The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Last month, June, in my Decades Project I reached the 1950s and the first book from Africa: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. This month we have reached the 1960s. Fiction, serious fiction, moved beyond our atmosphere to use the idea of life on other planets. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of Ursula LeGuin’s best known and celebrated novels. In it she takes us into a fictional world where strangers are aliens, technology determines much of life, and no practices, including our deeply embedded gender relations, can be considered as fixed.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I came to read this novel following my pleasure in The Earthsea Trilogy. In these children’s books among the adventures and dragons was the importance of knowing the names of things. Being able to name an object or person or being gives you power over them. Think of the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin from the Brothers Grimm. Indeed the power of naming is akin to the power of writing. To write is to have power over something, to understand it, to manipulate it, to tell alternative version of it.

The Left Hand of Darkness felt like an important book when I first read it, probably in the ‘70s. In particular the idea of a society not dominated by gender difference felt timely. In 1976 Marge Piercy published Woman on the Edge of Time, which explored the same territory of the gender neutral. It is indeed a challenging idea. The novel goes yet further and considers human relations across many other boundaries, some of which are taken-for-granted assumptions. And in the end it proposes the possibilities of loving relationships between peoples and individuals despite huge differences and difficulties. It is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1969.

The Story of The Left Hand of Darkness

Gently Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose affiliation of planets all occupied by humans. He has come to the appropriately named planet Winter to test out the possibility of extending the Ekuman arrangement with the agreement of the peoples of this planet. Winter is cut off from other planets by distance, and the humans have developed a different reproductive cycle. They have also not developed flight.

Gently Ai is black, male, about 30 and regarded as a pervert for his sexual characteristics. His cause is taken up by Estraven, the Prime Minister of one of the countries on this planet, but it is not clear whether Ai can trust him. Social practices make it hard for them to play the nuanced game of diplomacy and in a political coup they are both exiled to the neighbouring country. Here with different, but also challenging social practices and more political machinations Ai is imprisoned. Estraven rescues him and they undertake a long winter trek across uninhabited regions of ice, volcanic eruptions, rocky mountains and glaciers. They return to Estraven’s country and Gently Ai’s and the Ekumen’s mission is successful, although Estraven dies in the escape.

The two men develop a friendship as they cross the icy wastes. Their differences are huge: Ai is a man like those from Earth who must not show fear and must not cry. Estraven is skilled in diplomacy and not offending; he also has skills in survival. The two countries have very different ways of going about governance, but these ways fail to protect them from power-hungry people, and political manoeuvring. The different attitudes to the Envoy, to hospitality, trust, criminals, belief in the possibility of things being other (imagination?) are all explored.

Reading SF often feels like overcoming hurdles. I was able to get through the issues of different naming systems, words invented for the planets and for the technological paraphernalia, to get to the heart of the story. And I was moved again on this rereading.

Ursula LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

The author was the daughter of two eminent anthropologists, and this interest in peoples and how they arrange their lives is evident in all her fiction. She has also written about writing (Steering the Craft), and her book reviews have appeared in the Observer. LeGuin is never one to waste a good idea, she added to the Earthsea Trilogy: Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. The Left Hand of Darkness is the first of the Hainish Cycle.

I am planning to explore her ideas about imagination next month, using the essay called The Operating Instructions. It can be found in her recent collection Words are my Matter (2016).

Cover of First Edition

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin first published in 1969. I used the edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have decided to read Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi in August for the decade of the 1970s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1980s and 1990s.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

12 Responses to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

  1. Oh, I need to re-read this book!
    Suggestions: 1980s – Atwood ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, 1990s – Wynne Jones ‘A sudden wild magic’.

    • Caroline

      Happy to have reminded you of this novel Kristina.

      And thanks for the suggestions for the next decade. I see from my notes when I started the project that I had thought of The Handmaid’s Tale, but given recent reworking of it on TV in Britain I think I will miss it on this occasion, strong though it is.

      Thanks for you comment today.
      I don’t know A Sudden Wild Magin, but I will certainly check it out.

  2. Jennifer Evans

    Thanks Caroline. This reminded me of how much I loved the Earthsea trilogy and I went out and bought it for my thirteen-year-old granddaughter. I hope she enjoys it as much as I did.

  3. The Decades Project is such a great approach. I have following your reviews on it and need to sign up. I am a retired history prove and looking at how culture changes over time.

    I read this book first in the 70s it shaped me. When I reread it recently I was bothered by how it seemed dated in its treatment of gender. From here, I can stop blaming her and put in the context of how I have seen her expand her own understanding of gender. Have you read her Bryn Mwr Commencement speech about father and mother tongues It’s online I love it. Right now I am working on a personal project of figuring out how to cope with aging, CFS, and declining cognitive ability . I have found her concepts valuable.

    I have also profited from your Older Women in Fiction and have some titles to add when I get to tracking then down and giving coherent information about them.


    • Caroline

      Dear Marilyn, thank you so much for your endorsement of the two series: The Decades Project and the Older Women in Fiction. It is great to hear that people have been following them.

      I think Ursula LeGuin has been amazing over the years, and like her characters, she grows and develops. I remember a black and white him of gender role reversal that had my women’s group in stitches. The men came out of work, laden with carrier bags of shopping and caught the bus home. Then they had to make the supper. The Women stepped into posh cars and drove home via a drink at the pub It seemed hilarious at the time and made the point about gender divisions so well. I think LeGuin asks us to consider why gender roles and gender relationships are so taken-for granted.

      Keep on coping with the ageing thing.

  4. This is one of the books by Ursula K. LeGuin that I’ve never read. It sounds good, though!

    • Caroline

      Hi Lydia,
      Do read it and let us know what you think. On the www there are references to it being her most popular and widely read book.

  5. Anne Gore

    I loved the Earthsea trilogy and I am going to read this too. I love the stage in a small child’s life when they want to know the name of everything. They learn it and then repeat it endlessly. There is something very important about naming and thus knowing what something or someone is.

    • Caroline

      I know what you mean Anne.
      Perhaps all those dragons and Vikings are the current equivalent of the Earthsea Trilogy. I didn’t find them or read the Earthsea stories until I was an adult. I loved them.

      C xx

  6. Please add me to your Book Word email list. Thank you. MdJ

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