The Left Hand of Darkness

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Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Creator: Ursula K. Le Guin
Date(s): 1969
Medium: print
Language: English
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The Left Hand of Darkness is a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin.

It was published in 1969 and is an early example of feminist science fiction and genderfuck.

The book won both a Hugo and a Nebula. It is set in Le Guin's Hainish universe.


The novel follows Genly Ai, a native of Terra (Earth), who is sent to the planet of Gethen as an envoy of the Ekumen, a loose confederation of planets. Ai's mission is to persuade the nations of Gethen to join the Ekumen, but he is stymied by his lack of understanding of Gethenian culture. A focus of the novel is the relationship between Ai and Estraven, a Gethenian politician who trusts and helps him, and whom AI learns about Gethanian culture and society through.

The people of Gethen are ambisexual humans, with no fixed sex. They are androgynes, biologically intersex humans. For twenty-four days (somer) of each twenty-six-day lunar cycle they sexually latent and biologically neuter. They only adopt sexual attributes once a month, during a period of sexual receptiveness and high fertility, called kemmer. During kemmer they become sexually male or female, as determined by pheromonal negotiation with an interested sex partner. Individuals have no predisposition towards either, although which sex they adopt can depend on context and relationships. Thus each individual can both sire and bear children.[1]

Throughout the novel Gethenians are described as "he", whatever their role in kemmer. This absence of fixed gender characteristics led Le Guin to portray Gethen as a society without war, and also without sexuality as a continuous factor in social relationships. On Gethen, every individual takes part in the "burden and privilege" of raising children, and rape and seduction are almost absent.


A fan in 1975 said in an letter of comment to the zine Tetrumbriant #2.2 that the book was:
... fantasy and and science fiction blended, with a scattering of myth and religion and the use and non-use of politics. It stands as a great book because it will not fit easily into any one category of science fiction.

It has been cited by some fans as being slashy and/or their introduction to the slash genre.

In February 1982, this book was listed in the slash Starsky & Hutch letterzine, Hanky Panky, with other pro science fiction books having a slashy or queer slant. [2]

Although both of the characters in the novel's central relationship use "he/him/his" pronouns, they are not both men. All people of Gethen spend most of their time as sexually latent androgynes and do not identify solely with masculinity or femininity. At one point, while Estraven and Ai are sharing a tent, Estraven enters kemmer, a natural period of sexual receptiveness, and becomes sexually female due to his body's reaction to Ai's fixed male pheromones. However, at no point are they physically intimate. Although the two become close enough to develop a type of telepathic bond, they do not begin an overtly romantic relationship.

The novel's use of masculine "he/him/his" gender pronouns to describe its androgynous characters was criticized. Criticism was also directed at the portrayal of androgynous characters in the "masculine" roles of politicians and statesmen but not in family roles. Le Guin responded to these criticisms in her essay "Is Gender Necessary?" as well as by switching masculine pronouns for feminine "she/her/hers" pronouns in a later reprinting of "Winter's King", an unconnected short story set on Gethen. In her responses, Le Guin admitted to failing to depict androgynes in stereotypically feminine roles, but said that she considered and decided against inventing gender-neutral pronouns, because they would mangle the language of the novel.

One of Gayle F's illos for the Interphase calender

A 1977 poem in Interphase #4 by Ruth Barker was specifically titled, "Left Hand of Darkness" and it was "involved by the mood of Gayle F's "Left Hand of Darkness" in the ST Calendar in Interphase 3."

The Left Hand of Darkness was compared to one of the earliest sash novels.

A fan in Spectrum #29 (December 1976) reviewed Gerry Downes' seminal Kirk/Spock novel and said:
As for the believability: Alternative: The Epilog to Orion falls flat on its face. One of the few science fiction pieces I have ever read to deal with the subject of love other than heterosexual love in a credible manner is The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. While I don't suggest that Gerry Downes' work should show the same quality as a professional writer, I do suggest that it takes far more space than 12 pages of dialog to make homosexual love plausible to an audience living in a society where homosexuality is rejected by most.

Influence on Fans

This novel also influenced other fans in their creative endeavors. According to Jacqueline Lichtenberg, one of these fans was Marion Zimmer Bradley and Bradley's Darkover novel, "World Wreckers."

In November 1977, a fan named Marci Segal wrote an article comparing Bradley's "World Wreckers" with LeGuin's "Left Hand of Darkness." A fan that same month said the:
... comparison [has] often made verbally or by letter but so far as we know never before in print. It's called COLD WORLDS—WARM PEOPLE, but we can't help wondering why she didn't call it THE LEFT HAND OF DARKOVER? [3]
A fan wrote to Darkover Newsletter #11 (1978) and postulated:
I wonder sometimes what IS the attraction of Darkover? I know I do not agree with the concepts of sexual freedom presented in FT and WW. WW seems strongly influenced by LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, but MZB treats the subject as sensitively or as deeply as LeGuin. However, MZB seems more interested, I think, in the psi side of sexuality, than in the psychological-'social-cultural aspects as was LeGuin. I do feel that MZB, LeGuin, and Jacqueline Lichtenberg are all part of a new developing school of SF writers—a school, at present, dominated by women. One of its distinguishing features is an interest in psycho-social-cultural possibilities and a willingness to relate these possibilities to present conditions in order to make a statement about these present conditions. LeGuin makes a strong statement about the nature of human sexuality through the Gethenians. The concept of "shift grethor" destroys many old stereotypes about maleness and femaleness.
In an undated post, Lichtenberg said Bradley told her:
...that she had written World Wreckers in answer to Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness because LHOD had omitted a crucial sex scene. It was such a glaring omission that MZB felt she had to answer with a book of her own, which was World Wreckers. [4]



  1. Sarah LeFanu (January 3, 2004). "The king is pregnant". The Guardian. Retrieved December 20, 2016.
  2. The list: "Marion ZimmerBradley's Darkover books, Tales of Neveryon, Delaney, The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin, Ace Chrome, Nader, Jove, Interview With the Vampire, Rice, How Are the Mighty Fallen, Swann"
  3. by the editor of Darkover Newsletter #8 (November 1977)
  4. See Marion Zimmer Bradley's Influence on the Sime~Gen Universe (early 2000s?) by Jacqueline Lichtenberg