Far off in the galaxy there is a planet called Winter, where snow and the cold permeate every crevice and pore and freeze life out of all who dare to live there. On this planet reside the Gethenians who are androgynous; they are neither male nor female and only develop sexual organs once every month during the lunar cycle. While mysterious to most outside this frigid world for one man their life he is making his own.
The science fiction masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness won its author, Ursula K. Le Guin, both the Hugo and Nebula awards. One only needs to read it to understand why. Throughout its pages is told the story of a man named Genry Ai, a man who has been sent by The Ekumen of the Known Worlds to study the Gethenians unique physiology. While the Envoy, as he is called, stays on the planet for more than a year adjustment to the local climate proves difficult as even in the summer Winter proves its name; temperatures slightly above zero is considered sweltering warmth.
Genry slowly learns to adapt, however. While the cold is mind-numbing his mission is of far greater importance and takes precedence: convince the nations of Winter to join the Ekumen Sphere. Such a task is hard by itself, especially for a people who never has seen any sort of flight, whether mechanical or natural, yet is made even harder by the locals indecision over whether his claims of an interstellar union are true, or if he is just a mentally ill person spouting fairy tales.
In Gethenian society, where there exists no gender, Genry Ai is regarded as a “pervert,” he is someone who is permanently stuck in Kemmer; the Gethenian mating cycle indicating that he is forever within a sex. While such people in a bisexual society are not outlawed or discriminated against they are, however, distrusted and Genry makes friends with an air of caution around his activity. To convince the King of Karhide, the ruler of the country he landed in, to even grant him an audience to hear his fantastical claims, takes him six months with the help of important government officials. Progress is slow and often headache inducing.
His position further erodes when his confidant is accused of treason. With his greatest alley banished Genry seeks to temporarily leave Karhide for neighboring Orgoreyn. While there, however, Genry wears out his welcome and is quickly taken to a work farm where he nearly dies undergoing labor in the intensive atmosphere and while given little food. Miraculously Estraven rescues him from such torment and together they undertake a incredible journey across the ice to Karhide.
The story of their crossing, and the emotional climax, is told by the author in rich first person perspective. Details and events are written with a clarity not commonly given to such narrative styles. Rich in world-building as well as scope the reader is pulled into the world in the way that only the winner of the National Book Award, World Fantasy Award, the Kafka award, a pushcart prize, the Harold D. Vursell as well as Five Hugo and Nebula awards.
In the end not only is the Left Hand of Darkness a tale of courage and love, though love comes in unexpected ways, but it is also a tale of what it means to face a culture, world, and person which embodies everything you are but yet is as different as the sky.