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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le…

The Left Hand of Darkness (1972)

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Hainish Cycle (4), Hainish Cycle, Chronological (6)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
11,863285353 (4.05)738
While on a mission to the planet Gethen, earthling Genly Ai is sent by leaders of the nation of Orgoreyn to a concentration camp from which the exiled prime minister of the nation of Karhide tries to rescue him.
  1. 70
    Ammonite by Nicola Griffith (mambo_taxi, mollishka)
    mambo_taxi: Recommended if the whole "what if we think about gender differently" genre of science fiction appeals to you. Ammonite is much more interesting and better written as well.
    mollishka: Offworlder treks through snow and ice on planet where all of the natives have the same gender.
  2. 51
    Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (lquilter)
    lquilter: Fans of either Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness or Leckie's Ancillary Justice should enjoy the other. In common, the pacing, character-centered perspective obscuring aspects of the universe, political machinations, far-future setting, and treatment of ethics; also interesting for its simultaneous foregrounding and backgrounding of gender.… (more)
  3. 30
    The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (andomck)
  4. 20
    Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (WildMaggie)
  5. 20
    Shadow Man by Melissa Scott (sandstone78)
    sandstone78: Explorations of gender beyond the gender binary
  6. 32
    Embassytown by China Miéville (santhony)
    santhony: Science fiction as seen through the prism of anthropology and sociology.
  7. 10
    Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (andomck)
    andomck: Scientists exploring an alien environment
  8. 10
    A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg (LamontCranston)
  9. 10
    Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin (sturlington)
  10. 10
    Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Vol. 1 by Fumi Yoshinaga (electronicmemory)
    electronicmemory: Ooku: The Inner Chambers explores a feudal Japan where women rule the country after a devastating plague kills the majority of the male population. Gender roles are inverted, and Ooku: The Inner Chambers follows the story of a young man who becomes a concubine to the Shogun of Japan shortly after she comes to power.… (more)
  11. 10
    A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (Konran)
  12. 10
    Commitment Hour by James Alan Gardner (MyriadBooks)
  13. 11
    The Godmakers by Frank Herbert (themulhern)
    themulhern: Two radically different novels about the business of reclaiming/rediscovering/reuniting with planets that were lost during a great stellar war.
  14. 00
    Glory Season by David Brin (ultimatebookwyrm)
    ultimatebookwyrm: Two books in the nature of a thought experiment with regard to gender and social construction. Slow, methodical reads that aren't afraid to say a few things that won't be popular.
  15. 00
    Dark Water's Embrace by Stephen Leigh (MyriadBooks)
  16. 33
    Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (andomck)
    andomck: Science Fiction involving "unorthodox" procreation

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» See also 738 mentions

English (278)  Spanish (2)  Catalan (1)  Romanian (1)  Italian (1)  French (1)  German (1)  All languages (285)
Showing 1-5 of 278 (next | show all)
one of the best books I've ever read. if it weren't for the "wintriness" of winter I should like nothing more than to be a Karhider learning and kemmering with the best of them. ( )
  me_librarian | May 15, 2020 |
The Left Hand of Darkness is a novel about politics (from monarchies to bureaucracies to secret police), about studying other societies, about a journey for survival, about friendship and understanding between two people who are unlike one another.

Genly Ai is an Envoy, sent to the planet Gethen (also known as Winter) to make contact and establish - if they're willing - communication and trade with the other Ekumenical planets. Genly has spent two years in Karhide, where Estraven, an advisor to the king, has been helping his case; but the king is temperamental, and turns against Estraven and Genly. Genly travels to the other major society on the planet, Orgoreyn, by way of the Handdarata, a peaceful society of Foretellers. Estraven, labeled a traitor, makes for Orgoreyn as well, and tries to protect Genly and advance his case there; yet Genly doesn't realize that Estraven is trying to help him, and he acts too late. He is sent to a work camp, from which Estraven rescues him, and the two set off on a perilous journey across the ice back to Karhide.

On Gethen, people are neither gender for most of a 26-day cycle; then, for a few days, they go into "kemmer," become either male or female, and have sex with other people in kemmer at the same time, after which both return to a genderless state. Anyone can be a father or a mother - or both ("The king was pregnant"). There is no rape and no aggression; instead there is equality (though the societies on Gethen are not without problems; for one thing, they battle constant cold). But Genly struggles to understand humans that don't fit into his gender binary, and Le Guin's use of "he/him" pronouns for everyone undermines the idea she is trying to communicate of a society that is not built around the gender binary. Genly also seems contemptuous of any stereotypically feminine trait.

I read this as an ebook, and I feel that I would have had an easier time with a physical book. From the beginning, readers are plunged into a new world, with its own reality and vocabulary, and it took me a while to get up to speed.


The purpose of a thought-experiment...is not to predict the future...but to describe reality, the present world.
Science ficiton is not predictive; it is descriptive. (Author's Note)

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. (Author's note)

"No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other." (Ch. 1)

One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time... (Ch. 3)

"Only fear rules men. Nothing else works. Nothing else lasts long enough." (the king to Genry Ai, ch. 3)

When action grows unprofitable, father information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep. (Ch. 3)

The people of Winter [Gethen], who always live in the Year One, feel that progress is less important than presence. (ch. 5)

"You don't see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling? ...To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question. (Faxe, ch. 5)

"There's really only one questions that can be answered...and we already know the answer....The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next." (Faxe, ch. 5)

Consider: Anyone can turn [their] hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable...Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. (Ch. 7)

On Winter...One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience. (Ch. 7)

Compare the torrent and the glacier. Both get where they are going. (Ch. 8)

The man was like an electric shock - nothing to hold on to and you don't know what hit you. (Ch. 10)

"My job here is, really, to find out if you're willing to communicate with the rest of mankind." (Ch. 10)

Once they were on the road, they might begin to get some sense of where it could take them. (Ch. 10)

In Orgoreyn...nothing is done visibly. Nothing is said aloud. The machine conceals the machinations. (Estraven, ch. 11)

To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness. (Ch. 11)

Why can I never set my heart on a possible thing? (Ch. 11)

"Mr. Ai, we've seen the same events with different eyes; I wrongly thought they'd seem the same to us." (Estraven, ch. 14)

"The First Envoy to a world always comes alone. One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion." (Ch. 15)

"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." (Ch. 16)

"But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one's life, is whether one's born male or female. In most societies it determines one's expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners - almost everything."
"Equality is not the general rule, then?"
(Genly Ai and Estraven, ch. 16)

...I know beyond doubt what the real center of my own life is, that time that is past and lost and yet is permanent, the enduring moment, the heart of warmth....What I was given was the thing you can't earn, and can't keep, and often don't even recognize at the time; I mean joy. (ch. 18)

Afterword by Charlie Jane Anders

A huge part of the value of a science fiction story like The Left Hand of Darkness is that it allows you to imagine that things could be very different. And then, when you come back to the "real" world, you bring with you that sense that we can choose our own reality, and the world is ours to reshape.

In many ways, TLHoD disrupts gender as well as it ever did. But there are some issues, too. Le Guin chooses to use "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun for the Gethenians, which undercuts the idea that they're supposed to be neither male nor female. ( )
  JennyArch | May 10, 2020 |
This was a very interesting idea, and I'm pretty sure it would have struck me as exciting and radical if I'd read it soon after it came out, but it is — as Le Guin herself pointed out — very much limited by the time it was written in and the background of the author. The planet on which the story is set is inhabited by people who don't have binary gender, but neither the author nor her narrator, who seems to be from a future version of our own world, has the imaginative and linguistic tools that would allow her to write about such people without making them into men who occasionally display "effeminate" characteristics. Male pronouns all the way, and male everything else, really. So that, most famous, aspect of the book is rather a let-down when you come to it fifty years on.

Apart from that, it develops into a great Cold-War escape-from-the-Gulag story, eventually, and an interesting study of friendship between two characters of backgrounds completely alien to each other, but that is only about halfway through the book, because so much time and effort is needed to tell us where we are and why and how it all works, right down to the local version of not-Buddhism.

Undoubtedly high-quality writing, but it didn't really win me over to the genre. ( )
  thorold | Apr 29, 2020 |
I recently finished this book. It took me awhile to get into it. Le Guin has a unique voice and strikes me as literary, or maybe passive, although I didn't do a close read to see it that is actually true, but it wasn't really to my taste.

The book won the Hugo and is considered a classic in the science fiction genre, but it was just okay for me. I think the thing that got her the recognition was her use of sexuality.

The plot is about an Ambassador from a collective of human worlds reaching out to this somewhat backward world that is unique in the human species. They have adapted to a single androgynous form and their bodies go through what is called kemmering once a month, on a type of menstrual cycle, where they become sexual active during that period. They partner with someone and both will randomly morph into male and female for the kemmering. The interesting aspect to this is that each person can become pregnant when they are in the female form. It make their society very different from what we are used to, and Le Guin does an admirable job showing these different ramifications on the social structure.

The story picked up speed in the last half, but the ending, for me, was unsatisfying. The story was complete and does come full circle and I wouldn't say it was a sad ending, but I thought she could have made a different choice for my own personal satisfaction. Perhaps her literary leanings would not allow for the type of ending I would have preferred. I won't spell it out, because it would spoil too much, but overall I liked it. ( )
  Kardaen | Apr 24, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 278 (next | show all)
An instant classic
added by bgibbard | editMinneapolis Star-Tribune

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Le Guin, Ursula K.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abelenda, FranciscoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Altuğ, ÜmitTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Anders, Charlie JaneAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Andrade, FátimaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Aymerich i Lemos, SílviaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Živković, ZoranTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bailhache, JeanTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Baranyi, GyulaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Chambers, BeckyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dillon, DianeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dillon, LeoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ebel, AlexCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Erőss, LászlóAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
芙佐, 小尾翻訳secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Franzén, TorkelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Freas, FrankIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Freas, Laura BrodianIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gaiman, NeilIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gaughan, JackIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gaughan, JackCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Guidall, GeorgeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heinecke, JanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Horne, MatildeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
서정록,secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jęczmyk, LechTł.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jones, TobyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirby, JoshCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Koubová, JanaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kuczka, PéterAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Laretei, HeldurIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lemen, VanessaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lueg, Lena FongCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lupton, DavidIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Malaguti, U.Traduttoresecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Malaguti, UgoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McArdle, JamesNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miéville, ChinaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mitchell, DavidForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nyytäjä, KaleviTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pagetti, CarloForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Palmiste, EndelIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reinsalu, TiinaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stokesberry, RuthNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stuyter, M.K.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thole, C. A. M.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vinge, Joan D.Prefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
White, TimCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
WoodroffeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Тогоева, И.пер.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Цветаев, Ю.Аил.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Гаков, В.сост.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Charles,
sine qua non
For Charles, sine quo 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.
From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97.

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. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
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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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?
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