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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
on 2 June 2012
The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Winter, an ice-ridden planet populated by androgynous human hybrids, and their first contact with the wider human race. The rest of humanity is represented by Genly Ai, an envoy for the human race whose mission is to persuade the planet to join the community of planets. The story's perspective switches between Ai and Lord Estraven, the prime minister of one of the planet's territories. The first person narrative is interwoven with a collection of myths, documentary records and folk tales.
Ursula LeGuin's novel won the Nebula and Hugo Awards, so it should be good. Unfortunately, I found it a disappointing read.
One problem is that LeGuin has an excessive love of neologism. A typical chapter might involve entering dothe to undertake a Kuseben along the Guthen Bay, through the peditia, while in feasting on pesthry, with nothing more than a Chabe stove for company. LeGuin doesn't take much care to explain the neologisms, so presumably the reader is expected to consult their Karhidian encyclopaedia. Unfortunately, I don`t own one.
One of my favourite novels is A Clockwork Orange, which is full of neologisms. Strangely, they work in A Clockwork Orange, but not in The Left Hand of Darkness. I think this is because Burgess sets out the vocabulary in the first chapters, and then applies them consistently, while LeGuin can't stop introducing new words, no matter how confusing this makes her narrative.
Another problem is that LeGuin is much better at describing places than people. The world is portrayed in great detail, but neither of the two main characters demonstrate much emotional depth or personal development. Genly Ai, stranded far from home, deprived of simple comforts and looked upon as either a genetic freak or a fraud, displays an extraordinary insensitivity to his human condition. I wanted to understand his hopes and fears, but he seemed a very limited character. I felt that the there was no emotional core to the story.
What would the world be like without gender? Winter is dominated by two civilizations, a western-style monarchy and a soviet-style totalitarian regime. Plus ca change.
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.
on 2 March 1999
What a book! I just read "The Left Hand of Darkness" for the first time, but I know it won't be the last. What I loved most about it were the characters, especially Estraven, the beautiful, powerful descriptive language that Le Guin uses, and the way she keeps a subtle tension humming throughout. There is always a wonderful sense of more going on than what is on the surface. Reviewers that focus on the anthropology miss the big picture. As an immigrant I especially enjoyed Le Guin's presentation of the obstacles that the uncharted cultural waters of etiquette and commmunication in a different society poses to a newcomer. But finally I feel it is less about differences (between cultures, species or genders) and more about simiarities: about the universal experiences of loyalty and treachery, trust and deception, belonging and exile, fear and courage, loneliness and friendship: the painful and beautiful truths that all human beings share.
on 31 May 2016
Gethen is the planet on which 'The Left Hand of Darkness' is set, and the name means Winter.
It’s a good name. Far colder than, say, Earth, life is only possible on a relatively narrow strip of the surface on either side of the Equator. Even within the inhabitable lands, life is cold and harsh. North or South, there are permanent ice sheets extending to the poles, a dangerous, hostile barrier to human presence.
Why are there humans on Winter at all? This is le Guin’s Hainish universe. In that universe, the source of all humanity is the planet Hain; in the far distant past, the Hainish travelled to many other planets in which human life was possible, even if only barely, and seeded them with humans, sometimes following careful adaptation to local conditions. On Winter, the adaptation was particularly unusual: they have no permanent gender. Instead, for 26 days out of the 28-day lunar cycle; they are perfectly androgynous; for two days, they become sexed, but can as easily become men or women – a lot depends on circumstance, a lot even on what is happening to one’s partner at the same time.
This means that either could become the mother of children, but both partners share the tasks and joys of parenthood equally. It is, however, particularly significant to have been a mother; it is a tragedy of the King of Karhide, the country where Left Hand of Darkness starts, that while ‘he’ has heirs, he has none ‘of his body’ – none he has mothered, in other words, though he has fathered a few.
It is the way that she plays with a theme so curious, so original and so intriguing that underlines le Guin’s status as not a science fiction writer, but as a fine novelist who uses science fiction as a framework for her novels. What is most vital about her work is that she has the imagination to find new and striking themes, the boldness to explore them, and the talent to make the result both engaging and believable.
Karhide is one of the two main nations on Winter. This again is a characteristic of le Guin: unlike most writers in the science fiction genre, her planets aren’t monolithic but are often divided into nations. In this case, as well as minor nations, Karhide faces off to and is, in a number of significant cultural ways, different from an adversary of equal strength, Orgoreyn. One of the specific characteristics of Winter, though, is that while there is occasional violence at the individual level, there is no war. Le Guin explains, in the preface she wrote for later editions of the novel, that she thinks this might be a consequence of the lack of a permanent sex drive.
The novel is set at a time when the Hainish, after the long period of seeding planets with human life, have somehow lost touch with them. Now, though, the federation of planets created by Hain, the Ekumen, is trying to make contact again. Into the complex world of Winter drops Genly Ai, a Terran, the first ‘mobile’ to the planet. The approach of the Ekumen is to send just one person at a time, on the basis that contact with a single individual is richer than with a group, and a single person is less likely to be seen as a threat, let alone the vanguard of an invasion.
As the novel starts, Genly Ai is nearing the end of a long and difficult period of negotiation with the government of Karhide. His biggest difficulty is understanding the prevailing culture of understatement and of protection of dignity, one’s own and others’. Genly's difficulties in understanding Karhiders lead to his misconstruing the motivation of Estraven, the Prime Minister, who is ostensibly helping him. Is he a friend? A traitor? Striving to achieve the aim of openness to the Ekumen, or to undermine it? Understanding Estraven and where they stand towards each other is one of main themes of the novel.
The story will take Genly Ai into Orgoreyn, with its profound similarities but also jarring differences from Karhide. There, he deals with threats and escapes, betrayals and surprising rescues, and above all with the great, silent protagonist of the book, the perpetual ice: the long, vast, deep, blinding killer which may be the only way to get back to life and safety. That gives the novel its powerful core, the struggle of man against an unbearably hostile environment.
The result is a book that is exciting in its plot, gripping in its characterisations and enthralling in its themes. One of the best works by one of the best of contemporary writers, Ursula le Guin. Don’t miss it.