The Left Hand of Darkness

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Overview

When The Left Hand of Darkness first appeared in 1969, the original jacket copy read, "Once in a long while a whole new world is created for us. Such worlds are Middle Earth, Dune—and such a world is Winter."  Twenty-five years and a Hugo and Nebula Award later, these words remain true. In Winter, or Gethen, Ursula K. Le Guin has created a fully realized planet and people. But Gethen society is more than merely a fascinating creation. The concept of a society existing totally without sexual prejudices is ...

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Overview

When The Left Hand of Darkness first appeared in 1969, the original jacket copy read, "Once in a long while a whole new world is created for us. Such worlds are Middle Earth, Dune—and such a world is Winter."  Twenty-five years and a Hugo and Nebula Award later, these words remain true. In Winter, or Gethen, Ursula K. Le Guin has created a fully realized planet and people. But Gethen society is more than merely a fascinating creation. The concept of a society existing totally without sexual prejudices is even more relevant today than it was in 1969. This special 25th anniversary edition of The Left Hand of Darkness contains not only the complete, unaltered text of the landmark original but also a thought-provoking new afterword and four new appendixes by Ms. Le Guin.

When the human ambassador Genly Ai is sent to Gethen, the planet known as Winter by those outsiders who have experienced its arctic climate, he thinks that his mission will be a standard one of making peace between warring factions. Instead the ambassador finds himself wildly unprepared. For Gethen is inhabited by a society with a rich, ancient culture full of strange beauty and deadly intrigue—a society of people who are both male and female in one, and neither. This lack of fixed gender, and the resulting lack of gender-based discrimination, is the very cornerstone of Gethen life. But Genly is all too human. Unless he can overcome his ingrained prejudices about the significance of "male" and "female," he may destroy both his mission and himself.

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What People Are Saying

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

  • ISBN-13: 9780441478125
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/28/1987
  • Series: Hainish Series
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 35,884
  • Lexile: 970L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 4.50 (w) x 7.66 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Ursula K.  Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon.

Biography

Speculative fiction, magic realism, "slipstream" fiction -- all these terms could apply to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin. Unfortunately, none was in common use when she started writing in the early 1960s. As a young writer, Le Guin weathered seven years of rejections from editors who praised her novels' elegant prose but were puzzled by their content. At a time when the only literary fiction was realistic fiction, as Le Guin later told an interviewer for The Register-Guard in Portland, Oregon, "There just wasn't a pigeonhole for what I write."

At long last, two of her stories were accepted for publication, one at a literary journal and one at a science-fiction magazine. The literary journal paid her in copies of the journal; the science-fiction magazine paid $30. She told The Register-Guard, "I thought: 'Oooohhh! They'll call what I write science fiction, will they? And they'll pay me for it? Well, here we go!' "

Le Guin continued to write and publish stories, but her breakthrough success came with the publication of The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. The novel, which tells of a human ambassador's encounters with the gender-changing inhabitants of a distant planet, was unusual for science fiction in that it owed more to anthropology and sociology than to the hard sciences of physics or biology. The book was lauded for its intellectual and psychological depth, as well as for its fascinating premise. "What got to me was the quality of the story-telling," wrote Frank Herbert, the author of Dune. "She's taken the mythology, psychology -- the entire creative surround -- and woven it into a jewel of a story."

Since then, Le Guin has published many novels, several volumes of short stories, and numerous poems, essays, translations, and children's books. She's won an arm's-length list of awards, including both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and a National Book Award for The Farthest Shore. Over the years, she has created and sustained two fictional universes, populating each with dozens of characters and stories. The first universe, Ekumen, more or less fits into the science-fiction mode, with its aliens and interplanetary travel; the second, Earthsea, is a fantasy world, complete with wizards and dragons. As Margaret Atwood wrote in The New York Review of Books, "Either one would have been sufficient to establish Le Guin's reputation as a mistress of its genre; both together make one suspect that the writer has the benefit of arcane drugs or creative double-jointedness or ambidexterity."

More impressive still is the way Le Guin's books have garnered such tremendous crossover appeal. Unlike many writers of science fiction, she is regularly reviewed in mainstream publications, where her work has been praised by the likes of John Updike and Harold Bloom. But then, Le Guin has never fit comfortably into a single genre. As she said in a Science Fiction Weekly interview, "I know that I'm always called 'the sci-fi writer.' Everybody wants to stick me into that one box, while I really live in several boxes. It's probably hurt the sales of my realistic books like Searoad, because it tended to get stuck into science fiction, where browsing readers that didn't read science fiction would never see it."

Le Guin has also published a translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, a book that has influenced her life and writing since she was a teenager; she has translated fiction by Angelica Gorodischer and a volume of poems by Gabriela Mistral; and, perhaps most gratifyingly for her fans, she has returned to the imaginary realm of Earthsea. Tehanu, which appeared in 1990, was subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea," but Le Guin found she had more to tell, and she continued with Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. "I thought after 'Tehanu' the story was finished, but I was wrong," she told Salon interviewer Faith L. Justice. "I've learned never to say 'never.' "

Good To Know

The "K" in Ursula K. Le Guin stands for Le Guin's maiden name, Kroeber. Her father was the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber; her mother, the writer Theodora Kroeber, is best known for the biography Ishi in Two Worlds.

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    1. Hometown:
      Portland, Oregon
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 21, 1929
    2. Place of Birth:
      Berkeley, California
    1. Education:
      B.A., Radcliffe College; M.A., Columbia University, 1952
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


A Parade in Erhenrang


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 are 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 justbefore 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 which 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, that 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 bloodbond 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 which 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 stormdarkened 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 toward 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 lowgrade 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 a while. 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 which 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?"

    "No."

    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 lowgrowing 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 a while."

    "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, free-wheeling 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."

    "Good."

    "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 dustmote 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 mind-speech, 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 promise 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?"

    "Gethen."

    "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.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 38 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 6, 2010

    I Could Not Put This Book Down!

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A book I refuse to live without

    - Which is how I titled my Essentials List.<BR/><BR/>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.<BR/><BR/>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.<BR/><BR/>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.<BR/><BR/>Difficult to share with others, nonetheless, this is a fat, multifaceted story which works well on many levels. I highly recommend it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2008

    It was ok

    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

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2006

    Fascinating!

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2005

    Both exciting and fascinating

    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!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2005

    Whew, wait while I stand up.

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2014

    Powerful

    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.

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  • Posted June 26, 2014

    It is one of my favorite books I have read! The world and the ch

    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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  • Posted February 6, 2013

    A wonderful book. I absolutely love anything from Ursula!

    A wonderful book. I absolutely love anything from Ursula!

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  • Posted July 9, 2011

    Brilliant

    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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  • Posted May 6, 2010

    Didn't do it for me

    I found this story to drag somewhat. It reflected the US and Soviet Union as they were back in the 60's - but I really can't say that I enjoyed the book. It was boring.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A Classic Science Fiction Book to Make You Think

    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.

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  • Posted March 4, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Sci Fi

    I am reading two Ursula Le Guin Books now, I got hooked on them from the Jane Austen Book club.

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  • Posted February 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Makes you think...

    It's not that the story is so fantastic on its own, it is how it makes you think about how we are so lashed into our male/female thinking. Everything in our world seems to be related to gender, and it really isn't a positive. While initially I thought how wierd, how awful, how ironic that "they" saw the normal male/female seperation as perveted, as the story concluded I began to see it from a different perspective. Le Guin managed to write a science fiction story that makes one look at reality in a new way. It definitely deserved the praise it recieved.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2008

    Captivating

    It was a little difficult to read but I truly enjoyed it. I am considering going back to read it again since I now know the basic story the beginning will make more sense. It took me a while to get into the characters but when I did I enjoyed it and connected with them. I would recommend this book. Before you read this you may want to try one of her other books. Do not judge her writing by this one book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2004

    Science fiction and Fantasy lots of books

    Because it Chapter 1 it says' In white tunic and shirt and breeches'. How many awards they have? 2 of Hugo and Nebula Awards. He loves Science fiction and fantasy books. Ok, We have a lot of read to do we checked out in the library copy.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2004

    One of my ALL-TIME favorites

    Enjoyed greatly, though I had to read it twice to 'get it all', that FIRST time! Author leGuin shook the conventions of the times (I was educated in the American South in the 1960s; female Merit Scholar in Hell!) in a most positive way. LeGuin creates a planet where the 'people' don't have PERMANENT gender. Sex came in 'season' and a person (I longed to be a real PERSON, not a mere woman!) would become (temporarily) male or female without being stuck there (unless SHE becomes pregnant; motherhood is interesting there, too.) The results of all people being created truly equal make for an interesting story. Then there is Winter, all the time! Read it and love it. Can be a guy story, too; I've been married to a great guy for 36 years, he just doesn't like fantasy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2003

    interesting, but hard to understand

    i found the left hand of darkness very hard to understand, and that has never happened to me before. i have a very broad taste in literature, but i found this book kind of confusing. unknown words are thrown at you on every page, and it is hard to remember what each of them means. i found the concept of a sexless generation fascinating. very interesting book, but i would only recommend it for older teenagers and adults.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2001

    Excellent

    In addition to the thematic elements discussed in other comments, this is also just a plain good story--complete with intrigue and adventure--about two guys (well, one guy and a sort-of-guy). Although the single-sex society is an intriguing concept and the images of various opposites that require one another in order to form a whole (the image we are most familiar with is the yin-yang symbol) make it interesting from a literary standpoint, it's also a compelling story of friendship and sacrifice, as Genly Ai and Estraven come to know each other.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2001

    Science Fiction never dates

    The narrator of this story is a human whose job is to travel the universe as an envoy, assessing whether other civilizations are worthy to become members of an alliance. The planet is called Winter and that is the only description it needs for it is perpetually cold, almost like the Earth poles. The other big difference is that though the inhabitants have certain characteristics of humans they have differences too. The main one being that they are sexless, or more accurately they can change from male to female as the occasion requires. Le Guin won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for this work and she keeps the reader enthralled from first to last.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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