The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness Cover

The Left Hand of Darkness


I was reticent to reread the Left Hand of Darkness for years, thinking I might be disappointed, that I might not find it as good as it was when I had read it long ago, shortly after it was published. I'm glad to report that I was not disappointed. It is superlative. This was the first of LeGuin's books that I read, some of which are quite good. This one excels.

Ursula K. LeGuin's strength is her ability to create a culture, a completely fictitious society, which is complex and natural and believable. She writes science fiction. It could as well be called anthropological fiction. The Left Hand of Darkness is an exemplar of that ability.

The story takes place on an icy world named Gethen, also known as Winter. Genly Ai is the First Envoy from the Ekumen whose mission it is to make contact with the inhabitants of Winter and ask them to ally themselves with the worlds of the Ekumen in the interest of trade and cultural exchange. He comes alone alone because one is a visitor but two is an invasion. After two years in the kingdom of Karhide, Ai finally gains an audience with the mad king, through the help of the prime minister Estreven. On the eve of the meeting Estreven falls into royal disfavor and is banished as a traitor. He flees to Karhide's neighboring adversary, Orgoreyn, a country with a heavily bureaucratic government. The king is suspicious of Ai and the meeting is unproductive. Ai travels the countryside and eventually crosses into Orgoreyn. There he is openly welcomed by Orgoreyn officials and runs into Estreven at a banquet. Estreven warns Ai about being used as a pawn for political ambitions by his Orgoreyn hosts, but Ai mistrusts Estreven and ignore the warning. Ai is arrested by the Orgoreyn secret police and sent to a Voluntary Farm, a prison work camp. The conditions are horrid and Ai will not survive much longer when Estreven breaks him out of jail. Estreven tells Ai, "I was the only one who trusted you, but you never trusted me." In their desperate escape across miles of arctic wilderness, they become close friends. After their return to Karhide, Estreven the Traitor is discovered and is shot trying to cross the border back into Orgoreyn. He dies in Genly Ai's arms. Orgoreyn had reported that Ai had died of natural causes months earlier. When it becomes known that Ai lived and Estreven had been killed, both governments fell.

Much has been made of the Gethenian's andogeneity, their ambisexual nature, aside from which they are human. There are no genders on Gethen. The people move in and out of maleness and femaleness, and either member of a couple may bear children. This obviously has profound implications on their culture. Many reviewers have dwelt on this aspect of the book, citing the times in which it was written, the burgeoning feminist movement, the awakenings of the gay rights movement, etc. For me it simply was a way that the Gethenians were so very alien from Genly Ai, and from us.

The book is very well written, literary fiction. The chapters are interspersed with little mini-chapters of Gethenian folklore. They help us to understand the alien culture in which Ai finds himself. These literary interstices are short stories by themselves. The story is told mostly through the eyes of Genly Ai, but later in the book, a few chapters are from Estreven's journal. The differing points of view help our understanding while allowing the novel to remain relatively short. The story is not fast paced, but it never lags. It moves steadily along all the way through to reach its tragic climax.

The Left Hand of Darkness well deserves its status as a science fiction classic. All lovers of science fiction should read it.