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The Left Hand of Darkness: 50th Anniversary Edition Mass Market Paperback – January 1, 1987
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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
“A towering figure in science fiction and fantasy.”—NPR
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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.
The Left Hand of Darkness was originally published in 1969 and is the title that established Le Guin as a science fiction writer. It’s incredibly intricate, an excellent example of worldbuilding. Politics and governance are well-represented, if convoluted, which makes it all the more believable. The climate on Gethen is wintry; inhabitants and their lifestyles reflect this in every detail. But what captivated me most was the nature of Gethenian sexuality. On Gethen, gender is irrelevant. Though Ai uses predominantly masculine pronouns throughout the narrative, native humanoids on Gethen are not born male or female. They are neither—until they enter “kemmer,” a regular period of increased hormonal activity in which Gethenians are driven to find a partner who is also in kemmer, for sex and procreation. Hormone levels determine which partner becomes the inseminator and which becomes the recipient. If the recipient becomes pregnant, they remain “female” throughout the gestation period, after which they return to normal. This cycle drives the entire culture, coloring every aspect of Gethenian society.
Though this isn’t the only detail to recommend the book, it’s definitely key to the story. At the time it was written, Gethenian sexuality drew a lot of attention among readers and reviewers; but it’s still relevant today. While some have criticized Le Guin for homophobia, and while Le Guin later expressed regret that she’d portrayed Gethenian norms as heterosexual, the fact remains that the story explores the nature of gender in our own society, as well as on Gethen. For my own part, I found the development of friendship and love between characters so widely diverse much more meaningful than when or how or even whether copulation occurred.
In any event, The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic in science fiction literature, a multi-layered story that explores not only cultural divides but sociological ones as well as deep, philosophical quandaries, a must-read for all sci-fi fans. Groundbreaking and evocative, I found myself rooting for both Ai and Estraven, and was sorry to turn the last page. Only one of multiple novels set in the Hainish series, LHoD can be read as a standalone tale. One caveat: Le Guin runs heavy on detail and subtlety. It isn’t exactly an easy read. If that bothers you, dear reader, push through. I promise the payoff is worth it.
Top international reviews
The story is strange, told from both Ai and Estraven’s points of view, giving us a strange duality on events. I ended up seeing Ai as an alien, as the society does; Winter was strange, yes, but Ai’s observing position and knowledge of his own strangeness gave it a reserve. The plot is interesting, and intricate; I loved the ice-field and their strange, eerie journey.
Some period gender references that have not aged well; describing something as “womanish” doesn’t sit well with me, considering I have no such construct in my head – and it’s something my father says, which doesn’t endear it. But it’s a minor point – just something that stuck out to me. I also found it interesting to consider how the same book would have been written in the modern era – and it would have been very, very different. It’s a book that’s made me think about my own writing, and my own method of storytelling; not that I am likely to change immediately, but…it’s something that will help me grow, I think.
So. Odd, eerie, intricate, detailed, political and alien. Definitely a book worth reading once in a lifetime.
Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is best known for its feminist theme, the inhabitants of Winter containing both female and male potential within one body. But Le Guin's fascinating meditations are not confined to the relationships of men and women. Gender politics are part of a wider duality informing religion and politics generally. So wide ranging is the story’s scope that within a few paragraphs, this book published in 1969 was making me think of news I had read that day about Brexit and American elections. In an age of resurgent nationalism, The Left Hand of Darkness has much to tell us.
The minister Estraven could be giving advice to nationalists everywhere when he says: “No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other.”
As is usual for Ursula LeGuin the book brings and intellectual and philosophical approach to the genre.
The plot involves the main protagonist Genly Ai, an ambassador for the Ekumen, a federation of planetary worlds, arriving on Gethin with an invitation for them to join the federation. (Sounds a bit like an intra-galactic EU!). Gethin is a cold world whose inhabitants are hermaphrodite, able to adopt either a female or male role when in a particular stage of their cycle, known as 'kemmer', but at other times basically asexual. The book explores gender perspectives, and politics in general across the planet, where Genly Ai is met with suspicion, scepticism and fear in some quarters. The inhabitants also have a strong concept of 'face' which makes communication highly nuanced. Genly Ai meets a number of different alien characters and forges a close relationship with Estraven who assists and passes on knowledge to assist in his mission.
The writing raises thought provoking issues, and one can see why it is highly acclaimed. However, it is not an easy read in places. There are a lot of local Gethin terminology and nouns used throughout and the motivations and politics of the Gethinians require careful reading to follow and understand. A challenging but demanding read for the SF genre
This spell binding novel is redolent of Herbert and Tolkien. The manner in which Le Guin immerses the reader in a completely convincing alien world furnished with nation states, religion, culture and mythology is reminiscent of Dune. The gruelling journey of Genly Ai and Estraven is hobbit like.
In an interesting introduction, the author states this novel, like much of the best science fiction, is a thought experiment which encourages reflection and breaks down social conventions and norms. This is most true with respect to sexuality and gender roles: the king is pregnant’.
Equally ground breaking is the depiction of how common values of humanity, love and respect can overcome schisms between individuals. Read Ekumen think European Union.
It’s a good name. Far colder than, say, Earth, life is only possible on a relatively narrow strip of the surface on either side of the Equator. Even within the inhabitable lands, life is cold and harsh. North or South, there are permanent ice sheets extending to the poles, a dangerous, hostile barrier to human presence.
Why are there humans on Winter at all? This is le Guin’s Hainish universe. In that universe, the source of all humanity is the planet Hain; in the far distant past, the Hainish travelled to many other planets in which human life was possible, even if only barely, and seeded them with humans, sometimes following careful adaptation to local conditions. On Winter, the adaptation was particularly unusual: they have no permanent gender. Instead, for 26 days out of the 28-day lunar cycle; they are perfectly androgynous; for two days, they become sexed, but can as easily become men or women – a lot depends on circumstance, a lot even on what is happening to one’s partner at the same time.
This means that either could become the mother of children, but both partners share the tasks and joys of parenthood equally. It is, however, particularly significant to have been a mother; it is a tragedy of the King of Karhide, the country where Left Hand of Darkness starts, that while ‘he’ has heirs, he has none ‘of his body’ – none he has mothered, in other words, though he has fathered a few.
It is the way that she plays with a theme so curious, so original and so intriguing that underlines le Guin’s status as not a science fiction writer, but as a fine novelist who uses science fiction as a framework for her novels. What is most vital about her work is that she has the imagination to find new and striking themes, the boldness to explore them, and the talent to make the result both engaging and believable.
Karhide is one of the two main nations on Winter. This again is a characteristic of le Guin: unlike most writers in the science fiction genre, her planets aren’t monolithic but are often divided into nations. In this case, as well as minor nations, Karhide faces off to and is, in a number of significant cultural ways, different from an adversary of equal strength, Orgoreyn. One of the specific characteristics of Winter, though, is that while there is occasional violence at the individual level, there is no war. Le Guin explains, in the preface she wrote for later editions of the novel, that she thinks this might be a consequence of the lack of a permanent sex drive.
The novel is set at a time when the Hainish, after the long period of seeding planets with human life, have somehow lost touch with them. Now, though, the federation of planets created by Hain, the Ekumen, is trying to make contact again. Into the complex world of Winter drops Genly Ai, a Terran, the first ‘mobile’ to the planet. The approach of the Ekumen is to send just one person at a time, on the basis that contact with a single individual is richer than with a group, and a single person is less likely to be seen as a threat, let alone the vanguard of an invasion.
As the novel starts, Genly Ai is nearing the end of a long and difficult period of negotiation with the government of Karhide. His biggest difficulty is understanding the prevailing culture of understatement and of protection of dignity, one’s own and others’. Genly's difficulties in understanding Karhiders lead to his misconstruing the motivation of Estraven, the Prime Minister, who is ostensibly helping him. Is he a friend? A traitor? Striving to achieve the aim of openness to the Ekumen, or to undermine it? Understanding Estraven and where they stand towards each other is one of main themes of the novel.
The story will take Genly Ai into Orgoreyn, with its profound similarities but also jarring differences from Karhide. There, he deals with threats and escapes, betrayals and surprising rescues, and above all with the great, silent protagonist of the book, the perpetual ice: the long, vast, deep, blinding killer which may be the only way to get back to life and safety. That gives the novel its powerful core, the struggle of man against an unbearably hostile environment.
The result is a book that is exciting in its plot, gripping in its characterisations and enthralling in its themes. One of the best works by one of the best of contemporary writers, Ursula le Guin. Don’t miss it.
At times I could not understand it at all, It had a lot of non English words in it, one could do with
some help with what was said. At times they did but not enough for me. Also at times I did not know
who was who, at times it was not clear who was the kind of hero. There was quite a lot I liked, but loads
of time I got lost in the story as well.
As an ambassador of the Ekumen Genly mission is fraught with danger isolation and sacrifice. He travels alone and makes himself vulnerable on the new world that is Gethen, a masterstroke on the account of Le Guin. Through the lens of an individual the mission becomes initimate, personal and subtle. Ai experiences Gethen & learns to experience this world through the lens of an utterly different society & people. Through bonding & befriending a Gethenian we see the bridge between two cultures a bridge that facilitates the mission Ai has set out to achieve.
The book touches on many themes including sexuality, gender identity, politics, the psychology of war and human behaviour and even religion. This is a truly unique achievement and definitely needs several reads to fully appreciate. It's utterly realistic in its detail & presentation of Gethen a major feat by Le Guin.
The story unwinds slowly, but then all the pieces connect and you get sucked in. What is most unusual about this classic sci-fi book, is that one of its main themes is gender. The people of Winter are genderless except for certain times and this is difficult for the male envoy because along with it literally being an alien world, be must also contend with how he deals with people. The point is, I suppose, how important gender is in human relationships and how we treat each other based on our given genders. If there were no gender, would there still be such a thing as war? On Winter there had never been. A thought-provoking read with an exciting adventure.
I agree with him - it is a fine novel. I got the strong impression that it was not so much science fiction as just fiction, but it is none the worse for that.
On a bitterly-cold planet, Gethen, also known (appropriately enough) as Winter, there exists a human civilization. However, all of the people are the same gender. Imagine that - if there were no opposite sex to you, what would the world be like? This is the theme explored by this novel. It is a reasonably short book, and it's great to see a lady author competing in this almost-all-male field.
Le Guin writes beautifully, almost poetically, and creates a vivid and real world, with various countries, political systems, religions, and traditions. It is very believable. Without giving too much away, what happens is that an envoy from "proper" humanity is sent to Gethen, to try to persuade the planet to join a confederation of human planets. How will he be received? Will he succeed in persuading them to join? You will have to read it to find out.
Part political thriller, part adventure story, with a generous dash of philosophy, this is a good read, and I recommend it. However, I frankly did not get the impression of it being a masterpiece. For me it simply did not have the "wow" factor of a true classic. However, it was sufficiently good that I would like to read more of Le Guin's books.
The writing is really good. This is the first I have read of Ursula LeGuin but based on the quality of writing, I will be reading her again.