Ursula Le Guin’s classic science fiction novel is a re-read for me, but this is the first review I have posted on it. I remember enjoying it in my young adulthood and now – however many years later – it is a delight to find it equally as compelling. Travelling right now, it lured me back for a chapter or two on buses and trains – or curled up at some ungodly hour in a hotel room when I should have been sleeping. Clearly a powerful book.
The Left Hand of Darkness surrounds two characters – Genly Ai, an envoy representing an interplanetary body committed to peace and unity, and Estraven, a wily politician on the planet he is visiting. Gethen is a wintery planet, and the people there lack gender. Once a month, they go through a mating phase known as ‘kummer’ during which hey adopt male or female physical characteristics. They may adopt either over their lives, depending upon the gender adopted by their mate.
The relationship between the two characters is a fascinating one, seen initially only through the envoy’s eyes. As the narration changes (Estraven narrates alternating chapters and short spurts of Gethenian history and folklore are also included) we begin to understand how little the envoy understands the culture and politics of the world he had chosen to visit. His path is a dangerous one – and the one man he should trust is the one he is most suspicious of.
Le Guin’s world is fascinating and fully realised – the history and backstory are rich and realistic. Compelling and intelligent, The Left Hand of Darkness is more challenging than many modern science fictions. One that will provoke thought.