The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
The Left Hand of Darkness is a report from representative Genly Ai to the Ekumen of Known Worlds, an organization of about eighty planets clearly analogous to the United Nations. Ai has been sent to enlist the two hostile countries of the planet Gethen, Karhide and Orgoreyn, to join the Ekumen. He needs a formal guarantee of welcome for his orbiting spaceship and the Ekumen representatives therein. This requirement is complicated for the ill-at-ease Ai by the dislike between Karhide and Orgoreyn, by their unsettled internal political states, and especially by the sexual ambiguity of the people of this world. They are hermaphroditic, combining both female and male sexual characteristics and playing one or the other sexual role at different points in their lives, depending on complex psychohormonal circumstances.
The Gethenians’ competing governments are a challenge for Ai. His Terran reliance on sexual identity as a basis for forming relations of trust with another human offers no guidance on Gethen, only confusion and distrust. Estraven, the head minister to the king of Karhide, is banished, ending Ai’s hopes of a friendly reception. The Terran envoy feels little for the exiled ally on whom he had pinned his hopes. Seers known as “Foretellers” predict that Gethen will join the Ekumen within five years. Hopeful of a better reception elsewhere, Ai moves from the medieval-flavored monarchy of Karhide to the bureaucratic country of Orgoreyn,...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Left Hand of Darkness is one of several novels describing the results of experiments carried out on other planets by beings from the planet Hain. On Gethen, the Hainish established a race of ambisexual humans. Gethenians are usually androgynous and asexual; once a month, however, they enter a state called “kemmer.” During this period sexuality predominates over everything else. In kemmer, Gethenians develop male or female characteristics, but their specific gender is completely arbitrary and may vary from one cycle to another.
The novel takes place thousands of years later, when Genly Ai comes to this ambisexual world as an envoy from the Ekumen. Gethen has evolved into a complex society, shaped not by gender differences but by the alternation of frigidity and sexual activity; it has also developed two national superpowers (Karhide, a monarchy, and Orgoreyn, a communist state) and two principal religions (the Handdara and the Yomesh). The Left Hand of Darkness traces Ai’s adventures on this planet in the course of fulfilling his mission. He gradually convinces the Gethenians—in particular, Estraven—that his stories of other worlds are true. Equally important, he himself comes to understand Gethen.
The novel begins in Ehrenrang, Karhide’s capital, where Estraven has arranged Ai’s audience with the king. Ai does not trust Estraven, however, and he is scarcely surprised when Estraven tells him that he can no...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Gethen/Winter. Planet similar to earth in size and having an atmosphere capable of supporting a humanoid but not human population. It exists in an unspecified galaxy and in a distant future. It is called Gethen by the people of Hain, an advanced and distant planet from which the protagonist comes, and is sometimes called Winter for reasons that quickly become obvious. The central figure is Genly Ai, a diplomat who represents an intergalactic political organization called the Ekumen; it is Ai’s task to live on Winter for as long as it takes to slowly and gently convince the Gethenians that they want, of their own free will, to join the Ekumen. This organization, a noncoercive political confederation of loosely linked planets, is often alluded to in the novel but is never directly encountered. It is Ursula K. Le Guin’s ideal political organization, and its purpose is to represent a potential alternative to the modern organization of competing nation-states.
Modern nationalism/patriotism is the subject against which the novel cleverly and entertainingly argues. Genly Ai’s mission is impeded by the two conditions that are the most significant features of the planet. First, Gethen is in the midst of an ice age: This means that every feature of the planet, from its flora and fauna to its various cultural rituals and religions to its machines and technology, is shaped by the fact that Gethen is at all times extremely cold....
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Left Hand of Darkness can be compared to other works of fantasy or science fiction that concentrate on gender. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s separatist feminist novel Herland (1915; 1979) imagines an entire society of women. Herland—whose architecture, economy, industry, and religion is described in considerable detail—is a land of peace, harmony, and creativity. So, at first, is the society of hermaphrodites that Theodore Sturgeon describes in his classic science-fiction novel Venus Plus X (1965); Sturgeon’s novel darkly suggests, however, that such utopias can only be attained by means of genetic engineering. Doris Lessing’s science-fiction novel The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980) suggests the difficulty and necessity of leaving behind separatist models of men’s and women’s “zones.”
Because science fiction facilitates imagining alternatives to contemporary society, many feminists choose this genre to express their ideas. Yet The Left Hand of Darkness—which won both Hugo and Nebula Awards for best science-fiction novel of 1969—stands out among other works, for both the originality of its conception and the care with which it is worked out. The novel was a “thought-experiment,” as Le Guin explains in her introduction, in which she tried to imagine a world without gender. Le Guin’s solution to this problem—making the Gethenians utterly androgynous and asexual,...
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The Space Race
The year that The Left Hand of Darkness was published, 1969, was the year that the first human, Neil Armstrong, set foot on the moon. The idea had, of course, been present in science fiction for hundreds of years, in books by authors ranging from Daniel Defoe to Edgar Allan Poe. One of the most realistic early works about space travel was Jules Verne's 1865 novel From Earth to the Moon, which was the basis for one of the earliest silent movies made at the beginning of the twentieth century; another was H. G. Wells' The First Men on the Moon, published in 1901. The first real progress in space exploration came in 1957, when Americans found out with a shock that the Soviet Union, the world's other super power, had put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit. Later in 1957, when the Russians put a living being, a dog, into space in Sputnik 2, the race to put a man on the moon immediately became a priority with the U.S. government, which poured millions of dollars into the space program. The National Aeronautics and Space Agency, NASA, was established in 1958, and in 1959 it had started work on Project Mercury, with the goal of sending animals into space, then robot-operated flights, and finally manned flights. The first human to go into space was the Russian Yuri Gagarin, in April of 1961; the first American was Alan Shepard, the...
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The structure of this novel is a cluster of information from various sources. The main one, in terms of quantity and prominence, is the report of Genly Ai to the Stabile on Ollul, which, as he explains as the first chapter starts, is presented in the form of a first-person narrative, "because I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination." Alternating with these chapters are chapters taken from the journals kept by Estraven. The journals are also written in the first person, but since they were not created for public consumption they offer a more candid impression of Estraven than Ai gives from his observations. Juxtaposing the two against each other gives a rounded view of the self/other conflict that is at the heart of the story. Also interwoven between the chapters dominated by these two characters are fragments of civilization on Gethen/Winter: ethnological reports, accounts of native myths and legends, and descriptions of religious ceremonies. These fragments allow the culture that Genly Ai encounters to speak for itself, so that readers are not forced to know it only from his limited experiences and biased perspective. The relevance of these fragments to the overall story is sometimes easy to guess—for instance, the chapter titled, "Estraven the Traitor," an ancient East Karhidish tale, clearly reflects the support that Estraven in the novel gives Ai. Others, such as the story of Meshe in...
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The Left Hand of Darkness is a brilliant experiment in narrative structure. Although Genly Ai is the structuring consciousness of the twenty chapters, only ten are related by him in the first person. Five of the others are told in the third person, and five in the first person by other narrators. Four of the first person narrations are by Estraven, relating the same events already told by Genly Ai, thus giving the reader an alternate view. Most of the third person chapters are devoted to background materials about life on Gethen. Some are history, some myth, and some reports by earlier interplanetary visitors. In this way Le Guin authenticates the winter planet of Gethen. Furthermore the narrative is also seasonal, as the story begins in the spring and ends in the next spring. Since it also involves a long travel sequence across the planet, the novel moves geographically and chronologically through winter.
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A sophisticated novel of ideas as well as a work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness deals with a number of human, social, political, and psychological concerns. Set on a far-off planet in the distant future, the novel nonetheless touches readers directly in its consideration of gender roles in society. The protagonist is an ethnologist sent to the planet of Gethen in order to study its people and to invite them into the league of planets. Conditioned by his own upbringing in a different world, he finds his greatest challenge in accepting the androgynous human race he encounters on Gethen. These people are male part of the time and female part of the time, eliminating all gender distinction, socially as well as biologically. From his perspective, sensitive and receptive, yet biased and parochial, the reader learns to see the problems of gender roles in his own society reflected back to him in startling ways.
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Compare and Contrast
1969: The Woodstock Music festival took place on a farm outside of Bethel, New York, drawing between 300,000 and 500,000 young people from across the country to hear three days of music from acts including Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and the Jefferson Airplane. The event was surprisingly peaceful, given that many more people showed up than anticipated.
Today: Modern marketing techniques have tried to reproduce such a massive event, with no luck.
1969: The largest anti-war demonstration in the history of Washington, D.C., occurred on November 15th, when 250,000 people marched on the capitol. Another 200,000 protesters gathered at the same time in San Francisco.
Today: Lacking outrage at government policies, citizens tend not to band together in such large groups to protest; instead, large demonstrations are often intended to draw attention to areas in which ordinary people can make a difference in their communities. The Million Man March of 1995 is estimated to have brought between 600,000 and 850,000 black men to Washington to demonstrate a commitment to family and personal responsible behavior.
1969: Finding the Students for a Democratic Society to be too complacent, a group calling itself the Weather Underground split off to protest the war by violent means, such as bombing army recruitment offices....
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Topics for Further Study
In the novel, Genly Ai draws the "yin and yang" symbol for Estraven. Study the ancient Chinese Naturalist movement that developed the philosophy of yin and yang, and explain it in a way that would help readers understand this book better.
Research the problems of extreme cold faced by Arctic expeditions, such as Admiral Robert Peary's expedition to the North Pole in 1909. Write your findings in the form of a guide for travelers.
Many people feel that an envoy from another world may have already visited Earth. Search the Internet or supermarket tabloids for stories from people who claim to know things about alien visitors. Devise a scale that will help observers test how true these stories are.
Several science fiction books have used a device like the ansible communicator that would be able to transmit messages instantly across space. Is such a thing possible? Why or why not? Discuss the scientific principles involved.
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A highly original work, The Left Hand of Darkness is not so much specifically indebted to any particular work as it is reflective of the conventions of science fiction, such as detailed descriptions of life on another planet and the device of authenticating data. The use of interpolated myths to give credence to a culture is to a certain extent indebted to Tolkien's use of a mythic past to authenticate events in his Middle Earth.
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What Do I Read Next?
Three of Le Guin's novels that follow the same cycle as this one—Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions—have been collected into one volume by Nelson Doubleday Inc., called Three Hainish Novels.
Besides this novel, the book by Le Guin that is most often examined in literature and political science classes is The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, published in 1974.
Orson Scott Card's classic 1985 science fiction novel Ender 's Game also uses the ansible as a tool for interplanetary communication, but it examines the effects of travel and communication on war, not diplomacy.
One of the greatest science fiction novels is Frank Herbert's Dune (1965), which has led to a series of interrelated novels about a richly-imagined world.
Doris Lessing is generally linked to Le Guin because they were among the first women to gain popular attention for their science fiction writing. Not all of Lessing's work is sci-fi: some is fantasy, and some is straight literary fiction. A sampling of Lessing's work can be gained from The Doris Lessing Reader, published in 1988.
Most of Le Guin's introductions to her novels are as thought-provoking as the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness. Many of them, along with some original essays on the craft...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
James W. Bittner, "A Survey of Le Guin Criticism," in Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, Kennikat Press, 1979, pp. 31-49.
Barbara J. Bucknall, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ungar, 1981.
Keith N. Hull, "What Is Human? Ursula Le Guin and Science Fiction's Great Themes," Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 32, no. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 65-74.
David Ketterer, "Ursula K. Le Guin's Archetypal 'Winter-Journey,'" in Modern Critical Views: Ursula K. Le Guin, Chelsea House, 1986, pp. 11-21.
Ursula Le Guin, "Is Gender Necessary? Redux," in her Dancing at the Edge of the World, Harper & Row, 1989, pp. 7-16.
Philippa Maddern, "True Stories: Women's Writing in Science Fiction," Meanjin, Vol. 44, no. 1, March, 1985, pp. 110-23.
Noel Perrin, "Ursula Le Guin: Striking Out in a New Direction," Washington Post Book World, September 5, 1982, p. 5.
For Further Study
Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Free Press, 1998.
The author, who has published in almost all genres and is a cult figure in science fiction, has produced an insightful, well-researched, and entertaining history.
John Griffiths, Three Tomorrows: American, British and...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Barrow, Craig, and Diana Barrow. “The Left Hand of Darkness: Feminism for Men.” Mosaic 20, no. 1 (Winter, 1987): 83-96. This insightful essay suggests that Le Guin’s feminist novel was specifically intended for male readers.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of chronologically ordered and previously published essays tracing the general critical reception of Le Guin’s work.
Bloom, Harold. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This useful collection contains nine previously published essays, arranged in chronological order, which examine the novel in various contexts: archetypal narrative patterns, social criticism, feminism, and speech-act theory. Martin Bickman’s essay on the novel’s unity persuasively counters earlier charges that the Gethenians’ ambisexuality is irrelevant to the plot.
Cummins, Elizabeth. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. The third chapter of this book compares The Left Hand of Darkness to Le Guin’s other novels about the results of Hainish experiments. Good annotated bibliography.
Frazer, Patricia. “Again, The Left Hand of Darkness: Androgyny or Homophobia?” In The...
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