It tells the story of a human emissary to an alien world, sent there alone so as not to pose a threat, to invite the inhabitants of the planet — called Winter, for reasons that will become obvious — to join an intergalactic federation of worlds, called the Ekumen.
The people of Winter are people — they're humans, with one significant difference. They're gender neutral, except once a month when they go into heat (called "kemmer") and become male or female, and mate with another of their species who is also in kemmer. If a female is impregnated, she remains a woman until the child is weaned, then it's back to the old gender lottery.
At the time it was published, The Left Hand of Darkness was compared to Dune — another winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards (science fiction's two top honours). But in many ways it is the opposite of Dune. It is set on a frozen world in the grip of an ice age, rather than one which is all baking desert.
And whereas Dune is an adventure epic featuring vast battles, this is more of an internal story, concerned with psychology and character over action.
But both are tales of survival, featuring long arduous treks. And both have an interesting take on psychic powers.
Ursula LeGuin is a writer of distinction.The book begins in a "dark storm-beaten city of stone" where a royal parade features the "preposterous disconsolate bellow" of alien musical instruments. LeGuin is particularly good at describing nature — the "quiet and pale darkness of snowfall" or the "windy autumn dark" or a "warm stormy summer dusk."
Winter is a world conditioned by its climate, and the clichés of the people reflect that: "a lot of snow out of one cloud"; "the glaciers didn't freeze over night." In this strange and convincingly evoked world our hero must contend with treachery and court intrigue.
LeGuin writes about this amusingly. The king's adviser stares at the envoy "for some while as though establishing lunacy." And in this nation "assassination is a lively institution."
The envoy's mission goes horribly wrong and turns into a hellish ordeal which he escapes, only to face an almost impossible journey through a frozen wilderness of glaciers and volcanic activity.
Even here, or perhaps here most of all, the beauty of LeGuin's writing is alive: "sunlight and blue shadows lay vivid on the snow." And a volcano is in eruption: "Worms of fire crawl down its black sides, seen when wind clears off the roil and seethe of ash-cloud and smoke-cloud and white steam."
Perhaps the most striking, and psychologically acute, moment comes when the envoy is finally reunited with fellow members of his team. After his years on Winter, these normal humans look utterly alien to him...
And, incidentally, in case you were wondering, the left hand of darkness is light — hence the yin-yang symbol drawn by the hero to his friend in the story, and also by LeGuin herself in the signed copy shown here (and now nestling on my bookshelf).
(Image credits: The copy I bought, the Ace Science Fiction Special first edition with the lovely Leo & Diane Dillon cover painting is from eBay, the gorgeous original painting is from a Tor blog and the variant editions, in German and Finnish and the original US hardcover are all from Good Reads.)