It’s twilight and a dark silver spacecraft is descending in “a roar and glory,” on a flat, frozen bog. A knot of onlookers is awaiting its touchdown. When it comes to rest elegantly, a port slides open and an exit ramp extrudes from it. Out steps a being, who says, solemnly, “I have come in friendship.”
That’s how most of us imagine a crew of non-hostile alien astronauts will arrive, on Earth, with grandeur, perhaps, on a dry lake in Nevada. And the naked curiosity in their ocular slits will meet the awe and bewilderment in our eyes.
Only in this vista, from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness,” the “alien,” who steps out of the lander, is a human—a woman. She greets the people of a frigid foreign world called Gethen or Winter.
Perpetually in the grip of an ice age, it is, as its name suggests, an ice ball, a place so cold that it has invented cutlery for cracking icicles that form on drinks between drafts.
This is the first science-fiction novel I read that was written by a woman.
A profound tale, a blend of science-fiction and fantasy, where it makes a radical departure is its perspective. It’s told through the mind and mores of an alien society, to whom, it’s we, who’re the “other.”
Even more notably, it presents us with a picture of an alternate civilization where not everyone is equal, but where everyone is the same. A mass-market, pulp house title might suggest it be brought about by a creating a nation of clones.
Le Guin does that obliquely—by the elimination the sharp-elbowed alpha males. A lazy feminist writer might fill the void with brainy beauties, or by setting up a gynarchy of cosmopolitan-sipping ladies, in Christian Louboutin pumps. The path to her egalitarian experiment, through sexual engineering, is a clear standout. It provokes wonder.
Genry Ai is an envoy from Ekumen—a league of some 80 planets—populated by humans, whose nearest member, Ollul, is 17 light-years away from Gethen. On a diplomatic mission, his job is to talk the Gethenians into joining this galactic version of the United Nations, whose goal is to foster the “complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life.”
Ai has been living on Karhide, one of the two nations that occupy the slimmer half of a giant, lobed continent that makes up the “land hemisphere.” It shares an uneasy peace with its neighbor, Orgoreyn, with whom it has a territorial quarrel over a valley. Sith and Perunter, the local version of Antarctica, make up its less significant, “sea hemisphere.”
His task is not easy. That he’s a cosmic visitor, from beyond their horizon, is, in itself, a hard sell to its ruler, king Agraven XV.
When Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, Karhide’s prime minister, is fired and exiled from his own country over questions of his patriotism, he orchestrates Ai’s safe passage to Orgoreyn and follows him there. Ai’s proposal seems to have more takers, but still, its gaggle of politicos demand concrete proof of his alienness.
Yet, for all their incredulity, they set a lot of store by him and opposing factions use him as a pawn in their duels. A perfidious, treacherous, and spineless lot, they him send off to a Gulag-style labor camp.
Ai’s assignment takes him on an anti-clockwise journey through the entire landmass of Winter. What takes the cake is his 800-mile-odyssey across the Gobrin Ice—a limitless white plateau that borders Orgoreyn on the north—through mountain, ravine, crevasse, volcano, glacier, crags, and frozen bay, for some eighty straight days.
In appearance, Ai doesn’t stick out like a neon sign. The differences with his hosts lie deeper. Unlike our society, which has males and females, Gethenians are an ambisexual species, neither man, nor woman, yet, both. But they acquire one or the other sexes during their brief, but intense, once-monthly sexual phase called “kemmer.”
A sexually charged, a Gethenian is charged to the hilt. And during that period, if this individual finds a mate, the sexual energy of the interacting pair turns shifts the balance of the hormones in each that bring about anatomical reconfiguration in both. Triggered by the changes, a person takes on a sexual role.
So, individuals don’t know ahead whether they’ll be the male or the female and have no choice in the matter. And once the sex is established, it can’t be altered during that cycle. If at that time of coitus, conception doesn’t take place, then, the individual reverts to the sexless, latent mode.
As nations, Karhide and Orgoreyn are antonyms.
Karhide is a kingdom, a jumble of fractious provinces, each headed by a lord. Its capital, Ehrenrang, is a “sunless city,” where the sign-less, stone streets are deep, dark, narrow, “overhung with black, steep roofs and innumerable towers,” which it runs on “shifgrethor,” which might be reductively translated as “prestige.” Its people have color and choler.
Orgoreyn is a monolithic republic that makes no distinction between the state and the individual. It’s one enormous whole. Mishnory, its seat of administration, is a portrait in contrast as well, with its well-lit, wide roads, and a phlegmatic citizenry that appears to be more frank.
The frosty border dispute between Karhide and Orgoreyn reminded me of the Siachen glacier, regarded as the world’s highest battlefield. Both India and Pakistan claim the area have troops stationed there.
But unlike them—and others like them, fighting over land–these two Gethenians countries haven’t gone to war even once. Le Guin asks us to think why.
The fact is that Gethenians, though highly competitive … seem not to be very aggressive … They kill one another readily by ones and twos; seldom by tens or twenties; never by hundreds or thousands. Why?
Are continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect?
In the end, the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing: it is their environment, their cold world. Here man has a crueler enemy even than himself.