[Ursula K. Le Guin] The Left Hand of Darkness

Hainish Cycle

  • Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Published: 1969
  • Publisher: SFBC Science Fiction Printing
  • ISBN: 0-7394-4881-1

Light is the left hand of darkness

and darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

together like lovers in kemmer,

like hands joined together,

like the end and the way.

from the book

The Left Hand of Darkness” is the most popular and well-known novel of Ursula K. Le Guin. It is the part of the “Hainish Cycle,” which is set in an alternative universe called “Hainish.” The main theme of the series “Hainish Cycle” is how diplomatic relations are setting up among civilizations of human beings, including Terra (“Earth”). 

Like other Le Guin’s novels, “The Left Hand of Darkness” is based on the completely well-woven (fabricated) alternative society. Even though it is regarded as science fiction, it is more like a fantasy, or most likely, an anthropology report about mythology. The novel has full of adventures of heroes who have visions, passions, and will to overcome obstacles. But the more intriguing side of the novel is its background – the structure of a society. Le Guin’s style has two modes – explaining a society like an anthropologist and describing the adventures of heroes.

But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies, it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food.

from the book

Androgyny is the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics into an ambiguous form.


The Left Hand of Darkness” is the most famous examination of androgyny in science fiction. The people of the planet Gethen have dual-sex (cycle of sexless, male or female). The novel depicts how the society of these people can work very consistently. Genly, the envoy from Terra, has a tendency to look at everything from the perspective of gender (binary division). He thought this is like manly and that is like womanly. Genly failed to see how his binary mode of thinking keeps him from understanding how Gethenians think and behave. And consequently, his mission – establishing the relationship between two civilizations – became in jeopardy. It shows how our mode of consciousness is tightly linked with our physical differences, which is not an intrinsically bad thing. But we need to recognize how to embrace differences and prevent discrimination.

Trust is another theme of the novel. Genly’s prejudices against the Getheians – their ambisexuality and mode of communication – prevent him from trusting his only supporter, Estraven. Genly labeled Estraven as womanly and did not understand “shifgrethor,” the mode of communication – indirect way of exchanging opinions and advice -. Only after the suffering and hardships, Genly starts to see what he didn’t see before.

Gehen is a world of dualism – not by binary distinctions but by coexistence. It is the world of both light and dark, both men and woman, and both self and the other. It reminds me of how yin and yang seek the balance of each other. The emphasis is not on the differences but the harmony.

The Left Hand of Darkness” is a rare book that gives you a lot of materials to think over. The adventures are interesting, but there is something in the background that we need to look at more carefully.

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