In The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen, an ambassador sent to recruit the planet Gethen to join this assemblage of planets in peaceful intergalactic exchange. The Ekumen offers communication with many distant worlds throughout the known universe.
Gethen’s inhabitants are different from most human inhabitants of the known planets in that they do not have two separate sexes; each person is a hermaphrodite. The Gethenians regard Ai as the freak, a person perpetually male and perpetually ready to reproduce, while they have monthly reproductive cycles and hormonal systems that arbitrarily determine which sexual role each member of a pair will assume during the reproductive period.
Ai’s mission is complicated mainly by the fact that Gethen’s two main cultures are differentiating. Ai first negotiates with the king of Karhide, a culture that is feudal and tribal in its organization. Failing there, he travels to Orgoreyn, which is shifting into a nationalistic and authoritarian, bureaucratic state.
Ai’s success depends finally upon his relationship with Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide, who is persuaded of the value of Ai’s mission and risks “his” life and reputation to help Ai. Ai finds the process of understanding and dealing with a person who is both sexes at once disconcerting and complicated. Political intrigue and physical hardships bring the two into a deep friendship that...
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