Cecily's Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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it was ok
bookshelves: scifi-future-speculative-fict, canada-and-usa, sexuality-gender

The meagre 2* is more a reflection of my enjoyment rather than an objective measure of the book (it has won prestigious awards). It wasn't to my taste, and that was exacerbated by mismatched expectations. It is not really sci-fi, the gender and sexuality were a bit of a side-show, leaving curious combo of political intrigue and Boys' Own tale of derring-do in an inhospitable climate. The setting is another planet in the future, but right from the start, mentions of rain and reign contributed to the non-sci-fi feel.

There were some some fascinating ideas, but I felt they weren't really developed. Also, the multiple names of many people and places made it a little less reader-friendly than it might have been.


Genly Ai is a single human envoy sent to very cold planet (Gethen, aka Winter) to see if the humanoids there want to join the inter-planetary alliance, the Ekumen (etymologically related to "ecumenical"). He isn't first contact, but he is the first overt contact. The idea of him being alone is that "One voice speaking the truth is a greater force than fleets of armies", and also that although the planet might change him, he won't be able to change it.

The planet does not have a single government, and Ai inevitably becomes enmeshed in power struggles between different realms. He starts off in Karhide, and compares subsequent events and encounters in Orgoreyn with those in Karhide.

The other main character is Estraven, a senior courtier in Karhide, who is the second narrator.


This is the book's USP: not people leaping in and out of bed with each other, but the fact that the Genthenians are ambisexual: most of the time they are both/neither sex (hermaphrodite neuters, or more positively, potentials or integrals), and when they go into kemmer (like being on heat), they can be either.

It's easy and convenient to pigeon-hole people based on sex, and Ai understandably struggles with that framework not applying. One manifestation is linguistic: he admits defeat and mostly uses male pronouns (in part because he often meets people in male-associated roles, such as King), but it makes it hard for the reader to view the characters as anything other than male.

Feminine qualities are rarely mentioned, but when they are, it is invariably pejorative, which feels strange coming from a female author. For example, "effeminate deviousness", "sullen as an old she-otter", someone's behaviour was "womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit". Furthermore, an earlier female investigator from Terra comments, "A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated... On Winter... one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience."

For Ai, awkwardness extends to distaste: "It was impossible to think of him as a woman... and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture." Much later, there is grudging acceptance: "I saw... what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him".

Gethenian sexual behaviour and taboos are necessarily different from those typical on Earth, though this includes very relaxed (though still regulated) traditions regarding incest.


In some ways, Winter is a very samey planet with one season and one/no gender (being fixed in one of two sexes is considered a peversion, though is tolerated). Does that make Gethenians more or less complete than Terrans?

The title of the book is said to come from a Handdara poem, and after hearing it, Ai says to Estraven "You're isolated and undivided. Perhaps you are obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism". The phrase is also likened to the duality of yin and yang.


There are feuds and rivalries on the planet, but no war, and no word for it. This is curious, but not really explained, other than that in Karhide hospitality, "The stranger... is a guest. Your enemy is your neighbour", along with another dig at women: they don't have war because "They lacked... the capacity to mobilize. They behaved like animals in that respect, or women"!

They may not have a word for war, but they do have 62 words for snow, so The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax continues... ;)


The book opens with the narrator brazenly stating that "Truth is a matter of imagination", facts are not fixed, so the reader "can choose the facts they like best". However, although the book is mostly told in the first person, by either Ai or Estraven, there appears to be little contradiction in their accounts, so the point is wasted.

Ai's people have developed mindspeech (telepathy), which clearly limits the scope for privacy and lying, but apart from one scene, this is another lost opportunity.


The first-person narratives are occasionally interspersed with snippets of Gethenian folklore. Two religions are mentioned: Handdara, which is "a religion without institutions" and which involves meditation, trance-like superstrength (dothe) and foretelling. The other is more monotheistic, and mentioned rather less.

The predominant religions and consequent (or caused) different cultures in the two countries may be a factor in their political differences.


A short appendix explains quirks of the Gethenian calendar compared with Earth's, but the only interesting aspect is mentioned on page one of the story: it is always year 1; all other years are counted relative to now, which is potentially confusing (though not in practice).

Another curious idea (even more so nowadays) is that "Karhiders don't read much... and prefer their news and literature heard not seen; books and televising devices are less common than radios, and newspapers don't exist"!

Gethenians are adapted to the cold climate biologically (enduring low temperatures) and socially, in that they live somewhat communally.

Their technological development has been steady, but slower than that on Earth. They have no flying vehicles, and it's suggested that, lacking any flying creatures on the planet (not even insects?), the possibility never occurred to them.

Karhiders also have an important system of protocol/face/etiquette, called shifgrethor, which is mentioned often, but somewhat opaque (which is fair enough, as it puts the reader in a similar state of disquiet as Ai is in).


There isn't much (it's primarily plot-driven), but some characters do change their opinions of others as events unfold. Although the King is often described as mad, he didn't seem particularly so.


I was reminded of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide", which is possibly an homage, whether conscious or otherwise. Here, there is a discussion of what sort of question one could or should ask Foretellers, including the danger of asking "What is the meaning of life?" In fact, they perfected foretelling "to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question".


* A powerful person "cannot make an empty gesture or say a word that is not listened to. He knows it,and the knowledge gives him more reality than most people own: a solidness of being, a substantiality, a human grandeur."

* A grand palace is "the product of centuries of paranoia on a grand scale".

* Patriotism is "fear of the other. And its expressions are political not poetical".

* "my landlady, a voluble man"

* "The coldness of it was perpetually incredible. Every morning I had to believe it all over again." (Shades of believing "six impossible things before breakfast" in Alice in Wonderland.)

The blurb from the GR description says in the final paragraph that this is "science fiction for the thinking reader", so I guess failing to like it must be a fault in me as a reader, rather than Le Guin as the author!

Also, David Mitchell cites it as one of the two finest science fiction novels (along with another le Guin, The Disposessed) at 10:30 in this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxq-F...
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Reading Progress

April 21, 2013 – Shelved
April 21, 2013 – Shelved as: scifi-future-speculative-fict
April 24, 2013 – Started Reading
May 1, 2013 – Finished Reading
May 19, 2013 – Shelved as: canada-and-usa
June 15, 2015 – Shelved as: sexuality-gender

Comments Showing 1-50 of 103 (103 new)

message 1: by Kyle (new) - added it

Kyle I've heard a lot of good things about this.

Cecily Me too. But it wasn't for me. Still, I enjoyed The Wizard of Eathsea, years ago, so I know she's not all bad. ;)

message 3: by Derek (last edited May 01, 2013 08:12PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Derek "They may not have a word for war, but they do have 62 words for snow, so The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax continues..."

That's not quite fair - there's no description of the language that occurs in (I think it was Karhidish, not Orgota), but the "Eskimo vocabulary hoax" is based on a complete misunderstanding of agglutinative languages. If this language is not agglutinative, they might well have 62 different words for snow.

But, yeah, I'm not being wowed by this book - and one reason seems to be one of your problems too. Her attitudes towards women seem awfully primitive for someone who's considered a feminist author.

I can't even find the "boys-own adventure" very believable - it's supposed to be an extremely harsh climate, but their early winter isn't near as bad as I am used to. So far (I'm on the ice fields), they have yet to encounter temperatures below 0F - about 20 degrees warmer than a cold winter day in middle Ontario.

And I hate the fact that she's exported Imperial measure to the Ekumen.

message 4: by Cecily (last edited May 01, 2013 11:58PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cecily My reference to Eskimo (very un-PC, but that's the usual term) vocabulary was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I don't know about agglutinative language, but I don't doubt your point is valid.

If you're in the boys-own adventure... I can only say that that's pretty much all you've got until the end of the book.

Derek I had the PC Eskimo discussion with someone who claimed to be an expert a few years back. Apparently, despite the fact that "Eskimo" is a denigrating term applied by their enemies (meaning "cannibal", iirc), and we always use Inuit here in Canada, in Alaska and Siberia there are two other related peoples who are not Inuit, and in Alaska they still use "Eskimo". So, maybe not entirely non-PC...

Agglutinative languages have essentially an infinity of words based on any noun (so 62, or whatever, would be an understatement). Where we have snow, sleet, slush, & ice, the Inuit would have words like fresh-snow, wet-in-your-face-snow, wet-on-the-ground-snow and solid-snow. So really, they have fewer words for snow than we do.

It turns out I've misunderstood the temperatures due to an error in my e-book. It said that the thermometer always showed temperatures between "0 and █60F" and it never even occurred to me that the invalid character was actually supposed to be a minus sign - after all, I've been on ice fields, and 60F in the sun is not impossible. Just a couple of pages later, it becomes clear that the temperatures are below zero. That still puts it well above the sort of weather that killed Scott and his team in the Antarctic. However, it's also too cold for it to be snowing...

message 6: by midnightfaerie (new)

midnightfaerie Wow! Great review! Especially like the reference to hitchhiker's and how you describe the referring to the male and females concerning their sexual gender. You're review almost makes me want to read it though. Sounds very unusual!

message 7: by Cecily (last edited May 03, 2013 01:39AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cecily Hmm. To be honest, I found the book rather boring. If my review tempts you to read the book, I guess that my review has failed to portray my feelings accurately. Not that I'm trying to put you off, either! It's tricky.

message 8: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King A splendid review Cecily.

Derek I just finished, and if this is Le Guin at her best, then as feminist SF authors go, she's no Sheri Tepper.

message 10: by midnightfaerie (new)

midnightfaerie Not at all Cecily! I totally got that you didn't find it as exciting. But the way you described it, made it sound like it was something that was more my style. I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, but I love when authors play with words in a way I can relate to. I think it's the quotes you listed that got me. Don't get me wrong, it's not on the top of my to-read list, however, I might just add it to my bag if I see it at one of my library sales. As always, great review. You always portray your feelings on the book quite well. No worries there.

message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye A five star review of a two star experience. I'm almost finished the book, but I seem to be enjoying it more than you did. My main reservation at the moment is that it seems a bit disjointed. I haven't started to integrate it into a whole yet.

message 12: by Jana Tetzlaff (new)

Jana Tetzlaff Great review, Cecily. I struggled with The Left Hand of Darkness. I somehow didn't "feel" it. I didn't feel up to reviewing or even rating it, because I thought that it was my fault I didn't quite enjoy it as I would have liked to.

message 13: by Cecily (last edited May 16, 2013 05:24AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cecily I don't really think one should ever blame oneself for not enjoying a book (despite my final, tongue-in-cheek, comment).

message 14: by Jana Tetzlaff (new)

Jana Tetzlaff I tried to compensate with over-analysing, but I really felt intellectually deficient. :) I try never to blame a book or myself, but there are those books I just don't know how to review. I've been thinking a lot about how a reader's history (personal experiences and previously read works of fiction and non-fiction) influences their enjoyment of and reaction to a novel. Readers' reactions can be so different and are almost always stimulated by their previous experiences, probably more so than by the artistic prowess of an author. :)

Derek It's never the reader's fault if they don't enjoy a book. It's either the author's fault for being unable to adequately make it interesting, or it's just not the right book to read at the time. I enjoyed it - but I still felt let down by it.

Cecily I think that's very true, Jana - though the precise degree of truth perhaps varies according to the book, the reader and the author.

Warwick I found this quite slow going when I was reading it, but it was one of those books that somehow kept expanding in my mind after I finished it. I remember turning the last page and saying, "Nah, it wasn't that good" to my wife...and then the next morning I woke up still thinking about it..

There is something very unusual about this book. I think I quite like it now.

Cecily The Scott of the Antarctic trek was certainly slow. In fact if I hadn't been reading it along with a group, I might have given up on it, or at least skimmed it. As it was, I read the whole thing, yet reading the discussions (http://www.goodreads.com/topic/group_...) there was plenty that didn't really permeate my unwilling mind.

message 19: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Cecily wrote: "The Scott of the Antarctic trek was certainly slow."

I found that part really unsatisfying (and possibly how I would react if I ever get around to reading The Road).

Re-reading your review after a few months, I'm surprised at how harsh your star rating is.

message 20: by Cecily (last edited Jul 09, 2013 12:18PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cecily Ian wrote: "...Re-reading your review after a few months, I'm surprised at how harsh your star rating is."

Well, 3* is mediocre, neither good nor bad - or rather, neither enjoyed nor disliked. I really didn't like this, and there are plenty of books I've given 3* to that I thought far better, so 2* it is. In fact, had I not read it with an entertaining GR group, it might only have earned 1* (assuming I was prepared to read to the end, on my own)!

message 21: by Lynne (last edited Jul 09, 2013 12:28PM) (new)

Lynne King Cecily,

Continue with your good work, regardless of the ratings. You give pleasure to individuals such as myself with your excellent reviews and that's the main thing. Also we buy the books to gain knowledge and that's what it's all about!

Cecily Absolutely, and I wouldn't want anyone to think I regret reading it. I may even give Le Guin a second chance (not counting her children's/YA books, which I did enjoy reading to my son, a few years back).

Derek Warwick wrote: "I remember turning the last page and saying, "Nah, it wasn't that good" to my wife...and then the next morning I woke up still thinking about it..

There is something very unusual about this book. I think I quite like it now. ..."

I missed this when you wrote it. I have to agree this is probably one of those books. I tend not to remember books long after I finish them. The next book in the group for which Cecily read this was Railsea, which I only read a year ago and enjoyed, and was stunned by how much I misremembered. But this is one that sticks with me, even though I only gave it 3 stars.

Jennyappleseed On feminism and character development: these are two areas where my reading experience greatly differs from yours. I believe the consistent negative tone the narrator uses when referencing the female gender is a reflection of his character, not Le Guin's. These slights are actually used to display the most poignant character development I've encountered in a novel, to the point where the reader's experience of the novel actually changes as Genly grows. His relationships with Faxe and Estraven guide him to the true purpose of his mission on Winter- to know and accept the people of this world as they are, each as individuals, without the shorthand of gender to base assumptions. Le Guin even addresses frankly early on that Genly's machismo is a hindrance to him. I can see where the boys' club paintbrush left a gloss over the top of the story, but to not permeate that to get to the message that gloss is present for is to fall into the very trap Le Guin warns us of.

Cecily That makes sense, Jenny. (I'm still not a big fan of the book, but I'm happy to have a more positive spin on it.)

message 26: by Ian (last edited Nov 24, 2013 02:23PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Are there any fully-fledged female characters? I wonder if part of the novel's power derives from the fact that women are absent, but the role of the female in ambisexuality hints at what their contribution could be. In other words, the novel is set in an era when women are still held down, but the novel gives us a peek through the glass ceiling (even if it hasn't been broken through yet).

message 27: by Cecily (last edited Nov 24, 2013 02:33PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cecily Ian wrote: "Are there any fully-fledged female characters?..."

No, I don't think so. Genly Ai is male, and all the people he meets are ambisexual.

Ian wrote: "...I wonder if part of the novel's power derives from the fact that women are absent, but the role of the female in ambisexuality hints at what their contribution could be. In other words, the novel is set in an era when women are still held down, but the novel gives us a peek through the glass ceiling (even if it hasn't been broken through yet)."

Interesting thought, but I'm not sure. I wonder what Jennyappleseed thinks?

Jennyappleseed I took the message to be that males and females had different roles only biologically. Any aspects of a person's character (aggression, gentleness, intelligence) weren't sexualized, but rather single gender-less traits of a whole person. When the Gethenians were in kemmer, even when biologically they changed, they did not begin to exhibit different personality traits that would fit our conception of male & female. When Estraven was in kemmer, he was still only Estraven.

To me it seemed like Le Guin wasn't trying to make room for female empowerment, but arguing for less definition of gender altogether. Having highly defined expectations for each gender only cripples our ability to see the person inside for who they are. a female can be strong and gentle, a man can be bold and nurturing- the only difference we need perceive is outside, physically.

message 29: by Ian (last edited Nov 25, 2013 11:04AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I would add "socially' to "biologically". Certainly, the removal of individual gendering removed the antagonism from one gender towards the other, possibly because each person could empathise with both gender traits or they were extinguished altogether. I'd argue that Ursula Le Guin did make room for female empowerment, by removing gender as a basis of discrimination. This was a feminist act, even though it was a fictional one and couldn't be replicated in real life.

Derek Jennyappleseed wrote: "When Estraven was in kemmer, he was still only Estraven. "

Yeeess (he said doubtfully)– but the "man" who tried to seduce him was definitely "manly" (in the worst way).

Which reminds me of something I never brought up in our discussion. Is Genly a pun (please don't tell me I have to explain!) or do I just look for puns everywhere? If it is, it must be sarcastic (and yes, I look for sarcasm everywhere, too).

message 31: by Cecily (last edited Nov 26, 2013 02:51PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cecily Jenny, what you're saying makes a lot of sense (I just wish I'd found the book less boring).

Derek (Guilty of thoughtcrime) wrote: "Is Genly a pun (please don't tell me I have to explain!) or do I just look for puns everywhere?..."

Oh, go on, explain: it might be amusing (I confess I'd wondered about the name myself).

Derek Well, a pun fails if it needs explaining...

But "gens" is a family grouping, so it's "people", and of course "man" is also used for people as a whole, so I wondered if "Genly" was supposed to be an asexual form of "Manly".

message 33: by Ian (last edited Nov 27, 2013 12:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Do not go, Genly, into that good night,
Though wise ones at their end know
The left hand of darkness is light.

Cecily I was thinking less etymologically, but more along the lines of a first encounter where I nearly misread it: gently (and gender).

I like Ian's answer better, though.

Samadrita The terminology was confusing to me as well and I found the survival against inclement climate part very monotonous. But I think it was included to make the development of the bond between Genly and Estraven seem believable. For a major part of the narrative, I was disinterested but the last quarter moved me very much. Great critical review, Cecily.

And I agree with what Jenny's messages #24 and #28 elucidate with so much finesse. I was irked by the blatantly sexist tones of Genly initially but later I realized it was done to reflect Genly's transformation from judging humans based on their gender identities to judging their humanity.

Cecily I'm glad it turned round for you in the final pages, Samadrita. I get the narrative need to show the development of the bond between Genly and Estraven, but it just didn't inspire me. Similarly with yours and Jenny's points about Genly's initially sexist views. With fiction, one's intellectual response is not necessarily reflected in one's emotional one.

Apatt It is for "the thinking reader" but it doesn't mean you have to like it! You thought about it and wrote about it and that's a job well done! :D

Cecily Ha ha. Thanks, Apatt. I see you rated it 5* but haven't reviewed it; can you remember which aspects you thought so good? (No problem if you can't.)

message 39: by Apatt (last edited Oct 27, 2014 06:54AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Apatt Cecily wrote: "I see you rated it 5* but haven't reviewed it; can you remember which aspects you thought so good? (No problem if you can't.)"

Well, I do have my sci-fi guru credibility to think of, so I'm obliged to like it ;) OMG! I thought I did review it! Now I can't even answer your question, I think I did review it and it disappeared? Must be that mysterious "Missy" woman rewriting my history!

I think it was something I like about that sex changing character.. or am I mixing it up with Mrs. Doubtfire? I'll have to read it again! In the meantime my review of Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven might help to explain why I like her in general!

Cecily Ha. No, not Mrs Doubtfire, but in this book, the people of Gethen are genderless most of the time, except in brief periods, when they become male or female. So much potential in that, but I felt it wasn't really exploited sufficiently, whereas some of the other aspects were tedious.

Apatt Cecily wrote: "Ha. No, not Mrs Doubtfire, but in this book, the people of Gethen are genderless most of the time, except in brief periods, when they become male or female. So much potential in that, but I felt it..."

I think there is a long journey section where the two main characters are traveling in freezing cold weather, that was a drag. I like the rest of it :) - though I've forgotten 90% of it now!

Cecily Yep (yawn). If I'd wanted to read about Scott of the Antarctic, I wouldn't have picked up a sci-fi novel. ;)

Apatt Cecily wrote: "Yep (yawn). If I'd wanted to read about Scott of the Antarctic, I wouldn't have picked up a sci-fi novel. ;)"

I recommend The Call of the Wild for some "chilling" read ;)

Derek Apatt wrote: "I think there is a long journey section where the two main characters are traveling in freezing cold weather, that was a drag."

Not believable, either. I wonder how believable I'd find Call of the Wild, though. I read it when I was 11 or 12, and even then some of it seemed less than credible.

Althea Ann It's been a while since I've read this one, but it's been one of my favorites... Do you really feel that the 'feminine pejoratives' were unconscious cultural bias sneaking into the writing, or was the inclusion of these phrases intentional, to illustrate Ai's (and, our own) cultural, gender-based bias? I've always seen it as the latter... and in a book where gender-based assumptions are the main point of discussion, I find it hard to imagine that LeGuin did not consider them... I feel like I need to re-read at some point!

Cecily Tricky, but important, questions, Althea. I'm not sure now, but my general feeling was that it was relevant for Genly Ai to feel that way, but that even so, there were other pejoratives, whether of commission or omission, that were less justified.

Cecily Thanks, Vlad. Certainly, I found the Boy's Own Tale parts boring, but parts of the book had potential. Alas, it wasn't fulfilled for me.

Apatt Extra! Extra! Ishiguro Hits Back, Le Guin Apologizes!

Cecily Apatt - this is getting confusing: you are replying to your own comment on my review of a different book!



Derek Cool. I think Ishiguro may have overreacted, there. Especially since he obviously doesn't know that though Atwood and Le Guin disagree about what constitutes Science Fiction (and I side with Le Guin, but take Atwood's opinion much more personally), they've never been "enemies".

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