The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

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by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards

A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can change their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own

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Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards

A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can change their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] science fiction masterpiece.”—Newsweek

“A jewel of a story.”—Frank Herbert

“As profuse and original in invention as The Lord of the Rings.”—Michael Moorcock

“An instant classic.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Like all great writers of fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin creates imaginary worlds that restore us, hearts eased, to our own.”—The Boston Globe

“Stellar…A triumphant return to the magic-drenched world of Earthsea…Le Guin is still at the height of her powers, a superb stylist with a knack for creating characters who are both wise and deeply humane. A major event in fantasy literature.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Richly told…Le Guin hasn’t lost her touch. She draws us into the magical land and its inhabitants’ doings immediately.”—Booklist

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Hainish Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.21(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.79(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Ace Books by Ursula K. Le Guin








Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, daughter of A. L. Kroeber (anthropologist) and Theodora Kroeber (author), was born in Berkeley, California, in 1929. She attended college at Radcliffe and Columbia, and married C. A. Le Guin in Paris in 1953.

The Left Hand of Darkness was awarded both the Nebula and the Hugo awards. With the awarding of the 1975 Hugo and Nebula awards to The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin became the first author to win both awards twice for novels.



SCIENCE FICTION IS OFTEN DESCRIBED, AND EVEN DEFINED, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

This may explain why many people who do not read science fiction describe it as “escapist,” but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because “it’s so depressing.”

Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.

Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens. . . . In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrödinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world.

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies.

“The truth against the world!”—Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!

They may use all kinds of facts to support their tissue of lies. They may describe the Marshalsea Prison, which was a real place, or the battle of Borodino, which really was fought, or the process of cloning, which really takes place in laboratories, or the deterioration of a personality, which is described in real textbooks of psychology, and so on. This weight of verifiable place-event-phenomenon-behavior makes the reader forget that he is reading a pure invention, a history that never took place anywhere but in that unlocalizable region, the author’s mind. In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?

But our society, being troubled and bewildered, seeking guidance, sometimes puts an entirely mistaken trust in its artists, using them as prophets and futurologists.

I do not say that artists cannot be seers, inspired: that the awen cannot come upon them, and the god speak through them. Who would be an artist if they did not believe that that happens? If they did not know it happens, because they have felt the god within them use their tongue, their hands? Maybe only once, once in their lives. But once is enough.

Nor would I say that the artist alone is so burdened and so privileged. The scientist is another who prepares, who makes ready, working day and night, sleeping and awake, for inspiration. As Pythagoras knew, the god may speak in the forms of geometry as well as in the shapes of dreams; in the harmony of pure thought as well as in the harmony of sounds; in numbers as well as in words.

But it is words that make the trouble and confusion. We are asked now to consider words as useful in only one way: as signs. Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only in so far as it has one single meaning, points to one fact that is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and—ideally—quantifiable.

Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number—Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then.

I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.

The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.

Oh, it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Science displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.

This book is not about the future. Yes, it begins by announcing that it’s set in the “Ekumenical Year 1490–97,” but surely you don’t believe that?

Yes, indeed the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies.

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.

Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage. (They also have a sound—a fact the linguistic positivists take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music: its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect.)

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

Ursula K. Le Guin



From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490–97.

I’LL MAKE MY REPORT AS IF I TOLD A STORY, FOR I WAS taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.

The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story.

It starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odharhahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One. It is always the Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide, and I was in peril of my life, and did not know it.

I was in a parade. I walked just behind the gossiwors and just before the king. It was raining.

Rainclouds over dark towers, rain falling in deep streets, a dark storm-beaten city of stone, through which one vein of gold winds slowly. First come merchants, potentates, and artisans of the City Erhenrang, rank after rank, magnificently clothed, advancing through the rain as comfortably as fish through the sea. Their faces are keen and calm. They do not march in step. This is a parade with no soldiers, not even imitation soldiers.

Next come the lords and mayors and representatives, one person, or five, or forty-five, or four hundred, from each Domain and Co-Domain of Karhide, a vast ornate procession that moves to the music of metal horns and hollow blocks of bone and wood and the dry, pure lilting of electric flutes. The various banners of the great Domains tangle in a rain-beaten confusion of color with the yellow pennants that bedeck the way, and the various musics of each group clash and interweave in many rhythms echoing in the deep stone street.

Next, a troop of jugglers with polished spheres of gold, which they hurl up high in flashing flights, and catch, and hurl again, making fountain-jets of bright jugglery. All at once, as if they had literally caught the light, the gold spheres blaze bright as glass: the sun is breaking through.

Next, forty men in yellow, playing gossiwors. The gossiwor, played only in the king’s presence, produces a preposterous disconsolate bellow. Forty of them played together shake one’s reason, shake the towers of Erhenrang, shake down a last spatter of rain from the windy clouds. If this is the Royal Music no wonder the kings of Karhide are all mad.

Next, the royal party, guards and functionaries and dignitaries of the city and the court, deputies, senators, chancellors, ambassadors, lords of the Kingdom, none of them keeping step or rank yet walking with great dignity; and among them is King Argaven XV, in white tunic and shirt and breeches, with leggings of saffron leather and a peaked yellow cap. A gold finger-ring is his only adornment and sign of office. Behind this group eight sturdy fellows bear the royal litter, rough with yellow sapphires, in which no king has ridden for centuries, a ceremonial relic of the very-long-ago. By the litter walk eight guards armed with “foray guns,” also relics of a more barbaric past but not empty ones, being loaded with pellets of soft iron. Death walks behind the king. Behind death come the students of the Artisan Schools, the Colleges, the Trades, and the King’s Hearths, long lines of children and young people in white and red and gold and green; and finally a number of soft-running, slow, dark cars end the parade.

The royal party, myself among them, gather on a platform of new timbers beside the unfinished Arch of the River Gate. The occasion of the parade is the completion of that arch, which completes the new Road and River Port of Erhenrang, a great operation of dredging and building and roadmaking that has taken five years, and will distinguish Argaven XV’s reign in the annals of Karhide. We are all squeezed rather tight on the platform in our damp and massive finery. The rain is gone, the sun shines on us, the splendid, radiant, traitorous sun of Winter. I remark to the person on my left, “It’s hot. It’s really hot.”

The person on my left—a stocky dark Karhider with sleek and heavy hair, wearing a heavy overtunic of green leather worked with gold, and a heavy white shirt, and heavy breeches, and a neck-chain of heavy silver links a hand broad—this person, sweating heavily, replies, “So it is.”

All about us as we stand jammed on our platform lie the faces of the people of the city, upturned like a shoal of brown, round pebbles, mica-glittering with thousands of watching eyes.

Now the king ascends a gangplank of raw timbers that leads from the platform up to the top of the arch whose unjoined piers tower over crown and wharves and river. As he mounts the crowd stirs and speaks in a vast murmur: “Argaven!” He makes no response. They expect none. Gossiwors blow a thunderous discordant blast, cease. Silence. The sun shines on city, river, crowd, and king. Masons below have set an electric winch going, and as the king mounts higher the keystone of the arch goes up past him in its sling, is raised, settled, and fitted almost soundlessly, great ton-weight block though it is, into the gap between the two piers, making them one, one thing, an arch. A mason with trowel and bucket awaits the king, up on the scaffolding; all the other workmen descend by rope ladders, like a swarm of fleas. The king and the mason kneel, high between the river and the sun, on their bit of planking. Taking the trowel the king begins to mortar the long joints of the keystone. He does not dab at it and give the trowel back to the mason, but sets to work methodically. The cement he uses is a pinkish color different from the rest of the mortarwork and after five or ten minutes of watching the king-bee work I ask the person on my left, “Are your keystones always set in a red cement?” For the same color is plain around the keystone of each arch of the Old Bridge, which soars beautifully over the river upstream from the arch.

Wiping sweat from his dark forehead the man—man I must say, having said he and his—the man answers, “Very-long-ago a keystone was always set in with a mortar of ground bones mixed with blood. Human bones, human blood. Without the blood bond the arch would fall, you see. We use the blood of animals, these days.”

So he often speaks, frank yet cautious, ironic, as if always aware that I see and judge as an alien: a singular awareness in one of so isolate a race and so high a rank. He is one of the most powerful men in the country; I am not sure of the proper historical equivalent of his position, vizier or prime minister or councillor; the Karhidish word for it means the King’s Ear. He is lord of a Domain and lord of the Kingdom, a mover of great events. His name is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.

The king seems to be finished with his masonry work, and I rejoice; but crossing under the rise of the arch on his spiderweb of planks he starts in on the other side of the keystone, which after all has two sides. It doesn’t do to be impatient in Karhide. They are anything but a phlegmatic people, yet they are obdurate, they are pertinacious, they finish plastering joints. The crowds on the Sess Embankment are content to watch the king work, but I am bored, and hot. I have never before been hot, on Winter; I never will be again; yet I fail to appreciate the event. I am dressed for the Ice Age and not for the sunshine, in layers and layers of clothing, woven plant-fiber, artificial fiber, fur, leather, a massive armor against the cold, within which I now wilt like a radish leaf. For distraction I look at the crowds and the other paraders drawn up around the platform, their Domain and Clan banners hanging still and bright in sunlight, and idly I ask Estraven what this banner is and that one and the other. He knows each one I ask about, though there are hundreds, some from remote Domains, Hearths and Tribelets of the Pering Stormborder and Kerm Land.

“I’m from Kerm Land myself,” he says when I admire his knowledge. “Anyhow it’s my business to know the Domains. They are Karhide. To govern this land is to govern its lords. Not that it’s ever been done. Do you know the saying, Karhide is not a nation but a family quarrel?” I haven’t, and I suspect that Estraven made it up; it has his stamp.

At this point another member of the kyorremy, the upper chamber or parliament that Estraven heads, pushes and squeezes a way up close to him and begins talking to him. This is the king’s cousin Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe. His voice is very low as he speaks to Estraven, his posture faintly insolent, his smile frequent. Estraven, sweating like ice in the sun, stays slick and cold as ice, answering Tibe’s murmurs aloud in a tone whose commonplace politeness makes the other look rather a fool. I listen, as I watch the king grouting away, but understand nothing except the animosity between Tibe and Estraven. It’s nothing to do with me, in any case, and I am simply interested in the behavior of these people who rule a nation, in the old-fashioned sense, who govern the fortunes of twenty million other people. Power has become so subtle and complex a thing in the ways taken by the Ekumen that only a subtle mind can watch it work; here it is still limited, still visible. In Estraven, for instance, one feels the man’s power as an augmentation of his character; he cannot make an empty gesture or say a word that is not listened to. He knows it, and the knowledge gives him more reality than most people own: a solidness of being, a substantiality, a human grandeur. Nothing succeeds like success. I don’t trust Estraven, whose motives are forever obscure; I don’t like him; yet I feel and respond to his authority as surely as I do to the warmth of the sun.

Even as I think this the world’s sun dims between clouds regathering, and soon a flaw of rain runs sparse and hard upriver, spattering the crowds on the Embankment, darkening the sky. As the king comes down the gangplank the light breaks through a last time, and his white figure and the great arch stand out a moment vivid and splendid against the storm-darkened south. The clouds close. A cold wind comes tearing up Port-and-Palace Street, the river goes gray, the trees on the Embankment shudder. The parade is over. Half an hour later it is snowing.

As the king’s car drove off up Port-and-Palace Street and the crowds began to move like a rocky shingle rolled by a slow tide, Estraven turned to me again and said, “Will you have supper with me tonight, Mr. Ai?” I accepted, with more surprise than pleasure. Estraven had done a great deal for me in the last six or eight months, but I did not expect or desire such a show of personal favor as an invitation to his house. Harge rem ir Tibe was still close to us, overhearing, and I felt that he was meant to overhear. Annoyed by this sense of effeminate intrigue I got off the platform and lost myself in the mob, crouching and slouching somewhat to do so. I’m not much taller than the Gethenian norm, but the difference is most noticeable in a crowd. That’s him, look, there’s the Envoy. Of course that was part of my job, but it was a part that got harder not easier as time went on; more and more often I longed for anonymity, for sameness. I craved to be like everybody else.

A couple of blocks up Breweries Street I turned off towards my lodgings and suddenly, there where the crowd thinned out, found Tibe walking beside me.

“A flawless event,” said the king’s cousin, smiling at me. His long, clean, yellow teeth appeared and disappeared in a yellow face all webbed, though he was not an old man, with fine, soft wrinkles.

“A good augury for the success of the new Port,” I said.

“Yes indeed.” More teeth.

“The ceremony of the keystone is most impressive—”

“Yes indeed. That ceremony descends to us from very-long-ago. But no doubt Lord Estraven explained all that to you.”

“Lord Estraven is most obliging.”

I was trying to speak insipidly, yet everything I said to Tibe seemed to take on a double meaning.

“Oh very much indeed,” said Tibe. “Indeed Lord Estraven is famous for his kindness to foreigners.” He smiled again, and every tooth seemed to have a meaning, double, multiple, thirty-two different meanings.

“Few foreigners are so foreign as I, Lord Tibe. I am very grateful for kindnesses.”

“Yes indeed, yes indeed! And gratitude’s a noble, rare emotion, much praised by the poets. Rare above all here in Erhenrang, no doubt because it’s impracticable. This is a hard age we live in, an ungrateful age. Things aren’t as they were in our grandparents’ days, are they?”

“I scarcely know, sir, but I’ve heard the same lament on other worlds.”

Tibe stared at me for some while as if establishing lunacy. Then he brought out the long yellow teeth. “Ah yes! Yes indeed! I keep forgetting that you come from another planet. But of course that’s not a matter you ever forget. Though no doubt life would be much sounder and simpler and safer for you here in Erhenrang if you could forget it, eh? Yes indeed! Here’s my car, I had it wait here out of the way. I’d like to offer to drive you to your island, but must forego the privilege, as I’m due at the King’s House very shortly and poor relations must be in good time, as the saying is, eh? Yes indeed!” said the king’s cousin, climbing into his little black electric car, teeth bared across his shoulder at me, eyes veiled by a net of wrinkles.

I walked on home to my island.* Its front garden was revealed now that the last of the winter’s snow had melted and the winter-doors, ten feet aboveground, were sealed off for a few months, till the autumn and the deep snow should return. Around at the side of the building in the mud and the ice and the quick, soft, rank spring growth of the garden, a young couple stood talking. Their right hands were clasped. They were in the first phase of kemmer. The large, soft snow danced about them as they stood barefoot in the icy mud, hands clasped, eyes all for each other. Spring on Winter.

I had dinner at my island and at Fourth Hour striking on the gongs of Remmy Tower I was at the Palace ready for supper. Karhiders eat four solid meals a day, breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, along with a lot of adventitious nibbling and gobbling in between. There are no large meat-animals on Winter, and no mammalian products, milk, butter or cheese; the only high-protein, high-carbohydrate foods are the various kinds of eggs, fish, nuts, and the Hainish grains. A low-grade diet for a bitter climate, and one must refuel often. I had got used to eating, as it seemed, every few minutes. It wasn’t until later in that year that I discovered the Gethenians have perfected the technique not only of perpetually stuffing, but also of indefinitely starving.

The snow still fell, a mild spring blizzard, much pleasanter than the relentless rain of the Thaw just past. I made my way to and through the Palace in the quiet and pale darkness of snowfall, losing my way only once. The Palace of Erhenrang is an inner city, a walled wilderness of palaces, towers, gardens, courtyards, cloisters, roofed bridgeways, roofless tunnel-walks, small forests and dungeon-keeps, the product of centuries of paranoia on a grand scale. Over it all rise the grim, red, elaborate walls of the Royal House, which though in perpetual use is inhabited by no one beside the king himself. Everyone else, servants, staff, lords, ministers, parliamentarians, guards or whatever, sleeps in another palace or fort or keep or barracks or house inside the walls. Estraven’s house, sign of the king’s high favor, was the Corner Red Dwelling, built 440 years ago for Harmes, beloved kemmering of Emran III, whose beauty is still celebrated, and who was abducted, mutilated, and rendered imbecile by hirelings of the Innerland Faction. Emran III died forty years after, still wreaking vengeance on his unhappy country: Emran the Illfated. The tragedy is so old that its horror has leached away and only a certain air of faithlessness and melancholy clings to the stones and shadows of the house. The garden was small and walled; serem-trees leaned over a rocky pool. In dim shafts of light from the windows of the house I saw snowflakes and the threadlike white sporecases of the trees falling softly together onto the dark water. Estraven stood waiting for me, bareheaded and coatless in the cold, watching that small secret ceaseless descent of snow and seeds in the night. He greeted me quietly and brought me into the house. There were no other guests.

I wondered at this, but we went to table at once, and one does not talk business while eating; besides, my wonder was diverted to the meal, which was superb, even the eternal breadapples transmuted by a cook whose art I heartily praised. After supper, by the fire, we drank hot beer. On a world where a common table implement is a little device with which you crack the ice that has formed on your drink between drafts, hot beer is a thing you come to appreciate.

Estraven had conversed amiably at table; now, sitting across the hearth from me, he was quiet. Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own. Thus as I sipped my smoking sour beer I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of him as a woman, that dark, ironic, powerful presence near me in the firelit darkness, and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture: in him, or in my own attitude towards him? His voice was soft and rather resonant but not deep, scarcely a man’s voice, but scarcely a woman’s voice either . . . but what was it saying?

“I’m sorry,” he was saying, “that I’ve had to forestall for so long this pleasure of having you in my house; and to that extent at least I’m glad there is no longer any question of patronage between us.”

I puzzled at this awhile. He had certainly been my patron in court until now. Did he mean that the audience he had arranged for me with the king tomorrow had raised me to an equality with himself? “I don’t think I follow you,” I said.

At that, he was silent, evidently also puzzled. “Well, you understand,” he said at last, “being here . . . you understand that I am no longer acting on your behalf with the king of course.”

He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself. Clearly there was a significance in his invitation and my acceptance of it that I had missed. But my blunder was in manners, his in morals. All I thought at first was that I had been right all along not to trust Estraven. He was not merely adroit and not merely powerful, he was faithless. All these months in Ehrenrang it had been he who listened to me, who answered my questions, sent physicians and engineers to verify the alienness of my physique and my ship, introduced me to people I needed to know, and gradually elevated me from my first year’s status as a highly imaginative monster to my present recognition as the mysterious Envoy, about to be received by the king. Now, having got me up on that dangerous eminence, he suddenly and coolly announced he was withdrawing his support.

“You’ve led me to rely on you—”

“It was ill done.”

“Do you mean that, having arranged this audience, you haven’t spoken in favor of my mission to the king, as you—” I had the sense to stop short of “promised.”

“I can’t.”

I was very angry, but I met neither anger nor apology in him.

“Will you tell me why?”

After a while he said, “Yes,” and then paused again. During the pause I began to think that an inept and undefended alien should not demand reasons from the prime minister of a kingdom, above all when he does not and perhaps never will understand the foundations of power and the workings of government in that kingdom. No doubt this was all a matter of shifgrethor—prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen. And if it was I would not understand it.

“Did you hear what the king said to me at the ceremony today?”


Estraven leaned forward across the hearth, lifted the beer-jug out of the hot ashes, and refilled my tankard. He said nothing more, so I amplified, “The king didn’t speak to you in my hearing.”

“Nor in mine,” said he.

I saw at last that I was missing another signal. Damning his effeminate deviousness, I said, “Are you trying to tell me, Lord Estraven, that you’re out of favor with the king?”

I think he was angry then, but he said nothing that showed it, only, “I’m not trying to tell you anything, Mr. Ai.”

“By God, I wish you would!”

He looked at me curiously. “Well, then, put it this way. There are some persons in court who are, in your phrase, in favor with the king, but who do not favor your presence or your mission here.”

And so you’re hurrying to join them, selling me out to save your skin, I thought, but there was no point in saying it. Estraven was a courtier, a politician, and I a fool to have trusted him. Even in a bisexual society the politician is very often something less than an integral man. His inviting me to dinner showed that he thought I would accept his betrayal as easily as he committed it. Clearly face-saving was more important than honesty. So I brought myself to say, “I’m sorry that your kindness to me has made trouble for you.” Coals of fire. I enjoyed a flitting sense of moral superiority, but not for long; he was too incalculable.

He sat back so that the firelight lay ruddy on his knees and his fine, strong, small hands and the silver tankard he held, but left his face in shadow: a dark face always shadowed by the thick low growing hair and heavy brows and lashes, and by a somber blandness of expression. Can one read a cat’s face, a seal’s, an otter’s? Some Gethenians, I thought, are like such animals, with deep bright eyes that do not change expression when you speak.

“I’ve made trouble for myself,” he answered, “by an act that had nothing to do with you, Mr. Ai. You know that Karhide and Orgoreyn have a dispute concerning a stretch of our border in the high North Fall near Sassinoth. Argaven’s grandfather claimed the Sinoth Valley for Karhide, and the Commensals have never recognized the claim. A lot of snow out of one cloud, and it grows thicker. I’ve been helping some Karhidish farmers who live in the Valley to move back east across the old border, thinking the argument might settle itself if the Valley were simply left to the Orgota, who have lived there for several thousand years. I was in the Administration of the North Fall some years ago, and got to know some of those farmers. I dislike the thought of their being killed in forays, or sent to Voluntary Farms in Orgoreyn. Why not obviate the subject of dispute? . . . But that’s not a patriotic idea. In fact it’s a cowardly one, and impugns the shifgrethor of the king himself.”

His ironies, and these ins and outs of a border-dispute with Orgoreyn, were of no interest to me. I returned to the matter that lay between us. Trust him or not, I might still get some use out of him. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but it seems a pity that this question of a few farmers may be allowed to spoil the chances of my mission with the king. There’s more at stake than a few miles of national boundary.”

“Yes. Much more. But perhaps the Ekumen, which is a hundred light-years from border to border, will be patient with us awhile.”

“The Stabiles of the Ekumen are very patient men, sir. They’ll wait a hundred years or five hundred for Karhide and the rest of Gethen to deliberate and consider whether or not to join the rest of mankind. I speak merely out of personal hope. And personal disappointment. I own that I thought that with your support—”

“I too. Well, the Glaciers didn’t freeze overnight. . . .” Cliché came ready to his lips, but his mind was elsewhere. He brooded. I imagined him moving me around with the other pawns in his power game. “You came to my country,” he said at last, “at a strange time. Things are changing; we are taking a new turning. No, not so much that, as following too far on the way we’ve been going. I thought that your presence, your mission, might prevent our going wrong, give us a new option entirely. But at the right moment—in the right place. It is all exceedingly chancy, Mr. Ai.”

Impatient with his generalities, I said, “You imply that this isn’t the right moment. Would you advise me to cancel my audience?”

My gaffe was even worse in Karhidish, but Estraven did not smile, or wince. “I’m afraid only the king has that privilege,” he said mildly.

“Oh God, yes. I didn’t mean that.” I put my head in my hands a moment. Brought up in the wide-open, freewheeling society of Earth, I would never master the protocol, or the impassivity, so valued by Karhiders. I know what a king was, Earth’s own history is full of them, but I had no experiential feel for privilege—no tact. I picked up my tankard and drank a hot and violent draft. “Well, I’ll say less to the king than I intended to say, when I could count on you.”


“Why good?” I demanded.

“Well, Mr. Ai, you’re not insane. I’m not insane. But then neither of us is a king, you see . . . I suppose that you intended to tell Argaven, rationally, that your mission here is to attempt to bring about an alliance between Gethen and the Ekumen. And, rationally, he knows that already; because, as you know, I told him. I urged your case with him, tried to interest him in you. It was ill done, ill timed. I forgot, being too interested myself, that he’s a king, and does not see things rationally, but as a king. All I’ve told him means to him simply that his power is threatened, his kingdom is a dust mote in space, his kingship is a joke to men who rule a hundred worlds.”

“But the Ekumen doesn’t rule, it co-ordinates. Its power is precisely the power of its member states and worlds. In alliance with the Ekumen, Karhide will become infinitely less threatened and more important than it’s ever been.”

Estraven did not answer for a while. He sat gazing at the fire, whose flames winked, reflected, from his tankard and from the broad bright silver chain of office over his shoulders. The old house was silent around us. There had been a servant to attend our meal, but Karhiders, having no institutions of slavery or personal bondage, hire services not people, and the servants had all gone off to their own homes by now. Such a man as Estraven must have guards about him somewhere, for assassination is a lively institution in Karhide, but I had seen no guard, heard none. We were alone.

I was alone, with a stranger, inside the walls of a dark palace, in a strange snow-changed city, in the heart of the Ice Age of an alien world.

Everything I had said, tonight and ever since I came to Winter, suddenly appeared to me as both stupid and incredible. How could I expect this man or any other to believe my tales about other worlds, other races, a vague benevolent government somewhere off in outer space? It was all nonsense. I had appeared in Karhide in a queer kind of ship, and I differed physically from Gethenians in some respects; that wanted explaining. But my own explanations were preposterous. I did not, in that moment, believe them myself.

“I believe you,” said the stranger, the alien alone with me, and so strong had my access of self-alienation been that I looked up at him bewildered. “I’m afraid that Argaven also believes you. But he does not trust you. In part because he no longer trusts me. I have made mistakes, been careless. I cannot ask for your trust any longer, either, having put you in jeopardy. I forgot what a king is, forgot that the king in his own eyes is Karhide, forgot what patriotism is and that he is, of necessity, the perfect patriot. Let me ask you this, Mr. Ai: do you know, by your own experience, what patriotism is?”

“No,” I said, shaken by the force of that intense personality suddenly turning itself wholly upon me. “I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”

“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year. We’ve followed our road too far. And you, who come from a world that outgrew nations centuries ago, who hardly know what I’m talking about, who show us the new road—” He broke off. After a while he went on, in control again, cool and polite: “It’s because of fear that I refuse to urge your cause with the king, now. But not fear for myself, Mr. Ai. I’m not acting patriotically. There are, after all, other nations on Gethen.”

I had no idea what he was driving at, but was sure that he did not mean what he seemed to mean. Of all the dark, obstructive, enigmatic souls I had met in this bleak city, his was the darkest. I would not play his labyrinthine game. I made no reply. After a while he went on, rather cautiously, “If I’ve understood you, your Ekumen is devoted essentially to the general interest of mankind. Now, for instance, the Orgota have experience in subordinating local interests to a general interest, while Karhide has almost none. And the Commensals of Orgoreyn are mostly sane men, if unintelligent, while the king of Karhide is not only insane but rather stupid.”

It was clear that Estraven had no loyalties at all. I said in faint disgust, “It must be difficult to serve him, if that’s the case.”

“I’m not sure I’ve ever served the king,” said the king’s prime minister. “Or ever intended to. I’m not anyone’s servant. A man must cast his own shadow. . . .”

The gongs in Remny Tower were striking Sixth Hour, midnight, and I took them as my excuse to go. As I was putting on my coat in the hallway he said, “I’ve lost my chance for the present, for I suppose you’ll be leaving Ehrenrang”—why did he suppose so?—“but I trust a day will come when I can ask you questions again. There’s so much I want to know. About your mindspeech, in particular; you’d scarcely begun to try to explain it to me.”

His curiosity seemed perfectly genuine. He had the effrontery of the powerful. His promises to help me had seemed genuine, too. I said yes, of course, whenever he liked, and that was the evening’s end. He showed me out through the garden, where snow lay thin in the light of Gethen’s big, dull, rufous moon. I shivered as we went out, for it was well below freezing, and he said with polite surprise, “You’re cold?” To him of course it was a mild spring night.

I was tired and downcast. I said, “I’ve been cold ever since I came to this world.”

“What do you call it, this world, in your language?”


“You gave it no name of your own?”

“Yes, the First Investigators did. They called it Winter.”

We had stopped in the gateway of the walled garden. Outside, the Palace grounds and roofs loomed in a dark snowy jumble lit here and there at various heights by the faint gold slits of windows. Standing under the narrow arch I glanced up, wondering if that keystone too was mortared with bone and blood. Estraven took leave of me and turned away; he was never fulsome in his greetings and farewells. I went off through the silent courts and alleys of the Palace, my boots crunching on the thin moonlit snow, and homeward through the deep streets of the city. I was cold, unconfident, obsessed by perfidy, and solitude, and fear.



From a sound-tape collection of North Karhidish “hearth-tales” in the archives of the College of Historians in Erhenrang, narrator unknown, recorded during the reign of Argaven VIII.

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MIchael Moorcock
As Profuse and original in invention as The Lord of the Rings.

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Left Hand of Darkness 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 41 reviews.
Anonymous 10 months ago
I first read this book at 14, when an older friend passed it on to me. Even then, I was awed by the powerful story, the relationship between the main characters, & the unique culture Ms. LeGuin created. Now in my 60s, I have read & reread this book many times, & still find some new subtlety every time I pick it up again. This is the book I would take with me to a desert island; it's complex, poetic & thoughtful. It's not a quick read & on to the next pleasure. It requires commitment & patience, as it takes its time to unfold & build. Gently Ai is a normal human man who has been sent to the planet Gethan on a mission to contact & study the local culture. In Ms. LeGuin's universe, Gethan is one of many experimental colonies deserted on their planet after undergoing genetic alteration. Although these people are human, they have been genetically altered in some way then left to evolve. In Gethen's case, the entire population is hermaphroditic, neither male nor female, but with the ability to become either sex. During most of their lives, the people are basically neutral, but they have regular cycles, called Kemmer, where a couple will take on the aspects of male and female to produce children. Anyone can become either gender during each Kemmer. The social organization that occurs because of this is completely unique. There are no instinctive gender attributes such as those which are present on our society, & each person is taken entirely at face value. For Genly Ai, this is very disconcerting, & he finds interaction with these people very uncomfortable. One of the high Government officials, a person named Estraven, attempts to help him & is not initially successful, because the two people's ways of thinking are so different. When Estraven's advice puts Ai in danger, Estraven risks everything to save him. Forced together by extreme circumstances & making a journey where only cooperation will save them, the two become friends, thus showing that peoples' differences, no matter how extreme, can be overcome by understanding. This is made all the more apparent by the fact that Ai is black, & that this is mentioned only in passing, as something unimportant (although in the 60s, when this book was written, it was very important indeed). This book's message of tolerance, understanding and even love between two very different people is even more relevant today, as we wrestle with racial & sexual issues in our own society & must learn, as Genly Ai must do, how to open our minds to that which is different ... & yet still basically the same. I wish you the same joy & wonder in reading this as I have.
TY2 More than 1 year ago
I didn't expect to like this book, but it came to me highly recommended, so I gave it a try. I was rivetted. It's not just a science fiction novel, but a novel of human relationships. This is truely a classic piece of literature.
papicek More than 1 year ago
- Which is how I titled my Essentials List.

LeGuin has an uncanny ability to pack her prose with thought-provoking philosophical asides which still give me pause, as do her depictions of the intricacies of this utterly alien civilization. "The houses and islands and Hearths sit every which way, chaotic, in a profuse, prodigious confusion that suddenly culminates (as anarchy will do in Karhide) in splendor" still resonates. Perhaps I'm just farfetching though.

However, I confess that what I found riveting is their journey over the Ice. As one who yearly went winter-backpacking, I know first hand how huge the sound of wind is in the winter wilderness, and of nightime silences so profound that the tick of a falling ice crystal grabs your attention, and of "...the susurus of windblown snow...." I can attest to the immensity of the solitary winter landscape (and you attend to it, for it can hurt, kill, or cause you misery otherwise) as well as the constant preoccupation with the tiny details of comfort and survival, and with food, which equals strength, warmth, and well-being. I found her depiction of this wonderfully evocative. It is absolutely authentic.

Others may feel that the bond between Ai and Estraven is lacking in the end. I assure you that, apart from their dramatic situation, the comradeship, the otherworldly sharing, entailed with long winter treks is deep and lasting.

Difficult to share with others, nonetheless, this is a fat, multifaceted story which works well on many levels. I highly recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was the first book i have read by Le Guin and i thought it was just ok. It was highly recommended to me but it was not the best. I felt the story moved very slow, and Instead of eliciting a strong bond with the characters, you see the story as textbook. It¿s this stiff objectiveness that prevents the read from forming a deep connection with the characters. As far as innovation, i can't say i saw any new sci fi thinking but the writing and the philosophical thoughts behind the embodiment of the dualistic pit falls of humanity in the Gethen race. If you are a reader then you wont mind this one. I will definitely read more from Le Guin
Guest More than 1 year ago
Genly Ai, an envoy from the human galaxy is sent to the alien planet Winter/Gethen on a mission to bring the planet Winter into the fold of an evolving intergalactic civilization. He must do so by closing the gap between his own culture and the prejudices of those that he comes across. On a planet where people are of no sex, but have the ability to change into either gender, this is a large gap indeed. I found the novel fascinating and was amazed with Le Guin¿s intellectual and creative storytelling. I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a book that makes you sit back and ponder.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author of the Earthsea books brings readers to a frozen world that challenges traditional views of gender and society. Both exciting and fascinating, the adventures of Earth Ambassador Genly Ai on the planet Winter represent science fiction storytelling at its best!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the read about as much as any other. The idea of a both-sex civilization alone would probably keep me hooked to the book but LeGuin instead gives me other ideas to feast on. Religion, humankinds speeding about issues,and many many more. The reading gets tough from time to time but overall it was a very satisfying read.
Anonymous 4 months ago
I couldn't put this story down! This book changed my view of people. Challenging gender roles and norms long before social media had an influence on our society, Ursula Le Guin lovingly, but also brutally, takes you on a journey of discovery and acceptance. This book helped me better understand, love, adore and respect the opposite gender.
Darkloom More than 1 year ago
Re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I realized how little I remembered it.  I'd first read it many years ago and, frankly, I was a different person then.  I doubt that the slow pace of the first two-thirds of the book bothered me then.  That style of writing had not yet gone out of favor.  I knew that it was considered a very special book, but I confess I probably had no idea why. Older now,I started the novel with high expectations and soon wondered why.  By the end, I knew why.  As someone else said in a review, it's a beautiful novel.  It's challenging in its scope. Le Guin knows how to create alien cultures, how to place a stranger within that culture and show how one, or more, can learn to live within it.   The story is about alienness, aloneness, and love.  Hatred and cruelty.Survival and death.  It's also so very much about living and learning. The people of Winter (Gethan in the local languages) know that an alien has arrived on their world, although not everyone accepts that he's from another world.  Genly Ai is from the Ekumenic and he has come to offer Winter membership in that union.  He first presents himself and his proposal to the leaders of Karhide and finds himself relying on the prime minister, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.  Their relationship is more than testy.  They distrust each other, even though Estraven accepts Ai's claim and promotes his mission. However, Karhide, its leaders and people are nothing like what Ai is used to.  He makes mistakes, but even Estraven makes mistakes complicating matters. The two find themselves on the outside and eventually dependent on each other for survival.  This relationship gives us the true nature of the alienness between the two races.  As they work together each learns there are differences, some of which make things difficult, but there are also similarities. They are both human, after all.  Le Guin's Terrans often become more like the aliens they encounter than they are like their own people.  This transition can be beautiful, but it is also often painful.  She creates cultures so vividly that the reality of them is powerful when one is lost within the pages of her stories.
Aerik More than 1 year ago
This book won me over. I am no fan of Le Guin's distant prose, but this story is deep and powerful. It challenged me, and changed the way I look at the world, just a little bit. That's a good book.
sthefox More than 1 year ago
It is one of my favorite books I have read! The world and the characters are all so fascinating that I could not put this down. It is not only elegantly written but also very thought provoking. Loved it from start to end! 
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NizK More than 1 year ago
A wonderful book. I absolutely love anything from Ursula!
EdwardOtt More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books you want all your friends to read so that you can discuss it with them.
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Jeff_Y More than 1 year ago
The Emissary has come and Gethen will never be the same again. Genly Ai accepted that his mission as first representative of the Ekumen would not be easy to a world so different as the planet known colloquially as Winter. He knew that his own physical makeup being unique in comparison to the natives could not only prove to be difficult to accept but would also serve as proof of his claims. As he finds his mission stalling out after two years, and Winter coming no closer to actual contact with the greater human community- change comes to stolid Karhide. With it comes treachery and deceit. Suddenly whom Genly can trust is the most precious commodity he owns. Spurned by the King of Karhide, Genly decides to take his message to the rival nation of Orgoreyn. Here in the communal state, he finds himself the pawn of power brokers who would use him to forward their own agendas. His eventual incarceration and escape place him in the debt of the one person whom he has vowed not to trust, the exiled former premier of Kharhide. Together Genly and Estraven will forge a bond that will see them through adversity to the final success of the Emissary's mission. Leguin's work stands the test of time and takes its reader to not only a unique world but asks questions that are relevant today.