Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness or The Fictional Ethnography of Fictional Worlds


For a former big fan of SF, I seemed to have missed out of some major authors… This was my first Ursula Le Guin ever and I really liked it. Not only does it describe a fascinating fictional world but it is also beautifully written.

Le Guin presents an interesting description of science fiction in the introduction. While SF has often been described as an extrapolation of the present, she takes a different position and calls it a thought-experiment. Here is what she says:

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 in 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. (p. xiv)

In this thought experiment, Le Guin creates a fictional world on planet Gethen (which means Winter), a planet in an Ice Age where a form of human life does exist. These beings have biological features different from human beings; they are more resistant to cold and are sexless except during a part of their monthly cycle during which they can take either male or female characteristics.

One of the main characters in the novel is an envoy from a friendly alliance of planets. His name is Genly Ai and he is an ethnographer. The foreign observer (as ambassador, scientist or stranded space traveller) is often used in science fiction to introduce a commentator instead of an omniscient narrator. As an ethnographer, Genly Ai studies the social mores of the planet Gethen and tries to make sense of them. Doing so, he runs into some problems frequently experienced by ethnographers.

First, Genly finds it difficult to make sense of some behaviors he observes. For example, the exact meaning of the sense of honor and propriety that Gethenian call “shifgrethor” eludes him. It is described as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority”. However, Genly’s lack of mastery of the concept and its application leads him to make serious faux pas in his dealings with important officials.

Second, while Genly attempts to maintain some critical distance from those he observes, he risks with the way his mind connects with the force generated by the Foretellers in Otherhold illustrates this. The Foretellers are groups of people who put their minds together to answer questions about the future (an oracle). He says: “I tried to keep out of contact with the minds of the Foretellers. I was made very uneasy by that silent electric tension, by the sense of being drawn in, of becoming a point or figure in the pattern, in the web.” However, when he tries to block that contact, he loses his balance and fears falling. The stance of the observer is inherently uncomfortable. This sense of personal integrity, remaining whole and undisturbed by the object of inquiry, is necessary to the act of making sense. Le Guin shows how difficult this can be for an observer to maintain it and to provide a “truthful” description of the world the observer is visiting.

When I bought The Left Hand of Darkness, I also got a copy of The Dispossessed, another famous novel by Le Guin. I am looking forward to reading that as well.



Le Guin, Ursula K., The Left Hand of Darkness, Ace Books, New York, NY: 2010 [1969].



8 responses »

  1. “Le Guin shows how difficult this can be for an observer to maintain it and to provide a “truthful” description of the world the observer is visiting.”

    I think Le Guin highlights this idea in the very first passage of the book:

    “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 Dispossessed is my favourite science-fiction novel of all time. I love not only the prose, the ideas, and the world(s)building, but also the construction of the protagonist, Shevek. Hope you enjoy it!

    • Thanks, Isaac! You’re the second person who recommends The Dispossessed. I am really looking forward to reading it.

  2. Pingback: Cosseted | michelledevilliersartandstories

  3. Hi James! Thanks for your comment. I’m really not an “audio” person… I much prefer the printed word. But I did discover H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds through a reading heard on the radio, late at night driving back from my grand-mother’s place, as a child. It was terrifying and I never forgot. It left a really strong impression on me..

  4. I read The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed when they came out, and now they are mostly forgotten. I bought a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness to reread a couple years ago, but haven’t had time to get to it. What I really would love is an audiobook edition. I’ve discovered is listening to these old SF classic books is way better than reading them. A good audiobook narrator will showcase the book so much better than my own reading. But I’m getting tired of waiting for an audio edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, and your review makes me think I should go ahead and just read it myself. Thanks.

    • I wonder how “forgotten” The Left Hand of Darkness” is! This has been one of the most read post on my blog since I started it (in terms of how many people looked at it in the first 24 hours).

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