Gethen is the planet on which 'The Left Hand of Darkness' is set, and the name means Winter.
It’s a good name. Far colder than, say, Earth, life is only possible on a relatively narrow strip of the surface on either side of the Equator. Even within the inhabitable lands, life is cold and harsh. North or South, there are permanent ice sheets extending to the poles, a dangerous, hostile barrier to human presence.
Why are there humans on Winter at all? This is le Guin’s Hainish universe. In that universe, the source of all humanity is the planet Hain; in the far distant past, the Hainish travelled to many other planets in which human life was possible, even if only barely, and seeded them with humans, sometimes following careful adaptation to local conditions. On Winter, the adaptation was particularly unusual: they have no permanent gender. Instead, for 26 days out of the 28-day lunar cycle; they are perfectly androgynous; for two days, they become sexed, but can as easily become men or women – a lot depends on circumstance, a lot even on what is happening to one’s partner at the same time.
This means that either could become the mother of children, but both partners share the tasks and joys of parenthood equally. It is, however, particularly significant to have been a mother; it is a tragedy of the King of Karhide, the country where Left Hand of Darkness starts, that while ‘he’ has heirs, he has none ‘of his body’ – none he has mothered, in other words, though he has fathered a few.
It is the way that she plays with a theme so curious, so original and so intriguing that underlines le Guin’s status as not a science fiction writer, but as a fine novelist who uses science fiction as a framework for her novels. What is most vital about her work is that she has the imagination to find new and striking themes, the boldness to explore them, and the talent to make the result both engaging and believable.
Karhide is one of the two main nations on Winter. This again is a characteristic of le Guin: unlike most writers in the science fiction genre, her planets aren’t monolithic but are often divided into nations. In this case, as well as minor nations, Karhide faces off to and is, in a number of significant cultural ways, different from an adversary of equal strength, Orgoreyn. One of the specific characteristics of Winter, though, is that while there is occasional violence at the individual level, there is no war. Le Guin explains, in the preface she wrote for later editions of the novel, that she thinks this might be a consequence of the lack of a permanent sex drive.
The novel is set at a time when the Hainish, after the long period of seeding planets with human life, have somehow lost touch with them. Now, though, the federation of planets created by Hain, the Ekumen, is trying to make contact again. Into the complex world of Winter drops Genly Ai, a Terran, the first ‘mobile’ to the planet. The approach of the Ekumen is to send just one person at a time, on the basis that contact with a single individual is richer than with a group, and a single person is less likely to be seen as a threat, let alone the vanguard of an invasion.
As the novel starts, Genly Ai is nearing the end of a long and difficult period of negotiation with the government of Karhide. His biggest difficulty is understanding the prevailing culture of understatement and of protection of dignity, one’s own and others’. Genly's difficulties in understanding Karhiders lead to his misconstruing the motivation of Estraven, the Prime Minister, who is ostensibly helping him. Is he a friend? A traitor? Striving to achieve the aim of openness to the Ekumen, or to undermine it? Understanding Estraven and where they stand towards each other is one of main themes of the novel.
The story will take Genly Ai into Orgoreyn, with its profound similarities but also jarring differences from Karhide. There, he deals with threats and escapes, betrayals and surprising rescues, and above all with the great, silent protagonist of the book, the perpetual ice: the long, vast, deep, blinding killer which may be the only way to get back to life and safety. That gives the novel its powerful core, the struggle of man against an unbearably hostile environment.
The result is a book that is exciting in its plot, gripping in its characterisations and enthralling in its themes. One of the best works by one of the best of contemporary writers, Ursula le Guin. Don’t miss it.