my review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Review of the science fiction classic The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Famously it is one the first novel to use the same pronouns for everyone in English. It has strong worldbuilding surrounding gender and sexuality as well as alien biology.

Review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A giant within classic science fiction with strong themes of gender, sexuality and really interesting world building.

The Left Hand of Darkness

My review from 2016 of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Series: Hainish Cycle, book 4
Genre: classic science fiction

Opening 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 imagination.”

I have read The Left Hand of Darkness as part of my goal to read more classic fantasy/science fiction this year (2016). I picked this book because it has been brought up quite a lot when talking about Ancillary Justice this year. I had also forgotten that I had ever read Ursula LeGuin, when I picked up the book in Amsterdam this April. Since when, thanks to Sword & Laser, I have realised that I read The Earthsea as a teenager. I don’t remember much about the book other than quite liking it.

A conflicted reading experience

The Left Hand of Darkness has been a controversial book for me. I don’t remember ever being so conflicted about a book that I have finished reading. At times I quite frankly wanted to throw it at the wall. While I have been reading other parts aloud to my mom because they were so pretty and made me very happy.

If you want to read my quite extensive reactions to the book while reading it, then I have made a post where I have posted my love blogging of the reading experience. Reading: The Left Hand of Darkness was my first live blogging of a book and I found quite motivating to keep reading when I hit the rough patches… aka the first 70 pages. Now you know that I ended up finding the book really fascinating, so now I can proceed to tell you about the things I didn’t like.

My issues with the The Left Hand of Darkness

I am not a big fan of descriptions, especially landscape descriptions. They just do nothing for me. And boy oh boy did this book have descriptions. I think the first whole page is actually a description of how a ceremony looks – this turned me off the book the first time when it then proceeded with a rather boring conversation between two characters that didn’t seem all that interesting. It of course turns out that these are the main characters. I am sure that conversation is good on a second reading but it really didn’t work for me at the time.

That takes me to the second problem I had with the first third of this book… The protagonist Gently Ai. He is pretty much a sexist idiot for the first part of the book. He is not very competent at his rather important job as an envoy and he keeps making some rather appalling sexist remarks about the society that he finds himself in. Let me just quote you one…

“They behaved like animals in that respect – like women”

Did he just say that women are like animals?! Seriously he did not just say that! And he goes on to make more of that kind of remarks throughout the book, though they seem to be most prevalent in the first part of the book. In the first third of the book I don’t think he really got any redeeming characteristics.

The other point of view: Estraven

The other point of view character’s viewpoint shows up at about 1/3 into the book and this for me is where the book gets interesting. While the first part of the book is told from an outsiders pov this is told from within. So we learn how the society works by watching it in action instead of though judgy exposition. To me Estraven is a very sympathetic character. He actually cares about the mission and about his world. He is also quite wise but without falling into any noble savage traps. He is very much a politician and he is very competent at a lot of things (to the point where I find it a bit unbelievable) and he seems to be quite a loyal person.


Every single person in the book is gendered as he, regardless of gender or sex, which is one of the world building moves that makes The Left Hand of Darkness famous. The sexuality of the world’s inhabitants is another big piece of the world building and it is quite different. The inhabitants go through phases of being very sexually active and having basically orgies and phases where they don’t have sex at all. Even today it would be a bold choice.

I have found that it is pretty much impossible to talk about gender/sexuality thing (which I have done a lot of) without explaining the weird sexual cycle and the ice planet thing. Both are integral to the story. I have also found that it is not the plot that I find is the most interesting part of this book. That is definitely all the world building parts and the interpersonal relationship between Gently and Estraven.

The middle

Gently seems to have evolved a lot between the first chapters in his point of view and when he shows up again in the second third. This middle part was when I became invested in the characters – well I will not lie – mostly Estraven. I started reading chapter after chapter in one sitting instead of dragging myself through 10 pages in a sitting. When I look at my live blogging I can see that at some pages I have 3 notes on each page for 10 pages. This is sadly mostly a sign of me being annoyed rather than interesting. When I go chapters without writing anything because I am so involved in the story and when I start quoting the book every few pages.

The final review

Once I got past the first part of the book I can see why people were so taken by it. Why it won the awards and why people are still recommending it today almost 50 years later. It is an extraordinary book. It is far from a perfect book and at time it is very problematic. It has some serious sexist subtext and text at parts. It has some weird dated ideas about what makes a society click but I am very happy that I have now read it. I find it a darn shame that is not available in audio form because that would make it so much more accessible. It gets four stars for me because I hated the first part, but loved the rest and it is beautifully written (for the most part).

I also have to say that I was very happy to see that The Left Hand of Darkness would sit next to my copy of Ancillary Justice on my bookshelf, which is alphabetically shelved (because my mom is a librarian).

The stats

Published: Published 1992 by Orbit, originally published 1969
Read: September 9th – 27th 2014 (second attempt)

The author: Female, white, USA
The protagonists: Gently Ai: Male, PoC, envoy.
Estraven: ungendered, prime minister

This review was originally posted: September 30, 2014. Updated and edited June 25, 2023





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