The Left Hand of Darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness
Front cover, first edition, art by the Dillons
Author Ursula K. Le Guin
Cover artist Leo and Diane Dillon (depicted); Alex Ebel (many from 1974)[1]
Country United States
Language English
Series Hainish Cycle
Genre Science fiction novel
Published 1969 (Ace Books)[1]
Media type Print (paperback original; hardcover also 1969)
Pages 286 (first edition)
300 (most modern editions)
OCLC 181524
Preceded by City of Illusions
Followed by The Dispossessed[1]

The Left Hand of Darkness is a 1969 science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is part of the Hainish Cycle, a series of books by Le Guin set in the fictional Hainish universe, which she introduced in 1964. It is among the first books published in the feminist science fiction genre and the most famous examination of androgyny in science fiction.[2]

In 1970, Left Hand won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards as the year's "best novel", according to convention participants and science fiction writers, respectively.[3] In the 1975 Locus Poll & Survey covering "novels", Left Hand ranked third behind Dune and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1963).[4] In 1987, Locus magazine ranked it number two among "All-Time Best SF Novels", after Dune, based on the Locus Poll & Survey of subscribers.[5]

That same year, Harold Bloom edited a critical anthology about the book and said in the introduction: "Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time".[6]


Le Guin's introduction to the 1976 publication of the book identifies Left Hand of Darkness as a "thought experiment" to explore society without men or women, where individuals share the biological and emotional makeup of both sexes.[7] Le Guin also stresses that works of fiction reflect oft-unseen truths, in this case humanity's androgynous nature.

Le Guin developed this idea out of a desire to explore what remained basic to human nature when biological sex was no longer a factor. The Left Hand of Darkness is a significant milestone in the increasing sophistication of the treatment of sex in science fiction that developed in the late 1960s and 1970s.


The Left Hand of Darkness is set in the fictional "Hainish" universe, which Le Guin introduced in her first novel Rocannon's World, published in 1966. In this alternative history, human beings did not evolve on earth, but on Hain. The people of Hain colonized many neighboring planetary systems, including Terra (Earth) and Gethen. The original Hainish civilization then collapsed, disconnecting the planets from each other. The novels and other fictional works of the Hainish cycle the efforts to reestablish a galactic civilization, through the use of interstellar travel taking years to travel between stars (although a much shorter period for the traveler, due to relativistic time dilation), and through instantaneous interstellar communication using the ansible. This galactic civilization is known as the "League of All Worlds" in works set earlier in the chronology of the series, and has been reconstructed as the "Ekumen" by the time the events in The Left Hand of Darkness take place.

This novel takes place many centuries in the future – no date is given in the book itself. Commentators have suggested the year 4870 AD, based on extrapolation off of events in other works, and commentary on her writing by Le Guin.[8] The protagonist of the novel, the envoy Genly Ai, is on a planet called Winter ("Gethen" in the language of its own people) to convince the citizens to join the Ekumen. Winter is, as its name indicates, a planet that is always cold, and its citizens are "ambisexual," spending the majority of time as asexual potentials. They only adopt sexual attributes once a month, during a period of sexual receptiveness and high fertility, called kemmer, in which individuals can assume male or female attributes, depending on context and relationships.[9] These conditions have affected the development of civilizations on Winter. Among other things, the planet has never known war.

Throughout the novel, 'native' myths and legends are interspersed, illuminating the beliefs and psychology of the Gethenians and Estraven's unspoken past. One story discusses the place inside the storm, a quiet haven within a blizzard. Another discusses the roots of the Yomeshta cult (the 'official', organised religion of Orgoreyn, much younger than, but ultimately derived from, the immensely ancient Handdara philosophy/religion). One is an ancient Orgota creation myth. A fourth discusses what a traitor is (the story concerns an ancestor of Estraven).

The inhabitants of Gethen are sequentially hermaphroditic humans; for twenty-four days (somer) of each twenty-six day lunar cycle, they are sexually latent androgynes; and for the remaining two days (kemmer), they are male or female, as determined by pheromonal negotiation with an interested sex partner. Thus each individual can both sire and bear children. Throughout the novel Gethenians are described as 'he,' whatever their role in kemmer. This was also the case in Le Guin's pre-Left hand of Darkness short story "Winter's King" when it was originally published; but in the interests of equity, when it was republished it in the collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters, it was rewritten so that all Gethenians are referred to as 'she'.

Physically, the Gethenians are mostly brown-skinned, but within a wide compass of variations. Most do not have facial hair,[10] but their breasts are only a little larger than those of human males. The Envoy from Earth is darker-skinned (and taller) than most Gethenians, but can pass for a native while wearing indigenous clothing: the same was true of earlier observers who hid their identity.

It is suggested that the Gethenians were genetically engineered for hermaphroditism long ago by the original Hainish civilization, who planted colonies on many worlds, including Earth. That culture collapsed, and the Ekumen has only limited knowledge of the actions and motivations of their predecessors and their former colonies. The Gethenians might have been engineered to maximize reproductive success on the harsh glaciated world of Gethen, in an attempt to eliminate war, or as a social experiment.

Plot summary[edit]

Genly Ai, a male Terran native, is sent to represent the Ekumen, the intergalactic coalition of humanoid worlds, on the frozen planet Gethen, also called Winter. Like all envoys of the Ekumen, he can "mindspeak" – a form of quasi-telepathic speech. He finds that apparently the people of Winter cannot mindspeak. After landing in Karhide, a Gethen kingdom, Genly makes little progress, though he seems to have convinced the Karhiddish Prime Minister, Estraven, of the value of joining the Ekumen. The night before Genly's first audience with the king, Ai begins to doubt Estraven's loyalty because of his strange, effeminate ambiguity. The next day, as he prepares to meet the King, Ai learns that Estraven has been accused of treason, and fled to a neighboring country, Orgoreyn. After meeting with the King, who rejects his invitation to join the Ekumen, he explores Karhide. He pays a group of Foretellers for a mystical Foretelling. He asks if Winter will be a member of the Ekumen in five years, and is told that it will be. Later, a leader of the Foretellers explains to Genly why the Foretellers have perfected their art: to prove the uselessness of knowing the right answer to the wrong question. Ai decides to pursue his mission in Orgoreyn.[7]

Where the people of Karhide's actions were dictated by shifgrethor, an intricate set of unspoken social rules and formal courtesy, Orgota are technically organized and practically logical. They provide Ai with comfortable habitations and ask direct questions. He presents his invitation to the Orgota leaders, relieved that he has nearly reached success. Yet, Ai senses an unspoken aura of fear, and Estraven warns him not to trust the Orgota leaders. He ignores both his feeling and the warning, and is once again blindsided. Overnight, Ai is sent to a far-northern work camp to meet his death by cold, labor, and sterilizing drugs.[9]

To Ai's surprise, Estraven—the person Ai least trusts—goes to great lengths to save him. After breaking out of the work camp, the pair begin the unprecedented 80-day trek across the Gobrin Glacier back to Karhide, where Estraven believes they will finally be able to maneuver acceptance of the Ekumen treaty. Only by working together, learning to trust and accept one another's differences, are the pair able to succeed. At one point, Estraven enters kemmer and becomes "female". Ai, who thinks of Estraven as more male than female, essentially ignores the implications of the kemmer. When they reach Karhide, Estraven is killed, and Genly realizes he has lost a beloved friend. Above all, Estraven was loyal to Ai's mission: the greater good of universal humanity, above the personal or patriotic. Through Estraven and Ai's collaboration, and the powerful political fallout of Estraven's death, the mission of the Ekumen is accomplished. Karhide will join the Ekumen, followed by Orgoreyn.[7]


Algis Budrys praised the novel as "a narrative so fully realized, so compellingly told, so masterfully executed." He found the book "a novel written by a magnificent writer, a totally compelling tale of human peril and striving under circumstances in which human love, and a number of other human qualities, can be depicted in a fresh context."[11]

Harold Bloom listed The Left Hand of Darkness in The Western Canon (1994) as one of the books in his figuration of the Western canon[12] saying that "Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time".[6]

Left Hand won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards as the year's "best novel" according to convention participants and science fiction writers respectively.[3] In 1987, Locus: The magazine of the science fiction & fantasy field ranked it number two among "All-Time Best SF Novels", based on a poll of subscribers.[5][a]


There was no introduction to the original 1969 version of the book, but Ursula Le Guin wrote one for the 1976 edition after reflecting on her work. In her introduction, she defines the nature and purpose of science-fiction writing, and also describes her intent in writing the novel. She insists that science-fiction writing is not "extrapolative," but rather, it is describing an overarching truth that the author reveals in an often complex and ambiguous way. In addition, she generalizes the purpose of novels by saying that good novels are meant to change the reader in an indescribable way after they have completed reading the book. She then progresses to broadly state that the entire fictional genre is a metaphor, but narrows her emphasis by stating that the future especially (in fictional writing) cannot be described in any other way than metaphorical terms.

Primary characters[edit]

Genly Ai[edit]

Ai is the main character of the story, often called "Genry" by the Karhiders, who have trouble pronouncing the letter "L" in their language. At the start of the book, he has been on Gethen for one year attempting to join Gethen with the Ekumen as the first mobile and an envoy of the Ekumen. He arrived with basic information about the language and culture from a team of investigators who had come before him. In Karhide, the king is reluctant to accept his diplomatic mission. In Orgoreyn, Ai is seemingly accepted more easily by the political leaders, yet Ai is arrested, stripped of his clothes, drugged, and sent to a work camp. Rescued by Estraven, the deposed Prime Minister of Karhide, Genly realizes that cultural differences – specifically shifgrethor and gender roles[13] and Gethenian sexuality[14] – had kept him from understanding their relationship previously. During their 81-day journey across the frozen land to return to Karhide, Ai learned to understand and love Estraven.


Therem Harth rem ir Estraven is a Gethenian from the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land. He is the King's Ear (first minister) until exiled from Karhide after attempting to assuage the Sinnoth Valley Dispute with the Orgota.[15] Estraven attempts to help Genly in his Ekumenical pursuits by guiding him, although under the rules of shifgrethor direct advice is an insult, and aiding him with his political influence. Estraven made a societally-incorrect kemmering vow to his brother, Arek Harth rem ir Estraven, after they had produced a child together and therefore his vow made with Ashe is a "false vow, a second vow".[16]

Argaven XV[edit]

King Argaven Harge XV is the current king of Karhide. He is described as being "mad" and his behavior is certainly paranoid. He gave audience to Genly Ai, but refused the Ekumen alliance and exiled Estraven for treason. He has sired seven children but has yet to bear "an heir of the body, king son".[17]


Commensal Obsle of the Sekeve District is an Orgota who once headed the Orgota Naval Trade Commission in Erhenrang. He is a short, inquisitive Orgota Commensal with small eyes, who seeks power and prestige for himself and for his government and wants to invite the Ekumen to Orgoreyn.


Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe is King Argaven's cousin. Tibe is prone to orating and becomes the King's Ear after the exile of Estraven and becomes Regent after King Argaven becomes pregnant. Tibe is fervently against Genly Ai's mission and seems to want to start a war with Orgoreyn. He has Estraven killed at the Karhide/Orgoreyn border.



At first, a large part of the novel seems to be an exploration of a neuter society—a society in which sexual difference plays no role, although love and jealousy remain. The world of Gethen has no history of war, but Le Guin has Genly Ai's narration state that the exact reason for this is unresolved. It could be due to the Gethenians' unique biology (the absence of a deep sense of duality implied by strong sex divisions may cause the Gethenians to lack a necessary component of nationalism), or it could simply be a side effect of the planet's harsh climate, limiting warfare to small skirmishes by simple economics.

Also related is the far slower pace of technological development. The Gethenians are mentioned as having gone through a very slow-paced and gradual industrialization, with many semi-feudal social institutions left intact, rather than the breakneck industrial revolution which Earth experienced since the 18th Century. In one episode, it is specifically mentioned that a particular type of truck has been in use for centuries, almost unchanged, and that Gethenians feel no special need to improve on it and develop a more advanced model. Like the above, this may be related to the absence of a sharp male/female dichotomy, or may simply be a side-effect of Gethen's meagre natural resources, which are deficient not only in pure raw materials, but also in certain forms of inspiration (Genly Ai speculates at one point that the Gethenians' failure to invent the airplane may be due to the planet's lack of any airborne animals).


The book features two major religions: the Handdara, an informal system reminiscent of Taoism and Buddhism, and the Yomeshta or Meshe's cult, a close-to-monotheistic religion based on the idea of absolute knowledge of the entirety of time attained in one visionary instant by Meshe, who was originally a Foreteller of the Handdara, when attempting to answer the question: 'What is the meaning of life?'. The Handdara is the more ancient, and dominant in Karhide, while Yomesh is the official religion in Orgoreyn. The differences between them underlie political distinctions between the countries and cultural distinctions between their inhabitants. Estraven is revealed to be an adept of the Handdara.


Genly is on Gethen as an envoy from the Ekumen. The envoy has trouble communicating with the Gethenians, because he doesn't understand shifgrethor. Using his ansible, Genly can communicate in real time with the Ekumen. In an attempt to prove that he is, indeed, an envoy from other civilizations, King Argaven asks off-planet correspondents of the Ekumen what makes a person a traitor. Although the message is received and answered, Argaven is not satisfied with the answer.

During Foretelling, a ritual of answering questions about the future, the Foretellers communicate in a deep and mystical way. Genly tries, with Faxe, the Weaver of the Foretellers, and later with Estraven, to engage in mindspeak, in part because he misses doing so, and in part because it is not possible to lie in mindspeech. When Estraven finally hears Genly's mindspeak for the first time, he is shocked and puzzled that Genly's mindspeaking voice is the voice of his dead sibling, because there are no lies in mindspeaking.


Shifgrethor is a fictional concept in Le Guin's Hainish Cycle universe, first introduced in 'The Left Hand of Darkness'. In the first mention, Le Guin's character Genly Ai thinks to himself "...shifgrethor--prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen." It derives from an old Gethenian word for shadow. People of Karhide, being portrayed as the darker nation or Yin (in the idea of Chinese Tao), use this concept as a way of showing respect, whereas in Orgoreyn, which is portrayed as the lighter nation or Yang, they do not use shifgrethor but instead act in a direct manner with a falseness beneath it.

According to University of West Georgia Professor Carrie B. McWhorter, shifgrethor can be defined simply as "a sense of honor and respect that provides the Gethenians with a way to save face in a time of crisis." [18]

Style & structure[edit]

The reader experiences Ai's time on Gethen through a series of transcribed communications sent to the Ekumen– including his first-person narrative observations, ethnological reports, myths of the native cultures, and Estraven's personal journal.[9] This form is known as an epistolary narrative mode, and is clear evidence that Le Guin's anthropological background informs her writing.[citation needed] The interpolation of cultural myths and practices with traditional narrative creates a more fragmented and complex reading experience. For a 21st-century reader, this innovation may be hard to appreciate, but the style markedly contrasted the (primarily male-authored) science fiction of the time, which was straightforward and linear.[7]

Ai's first-person narration reflects his slowly developing view, and the reader's knowledge and understanding of the Gethens evolves with Ai's awareness. He begins in naivety, gradually discovering his profound errors in judgement.[9] In this sense, the novel can be thought of as a Bildungsroman, or coming of age story, as the reader experiences the central character's growth.[7]


  • In December 2004, Phobos Entertainment acquired media rights to the novel and announced plans for a feature film and video game based on it.[19]
  • In 2013, the Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre produced a stage adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness in Portland, Oregon.[20]
  • On 12 April and 19 April 2015, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a two-part adaptation of the novel, starring Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Genly Ai, Lesley Sharp as Estraven, Toby Jones as Argaven, Ruth Gemmell as Ashe, Louise Brealey as Tibe and Gaum, Stephen Critchlow as Shusgis, and David Acton as Obsle.[21] Each of the two episodes was an hour long. The radio drama was adapted by Judith Adams and directed by Allegra McIlroy. Following the premiere radio broadcast, each of the episodes were made available for online streaming on BBC Radio 4 Extra for a month, via the BBC iPlayer service.[22] The adaptation was created and aired as part of a thematic month centered on the life and works of Ursula Le Guin, in commemoration of her then-recent 85th birthday.[23][24] In addition to The Left Hand of Darkness radio drama, the thematic month included the airing of a six-part radio adaptation of the main trilogy of novels from Le Guin's Earthsea setting, as well as exclusive interviews with Le Guin herself and the writers she inspired.[25][26][27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Left Hand of Darkness ranked second to Frank Herbert's Dune (1965). In the 1975 rendition covering "novels"[1] it had ranked third behind Dune and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1963). The title "Locus Poll Best All-time Novel Results" alternately displays the standings generated by three different subscriber polls.


  1. ^ a b c isfdb 2016.
  2. ^ Reid 2009, pp. 9, 120.
  3. ^ a b Locus 2012.
  4. ^ Locus 1975.
  5. ^ a b Locus 1987.
  6. ^ a b Bloom, Harold (Editor) (1987). "Introduction by the editor". Modern Critical Interpretations: Ursula Le guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness". p. 10. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Reid 1997.
  8. ^ Watson 1975.
  9. ^ a b c d Spivack 1984.
  10. ^ page 56
  11. ^ Galaxy 1970.
  12. ^ "The Western Canon by Harold Bloom", Robert Treeter, 2002. List of works transcribed from Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, Appendixes.
  13. ^ page 218
  14. ^ page 248
  15. ^ page 15
  16. ^ page 75
  17. ^ page 100
  18. ^ McWhorter 1998.
  19. ^ Harris 2004.
  20. ^ Hughley 2013.
  21. ^ "Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand Of Darkness". BBC. Retrieved 27 March 2015. 
  22. ^ "The Left Hand of Darkness". BBC Radio 4 Extra. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 5 May 2015. 
  23. ^ "Ursula K. Le Guin on Radio 4 and 4 Extra". BBC Radio 4 Extra. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 5 May 2015. 
  24. ^ "Hear Ursula K. Le Guin’s Pioneering Sci-Fi Novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, as a BBC Radio Play". Open Open Retrieved 18 May 2015. 
  25. ^ "Earthsea - Episodes List". BBC Radio 4 Extra. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 5 May 2015. 
  26. ^ "Ursula Le Guin at 85". BBC Radio 4 Extra. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 5 May 2015. 
  27. ^ "7 Bestselling Authors Influenced by Ursula Le Guin". BBC Radio 4 Extra. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 5 May 2015. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Bernardo, Susan M.; Murphy, Graham J. (2006). Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion (1st ed.). Westport, Connecticut, USA: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-33225-8. 
  • Cadden, Mike (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-99527-2. 
  • Le Guin, Ursula K. (May 1992). The Language of the Night (revised ed.). HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-016835-3. 

External links[edit]