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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le…

The Left Hand of Darkness (original 1969; edition 1969)

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Title:The Left Hand of Darkness
Authors:Ursula K. Le Guin
Info:Barnes & Noble Books (2004), Hardcover with dustjacket
Collections:Your library, Favorites, Key books
Tags:Science fiction classics, Feminist fiction, 1960s, SFF--nonhumans, women writers--SFF, edition (reissue), reread, 2004

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

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Showing 1-5 of 179 (next | show all)
I've tried to read this several times over the years. While I loved her Earth Sea trilogy, [b:The Lathe of Heaven|59924|The Lathe of Heaven|Ursula K. Le Guin|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1386920883s/59924.jpg|425872] & several other books including 2 earlier ones in this series, I could never get into this one, so I decided to listen to it. Never loved it, barely got through it, still I gave it 3 stars because it finally gets around to making a decent story. Really it's more of a 2.5 star read, though.

I think this is the correct edition, although I downloaded it from the library, it sounds like it was copied off old tapes. The reader doesn't do much for me. She has a fairly high voice which can be a bit grating & the quality of the recording wanders. It's not horrible, but certainly doesn't add anything to the story.

I most often hear this book held out as one of the cornerstones of SF due to the sexual ambiguity of the civilization, but this point is lost among all the other factors LeGuin has tossed in. Too much is different about their world. It was a let down because of all the talk about how great it is. It's a pretty good SF novel, but more for all the different ideas, not because it made any of them particularly well save for those about true patriotism & love that transcends sex, even species. Both of these have been done well elsewhere in stories I liked reading better.

The whole "humanity seeded by an elder race" bit wasn't handled as well as I would have liked. No other genetic modifications are mentioned for the other 83 worlds & yet she hints that the old race wasn't above it, but not why. That's probably because I'm reading this as a stand alone novel, but it is 4th in a series & it's been decades since I read any of the others. Not sure I ever read the first, but do recall liking the 2d & 3d. Unfortunately, the details are lost to me.

-- Warning, possible spoilers below --

She does mention Winter's folks figured out evolution even though they obviously didn't evolve there. Not sure I buy that one. Given the trouble so many people have with it today, it makes them far too astute, but they also figured out the universe is expanding without much astronomical ability.

The lack of herd animals, birds, or any flying insects is a huge difference. First, this has caused them not to attempt any sort of flight, not even balloons or rockets, which didn't sit all that well given their level of tech, especially when compared to them picking up on evolution. But this lack also makes a huge impact on their civilization since herding is one of the oldest skills that ours was built on. Meat is a far more efficient way to get calories than plants & herding takes far less energy than hunting. It's one of the early reasons tribes raided each other & fought over grazing lands. She doesn't mention this, but it's a good, if subtle, point.

Their population is quite low. Part of this is explained by the harsh conditions of the world, but not fully. Their tech is high in both medicine & mechanics. While people seem to father up to a half dozen kids, they seem to only have one or two of their own, at least from the examples we're given. So this makes sense & helps explain the static nature of their civilization, since it removes population pressure from the reasons to war.

The lack of war & this new tension leading to one doesn't make a great deal of sense to me. They have developed a council-ruled, totalitarian government in one place & a despotic monarchy bordering it. Both are similar to ours, yet they've never had a war developing them? I don't buy it, even though they are fairly well separated by natural obstacles.

The psi powers are interesting, but haven't added anything to the story, IMO. More of a distraction.

The much lauded ansible, at least in this book, is nothing more than a typewriter paired with another through a magical spell of simultaneity. It's reminiscent of Doc Smith's tech mixed with Voodoo. Again, perhaps this is due to where I'm coming into the series & high expectations. Of course, the heater/stove/light was pretty darn magical too, especially given their use of fireplaces. I didn't understand them in the cities at all.

( )
  jimmaclachlan | Aug 18, 2014 |
I read Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" in the mid 1970s. In these intervening years, I've come to believe that this book isn't addressing feminist concerns directly so much as it is trying to take gender out of the human equation to look at what it means to be human, regardless of gender. Read the rest at: http://thegrimreader.blogspot.com/2014/08/i-revisit-gethen.html ( )
  nohrt4me2 | Aug 13, 2014 |
I hated the harsh, intricate, obstinate demands that he made on me in the name of life.


This is no [The Dispossessed], a judgment equal parts quality of the work and personal taste of the reader, unfair and yet true if one keeps in mind that, regardless of individual ratings, I regard Le Guin as a gift to literature. Plenty are the authors who forge ahead with little regard for the reader, nearly ubiquitous are the ones who stay stolidly put in the kiddy pool out of want and necessity, leaving a mere few willing and able to serve as a bridge. One would think sci-fi would attract more of her kind with its natural inclinations towards melding wheeling extension with kindred reality, rather than endlessly sludging in circles of privileged solipsism whose talents lie in viciously retaliating against the slightest veering of status quo, but no matter. I will pity them for their ignorance, if nothing else.

...it certainly was difficult to imagine him as a young mother. He was a hard shrewd jovial politician, whose acts of kindness served his interest and whose interest was himself. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain, and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell.

There is a term I cannot remember that has to do with the skill of the author in taking on a believable voice without hinting at the personal beliefs of the writer behind the curtain. Whatever it is, it is a good one, a mindset that both circumvents the endless diatribes on whether authors may write assholes as well as makes the avoidance of caricature and stereotype an ability to be aspired to. In this work of seeming eradication of gendered double-standards, Le Guin writes a man with little recognition of feminism, developing along lines that aggravated and enlightened me in equal amounts. While it is obvious from her writing that she could have gone much further in breaking down the patriarchy, her aim was a narrative of culture and climate, not a polemic. Had the latter been the case, this work may not have won the Hugo and Nebula, her name might not be as revered on the popular level as it is, and ultimately a conversation about gender and its sociocultural effects may never have started in the unlikely breeding grounds of Star Wars conventions and Internet forums dedicated to [Dune].

As we ran the sledge across the snow-bridges over narrow crevasses we could look down to left or right into blue shafts and abysses in which bits of ice dislodged by the runners fell with a vast, faint, delicate music, as if silver wires touched thin crystal planes, falling.

As said, Le Guin is a bridge, stronger all the more for its subtlety. Men the hermaphroditic Gethenians may be called, but out of limits of the narrator's androcentric language that is all too similar to my own English. Sexist dismissals crop up every so often, but far more powerful are the insinuations of what equal responsibilities for childbearing and domestic responsibility can accomplish on the national scale. Slowly but surely the narrator breaks the binds of his upbringing in order to appreciate the freedom beyond inexorable duality, handled in such a wonderfully constructed melding of thought, prose, and world building that any reader inclined to reading will find something to enjoy.

His loyalty extended without disproportion to things, the patient, obstinate, reliable things that we use and get used to, the things we live by.

It must be mentioned that the narrator is one whom Americans like to describe as black. Take that as you will, but bear in mind the rarity of this in esteemed literature of a genre that calls itself forward thinking, the narrator's own thoughts on the lack of women in the science and art of his own world, our world of reality and its obdurate copings with physical variance and biological fact. Expansion of horizons is sci-fi's game, yes? You don't need another world for that. ( )
1 vote Korrick | Jul 22, 2014 |
I’m sadly ill read when it comes to Ursula LeGuin. I read the first Earthsea book as a pre-teen, possible something else in my teens and now this. I need to rectify this. For The left hand of darkness is a lovely book, wholly worthy of it’s genre classic status.

First things first. As a sucker for good world building, the planet Winter is a wonder, beautifully captured in under 250 pages. Both with it’s extreme weather conditions – having four seasons of winter, basically – and the main difference between it’s people and us – there is just one sex. Especially this last thing is handled with an amazing touch, where LeGuin, without overstressing, manages both to convey how this affects the whole culture and way of thinking, and to throw a few sly feminist winks the reader’s way.

The plot revolves around Genry Ai, an envoy from a huge coalition of humanoid worlds, and his attempts at making the powers in two neighboring states commit to contact. And, more importantly, his uneasy, careful friendship with the brilliant politician Estraven. Most of all, this is a book of building trust and bridging differences. It’s not necessarily a thrilling ride, but constantly interesting, even if the long trek over the glacier makes it just a tad bit back heavy for me. ( )
  GingerbreadMan | Jul 6, 2014 |
It started slowly, and I all but despaired of it, but it built momentum, and by the end I was wholly absorbed. It is often cited as one the best SF books ever. I cannot yet make such a judgement; but I will say it is the most thoughtful SF book I have read, and has left me much to think about, especially on the topic of friendship, which has been much on my mind lately.

Some thoughts on the simpler aspects of the story. Le Guin has built one of the most convincingly alien societies I have encountered in SF; I complained recently about SF authors not making their aliens alien. The people of Gethen are human, but a great deal more alien than most alleged aliens in other books. The characterisation and the plot take time to build, but both work out satisfyingly. There is some fine descriptive prose during the journey over the ice.

Now for the proper review. The core of this book is the story of a friendship, a friendship forged through barriers of culture and gender and mutual misunderstanding. Genly Ai and Estraven are far apart, but eventually their minds (literally) meet. They learn to trust one another, to accept their differences, to understand one another as well as they can, to love one another. The milieu for this story of friendship across divides is a world where the humans are androgynous, and none of the assumptions, problems, prejudices (or joys) of gender are present. Le Guin described the work as a thought experiment to explore a society without men and women, only humans. The description of the workings of such a society is interesting, but not heavy handed, but I do feel that the impact of such ideas has lessened over the years, and what was new and perhaps a little shocking in 1969 doesn't quite have the same punch today. It's still good world-building, though, and provided a consistently interesting and satisfyingly alien background to the main action.

One could cavil at the plot details a little: the situation of the Envoy (alone) is a little contrived, so as to generate the story, but this a very minor quibble. Overall, a very good and enjoyable read, and one that is sure to generate thought and reflection in the thoughtful reader. ( )
  sloopjonb | Jun 3, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 179 (next | show all)
An instant classic
added by bgibbard | editMinneapolis Star-Tribune

» Add other authors (42 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Le Guin, Ursula K.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dillon, DianeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dillon, LeoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ebel, AlexCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gaughan, JackCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirby, JoshCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Malaguti, UgoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nyytäjä, KaleviTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pagetti, CarloForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
White, TimCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Charles,
sine qua non
First words
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.
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 or less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou.
"Praise then darkness and Creation unfinished,"
A friend. What is a friend in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility: no friend to Therem Harth or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand's touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us.
The unknown, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. . . . But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.
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Book description
The Left Hand of Darkness is the account of the efforts of a man named Genly Ai, a representative from a galactic federation of worlds (the Ekumen), who seeks to bring the world of Gethen into that society. The inhabitants of Gethen are sequentially hermaphroditic humans; for twenty-four days of each twenty-six day lunar cycle they are sexually latent androgynes, and for the remaining two days (kemmer) are male or female, as determined by pheromonal negotiation with an interested sex partner. Thus each individual can both sire and bear children.

A classic of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness is an imaginative masterpiece that poses challenging questions about human sexuality, sexism and the organisation of society.
Mr Ai has been sent to observe the inhabitants of the snowbound planet Winter. Like animals, its androgynous people enter phases of sexuality and can be both mother and father at different times in their lives. To Mr Ai, they seem alien, unsophisticated, confusing. A long, tortuous journey across the ice finds him losing at least some of his professional detachment, and he befriends one of their outcasts. But will he ever understand their true nature?
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0441478123, Mass Market Paperback)

Genly Ai is an emissary from the human galaxy to Winter, a lost, stray world. His mission is to bring the planet back into the fold of an evolving galactic civilization, but to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own culture and prejudices and those that he encounters. On a planet where people are of no gender--or both--this is a broad gulf indeed. The inventiveness and delicacy with which Le Guin portrays her alien world are not only unusual and inspiring, they are fundamental to almost all decent science fiction that has been written since. In fact, reading Le Guin again may cause the eye to narrow somewhat disapprovingly at the younger generation: what new ground are they breaking that is not already explored here with greater skill and acumen? It cannot be said, however, that this is a rollicking good story. Le Guin takes a lot of time to explore her characters, the world of her creation, and the philosophical themes that arise.

If there were a canon of classic science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness would be included without debate. Certainly, no science fiction bookshelf may be said to be complete without it. But the real question: is it fun to read? It is science fiction of an earlier time, a time that has not worn particularly well in the genre. The Left Hand of Darkness was a groundbreaking book in 1969, a time when, like the rest of the arts, science fiction was awakening to new dimensions in both society and literature. But the first excursions out of the pulp tradition are sometimes difficult to reread with much enjoyment. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness, decades after its publication, one feels that those who chose it for the Hugo and Nebula awards were right to do so, for it truly does stand out as one of the great books of that era. It is immensely rich in timeless wisdom and insight.

The Left Hand of Darkness is science fiction for the thinking reader, and should be read attentively in order to properly savor the depth of insight and the subtleties of plot and character. It is one of those pleasures that requires a little investment at the beginning, but pays back tenfold with the joy of raw imagination that resonates through the subsequent 30 years of science fiction storytelling. Not only is the bookshelf incomplete without owning it, so is the reader without having read it. --L. Blunt Jackson

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:33:58 -0400)

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A human emissary sent to the world of Winter to bring it into a galactic civilization must find a way to bridge the gulf between his outlook and that of the natives, who can change gender at will.

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