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The Left Hand of Darkness Mass Market Paperback – March 15, 1987
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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
Praise for The Left Hand of Darkness
“[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
Top customer reviews
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This book is, at its simplest and least descriptive, a thought experiment. What if there were a world where gender as we know it did not exist.
But that is not the half of it. It is not even close.
This book examines how nationalism can be wonderful and yet poisonous. It compares the societies of differing nation-states. It looks at humanity's role in nature. It stares unflinchingly at love in various forms and in the end, the reader has gone through a journey nearly as transformative as the one taken by our protagonist, Genly Ai.
My only true complaint stems from the idea that Genly's gender biases are so strong that he consistently labels the Gethenians as he despite having been briefed of their genderless status before beginning the assignment.
Still ignoring the pronoun confusion, this was an amazing book. It is thoughtful and thought provoking. It is wise and wonderful. And though a world as cold as Winter sounds like my own personal hell, I will revisit the characters again with pleasure.
This book was published in 1969, and LBGTQ people may find some of the ideas dated, but it remains a profound exploration of what happens when the basic traits by which one is defined in one's own society don't apply in another culture. I was surprised when I re-read "The Left Hand of Darkness" to realize it could apply to any trait - race, religion, even political affiliation.
THIS is what the Nebula Award should be about. This is an amazing book. The world building is so complete, so detailed, so different, so believable, it is hard to believe that one person could have conceived of it. It almost seems as if it must really exist.
In general the beauty of the book is in the ambiance and the compelling story, but there are a few quotes that I want to share.
If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both.
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.
If the universe were not expanding, the night sky would not appear to be dark. (Is that true? It seems logical, but then wouldn't people have used this argument?)
You can see that the story explores concepts that need exploration. One of the great things about science fiction is its ability to let us examine our values independent of our own lives.
Anyway, if you haven't read it, read this book.
What set the book apart was its treatment of the planet Winter as a place where everyone (they were basically humans) was both a man and a woman in the sense that their reproductive organs would vary from time to time based upon certain variables. The point, I take it,was to depict how the traditional human who visited the planet would deal with the ambiguities and duality this presented.
I don't think she succeeded well in achieving this goal. Other than being told that this duality existed, and having some of the practical effects described, the characters seemed to be mostly identifiable as men who could sometimes become pregnant. There was really only one scene where one could feel the ambivalence and confusion that this situation could engender but, again, it was more told than shown. Beyond that, the book was a standard political tale, set on another planet.
I give it four stars, however, because it is well-written, in particular in the description of a long, difficult journey. The effectiveness of the description of te quotidian events of the journey reminded me of the descriptions in the Aubrey/Maturin series of days at sea which must have been long and boring but were made interesting by the quality of the writing.