Imagine an envoy visiting a remote planet seventeen years from his own, living on that alien world in the middle of an ice-age, sifting through layers of unfamiliar etiquette, entangled in political intrigue, with no one to trust: this is the world of Genly Ai, envoy from Hain, through most of The Left Hand of Darkness. His mission is to enlist planet Winter/Gethen into a federation he hails from, and his quest reveals what is at the heart of this sad and beautiful story: the meeting of two vastly different cultures, and the possibility of a friendship between aliens.
The Gethenians are androgynous: neither man nor woman, a Gethenian assumes gender only during “kemmer”, the mating cycle. They have no word for “war” – individual forays happen, but war doesn’t – or “fly” – their technology is limited to cars, radios, and “landboats”. They are slow, and reverently so: “The people of Winter, who always live in Year One, feel that progress is less important than presence.” Many view ignorance as a virtue, and mortality the only certainty. Their words are, occasionally, imprecise in meaning, the same word referring to both part and whole, “the state and the individual.” They are deeply sensitive to what they call “shifgrethor”, a notion of rectitude that pervades all their relationships and informs every encounter.
Genly Ai, by contrast, is a man from the distant planet Hain, and is occasionally labelled a “pervert” on account of his constant state of manhood. He stumbles through the political circles of Karhide and Orgoreyn, two hostile nations on Winter, and is met with curiosity, shock, disbelief, and indifference as he wanders across the cold planet. He struggles against the cold and is lonely, but he sees only the loneliness of Gethenians: “Your race is appallingly alone in its world,” he says to Estraven, an exiled politician with whom he is on a long voyage; “No other mammalian species. No other ambisexual species. No animal intelligent enough even to domesticate as pets. It must colour your thinking, this uniqueness […] to be so solitary, in so hostile a world: it must affect your entire outlook.”
But soon he realizes that on the matter of gender his own outlook, or that of his people, is seriously affected by his sexuality. Asked by Estraven if women are “like a different species,” Genly considers the implications of gender: “No. Yes. No, of course not, not really. But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything. […] It is extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones.” This seems obvious, but after getting to know the Gethenians it is much less so: in their world anyone can bear a child, so “burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally”; sex is possible only through mutual consent, which precludes rape; and the strong-weak duality we take for granted is absent.
Can these two worlds and worldviews meet? In the final third of the book, as Genly and Estraven make a long, grueling journey through a harsh, unforgiving terrain of ice, snow, volcanoes and glaciers, all brought alive by Ursula K. Le Guin’s crystalline descriptions, the question of an exchange between the alien worlds is narrowed down to an examination of friendship between two aliens. Progress is slow, in fits and starts, but there is hope: mistrust is replaced with understanding, and a friendship begins to grow.
We must compromise as to the heating of the tent. He would keep it hot, I cold, and either’s comfort is the other’s pneumonia. We strike a medium, and he shivers outside his bag, while I swelter in mine; but considering from what distances we have come together to share this tent a while, we do well enough.
The encounter also contemplates something bigger than mutual friendship, a state where love for a nation evolves to love for humanity, a world without borders:
How does one hate a country, or love one? … I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession…Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.
A love without boundary-lines where, as a Gethenian poem says, everything is interlinked:
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.