The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. Le Guin

"One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies..."

Finished: 25 March 2024

I absolutely adore this book, and it has immediately become one of my favorite pieces of science fiction that I've ever read. Despite being interested in the genre, I had never heard of this author or the book before now, and I'm incredibly grateful for being introduced to it.

The way this book explores various ideas and themes are profound and engaging in a way that many works of science fiction fail to emulate. The world is fleshed out and explored through the perspective of an outsider making it natural and easy to get immersed in the fictional cultures this novel portrays. It is somewhat similar to Dune in that aspect, as well as in the fact that I was completely drawn in from start to end.

The protagonist of the book, Genly Ai, travels to the planet Gethen in order to convince the nations there to join the Ekumen, a small confederation of other planets. Most of the people he tries to talk to do not believe he is telling the truth, and he spends a lot of time trying to get them on his side.

This book is heavily interested in how gender and sexuality influence the formation of cultures and society. Genly Ai, is a heterosexual man traveling to a planet of androgynous and ambisexual people who view him as a deviant and pervert. This complete reversal of convention makes for an incredibly interesting read as he struggles to communicate with and understand them. In this book, our typical sci-fi hero becomes isolated and struggles immensely throughout the events of the novel due to his sexual nature.

Genly Ai slowly has to break down his tradtionally masculine tendencies to understand how the people of Gethen see the world, and to allow himself to bond with Estraven, one of the few people in the book who trust Genly. Their relationship doesn't ever become too deep, but it is quite touching how they eventually act towards each other.

A lot of time is also spent philosophizing about war, religion, politics, and so on which I feel is often done quite poorly, but Le Guin does it in a way that feels optimistic and human. The ideas it brings up make me wonder how the real world might be one day, and encourages ideas about how the world might be improved for everyone. It is remains refreshingly unique and relevant despite being written over 50 years ago.

Some people might find the way it's written to be dry, but if you are interested in any of the ideas presented in the book I would recommend you give it a try. I have barely covered them here or done them justice so I also recommend you do some more research about it before diving in. This book is fantastic and now a personal favorite of mine.

Further reading:

We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221

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