Here I was, reading one of the classics of science-fiction, and possibly one of the most beautiful, thought-provoking pieces I've ever encountered, and I kept hearing the voice of Derek Zoolander in my mind, petulantly whining, "I'm not an ambi-turner!" Why is that?
Well, it may be because I'm a bit mad. Or because The Left Hand of Darkness explores the essential and ever-present question of what it means to be human in light of a race who is ambisexual--fluctuating between male and female.
Genly Ai is the Emissary to the planet Gethen from the Ekumen, a sort of galactic ideas bazaar. He's traveled to this planet, first called Winter by Ekumen scouts, in order to invite them to join the Ekumen and benefit from interstellar trade of goods, technology, and ideas. To me, that sounds both noble and highly patronizing.
Indeed, the inhabitants of Gethen are in no hurry to even give an audience to this strange person who landed in a rocket ship. They've more important things to do, like not freeze to death and eat constantly in order to maintain enough body fat for insulation from the cold. I know I would hate the cold, but I certainly wouldn't mind the let's-eat-all-the-dang-time aspect of Gethenian life. They're like hobbits on steroids. It's pretty glorious.
Plus, there's endless politicking, skirmishes with neighboring nations, and the business of going about life and raising a family to deal with. The funny man on the strange ship really can't be telling the truth about people living in the stars, can he? Besides, why should they trust him? He is, to them, a pervert.
The inhabitants of Gethen are unique in human contact because for most of the month, they are effectively neuter. Then, for a few days, they enter kemmer, when they can pair off with another. Randomly, one person's body will become female, and the other's male. After kemmer, any physical evidence of sexual differentiation fades and their bodies become smooth, a bit like dolls. To the Gethenians, then, Genly Ai's maleness--the fact that he is definitely male all the time with all the parts to match--means that he is in a state of constant kemmer and therefore some sort of pervert.
Ai just can't get over the concept of kemmer. These humans seem all too "feminine" to him. Why can't they just be "normal humans" and have two different sexes?
AHA! Le Guin has you now. Genly Ai, member of an advanced civilization, educated enough to qualify as the first ambassador to a planet that has no concept of space travel or aliens, runs into a wall when it comes to the concept of The Other. Everything's fine and dandy with aliens as long as they look like us and talk like us and believe the same things that we believe.
I found the Gethenians more relatable than I did the so-called "normal" humans from the Ekumen. People from whom I would have been descended, in Le Guin's world, were cold and alien to me. Despite their advancements in technology, they're still stuck thousands of years in the past when it comes to acceptance and the capacity to conceive of a successful culture very different from the accepted norm.
Theren Estraven, Genly Ai's patron in the kingdom of Karhide, accepts the strange tale that Ai tells of a civilization spanning stars and of ships that travel so as to distort time. He accepts Ai, even though he looks different from everyone else. He would risk everything to save him, because keeping Ai alive means the chance to help his people and his world. And Genly doesn't get it. He refuses to really trust anyone because these humans, with their odd concept of shifgrethor (honor) and kemmer, are simply too alien.
But when Theren and Genly must traverse the pack ice of Gethen, a planet where a warm day is 34F, they have to trust each other. Theren tells him part of a poetic verse that perfectly encapsulates the theme of the novel:
"Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of life
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way"Life is duality and it is unity. It is both at the same time, and we need both to exist and thrive. What the Gethenians have learned that we have not is that it is possible to be fully present as oneself, and that a sex or gender does not make one person better than another. Gethenians are complete when they are out of kemmer, but they also find completeness in kemmer with another person. Neither situation is mutually exclusive. They simply are a part of life. While we might fear the darkness, we need it in order to distinguish the light. And while we might fear difference in others, it is necessary to demonstrate the fullness and wonder of humanity.