The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin: Review

left handI admit right upfront that I spent most of my time reading the first half of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin just trying to figure out what the hell was going on. There is quite a bit of world building.

Genly Ai has been sent as an ambassador of a sort of union of planets to the planet Gethen, aka Winter. It’s perpetually cold here. Even colder is the attitude of the people he meets. First of all, some don’t believe he’s from another planet or if he is he’s running a game. There’s not much difference physically between Genly and the Gethenians, except the people here have no gender. They change into a female or male version of themselves once a month. They think he’s a weirdo, being a man all the time. He’s a freak.

Are you still with me? Okay. Genly’s frustration mounts as he realizes he’s just a pawn in someone’s political game. Unfortunately, he can’t tell who is on his side and who is against him. He spends a large part of the novel running around trying to avoid death or prison. When he finally figures out who his only ally is, they have a very Shackleton adventure.

I’m not sure I’m doing a very good job explaining the plot here but that’s all I got.

I really felt like I had been dropped onto a unknown planet myself when I started reading The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin is excellent at the ‘show don’t tell’ style of writing. Always good, yes, but I could have used a glossary. I didn’t know what half the words meant and usually it took 3 or 4 uses of it in the story before I caught on. The Gethenians would go by a couple of names too, so often I thought a new character had been introduced until I realized it was just one person. Then there is the politics and let me say I’m not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree when it comes to politics on my own planet so most of that was right over my head. (I have no idea what was going on in the woods with the fortune teller dudes either).

However, I did get something out of it. No, really! The personal relationships were very interesting. Poor Genly gets so frustrated with everyone because their culture doesn’t allow them to say certain things without losing face and they assume he knows this. He doesn’t and he nearly gets himself killed because he can’t read between the lines. When he and his friend finally get time alone and talk, they have a better understanding of the differences between their cultures.

The lack of gender is a mind bender, especially since they use the pronoun ‘he’ for everyone. Why ‘he’? Why not make up a new pronoun? It was hard to remember that these people were genderless. I kept thinking of them as male. Genly could be an arse about it too. He made comments about how he didn’t trust certain people because of their “femaleness.” That kind of pissed me off. Being female makes someone less trustworthy?

I read The Left Hand of Darkness as part of the Gender in SFF Challenge and I can’t think of a more appropriate example of that than this book. The lack of gender and how Genly navigates this made me think about what a genderless society would be like. Sure, there would be no gender bias but, for all the crap females deal with, I like being a girl.

Le Guin is a clever writer and if anyone think sci-fi isn’t smart, they should read The Left Hand of Darkness. I’m not sure if I’m willing to take on anymore from her though. She might be too much for me!





  1. This one does sound like an exercise in reading! I have only read one Ursula K. Le Guin book and it was a short one called THE LATHE OF HEAVEN. I really enjoyed it and found that it was a good book for those like me who are not regular sci-fi readers. It was fascinating and thoughtful and was a good intro to the genre. This one sounds a bit tougher, though, and I might wait a bit to read it, once I've "practiced" with other books that slowly bring me into the genre. I can't wait to read more Le Guin, that's for sure.

    1. Maybe I'll try that one sometime. Yes, this was a little over my head.

  2. Never read Le Guin, and I realize this is a crime in most places. She's on my "get off your butt and read it already" list.

  3. Sounds to me like you did pretty well with a difficult book. This is not one of her easier reads.

    Others have pointed out the "he" issue, too. I think she was ahead of her time, but her time was so long ago that we have issues with her now that we might not have had when the book was first published. But, you're still right to point these out.

    I also think that your confusion while reading the book is part of the experience. The main character is at least as confused as you are in the end. Reading your review made me think of the early encounters Europeans had with the Americas, Asia and Africa and what these must have been like. I'm sure they had gender issues, even then.

    I hope you'll read more of Le Guin someday. I recommend The Lathe of Heaven. It's just as smart as her others and much less confusing.

    1. It was definitely challenging.

      I thought of those encounters too. It reminded me of A Passage to India where the 2 main characters can't say what they mean because one is English and the other Indian. It's very similar.

      Since you are the second person to mention Lathe of Heaven, I'll have to look out for it.

  4. I've been meaning to read some LeGuin but might very well pass on this one. If the world-building is too intricate I give up.

  5. Sorry I bailed! This would have been a reread for me, but I just couldn't get into it. Stupid reading slumps... I was curious why I still had it because it has been years since I read it and I hardly remember it any more. I might pick it up later in the year when my reading is going better...


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