“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. Le Guin is phenomenal.  A few months ago, I read her novel “The Telling” and loved the anthropological manner in which she describes the culture of her sci-fi worlds.  I had heard good things about “The Left Hand of Darkness,” and was not disappointed.  It is now one of my favorite books of all time.

In a futuristic world, Earth has joined other planets in a collaboration known as the Ekumen, an intergalactic group facilitating diplomacy and trade between worlds.  The Ekumen contacts new planets by sending a lone representative to try to convince them of the merits of joining, on the principle that one person is somewhat innocuous, whereas two people could be interpreted as an invasion.

“The Left Hand of Darkness” tells the story of Genly Ai, a man from Earth who is sent to the planet Winter as the first representative of the Ekumen.  The people on Winter don’t have the same gender divisions that we do, but rather are completely androgynous.  They are only capable of sex during a short period each month known as kemmer, at which point they assume either masculine or feminine genitalia.  On Winter, normal humans such as ourselves are considered to be perverts, because their sexual instincts are never able to be turned off, and they are confined to one gender.  Because of these differences, the social climate of Winter is vastly different than that of Earth.  Rather than viewing the world as a dichotomy, denizens of Winter choose to live in the moment and focus on the greater whole.  Le Guin makes us question the role of gender in shaping society and culture, while at the same time questioning how much of Winter’s culture is instead shaped by the planet’s harsh climate.

Genly Ai must navigate the subtleties and politics of the countries of Winter in order to convince its leaders to join the Ekumen.  While doing so, he must to put aside his own preconceived notions of society and learn to adapt to a new planet, which is easier said than done, as Winter is still in the middle of an ice age.

Le Guin does a masterful job of worldbuilding, creating an entire mythology and history for the planet.  Her descriptions of the icy world are vivid and breathtaking.

I’d highly recommend this book.  Le Guin is the kind of author who can tell a beautiful story while at the same time constantly make you think about your own perceptions of reality.  If you get the edition that I have pictured, I’d also suggest reading the author’s introduction to the novel, as it’s quite good.  It describes her own views on science fiction, and is interesting to keep in mind while reading.

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Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on ““The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. LeGuin

  1. I read this one years ago, and I loved it. I’ve been meaning to reread it. I agree that LeGuin is phenomenal. The Wizard of Earthsea is well worth reading, if you never have.

    • I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been meaning to! The bookstore never has it when I’m there, so I’ll have to get around to ordering it one of these days. 😀

  2. This is very high on my TBR pile.
    Thanks for the nudge. I have only read some of her short stories which were Ok but not that much more but my hope for this book is very high.

    • I hope you enjoy it! I haven’t read any of her short stories, just the novel “The Telling” earlier in the year. I’m hoping to read more by her soon. I’ve wanted to try her Earthsea books, but I’d like to read them in order and the bookstores never have the first book…

  3. I really must reread this. I read it so long ago I hardly remember it.

  4. I just picked this book up yesterday (and I think I have the same version that you have). I’ve heard a lot of good things about this book, and I’m looking forward to reading it sometime fairly soon.

    • I think you’ll love it. The intro alone convinced me that Le Guin is one of my new favorite authors of all time.

  5. Sounds interesting! I’ve never attempted to read sci-fi (well I’ve read 1984…) because I always think I’m going to be bombarded with technical jargon. But with world-building and it’s political angle, I’m tempted… 🙂

    • It has some jargon, but mostly to convey the fact that the author is immersing you in a world that even the main character doesn’t always understand. Having the protagonist be originally from Earth though gives readers a sense of grounding. It’s worth a try. 😛

  6. This is one of my favorites. I plan on rereading it and The Dispossessed after the first of the year.

    • Awesome. I’m planning on picking up a copy of The Dispossessed as soon as the semester’s over. If I get it now, I won’t get anything done!

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