(1969 / 2017) Ursula K. LeGuin, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, xvii +305pp, ISBN 9781-473-22162-8
The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of Genly Ai, an ambassador on the planet Winter, an ice-shrouded world whose inhabitants shift their gender at will. Genly’s mission is to facilitate Winter’s entry into the greater intergalactic community, but the fractured and reclusive nature of Winter’s culture makes this difficult. Another complication arises when his best contact is accused of treason, and Genly’s position becomes even more fraught.
The setting is far from “traditional” science fiction; as stated by LeGuin, it is an entirely conceptual piece as opposed to an extrapolation of what was, at the time, current affairs. The galaxy at large is mentioned infrequently, and the tight character focus sets it apart from the majority of space operas. The lack of overt violence (save for one harrowing sequence later in the book) also stands out; modern science fiction seems to be awash with physical conflict, whereas The Left Hand of Darkness uses it sparingly in favour of political intrigue and the struggle to survive amid a frozen wasteland.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Left Hand of Darkness, at least from a modern perspective, is the genderless nature of the inhabitants of Winter. LeGuin places some emphasis on their nature to begin with, particularly in regards to Genly’s early attempts to complete his diplomatic mission and how the sheer strangeness of Winter’s culture makes this incredibly difficult. A more modern work of science fiction would either make the people of Winter entirely inhuman or play up their gender-fluidity to appeal to people who may identify in a similar matter.
With its monarchical themes, opulent weirdness and a surreal, icy setting, The Left Hand of Darkness feels more akin to LeGuin’s fantasy works, particularly A Wizard of Earthsea. Many of her pieces have similar philosophical and introspective themes, and The Left Hand of Darkness is no exception. Genly’s journey to learn about the culture of Winter is explored in depth, and the reader gets to see their politics, myths and legends in detail. A great deal of the events that occur over the course of the story wouldn’t likely occur on a planet similar to Earth; only Winter has the right combination of politics, climate and tradition to enhance the tone of the story told in The Left Hand of Darkness. Any other setting would fail to be as memorable or intriguing.
In conclusion, The Left Hand of Darkness is a superb example of science fiction, and possibly science fantasy. It translates into modern terms easily, and all the issues and themes explored in it are timeless. The reader is treated to a bizarre, surreal story that becomes more bleak and grounded as time goes on. LeGuin’s prose is instantly recognisable, and lavishly depicts the strange and alien, though strangely familiar world of Winter. Fans of LeGuin’s other works and lovers of classic science fiction will admire this novel, and the wide swathe of similar works it inspired throughout the years.
See also Allen Stroud's take on The Left Hand of Darkness.
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