The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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,...

(The entire section is 456 words.)