The genre of science fiction is often looked down upon as the refuge of acne-scarred teenagers or for those not
capable of dealing with the real world. Granted, a large amount of science fiction is geared towards these people.
But there is a greater amount of science fiction that is serious literature. It would be more proper to call this type of
writing speculative fiction. Speculative fiction, as such, is an exploration of the potential of mankind and the horrors
or glories that may arrive in a future age. It is not space opera: ray guns and flying saucers. Rather, it is the drama of
the mind: the thought of our race as it encounters new situations or tires at what we would consider fantastic. Ursula
K. Le Guin's 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, is such a work.
The book relates the tale of an ambassador from an interstellar union of planets, Genly Ai. He is sent to the planet
Gethen, a world frozen in an Ice Age, to invite its' countries to join this union, the Ekumen. The first country that he
arrives at is Karhide, a monarchy ruled by a mad king. He lives in Karhide for two years before his only believer,
Lord Estraven, is exiled, due to political intrigue, and subsequently Genly is sent from the royal court. He then
proceeds to Orgoreyn, a fascistic dictatorship where various factions wish to use him or quiet him. When Genly's
presence becomes dangerous to the plans of the secret police, he is sent to a concentration camp. His old ally,
Estraven, breaks him out of jail, and they go on a three-month trek across an arctic wasteland to return to Karhide.
Eventually, all the nations of Gethen join the Ekumen.
The world, which Ursula K. Le Guin creates, is both reminiscent of our own world, but in many ways is strangely
and fantastically different. No discussion of Gethen can begin without discussing the biological factors of its
inhabitants. All of the human beings on Gethen are hermaphroditic androgynes. When it time for a Gethen to engage
in reproductive activity one partner, through hormonal changes, becomes a male while the other becomes a female.
This situation only lasts a few days, with the sexual partners becoming androgynes again at the end of this period.
Anyone can be both a mother and a father at different times in a lifetime (Le Guin 90).
A number of interesting social aspects of this uniform androgyneity are discussed by a minor character from Earth in
the book. The most important of these is the lack of problems that arise from the dualism inherent in human society.
Since everyone is a woman and man at some point of their lives, but neither most of the time, there is no oppression
or discrimination based on the sexuality of an individual:
There is no division of humanity into strong and weak
halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive,
owner/chattel, active/passive...Our entire pattern
of socio-sexual interaction is non-existent here (94).
Another outcome of this lack of sexual roles is the total non-existence of war. The character describing this, sees war
as sexual aggression: a huge socialized rape. Since there are no men to rape and no women to be raped, there is no
psychological basis for war (96).
As there is no biological basis on Gethen for attainment of power, another social channel is used as a basis of power
and influence, and the driving force of governments. This is the concept of shifgrethor. Although not translatable, it
is understood by the main character of the book, Genly Ai, to mean pride, prestige, and face (in the stereotypical
Japanese and British sense of the word). Everything that involves power relationships on Gethen is based on this
concept. Every time a government acts and every time its issues policy, shifgrethor is considered. When someone
loses shifgrethor, his position is diminished considerably. If a government loses shifgrethor, it falls (14).
The first government described in The Left hand of Darkness is the kingdom of Karhide. The kingdom is ruled by a
king who has gone mad from the demands of maintaining the shifgrethor of both himself and the kingdom. All
previous kings were also insane. Given this tradition,