The Left Hand of Darkness

~by Ursula K. Le Guin
1969 Nebula Award Winner
1970 Hugo Award Winner
2001 Gaylactic Spectrum Award Nominee
2003 Gaylactic Spectrum Award Winner
Retrospective James Tiptree, Jr. Award Winner

I consider myself an avid SF reader, but have recently found myself being drawn more towards the fantasy end of the spectrum. In order to correct this trend, I decided to make more of an effort to seek out some science fiction. The Left Hand of Darkness seemed to be an ideal choice since it won both a Nebula and a Hugo when it was first published and more recently won a Gaylactic Spectrum Award with a Tiptree Award on top of that.

I must admit though, it took me a little while to get into the book. But once I did, it was marvelous. Genly Ai has been sent to the planet Gethen, also known as "Winter" due to its harsh arctic climate, to persuade its inhabitants to join the Ekumen, an intergalactic federation of planets. Gethenians are physiologically unique among humans--for most of the month, they are sexless. Only during the few days in which they are in kemmer do they become male or female. The book mostly follows Genly Ai and his struggle to complete his mission, despite political intrigue and his own discomfort in a genderless world. His best hope, whether he knows it or not, is Estraven--the one person he distrusts the most.

The novel's strong points are its ideas and concepts, the underlying philosophy and spirituality, human nature and politics; plot and characterization are a bit weaker, at least towards the beginning. The prose can be a bit ponderous as well. The chapters that push the plot (the little that there is) are punctuated with chapters of folklore, mythology, and field notes. Some might feel these are distracting and unnecessary, but I believe they add a significant amount of depth to the book. I loved the ice crossing (I think it was the best part) and by the end I loved Estraven (I really wish we got to know more about him, although quite a bit is implied). Even though it was slow to start, it was worth it in the end.