Since its inception, the genre of science fiction has been a man’s world, but the most notable exception has been, of course, none other than Ursula K. Le Guin, whom we lost after her immensely prolific career at the beginning of this year. Le Guin received renewed attention for the speech she gave in 2014 when she accepted the National Book Foundation Medal at the National Book Awards ceremony, in which she emphasized the “need [for] writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”
Le Guin’s arguably best known work is The Left Hand of Darkness, originally published in 1969. Offering a vision of a species of human that’s transcended gender, the work seems ahead of its time, especially relevant today amid our current state of gender politics and lacking governmental diplomacy. In keeping with Le Guin’s credo that we need writers who are “realists of a larger reality,” Le Guin structures the novel by alternating chapters tracking the ongoing acute tension thread of action with chapters that break from that action to offer other lore from that world that underscores the action thematically while also shedding light on the function of the narratives our culture tells itself, and how these narratives resonate through history.
1 A Parade in Erhenrang
A visitor from Earth, Genly Ai, visits the nation Karhide on the planet Gethen/Winter. He witnesses a parade culminating in the keystone ceremony where the king, Argaven XV, mortars an archway with (animal) blood. Ai’s guide is the head of Karhide’s parliament, Estraven, who later that night invites Ai to dinner to tell him he can no longer be his patron and won’t be recommending to the king Ai’s mission to “bring about an alliance between Gethen and Ekumen,” since Gethen is at a turning point and Estraven’s found himself falling out of the king’s favor while others who maintain it, like the king’s cousin Tibe, are against Ai’s mission. Ai is mad at himself for being tricked by the self-serving politician.
2 The Place Inside the Blizzard
A “hearth-tale” from during the reign of Argaven VIII about two brothers who “vowed kemmering” to each other for life even though they weren’t supposed to after one had a child. After the one who had a child committed suicide, the other was driven out as an outlaw and fled into a blizzard, and started to get frostbite until they entered a strange white land where they were healed and met their brother, who said they could stay there forever. But the first one didn’t want to and fled; he was found later after having lost his left hand to frostbite, and died shortly thereafter.
3 The Mad King
Genly Ai goes to visit King Argaven XV, hearing a report while he’s waiting that Estraven’s been exiled for treason. Argaven tells Ai that he considers him a tool of Estraven’s, and wants to know why he wants Gethen to join the Ekumen’s alliance, which includes 83 worlds and 3000 countries. But Argaven is not swayed by Ai’s argument that the union will advance trade and knowledge, difficult to achieve between worlds so distant from one another. Ai shows him a machine capable of instantaneous communication with other worlds, but Argaven is unimpressed and believes he’s being tricked to be taken advantage of.
4 The Nineteenth Day
An old East Karhidish story about a lord who pays the Foretellers to ask when he will die, and he receives the answer that it will be on the 19th day of the month, but they don’t say what month or year. When a servant goes and asks the Foretellers how long his lord will live; they say longer than the servant. The lord, enraged the servant couldn’t get a better answer, kills the servant and then goes mad and eventually hangs himself on the 19th of the month.
5 The Domestication of Hunch
Having failed in his mission, Ai heads east with a caravan to gather information from the Foretellers. After a mildly harrowing trip to an isolated outpost in the mountains, he meets the Foretellers and poses them his question: will Gethen be part of the Ekumenical alliance in five years? After a seeming channeling of their collective sexual energy (they’re supposed to be celibate), they answer a straightforward, yes. The Weaver Faxe expounds to Genly about the virtues of uncertainty.
6 One Way into Orgoreyn
Estraven barely manages to leave Karhide and makes it to Orgoreyn before his three-day limit is up and he would be killed. He works in fisheries for awhile before he becomes secretary to a powerful official there, Yegey, and tells them that he thinks the king’s cousin Tibe has designs to manipulate Argaven and change the face of Karhide, starting with a border dispute over a valley. Estraven believes the only way they’ll be able to maintain their own sovereignty in Orgoreyn is talk to Genly about the Ekumenical alliance.
7 The Question of Sex
Notes from the first Ekumenical landing on Gethen (forty years before Genly’s arrival) lay out how the sexuality of the androgynous humans on Gethen apparently works: they go through cycles of “somer” and “kemmer”; during the latter the attributes of one gender or the other is adopted and sex and conception will occur (the same individual might be different genders in different periods of kemmer). Vowing “kemmering” is the equivalent of marriage. The note-taker postulates that the lack of gender might be responsible for their lack of war, while conceding that the extreme cold climate might also be responsible.
8 Another Way Into Orgoreyn
Eventually Genly returns to Karhide, where Tibe begins actively promoting war. A former kemmering of Estraven’s asks Genly to deliver some money to Estraven; Genly agrees and journeys to Orgoreyn, enduring a raid on a small town along the way. He again meets Estraven and delivers the money, suspicious that Estraven orchestrated his arrival.
9 Estraven the Traitor
A recorded story about Estraven’s line before the reign of Argaven I, a time when Karhide was actually at war because of border disputes and one of Estraven’s ancestors, injured, ended up at the cabin of his enemy, but they discovered their hands were identical and vowed kemmering to each other. The next day more enemies showed up and recognized Estraven’s ancestor as the Lord’s heir and killed him, but later his newborn baby was brought to the Lord and named heir, and his brothers tried to kill him for this but he killed them and, injured, ended up back at the enemy’s cabin. They again recognized they had the same hands, and Estraven vowed peace and gave up half the disputed lands, and for this he was labeled a traitor.
10 Conversations in Mishnory
Estraven warns Genly in vague terms not to be used by the same faction. Genly is warned there’s a Karhide spy present before he eats with the Orgota people and tells them about his mission, revealing info he didn’t in Karhide about how easily he can be picked up by an orbiting ship. He learns of the existence of SARF, Orgoreyn’s secret police.
11 Soliloquies in Mishnory
Estraven muses about the politics behind Orgoreyn’s Commensal of Thirty-Three decision about what do about Genly the envoy; the secret police think he’s a Karhide agent and that the alliance he’s promoting is a hoax. The secret police also control all communication in Orgoreyn, unlike in Karhide, and so the public has no idea of Genly’s presence. Some members of the Commensals want him to bring his ship down as proof, but he won’t do so until they’ve announced his presence in a gesture of goodwill. Estraven warns Genly he needs to show his ship as proof before it’s too late.
12 On Time and Darkness
A myth from North Orgoreyn’s “book of the Yomesh canon” about Meshe the seer who was born at the center of time and does not see darkness, which is part of the support used for the theory of the expanding universe.
13 Down on the Farm
Genly is arrested and taken on a harrowing truck ride with two dozen other prisoners to a “refectory.” He works in a sawmill and is given drugs like the rest of the prisoners to prevent them going into kemmering and other drugs that erase his memory before he’s interrogated; the drugs increasingly physically debilitate him until he can’t work anymore. He makes friends with another old infirm prisoner, Asra, who tells him some myths before he, Asra, dies.
14 The Escape
Estraven, using forged papers, makes his way to the prison where Genly’s being held and poses as a guard, breaking Genly out and dragging his unconscious form out into the harsh winter forest. Genly eventually wakes and Estraven explains why he did it, because he thinks Genly ended up where he did because Estraven put too much trust in certain members of the Thirty-Three who he hoped would use him to make the alliance and gain power over Karhide, but who ended up selling him out to the SARF. Estraven tries to convince Genly that he’s been working to forge the alliance all along.
15 To the Ice
They decide on a route back to Karhide that will avoid inspectors and be about 800 miles. Estraven steals provisions and they set off on snowshoes with a loaded sled weighing 300 pounds. Genly gets sick from some meat they eat but they keep going.
16 Between Drumner and Dremegole
Entries from Estraven’s daily journal about the journey: they’re trying to pass by an erupting volcano, and to find an ascent that’s not too steep to get to the plateau on top of a glacier, which delays their trip because they have to keep moving west to find a way up when they’re trying to go north. They finally make it up. Things get a bit awkward when Estraven goes into kemmer, and they discuss the Terran species of women. They’re getting light on food.
17 An Orgota Creation Myth
An Orgoreyn creation myth about how the sun melted the ice into “ice-shapes” that then created the rest of the world, including men, though the first man to wake (Edondurath) killed the rest except for one that escaped and eventually came back to mate with him when he was in kemmer to then create the rest of mankind.
18 On the Ice
Ai’s perspective as they continue the ice-trek, which is much colder now that they’re out of range of the volcanoes, making Genly vulnerable to frostbite, but they continue on. We revisit the kemmer conversation they had and Genly concludes they share a platonic love that they tacitly agreed sexual relations would have threatened, though he’s not sure if he’s right about this.
We stay in Ai’s perspective as they continue; their progress is hindered when the snow stops and it becomes overcast, essentially blinding them when there are no shadows cast on the ground for them to detect changes in the terrain. After Estraven’s almost killed falling into a crevasse he decides to change their route, though it will take longer. They have to go several days without food but make it into Karhide and are provided food and shelter by villagers whom they don’t reveal their identity to. They have to go another 150 miles to get to a town with a big enough radio transmitter for Genly to call his ship. An old friend of Estraven’s gets him a false identity and a job so he can stay in Karhide. Genly gets to a transmitter station and sends a signal to his ship. When he returns, Estraven is fleeing because his friend betrayed him to Tibe. He’s shot at the border and dies in Genly’s arms.
20 A Fool’s Errand
Genly is taken back to Erhenrang and received by the king, who will join the alliance. He’ll wait to revoke the order of exile against Estraven until after the ship arrives. The ship does arrive, and Genly is startled to see it’s now unfamiliar men and women. Months later, after they’re all exploring different parts of the planet, he goes to see Estraven’s father and meets his son to give them Estraven’s journals and tell them what happened.
The “larger reality” the book seems to reflect is that deception and mistrust in politics are universal–even when the nominal gender categories of “men” and “women” don’t exist. The chapter that explicates how kemmer works postulates that the differences in their sexuality might be responsible for their lack of war but then himself offers a supposition to counter this (it could be the cold weather). The fact that the very next chapter has the character of Tibe actively promoting war further underscores that this society’s sexual characteristics have not made them immune to this seemingly human problem. A later chapter (9) with a past story confirms that war has definitely existed on this planet. The SARF secret police also seem to be a parallel to our CIA, especially when a reference to “the farm” is included–though this is referring to a prison rather than a training facility.
Thus, it’s interesting to consider how much of a role in the plot the androgyny of the Gethenians actually plays. The most direct role it seems to play is when Genly is imprisoned and given drugs to prevent him from going in to kemmering that have adverse effects on him and debilitate him to the point where he’s utterly infirm. It seems Estraven still would have had to rescue him even if he hadn’t been unable to do anything. It also seems like the plot developments don’t occur because of the androgyny, but in spite of it; we do see how Genly’s lack of understanding of the culture impedes his ability to persuade them of the benign motives of his mission, raising the larger thematic question of how sex and gender impact our real-world politics. It’s also interesting that in spite of the Gethenians’ capability to be either gender, Estraven is referred to as “he.”
The narrative model would seem to be a classic one: the protagonist, Genly Ai (pronounced “eye” or “I”), gets what he wants, but it comes at a cost–his friend’s life. The interesting narrative development within this model is that the person who becomes his friend and helps him with his mission is someone he originally considered an obstacle.
One narrative tension the androgyny provides is the question of what exactly “kemmer” means; Le Guin offers us a myth in the second chapter of two brothers who have vowed kemmer to each other without giving us an explicit explanation of what this means, which she waits to reveal until a later chapter with a previous scout’s field notes.
One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.