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on 6 September 2001
"The Left Hand of Darkness" tells about the mission of Genly Ai, an ambassador of the Ekumen to Winter. The Ekumen is a union of most of the known planets, and Winter is a faraway planet still in its glacier period where all people are of the same gender. Genly Ai goes to Karhide and Orgoreyn, the main countrylike territories on Winter to try to convince them to join the Ekumen. Le Guin describes an inspiring world, very different from what we know, where there are no "men" or "women", but only PEOPLE, and where pride is a completely different concept. Being both an alien and a man, Genly Ai has to go through various experiences to learn different meanings of country, friendship, pride and love, and together with him we are indulged in reflecting more about these things and the world that we (don't) know. I would recomment this book not only to science fiction friends, but also to everyone who likes to think while they read.
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on 25 February 2004
Ever since my dad gave me this book as a teenager, it has had a permanent place on my all-time Top Ten Book List, even though my reading tastes have drifted away from Sci-Fi over time. As other reviewers have commented, it's not only arguably the greatest science fiction novel of the century, but one of the best novels in general. It just has so many different aspects - and it's one of these books that leaves the reader with a real sense of loss on finishing it not because it's a particularly sad tale, but just because it's come to an end.
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.
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on 19 April 2005
Rereading this brilliant book 20 years later I was this time struck by a little noticed aspect, its treatment of religion. It contains two perfectly coherant alien religions, both wonderfully thought-through and convincing. I cannot think of any other SF work that contains one, let alone two, convincing stabs at what the religious ideas of an alien civilisation might be like.
Ursula le Guin`s family background was in social anthropology -the real science that forms the basis of her books is social enthropology not Physics or Biology.
An inexhaustable book.
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on 2 January 2002
This is an overwhelmingly excellent book.
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.
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Thousands of years from now, the myriad colony worlds of Hain (including Earth) are being reunited under a new interstellar government, the Ekumen. Genly Ai is the First Envoy, who sets foot alone onto the surface of the frigid planet of Winter (Gethen to its inhabitants) to bring offers of trade, peace and alliance to the people of the planet. However, the genderless inhabitants (who only have sexual urges and genders for a brief period once a month) are sceptical of Ai's claims, and he soon finds himself a pawn of political factions in two neighbouring countries eager to use or discard him as they see fit.

The Left Hand of Darkness was originally published in 1969. It is set in a shared future history which Le Guin has used for several other novels and short stories, though foreknowledge of these other works is completely unnecessary to read this book. The novel also has a formidable reputation as one of the most critically-acclaimed science fiction novels in the history of the genre, noted for its complex themes and its use of metaphors to tackle a wide variety of literary ideas.

The novel spends a fair amount of time talking about the genderless inhabitants of Gethen, who have no sexual urges at all apart from a brief period called kemmer, when they are able to mate and reproduce. Le Guin has put a lot of thought into how not only this works biologically but also the impact it has on society and on the world. Her notions that a lack of sex drive for most of the month reduces the aggressiveness of humans (Gethen has never had a major war) seem obvious, but these ideas are constantly examined and re-examined during the course of the book and she steers away from trite answers.

Whilst the gender theme is notable and the most oft-discussed aspect of the novel, much is also made of the planet's cold climate and the challenges the people face in living in a world mostly covered by glaciers and icecaps where the warm seasons are perishingly short. The politics and divisions between the neighbouring countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn are also described in some detail. As a result Gethen, also called Winter, is as vivid and memorable as any of the human characters in the novel.

Amongst the individual characters, the dominant ones are Ai himself and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide whose interest in Ai sees him suffer a fall from grace and having to travel a long road to try to redeem himself. The book is told from the first-person POV of both characters, moving between them with interludes taking in myths and legends from Gethen's past and also on matters such as the Gethenese calendar and sexual biology (there's also an appendix which handily collates this information into an easy-to-find collection). The two characters are compelling protagonists, with Ai's bafflement at his status as a man from another planet being considered incidental at best to the trivial politics of two nations leading him into difficulties, whilst Estraven's characterisation is subtle and compelling, with the reader constantly having to review his or her opinion of him based on new information as it comes to light.

The themes that the novel tackles extend far beyond the obvious ones of gender and climate. Duality (expressed in Ai's discussion of Taoism with Estraven), faith, the difficulties of communication even when language is shared and politics are also discussed and examined. But where The Left Hand of Darkness impresses is that these thematic discussions are woven into the narrative in a manner that is seamless and stands alongside a compelling plot. The book's climax, where the two main characters have to traverse a 700-mile-wide icecap with limited supplies, is a fantastic adventure narrative in its own right.

Complaints are few. Written in the 1960s, Le Guin presents a few outdated ideas on gender roles and sexuality that were common at the time, but these are minor issues at best.

Overall, The Left Hand of Darkness (*****) is a smart and intelligent read that has a lot to say and does so in a manner that is page-turning, compelling, relentlessly entertaining and refreshingly concise (the novel clocks in at a slim 250 pages in paperback). One of the all-time classics of the genre and a book that more than deserves its reputation. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
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on 26 October 2010
I've been meaning to read this book for donkey's years, ever since a mate of mine said what a good book it was.

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.
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on 25 August 2008
No lesser a critic than Yale's Harold Bloom considers Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness canonical. A high compliment indeed, but wholly deserved by this extraordinary exercise. In it Le Guin dismantles a fundamental feature of being human--the dichotomy of sex--so convincingly that the reader never feels any of the sense of arbitrariness or silly fancifulness on which science fiction adventures (to say nothing of fantasy) usually founder. Although this is not a long novel, the world it creates is richer, more complete, and more believable--in its details of geography, climate, culture, economy, psychology, religion, ideology, and mythology--than any other imaginary world I know in literature. Daughter of an anthropologist and a psychologist, wife of a historian, Le Guin has a feeling for the way in which character is embedded in culture and culture in geography and technology that few if any other science fiction writers can approach. Ideas about sex and gender are central, but they are by no means the only big subjects she takes on, many in just a few passing words. Discussing the possession of telepathy by the supercivilization whose values are the chief moral reference point in the book, one of Le Guin's characters remarks that with "mind speech," there is no lying, and without lies there are no power politics. Only a great story teller can sprinkle such pregnant observations along the way without destroying the narrative. Le Guin never falters.
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There are not many science-fiction books you could list alongside 'the Left Hand of Darkness'. 'Fahrenheit 451', perhaps, 'That Hideous Strength' (but not really in the sense that it's science-fiction), the short story 'Nightfall' but not the novel, perhaps one or two others.
This is an utterly compelling vision of a world where the people are just like us but totally different. LeGuin changes two things - the temperature, and sexuality, which on Winter is hermaphroditic. From this basis she constructs a world utterly unique, utterly perfect in its conception.
In itself, that would be enough to put LeGuin with the best of Philip Dick's strange imaginings.
But she then runs through it a powerful and passionate story of impossible yearning and the limits of human endurance.
You may hate this book. But if you have any interest in science-fiction at all, you must read it. And even if you hate it, you may find yourself reading it again. And again. And again.
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on 2 December 2000
It is a must read for anyone. Not a book for just sci-fi readers. In fact it is a chance to step away from conventional thinking about humanity and create a different perspective for human relations. Think about your role as a man and as a woman. Think about when you love and when you hate. All your feelings either feminine or masculine, blend them and you will find that what lies beneath is harmony with universe. Le guin knows this and in her every novel, she gives two opposite reference points for us to benefit from bilateral way of thinking. After you read the book, you will feel very sad and wish that things were a bit different in our world. Less prejudice, less politics, less greed and less of what you hate; and instead more solidarity, more altruism, more understanding; and more of what you love. I won't give a clue about the book. I want it to be a sole surprise. A book I want my children to read if I will ever have them one day. Also read The Dispossesed by Le Guin.
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on 3 February 2008
I've lost count of the number of times I've read this. I know I'm going to read it many more times. I feel sorry for the reviewers who've been made to hate this book by being force fed it in English classes. Any teacher who can fail to make students love something this good should be fired. I'm also a little envious, I wish my English Lit curriculum had had items like this on it! I echo the praise of all the other five star reviews and I'd like to add this: What is most impressive about this book is that Le Guin makes her Gethenian characters fully human and simultaneously non-gendered. Estraven is not a mannish woman or a womanish man, but a fully rounded human being who just doesn't fit gender stereotypes. Le Guin's understanding of human nature is astounding.
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