Ursula K. Le Guin’s first three novels didn’t make much of an impact. Released in 1966 and 1967, they kicked off her acclaimed Hainish cycle but generated little notice at the time. The same certainly isn’t true of her next works. In 1968 Le Guin published A Wizard of Earthsea, which began her excellent Earthsea fantasy series. Then, in 1969, Ace Books released the hugely acclaimed SF novel with which Le Guin is most associated: The Left Hand of Darkness.
Now having sold over a million copies in English alone, The Left Hand of Darkness is regularly cited as one of the most important science fiction novels of all time. It won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novel, appears prominently in numerous best-of lists, and has generated a great deal of academic attention. In many ways, this enduring success was surprising - at least to the author herself. In 2017, she wrote:
“Left Hand looked to me like a natural flop. Its style is not the journalistic one that was then standard in science fiction, its structure is complex, it moves slowly, and even if everybody in it is called he, it is not about men. That's a big dose of "hard lit," heresy, and chutzpah, for a genre novel by a nobody in 1968.”
Here, Le Guin alludes to the most famous aspect of the book - its contribution to feminism and the discussion of gender in science fiction. This is a fascinating part of The Left Hand of Darkness, but Le Guin’s books can never be reduced to just one theme. The story covers ideas about cultural difference, loyalty, political conflict, and religion. It’s a highly recommended read in and of itself for anyone interested in SF, but also rewards some prior awareness of the wider Hainish series. As Charlie Jane Anders has written, “when read and considered as a whole, Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle feels like an even more impressive accomplishment than its stellar individual works.”
Occurring fairly late in the Hainish chronology, The Left Hand of Darkness has a suggested setting of the year 4870 AD. The main character is Genly Ai, a human Envoy who works for and represents the Ekumen, a loose grouping of over 80 co-operating worlds. In this role, Ai is a successor of sorts to Gaverel Rocannon, the protagonist of Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon's World (1966). However, Ai’s mission is quite different to that of his distant predecessor.
When the novel opens, Ai has already spent a year on the distant planet Gethen, or “Winter”. Guided to some extent by information previously gathered by a covert team of Investigators who recently preceded him, Ai’s mission is to convince the people of Gethen to join the Ekumen. This task is complicated by a number of major challenges. First, Ai has few allies on the planet and few people are willing to even believe that he is an alien who has arrived from another world. Second, the two major nations - Karhide and Orgoreyn - are in a state of rising tension that could result in war. Third and most notable is the Gethenians’ unique physiology, which presents a major obstacle to understanding even for a highly-trained agent of the Ekumen.
The Gethenians are androgynes - for most of their month-long sexual cycle, they are neither male nor female, but instead neuter. Only for a short period of each month do they briefly possess male or female physiology, a phase called kemmer. A gethenian could embody either sex during this period. Le Guin explores the many and various implications of this phenomenon. For example, one person can be the father to some of their children, and the mother to others. Culturally, this leads to a communal form of bringing up children.
The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the most exhaustively discussed SF novels ever written, particularly with respect to its emphasis on androgyny and sexuality. It is exceedingly difficult to add anything new to this discourse, but this aspect of the book is easy to recommend. It is worth noting that at the time the novel was published, some feminists criticised Le Guin for not going far enough, and this led her to further and deeper explorations of feminism in later books. This affected not only the Hainish series, but also the Earthsea saga - for example, The Tombs of Atuan (1971) has an interesting depiction of female power, or lack thereof.
While the book is less explicitly political than its successor The Dispossessed (1974), ideas about power, influence, and betrayal are a rich aspect of the story. Notably, the other primary character besides Genly Ai is a politician. When the book opens, Estraven is the Prime Minister of the nation of Karhide and one of Genly’s contacts on the planet. Later declared as a traitor, he is cast down and cast out by his people. Genly also believes him to be guilty of a personal betrayal, but the pair are drawn together again later in the novel.
Easily the most famous part of the plot of The Left Hand of Darkness comes when Genly and Estraven are required to undertake a vast, arduous and dangerous journey across an ice sheet. In addition to exploring the effects of kemmer and the nature of love on Gethen, this sequence is intensely bound up with the ideas of loyalty and betrayal. It is here that the characters learn in whom they can truly place their trust.
On a larger scale, the book is also concerned with relations between the nations of Karhide and Orgoreyn. True to Le Guin’s style, neither is presented as wholly good. The novel was of course written during the Cold War, and certain aspects of Orgoreyn are reminiscent of the Soviet Union. The relations between the two nations, which have had only had minor skirmishes in the past but may be inching closer to all-out conflict, also brings to mind this period of real-world history. Seen in this light, the Ekumen could be thought of as a loose analogue for the United Nations.
The Left Hand of Darkness connects in interesting ways with other parts of the Hainish series. Genly Ai makes for an interesting comparison with Gaverel Rocannon. If the latter, more industrious and confident character were stranded on Gethen, he would probably solve the novel’s problems more easily than Genly Ai. Certainly, Rocannon's “impermasuit” would make surviving the harsh conditions of the planet almost trivial. The Ekumen is discussed more directly here than in Le Guin’s previous books. During a meeting with the King of Karhide, Genly Ai provides the series’ first explicit description of what the Ekumen is:
“The Ekumen is not a kingdom, but a co-ordinator, a clearinghouse for trade and knowledge; without it communication between the worlds of men would be haphazard, and trade very risky, as you can see. [...] We are all men, you know, sir. All of us. All the worlds of men were settled, eons ago, from one world, Hain.”
Another aspect of the book worth noting is its inclusion of short intermissions, which take the form of observations left to Genly Ai by his Ekumen colleagues. Because the novel is framed as Genly’s report to his superiors, this inserts of traditional Gethenian tales or documentation about the population’s physiology enhance and comment upon the ongoing story. This anthropological focus is characteristic of Le Guin, whose parents were both well-known anthropologists. Characters who study and immerse themselves within alien cultures are a recurring aspect of Le Guin’s fiction.
Le Guin’s novels are not the most immediate, or obviously exciting - and as she mentioned in her comments from 2017, The Left Hand of Darkness is slow to unfold even by her standards. However, there are few SF books which have as much to reveal as this one. It is with good reason that the book was so well-received in 1969, that it made Le Guin’s name, and that is regarded with such reverence today.