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 eventually allows Ai to think “outside the box” and, with Estraven’s help, to develop a risky strategy that will allow the planet to accept the offered contact with the Ekumen.
The novel takes the form of an official report. Ai’s narrative chapters are interspersed with folktales of Gethen and selections from Estraven’s journal. These three voices help the reader to appreciate different points of view and the difficulty Ai faces in attempting to understand an alien culture. Ai is like an anthropologist who undertakes the study of a new and previously unknown culture. This is a form that Le Guin uses often in her works. In addition to the gender themes, such stories also raise themes of tolerance, cooperation among people with deep differences, and the values and difficulties of dealing with cultural diversity.
One critic has noted, “the goals and concerns of Le Guin’s characters are closely related to her own.” Ai’s acceptance of Estraven as a being beyond sexual labeling speaks for Le Guin’s hope that one day society will accept all of its members without regard to their sex or sexual orientation.
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...
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