The setting on the world of Gethen, where the inhabitants are the hermaphrodite products of an ancient genetic engineering project and can both father and bear children, allows Le Guin to make some fascinating comments on gender; but this alone would not have allowed the book to stand the test of time (after books like Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex" and Jackie Kay's "Trumpet", readers are probably much more used to seeing gender as a fluid thing than in the late 1960s when Le Guin's book was published). The two things which make the book so special for me are firstly Estraven and Genly Ai's epic journey across the ice cap - which is a unique blend of thrilling adventure, unconsummated love story and philosophical musing on duality (light and darkness; male and female; good and evil); and secondly the way in which Le Guin makes the planet of Gethen and its culture so thrillingly real - she constructs folk tales, poetry and suchlike which add extraordinary resonance to the narrative. While immersed in the book, Karhide and Orgoreyn are utterly real places for the reader - since my teenage years, I still feel disappointed that I can't actually go there...
A twentieth-century classic in all senses; and this Virago Modern Classics edition is beautifully packaged as always, with subtle but effective cover art.
On the planet Gethen, also called Winter, humanity exists in a unique form - all Getheninans are androgynes. Genderless most of the time, a Gethenian may become either male or female each month, during the three-day-long kemmer period.
The societies that developed in this unique strain of humanity are explored by the author intelligently and sensitively. Ursula Le Guin has a rare talent - she can make the most familiar exotic, and most exotic, familiar. I am not the first reader of this book to wish for a chance to visit Gethen.
Set in the Hainish Ekumen long after the overthrow of the Shing, (look for other books in the Hainish series: The Dispossesed, Rocanon's World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusion,) The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, First Envoy of the Ekumen to Gethen. It is also the story of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, a high official of the Gethenian Kingdom of Karhide, called the Traitor, the truest and most loyal citizen Gethen has ever known.
The Left Hand of Darkness tells a captivating story of fidelity and betreyal, set in a world that is alien yet familiar to us. Ursula K. Le Guin's unique writing and incredible imagination make reading this book an experience unparalelled in any genre.
I only wish I could give more than five stars.