The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Paperback, 2003


Checked out
Due 26-07-2020

Call number



Call number



Ace (2003)


While on a mission to the planet Gethen, earthling Genly Ai is sent by leaders of the nation of Orgoreyn to a concentration camp from which the exiled prime minister of the nation of Karhide tries to rescue him.

Media reviews

Minneapolis Star-Tribune
An instant classic

User reviews

LibraryThing member kaionvin
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 . 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 it 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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member reading_fox

Perhaps like many of the 'classics' of a genre this is distinctly overrated. Nothing very much happens, to nobody very important or worth caring about. Perhaps the greatest saving grace is it's brevity, readable in a day or two.

I won't bother with all the silly names - a very annoying feature of the book, they are much sillier and harder to remember for the reader than many others in the genre mostly because they are several syllables long, and change depending on who's speaking to whom and how well they know each other - so Our Hero, an Envoy from the galactic federation of 83 planets arrives on the ice gripped planet of Winter. His aim is convince the local governments that joinging this federation is in their best interests. His one aide and the POV in the book, turns out not to be that helpful and eventually our Envoy travels to another government to try his luck with them. And then there is another very long fantasy style Grand Trek allowing the author to show us some countryside and dump tedious exposition about the culture. Then the book ends.

The culture of this foreign world could have been fascinating. It's a wonderful premise, this branch of humanity long offsplit in some unexplained accident or experiment, are unisexed hermaphrodites. Neuter for twenty odd days a month and randomly gendered and active for a few days. This apparently removes much of the 'artifical' 'duality' from "normal" society. Everyone is/was/can be male or female with childbearing responsabilities to suit. However it isn't much discussed. More time is spent on a very cold war style attitude to socialism contrasted with a non-capitalistic beaurocracy, neither having any great attractions, though there is fortunetly no implication that capitalism would be better.

I can fully appreciate that at the time of writing in 1969 this political and social themes would have been quite contraversial and exceptionally well handled. But it hasn't aged at all well and is no more than a curiosity now.

What the book lacks most is any passion whatsoever. If this is a deliberate construct to highlight of the nature of the natives it fails in it's attempt because the 'normal' human doesn't display any passion either. The reader is left ploughing through the descriptively beautiful but ultimately dull ice fields for far too long. Technically it's all very good, the prose (apart from the names) flows well, the descriptions are good, the plot, such as it is just about hangs together, but there is something substantial missing.

Dull. Le Guin possibly at her worst, trying perhaps to make a point but managing neither to do so, or to tell an interesting story at the same time.
… (more)
LibraryThing member EmScape
One of the first science fiction books I ever read. Upon second reading, and now having read the beginning of the series, I found that I understood it better. Science fiction as a genre involves an entirely different set of reading "muscles" than stories set in our own world. I found it easier to get into this time, and found that the thought experiment of a world without gender division was more clearly elucidated. I wasn't as lost in the story, as I knew roughly what happened, and was able to spend more time thinking about the binary and dualist lifestyles of our own world in contrast with that of Gethen.
The other thing that struck me while reading is that I was very glad I was reading it in Florida, rather than back home in Minnesota. The world of Gethen, also called Winter, is in the midst of an ice age, and a large part of the book's action takes place on a long trek across a glacier. I think if I'd been reading it with a blizzard swirling outside my own window, it would have been less enjoyable. I'm rather affected by the setting of the book I'm reading and that wintry setting would have served to intensify my own physical chilliness.
I still rate this book highly, both because of the successfulness of the thought experience, its place as a fascinating book in a compelling series, and that despite quite a lot of world-building, LeGuin still manages to present well-drawn and dynamic characters.
… (more)
LibraryThing member sunny_jim9
Well, this was a very unusual book for me. It was very rich and deep. It took me a little while to get through it, but I'm glad I did! I can certainly see why it's a classic of the genre... very thought provoking and detailed. It must've been quite an extraordinary stand-out in 1969. Ms. Le Guin certainly deserves her excellent reputation, if I may say, having only read this book by her. She doesn't "hold your hand" to initiate you into her world. You're just thrown in and eventually you figure things out through the gradual repetition of alien words and concepts used in context. It truly was like going to a foreign country (alien planet). It was obvious to this sci-fi newbie that it was masterfully done.

There certainly was a lot of detailed description of geography, sociology, and weather. The journey across the ice felt interminable (and a little boring to read at times) but, I suppose it's almost necessary to evoke the right feeling. It reminded me of Frodo and Sam trying to scale Mount Doom.

The shared first person narration was interesting, as was the little interludes concerning Gethenian legends and love stories. I wish I could've read this for a discussion group. There's a lot to "chew on" and there's probably quite a bit that got lost on me. I'll have to settle for reading what others had to say on LibraryThing and Amazon.

I'll definitely read more from Ms. Le Guin.
… (more)
LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
It's a great thing when your main criticism of a book is that it didn't do more of the excellent stuff that it did. The central theme here of an androgynous humanity that goes into heat ("kemmer") and takes on gender characteristics briefly is explored fulsomely in terms of its physiology and psychology (both within the people of Gethen and between them and the "Envoy" Genly Ai, a traditional male who comes from space to inaugurate them into the interstellar order. The jump to sociology is made, though imperfectly--we think of sexual difference as something that breeds difficulty, mars-and-venus stuff, but the machinations of all against all and the extreme concern with a kind of inverse face ("shifgrethor")--not one's own concern with one's own prestige, but one's careful concern to avoid impinging on the prestigelessness of the other (while still living on a planet full of social injustice etc.)--make you realize with, yes, a bit of a chill ("Gethen" means "Winter" and it is a planet of ice) what it might mean not to be purpose-built to love each other physically--what it might mean for anyone to be equally a potential lover or foe, but only the latter role (barring a kind of pairbonding they do do, but that seems a largely private rather than social institution) being a permanent one. This then leading into trying to really grapple with a society that operates without our concern for binaries, where unity is their permanent obsession (a kind of felt Taoism, but really something far far more pervasive and mundane to those who live it)--"the right hand is the left hand of darkness, the left the right of light."

And all of this on a planet where working together is non-negotiable for survival, and where Ai and his Gethenian friend Estraven (who he doesn't even recognize is his friend for tragically long, since the latter is trying to patiently, toughly work to make Ai's mission a success and effect the contact between planets within the constraints of shifgrethor, and Ai doesn't get it at all and just sees him as a cold, ambitious politico and a user) take their epic trek across the ice (Le Guin missing her chance to make sexy SF history by not having them sleep together, but they do talk about it and maybe I'm not getting how discouraging her choice would have been to young queer and trans SF readers in the seventies looking to find reading, finally, that tries to speak, in a way, to that part of them, or just to invent not only "soft" SF but intergalactic slash fiction.

That's all great, and if the nationalist plot leaves me cold--a planet of androgynous unity fanatics/suspicious monads is not where I want to go to get my story of two mighty nations divided by a mutual hatred--we can let that pass. No, what I wanted was more culture--to visit the other nations of Gethen, learn not only about their religion (a cultural phenomenon sure but one so supersaturated with psychosocial significance that it gets deployed in the service of the main big themes, directly--we end up with the Taoist-analogue future predictors and the weird Jesus-style monopositivist cult, which plays into the plot of nations but seems basically irrelevant and out of place given the book's themes) but about their, oh, classical dance, pop music, philosophy of science (like, Ai's comment on how it's so amazing that the Gethenians came up with a concept of evolution being the only mammals on the planet is a great start, but then it just goes back to the big theme of their aloneness), publishing industry, websites. Gethen is a low-wealth place focused on survival, but it is an advanced society, and I just wanted to see Le Guin make it sing. She may not have intended to, per se--this is like an essay in fiction--but she does such a good job at that essay that it makes you want to see Gethen given a life in full.
… (more)
LibraryThing member spiphany
I've read this three times and feel like I'm finally beginning to understand it. For some reason I've always found Le Guin's Hainish novels rather slow going, which isn't typical for me. But I've found that her work grows on one, and I've gradually come to appreciate the craftsmanship.

There's so much packed into the pages that perhaps it's not surprising the story sometimes seems rather dense. In Winter, Le Guin has created such a detailed world - I can't think of any other fictional world that is so fully, so completely realized. The society is heavily governed by rituals, every action is governed by the rules of 'shifgrethor' - that is, guarding against loss of face. Most of the story is told from the point of view of an off-worlder, Genry Ai, who (like me, I suspect) often finds these people baffling and impenetrable. Mixed in with his narrative are documents - transcriptions of folklore, scientific notes from the first team to visit Winter. And eventually, the journal of Argaven, who becomes his protector, and whose life oddly parallels a story from the local myths. Running through the book, as with many of Le Guin's works, is a vein of Eastern mystic philosophy: even outside of the religious communities, the Fastnesses, whose goal is to find uncertainty, nothingness, this worldview permeates the entire society of Winter.

Underlying all this, of course, is the element usually remarked upon first: the inhabitants of Winter themselves, who are androgynous. Le Guin uses this to explore not sexuality per se, but gender, and how it dominates even the smallest aspects of our perceptions and interactions. She manages it so well that the reader comes to share some of Genry's change of perspective when, at the end, he sees this unsexed state as being natural, and ourselves as trapped within a divided, unnatural state.

It's impossible to really do this book justice. Le Guin intertwines all these elements so well into a whole, the end of the story oddly reflecting the beginning. Part of the fascination is how everything works together, and seeing how it can be read on so many levels. Certainly it's the sort of thing you return to, finding more in it each time.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ladycato
This was my first time reading this classic work of science fiction. Genly Ai is an Earth-bore ambassador for a confederacy of planets called the Ekumen. He is on the planet Gethen, which is locked in a persistant Ice Age, in order to introduce himself to the governments and hopefully open the way for trade and cultural exchange. The people on Gethen are androgynous without any sexual urges except for the one time each month they enter kemmer; for that time, they can turn either male or female and cause or be impregnated. Genly is indeed very alien to them being in constant kemmer, and thus is labeled a pervert. Even worse are the politics within the countries, where no one is willing to openly accept such a bizarre creature from another world.

I admit, I hard a hard time getting into the book. The first half is all world-building, and almost nothing happens. After that, it becomes a deeper tale of survival and all of that earlier world-building pulls together. In hindsight, it forms a cohesive book that comments on how people perceive each other and what it means to be human despite great differences. I'm a fast reader, but those first 100 pages were slow and painful. If this hadn't been a classic, I might not have read it through. However, I'm glad I did.
… (more)
LibraryThing member trixtah
"It is yin and yang. 'Light is the left hand of darkness.' ...Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. ...Both and one. A shadow on snow".

This is one of the seminal works in science fiction. The Taoist imagery that Le Guin often employs is made explicit in the quote above, and is a theme throughout the whole story.

An envoy from earth visits a frozen world, where the inhabitants are a neutral gender most of the time, but go into "kemmer" (season) and develop secondary sexual characteristics at long intervals. An individual does not necessarily go into the same gender in the kemmer state.

This is a fascinating exploration of culture shock, assumptions around gender, honour and politics. It was ground-breaking at the time, and still holds up that way even now. I find the lead character fairly boring (but a lot of Le Guin's characters hit-and-miss for me much of the time), but the Gethenian character, Therem, is incredibly compelling.

Also, like nearly all of Le Guin's works, there is the elegant prose, and the fantastic world-building.

Le Guin has commented elsewhere that she regrets using "he" throughout to refer to neutrally-gendered characters. "She" may have been more challenging in the late 60s, I suppose, but I am personally glad Le Guin didn't use some made-up construction (I haven't seen one I like yet). She also says she wrote it because the phrase "The King is pregnant" popped into her head. Yay for serendipity.
… (more)
LibraryThing member catalogthis
One-sentence plot summary: a human emissary arrives on the ice planet Gethen, populated by a people who are neither male, nor female, but both, and neither.I struggled through the beginning. Le Guin gets so enthralled with her own world-building that she neglects to provide her audience with a primer... the result is that the first few chapters read like Science Fiction Mad Libs, for example: "He {verb?}ed across {place?} in {month? continent? weather? vehicle?}. After I reached the end, I re-read some earlier passages and found them much easier -- like sledging during kroxet in Thern.Ultimately, what I found most interesting wasn't the ambisexual nature of Gethenians, but the contrast between the two primary states: Karhide and Orgoreyn. The former is "not a nation, but a family quarrel," while the latter is most definitely a nation, with all its attendant bureaucracy and xenophobia. As the primary narrator, the human Envoy, says: "I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of... and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?"… (more)
LibraryThing member saltmanz
I forget how I heard about this book; it was either through LibraryThing or the Malazan forums I frequent, but it was supposed to be classic sci-fi (and it won the Hugo and Nebula) so I put on my want list. I picked it up for 75 cents last week during a Half Price Books sale, and read the whole thing yesterday while home from work sick.

And I have to confess, I came away a bit disappointed.

It was a decent read, don't get me wrong. (Hence my 3.5-star rating.) But I think I expected more than Le Guin delivered. From all I'd read, this book was supposed to have a brilliantly-conceived alien race and an intriguing look at a society where every person is both male and female at the same time, changing to one or another during a monthly cycle, but spending 5/6 of their lives in a state of androgeny. I honestly didn't find the premise that intriguing (was I going to be lectured about sexuality?) but I'd read so many good things about the book that I dove right in.

And I guess I don't see what all the fuss is about. Yeah, the aliens are unisexual (or whatever) but that's just background. The bulk of the plot has nothing to do with gender roles in an alien society, and everything to do with political manipulations between two rival countries. And even that would have been interesting had it been driven by the complexities of alien minds that are wired completely different than humans'. But it wasn't.

The book is over 40 years old, so apparently it was pretty revolutionary when it was first published, but it doesn't amount to much more than a quick, entertaining read by today's standards. If the book had been written today, I would expect our human protagonist to come up against some puzzle or conflict, the key to which lies in comprehending the nature of aliens who are both genders simultaneously. But nothing like that exists here, rather it's all just an interesting backdrop for a fairly routine story. And certainly not as interesting or well-constructed a backdrop as that of, say, "Dune" (as the cover blurbs insist.)

My biggest complaint: the protagonist has telepathic powers that are mentioned a number of times, but never actually used to do anything, nor do they affect the story in any way whatsoever. I have no idea why they were even included. Oh, and the story is set on a planet that's in perpetual winter: there's a trek across the snow and ice that seems to take half of the book (though really, it's closer to a third.)

In conclusion: it's a good story, but certainly not all it's hyped up to be.
… (more)
LibraryThing member wenestvedt
What didn't I get about this examination of a society in which gender doesn't exist (allowing us to reexamine our own construction of the idea of sexes)? I've read it twice, and didn't care much for it either time.
LibraryThing member aleahmarie
I can't say enough good things about Ursula K. Le Guin's novels. Her Hainish Cycle is a credit to her craft. Not a traditional series, the Hainish Cycle is a collection of novels about various worlds who share an ancient connection to the Hains. Our planet, Terra, is one of many planets that was seeded by the Hains eons ago. The children of Hain have evolved separately on their many different worlds. Each as unique as a snowflake.

The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of the first human emissary on the planet Gethen. He has been sent by the Ekumen, a federation of worlds, to establish relations with the Gethenians and invite them to join the Ekumen. This emissary, Genly Ai, arrives alone. Isolated from all he knows he struggles to learn the rules of a very foreign world, nearly losing it all in the process.

Reading any work by Le Guin is marvelous. She creates new psychologies, new cultural norms, new politics, even new genders. What might, under a less skilled hand, be confusing and disjointed comes together fluidly and convincingly. A must read for fans of speculative fiction.
… (more)
LibraryThing member DanTarlin
I decided to read this book again- I did so 30 years ago when I was in college, and didn't remember anything about it except that I liked it back then. At that time, I read a bunch of Leguin's books, and liked them all; my memory is that her stories all center on arduous physical journeys, and this book certainly has that.

Genly Ai is an envoy of the Ekumen, a loose confederation of worlds, and he is the lone envoy on a cold humanoid world nicknamed "Winter" by his people due to its unpleasant climate. Winter is populated by people who have somehow evolved as sexually neutral; they are generally asexual, but when "in kemmer" (kind of like being in heat) they develop either male or female genitalia and can either sire or carry a child depending on with whom they couple.

The sexual life of the people on Winter obviously has lots of implications for their culture, which Leguin threshes out to a degree, but which could have been fleshed out even more.

The world is divided into a few distinct countries; Ai starts off in Karhide, a monarchy in which the king replaces his prime minister, Estraven, early in the book, and banishes him. Estraven and Ai both go to the neighboring country, which seems like a communist place based on the Soviet Union (the book was written in 1969). There, Estraven is safe but Ai falls victim to political intrigue and ends up in peril.

The rest of the book consists of a lengthy and perilous journey that I won't spoil.

This book won the Hugo and Nebula awards, and is a classic in the genre. Leguin is great at world-building, and the characters are interesting. Sometimes she goes a little heavy on foreign (made up) words with explanations that are a bit vague (though I don't doubt they're not vague in her mind), making it difficult to follow.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ryvre
After all I've heard about this book, I was underwhelmed. I spent most of the book wondering when it would get interesting. The world is pretty cool though.
LibraryThing member Garzo
A few months ago, Alicia asked me why science fiction was such a boy thing and what is the point of the genre. I cobbled together an answer about science fiction being used to create a narrative space removed from the here and now into which pertinent questions and ideas can be tried out. Science fiction might not be science, but it does have an experimental edge. As for the boyish enchantment of the genre, I imagine that it has something to do with love of grand ideas and machines rather than human relationships and emotions. Then I remembered reading somewhere about women’s science fiction, and yet still feminist science fiction. A quick web search led us to Feminist SF, and I recommend a browse.

I have long been a fan of Ursula LeGuin, since reading her Wizard of Earthsea at primary school. I was enrapt by her bringing imagined cultures and worlds to life through her writing: a skill, I later learned, was informed by her understanding of anthropology. Quite apart from Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness is considered a cornerstone of feminist science fiction: not only does LeGuin conjure up a fascinating world in which to immerse the reader, she also asks us to think deeply about sex and gender.

The Left Hand of Darkness is about Genly Ai, a man sent as an envoy of a collectivity of human-inhabited planets called the Ekumen to an arctic world they know as Winter, and known to its inhabitants as Gethen. The book is an account of Ai’s mission to Gethen to begin interplanetary dialogue. Interleaved in Ai’s account are logs from a previous investigative mission, collected folk tales and the excerpts from the diary of a Gethenian friend. These help to give the reader a number of points of views in parallel. This is not Flash Gordon territory: Ai has no ray gun, his ‘ship’ is impounded in a Gethenian warehouse, he’s black, and the Gethenians, while fairer skinned, are not white.

The Gethenians are human, but with one major difference: they are ambisexual. In Gethenian society there are no men or women, just people, and each has the potential to father or mother children. Most of the time, Gethenians are in an androgynous, neutral state, but once every 26 days they enter kemmer, a state of sexual readiness. In kemmer, a Gethenian becomes temporarily male or female based on hormone levels, and there is no telling which one might become, except that kemmering pairs tend to go into kemmer together and as opposite sexes. Lineage is traced through the parent of the flesh (‘mother’). There is no marriage, but an informal vow of kemmering exists for long-term partnerships. Employers give each employee leave from work during each one’s kemmer, a kind of romance/sex holiday. Friendship becomes a serious business, when any good friend could be one’s next sexual partner. Prostitution is absent from Gethen, and unpaired kemmerings can go to their local kemmer house to satisfy their needs with others.

It is certainly intriguing to dive into this thought-experiment of a world without gender. LeGuin skilfully spins this tale as neither a utopia of gender barriers overcome or a dystopia of circus oddities. In fact, the Gethenians consider Ai, who ‘carries his genitals always outside of his body’, a pervert for his permanent masculinity. Through Ai’s eyes, we see that it is not easy at all to overcome this ingrained bipolar distinction of sex. Ai is appalled to see politicians, whom he thinks of as men of power, gossiping and plotting like old women. He sees his landlady as an old woman, but, when asking her of her children, is surprised to hear that she has never borne a child, yet has sired two. He is amused to hear the king is pregnant. His difficulty is ours, always having to define each action, word or appearance as masculine or feminine, despite knowing that such terms are meaningless. At one point a Gethenian innocently asks Ai what women are like. He struggles to describe the whole idea so taken for granted by him, yet unknown to the questioner. In the end he is limited to meaningless generalisations, ‘They tend to eat less’.

When one becomes more accustomed to the situation on Gethen, philosophical issues begin to be seen. The fact that any Gethenian can be pregnant makes them less free than men, yet because this might happen to anyone they are more free than women. In fact, Gethenian life tends to be communal, centred on the ‘hearth’, a partially related group of Gethenians raising children together. However, a darker side of Gethenian communalism is seen in the labour camps for undesirables. The lack of sexual dualism also leads to lack of dualism in other areas. The old Gethenian religion is based on nothingness and praises ignorance, seeing them as just as important as existence and knowledge. For Gethenians, the undivided whole is important: the unity of darkness and light. On Gethen, there is no sense of Other. This means that there have be no real wars in their history, just the odd skirmish, foray or assassination. Likewise, the lack of sense of Other makes Gethenians uninquisitive, developing technology at a slow, steady pace. The cult of Yomesh, a younger religion, is gaining pace, bringing nascent dualistic thought to Gethen. Along with comes technological advancement, but also a jingoism of the need to prove superiority over the Other.

I finished the book with a sense of how deeply our division of sex and gender influence the smallest parts of our lives. I imagine LeGuin would have written The Left Hand of Darkness differently today. It was originally written in 1968, and its stance is neutral and open, certainly not feminist flag waving. However, I found this open approach, not pushy or preachy, to be the more compelling. How does sex shape our minds, our world?
… (more)
LibraryThing member xicanti
A human amassador named Genly Ai comes to the planet of Winter, where gender is nonexistent.

I want to start off by saying that I’m glad I read this book. I got a lot out of it, and I found Le Guin’s writing as lovely as always. However, the book made me think rather than feel, so I fear my review may seem rather critical. I don't intend to nitpick; this is just me engaging with the text.

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS isn't really about the plot or the characters; rather, Le Guin takes an idea and runs with it. She uses the entire book to explore notions of gender as a social construct, and I don’t think she does a bad job of it. I did, however, find her conception of gender a bit dated. The Gethenians are supposedly both male and female, with no predisposition towards behaviors we consider either masculine or feminine, but Le Guin still treats male as the default. Everyone is ‘he.’ There are Lords and Kings and brothers and sons. Furthermore, Ai attributes stereotypically masculine behaviors to almost everyone he comes across. When he does recognize stereotypical femininity in his acquaintances, he treats it as a negative because he views these people as male, above all else.

I was willing to overlook this, given that Ai is a foreigner who comes from a culture that holds particular views on masculinity and femininity. He can’t help but impose his own worldview on everything he encounters, and his views do evolve as the book progresses. The terminology is all in translation, too, within the context of the novel; Ai may say King and son and he, but those are just his (loaded) translations of the terms the Gethenians use.

But a couple of chapters in in, Le Guin begins showing us events from a local's perspective… and ‘he’ seems to hold similar views. Estraven (the local) is certainly not as extreme as Ai, but ‘he’ still displays many of the same attitudes. ‘He’ attributes many stereotypically masculine behaviors to ‘his’ fellows, and ‘he’ describes them using the same masculine terminology (which we’ve already established is in translation, if still heavily loaded towards the masculine norm).


Now, I’ve only read this book once, and I don't hold it near and dear to my heart. I know many of you do. That said, my one-timer’s opinion is that THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS isn’t so much about a society divorced from gender-based behavioral patterns as it is about a society in which male individuals are in no way penalized or looked down upon for embracing female sexuality.

It does make for some interesting reading, and Le Guin’s writing is just beautiful. But, as is almost always the case with her work, I felt too distanced from it to really commit to the ideas. I rarely feel strongly about books where the characters are just a vehicle for a concept. I want to believe in these people. I want to get caught up in their struggles. I want to bawl my eyes out when things go badly for them.

I couldn’t do so here. I didn’t really care about either Ai or Estraven. The ideas in play are interesting, yes. I got a lot out of them, and out of this book. I enjoyed it. But I was never really engaged; I never felt the story.

I’m glad I read this, but I don't think I'll feel the need to revisit it.

(A slightly different version of this review originally appeared on my blog, Stella Matutina).
… (more)
LibraryThing member kell1732
Finding female authors in the science fiction genre can be a challenge (which is highly unfortunate since some of the best science fiction I've read has been by women) but for some reason it took me a while to actually pick up an Ursula Le Guin book despite how much I had heard about her. After reading this book, I kind of fell in love.

I always appreciate those science fiction novels that also have something highly important to say about today's world. Despite the fact that the settings are in different times and often different planets, the parallels are still drawn and are often simultaneously enlightening and terrifying. The Left Hand of Darkness is no exception to this. Le Guin manages to both set up a whole new world in enough detail that we can really see this world as existing while at the same time making comparisons to the world we live in today. Not only do we see similarities between Winter (the planet in the novel) and Earth, but the differences are striking enough to raise questions about how our society works as well, especially on questions of gender identity.

On Winter, everyone is male, until they reach a stage called 'kemmer' in which one partner basically grows the necessary parts in order to reproduce. Basically, they become female for the duration of 'kemmer' and pregnancy. This in itself was interesting, but what I found was the best part was how Genly, the envoy from Earth, reacted to this phenomenon. Not only was he fascinated at how differently sexuality played into this society than our own, but it also becomes evident that Genly has his own biases and stereotypes that he attached to the female sex, despite the fact that he is from our future (or at least that is assumed). Conversely, the Gethenians find his ideas of sex and sexuality strangely perverted and don't understand how he could possibly live his life in perpetual 'kemmer'. (Gethenians only feel sexual desire during 'kemmer' and it is often a cause of great stress.) Their ideas of monogamy are also quite different from our (American) societiy in that monogamous couples are quite rare and sometimes looked down on. Genly constantly struggles with navigating in a world so vastly different from his own not only in customs but in ideas of sexuality. This is a fairly constant theme throughout the book and it is fascinating how Le Guin's often subtle examinations of these differences can be so impactful.

Overall, this book was not only a great look into a whole new imagined world, but an insightful and thought-provoking look into our own. I applaud Le Guin on this marvelous achievement and am looking forward to reading so much more of her work.

Memorable Quotes

"The only thing the makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next."

"He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make people into a nation: war. His ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound. The only other means of mobilizing people rapidly and entirely is with a new religion; none was handy; he would make do with war."

"He was a hard shrewd jovial politician, whose acts of kindness served his interest and whose interest was himself. His type is panhuman. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell."
… (more)
LibraryThing member narwhaltortellini
(As usual, when I like something I don't know what to say about it, so put off reviewing till months go by till I REALLY can't think what to say on it. But in the spirit of if not reviewing at least leaving some commentary for those with similar interest in reading this book as I had...)

The idea of using a story about a person like us going to a planet with no gender in order for the author to explore how gender dualism affects the way we think sounds like a very interesting thing to me, but in the end I like novels centered on characters and their relationships (probably with a little action on the side) more than ideas, so I put off reading this one. But after reading reviews (as well as picking up from comments of the author herself) and getting the idea that this in fact was, at its heart, a story about two people and how they learned to relate to one another and become friends (amidst all the cool idea exploration) I became very excited to read it.

Now having finished, I can say this is indeed what the story is ultimately about, but...the amount of pages devoted to the development of this aspect (the characters' relationship) may be less than you'd think for the first half. Also, it still feels to me as if the book is more about using the characters as tools to explore its ideas than about them as people first and foremost, as I was lead to believe. We actually don't learn a lot about them, their quirks or likes or anything, besides what is applicable to what the author is trying to look at about society or our psychology and such.

Still, there's a lot to understand about these characters even through just that lens. When they were interacting I was happily engaged (sucker for male friendship stories that I am...or, er...male and...other. Let's just say any relationship with a male in which romance is not an assumed inevitability), and when not it was often still at least interesting, and even had quite a bit more...actioney-scenes than I expected. (Though it's still very much more a somber, thoughtful book than some sort of rollicking adventure, even if a description of the events might almost make it sound like one.)

Even if the focus wasn't quite like my personal hopes (and even if the ideas, while still extremely relevant, aren't so cool and daring as they may once have been. and even if the exploration of them is somewhat muddied by the fact the genderless characters all come off as a shade maleish rather than neither gender or both), this was still for me by far and away one of the most interesting, most memorable, and even most enjoyed novels I've read for some time. It's one of those frustratingly good stories that leave me lonely after I'm done, missing the characters I've spent so much time with and wanting them back.
… (more)
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
This story involves the planet of Winter, whose inhabitants have no fixed gender. The story is told party through a report by Genly Ai, a human envoy sent to try to convince the planet to join an interstellar federation. He's our eye into one of the most fascinating and unique of alien worlds--an unreliable narrator for much of the book, who makes all the (wrong) assumptions we might. We also get diary entries by a native of the land, Estraven. Interspersed between those narratives are myths and legends that give a texture to the cultures central to the tale. This is one of the great science-fiction novels of all time that examines a lot of the issues surrounding gender, prejudice and identity--it's specifically considered one of the great feminist science fiction novels but I don't think it's at all heavy-handed but above all a involving and moving story set in a intriguing world. Le Guin is one of the best science fiction authors out there, one who is actually a fine stylist and much of the prose is a thing of beauty.… (more)
LibraryThing member lycomayflower
Had a good deal of trouble with this one. The writing was good, and sometimes rose to beautiful sentences, and I found the social and cultural commentary interesting and the world-building fascinating. But I just couldn't get into the story properly and sometimes had difficulty understanding just what was going on. Husbeast enjoyed it much more than I did, and on that strength (and my happiness with the writing itself), I will be giving Le Guin another go at some point.… (more)
LibraryThing member clong
I liked this book very much. From a pure storytelling point of view Le Guin presents a clean, well-constructed narrative about great events experienced by a small group of characters. The story flows through a series of episodes, the most compelling of which is a journey through an impassible arctic wilderness. The characters are well drawn and sympathetic, despite some challenges Le Guin set for herself in defining the inhabitants and society of the planet Winter. But it is as a novel of ideas that The Left Hand of Darkness really shines. This is a book that takes on some very ambitious challenges, and largely succeeds in addressing them. It will certainly make you think about the nature of humans as individuals, social groups, and members of society as a whole, not to mention providing some very original insight into how gender impacts virtually everything we do. Much thought has clearly gone into developing the political, social and sexual structure of the truly unique world of Winter, and the peoples who live upon it. Many people love this book; for others it heads directly into territory that seems out of place in a science fiction novel. But everyone should read it. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member devilwrites
This is a quiet book. It's all character, place, and thought, with little action (as in big action scenes). This book was so compelling to me for its anthropological study, as well as Le Guin's ability to interest me in the actual setting of the novel. All setting is an important, integral part of the story, as well as a symbolic one, which made reading it an absolute joy.… (more)
LibraryThing member stuart10er
A planet called Winter is populated by humanoids of a single gender that splits once a month into a female or male version in order to reproduce. An envoy from Earth journeys there to bring them into the fold of the Ekumen (the consortium of the human planets). The planet has two major governments - the Envoy leaves the one after his advocate is banished - and runs into trouble in the other. I enjoyed it - but it isn't the same level as Dune - the other joint Hugo/Nebula winner from a NW resident.… (more)
LibraryThing member Ailinel
I first read The Left Hand of Darkness as part of a science fiction honors course. It remains one of the most profound and memorable reading experiences of my life. In many cases concepts put together a half century past have been taken further by more recent authors. Le Guin's world remains un-copied and unsurpassed.

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, the novel primarily alternates between the perspectives of Genly Ai, first representative of the Ekumen on the planet Winter (Gethen) and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, prime minister of Karhide. Other chapters tell myths and legends of Winter, or reports from earlier Ekumen observers. Le Gin creates a fully realized world. Her characters and societies are utterly human and form as poignant a backdrop for Genly's travels as does the ecological landscape of Gethen, a planet as beautifully described and utterly desolate as Frank Herbert's Arrakis. Genly, though he believes himself to be open-minded and accepting, cannot help but put the primarily gender neutral Gethenians into a dualistic paradigm that does not apply to their society, and he unconsciously reacts to them depending on how well they fit with it or in what ways they violate it. Only on the long trek across the ice is he finally able to see Estraven as he is-- simply as a human-- and by the final scene Genly's perspective has become so native to Gethen that his own shipmates seem wholly alien to him.

Estraven is the second voice of the novel and acts as Genly Ai's unwavering supporter. He is highly intelligent and very curious. He is protective and fond of Genly, who he sees as remarkably innocent and frail yet incredibly brave. Throughout the novel his love for Gethen prompts him to help Genly despite the personal cost of his actions. He is the one person on Gethen wholly willing to give of himself to help the Envoy and to open relations with the Ekumen.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a social statement. It is a political commentary, and it is a philosophical proposal. It questions everything from gender to history to mythology to religion through its creation of a world alien to our own-- a world that lacks the dualism inherent in Western thought and where 'manliness', 'beauty', and other gender attributes mean nothing. As one of the early Ekumen observers notes, "one is represented and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience." The novel has aged well and will continue to do so. It is utterly vibrant and achingly beautiful. Like The Dispossessed, it answers (and asks) enough without resorting to telling everything.

Le Guin has also published two short stories that take place on Gethen: "Winter's King" and "Coming of Age in Karhide".
… (more)
LibraryThing member WolfRising
This book has more breadth and depth than can be absorbed in one reading, and I have re-read it several times over the years. It seamlessly weaves fresh thoughts on so many issues (gender, social "norms", mythologies and spirituality (e.g. unknowing), first contact protocols, political bureaucracies, and more) into the personal stories of Genli and Estraven. Better than any other author I know, LeGuin opens up new vistas for seeing our own world in new ways. Thank you!… (more)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

304 p.; 7 inches




Page: 0.6749 seconds