differentiate itself from most other science fiction in two ways.

Firstly, as Le Guin explains in a subsequent introduction, it didn’t just take a current phenomenon and extrapolate it scientifically into the future in some predictive or cautionary fashion.

Secondly, it explored the nature of sexuality as a subject matter from a sophisticated, feminist point of view.

She goes beyond semiotics, the linguistic significance of gender, and ventures into the philosophy, psychology and aesthetics of gender representation.

From a psychological perspective, she examines the symbolic role of gender. From an aesthetic perspective, she uses it as a metaphor.

From all points of view, she is interested in gender as the arena of power and its abuse.

Just My Imagination

Le Guin's dual ambitions were supportive of each other.

In order to explore the possibilities of "ambisexuality", she had to construct a whole new sexual, social and political world that was materially different from the known world.

To do so, she had to eschew the simplistic and rationalistic approach of traditional science fiction, and invent a new, alternative society (in fact, more than one), that could throw our own society into sharp relief. The novel had to be a fully-fledged work of the imagination rather than a work of methodical extrapolation.

The imaginative qualities are what makes "The Left Hand of Darkness" a great work of literature, regardless of genre.

Read now, almost half a century later, the novel still achieves its goals in style. The prose is economical rather than effusive, often lyrical, but sometimes dry, especially in some of the more descriptive passages. Overall, Le Guin is a master of the craft of elegant, if understated, writing.



The inhabitants of the planet Gethen are "double-sexed" human beings (possibly the descendants of an experiment conducted by Terran (Earth-based) colonizers).

What does this mean? [This is a purely technical explanation which is revealed fairly early in the novel.]

So it’s not appropriate or relevant to refer to Gethenians as "he" or "she". This is not just significant from a semiotic point of view. As a direct result, the chauvinism of Terra (Earth) is unknown.

The Style of Its Telling

There are two chief protagonists: Genly Ai, a "Mobile" or Diplomatic Envoy assigned to negotiate a Treaty whereby the Gethenian state of Karhide joins a multi-world federation called Ekumen; and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide.

Negotiations do not go smoothly, and the ordeal turns into an 81 day journey across the freezing glacial environment of an inhospitable planet.

The plot, such as it is, is functional. It is largely a vehicle to allow the differences in sexual, social and political characteristics to be showcased.

Most of it is portrayed in alternating journal entries by Estraven or sections from Ai’s official report:

"I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

"The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust.

"Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.

"The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story."

Even in these concise introductory sentences, Le Guin neatly summarises her approach. She is concerned with facts, the truth, imagination, story-telling, the collaboration of different voices that might or might not form a harmonious composite.

Submission Impossible

The Gethenians are not socially aggressive or even, it seems, acquisitive, in a personal or collective manner. Technological progress is incremental and measured. They don’t know war. They have eliminated the masculinity behind the rapist and the femininity behind the rape victim, resulting in the elimination of rape and sexual abuse.

This leaves them as a people free to concentrate on their one shared enemy, the environment, the cold, the Winter, the Ice.

Subject to the perils of the climate, their religion (Handdara) allows them to concentrate on an intensified trance-like experience of the present, what they call the Presence, which involves a loss of self through "extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness".

Pleasure derives from sensitivity rather than subjection or submission.

What is missing, absent two genders, is the subjugation of one by the other.


As a whole, the Gethenians are competitive, though more in pursuit of "shifgrethor", their measure of personal esteem, pride, status, prestige, honour, integrity, "face".

The word derives from the old word for "shadow". Each person must "cast their own shadow".

A shadow requires both light and dark to exist. Even though they avoid the dualism of gender, their whole or "holism" is still dualistic.

This dualism is in fact the source of the novel’s title:

"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."

Ai recognises the resemblance to Zen Buddhism, and shows Estraven a familiar symbol:

"It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness… how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, [Estraven]. Both and one. A shadow on snow."

This dualistic holism summarises the paradox at the heart of their ambisexuality: they are "both and one".


I and Thou

There is another way in which dualism manifests itself. Gethenians can still pair off, in love and by vow:

"Ai brooded, and after some time he said, 'You're isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.'

" 'We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn't it? So long as there is myself and the other.' "

Later, the personal becomes political, and the political becomes personal. Ai applies the language of loneliness to his own mission as a lone Envoy trying to persuade Karhide to join Ekumen:

"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."

As posited by Martin Buber, meaningfulness derives from our relationships.

And a successful relationship, a diplomatic one just as much as a personal one, must have the right beginning.

Into the Mystic

One aspect in which the Terrans are more advanced than the Gethenians is their capacity for "mindspeech", a form of telepathy.

Its origins are not explained. However, if you wish to hold together and govern a federation of 83 planets, you must be able to protect yourself against lying and dishonesty:

" 'Mindspeech is communication, voluntarily sent and received.'

" 'Then why not speak aloud?'

" 'Well, one can lie, speaking.'

" 'Not mindspeaking?'

" 'Not intentionally.' "

At a personal level, then, just as much as a political level, mindspeech represents the ability of two to communicate sincerely, of two to become one, of the ability of I and Thou to bond, of I and Thou to become We, of We to become something not just political, not just pragmatic, but something mystical.

In this sense, Le Guin’s great achievement is to demonstrate that the conquest of gender difference holds within it the potential to transcend the material, to escape abuse, to leave behind the darkness and to embrace the light.
Profile Image for Baba.
3,620 reviews988 followers
June 17, 2023
SF Masterworks (2010 relaunch series) #89:
Genly Ai, ethnologist and Envoy (First Contact liaison for the humanoid races) is tasked with bringing the Ice-Age ridden world Gethen into the fold. The Gethen differ to the rest of humankind in that they have a single gender that is fluid, and only feel sexual a few days a month (Menstrual cycle like). The multiple layers of scheming, misunderstanding, posturing etc. that appears endemic on this planet has to be overcome.

Although as ever a superb piece of deep reality building and classy writing, Le Guin fails on some key points especially around her fluid gender reality. This being my second Le Guin read, it feels almost like she sold out women to be a published sci-fi writer! Her inability to create a non-male gender for a 1,000s year old people seems weird, as do her generalisations about women. On top of that, in The Possessed and now in this book, it all feels like promoting colonialism, where less advanced peoples can learn from more advanced. I still prefer the Star Trek First Contact protocols that seemed to have learnt from the mistakes of colonialism.
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My thoughts. Maybe the book doesn't age well into the 21st century and I should just appreciate such a gender busting story written in 1969? :) 7 out of 12, Three Star read.

2020 read
Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,077 followers
January 4, 2021
Sublime in tone and voice. There’s not a superfluous line in it. Beautiful.

Mr. Ai is 17 light years from the nearest planet affiliated with his interstellar league, Ekumen. Karhide is a monarchy on the frozen planet of Gethen. Ai has come to Karhide on a diplomatic mission and has found a receptive ear in Estraven, the prime minister. The novel has a Gothic feel but soon hints of palace intrigue. Sure enough, before you can whistle Dixie, Estraven falls from royal favor. The king it turns out is insane and—surprise!—suspicious of everyone on his planet of human androgynes.

Ai finally has his long-sought audience with the king, and though his mission is the reason for Estraven’s fall, he’s given his freedom. For reasons opaque at first, he decides to travel to the hinterlands—getting the hell out of Dodge. He joins a long-haul electric caravan whose drivers take him even farther north where it’s even colder. It’s a barren brutal landscape. Ai mentions the possibly of consulting the oracles there known as the Foretellers of the Handdara. He eventually does so and is given an answer.

Ai never has a problem passing for a native. He is a traditional male from a male/female human society. Gethenians by contrast, although human in physiology (mostly), assume a gender upon entering rut/estrus one day per month. At this time the normal human lusts prevail—from monogamy to orgiastic promiscuity. But the rest of the time the Gethenians have no erotic character to their culture. They are hermaphroditic neuters 5/6ths of the time.

There’s no flirting or hitting on others or cruising for sex or one-nights stands because a set physiological period of rut/estrus makes all that superfluous. And this is a big problem for the visiting envoy, Ai, who’s an old-school human male, not a genetically modified androgyne.
“Consider: There is no unconsenting sex, no rape. As with most mammals other than man, coitus can be performed only by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible. Seduction certainly is possible, but it must have to be awfully well timed.

“Consider: there is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking maybe found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter [Gethen].” (p. 94)

Ai goes to neighboring Orgoreyn when he fails in Karhide. There is a semblance of a republic here, and Ai is at first given an entirely different welcome than he received in Karhide. It’s warmer, even friendly; there’s enthusiasm for his mission. Orgoreyn has no police force; there appear to be no laws; disputes are settled by something like arbitration. Moreover the media is controlled; as in Karhide, certain content can be broadcast only if the powers that be approve. But Orgoreyn is ultimately mistrustful of Ai too. Bad things begin to happen to him. Consider this a teaser. There’s much more here, thriller elements, and cross-genre elements—the heroic quest, the harrowing adventure etc—I haven’t mentioned.

The only problem I really have is with the stretches of exposition. The Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, in a Paris Review interview, from the 1970s, I think, once spoke about exposition as a place where novels go to die. Stick with the facts and the action, he said; don’t explain. But SF could not exist without exposition. It wouldn’t be SF; it would be more like surrealism. Other than that genre-specific quibble, I found the writing here lean and muscular, compressed. The author has a wonderful gift for evoking mood. Her plotting seems effortless and her characterizations deft. Engrossing.
Profile Image for J.G. Keely.
546 reviews10.2k followers
August 27, 2011
The term 'Speculative Fiction' was developed out of a desire by some authors to separate themselves from the more pejorative aspects of the Sci Fi genre. Harlan Ellison famously hated the term 'sci fi', scorning the implication that his stories had anything in common with Flash Gordon or Lost in Space.

In Speculative Fiction, technology is not there to facilitate the plot, or to dazzle readers with fantasy, but to provide the author with an opportunity to explore the human mind in unexpected, innovative ways. The heart of the genre is an introspective exploration of the nature of reality.

Much of sci fi acts metaphorically: elements in the world act as symbols for things we recognize: the conflict between the human government and alien settlers represents the immigration issue, the planet-destroying laser shows how we feel about nuclear weapons, the super computer controls and organizes people like a cult.

Speculative fiction also acts symbolically, but it is not allegorical--there is not a one-to-one relationship between the symbols of fiction and the reality we know. Instead, the authors use thematic symbols whose meanings can change, drawing us in with an odd familiarity, a presque vu , and then dropping away, leaving us with that most fundamental of human motivations: the need for a closure we cannot seem to find.

It is the evocation of this need to discover--to know--ourselves, and thus, our world, which drives the speculative; and this is what LeGuin gives us: a thoughtful, introspective tale--a tale almost obsessively isolated, narrated from deep within the characters. We always feel their presence, we hear their observations and weigh them, and there is necessarily a constant separation between the reader and the voice on the page, a gap which exists in every story, but which we often forget is there.

The trope of the 'unreliable narrator' is a fraught trap for authors, and I recall in Gene Wolfe's 'New Sun' it became a morass where reader, narrator, and author all intermingled--and the voice was lost. In order for the method to be effective, it must be clear to the reader where the narrator falters, and where he is likely to falter.

It need not be deliberately misleading, and indeed it shouldn't be: characters who feel most confident talking about themselves usually end up giving themselves away guilelessly. I admit that I am uncertain how much of the narrator's philosophizing was LeGuin's, and I won't be until I have read more of her work, but even if the assumptions are hers, she managed to capably keep them separate from her world.

Alienated, even.

But that is her constant theme, and her story is stark: events are harsh and uncertain, and so the narrative is always driven back into the mind, into rumination, into patterns and cycles which consider the same ideas from many sides without simply repeating the same conflicts over and over.

Yet the work is not remote or brooding--it has action, it has a plot, and it has emotional character interactions. The story always moves, and it shifts, giving the occasional outside view of another character, or some piece of alien myth, which were particularly unusual and well-constructed. It is not a heavy, weary tome, but it is certainly thoughtful, and we do not get lost in the story, because we are actively interested in it, and in its outcomes, because they are made personally important.

The book held some disappointments for me--chiefly, I wished that the contemplations had delved a bit deeper, had been a bit more shocking, a bit more insightful, as the myths often were; but the narrator was stolid, in his way. I sometimes became annoyed at how thick-headed he was, how he failed to find solutions, but I sympathized in the fact that the solutions he sought were never easy to find, and that the central theme of the book was that it didn't matter if we found answers, because we so rarely ask the right questions, anyways.

The pseudo-scientific elements often felt superfluous, especially in such a character-driven story. The implications of technology and telepathy are only as interesting as their impact on society and thought. She would sometimes bring in such notions, but they were always abortive, and added little to the story. They did provide a bit of wonder, but LeGuin was too ready to analyze them, to structure them, which made them quotidian without enmeshing them meaningfully into the world she had built.

Also central was the exploration of gender, which was truly alien and speculative, but felt somewhat plodding and small. It feel true to the character, which I appreciate, but I would not have minded him breaking out of his shell, now and then, to hit on something that was a bit beyond him to really comprehend. I cannot say if the shallowness was the character's, or the author's, which means the writing was good enough to avoid transparency.

But I was left with a sense of being unsatisfied, a desire for more introspection, a deeper plunge, if only to dredge up unexpected questions. Yet the structure, the character, the world, and the tone were all so carefully, specifically laid that I felt duly impressed. This book is a work, and it is a success, and if it does not reach too high, at least it does not fall to pretension, which is the danger of any redefinition which seeks to uplift entertainment to Art.

But this is only my first LeGuin, and she deserves a second look. If she can deliver another vision, as carefully made as this one, but on a different theme, with a different sort of character, than I will be extremely impressed. If, however, she is only capable of one mode, one character, one theme--like Vonnegut--it is still a style worth experiencing at least once, and probably a handful of times.
Profile Image for Adina .
891 reviews3,548 followers
August 8, 2016
Another example of a good book read at the wrong time. I was in a reading slump and reading this did not help me to come out of it. I forced myself to read and that affected the enjoyment of this SF classic. I liked the idea of reading about a planet where the inhabitants were asexual except for few days/ month when they became either male of female. I just did not feel anything. Well, maybe only that I was bombarded with unknown terms and characters/ places although I have to admit that my attention span was very low.
Profile Image for Bionic Jean.
1,258 reviews1,131 followers
June 29, 2023
Ursula K. Le Guin was an extraordinary writer. Always questioning and challenging boundaries, she loved paradoxes. Her novels are a blend of anthropology, social psychology, and beautiful prose. She treated each story she wrote as a vehicle to explore complex, often difficult subjects, calling them “thought experiments” which presuppose some changes to the world, and probes their consequences.

“I am not predicting, or prescribing,” she wrote, “I am describing.”

The Left Hand of Darkness was first published in 1969 as part of a “series” called “The Hainish Cycle”. (Ursula K. Le Guin remarked that each novel was separate, and they could be read in any order.) In 1970 it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for the best novel, and it remains the most famous examination of androgyny in Science Fiction.

This is not an author who fits neatly into a particular genre. Although the human mind is geared to learn and make sense of the world by classifying and grouping; seeking similarities to the concepts we already know, Ursula K. Le Guin often found this to be limiting, and felt stifled by this process. Yes, The Left Hand of Darkness is a Science Fiction or Fantasy novel; but it transcends the genre. The literary critic Harold Bloom wrote:

“Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time”.

The author’s world-building is remarkable: as wide-ranging and as complex as any I have read. You would perhaps expect no less from the offspring of anthropologists, with a yen for linguistics and culture. There are different humanoids, fantastical names, invented languages, myths, cultures, rituals, traditions and topographies to satisfy any Science Fantasy enthusiast, and enough speculative and analytical elements to spare for a Science Fiction reader. But such labels confine and limit this book, as categorising often does. The Left Hand of Darkness is far more than that.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s books often look at differing social and political systems. The author believed that contemporary society suffers from a high degree of alienation and division, and she explored this idea through her depictions of encounters between races. There are multiple aspects to this, as the author explores the inner and outer self; our perceptions of ourselves both as individuals and as members of a social group: identification versus identity. Much is made of Ursula Le Guin’s Taoism, and there is a duality hidden at the core of The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel portrays a species who are two things at once: they are androgynous. This is a book very much about gender—and yet it is also not about gender at all. So we have another duality.

The novel explores the effect of sex and gender on culture and society, mainly through two characters. We are alerted to the constant tussle we have to discover who we really are, and what gender really means.

Ursula K. Le Guin once famously said “I am a man”. By this she was not referring to any type of gender dysphoria, nor her sexual orientation. (She was a writer; writers are referred to by a male pronoun, therefore, she argued, she must be a male.) She was simply drawing attention to the perception of males as the default—the fact that for most of history the male pronoun encompassed the female—and to a certain extent it still does. We may scrupulously use “one”, or “they”, and briefly there was a fashion for using s/he, but we do not have a convenient gender-free pronoun. Here Ursula K. Le Guin posits the audacious idea (especially for 1969) that gender is irrelevant. In her own words, she “eliminated gender, to find out what was left”.

The inhabitants of the planet “Gethen” are ambisexual humans, but they cannot choose their gender at any point. Their gender is determined by a lunar cycle of 26 days. For 24 of these days, they are sexually latent androgynes: this period is called “somer”. For the other two days they are highly sexual and fertile. During this period, called “kemmer”, their gender becomes either male or female, depending on individual circumstances.

Many regard this as the novel’s most prominent theme. Indeed, for many activists in LGBTQIA+ circles The Left Hand of Darkness has now achieved the status of an early seminal text. Interestingly, early 2nd wave feminists criticised the novel just after its publication. This was partly because the protagonist Genly Ai was male, and male pronouns are used for the Gethenians. It was also thought to be homophobic, which is an extraordinary idea, although admittedly there are no characters depicted as being attracted to each other when their genders happen to coincide.

Perhaps the idea of same-sex attraction did not occur to the author, or perhaps it would just have added another layer of complexity. Mostly though, the criticism at the time was because Ursula K. Le Guin seemed critical of any female attributes in the Gethenians. This blatantly misses the fact that when female characteristics are described negatively, such as “effeminate deviousness”, this is always when they are seen through Genly Ai’s eyes. Another example is: “They lacked … the capacity to mobilize. They behaved like animals in that respect, or women.” Genly Ai is rather misogynistic. But it is absurd to identify a main character with its creator; you cannot criticise an author because you do not like the protagonist’s attitudes, nor should you mistake this for the author’s voice.

Nevertheless, Ursula K. Le Guin felt it necessary to defend her use of masculine pronouns for her characters, in a 1976 essay “Is Gender Necessary?” She wrote that the theme of gender was only secondary to the novel’s primary theme of loyalty and betrayal: another pair of opposites. 25 years later though, she stated that she was still “haunted and bedeviled by the matter of the pronouns”. It is an impossible conundrum of course, unless she had invented a gender-neutral pronoun for Gethenians to use, but she maintained that this would “mangle the language of the novel”.

The dual gender of the Gethenians shows an underlying affinity with Taoism, which influenced much of the author’s work. Most of her stories concern the balance between light and darkness. In Gethen there are two major religions. The main one we come across is “Handdara”, a system reminiscent of Taoism and Buddhism. The other is a kind of inspirational religion, where an adept has an absolute knowledge of everything in time, in one visionary instant. This is “Yomeshta”: Meshe’s cult, founded by Meshe, who was originally a Foreteller of the Handdara. Yomesh is now the official religion in Orgoreyn, and the differences lead to cultural and political divisions between the two countries.

Yet for all this complexity, the novel is not very long; none of this author’s novels are. Not a word is surplus; all is stated in economic poetic prose.

Ursula K. Le Guin asks, what if gender were not fixed, but serially changeable? Is gender truly at the core of the self, or is there a layer deep inside where we are neither male nor female? We examine this question through the eyes of our protagonist, Genly Ai.

Genly Ai is from Earth, or “Terra”. He is acting as an ambassador for an interstellar community called the “Ekumen”. (This was a term coined by Ursula K. Le Guin’s father, who derived it from the Greek “oikoumene”.) They are a loose confederation of planets, who reach out across the galaxy to previously uncontacted worlds, peacefully, in the hope that they will accept their offer of membership.

“One voice speaking the truth is a greater force than fleets of armies.”

Genly Ai has landed in Karhide, a country on Gethen. But he has another challenge. The planet Gethen is deep into an Ice Age, and its inhabitants exist on a small strip of land across the middle of the planet. In fact another name for the planet is “Winter”. Those who are born there are to a certain extent inured to this, but Genly Ai, Earth’s Envoy, is not. Every moment for him is a fight against the bone-chilling cold.

“Winter is an inimical world; its punishment for doing things wrong is sure and prompt: death from cold or death from hunger.”

Genly Ai does not have much to offer. He looks odd to the Gethenians, and they call him a “pervert” (Ursula K. Le Guins’s sly dig at the machismo of her present-day society). Also he can “mindspeak”—a form of quasi-telepathic speech. The Gethenians are capable of this, but have forgotten it aeons ago, so this too only makes him seem more alien to them. His only offering is information, freely given and freely shared. He stresses that he is not there to trade; any interstellar commercial enterprises are impossible. Neither is Earth a threat. There is no thought of invasion, or setting up a military base. Space is too vast, and any visits to Gethen are almost a lifetime in between.

What he wants is an open exchange of knowledge; for his people and those on Gethen, to formally agree to talk, and listen, and learn. The Ekumen’s function is to enable all beings on other planets to help each other develop and grow. But this is a revolutionary concept for Gethenians.

He is on his own.

In Karhide, Genly Ai finds himself trapped between convoluted bureaucracy and a mad king, Argaven Harge. Even if they believe his story, the Karhide people have no interest in alien networking when there are village boundaries to dispute. Local politics underpins all their thoughts and decisions, and Genly Ai learns not to automatically trust any act of kindness.

Genly Ai is also hampered by “shifgrethor”, which is an intricate set of unspoken social rules and formal courtesy, which determines all the behaviour of the people of Karhide. At first he has one ally to explain this to him: Estraven, who is the king of Karhide’s prime minister. Through Estraven’s eyes we witness the limits upon Genly’s world view that his single unchanging gender imposes, and we see the hopelessness of his quest. But can he trust Estraven?

They must do this together; they can only do this together. It is not what is easy. It is what is right. Genly Ai can barely function in the harsh climate. The challenge they have set themselves pushes them to the edge of human endurance.

“How can I guess why Ai must not weep? Yet his name is a cry of pain. For that I first sought him out … hearing talk of “an Alien” I asked his name, and heard for answer a cry of pain from a human throat across the night.”

Even though the different cultures of Gethen oppose each other, they have the same concerns and wrestle with the same questions. Should they go to war, or pursue peace? Should they reach out across their borders in friendship, or build them stronger and higher? Do they wish to stay independent nations, or cooperate as a unified planet? Ursula K. le Guin sought to explore the possibility of an improved mode of human relationships, based on integration and integrity, by eliminating gender from the equation. We see the author challenging contemporary ideas about gender, ethnic differences, the value of ownership, and humans’ relationship to the natural world.

There is no trope such as you will find in many dystopian novels. No evil regime to overthrow by a plucky band of outcasts. Nor a Star Wars type war to decide the fate of the galaxy. No lasers here, but more familiar concepts such as bigotry and political intriguing. There is science, but it is not the science of physics or technology; it is the science of politics, culture and human physiology. Genly Ai has to contend with a quasi-totalitarian state and also a mentally unstable king.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

The Left Hand of Darkness is a book about journeys, both literal and metaphorical. It is that rare and precious thing: an original and mind-opening book. A book which will surprise you, especially when you remember the startling fact that it was written over fifty years ago. In 1969, a story about two people learning to understand each other in spite of cultural barriers and sexual stereotypes was rare indeed. Set this story on an invented world, in a society of people who are gender-neutral most of the time, existing on a small strip of land where the rest is deep into an Ice Age, and your mind is open to many possibilities. As Ursula K. Le Guin herself said:

“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 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.”

So is The Left Hand of Darkness primarily a Science Fiction or Fantasy book, a book about gender, a philosophical novel, or a book about political intrigue? It is all of these and more. The first person narrative switches between two voices, and is sometimes interspersed with snippets of Gethenian folklore, or notes from an earlier, female, representative from the Ekumen.

Ursula K. Le Guin said that she wished to explore the concept of gender, and the way she could do this best was to write a novel. Through storytelling, she invites the reader to question accepted ideas about gender and sexuality which have been handed down through generations. Yet The Left Hand of Darkness also presents us with a complex mesh of interwoven cultures and individuals. To follow the story, we need to understand the inner workings of these societies as well as the individual characters.

At its heart The Left Hand of Darkness deals with questions of fear and mistrust between individuals and nations. And this is a topical subject whenever the book is read. It is interesting to note that no sexual encounters are described in this book; there is no eroticism at all.

Gender issues are discussed far more openly now, but it had been only two years earlier, in 1967 when homosexual acts were partially decriminalised between consenting males in Britain. Talk of wider gender issues was in its infancy. Terms such as cisgender, non-binary, trans or acronyms such as LGBTQIA+ were either not yet created, or largely unknown.

This is an important book; the sort of book which might change you. The narrator says:

“My efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.”

This thread runs throughout the book. Genly Ai—he—spends the entire book roaming around the nations of Karhide and Orgoreyn, and we follow Genly Ai, trying to do just that.

We might already be familiar with ideas such as gender-fluidity and neutral pronouns, but our language does not reflect this; it is a contradiction. Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic is as relevant now as it was back in 1969, when it was first written. It is a catalyst, which changed everything, and its legacy is immeasurable. If it is new to you, please don’t wait too long until you read it for yourself.
Profile Image for Lizzy.
305 reviews166 followers
September 26, 2017
“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.
Is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness only a science fiction story? Far from it, and that is why I enjoyed it so much. Oh, I like reading science-fiction, sometimes just for the entertainment of it. But this goes much beyond that. Different from some reviews, for me it did not seem a feminist advocacy. I would venture and say it is an anti-prejudice assertion. It is just a brilliant, endearing novel about people, relationships, and desires; that leads to insight and questionings on plenty of topics. While we are reading Le Guin's novel, we wonder about the impact of gender on human cultures and dualism versus unity. Even more, the difficulty of being isolated in a foreign land, and how people can survive and interact in such harsh climates. Le Guin discusses sentiments so close to us, such as fear, deception, and misunderstanding; patriotism and power struggles; and last, but not less important, facts versus truth.
No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year.

Le Guin’s narrator is Ekumen’s envoy Genly Ai, a young man from Earth, that is in Gethern, on Winter, to bring the planet to his multi-world federation. The most striking characteristics of Winter is that the whole population are hermaphrodites. And only when in kemmer are either one or the other sex and feel desire. So, the peculiarity is that Genly is always male among people who are each in themselves neither and both female and male.
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.

But at the beginning, Genly is too different and alien for that. He might repulse some of the local population, but there is no closer relationship until later. And enters the main Gethenian character, Estraven, Karhide’s Prime Minister. He is labeled a traitor and has to flee to the entirely different culture of Orgoreyn, where behind every man is the inspector.

Genly and Estraven’s relationship grows from mutual suspicion to a deep friendship, and I found captivating to be along with them as their bond evolves. Much happens, but I loved to read about how Estraven and Genly escape through the freezing environment of icy mountains as they flee Orgoreyn on foot.
And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was.

Differences usually lead to prejudiced, but we are free to act on it or to accept and understand. Le Guin’s creativity and originality coupled with its significance make The Left Hand of Darkness great literature and should not be missed. Highly recommended.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
1,018 reviews1,185 followers
July 12, 2022
This is a very special book to me. "The Left Hand of Darkness" is the book that made me realize that science-fiction (or speculative fiction, or whatever you want to call it) is about so much more than spaceships and aliens, that you can use those tropes to shock your readers into thinking about things that would not have occured to them otherwise, that you can use those wild settings to tweak their perspective on otherwise familiar issues. This book is considered a landmark both in sci-fi and in feminist literature, but I also found it to be a wonderful and enjoyable read. My reviews contains minor spoilers…

As most people know, "The Left Hand of Darkness"'s main theme is gender: a human ambassador named Ai is apointed by the interplanetary alliance Ekumen to the planet of Gethen (Winter), to observe its people, who are ambisexual; this means that they are effectively genderless, expect for a short period (kemmer) every month when their bodies will take on the male or female characteristics and make mating and conception possible. Their society obviously knows no gender-roles (all members of society are active, without one group subjugating the other for any reason) and the views on sexuality are completely different (for example, rape and sexual abuse are virtually unknown there, because Gethinian who are not in kemmer have no sex drive… which also makes volontary sexuality vaguely repugnant to them). Ai is confronted with his predjudices when he gets caught up in the planet's politics and gets to know Estraven, a former prime minister who was accused of treason and exhiled.

If you remove the political subtext, this is already a great story: a snowy planet, an envoy from a distant world, the discovery by the Gethinians that their species might be a genetic experiment conducted by a shared ancestor, a mad king taking impulsive decisions in the midst of a nationalist crisis… Cramming so much in a mere 280 pages is impressive, and if there is anything I could change about Le Guin's books, I would make them longer. I am always a bit sad when they are over… The story has a distinctively introspective tone, as it's told in the form of a report submitted by Ai to an Ekumen council. His strange feelings of alienations are described with great tact and as much objectivity as an amabssador can muster. I love the quiet and contemplative tone of this story right away.

The idea of a people who are male and female simultaneously is not just about gender, it is also about balance and spirituality. LeGuin's interest in Taoism inspired her when she was writing "The Left Hand of Darkness" and Estraven is the incarnation of this idea of unity, of the strength born out of carrying both the masculine and feminine characteristics within oneself. I can't tell you how much I love this idea of balance, it's almost Buddhist simplicity of being "both and one at the same time".

The brewing political conflicts taking place on Gethen during Ai's visit are used to bring the idea of loyalty and belonging into light - another reason this book is so damn clever. The planet has no central government and the different realms see the arrival of this cis-gendered envoy very differently. Some factions want to join the Ekumen, others are afraid of losing their identities by merging into this larger world. The relationship between the two main characters is about the conflict between personal loyalties and duty. Their personal bond, the greater good, Ai's mission to Ekumen: it is hard to make these things fit seamlessly together and sacrifices must be made at one point or another.

The style can be hard to follow at first: Le Guin writes in a very lyrical, often dream-like prose. When you are trying to wrap your brain around a brand new universe that is completely different from yours, this can be a hindrance, and it annoyed me for the first third of the book. Especially when you throw all kinds of weird alien names and concepts at me without any explanations… But after a while, I got used to it and became fully immersed in the Hainish universe and the rest of the book flew by.

Le Guin's imagination in creating this androgynous world fascinated me: we take the gender representations for granted in the way we speak and think so much (even more in French than in English, in my experience): its just a habit of mind and it can be a bit rattling - but also enlightening - to remove that framework. What I love about Le Guin and what thrills me everytime I pick up one of her books, is the incredible humanity she puts on the page. In this book, she takes away the baggage that comes with gender to show the humanity underneath the skin. It made me think about the myriad and often subtle ways the gender divide can be isolating. The poignant realisation that Ai achieves at the end, to see Estraven as simply human, transcending gender, was very moving and bittersweet.

A note about the use of pronouns: as this book was written in 1969, way before neutral gender pronouns were in use, the masculine form is used. I can definitely see why some contemporary readers of this book are annoyed with that. Le Guin later admitted that this was incorrect; she also never went back to edit the book, which actually contains a passage explaining Ai's choice to refer to the Gethinians as "men". Reading this book in 2022 , this detail can feel a little jarring, but it doesn't, in my opinion, take away the meaning and intent of this story, when one considers when it was first written - long before neutral pronoun usage was common.

This is an important, thought-provoking book that refined my definition of human nature. I can't recommend it enough.
Profile Image for Agnieszka.
258 reviews932 followers
March 7, 2018
They say that The Left Hand of Darkness is a landmark in the field of science fiction literature. Albeit such typecasting seems to be unfair simplification and trivialization since that novel goes much further and deeper than any other of that genre. In view of her interests including cultures, ecology, anthropology, Zen philosophy LeGuin writes humanistic science fiction, focused on creating unusual social models and analyzing living in them people. That way The Left Hand of Darkness can be read as a cross between a philosophical parable and anthropological and sociological report, only wrapped up in sf costume.

Main protagonist and narrator ( in fact there are two narrators ), like a galaxy Marco Polo, arrives at the planet Gethen also called Winter. Genly Ai, it’s his name, is an envoy of Ecumen, semi-political, semi-economical organization gathering on a voluntary basis other planets inhabited by humans and which name clearly connotes ecumenism .

He arrives with a mission to the planet Winter, to a country where there are sixty two terms for lying snow, and much more for falling one and ice. To the country ruled by a mad king adhering to specific code of conduct and driven by fear of the new and unknown. Finally, to the country inhabited by androgynous residents what becomes pretext to interesting discussion. What really defines us ? Race, nationality, common history and cultural heritage ? Or maybe gender ? How to find common ground between such different worlds ? Is society in which every parent can be a mother better or worse ? End to patriarchy and matriarchy, end to discrimination, violence or abuse ?

This is a story about loneliness and need for closeness as well. Can you imagine bigger loneliness than two people from different worlds, in a tiny tent in the middle of an ice desert ? So close yet so distant ? But it is also a timeless tale about friendship, about overcoming initial prejudices and distrusts and attempts to understanding and acceptance of the Other. In any context, cultural, sociological, ideological, at the level of faith and knowledge, feelings and views. On getting rid of fear, contemptuous disregard and acceptance of the Other as someone autonomous yet complementary. Like light and shadow.

It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness... how did it go ? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow .

And how significant, how universal in its simplicity is Genly’s observation when, after several weeks of murderous march through the Ice, saw another man, a young, serious face, not a man's face and not a woman's, a human face . It is hard to find more humanistic message.
913 reviews409 followers
October 17, 2009
"Lord help me, I'm just not that bright." (Homer Simpson)

Lots of people have raved about this book, including my friend Dena who read it for a class she took in Science Fiction at U of M. Although I'm not usually a sci-fi fan, I figured I'd try it, especially since she was offering to lend it to me and a free English book is not something you turn down easily in Israel.

I tried. Really, I did. I gave it way, way more than the usual 50 pages I force myself to read before judging a book -- I finally gave up around p. 180 or so. This book is apparently deep and intelligent, which is why I kept pushing myself, but apparently, too deep and intelligent for the likes of me (see above).

The plot, from what I could tell (and it wasn't easy) is about someone from earth visiting another planet in the hopes of including this planet in a growing union of worlds. What makes this new planet unique is that its inhabitants can change their gender, as opposed to being defined by one gender or another (which, I guess, is what makes the book something of a feminist classic although I didn't get a whole lot of feminist insight from it). The narrative is dry and extremely disjointed. It usually reads like a long, boring travelogue, occasionally interrupted by old legends of the planet. Lots of detail and description; not much dialogue or action. Maybe there was psychological complexity somewhere in there, but I just couldn't get past the turgid prose.
Profile Image for Candi.
623 reviews4,719 followers
May 15, 2015
“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.”

This book will really make you think. It will make you consider what it means to be male versus female, and what it means to be human. How do we bridge the gap in differences among cultures and race? How do we learn to trust and earn friendship and love? What does love of one’s country mean?

Charged with the task of adding another planet to the Ekumen, an intergalactic planetary alliance with the goal of protecting and serving mankind, Genly Ai is the sole ambassador to the outlying planet Winter. On Winter, or Gethen as named by its inhabitants, Genly finds a genderless society; one which is neither male nor female but is able to act as one or the other during the phase of kemmer for the purpose of procreation. On Winter, Genly meets Estraven, prime minister or councillor of the kingdom of Karhide. Genly struggles to trust Estraven, who is the one Gethenian who truly favors the alliance and makes it his mission to promote both Genly’s presence and the aim of the Ekumen. Genly admits “Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own… it was impossible to think of him as a woman… and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture: in him, or in my own attitude towards him?” Here Ursula Le Guin takes us on a journey of understanding what it means to be a man or a woman as well as what it means to simply be “human”. Just as a genderless society seems completely perplexing to Genly, Estraven and the other Gethenians cannot quite comprehend the idea of being in a phase of “permanent kemmer”. The king of Karhide himself considers the mankind of the world outside of Winter to be inhabited by innumerable societies of “perverts”. How can one person, one nation, and an entire world bridge such a gap?

For me personally, the most engaging part of the novel was Genly and Estraven’s flight across the stark and harsh landscape of the ice. This became a race for time and a matter of survival. Estraven, accustomed to the freezing climate of Winter, must work with Genly who is not adapted to this glacial reality. Unlike the earlier part of the novel, this part of the story became exciting and the journey perilous. The author wonderfully illustrates a world that the reader can easily envision. Here is where we learn to bridge the gap; in our isolation and loneliness is where we can finally understand our link with all of humanity. I believe that Genly had the most to learn of the two. Estraven is the true hero; he supports Genly from the beginning. Estraven reflects on first meeting Genly Ai: “How can I guess why Ai must not weep? Yet his name is a cry of pain. For that I first sought him out … hearing talk of “an Alien” I asked his name, and heard for answer a cry of pain from a human throat across the night.” Estraven answered that cry with a deep sense of loyalty.

An additional aspect of this novel which I found quite fascinating was the idea of country and patriotism. When thinking about humanity and our role in preserving mankind, this is another component on which we must reflect. “I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what love of country truly consists of… how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?” Genly asks himself this question. Shouldn’t we all ask ourselves this question? If we stop to think about this more often, would this help us to bridge the gaps in our own world? Could we become more accepting of one another? Can we, like Estraven, love our country but not serve it? Could we too serve mankind?

This book left a lasting impression on me and I highly recommend it to anyone that craves one that will make you think deeply for a long time to come. You don’t have to be a science fiction enthusiast to fall for this one. It is not a fast-paced, continuously action-packed novel, but it is one full of ideas about gender, patriotism, humanity, trust, friendship and love. 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews806 followers
May 14, 2017
“It was daunting, also, to me as a novelist. To invent a radically different sexual physiology and behaviour, not just as a speculation, but embodied in a novel, a story about people – people who most of the time were quite sexless but went into heat once a month, one time as a woman another time as a man? To get into the hearts and minds of such strange beings, bring them to being as characters – that would take some skill, not to mention chutzpah.”

So says SF legend, Ms. Ursula K. Le Guin, in her introduction to this sci-fi classic. Fortunately, skill and chutzpah are not things she is short of. The Left Hand Of Darkness is her “thought experiment” to explore the idea of a human society without gender, no men or women, only people—and they are not aliens. The ramifications of this condition are numerous, no war, an odd concept in connection with “saving face”, uncontrollable sexual urges during “kemmer”*, no interest in sex during “somer”** etc.

The plotline centers around Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen (a sort of galactic EU or UN), whose mission is to invite Gethen—a planet in the middle of an Ice Age—to join the Ekumen for various mutual benefits. The trouble is the concept of other planets is unknown to the Gethenians, who do not even have a word for flying, as there are no flying animals or insects on their planet. Air travel is also an unknown concept.

Gethen (A.K.A. Winter) by Freak-Angel56

This means that Genly’s claim to be a visitor from another planet come across as bizarre madness to most Gethenians. To make matters worse, his single-sex makes him a pervert by their standard. The only Gethenian with the imagination to believe Genly’s claim is Therem Harth rem i’r Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide, the country where Genly’s little rocket lands (the Ekumen’s spaceship is orbiting Gethen). Unfortunately, this belief causes poor Estraven to be stripped of his title and exiled. For the sake of progress Genly’s mission must succeed, and Estraven is his only hope.

The Left Hand Of Darkness is a mind blowing, wonderful read. While it is quite short, 276 pages, it is not a book to be plowed through quickly in a couple of days. Le Guin sets a slow, steady pace throughout the book, gradually exploring the setting, the geography, the culture and, of course, the characters.

Speaking of the setting I really like that there are multiple nations on this planet, in every other sci-fi books I have read the authors literally “imagine there’s no country” on alien planets. This makes for an even more detailed and vivid world building. The culture of the Gethenians fascinates me no end, as does their food, religion, limited technology, and strange animals. The non-gender, sometimes dual-gender, people are the most fascinating of all. Even their politics interest me, and I don’t normally like political SF, even Le Guin’s own The Dispossessed is something of a drag for me.

When I first read The Left Hand Of Darkness a few years ago I really liked the beginning and the end of the book, but there is a long section of around 50 pages in the second half of the book that depicts the two main characters’ trek across eight hundred miles of glacier that I found (at the time) to be very slow going, and a chore to get through; much like how our two heroes feel about their journey. However, forewarned is forearmed and I was ready for it this time and tried to concentrate harder while reading this “difficult” section.

Our heroes trek across the vast Gobrin Ice, from one city to another. Click image to embiggen.

To my surprise, I quite like most of it, especially the interactions between the two characters, in isolation from everybody else on the planet. The bonding and lowering of their personal barriers, and the eventual friendship (no, they don’t “get it on”). Their eighty days trek is often quite harrowing and I could almost feel icicles forming on my nose while their journey goes on and on. It does seem interminable at times, but my patience was not overly taxed on this occasion. I felt almost as relieved as Genly and Estraven when their journey ended, and the subsequent plotline is very satisfying and poignant.

I would like to say that I emerged from reading The Left Hand Of Darkness a better and wiser man, but that would be ridiculous. I did feel quite uplifted afterward, though, I almost broke out into a song.

Deservedly a classic, not to be missed.

* kemmer: The period of potency and fertility in the Gethenian sexual cycle, lasting three to five days, recurring every twenty-five to thirty days. (from the author’s glossary at the end of the book)

**Somer: The period of sexual latency and infertility in the Gethenian sexual cycle, lasting 25 to 30 days. (from the author’s glossary at the end of the book)

The Left Hand Of Darkness is part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, a sort of “Le Guin-verse” where most of her sci-fi stories are set (nothing to do with Earthsea then).

• I am not sure why this book is often called a feminist novel. The Gethenians have no fixed gender, and seem to value their occasional maleness or femaleness equally. The advantage of either gender type is not actually discussed.

• My dear friend, and ace reviewer, Cecily doesn't dig it, but then she's crazy my GR BFF so I let it slide. Besides, perhaps her right hand digs it, but her left hand didn't get the memo. ;)

TV series adaptation in the works.
“Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphrodite neuters.”

‘You? No.’ He stared even more closely at me. ‘I don’t know what the devil you are, Mr. Ai, a sexual freak or an artificial monster or a visitor from the Domains of the Void,

“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.”

“Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/ protected, dominant/ submissive, owner/ chattel, active/ passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found.”
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
652 reviews388 followers
January 24, 2018
It has been a bit of a personal project of for the past year or so to sample from the classics of the sci-fi genre. It’s not that I think modern sci-fi is undesirable—indeed, I’m a huge fan—rather, there is a lot of reward in visiting trends in sci-fi from other times, seeing the foundations of modern sci-fi, and having a base understanding of the language of science fiction. Sci-fi is endlessly self-referential and to be well versed in the genre it is almost a requirement that certain books be read. This has led to a sampling of books that have challenged, awed, and befuddled me in equal measure.

One of the treats that has been afforded to me in my readings is a deeper appreciation for sci-fi as a vehicle for any type of story to be told. Thus far, the Penguin Galaxy series has been the ideal selection of classics from which to broaden my horizons. Dune is a spectacle of world-building, a metaphor for climate change, and a thrilling political drama that seems almost a precursor to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Neuromancer presented a drug-addled future in which the lead character is equally as concerned with his next score and lay as the underlying AI-based mystery. It follows then, that Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is of similar experimental pedigree and was nothing at all what I expected.

Genly Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen—your standard giant space empire—to the planet of Gethen, or Winter. He is sent alone, as per the Ekumen custom, to bring the planet into the fold of the interplanetary collective. What makes Gethen such a unique place, aside from the inhospitable constant winter, is the Gethenian people. There are no men, no women, only androgynous beings that assume a gender when they enter “kemmer”, or a reproductive state, which happens on a regular cycle. Thus the world of Winter is unlike our own in climate and culture.

Though there are guaranteed to be thought pieces, theses, and reviews that have put it more eloquently than myself, The Left Hand of Darkness is a different breed of sci-fi. I like to think of it as a more anthropological sci-fi. Genly Ai’s journey to come to grips with a culture that holds no gender roles is more philosophical and emotional than I’d expect from most sci-fi. Where other books would spend time with physical conflict, The Left Hand of Darkness relishes in the expansion of Genly’s personal understanding of gender.

It certainly makes for as topical a read today as it did when first published back in 1969. Gender and sexuality seem to so often fall into circuitous discussions in public and on the internet, and it was a breath of fresh air to read what is essentially a long treatise on what it would truly mean to live without consideration of another human’s genitalia. It also makes for a reading experience that is fairly challenging. Estraven, the Gethenian character with whom the reader spends most of their time, is difficult to imagine. In fact, the struggle to remove my own ingrained perception of gender during my reading of The Left Hand of Darkness stretched my mind in interesting new directions. If the intention is to challenge our preconceived notions of gender, Le Guin succeeds.

Though this is all stimulating, the novel does lack a sense of forward momentum that made it a bit of a drag. In particular, there’s a good stretch in the back half of the novel where Genly and Estraven traverse the hostile world with hardly any provisions. This section seemed to drag on forever, and was infrequently warmed by the romance plot that runs alongside it. Though I kept expecting it, the intimacy here never becomes sexual, but is instead emotional, intellectual, and physical only in the sense of two people physically suffering together.

There is a bit of suffering involved in the reading of The Left Hand of Darkness. I took on the book at a time in which I was too busy to give it its proper due and conjuring a winter wasteland is painful when the summer’s sunlight lands across the book’s pages. It’s a book that’s more satisfying in the abstract than appealing during the actual reading. As an academic exploration of classic sci-fi, it fits the bill even if it doesn’t make for an enjoyable experience overall.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,384 reviews1,649 followers
May 24, 2019
This is going to be an unpopular opinion, most likely, and contain a lot of ranting and criticism of a "classic". Not really spoilery stuff though, because I didn't get that far, and didn't actually see much story to speak of. So... yeah. Here we go. My review likely will be longer than the amount of book I read. Figures.

I have had this book on my shelf for just about 5 years. I've lugged it with me through 2 separate house moves, and it's made the cut during all of the countless purges and reorganizations of my book collections since I bought it. This is supposedly a classic, a masterpiece, a science-fiction fan's must read book. AND, what's more, is that given the current political climate, this book feels like it should be more important than ever, especially considering its commentary on preconceived gender constructs, gender fluidity, and bisexuality. AND this year, I'm trying to read not only more books by women authors, but more books about non- cis male characters and perspectives. Honestly, right now, it seems like it would be right up my alley, as it ticks all of the boxes.

But, I find myself in a position where I hate actually picking up this book and trying to read it. And I did try, as I was doing a buddy read with a friend, and it was my suggestion to read it in the first place. But I'm bored. And I'm annoyed. I wanted to love this book. I wanted to fall in with the Le Guin fandom, and finally understand why she has such an avid fanbase. That was not to be. Not with this book.

I've been reading this book for 10 days, and the biggest chunk I managed in that time was 22 pages the first day - which mostly consisted of intro that I skipped over, because that's what I do. (I don't want to be told about the book before I read it. I want the book to speak for itself.) Since then, I've been averaging 5 pages per day. I made it to chapter 5 last night, and was HOPING for chapter 6, but I hit a section of such staggering sexism that I stopped just a few pages in to chapter 5, put the book down, and decided that I was done. For good.

"He was, as I said, voluble, and having discovered that I had no shifgrethor took every chance to give me advise, though even he disguised it with it's and as-ifs. [...] I thought of him as my landlady, for he had fat buttocks that wagged as he walked, and a soft fat face, and a prying, spying, ignoble, kindly nature. [...] He was so feminine in looks and manner that I once asked him how many children he had*. He looked glum. He had never borne any. He had, however, sired four. It was one of the little jolts I was always getting. Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphroditic neuters."

Then, a bit later on the same page: "But on Gethen, nothing led to war. Quarrels, murders, feuds, forays, vendettas, assassinations, tortures, and abominations, all these were in their repertory of human accomplishments; but they did not go to war. They lacked, it seemed, the capacity to mobilize. They behaved like animals, in that respect; or like women."

That was the last nail in the coffin for me. Probably it was due to the attitudes of the times - this was written in the late 60s, after all, but I just don't have the patience for it these days. I just don't.

The bit up there about asking his "landlady" how many children "he" had is problematic for me on several levels. I have to back up a pace or two and talk about another issue I have with the writing first though, so you'll understand why.

So, in addition to the sexism and pretty clear misogynistic attitudes strewn throughout the small section of this book I actually made it through, there's also some really troubling race related stereotypes, which I just don't get at all. The main character/narrator is described as black. But you wouldn't know it at all from his traits or behaviors - it's only because another character asked him if "everyone else was dark like you" that we know it.

But my criticism isn't really about that, it's more about how HE (or the author*) views the Gethenians. They are described as being "yellow-brown or red-brown". So, similar to Asian or Indian skintones. And then, just... all of a sudden, we're told that Gethenians can't pronounce L sounds, because one of them calls the narrator "Genry" instead of "Genly". So, this is problematic for a couple reasons. (I feel like I'm spiraling here. Every annoyance leads me to yet another and another... But I do have a point, so bear with me!)

1) It strikes me as stereotypically racist, like "Chingrish" - making fun of Asian pronunciation.

2) If the Gethenians can't pronounce L sounds... WHY DO THEY USE THEM SO MUCH? People who have trouble with these sounds usually do so because in their native language, they DON'T USE THAT SOUND, so they are swapping it for something close enough. But apparently, it was much easier for Le Guin to just say that they can't do L's and expect the reader to just be OK with that, despite their language, written and oral, containing a PLETHORA of L sounds. Am I supposed to mentally edit their dialogue myself, alter word choice, mentally find synonyms that fit their language limitations that are apparently just thrown out there but not actually supported in any way by the story or writing or dialogue??

Seriously, this is bothering me. When Genly is waiting on the King's audience, he hears the announcement of Estraven's exile, and later saw a printed version and copied it VERBATIM into the report we're reading:

“'Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, Lord of Estre in Kerm, by this order forfeits title of the Kingdom and seat in the Assemblies of the Kingdom, and is commanded to quit the Kingdom and all Domains of Karhide. If he be not gone out of the Kingdom and all Domains in three days' time, or if in his life he return into the Kingdom, he shall be put to death by any man without further judgment. No countryman of Karhide shall suffer Harth rem ir Estraven to speak to him or stay within his house or on his lands, on pain of imprisonment, nor shall any countryman of Karhide give or lend Harth rem ir Estraven money or goods, nor repay any debt owing him, on pain of imprisonment and fine. Let all countrymen of Karhide know and say that the crime for which Harth rem ir Estraven is exiled is the crime of Treason: he having urged privily and openly in Assembly and Palace, under pretense of loyal service to the King, that the Nation-​Dominion of Karhide cast away its sovereignty and surrender up its power in order to become an inferior and subject nation in a certain Union of Peoples, concerning which let all men know and say that no such Union does exist, being a device and baseless fiction of certain conspiring traitors who seek to weaken the Authority of Karhide in the King, to the profit of the real and present enemies of the land. Odguyrny Tuwa, Eighth Hour, in the Palace in Erhenrang: ARGAVEN HARGE.'

The order was printed and posted on several gates and road-​posts about the city, and the above is verbatim from one such copy."

23 times the L sound was used in ONE proclamation... by a people who supposedly can't pronounce it.

Why would they use words like "loyal"? When there are so many other non-L-containing options?

Why use "exile", when they could say "banish"? Or "shall" (repeatedly!) when "must" fits better with the language of a people who can't say L sounds? It's just laziness, honestly, not to make the effort to fit the language to the rules you yourself invent as the author. And, sorry, but applying that trait AT ALL strikes me simply as stereotypical racism toward "yellow" people.

But... let's get back to my problem with Genly's asking his "landlady" about how many children "he" has, because now I can tie it all together. With the casual racism entered into the mix, it struck me STRONGLY as a privileged assumption made by Genly that the "landlady" would have children (because he's overtly feminine), this assumption based on race and gender stereotypes, Genly viewing "him" as lesser, and so the phrasing of the question is itself offensive. Usually, though, we see this applied to black or Hispanic people by white people, instead of a black person turning it around onto someone else. If you're not familiar - here's what it made me think of (click for a larger version):

To cap it all, this is told in first person, as a "report" to the Ekumenical authorities (or whatever) and I'm really growing to hate this format of books, because so often it forgets what it's supposed to be (an official freaking document) and turns into just a first person narrative. There's nothing wrong with first person narratives. Just. Use. Them. Without the conceit of the "report" structure. This makes TWO BOOKS IN A ROW that get it wrong, and that I've put down at least partly because of it.

Moving on. Every other chapter (at least as far as I made it) was a intermission of sorts, which told a sort of urban legend, cultural lore, whatever you want to call it style story. The first one was about two brothers who fell in love with each other (apparently temporarily cool) and vowed to stay with each other forever (apparently uncool). One brother was distraught by the pressures of society to give up his brother/love, and killed himself, and the other brother was exiled... then there was some surreal stuff, and then a choice. Always a choice.

The second one was about a man who wanted to know his fortune/future, and got the standard informative, technically true, but utterly useless in practical terms style non-answer... sank into a depression so deep that his spouse went to try to get a more precise fortune told, got a similar answer, and then all of them came true, tragically, as is usually the case.

I'm not sure if these tie in to the main storyline in some important way later, but I hope so, as they were the best parts of the book to me. I would much rather have read a full novel of that type, or a collection of Gethen lore stories than read about Genly.

Finally, let's address the elephant in the room, shall we? The gender concepts. Well, I can't really, because it was barely touched on except for some casual misogyny on the part of the narrator, and some small commentary from the Gethenian king about how "perverse" single-gendered beings are.
But... It's strange to me, because it's also mentioned that Gethenians and "Earthicans" (borrowing that term from Futurama, because both worlds' peoples call themselves "human") and all of the other 83 or however many worlds of people all descended from Man. So apparently there's some sort of evolutionary shift that happened only on Gethen to explain the gender and sexual and reproductive organ fluidity that they enjoy. This is not unheard of - there are animals that can shift sexes as needed for reproductive purposes, but apparently it's a super novel and CRAAAAYYYYZZZZZYYYY idea to Genly. He just keeps being shocked by it. I'm sure it was shocking when this was written, but it's not today. And mostly I was just annoyed by his pearl-clutching every time someone acted in a way that didn't fit with his idea of who they should be based on their position or social status. (IE: Men = important people / Women = unimportant, "ignoble", untrustworthy, etc people.)

Somewhere along the line, one hopes that Genly would grow and accept and learn what many in 2019 have, which is that who you are is not dependent on the shape of the bits between your legs. You can have a vagina and still be strong and brave. You can have a penis and still be sensitive and gentle. You can identify yourself according to your own truth, and it doesn't change your worth as a person.

I'm not sure if that happens in this book. I admit that I flipped through and read some sections that come later in the book, and I didn't see anything that suggested it (though there was some other... "interesting" stuff) but that doesn't mean that there isn't - just that I didn't see it. And of course I'm choosing to stop reading to find out for sure.

So, I'm left in a bit of a pickle. I didn't really like this book, and based on what I read, I don't get the appeal at all. For such a "groundbreaking" concept (of its time), what I saw keeps on taking the same worn path.

But I don't need this book to teach me about humanity or acceptance or whatever lesson there might be here. I read widely enough to get that anyway. I was hoping for a story that would make me WANT to explore these themes and... I just feel like that was missing. It was too familiar (Earth, but slightly different), and the familiarity of the people and the attitudes made it hard to accept them as "different" or "other" as I was apparently supposed to. I accepted their nature from the start, so Genly's reticence grated on me, and I lost patience with him, and the book.

So. Maybe a different Le Guin book will be better for me. I won't give up on her just yet.
Profile Image for Markus.
476 reviews1,564 followers
June 9, 2016
Light is the left hand of darkness,
And darkness the right hand of light.

On the distant world of Winter, ambisexual beings have lived in solitude for as long as anyone can remember. This peace is shattered when an envoy arrives from the Ekumen, offering the nations of Winter the opportunity to join a vast alliance of thousands of worlds…

This book was my first foray into the science fiction works of Ursula K. Le Guin, already one of my favourite authors. I did not find it quite as strong as the Earthsea books, but that is mostly a matter of personal preference, as the focus of the books are quite different.

The books in the so-called Hainish cycle are set on a variety of pre-spacefaring planets, and the reader experiences their interactions with the highly technologically developed outside perceived through the eyes of both agents of the Ekumen, the League of All Worlds, and indigenous citizens of the planets themselves. The Left Hand of Darkness is centred around the envoy Genry Ai and his relationship to the fascinating Prime Minister of Karhide, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.

Le Guin’s writing here is very good, but not masterly. The same goes for her setting, her characters and even her storylines. This author’s greatest strength lies in cramming vast amounts of literary value into the space of a mere two hundred pages. And in that aspect I have never seen her succeed like she does in The Left Hand of Darkness.

More than anything, the book theorises on the answers to questions about human nature. What happens to a society in which gender is removed? A society which has no notions of femininity and masculinity? How does it react to the outside after an eternity of isolation? All these questions and more are in focus in one of Le Guin’s most famous novels.

Profile Image for CC.
96 reviews87 followers
May 20, 2023
I liked this a lot for the anthropological exploration of an alien culture, though I have to admit that I didn't feel nearly as much of an emotional impact as most five-star reviews suggested.

This is the first book I've read from Le Guin, as part of my mission to catch up on SFF classics. Incidentally, the main reason that I felt the need to check some of her works off my list is that N.K. Jemisin has named her a major influence, and now I clearly see the proof from just this book alone. The depth of worldbuilding and exploration of humanity is amazing. Even after half a century, the messages on gender and bias are still profoundly thought-provoking, and it's all elegantly delivered through the viewpoint of imperfect but completely relatable characters.

On the other hand, my main grievance with Jemisin applies here as well--this should have been a deeply emotional story, but somehow I couldn't feel it. I could imagine what it would be like to go through all that trauma if I were the main characters, but I couldn't feel it from the words because the writing was just too distant for my taste.

I've been told that Le Guin is great at creating very unique voices for different books though, so I'm curious to see if the next one I pick up will end up leaving me with a completely different impression.
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