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The Left Hand of Darkness [Paperback]

Ursula K. Le Guin
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (116 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 17 2002 Ace Science Fiction

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards

A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness 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 the 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.

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Genly Ai is an emissary from the human galaxy to Winter, a lost, stray world. His mission is to bring the planet back into the fold of an evolving galactic civilization, but to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own culture and prejudices and those that he encounters. On a planet where people are of no gender--or both--this is a broad gulf indeed. The inventiveness and delicacy with which Le Guin portrays her alien world are not only unusual and inspiring, they are fundamental to almost all decent science fiction that has been written since. In fact, reading Le Guin again may cause the eye to narrow somewhat disapprovingly at the younger generation: what new ground are they breaking that is not already explored here with greater skill and acumen? It cannot be said, however, that this is a rollicking good story. Le Guin takes a lot of time to explore her characters, the world of her creation, and the philosophical themes that arise.

If there were a canon of classic science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness would be included without debate. Certainly, no science fiction bookshelf may be said to be complete without it. But the real question: is it fun to read? It is science fiction of an earlier time, a time that has not worn particularly well in the genre. The Left Hand of Darkness was a groundbreaking book in 1969, a time when, like the rest of the arts, science fiction was awakening to new dimensions in both society and literature. But the first excursions out of the pulp tradition are sometimes difficult to reread with much enjoyment. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness, decades after its publication, one feels that those who chose it for the Hugo and Nebula awards were right to do so, for it truly does stand out as one of the great books of that era. It is immensely rich in timeless wisdom and insight.

The Left Hand of Darkness is science fiction for the thinking reader, and should be read attentively in order to properly savor the depth of insight and the subtleties of plot and character. It is one of those pleasures that requires a little investment at the beginning, but pays back tenfold with the joy of raw imagination that resonates through the subsequent 30 years of science fiction storytelling. Not only is the bookshelf incomplete without owning it, so is the reader without having read it. --L. Blunt Jackson --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.


“[A] science fiction masterpiece.”—Newsweek
“A jewel of a story.”—Frank Herbert
“As profuse and original in invention as The Lord of the Rings.”—Michael Moorcock
“An instant classic.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Like all great writers of fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin creates imaginary worlds that restore us, hearts eased, to our own.”—The Boston Globe
“Stellar…A triumphant return to the magic-drenched world of Earthsea…Le Guin is still at the height of her powers, a superb stylist with a knack for creating characters who are both wise and deeply humane. A major event in fantasy literature.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Richly told…Le Guin hasn’t lost her touch. She draws us into the magical land and its inhabitants’ doings immediately.”—Booklist


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First Sentence
I'LL MAKE MY REPORT AS IF I TOLD A STORY, FOR I WAS taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Honest Letter Dec 1 2003
Format:Mass Market Paperback
I had no idea how to review this book, so I wrote Ms. Le Guin a letter. I thought I would include part of it as my review. She responded to me, and it was a real thrill. See the letter below:
Ms. Le Guin,
I am a 33 year old school teacher in Edinburg, IL. I teach English to middle school students. I occasionally teach college composition classes as an adjunct faculty member. I am also an avid reader and a struggling writer. I have always believed that in order to write good fiction one has to read a lot of good fiction and a lot of bad fiction. I have done both. I began a quest to read all of the Hugo Award winners to give myself an impression of what many consider to be good writing. That is when I discovered your novel THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. It was sitting quietly in a used bookstore with a tattered cover and a well-read spine.
As I began to read it, I have to admit that at first I wasn't particularly impressed. It seemed an odd world, and I was having a hard time getting into the story. This did not last long. The greatness of the book began to emerge. I began to read at a quicker pace. I became so enthralled with the culture you had created that I could think of little else. You took me to the places that you had fashioned and made me live as one of your characters. I remember your descriptions of the snow and ice. I actually felt cold most of the time I read your novel. Perhaps this degree of identification is unusual, but your work moved me so much that I can only describe it as awe-inspiring. I truly felt that I was in the presence of a true master. I cannot say for certain why the book is so wondrous. I have tried to analyze it many times in my mind.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Tao of Le Guin June 22 2004
Format:Mass Market Paperback
In many ways, Le Guin delineates upon the Taoist belief of unity in order to prove that all things, materialistic or idealistic, have an opposite in this wonderful, original, and often startling novel.
Through androgeny, Le Guin shows that although male and female are opposites, they complement each other to make one. Protagonist Genly Ai has difficulty seeing the Gethenians as either man or woman, instead of what they really are - a union of both. And in return, the androgynes see Ai, a human, as a pervert - a division of the two sexes. Indeed, the androgeny in 'The Left Hand of Darkness' creates a world in which sexual discrimination and exploitation are not possible. Le Guin uses androgyny in order to make us conscious of the way our stereotypes can be destructive. One major stereotype that is brought to light is how female traits usually have weak connotations, whereas male traits are strong and more desirable.
In using androgyny, Le Guin poses the question of personal identity in a strange new world. Genly Ai, a black envoy from Earth, is suddenly catapulted into a unisex society and is forced to question who he really is.
Moreover, Le Guin displays a journey in which the protagonist moves from ignorance, to the polar opposite of truth. In the novel, he realizes who the people are, who he can trust, and what really matters in life. Genly's transition can only take place through his friend, Estraven, one of the androgynes:
"And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see [...]: that he was a woman as well as a man. [...] Until then, I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. [...] I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man" (248-9).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, thought provoking science fiction Nov. 18 2006
By CanadianMother TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Mass Market Paperback|Verified Purchase
The Left Hand of Darkness started out quite slowly for me. But once I got 2/3 of the way through I couldn't put it down! The ending is wonderful, if bittersweet. The intimate friendship that developed between Genly and Estraven was deeply touching to me. The quality of prose was top-notch, as I have come to expect from Le Guin.

The only problem I might say I had with the book (and the reason I gave it 4 stars) was trying to visualize the characters as neither men nor women when the only pronoun Le Guin used is "he." I was unable to form pictures of any of the characters in my mind. Yet I think she did a good job of making the characters have a mixture of masculine and feminine traits.

After I put the book down I realized why I liked Le Guin's Earthsea books so much: because even when she is writing about a world with men and women, she doesn't write them as such, but as human beings. None of her books contain bulging biceps or heaving bosoms, but rather real people. It's refreshing.

It's an excellent book overall. Not a riveting read, but a slow, thought-provoking and often beautifully touching read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars it's a good book Feb. 10 2004
I will not review the general plot or story, that has been done elsewhere.
If you like good books, read it. It's a human story about people, prejudice, xenophobia, politics, etc. You know, like real life, almost. Never mind that it's classified as "science fiction". Don't let that label put you off.
For the "True Fans" dissing this book and pointing you off to other True Science Fiction like Ender's Game (manipulative, boring, and an ending you can figure out halfway through the book), the works of Anne Mcaffrey ("Hey, wanna play Dungeons and Dragons? Bring over some pop and chips, too!" What are ya, twelve?), Dune (actually, yeah, it's a good book, too, but for different reasons), and perhaps most laughably, Battlefield Earth: get rid of that favourite plaid shirt, move out of your parents' basement, and go pick up a hobby that forces you to get outside and perhaps interact with other people.
Yeah, you heard me. Spaceships and intergalactic wars and other such mind-numbing, escapist sci-fi dreck are fine once in a while, but Left Hand Of Darkness is not one of those books, and can not be compared to the likes of any of the myriad glorified biffy accessories churned out by L. Ron Hubbard Industries Inc. or the latest formula Orson Scott Card blather.
Yeah, go read it. Take your time, it does move a bit slow at the beginning. In fact, I put it down the first time I tried to read it. But then again I was only twelve years old at the time, and I think something shiny might have distracted me. Once you get into it and realize that it's an adult novel with grown-up themes, the author draws you in with her take on an really different-seeming society that turns out to be not much different than our own (apart from the gender thing), what with the warring factions etc.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected, but still good
On the writing style itself: Pretty basic and standard. Nothing to complain about, but nothing to write home about either. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Anastasia
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book.
Subtle plotline, great character, wonderful writing. This is the first of Ursula's books I have read and I am certain it will not be the last.
Published 17 months ago by Al. Mo.
4.0 out of 5 stars Truly alien
The protagonist is a human envoy sent to a planet of hermaphrodites to invite them to join galactic civilisation. Read more
Published on April 18 2007 by Greg Slade
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most extraordinary books every written?
I first read this book over 30 years ago, and 2 worn out copies later, have lost count of the number of times I've re-read it. Read more
Published on July 18 2004 by Jax
3.0 out of 5 stars Whelming
I had been meaning for some time to read Le Guin, and picked this book as a starter. It did not live up to my expectations.
Let me start with the good. Read more
Published on July 3 2004 by J. M. Raines
4.0 out of 5 stars Considering the possibilities
In her introduction, the author makes some compelling statements about the nature of science fiction as descriptive and not predictive. Read more
Published on May 19 2004 by Nicholas Jong
1.0 out of 5 stars The worst (psudo) ethnography I have ever read
I was just forced to read this book for a class. It was assigned under the false pretenses that my classmates and I would take away some kind of meaning from it about notions of... Read more
Published on March 11 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars More than science fiction
With a few exceptions, I don't usually enjoy the usual science fiction books. But this one is different. Read more
Published on Feb. 17 2004 by N. Berman
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic, that's all there is to it.
A double award-winner (Nebula and Hugo, and Mrs. LeGuin will receive the Grandmaster Award this year), this 1960s novel stands as one of the most respected SF tales ever because... Read more
Published on Jan. 17 2004 by Claude Avary
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic, well worth your time
This novel presents a richly detailed alien world and culture, and gives you a regular human as your ambassador as well as a powerfully rendered native in Estraven. Read more
Published on Dec 1 2003
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