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The Left Hand of Darkness

Updated on September 14, 2014

An absolute classic in every sense

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K Le Guin, is a beautifully crafted book which paints an alien, utterly compelling world inhabited by characters who reveal something fundamental about humanity.

The great achievement of The Left Hand of Darkness is the creation of a new society of truly equal human beings.

It's the depth of thought, emotional involvement, strong moral values, and philosophical thinking that place Le Guin among the very top contemporary science-fiction writers.


Light is the left hand of darkness

and darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

together like lovers in kemmer,

like hands joined together,

like the end and the way

Left Hand of Darkness is a First Contact Story

The story is a First Contact story, told primarily from the perspective of a man, an Envoy, representing the loosely allied worlds of the galaxy to invite the inhabitants of the planet Winter to join in their coalition. This first Envoy is sent down alone, giving us the viewpoint of a distanced observer who explores this alien culture.

This is no rousing adventure story with glimpses of far-future technology. First published in 1969, it's aged remarkably well, partly because of the lack of reference to specific technology, but mainly because of the lessons this strange world has to teach the Envoy, and us, about human nature.

The Background

This is the account of a man named Genly Ai, from a galactic federation of worlds (the Ekumen), sent to bring the world of Gethen into that Federation.

Gethen is a cold world, known colloquially as Winter.

The people of Gethen are sequentially hermaphroditic. For twenty-four days of each twenty-six day lunar cycle they are androgynes, with no sexual feelings. For the remaining two days (kemmer) the people are either male or female, as determined by pheromones. Each individual can both sire and bear children.

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The depth of insight and subtleties of plot and character are the foundations of the sheer intellectual power of Left Hand of Darkness

Left Hand of Darkness questions our perceptions of cultural chauvinism

The Left Hand of Darkness: 50th Anniversary Edition (Ace Science Fiction)
The Left Hand of Darkness: 50th Anniversary Edition (Ace Science Fiction)
The world of Winter is fascinating, the personal and political conflicts are believable and complex. It's been labeled as "political science fiction" and the tag fits

The Plot

In the feudal kingdom of Karhide, Genly Ai, is acquainted with the Prime Minister, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.

The political intrigue in this alien world is beyond Genly's comprehension and, after misadventure and misunderstanding, he arrives in the kingdom of Orgoreyn only to end up in a terrible gulag-type prison.

Estraven uses all available resources and rescues Genly.

They must leave Orgoreyn, and to achieve this safely they travel across the glaciers from Orgoreyn into Karhide, an 800-mile journey that will take them, Estraven guesses, over three months. During their journey across the ice, Estraven and Genly grow to be good friends and eventually feel a strong bond of love.

The Journey

The journey that they make together, on foot over the polar ice cap, has literary antecedents in the monster's journey over the ice in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and finds echoes in great stories of endurance in sub-zero temperatures, such as Joe Simpson's Touching the Void

Like these stories, the intensity of light and whiteness is transformed into a heart of darkness, while the death-dealing extremes of nature force a reappraisal of what it means to be human and alive.

The Journey in fiction

The journey is a powerful archetypal symbol, telling of the journey through life. It's a learning experience, through which the hero-traveler searches for an answer to the meaning of life and, by the end of the journey, the traveler gains maturity and self-awareness. It is a process of self-growth and self-discovery.

Plenty of science fiction books feature journeys, usually from Earth to different planets. At first glance, Le Guin follows suit. But her journey consists of many journeys.

Genly embarks upon an onerous and risky journey across the wastes of ice, together with Estraven, the native, the "Other." This journey reflects another journey as Genly travels with growing awareness into himself, and into his relationship with the Other.

His outer journey parallels his inner journey.

My Opinion

Quite apart from its layers and meanings, The Left Hand of Darkness is a beguiling read with complex, unpredictable yet steadfast characters in a world of distinct, carefully developed cultures sharing in common an outlook born out of their frozen climate and their androgyne nature.

Perhaps because of the androgynous nature of the people of Winter, this book was categorised as 'feminist literature'. But the driving force in this novel is the examination of politics.Le Guin herself does not call herself a feminist, but a theorist.

One question this book left with me is still unanswered. How much is nationalism a result of male codes of conduct?

Ursula K Le Guin

"All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor.

What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life-science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook among them.

Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another.

The future, in fiction, is a metaphor."

Ursula K Le Guin

© 2014 Susanna Duffy

Guestbook Comments

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    • yoursfoolie profile image


      7 years ago

      Ms. LeGuin has added so much to our collective reality! She's a poster child for the evolutionary effects good fiction can have upon the societies into which it is born...

    • Frischy profile image


      7 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      This sounds interesting. I am not familiar with this author. Thanks for the info!

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 

      7 years ago from New Zealand

      Intriguing book that I hadn't heard of before and now I want to read. Thanks Susanna.


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