Classic SciFi reviews: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Here at, I primarily review thrillers (fiction and occasionally nonfiction) with science or medicine in them.  Previously, I’ve discussed how SciThri is different from SciFi (read post What is a Science Thriller?).  This is part of my series of reviews of classic SciFi novels.

Left Hand of Darkness
Summary (from the publisher): A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness  by Ursula LeGuin (author of Earthsea cycle) tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can change their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Embracing aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.


I’m a fan of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. Recently I ran into two unrelated mentions of another of her books, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) (including this one). Because I had not heard of this novel before, two encounters seemed like a sign. I checked out a copy from my library.

The Left Hand of Darkness does what the greatest SF novels do so well. It takes a speculative setting (another planet in an unspecified future), adds a deeply developed civilization that is almost human but not quite, and uses this setting as a way to explore aspects of the human experience. In this case, the novel is about love.

As mentioned in the summary, the defining difference between the humans of the planet Gethen/Winter and the rest of us is their indeterminate gender. With the exception of rare natural “perverts,” every person on Gethen is neither male nor female, but both and neither. With the regularity of a menstrual cycle, Gethens enter kemmer, a period of a few days when they become sexually active—basically in heat—and they sexually differentiate into either a man or a woman in a semi-random fashion, and sexual reproduction follows in the usual way. Therefore everybody on Gethen can be both a mother and a father at different times in their lives.

LeGuin notes that sexual duality influences human society in profound and subtle ways, and presents Gethen society as a vision (neither “better” nor “worse”) of how this lack of duality might manifest.

To my surprise, however, sex is not a major, overt theme of this story. Rather the focus is on a (nonsexual) relationship between a (male) human and a Gethen individual. The first 2/3 of the book is a setup for the extraordinary final third. In the beginning, the author builds a world and a society, sets up political intrigue and conflict. The world-building is masterfully done, though I wondered a little about the languid pace at times.

The novel abruptly changes at the halfway point, when the protagonist’s fate takes a dramatic turn for the worse. For many pages I couldn’t put this book down. Then things slowed again during a prolonged journey across a glacier. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that this section which seems devoid of plot is actually the big payoff of the whole book. In understated and psychologically profound ways, LeGuin shows what is intimacy, what is love. She pulls it all together for an appropriate conclusion that carries a heavy authenticity and emotional resonance for the reader. I think the feeling I got of slogging through the long journey as a reader is precisely the effect that the author was going for, as it is necessary for the emotional finish.

In summary, a splendid work of literary science fiction with a few thriller elements that I’m very glad I decided to read.

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