The Left Hand of Darkness

Monday, April 1, 2013


The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969

Hugo Winner - 1970

Premise: Genly Ai is an ambassador, of a sort. He is sent to an inhabited planet on behalf of the larger confederation of space, simply to make contact and try to establish friendly communication. He thinks he’s making progress, but the politics and undercurrents of the societies on Gethen are difficult to grasp. Almost as difficult as the people.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Le Guin’s prose is really lovely, even when it’s spare and simple. I had some trouble adjusting to the style and the euphemisms at first, and the book surprised me when it switched (rather late, as these things go) from just a first-person account with supporting information to two alternating first-person accounts.

The Left Hand of Darkness seems, at first to just be a story about an envoy from galactic civilization trying to communicate and survive among people who have a hard time believing that anyone could come from the stars. This is complicated heavily by the fact that the people of Gethen have a different biology than literally every other human planet. They are ambi-sexual. Not hermaphroditic, but in a cycle where each person regularly swings from entirely non-sexual to briefly either male or female. Yet they are human. It’s mentioned off-hand in one place that they may have been planted on this planet as a genetic experiment by a long-dead ancestor civilization, since it seems nigh-impossible that such an arrangement could come to pass via evolution. The story isn’t interested in how it happened, though, just how people react when this is their reality.

I may not always agree with various characters’ thoughts about how this makes these people different/better/worse off than the rest of the galaxy, but it is a fascinating question. More interesting, though, is just riding along with Genly as he struggles with his own assumptions and tries to complete his mission against all odds with the help of local politician Estrahaven. And this is the real story of the book, the potential friendship between Genly, a man of the stars, and Estrahaven, a person of Gethen. It’s really lovely and sad and hopeful all at once.

It’s not a page-turner, but it was gripping and really intriguing. Worthy of its awards and accolades, I think.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

List of Hugo Winners

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