What if there were no gender – if humans only took on male or female characteristics when they went into heat once a month, and sex was kept separate from everything else? What would a society without the dualism of male and female look like? This was the "thought experiment" Ursula K Le Guin embarked on in her 1970 Hugo award winner, The Left Hand of Darkness.
It's a normal man who introduces us to these genderless humans: Genly Ai, an envoy from the federation of planets, who has come to this icebound planet, Gethen or "Winter", to break the news that there is life beyond the stars. He brings with him the standard prejudices of a gendered society, essentially seeing the Gethenians as distastefully effeminate men. He notes that though their society is rife with politicking, double-dealing and status anxiety, it has never mobilised into war - "they behaved like animals, in that respect; or like women. They did not behave like men, or ants." A different off-planet investigator makes the very good point that in a society where all can and do fall pregnant, "nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else".
But perhaps it's not the lack of a male gender that keeps the peace, but the ice age that has Winter in its grasp: "perhaps they use up their fighting spirit fighting the cold". The Left Hand of Darkness has some of the most chilling descriptions of chilly conditions you'll find in fiction; the reader and poor Genly Ai, who like us comes from a milder planet, very rarely get warm. One Gethenian creation myth begins, "In the beginning, there was nothing but ice and the sun." There are many precise and evocative words for snow: <i>bessa</i>, soft new-fallen snow; <i>esyot</i>, granular snow; <i>neserem</i>, "heavy snowfall on a moderate gale". It is hard work to stay alive. With only a "lowgrade" diet of nuts, grains and fish, Gethenians must constantly refuel; travel is slow and arduous; people are often snowed in, totally cut off from the rest of the world.
Isolation and exile are the novel's great subjects; the solitude of snow, a mental space Le Guin calls "the heart of the blizzard". The politician Estraven, who takes up Genly Ai's cause, is exiled from his country – harsh punishment indeed in such a hostile terrain. Genly Ai, who has survived two hard winters on Winter already, is in exile from his home and his whole way of thinking. The most extraordinary part of the book is the section in which the two of them make an arduous three-month trek through arctic wastes to get back to Estraven's country and contact Genly Ai's spaceship. Out on the ice, with only sledge and tent, they are "equals at last, equal, alien, alone". Their survival is a miracle – and also a feat of human ingenuity, planning, and determination. Le Guin describes the howling gales too loud to shout over; the white-outs in which all sense of direction disappears; the rations painfully eked out; how hard it is simply to breathe at 40 or 50 below. In this wilderness the two aliens also find an unlikely love that they don't even try to gender, a moment of connection that transcends time to form the centre of a life: "the enduring moment, the hearth of warmth ... Outside, as always, lies the great darkness, the cold, death's solitude."
Le Guin does not sentimentalise, or even consummate, this love; it's not inflated, as love stories so often are, to dominate her themes of society and environment. But it is given its due individual weight. "I'm not trying to say that I was happy, during those weeks of hauling a sledge across an ice-sheet in the dead of winter," writes Genly Ai. "I certainly wasn't happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can't earn, and can't keep, and often don't even recognise at the time; I mean joy."
The novel fails to surmount one major obstacle: the male pronoun used of the Gethenians. But it does not set out to be prescriptive, or definitive about gender – if it were, it would have dated horribly. Le Guin is much more subtle and ambiguous than that, more interested in questions than answers and aware of what a Gethenian mystic with the gift of foresight calls "the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question". As she puts it in her foreword to the 40th anniversary edition, "I did the best I could, working at the hinge point, the moment the change was happening, when what I wrote was part of the change that was happening."
Okay, we don't mind admitting that we've got our full-on nerd badges as long-time Star Trek fans. (And not the new, sexy one.) So, in Star Trek, the Federation has a prime directive. It's like the Golden Rule of space travel, and it says that any member of the Federation can't mess with another planet's culture for fear of messing it up.
Well, the Ekumen never got the memo, because all they seem to do is mess with other planets.
Enter Genly Ai. Ai's mission is to get the planet of Gethen to join the Ekumen. His job is called "First Mobile" because "the first news from the Ekumen on any world is spoken by one voice, one man present in the flesh, present and alone" (3.1). The idea is that one man is an Envoy, nothing to be feared. More than one man, well, that could be an invasion.
Ai offers the Gethenians trade in "goods, of course, knowledge, technology, ideas, philosophies, art, medicine, science, theory" and so on (10.34). The problem is he can't figure out how to get them to accept his offer.
Fish Out of Water
Ai is our fish out of water. We're trying to come up with an Aquaman joke here, but how about we just dive into the discussion.
Basically, a fish out of water character is a person who has been thrust into a world beyond their understanding or comprehension. Science fiction writers love these types of characters because they provide a convenient excuse to explain everything to the reader by explaining everything to the fish out of water character.
Perhaps the most famous fish out of water character in modern science fiction is Luke Skywalker. Remember how in Star Wars Obiwan Kenobi had to explain everything about the Force to Luke, and then you as a viewer got the information at the same time? Yep, that's how it works.
Ai is Le Guin's fish out of water character. Through him, the readers experience what it's like to live in such a strange and foreign environment. When Ai suffers from the extreme temperature, we understand his pain because we don't do so well in the ice and snow ourselves. When Ai learns something new about the Gethenian society, we learn it too. When Ai is confused by Estraven's actions and demeanor, we're thinking to ourselves, "Yeah, what's up with that guy?"
Perhaps most important, through Ai, we feel the alienation that is so crucial to the book's themes and message. And speaking of alienation, let's discuss that whole androgyny thing, shall we?
It's a Man's World
At least in Ai's view it is.
Ai is a man born and bred: XY chromosomes, hair on his chest, velvety baritone voice—well, we're not so clear about that, but we like to imagine it. You know, the works.
The Gethenians are not. They're androgynous, and this aspect of their biology has affected their entire civilization. And Ai has the hardest time coming to grips with either them or their society.
As he says himself, "[b]rought up in the wide-open, free-wheeling society of Earth, I would never master the protocol, or the impassivity, so valued by Karhiders" (1.67). Due to his alien nature, Ai can't properly navigate Karhidian society. As a result, he doesn't recognize Estraven's help as help and doesn't see Tibe for the opponent he is. The Gethenian's androgynous biology means they interact in a way very different from anything Ai expects or can comprehend. It's a communication breakdown.
Things only get worse in Orgoreyn. There, the Commensals seem more free-wheeling and dealing than their Karhidian counterparts. Basically, they act just like regular dudes, and Ai feels more at home in their society. But this is all a front. They aren't, they can't be, just one of the guys.
In reality, they're hiding Ai in plain sight. Since Orgoreyn lacks the freedom of communication and movement that Karhide has, no one even realizes who Ai is, except the Commensals who are trying to keep him under wraps. Ai only sees them as more helpful because they feel more human, more in line with his cultural norms. You know, like his bros. It's a lapse in judgment that costs Ai dearly.
Of course, Le Guin is a woman writer. So, we have to ask: does Le Guin's gender affect your reading of Ai as a character? Are Ai's views of manliness and the Gethenians lacking in some area because Le Guin is a woman pondering what it means to be a man or did she nail it? Is it even important? Just some food for thought.
Le Guin has some fun with us a here as Ai's name is pronounced the same as "I" or "eye." It's her subtle, yet kind of not subtle, hint of Ai's place in the novel, being both its subject and the one whose view shapes the novel.
Regarding the "I," Ai is the subject of the story. It's his story. But as he notes at the novel's beginning, "[t]he story is not all mine, nor told by me alone" (1.2). So, Le Guin toys a bit with our expectations here. Generally, we think of the "I" as being the sole owner of the story, but Le Guin is saying an "I" like Ai is never a single person. Other stories and other perspectives always go into making the "I" of any story, even Ai's.
Plus, the"eye" part connects to the fish out of water character trait we talked about earlier. It is through Ai's "eyes" that we see the events of the story unfold. Even the parts of the story not told from Ai's perspective come from his "eye" since he chooses to include them in the story.
Wow, just try reading this section out loud. What a tongue/brain twister. And we're not even through yet. Some questions to keep the conversation going:
Can you think of any other reasons Le Guin would use this homophonic (same-sounding) connection? Are there any other words that sound like and could connect to Ai's name? Also, why else might Le Guin connect the words "I" and "eye" with the sound of Ai's name?
Enter Estraven. These two have a rough start. Estraven thinks Ai is ignorant, and Ai doesn't trust him (1.18). Once Estraven busts Ai out of the Volunteer Farm, though, they're forced to work together to survive the harsh and deadly wilderness of the Ice. During their travels, the two grow closer and become friends and even fall in love—kind of.
Ai and Estraven's love is crucial when thinking about what's going on with gender in the novel. We are human, and humans come in two flavors: male and female. This means we traditionally view gender and love as connected. Some may even say they are inseparable. Man meets woman, man falls in love with woman (or the other way around: woman meets man, woman falls in love with man), and then woman and man have baby. You know the story.
But Le Guin argues that gender and love aren't necessarily inseparable. In fact, they might not have anything to do with each other.
One night during their travels, Estraven enters kemmer, becoming female to match Ai's maleness. But the two don't express their love physically. Instead, Ai understands that Estraven, "was the only one who had entirely accepted [him] as a human being: who had liked [him] personally and given [him] entire personal loyalty, and who therefore had demanded of [him] an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance" (18.28).
For Le Guin, it seems this passage signifies a better definition of love than anything from Romeo and Juliet. This novel doesn't treat love as being about physical attraction or intimacy. Or, at least, it's not just about those things. It's about the recognition of another's humanity and having them recognize the same in you.
And speaking of love, we sure do love to ask questions. Here are a couple to keep the discussion going:
- Right before Estraven's death, Ai realizes the truth as to why he was sent alone by the Ekumen. As he puts it, "[a]lone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political" (19.104). What do you suppose he meant by that, and why do you think that revelation was given right before Estraven's death?
- With whom else does Ai form a relationship in the story? How does it differ from the one he forms with Estraven? What are the similarities? Explain your answers.
- Do any other characters have a relationship like Ai and Estraven's? If so, who and what similarities do you note? If not, why do you suppose that is?