By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
At Ursula Le Guin The left hand of darkness is part of what is called the Hainish cycle. The novel is set on the planet of Gethen, or Winter, where the weather is obviously extremely cold, just on the edge of what humans can tolerate. The Gethenians look like humans, but they adopt the gender differently, which poses problems for the male narrator who visits the planet.
The Hainish cycle takes place in a universe where, hundreds of thousands of years ago, beings developed on the planet Hain and then colonized hundreds of worlds, including Earth. After a long time without interstellar travel, a group of around 80 planets are now working together in a loose association called Ekumen. They don’t have space travel faster than light, but they do have ansible, a technology that enables instant communication.
In The left hand of darkness, the Gethenians look like humans, but they adopt the gender differently from anywhere else in the Ekumen since they have no noticeable sex differences except during kemmer, which occurs in 26-day cycles.
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Kemmer in Gethen
While in Kemmer, people develop feminine or masculine characteristics and engage in sexual activity; if they do not use contraceptives, they can get pregnant or get another pregnant woman. It is quite normal that the same person has had children and fathered others. This is almost certainly the result of one of the many experiments the Hainish undertook hundreds of thousands of years earlier when they seeded many planets, including Earth.
Well, it’s probably not predictive, we can give that to Le Guin. But how is this descriptive of our current society? And is this a utopia? Of course, it has utopian features, the visitor telling us about the other world. But is Gethen a utopian planet? It is a kind of utopian planet. There are actually some really interesting advantages to their gender system and their philosophy of the time.
We see both the Ekumen and the Gethen through our main character, Genly Ai. Genly is an Ambassador of the Ekumen who came to Gethen to invite its people to join the Union of Planets for the Peaceful Trade of Philosophy and Technology.
Learn more about Ursula Le Guin’s ambiguous utopia.
Living in the present
The Gethen notion of time is quite different. First, they live in the present. Literally. In Gethen, it’s always the first year, and they count past and future years based on, as Genly says, “counting backwards or forwards from the unitary ‘now.’ ”
This means that the Gethenians see their history through the prism of their own experience rather than through an event that was deemed important enough to count years before and after. For them, as Genly explains, “progress is less important than presence”.
The planet without gender
Genly tells us,
I was still a long way from being able to see the inhabitants of the planet through their own eyes. I tried, but my efforts took the form of consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so foreign to his nature and so essential to mine.
Genly is an interplanetary ambassador, a man who has chosen to dedicate his life to meeting new people and learning more, who is willing to risk his life to do so. It’s unclear how people will react to the arrival of an alien on their planet, after all. And Genly does this even though as soon as he leaves a planet he is put into a state of stasis where he ages very little while everyone he knows on the planet he leaves will age and die before returning.
So it’s not just a guy who meets someone with a different gender identity and struggles to come to terms with that difference.
A gender utopia
Genly is intrigued by the Gethenes and finds it somewhat disappointing to think that their gender system is almost certainly the result of a Hanish experience rather than a natural evolutionary change. He sees the benefits. All Gethenians of childbearing age know that they could get pregnant, that they could breastfeed a baby.
This means that the charges and privileges of maternity are distributed equally. Genly says:
A child does not have a psycho-sexual relationship with his mother and his father… There is no sexual relations without consent, no rape… There is no division of humanity into strong halves and weak, protective / protected, dominant / submissive, owner / good, active / passive.
Will we come to enter a utopian world?
Learn more about gendered utopia.
The alien narrator
Genly writes in his field notes:
A man wants his virility to be considered, a woman wants his femininity to be appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of consideration and appreciation may be. In winter, they will not exist. You are only respected and judged as a human being. It is a terrible experience.
It is not just the visitor who sees and reports on the company. It is the visitor who experiences his own alienation. The Gethenians call Genly “The Pervert”: he is in a male form, capable of sexual arousal, all the time. In addition, he seems somewhat disabled, as he cannot become a woman and could never have children.
A love story
Genly endures many trials as an ambassador of the First Ecumenical Landing Group in Gethen, and his adventures are fascinating. The only other thing to say about this novel is that while it does make the kind of complex utopian moves that we expect from many Le Guin novels and all the Hainish stories, it also shares something else: it’s basically a love story.
Genly falls in love, and in some ways the reader falls in love too. Not only with Genly and Estraven but with the idea of an Ekumen, with the idea of interplanetary communication which allows the easy exchange of ideas without easy exchange of goods or people.
Common questions about gender utopia in The left hand of darkness
The Ekumen in The left hand of darkness is a group of about 80 planets that work together. They don’t have space travel faster than light, but they do have ansible, a technology that enables instant communication.
In The left hand of darkness, the people of Gethen do not identify with the genre most of the time, except during a monthly phase called kemmer. Then people develop feminine or masculine characteristics and engage in sexual activity.
In The left hand of darkness, Le Guin describes a society where the burdens and privileges of motherhood are evenly distributed. People in society are not discriminated against on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses. There is no rape in this society.