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The Left Hand of Darkness Mass Market Paperback – March 15, 1987

4.2 out of 5 stars 412 customer reviews
Book 4 of 7 in the Hainish Cycle Series

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Genly Ai is an emissary from the human galaxy to Winter, a lost, stray world. His mission is to bring the planet back into the fold of an evolving galactic civilization, but to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own culture and prejudices and those that he encounters. On a planet where people are of no gender--or both--this is a broad gulf indeed. The inventiveness and delicacy with which Le Guin portrays her alien world are not only unusual and inspiring, they are fundamental to almost all decent science fiction that has been written since. In fact, reading Le Guin again may cause the eye to narrow somewhat disapprovingly at the younger generation: what new ground are they breaking that is not already explored here with greater skill and acumen? It cannot be said, however, that this is a rollicking good story. Le Guin takes a lot of time to explore her characters, the world of her creation, and the philosophical themes that arise.

If there were a canon of classic science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness would be included without debate. Certainly, no science fiction bookshelf may be said to be complete without it. But the real question: is it fun to read? It is science fiction of an earlier time, a time that has not worn particularly well in the genre. The Left Hand of Darkness was a groundbreaking book in 1969, a time when, like the rest of the arts, science fiction was awakening to new dimensions in both society and literature. But the first excursions out of the pulp tradition are sometimes difficult to reread with much enjoyment. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness, decades after its publication, one feels that those who chose it for the Hugo and Nebula awards were right to do so, for it truly does stand out as one of the great books of that era. It is immensely rich in timeless wisdom and insight.

The Left Hand of Darkness is science fiction for the thinking reader, and should be read attentively in order to properly savor the depth of insight and the subtleties of plot and character. It is one of those pleasures that requires a little investment at the beginning, but pays back tenfold with the joy of raw imagination that resonates through the subsequent 30 years of science fiction storytelling. Not only is the bookshelf incomplete without owning it, so is the reader without having read it. --L. Blunt Jackson


“[A] science fiction masterpiece.”—Newsweek


“A jewel of a story.”—Frank Herbert


“As profuse and original in invention as The Lord of the Rings.”—Michael Moorcock


“An instant classic.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune


“Like all great writers of fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin creates imaginary worlds that restore us, hearts eased, to our own.”—The Boston Globe


“Stellar…A triumphant return to the magic-drenched world of Earthsea…Le Guin is still at the height of her powers, a superb stylist with a knack for creating characters who are both wise and deeply humane. A major event in fantasy literature.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)


“Richly told…Le Guin hasn’t lost her touch. She draws us into the magical land and its inhabitants’ doings immediately.”—Booklist



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Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Ace Books; 1st edition (March 15, 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0441478123
  • ISBN-13: 978-0441478125
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 0.9 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (412 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,048 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
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?
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