42 pages • 1 hour readUrsula K. Le Guin
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The Left Hand of Darkness is a speculative fiction novel published in 1969 and written by Ursula K. LeGuin. Set in LeGuin’s fictional Hainish Universe, in which life developed on the planet Hain instead of Earth, the novel explores the meeting of two different civilizations and their struggles to understand one another. Gender plays a strong role in the story, as protagonist Genly Ai comes from a planet that considers binary gender the norm, whereas the other main character of the book, Estraven, comes from a planet with a physiologically and culturally based lack of specific gender characteristics that are mechanically different from Genly’s. Through life-or-death experience, Genly and Estraven grow to know and understand one another.
Ursula K. LeGuin was a prolific and highly influential American author of speculative and science fiction, poetry, essays, and literary criticism. Heavily influenced by cultural anthropology and feminism, LeGuin is best known for her Hainish Cycle works and the Earthsea fantasy series. She received multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards, was recognized as a Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and received the 2014 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This guide references the Ace Books edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969.
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Note: In The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin refers to the gender nonbinary Gethen with the male pronouns he/him/his. This decision has been the subject of much criticism, as the Gethen are neither male nor female. This guide uses the original pronouns from the novel (he/him/his) when referring to nonbinary characters to avoid confusion between summary, analysis, and quoted text.
Please be advised that The Left Hand of Darkness depicts several instances of death by suicide and some discussion of sexual violence.
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Genly Ai is an ambassador from the Ekumen, a galactic confederacy of planets that includes Genly’s native Terra, a future version of Earth. Genly arrives on the planet of Gethen with the intention of discovering whether it is willing or able to join the confederation. Genly arrives alone to emphasize his peaceful intentions, but this also makes him vulnerable to the planet’s inhabitants. After a year of being an envoy, the ways of the Gethen nation of Karhide are still mysterious to Genly. They are a politically minded and secretive people led by King Argaven, who shows signs of dementia. Their climate is extremely cold, an atmosphere to which the Gethen have adapted and Genly has not. Many in Argaven’s court, even Genly’s friends, do not speak plainly, a fact which continually thwarts the envoy. Genly is also alienated by Gethen physiognomy, which is so like his own that he often passes for one of them. However, the Gethen are genderless, only presenting sexual characteristics during a monthly period of mating called kemmer. This genderlessness makes the Gethen and Genly mysteries to one another.
Among Genly’s closest supporters is Estraven, Argaven’s current prime minister. Estraven is one of a long and tumultuous succession of the king’s political appointees. Estraven finds it difficult to explain to Genly how precarious his position is among a nation of people who consider him so different and unassuming, but Estraven’s code of rhetoric and ethics prevents him from speaking plainly, and Genly alternately trusts and distrusts Estraven. When tensions break out between Karhide and its closest neighbor, Orgoreyn, Argaven becomes paranoid and exiles Estraven. Genly, angry and confused by his failure to communicate the benefits of membership in the Ekumen, leaves with the intention of convincing Orgoreyn to apply.
Estraven’s travels are perilous, but he is welcomed as an advisor and guest to the highly ordered and technologically advanced Orgoreyn political council. Mainly, Estraven is kept there as an information resource for the secret police force of the Orgoreyn, always on a knife’s edge between being useful and expendable. Soon, Genly finds himself in the same awkward circle, seeming to make progress toward his goal while making little concrete headway. When the tides turn, Genly is captured and thrown into an Orgota prison work camp to die of overexposure to cold and to alien anti-kemmering treatments, which are toxic to him.
Estraven risks everything to break Genly out of prison. Using his skills as an outdoorsperson, political operative, and follower of the intuitive religion of Handarra, Estraven succeeds in bringing Genly out into the cold Orgota wilderness. From there, they both decide to make the harrowing trek back to Karhide by foot, an 800-mile journey through ice and snow. The two become close friends on the nearly three-month hike, talking through the evenings and sharing cultural knowledge.
Reaching Karhide, Genly contacts his ship to come out of stasis and return to Gethen. As they wait for the Ekumen ship, Estraven is discovered violating his exile on Karhide soil. To Genly’s dismay, border guards shoot Estraven as he attempts to cross back through the border to Orgota. Genly’s ship arrives, and both Orgoreyn and Karhide begin to alter the course of their politics to accommodate the new galactic partnership. Genly now feels closer to Gethen than to his birthplace, and he continues to mourn the loss of Estraven.
By Ursula K. Le Guin