60 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 2004
I don't think it's necessary to resort to hyperbole when describing this book. In a word, it's beautiful. The language is intricate and delicate, as is the structure of the novel, the careful building of a mythology and culture from the ground up. The fact that it's a relatively short book is a reflection on Ursula Le Guin's formidable power as a writer: what she accomplishes in a short space is rarely seen in a much larger and weightier novel.
Perhaps the most striking thing about it is the apparent ease with which legend is woven into the fabric of the story, so that the world and its people reveal themselves slowly and naturally to the reader. This many-threaded structure allows the reader to draw conclusions from mere hints, relating the obscure myths to the concrete story at hand. Much is implied without being stated outright, but this never obscures the story; if anything, it makes it stronger, clearer, and deeper.
Every book has the odd quirk, and "The Left Hand of Darkness" isn't without its own. Although thoroughly modern in sensibilty, it was written in 1969, and in one minor way, that does show. To the modern reader, the amount of attention afforded the "unisexual" society described here feels a little bit out of proportion. Obviously our comfort with gender ambivalence and androgyny has increased over the last three or four decades; at any rate, I found no difficulty in thinking of the characters as simultaneously male and female -- it's especially easy to do when the writing is so compelling.
As with many of Ursula Le Guin's other novels, the characters are a bit abstract. This is a result of the author's focus, rather than insufficient characterisation: Ursula Le Guin is definitely an ideas writer, and a language writer, rather than a character wrtiter. It's not that Genly Ai, Estraven and others are not believable; they are. It's just that Le Guin's characters are almost always created and harnessed to serve the story's ideas, rather than the other way around. The focus isn't on the life and times of an individual human being, but on the big ideas involved, and on their implications for mankind as a whole. There are virtually no attempts to dissect and examine any individual; as with the story itself, much remains hidden, hinted at, unknown.
This is not an entire world, it is a single tale, woven from fragments of myth and narrative, but only the relevant ones. You come away satisfied with a beautifully crafted, intelligent, thought-provoking story -- but also, with a sense of having visited a place that keeps its secrets, with people who will keep theirs.
95 of 107 people found the following review helpful
Le Guin is a master of writing; her chosen genre is science fiction, but more with the focus of exploring man's relationship to each other than to explore future possibilities. Nevertheless, Le Guin can create new worlds and new cultures that are unsurpassed by any other science fiction author.
The Left Hand of Darkness is set on Gethen, or Winter, a planet that has arctic conditions most of the year. An envoy, Ai, from the Ekumen of Worlds is sent to explore whether Gethen would join the Ekumen and engage in intellectual exchange of ideas and technology. Gethen is also unique in that the people are unisexual, changing to female or male form on a monthly cycle called kemmer. How Le Guin handles a unisex race is one of the amazing parts of the book.
Ai sets out to live on Gethen, first in the country of Karhide. He attempts to convince the (somewhat mad) king of the value of joining the Ekumen, helped by a counselor of the King, Estraven. But Estraven is undermined by another court counselor and is banished, and Ai is in terrible danger and doesn't realize it. As Ai explores the rest of Gethen and its varied societies, he is helped again and again by Estraven, whom he at first mistrusts. Their heroic trek across the Ice of Gethen reads like the best arctic explorers adventure from Earth.
This is an exciting book, though the beginning is slow, as Ai begins to understand the strange society of Karhide and Gethen. As the adventure unfolds, you will not be able to put the book down. This is a classic that should be read by anyone who loves science fiction, and is a book that can be re-read many times with great enjoyment.
67 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 1999
This book won the 1969 Nebula Award and the 1970 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of the year. I recall first reading this book when it first appeared and being stunned at the originality and the beauty. I have read every Hugo and Nebula winner (and most of the nominees) and this is still near the top. In this classic novel, all of the action takes place on the planet known as Gethen or Winter, a frozen world set in Le Guin's Hainish universe. All of the humanoid inhabitants of Winter are exactly the same as the humans of Earth except in the means of reproduction. They are all of a single sex and can assume either sex when in "heat." If one person of a couple becomes female, the other automatically becomes male. The culture and society of this world is shaped not only by the harsh environment but by this sexual structure. A main portion of the novel is concerned with the trek of a human ambassador and ethnologist, Genly Ai, across Winter's surface with a Getthenian. The man from Earth and the manwoman from Winter grow to know and understand each other. The novel not only raises issues about our perceptions of sex but the problems associated with cultural chauvinism. It is a book that all serious students of science fiction literature should read. For those earlier reviewers who awarded this book a low rating because it wasn't "classic" science fiction, you have to recall that psychology, sociology, and anthropology are all sciences (remember that the author's father, T. Kroeber, was the first Chairman of the Anthropology Department at U.C. Berkeley), just like physics, chemistry, or, in my case, biochemistry. And to the reviewer from Washington, D.C., (of March 3, 1999) who complained that Genly Ai was too uninteresting as the main character. Perhaps that was the point. Have you forgotten your Heisenberg?
65 of 73 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2002
The raging reviews over the billiance of this book and the fact that it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards are what tempted me to buy it at first. I had found the first several chapters to be extremely dull and somewhat trite... It took me a week to drag myself through the beginning. However the character development and plot quickens during the confrontation of the envoy, Genly Ai, and the prime minister, Estraven. After that point the story does get quite interesting and one does become genuinely concerned for the principle characters (I know that I did). Le Guin had made it a point that the characters be as real and as flawed as people are in actuality despite the incredulous setting of their world.
By the end everything makes sense...from the stuffy beginning to even the title of the book itself. This story is a true testament to the universality of human spirit (regardless of the most harsh nature of the environment). Likewise, it reinforces the notion that all people ARE people no matter how odd the culture or how "alien" the appearance. The world she has created feels so REAL even though it is so different!
This book is by no means among my favorites... However, I am glad that I did take the time to read it and that I didn't give-up in the beginning. I'd suggest it for the more patient reader and for people with a relatively mature mindset. This certainly is no action adventure afterall.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2006
The story of human civilization out in the future, sprawled across the cosmos and actually doing quite a bit better than most of us anticipated. There is one unique little world out on the fringe of everything, weather included, called Winter. It is the Siberia of planets, and the people are tough as nails with the little quirk of being kind of hermaphroditic. This is the story of an Observer who becomes involved in the life and politics of the planet, and is a study of human nature, of affection, of emotional paralysis, of tragedy. Science fiction is the backdrop used to make a study of human nature at once more vivid and less biased. It is flawlessly written, and while it is sometimes slow for the 21st century eye, it is a classic example of still waters running deep. And like many agnostics, Le
Guin thinks more about God and eternity than most religious people, never hiding her inverted doubts that maybe there is a God, and allowing this undercurrent of uncertainty to play out in the book. Again, it is a masterful book, but it is not likely to be made into a video game any time soon.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on June 16, 1999
I get cold just thinking about this book. Much of it is a description of trying to survive an incredibly long and harsh journey through endless miles of snow. The interesting ideas about politics and gender seemed brushed aside in favor of lengthy poetic descriptions of snow that even eskimos would find tiring. Better to read "The Dispossessed" or "Four Ways to Forgiveness" by LeGuin.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2009
I had high hopes at the start of this book: I was interested in the characters, enjoyed Le Guin's writing style, and found the plot compelling. But then, somewhat abruptly, the book effectively took a very long hiatus from the plot to explore the two main characters, the culture of the alien world Le Guin has created, and, at great length, gender issues in this hermaphroditic culture. As Lincoln put it: "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like." It's a well-written and thoughtful book, certainly, but I am not among those who like this sort of thing.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2002
(The Left Hand of Darkness is already highly awarded and doesn't really *need* another review, certainly not from an amateur, but I'm writing one anyway.) This book explores several deeply human themes, in the author's beautifully tragic way-- among them, the themes of sacrifice and dualism (or perhaps more accurately, unity at the heart of dualism.)Le Guin's characters are harsh, fallible, heroic, and at essence, human...and once immersed in the painstaking detail of the book, the people of it became knitted close to my heart. The word "transportation" comes to mind: it is so smooth and believable a transition that in surprise you may find yourself on another planet, amongst aliens in the middle of an Ice Age. She is a miraculous, meticulous architect of worlds and culture; indeed did she create these people, on this world, or did she discover them on a visit with her faster-than-light ship? I'm not sure it's legal to copyright an entire existing world, Ms. Le Guin! For it does exist, although admittedly the rest of humanity may not discover it for another five thousand years or so. Not only do her characters and themes lend depth to the book, but every so often one gets the sensation of a fine undercurrent of musical quality to her words, which may echo in one's head long after finishing the book. I hope many other people read this book and enjoy it as much as I did.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2000
Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books that draws you in and makes you forget it is only a story, a work of the author's imagination. But, as the Gethens say, Truth is a Matter of the Imagination, and in fact, Le Guin's imagination reveals a lot of truths about us.
Le Guin declares this book to be a thought-experiment, meaning that it is an exploration of an issue conducted by setting it in a story and letting it run: in this case, to find out what effect sexuality has on our social relations. On one level this experiment fails, because Le Guin herself points out another, more plausible, reason for their social organization and lack of war: the climate. As Genly Ai tells us, the marginal people, the ones struggling to survive, cannot afford to mobilize for war. In fact, this same situation occurs on Earth amongst those that Ai calls "the marginal peoples." In their interpersonal relations, their emotions and their expression, however, Le Guin makes a convincing case for the influence of sexual roles.
But it's also fun to read. This is a fascinating book to read, and the tale is sensually and subtly crafted. The characters are real and complex, and besides the other-worldly setting, there is nothing to disrupt the reader's suspension of disbelief. The ultimate test for a novel, however, is whether, after reading it, we look at our world in a different light. Left Hand of Darkness passes with flying colors.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2002
There is not a lot to be said about Left Hand of Darkness that has not been said at least once by the 97 others to review it. So, I am not going to say how much I enjoyed the book, how provocative the idea of a hermaphroditic society is, how evocative the landscapes are, and how moving the bond that developed between the two main characters. Rather, I am going to let those fans of Julian May who have not read Left Hand of Darkness know that here is the model for everything we love and adore about May. Like May, LeGuin is adept at changing view-points (a rare feat; most writers who try to give multiple first-person perspectives, or interrupt the narrative with asides, fail miserably). Like May, LeGuin has phenomenously captured the male character. Nobody can read May's Rampart trilogy without being astounded that a woman wrote it. The same is true of Left Hand of Darkness; perhaps even more so because reflections on sexuality are a critical element of the story. And, like May, LeGuin creates a world so effortlessly convincing that one almost believes it's right next door. It's the apparent lack of effort that stands out here; LeGuin is able to accomplish in a couple hundred pages what it takes other writers (see Wingrove or Jordan) half a dozen books to achieve. About halfway through I became convinced that May and LeGuin must be the same person . . . .
I do not give out five star ratings lightly. Only one other fiction review has ever received a five-star rating from me, and that's one from Julian May. I wrestled long and hard over whether to accord Left Hand of Darkness the Ultimate Rating. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the only complaint I had about the book was that it was over too quickly. Surely that, as much as anything else, merits five stars.