Light & Dark

Article | Issue: Feb 2022

The award-winning science-fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin made waves when it was first published in 1969 for its groundbreaking exploration of gender roles and its anthropological reimagining of an interplanetary universe.

It’s been over 50 years since her novel was first published, yet it continues to break down stereotypes and pushes its readers to question their own morals and ethics – proving its timeless and enduring nature.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set in an interplanetary universe and follows Genly Ai, an envoy sent to the planet Gethen, also known as Winter, to convince its leaders to join the interplanetary union Ekumen – a growing and advanced intergalactic civilisation.

Gethen is still at the early stages of developing the concept of the nation-state and, while there is no war, tensions are growing between states due to territorial disputes.

At the brink of social and political turmoil, Genly offers the Gethenians the opportunity to bypass this period of instability through the knowledge and technology that their Ekumen union would provide. Yet, his endeavour proves difficult, and we follow Genly as he plays his hand at diplomacy.

Le Guin invites us into a world with two distinct characteristics – firstly, the inhabitants have adapted to the harsh ice age conditions of the planet and secondly, the people of Gethen are, for most of the time, gender-neutral, except for once a month when they enter a sexual phase called ‘kemmer’ and become either male or female and become capable of sex.

While supposedly representing an enlightened and advanced community, Genly struggles to understand and appreciate these cultural and inherent biological differences. When he is introduced to the character Therem Harth Estraven, who ultimately becomes a crucial ally and supporter of Genly’s mission, he begins to confront his misconceptions and prejudices.

The friendship and journey that Estraven and Genly go on proves to be one of the most moving and central aspects of the novel. Their own duality parallels that of the world in which they live in and speaks to a Gethenian proverb about the coexistence of light and dark.

‘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.’

Le Guin’s reimagining of this world is exceptionally detailed and reads almost anthropologically. As Genly traverses the various states we follow him as he navigates the unfamiliar world of Gethen – its culture, traditions, social mores, customs, foods, and beliefs.

The Left Hand of Darkness helped inform a generation of people on their rigid understanding of what it means to be human and continues to break down outdated ideas about gender. This is an exceptional novel about love and friendship set on a unique social and political backdrop.



Visit Ursula le Guin’s website

ursula le Guin author 


Author: Ursula K. Le Guin

Category: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945), Science fiction

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Gollancz

ISBN: 9781473221628

RRP: $22.99

Reader Comments

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all reviews

The Latest List