The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Published: 1970Hugo and Nebula Awards Winner
for an entry into the Hugula contest!

Buy it at

Buy it at

Written by Ursula Le Guin in 1970, this modern classic has a timelessness to it that is sure to mystify and entrance current and future readers.

Genly Ai is the Envoy to Gethen, a frozen world called Winter by all but its human inhabitants. Sent by the Ekumen, the guiding (not governing) body of the 83 civilized planets, Ai’s understood goal is to establish an alliance with the peoples of Winter.

Complicating matters mentally and emotionally for Ai is that all Gethen humans are hermaphroditic except during their periods of estrus or kemmer when depending on chance and circumstances they temporarily become male or female for purposes of procreation. Outside of these brief stretches of sexuality, they are essentially sexless, embodying varyingly male or female characteristics as perceived by the Envoy.

The Left Hand of Darkness is thematically dense and combined with Le Guin’s austere style of writing is often reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. Unlike 1984, this novel is a rather hopeful exploration of the meaning and importance of otherness, gender, and humanity.

With a simple plot, barren backdrop, and not overly layered characterization, motivation as a theme and understated mystery comes into focus.

As the story progresses, Ai begins to question his role as Envoy. Initially he believes that it is to act as a representative of the Ekumen to the diverse peoples of Winter. Through intrigue, betrayal, imprisonment, and finally a platonic love formed in complete isolation with one of Winter’s natives, he begins to see that perhaps his role may not be as Envoy to Winter, but to become an Envoy for them in their future dealings with the Ekumen. The transformation of Ai’s understanding is most clearly stated in this passage.

“But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou…”

The Left Hand of Darkness has the outwardly simple, deeply complex beauty of haiku poetry or a snowflake under microscope. In Le Guin’s own words, “It proceeds, therefore, by subtle ways, and slow ones, and queer, risky ones.” A beautiful novel that demands much of the reader, but gives back much more in return.

Lisa K. Jan. 29, 2013

Do the two cultures in The Left Hand of Darkness represent the East and the West during the Cold War years?

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