Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness Summary

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The Left Hand of Darkness is a 1969 science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin revolutionized science fiction with her novel, winning both the Hugo Award and the Nebula award, a first for a woman, and only the second overall to win both. The novel explores themes of religion, culture, and gender, as the novel takes place on a different planet, full of androgynous beings.

Genly Ai is on the planet Genthen to convince the Gethenians to join the Ekumen, a coalition of worlds. Ai is a male Terran. His companions are orbiting a sun nearby, in stasis mode. Ai has the ability to communicate via “mindspeak,” a form of telepathy. All members of the Ekumen have this ability. The Gethenians used to be able to communicate via mindspeak, but they have lost their ability. Ai has been on Genthen for two years, trying to convince them to join the Ekumen. The Genthens are androgynous beings.

Ai is in the kingdom of Karhide, where he has obtained an audience with King Argaven Harde. Ai was able to obtain this meeting because Prime Minister Estraven, believes Ai’s agenda is good for the planet. Ai has difficulty understanding Estraven’s idiosyncrasies. The people of Genthen operate under shifgrethor, a set of behaviors to follow under formal circumstances. Ai struggles to grasp the concept of shifgrethor and often misunderstands the behavior of the Genthens, especially Estraven.

Ai meets with King Argaven, but under strange circumstances. Estraven has been exiled and accused of treason. Argaven does not think the treason is related to Ai, but tells him he is still not interested in joining the Ekumen. Ai decides to take a break from his diplomacy to explore the country more, as it is now spring, making more of the kingdom accessible.

Ai decides to travel to Fastness, a place where the Handarrata people live. Handarrata is one of two major religions in Genthen. Ai pays them for a prophecy by Faxe the Foreteller. Ai asks if Genthen will be a member of the Ekumen within five years. He expects an ambiguous answer, but is told yes. Ai decides to continue with his mission once more.

Ai has been invited to Orgoreyn, the other major city of Genthen. War is brewing between Orgoreyn and Karhide, but the Orgoreyn Commensals greet Ai warmly. He receives more comfortable quarters than in Karhide. The Commensals seem to communicate with Ai on a more open level than what he received in Karhide. A few of them even openly supporting him. These Commensals have been working with Estraven.

Estraven warns Ai  not to trust the Orgota leaders. Ai also hears about the Sarf, a secret police force that is rumored to truly run Orgoreyn, not the Commensals. Despite his uneasiness, Ai goes about his work. Unfortunately, one night Ai is arrested. He is interrogated and sent north, to a work camp. The work camp is harsh and freezing and Ai is subjected to torturous work.

Ai suffers monumentally at the work camp. He is close to death, and his captors fully expect him to die. Ai is soon surprised by Estraven, who has come to save him. Estraven has gone to great lengths to save Ai. He has posed as a prison guard, using religious magic from the Handarrata to evoke super strength. He also used the last of his money on supplies—and even stole, which goes against his shifgrethor code.

Ai and Estraven begin to travel back to Karhide. They must travel over an ice sheet for eighty days to reach Karhide. Estraven and Ai become closer on this journey. Estraven believes that Ai’s presence alone in Karhide will force an acceptance of Ekumen. Ai successfully begins to teach Estraven mindspeak. Estraven hears Ai in his mind in the voice of his deceased brother, which is a sign to them of their closeness. As they reach the border of Karhide, Estraven plans to escape to Orgoreyn, as he is still banished in Karhide. Estraven asks his friend Thessicher to house them for a time. Thessicher is wary of having the banished Estraven under his roof.

Ai leaves Estraven for a time, as his communication device back to his ship is nearby. After communicating with his ship, Ai runs into Estraven unexpectedly. Thessicher has betrayed him. They set up camp, wondering what to do. There are armed guards at the Karhide/Orgoreyn border, on the Karhide side, but none on the Orgoreyn side. Ai realizes Estraven has been a good friend to him during their journey and finally understands him.

Sadly, Estraven decides to make a run for the Orgoreyn border and is quickly shot down by Karhide guards. Ai holds his friend as he dies, and is arrested by Karhide guards.

Ai is soon summoned by the King. Again, he meets Faxe, who is now involved with politics. Karhide is waiting for the arrival of Ai’s ship. The Genthens now accept the Ekumen, and the Ekumen begin a tour of Genthen to build diplomacy. At the novel’s end, Ai travels to Estraven’s hometown where he meets Estraven’s father, Esvans. Ai gives Esvans Estraven’s journals. Esvans also introduces Ai to Estraven’s son, Sorve. Esvans asks to hear about Ai and Estraven’s journey across the ice. Sorve asks how his father died and more about the other beings in the stars.