Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 422 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Genly Ai, the Ekumen’s envoy to the planet Gethen/Winter, is dealt a setback in his mission to recruit Gethen to the Ekumen when Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, formerly Ai’s ally, withdraws support. Estraven has fallen from favor with Karhide’s King Argaven XV because his efforts to avoid a war between his country and the neighboring nation of Orgoreyn have caused the king to lose shifgrethor, a complex Karhidish version of honor. Estraven tries to explain to Ai that his new coolness toward the Ekumen is a ploy to keep his dishonor from infecting the Ekumen’s mission, but Ai, a stranger to the intricate subtleties of shifgrethor and still unused to Gethen’s politics, fails to see anything but betrayal in Estraven’s actions.
Ai’s alien nature haunts his mission. He is unused to the planet’s intense cold, its complex cultural codes, and, most of all, its unique form of human sexuality. Gethenians are ambisexual, uninterested four-fifths of the time, then intensely sexual during “kemmer,” when they might manifest as male for a kemmer or two, then female during the next cycle. Ai persists in trying to interpret Gethenians as men or women, even though intellectually he knows better. The Gethenians face a similar problem in that they view Ai’s persistent maleness as a perversion.
Ai meets with the king on the day Estraven is banished from the country. Argaven, although suspicious of the Ekumen and Ai,...
(The entire section is 961 words.)
In Karhide: Chapters 1-5
Genly Ai, a somewhat naive young black man from Terra, or Earth, is an envoy from the Ekumen, an organization of more than eighty worlds, representing 3,000 countries, spanning one hundred light years from border to border, whose purpose is to develop commerce, communications and, possibly, mystical unity. Ai's mission is to convince the country of Karhide on the distant planet called Gethen to join the Ekumen. His story of that mission consists mainly of his own observations with interpolated chapters of Karhide tales and myths, Ekumen data, sayings from Orgoreyn (Karhide's neighbor), and excerpts from the diary of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, prime minister of Karhide to mad King Argaven XV.
The planet Gethen is called Winter by the Ekumen because it is in the grip of an Ice Age. Ai is constantly challenged by the unrelenting cold, by the Karhide custom of shifgrethor, and by the androgynous nature of all the people who populate Winter. In Ai's dealings with Estraven, he fails to understand shifgrethor, a method of saving face by avoiding confrontation. When Estraven is exiled, thanks to his rival Tibe who convinces the King that Estraven is a traitor, Ai fails to understand the reason. He has an interview with the King and discovers that Estraven had been in favor of the Ekumen, although Ai thought he'd been against it. Through future miscommunications and clarifying explanations...
(The entire section is 1065 words.)