Masterworks Spotlight: The Left Hand of Darkness

Last week we posted about Ursula K. Le Guin’s titles in the SF Masterworks series and ended with the news that we were delighted to welcome a new addition: The Left Hand of Darkness. But we didn’t go into any more detail. Why? Well, because a book like The Left Hand of Darkness – on pretty much everyone’s list of ‘the greatest SF novels ever written’ – obviously deserves its own blog post.  And here it is.

Genly Ai is an ethnologist observing the people of the planet Gethen, a world perpetually in winter. The people there are androgynous, normally neuter, but they can become male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle. Tucked away in a remote corner of the universe, they have no knowledge of space travel or of life beyond their own world. So when this strange envoy from space brings news of a vast coalition of planets which they are invited to join, he is met with fear, mistrust and disbelief. 

To Genly Ai, in turn, the Gethenians seem alien, unsophisticated and confusing, but he is drawn into the complex politics of the planet. And, during a long, tortuous journey across the ice with a politician who has fallen from favour and has been outcast, he loses his professional detachment and reaches a painful understanding of the true nature of Gethenians and, in a moving and memorable sequence, even finds love . . .

Of course, that description does scant justice to this masterpiece. To pick out just one example of the book’s genius – as China Miéville astutely points out in his introduction – in The Left Hand of Darkness Le Guin reconfigured our view of society with four simple words: ‘The king was pregnant’. Even now, that sentence screams strangeness; imagine how it read in 1969. Indeed, from our vantage point almost half a century on, it’s difficult to appreciate the impact the book had when it was first published – and, of course, continues to have – but if you want to get an idea, take a look at Ursula Le Guin’s page on the Science Fiction Awards Database:

Winner of the Hugo Award for best novel, winner of the Nebula Award for best novel, winner of the James Tiptree, Jr Memorial Award – retrospectively, as the award was not initiated until some twenty years after The Left Hand of Darkness was published – and over two dozen citations in critical lists and works (you can find one in David Pringle‘s excellent Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, available, since you ask, as a Gateway eBook).

But let’s be honest: you don’t want to read about The Left Hand of Darkness; you want to read the book itself. So, don’t let us keep you.


The Left Hand of Darkness is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook.