The Left Hand of Darkness

By Megan Thomas

Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction is that of legend, so The Left Hand of Darkness seemed like an excellent starting point for the genre.

I thought it was great, so I may start purposefully reading outside my preferred genres more regularly. Though you can choose to read this in a series all set within the same fictional Hainish universe, this can also be read as a stand-alone.

A human from Terra (aka earth) is a missionary sent to the planet Gethen to try to convince their leaders to join the Ekumen, a confederation of planets. The major issue, however, is the culture barrier to which he struggles to assimilate. The people of Gethen are ambisexual – meaning they are neither male nor female, but rather they develop sexual organs for a few days per month (a period called Kemmer) based on their sexual desires and that of their partner. Genly, who is therefore in “kemmer” constantly, is almost as confusing to the Gethenians as they are to him.

As any genre of good fiction should, Left Hand of Darkness does a lot more than simply present an alternate world. Argued to be some of the first feminist science fiction to explore androgyny, the novel explores how human society centres around sex and the power it wields. “But surely the “women” are seriously disadvantaged by the need to carry children every time? That seems unfair?” – I paraphrase a question posed to Genly by an “alien” Gethenian, confused as to how this way of life that Genly speaks of is sustainable.

Written in the form of both past Terra envoys writing diaries of their experience trying to sway the Gethenians to join their alliance, entries from Genly and also Gethian myths or folk tales which paint a picture of the world and the lore of the land.

Which Ursula K. Le Guin should I try next?


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