I feel like this is a difficult book to review.
For one thing, it’s science fiction, and I haven’t read enough science fiction to be even a moderately insightful reviewer. Neither have I sampled the other books from Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series, although I would be keen to after reading Left Hand.
For another thing, Le Guin, as usual, tackles themes that are fascinating and complex. There are a whole heap of ideas in this book: sexuality and its relation to politics, civilisation, misunderstandings and miscommunication.
I shall do my best.
The Left Hand of Darkness is about the people of the planet Gethen. The Gethenians are androgynous beings, neither male nor female. Once a month they enter kemmer, which is something like estrus, when they acquire secondary sexual characteristics and a strong desire to hop in bed with the nearest moving person. This has a lot of implications for how society works. For one thing, though they have more than one nation (Karhide, a monarchy, and Orgoreyn, a bureaucracy), they’ve never had a war.
The story is told chiefly from the POV of Genly Ai, an alien to Gethen. Genly is an envoy sent by the Ekumen, an associative body maintaining links between the 83 planets known to be inhabited by human beings (in all their genetic variation). Genly’s job is to convince the Gethenians to join the Ekumen’s alliance.
Genly, being fully a male, struggles with their androgynous nature and their rapidly shifting politics. The story moves swiftly, with twists of betrayal, exile and imprisonment. The culmination of the book is a desperate journey across a beautiful, deadly, subzero wasteland wherein at last he reaches a sort of understanding with one of the Gethenians.
Themes of duality permeate Le Guin’s novel. Yin and yang, male and female, hot and cold, light and dark. In her introduction she talks about how science fiction is a thought experiment: not to indulge the whims of the author in creating fantasy universes, but to hold a mirror up to our own world, to illuminate reality. In Left Hand of Darkness, this is certainly the case. I particularly enjoyed the chapter where a reflection on Earth’s (Terra’s) society is articulated…there were a lot of interesting points about how sex influences all our interactions–in the workplace, in the street. What’s the first question you ask a pregnant women? Whether you are a boy or a girl is arguably the most defining characteristic in your life.
I can’t say much more. It’s a complex book but the pace is quick. Le Guin doesn’t waste time on useless descriptions. The alternating chapters with Gethenian myths and reports from other ambassadors add an interesting depth.
I gave this book a 6/10, possibly because of my lack of engagement (I didn’t have the mental energy at the time to fully immerse myself in the book) and also because Le Guin’s summary style of writing, though excellent, isn’t my favourite.
BUT, this book has won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and got loads of high praise from reputable sources. So. Recommended if you want a relatively short and thought-provoking read!
PS. I just found out that this was written in 1969! Holy moly, Ursula!