Ursula Le Guin’s 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—obviously—the climate is extremely cold, right at the edge of what human beings can tolerate. The Gethenians look like humans, but they enact gender differently, which sets up problems for the male narrator who is visiting the planet.
The Hainish Cycle is set in a universe where, hundreds of thousands of years ago, beings developed on the planet of Hain and then colonized hundreds of worlds, including Earth. After a long period without interstellar travel, a group of 80 or so planets now work together in a loose association called the Ekumen. They don’t have faster-than-light space travel, but they do have the ansible, a technology that allows instantaneous communication.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, the Gethenians look like humans, but they enact gender differently than any other place in the Ekumen since they are without notable sex differences except during kemmer, which occurs at 26-day cycles.
Kemmer on Gethen
When in kemmer, people develop either female or male characteristics and engage in sexual activity; if they don’t use contraceptives, they may become pregnant or impregnate another. It’s perfectly normal for the same person to have mothered some children and fathered others. This is almost certainly a result of one of the many experiments that 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 Le Guin that. But how is this descriptive of our current society? And is it a utopia? Certainly, it has some utopian features, with the visitor telling us about the other world. But is Gethen a utopian planet? It is sort of a utopian planet. There are actually some really interesting advantages to their gender system and their philosophies of time.
We see both the Ekumen and the Gethen through our main point-of-view character, Genly Ai. Genly is an ambassador from the Ekumen who has come to Gethen to invite its people to join the union of planets for peaceful trade of philosophy and technology.
Learn more about the ambiguous utopia of Ursula Le Guin.
Living in the Present
The Gethenian notion of time is quite different. First, they live in the present. Literally. In Gethen, it is always Year One, and they number past and future years based by, as Genly puts it, “counting backward or forwards from the unitary ‘now’.”
It means that the Gethenians see their history through the prism of their own experience instead of through an event that has been deemed important enough to number years from before and after. For them, as Genly explains, “progress is less important than presence.”
The Gender Neutral Planet
Genly tells us,
I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.
Genly is an interplanetary ambassador, a man who has chosen to devote his life to meeting new people and learning about them, who is willing to risk his life to do this. There’s no telling how people will react to an alien arriving 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 is leaving will age and die before he is ever to return.
So this isn’t just some guy who happens to meet someone with a different gender identity and who struggles to accept that difference.
A Gender Utopia
Genly is intrigued by the Gethenians and finds it somewhat disappointing to think their gender system is almost certainly the result of a Hainish experiment rather than a natural evolutionary shift. He sees the advantages. All Gethenians of childbearing age know that they might become pregnant, that they might nurse a baby.
This means that the burdens and privileges of childbearing are shared out equally. Genly says:
A child has no psycho-sexual relationship to his mother and father…There is no unconsenting sex, no rape…There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.
Have we just entered a utopian world?
Learn more about gendered utopia.
The Alien Narrator
Genly writes in his field notes:
A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.
It’s not just the visitor seeing the society and reporting back. It’s the visitor experiencing his own alienness. The Gethenians call Genly ‘The Pervert’: he is in male form, capable of sexual arousal, all the time. Also, he seems sort of disabled, since he can’t become a woman, and could never bear a child.
A Love Story
Genly undergoes many trials as an ambassador from the first Ekumenical landing party on Gethen, and his adventures are compelling. The only other thing to say about this novel is that although it makes the kind of complex utopian moves we’ve come to expect from many of Le Guin’s novels and all the Hainish stories, it also shares something else: it’s fundamentally 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 that allows the easy exchange of ideas without the 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 around 80 planets which work together. They don’t have faster-than-light space travel, but they have the ansible, a technology that allows instantaneous communication.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, people on Gethen do not identify with gender most of the time, except during a monthly phase called kemmer. Then, people develop either female or male characteristics and engage in sexual activity.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin describes a society where the burdens and privileges of childbearing are shared out equally. People in the society are not discriminated based on their strengths and weaknesses. There is no rape in this society.