The Left Hand of Darkness

Genry is the envoy from a human planetary Federation to the world of Winter. Used to a hot climate, he must endure the planet's constant cold plus the difficulties of being a lone envoy and the only single-sex human on a world where everyone is ambisexual, i.e., sexually latent for most of the month, but able to mate for a few days when one or other sexual characteristic will dominate. Genry's male sexuality is viewed as a perversion and when the political mood turns against him, he is thrown in prison. Estraven is a high-ranking official who befriends Genry and is exiled as a result. He risks much to rescue Genry from prison, at first out of political necessity but later out of friendship.
This is a book which explores the issues around the extent to which our societies are dominated by our sexual identities and dualities. Clearly this is not a book for younger readers. It may well not be a book for older readers. But the most striking thing about this story - a story which turns on sexual identity and in which almost every character is ambisexual - is that there are no sexual encounters described. Not even in a situation when two characters are sharing a tent for weeks on end. The main question the book poses is the extent to which our behaviour as humans is dominated or influenced by our differences in sex. And this at two levels: whether the apparent duality of two different biological and psychological sexes informs our whole world-view; and whether our view of any one person is influenced more or less by our knowledge of their sex.
Winter is not a perfect world: there are political intrigues, acts of pettiness and revenge, acts of greatness and generosity. There is a semi-spiritual element to the story, leaning towards a Tibetan-style mysticism. There are groups of people - Handdara - who live in lonely Fastnesses and who can, in a mystic gathering, foretell the future. Genry visits one such community, and stays there a while. Genry's friend Estraven was raised among the Handdara and retains some of their skills in controlling his body to cope with the rigours of their escape. By doing this, he can give more food and more support to Genry, who must simply endure the journey.
My overall feeling is that, while interesting, the story doesn't bring quite enough to the table to merit grabbing it off the shelf. Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.


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