10 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

Title: The Left Hand of Darkness

Author: Ursula K. LeGuin

Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy

Publisher: Ace (US) / Orbit (UK)
Publication Date: 1969 (US) / November 2009 (UK)
Hardcover: 272 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did I get this book: Review copy from the publisher (Orbit UK)

Why did I read this book: The Left Hand of Darkness is a book that I started and attempted to read in high school – but it’s one of those books that I’d never finished. So, when I received a copy in the mail courtesy of Orbit to celebrate the book’s 40th anniversary, I decided that there was no better time to dive in and finally finish this classic science fiction novel.

Summary: (from Orbit UK)
Genly Ai is a diplomat of sorts, sent to observe the inhabitants of the snowbound planet of Winter. But the isolated, androgynous people are suspicious of this strange, single-gendered visitor. Tucked away in a remote corner of the universe, they have no knowledge of space travel or of life beyond their own world. So, bringing news of a vast coalition of planets they are invited to join, he is met with fear, mistrust and disbelief.

But also something more. For Genly Ai, who sees himself as a bringer of the truth, it is a bittersweet irony that he will discover truths about himself and, in the snow-shrouded strangeness of Winter, find both love and tragedy…


Genly Ai, an Envoy of the federation of human worlds called the Ekumen, documents his experiences on the cold, alien world of Winter (or “Gethen” to the local people) in The Left Hand of Darkness. For the first two years of his mission in the kingdom of Karhide, Ai is met with suspicion, disbelief, and overwhelming fear. The people of Gethen are not only mistrusting of what they perceive of as tall tales of ships that fly and worlds beyond their own, but they are also nervous as to Ai’s physiology too. Every person on Gethen is an androgyne, without an assigned gender save for once a month when they enter kemmer (in a hormonal cycle similar to a female’s monthly period) – and in kemmer, a Gethenian can assume either the female or male gender at complete random (i.e. someone who was a female one month can be a male in the next monthly kemmering). Genly Ai, with his single, permanent male sexuality is branded as a “pervert,” or an anomaly. On the most basic, fundamental level, neither the people of Gethen nor Ai can understand each other.

When the King of Karhide brands his advisor Estraven, the person who has been introducing Ai to Karhide society, as a traitor, Ai’s diplomatic mission is in serious jeopardy. Bitterly unsuccessful in convincing Karhide to open their world to Ekumen’s benevolent mission, Ai turns to the more bureaucratic nation to the north, called Orgoreyn. There, he meets once again with Estraven, and once again is rejected and met with resistance by the corrupt, ambitious Orgoreyn leaders. When Ai is betrayed and thrown into an Orgoreyn prison camp, however, he is rescued by Estraven – who, against all odds, believes in Ai’s message about worlds and technology beyond the starry void. Together, Estraven and Ai travel across the Gobrin Ice (a vast glacier of frozen cold) to reach Karhide once more, so that Ai can try yet again to convince the kingdom to join Ekumen. Along the way, Ai finally learns to trust and to see the Gethen people, through Estraven, for who – and what – they really are.

Reading The Left Hand of Darkness forty years after its publication is an enlightening experience. There is no denying that this is an important, seminal work of fiction – especially in the science fiction arena, as it challenges human notions of gender, gender roles, and sex. What happens when sex is completely removed from the equation? In a world where gender is a fluid, ever-changing feature, where prescribed gender roles do not exist, what remains? We struggle with Genly Ai as he attempts to understand how Gethenians are both male and female at the same time, just as we struggle with Estraven as s/he tries to understand Ai and his Ekumen ways. It’s almost impossible to truly review this book without delving into some in-depth essay – such is how incredible, how much of a paradigm shift The Left Hand of Darkness is to a reader’s mindframe. From a pure literary standpoint, the novel is written beautifully (if somewhat confusing and requires a lot of its readers), with a deceptively straightforward plot. Interspersed throughout the main storyline (which alternates between Ai and Estraven’s perspectives) are other stories: tales from Gethen myth and field records from Ai’s predecessor. Each tale and each analysis provides invaluable insight to the novel, adding another layer of color to an incredibly well-researched and well-developed world. There are fireside tales about doomed lovers and future-seers, and there are postulations about the origins of the Gethenians and human genetic experimentation. The sheer scope of ideas that The Left Hand of Darkness encompasses is…mind-boggling.

That said, The Left Hand of Darkness is not an easy book to read. Ms. LeGuin’s prose is descriptive and graceful, but requires a high level of concentration and memory to understand and keep straight the different peoples and customs throughout. At less than 300 pages, The Left Hand of Darkness is nevertheless full to the brim with challenging ideas, themes, and concepts – not only is gender examined at length, but so too are political systems, religion, and the facets of human nature itself. This is a challenging book, and one that could spark a number of essays and in-depth analyses. It might not be sensational or easy to pick up and read in a single sitting (because, let’s face it – there is a LOT to digest here) – but that’s not a bad thing. Some books are meant to be savored, over time, in doses.

The Left Hand of Darkness is the kind of book that can only get better upon a second, third, fifteenth, reading. It’s a product of its time (published in the same year the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon), but more impressively, it stands the test of time. The Left Hand of Darkness is just as important – if not more important – today as it was in 1969. Revolutionary, insightful, and thought-provoking, this remains a classic novel in the SF canon for good reason. This is a novel to be read, cherished, discussed, and dissected by all.

Notable Quotes/Parts: You can read full excerpts of Chapters 9 & 10 online at Ursula K. LeGuin’s website, HERE.

Additional Thoughts: Now, a bit about the 40th anniversary edition of the book. This edition of The Left Hand of Darkness is probably the ONE to buy – it includes an insightful foreword from Ursula LeGuin, the Gethenian calendar and clock, a Karhidish glossary and songs from the domain of Estre, the related short story “Coming of Age in Karhide,” and maps of Gethen itself. If you’re a sucker for extras – as I certainly am – this is the edition for you.

Verdict: If you haven’t read it, you should. If you have read it, you should read it again. This Hugo and Nebula award winning novel is an incredible feat of storytelling; it is a classic.

Rating: 10 – A Classic. Could it be any other way?

Reading Next: Three Days to Dead by Kelly Meding

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  • Meljean
    January 15, 2010 at 1:05 am

    One of my graduate courses was a Le Guin/Philip K. Dick class (and for anyone living in the Portland area, I recommend this course at PSU — particularly as she lives in town and will come in as a guest. We didn’t talk so much about this book, but language in the Earthsea novels, and I came away very impressed and feeling incredibly inadequate in my own writing 😀 )

    I think my favorite of her books is actually The Lathe of Heaven (and of the short stories, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”) but this one just knocked my socks off in terms of worldbuilding and the examination of gender. This is what I love about SF. Not just a great story (you gotta have that, too) but a kind of crooked mirror that creates a fascinating reflection.

    Also, every single time it snows around here (it isn’t often), I end up thinking of that trip across the glacier. Just amazingly powerful descriptions.

  • Bronwyn Parry
    January 15, 2010 at 1:14 am

    The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favourite books. The first time I read it, I did find it hard to get into, but I am glad I persevered. I re-read it every year or so, and I still – after at least a dozen, probably more readings – always find something new in it. It is a beautiful book – and that trip across the Gobrin Ice is incredibly described and told.

  • AnimeJune
    January 15, 2010 at 8:34 am

    I felt pretty much the same about this book when I read it in a comparative literature class – I love how the society worked. Not only society – but inheritance. I remember some characters who are a couple – and one’s been pregnant twice so the kids are considered his heirs, but the other character hasn’t been lucky enough to be female during their kemming so he doesn’t have any at all. What a concept!

    I admit when I read it I was kind of ‘shipping for Estraven and Genly, though. Romance reader through and through, I suppose.

  • Patrick
    January 15, 2010 at 9:52 am

    I read LHD a few years ago for the first time. My first thought was Wow! My second thought was how well the story holds up over decades! My third thought was Wow!

  • Lenore
    January 15, 2010 at 11:54 am

    I read this a few years ago and LOVED it. I need to read more of her work.

  • Danielle
    January 15, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    You know, I love Ursula’s writing, and I’ve read quite a lot by her, but I can not bring myself to read this one. I got two pages in and just blanked. But maybe thats why you couldnt finish it either…oh, well, maybe when I’m a twenty-something I’ll finally get around to it!

  • Eirin
    January 16, 2010 at 5:27 am

    It’s amazing how her work isn’t dated in the slightest, isn’t it. I got hooked in on the Earthsea books when I was a girl and when I recently went on a LeGuin rereading spree I found all of her work (that I’ve read *g*) as fascinating and important as the last time.

    Psst … Cannons are for shooting 8)

  • Thea
    January 16, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Meljean – That sounds like the coolest class ever. Wow. I haven’t read “Lathe of Heaven” or “Omelas,” but I’ll definitely try to find these stories. The only other LeGuin books I’ve read are those in her Earthsea cycle – I definitely need to get on the ball and track her other stuff down!

    Bronwyn Parry – I agree completely. It definitely took me a few chapters to really understand and get into The Left Hand of Darkness, but it’s so worth the investment. And I have to agree, that trek across the ice is harrowing, beautiful stuff.

    AnimeJune – Yes, exactly! One part that stuck with me and kept me reading was near the beginning where Ai is talking to the Gethenian he thinks of as his “Landlady” – and how disappointed the character is that s/he hasn’t birthed children, though has sired four.

    (And hell yes, I admit to shipping Ai and Etraven too! Guh.)

    Patrick – I’m adding my own “WOW!” in there with you. There are some books that completely change your perceptions – and The Left Hand of Darkness is one of them. I feel like an inarticulate primate trying to talk about the ideas and themes in the book – seriously, this is the stuff grad school classes are made of.

    Lenore – You and me both! Have you read her Earthsea books? I *love* those. They are easier to get into than this one, but still have the same, breathtaking scope.

    Danielle – Well, it worked for me! :mrgreen: I tried to read it in High School but could never really get into it, or find the time to force myself to stick with it. But now that I’m an old 25-year old fogie, I was able to really dig in.

    Eirin – 😳 Thanks. Ahh, the fallibility of spellcheck :LOL:

    I completely hear you though – I started with Earthsea when I was younger, and am only now tracking down her other work. I foresee much more LeGuin in my near future!

  • Shishi
    January 19, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    I’ve been thinking about reading LeGuin for a long time but I’ve been putting it of because I don’t know where to start. I think I’m going for this one.
    It makes me happy when you rec books that my library have (like this one, if they hadn’t have had it I’m afraid it would’ve been sorely down-prioritized), even more so since I live in an non-English speaking country and have to do with the meager selection of English books my library offers…

  • Erin
    February 29, 2012 at 9:17 am

    I read this book in my senior English class, it was a remarkable book. Le Guin created a novel that somehow touched on politics, incest, the concept of a genderless society,and communism. This novel has everything,definitely a read for anyone. The vocab can be a little stumbling at times however, if you push through it you’ll be glad you did.

  • Science Fiction Book Club
    October 17, 2012 at 11:26 am

    The Science Fiction Book Club will finally be reading Left Hand of Darkness as their February 2013 book and discussing it on two separate evenings.

    Any and all are welcome!


  • SPuri
    May 2, 2013 at 12:05 am

    Looking for a good science fiction read that involves blasters, spaceships, evil empires, time travel, and light swords? Well if you are then the Left Hand of Darkness may not be for you, but if you’re looking for a well written, somewhat philosophical science fiction novel then this book is the novel that you have been searching so hard for. Although this book does end up having blasters and an eventual spaceship, it doesn’t exactly feel like the stereotypical science fiction genre that we’re all used to, and that’s not exactly a bad thing. Ursula K. Le Guin composes and paints us a magnificent and beautiful world with her use of language and descriptive sense of writing. The book does gets confusing at some points, but after you put all the pieces together you get a sense of satisfaction from understanding the book’s complex nature and you also appreciate the great writing and thought that went into it. The Left Hand of Darkness is truly a work of art and will remain to be a classic for years to come.
    The book starts off awfully confusing and slow. Like all books, the writer wants to start off by giving background information and setting up an environment for the readers, so this is expected. But having such a complex introduction and confusing storyline throughout the first couple of chapters was almost enough alienating enough for myself to put it down and move on to a more easier read like Captain Underpants or a Dr. Seuss book. I ended up pulling myself through the chapters and I’m glad I did. Although the first couple of chapters were confusing, after you understand them you start to appreciate them. The second half of the book is where everything starts to fall into place and the story starts to pick up. The story is much more character driven and the plot speeds up into an exciting story that keeps the reader interested and curious to know what’s going to happen next.
    It’s also very interesting to know that Ursula K. Le Guin incorporates what’s going on in her current life and how she transforms it into a story of science fiction. In her introduction to the book, she says that science fiction isn’t about making up a story, it’s about transforming today’s events into a story. And I think that she did that very well. I believed that she mirrored some of the events that were going on in the Cold War and incorporated it into her story. Another thing that was very interesting and that also connected to her life was how she included the science of anthropology into her book. Anthropology is the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural, biological characteristics and social customs of humankind. Throughout the book you are always wondering how the people of the story deal with their unique lifestyle and how their culture and physical traits affect their behavior and conduct, and although she does answer these questions, you still wonder how she got the idea of such a civilization. So how exactly does the science of anthropology relate to her life? Well here’s your fun fact of the day: Ursula K. Le Guin’s father, Alfred Kroeber, was an anthropologist. Pretty neat, huh?
    The Left Hand of Darkness takes the reader on a very unique and original journey and it opens your eyes to the different kinds of lifestyles and cultures that are present in today’s world. Ursula K. Le Guin did a wonderful job illustrating and painting her imagined world and today it stands as the golden model and standard for all science fiction novels.

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