“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. LeGuin is a science fiction novel set in a far distant future and an alternate reality. It published in 1969. It is the sixth novel in the “Hainish Cycle” series. Although each book stands alone, they are all set in the same universe.
Genly Ai is a human sent as an Envoy to the planet Gethen. He meets with impediments right from the start. First, the people refuse to believe he is an alien and they are not interested in hearing about the Ekumen, a trade federation of planets. The people of Gethen are androgynous and can change their genders every month so this makes it difficult for Genly to quite understand their culture. There is also a difference in the two main religions of the planet and a brewing border war to deal with.
“The Left Hand of Darkness” is an intellectual science fiction novel. LeGuin refers to it as a thought experiment, it’s purpose to take the regular world and add a twist. In this case, there is only one sex, instead each person is a man and a woman, with all the same emotions and body types. Once a month their bodies decide what sex they are going to be by their environment and partner.
In these stories humans were transplanted to Earth and other planets from their home world of Hain. Each book has a bit more of the history revealing the full world development slowly. “The Left Hand of Darkness” was awarded the Hugo and the Nebula awards in 1970.
“Truth is a matter of the imagination.” Genly Ai is giving his report of his mission to the planet Gethen. He was sent as an envoy to persuade them to become members of the Ekumen. There is a parade and Genly finds himself walking behind the gossiwors. It is raining. Genly is walking with the royal procession. When the reach the arch, King Argaven XV is given a trowel and begins to apply a reddish mortar to the keystone in the arch the parade is for. Genly is surprised to see the King actually install the keystone instead of putting on a show.
When Genly asks the Prime Minister Therem Harth rem ir Estraven about the red mortar he is told it is mixed with blood for the keystone. It used to be human blood but these days they use animal blood. “So he often speaks, frank yet cautious, ironic, as if always aware that I see ad judge as an alien.” Genly doesn’t trust Estraven, but he agrees to go to dinner at his house that night.
They two wait until after dinner to talk over business as it is rude to discuss business during meals. During this meal we learn through Genly’s thoughts that the people of Gethen are androgynous. Genly thinks Estraven has a womanly way about him but has a manly presence.
After dinner Estraven tells Genly that he can no longer represent him to the King. Unfortunately, Estraven has fallen out of favor with the King. He has been taking the side of some farmers that have been living in a strip of land that is under dispute between Karhide and Orgoreyn. As Genly is leaving Estraven asks Genly what the name of Gethen is in the Ekumen. He says they call it Winter.
A Hearth Tale – The Place Inside The Blizzard
The kemmer happens once a month when the people of Gethen become sexually male or female depending on their location and relationships. During this period they experience high fertility.
“About two hundred years ago” two brothers vow to always spend kemmer together. This is allowed until one of them becomes pregnant. Then they must separate so the real problem is that they vowed to spend kemmer together for life. After being told by the Lord of Shath they must break their vow, the brother with the child killed himself. The shame of suicide was then placed on the living brother. He is turned away from every Hearth until he finally returns to his own and tells them he is a man with no face and therefore doesn’t need is name. “Getheren is my name. That name I lay on this Hearth as a curse, and with it my shame.” Then he leaves to go into the Ice and freeze to death. The people of the Hearth chase after him to kill him which would be a lesser shame than the shame of suicide placed on their Hearth. But, the never catch him.
Getheren is freezing to death when finds himself with his brother in the “place inside the blizzard” where all those who kill themselves go. Getheren says he won’t stay with his brother because he killed himself and broke their vow first and turns back. He is found by the people of Orhoch Hearth and is nursed back to some health but loses his left hand to frostbite. They think he might be Getheren but he denies it since he has given his name away. One day he asks a traveler how is old Hearth is doing only to discover his curse had made it ill. Getheren tells them his name and what happened to him in the Ice. Then he tells the traveler to let the people of Shath know that he has taken his name back and his shadow. A few days later Getheren dies. The traveler took the message back to Shath and they begin to prosper.
The next morning after his dinner with Estraven Genly prepares for his meeting with the King. While waiting to meet him in the anteroom Genly learns that Estraven has been exiled. Now he becomes nervous the King will punish him because he deals with Estraven. When he asks the King whether he would be implicated with Estraven the King replies, “You? No.” He goes on to say, “I don’t know what the devil you are, Mr. Ai, a sexual freak or an artificial monster or a visitor from the Domains of the Void, but you’re not a traitor, you’ve merely been the tool of one. I don’t punish tools.” Then he advises him to keep clear of factions and not to let anyone else use him or to trust anyone. “Tell your own lies. Do your own deeds.”
The King begins to question Genly about his about Ekumen. He wants to know about the various races and is surprised to learn their androgyny is unusual. Genly tries to tell the King more about the Ekumen, while the King continues to make light of his proposals. The Ekumen consists of three thousand nations on eighty three worlds. He tries to push the ideas of free trade between the members of the Ekumen. But the King wants to know if they are all as black as Genly. He is also a bit disgusted to learn that the rest of the universe has people who stay one sex all the time.
The King calls them a “society of perverts.” Genly tries to explain time jumping to the King but he wants to talk about the “ansible communicator” he wears on his wrist. He tells the King that with the ansible he can send messages instantly back and forth anywhere in the universe and if the King wants to send a message to the planet Hain, there is a translator waiting for it. Genly tries to explain the science of the people who did reconnaissance to Gethen forty years ago. That is why they can speak his language.
Having very little interest in the ansible, the King just tells him to ask, “what makes a man a traitor.” The King tells him he is not interested in the Ekumen and won’t be. But Genly is welcome to stay in the city. After leaving the King’s presence, Genly knows he has failed, but plans to go to Orgoreyn to try in that country. But first, “I would go east to the Fastnesses, and gather information from the Foretellers, perhaps.”
A Hearth Story – The Nineteenth Day
A man named Lord Berosty Rem ir Ipe paid forty byrls and the crops from his orchards for half a year to the foretellers. They tell him that he will die on the nineteenth day of the month. So on that day every month he fears. Seeing his fear, Lord Berosty’s kemmering or life partner offers his life to the foretellers for more information. They tell him Lord Berosty will live longer than he will which turns out to be true since when he returns home to tell Berosty he becomes angry and kills him. Berosty is so bereft he hangs himself on the nineteenth day of the month.
The first war ever is starting to brew between Orgoreyn and Karhide. Genly’s landlord lines him up with a landboat so he can travel to the Fastnesses.. Since Karhide is so close to the glaciers the trip is not comfortable. At the Fastnesses Genly meets Faxe the Weaver. It takes four days for Genly to get the right wording together to ask his question. He asks if Gethen will join the Ekumen in the next five years. After a ceremony involving Zanies (schizophrenics), a kemmer and a pervert among the others. After a loud and wild ceremony Faxe tells Genly that Gethen will join the Ekumen federation.
This chapter is in Estraven’s point of view. He is woken with his eviction notice and packs to head west. His first stop is Kuseben. A small town where Ashe, his kemmering from times past, meets him. Estraven tries to sneak past him, but Ashe wants to talk. They had been together seven years and had two sons that stayed with Ashe. Estraven is still angry that Ashe broke their vow. Ashe still loves him and tries to give Estraven some money. He refuses. Next Ashe asks if he can go into exile with him. Estraven pushes him away and says he has to go alone.
The new prime minister, Tibe has made Estraven public enemy. “None could cry Murder, but only Justice Done.” So Estraven steals a rowboat and heads down the river. He sees two men on the dock who shoot at him with a stun gun. Estraven knows his time is limited as the numbness settles in. He is picked up by a patrol ship and, since his time isn’t up yet, the captain takes him to Orgoreyn.
Estraven wakes up in a hospital. After the doctor, an inspector arrives. Estraven tells him that he is planning to resettle in Orgoreyn. He gets a job as a landboat loader to work his way to Mishnory, a town in Oregoreyn.
Soon, Commensal Yegey hires Estraven as his secretary. After working at this job for awhile he is called by Yegey to meet with the Orgota Naval Trade Commissioner, Obsle. He questions Estraven about the plans of Tibe. He tells him Tibe wants to make changes in Karhide that will make it more like Orgoreyn and use war to garner power.
Next Obsle asks about Genly. Apparently he has been asking for permission to enter. Estraven confirms that although Genly is an alien, he is also peaceful. He tells the Commissioner that Genly may be a help in the dispute over the Sinoth Valley. Field Notes of Ong Tot Oppong, Investigator of the first Ekumenical landing party on Gethen/Winter.
On day 881, Ong reports on the sexuality of the Gethenians. He theorizes that they were an experiment of the Hainish. They were made androgynous to see what would happen. Ong questions the use of an ice planet but assumes that when the Gethenians were placed there the planet may have had a more hospitable climate.
Their sexual cycle is on a cycle of 26 to 28 days. From day one to day twenty one, they are somer, unsexed. Then on the twenty third day they seem to go into heat. If they have a partner one will become female and the other male. The changes mean that a person can be a mother and a father. This also means sexual discrimination does not happen. When they vowkemmer is is a sort of marriage. This is not allowed with siblings. Incest is permitted but if one of them gives birth, they must dissolve their union.
This chapter goes back to Genly’s point of view. He is investigating instead of being a diplomat for the summer. In Karhide a stranger is not an enemy, a neighbor is, so he is treated well, with small instances of xenophobia. He is spending the month of Kus in a small coastal village that has not changed for a thousand years. While there Genly hears on the radio that the King is pregnant. Most of the broadcasts from Karhide is the Prime Minister, Tibe. He is trying to inflame his listeners against outsiders, especially Orgoreyn. After this Genly knows his vacation is over and heads to Orgoreyn to work as an envoy for the Ekumen, his actual job.
Before he can leave Ashe visits him. He knows Genly had some business with Estreven and wants him to take the money he tried to give Estraven and pass it on the next time he sees him. Afterwards, Genly plans a trip by the disputed territory so he will understand it better. While there he is almost arrested, but they see him as an Envoy and he is given papers and a car to drive to Mishnory. While driving there he listens to the radio and is surprised to not hear anything about the attacks on the Sinoth Valley he heard about while there.
In Mishnory Genly drops off the car and goes to the house of Commissioner Shusgis. He provides an apartment for Genly that has heat and a hot shower. After a hot shower, Genly is taken to a dinner party consisting of the upper echelon of Orgoreyn. Obsle questions him about other planets including Earth. Soon Estraven enters and Genly uses the chance to tell him about the message and money from Ashe.
An East Karhidish Tale
Long ago there was a blood feud between the Doain of Stok and the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land. The feud has been going on for three generations and it is over land. One bright day the young heir of Estre falls into Icefoot Lake while skiing. He gets himself out of the lake but then hypothermia starts to set in. He finds a small house to seek shelter. He is taken care of by Therem of Stok who is the enemy of the young man, Arek, but they fall in love.
After a few days a group of Stok men surprise the lovers and kill Arek. Therem tell the men to take Arek’s body back to his family, but they dispose of the body instead. When Therem finds out about their actions he banishes the men and disappears. Months later a man arrives at the Domain of Estre with a newborn baby that is Therem, Arek’s son. The Lord of Estre raises him. But, the other children don’t like Therem being an heir so they attack. Although he beats them off he wanders into a cabin in the woods wounded. Therem discovers the person treating his wounds is his mother/father, Therem of Stok. They broker a peace agreement between the two of them, and when Therem of Estre becomes King he spreads the peace between the lands.
The next morning Genly gives the money to Estraven who warns him that Genly will be used as a tool. Later, during lunch with the Commensals Genly is introduced to more officials. An announcement comes that the King’s baby was stillborn. After the meal is over Genly is subjected to more questions. He tries to tell them about the Ekumen, but they become upset when he tells them he has a ship in orbit. The Commensals don’t believe him so he offers to have his ship land if he can be guaranteed of their safety.
On the drive home Gethen asks Shusgis about the more underground aspects of the government. He also asks him what he knows about Estraven. Genly thinks the leaders of Orgoreyn is “not quite solid.” He doesn’t trust them.
This chapter goes back to Estraven. He is trying to help Genly from behind the scenes, but Sarf blocks any mention of him on the radio and in the papers, so they are hiding him in plain sight. Estraven asks Obsle to find a way to get the word out about Genly, but he knows he can’t get out over Sarf. Estraven tries to warn Genly that his life may be in danger.
The Sayings of Tuhulme the High Priest
Meshe was a Foreteller and has had two lifetimes broken up by the Seeing. He can see everything in the past of an object and the future of it.
In this religion darkness is bad. “Darkness is only in the mortal eye, that thinks it sees, but sees not.”
That night Genly tries to find some of his contacts in the Commensals only to discover they are out for the Yomesh festival of Solemnity. Later Genly is woken from sleep by officials arresting him. At the prison Genly learns all of the Commensals betrayed him. He is drugged and interrogated viciously. When he regains consciousness, Genly finds himself in a truck. He is naked and so are the twenty six Gethenians with him. During the night one of the prisoners bleeds to death.
After five days travel they are unloaded at a camp, fed and clothed. Genly is put to work at a sawmill. The prison camp is called Pulefen Commensality Third Voluntary Farm and Resettlement Agency. They give the prisoners a shot to stop them from going into kemmer but the shot makes Genly very ill.
This chapter goes back to Estraven’s point of view. When he realizes some of the Commensals are not answering their doors he knows what is happening. He goes straight to Shusgis and makes him tell him what happened to Genly. Then Estraven starts a long and harrowing trip to save Genly before winter hits. He knows Genly will not survive a winter as a prisoner.
Estraven forges some papers and starts work as a guard at the prison Genly is at. While he is one guard duty Estraven stuns Genly and claims he is dead. The other guard tells him to dispose of the body. Estraven takes Genly to the cache of supplies he hid and then loads him on the sleigh. He sets up a camp and nurses Genly back to health.
When Genly finally regains enough of his health to talk to Estraven he asks why the man helped him. Estraven tells him he feels responsible for all the bad things that happened to him and he thinks the Ekumen would help to save his planet. Genly agrees to teach Estraven mindspeech.
After they are both strong enough, they start walking to Karhide which seems to be the safest place they can go. They will have to travel 800 miles in 78 days across a glacial dessert. Genly can’t call down his ship because Obsle has his ansible so they will have to walk. The trip is treacherous. Blizzards, volcanic areas, steep trails, ice cliffs, etc. And then Estraven goes into kemmer. He recites a poem,
“Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.
An Orgota Creation Myth”
“In the beginning there was nothing but Ice and the sun.” As the sun melts the ice three beings form. One makes land, one makes rivers and oceans and one makes the vegetation, people and animals.
After the three beings melt people drink their water and live. The first is Edondurath. He is a giant who kills one of the first beings that wakes after him, but another one gets away. After Edondurath goes to sleep and enters kemmer, the escaped person returns and they mate. All of the Gethernians come from this coupling.
This chapter goes back to Genly’s voice. He recounts the trip so far and gives their continued survival to Estraven. During their evenings Genly teaches Estraven how to mindspeak. One day they wake to an absence of shadows so they won’t be able to see where the treacherous terrain is under the snow. Their rations grow low.
Finally after seventy five days they leave the Ice and enter Guthen Bay. They enter a house and are given food. After a few days rest, they begin the eight day travel to the border. There Estraven calls on an old friend and Genly skis to Sassinoth where he finds a way to send a message to his spaceship in orbit.
The next day the two meet while trying to cross over the border. Estraven makes a run for the border and is gunned down. Genly is arrested after holding his dying friend. Genly is taken to Sassinoth and thrown in prison. When the King learns the ship is about to land. This is kept secret, but Genly’s story is told on the radio. Obsle and his party take over the Commensals, Tibe resigns, and King Argaven summons Genly. Genly tries to calm any fears the King has about the space ship but he says he doesn’t fear him, his ship or the Ekumen.
It’s been three years. When the ship lands Genly is happy to meet his former crew mates. The envoys of Ekumen will spend the next seventeen years building relationships. Genly takes a trip to the home of Estraven to bring his journals to his father. He spends time with Estravens’ father and son telling them the stories of their travels.
Genly Ai – an Envoy for the Ekumen. Genly’s mission is to bring the planet into the federation. Genly is from Terra or Earth and is taller and darker than the people of Gethen so he stands out. When the story starts Genly has been on the planet for over a year hoping to speak with the King. But, the people of Gethen have trouble believing he is from another planet. As he spends more time with the people of the planet and after he is imprisoned in a labor camp, Genly starts to see the many differences in the Gethenians. When Estraven rescues him they travel across a barren icy dessert. The two grow closer during the eighty day trip over eight hundred miles of harsh terrain. When they finally reach the border, Estraven is shot and dies in Genly’s arms. Genly realizes then that he has grown to love Estraven. After the peace negotiations finally begin, Genly takes Estraven’s journals to his son and father. He tells them the stories of their trip across the wastelands and of other planets.
Therem Harth rem ir Estraven – at the beginning of the novel Estraven is the Prime Minister of Karhide. He is the King’s Ear and the lord of a Domain and lord of the Kingdom. Quickly he becomes a wanted man and a traitor to the crown. Although the charges are trumped up against him by the man who wants his job, Tribe the King’s cousin, he is still stripped of his office. Estraven had been trying to make Karhide and Orgoreyn come to a peaceful solution about a strip of land in the Sinoth Valley before all the inhabitants of the valley were killed. Estraven has always believed Genly was an alien and has been trying to help him. Unfortunately that help is what leads to Genly’s ostracizing.
Estraven is androgynous with both male and female mannerisms. He and his brother had produced a son and then after his brother died, he lived with Ashe Foreth making another two more children. In the end what Estraven wanted most was for his planet to become strong and united. He was killed while trying to get Genly across the border to safety. And was instrumental in keeping the man alive across the icy wasteland after freeing him from a gulag type prison camp.
Argaven Harge XV – Argaven is the King of Karhide. Some think he is mad. He is paranoid, believing Tibe when he accuses Estraven of being a traitor. The King thinks everyone lies to him. Although he has sired seven children, he has yet to give birth to any. He must give birth to have a true heir for the crown. After Genly has his ship land on the planet, Argaven finally believes he is an alien and agrees to join the Ekumen. He has taken a lot of bad publicity from the death of Estraven and Genly ending with the man in a prison camp.
Ursula K. LeGuin Biography
Ursula Kroeber was born in 1929 in California. She writes novels, children’s books and short stories. Most of her books are on fantasy and science fiction. She dives into an imaginary world of alternate politics, gender, religion, sexuality, and ethnography. Ursula used sociology, anthropology, and psychology to write her “soft science fiction.” She does not like this classification feeling that it is sexist. Throughout her books she brings up anarchism and environmentalism to bring her messages to light.
Born to an anthropologist and a writer, Ursula and her three older brothers were exposed to reading at a young age. Her father, The encouraging environment of her upbringing helped to build her career as a writer. Alfred Louis Kroeber, her father, became the director of the University of California Museum of Anthropology, and her mother, Theodora Kracaw, wrote the best seller, Ishi in two Worlds, about a Native American who was the acclaimed ‘last wild Indian.’ Being surrounded by the study and stories of Ishi and the Native Americans, prompted Ursula’s stories of cultural interactions. At the age of nine she wrote her first science fiction story and had it published in the magazine, Astounding Science Fiction when she was eleven.
During the school year the family lived in Berkeley and their summers in Napa Valley. Although she found math tough, Ursula liked biology and poetry. She received her B. A. in Renaissance French and Italian literature in 1951 at Radcliffe. She also earned her M. A. in the same subjects from Columbia University in 1952. She was the recipient of the Fulbright grant and studied in France from 1953 to 1954.
While in France, Ursula met her husband, Charles Le Guin. She married the historian in 1953, and they are still married. They had three children. Ursula dropped her doctoral studies and the couple moved to Atlanta, Georgia where Charles obtained his Ph. D. at the Emory University. In 1959 the family moved to Portland, Oregon where they still are. Charles is the Professor Emeritus of History at Portland State University and Ursula continued writing while raising their children.
In the ten years between 1951 and 1961 Ursula wrote five novels. All five were rejected by publisher. She continued writing fantasy and science fiction stories that were published in such magazines as Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories of Imagination.
“The World of Unbinding” was published in 1964 and was the beginning of her Earthsea fantasy series. In 1970 she won the Hugo and the Nebula awards for her book, “The Left Hand of Darkness”. Her next book, “The Dispossessed” also won the Hugo and Nebula, which made her the first writer to win both awards for the same two books.
In 1979 Ursula began to work with film, and contributed to “The Lathe of Heaven”. A PBS film based on her novel of the same name. She also worked on “Rigel 9”, with David Bedford. Ursula, Ken Kesey, Brian Booth, and William Stafford started the Literary Arts in Portland in 1984. She follows Taoism and leans towards Anarchism.