In the far future a new Utopian society has risen up. With the federation of Eukemen came peace for all the planets that joined them. The only problem is that not all planets have joined or even know of the Eukemen. Genly Ai, an agent for the Eukemen, is sent to Winter, one of the non-federated planets, to see if he can persuade the inhabitants to join. However he soon finds that the rulers of Winter do not like the idea of being part of a federation, because it might cost them some of their own personal power. Genly Ai is forced to become a fugitive until, by using shifrethgor, the honor system of the Eukemen, he is able to trick the king of one of Winter's nations into accepting the federation.
One of the interesting pieces of Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" is the lack of gender in the alien society of Winter. Le Guin holds a thought experiment, to see what happens when society does not have male or a female, where its inhabitants are only interested in sex for a small part of the year.
The men of Winter, though not a primitive one, have had a very slow technical evolution. Most of their advanced technology has been aimed at defense against the environment: heating systems, heat protective clothing. All of these advances have only come over a slow time. The inhabitants of Winter, as Genly Ai notes, have done in thirty centuries, what Earth only did in three . This seems in the book to be attributed to the lack of sexual frustration in Getherian society. As Genly Ai notes, "Room is made for sex, plenty of room; but a room, as it were, apart" (93). Because sex is not a constant in these people's lives there is a definite psychological impact. This civilization does not have the constant sexual urge, whose energy its members would have put to other uses: art, science.
Because there are no men and women on Winter, there are no sexual expectations they have to live up to: men do not have to try to be masculine, women do not have to try to be feminine. A large portion of deriving one's status in society can come from filling sexual roles: men trying to be providers, be strong, women trying to be good care givers, nurturers. Because of the lack of these cultural expecatations as a way of gaining status, shifrethgor developed. This kind of verbal battle is a way of showing, gaining, and losing status. It gives members of society another way of identifying themselves.
Another interesting consequence of the lack of definite sexual roles in Getherian society is the loss of defined social roles. Because there are no men or women, there are no stereotypes. There can be no oppression of a particular sex. Everyone may have children, therefore society is much more accomodating.
Le Guin's novel is a "lab report" novel. It conducts a thought experiment with humanity, the author attempting to find what happens when you remove sexual roles, and to an extent sex, from society. Her conclusion from this experiment is that men gain greater liberty, but at the cost of the spark of energy that leads to innovation. If there is a fault with this book it is that Le Guin becomes too obsessed with her thought experiment, while not giving much attention to the plot. Genly Ai stumbles between two alien kingdoms never really quite sure how he should pursue his quest. There is also little character development (with the acception of Estraven). The ending for the novel seems makeshift; towards the end of the novel Estraven stumbles upon the idea of using shifrethgor to allow Estraven to be accepted by the king of his country. But, this does not necessarily make the novel a bad book. Like Niven's Ringworld, this book allows the reader to be completely immersed in a foreign world, to know what it is like to be an alien.
references 1976, Ace Books (paperback)