English 192
Science Fiction
Spring 2002
Professor William Warner

Course Overview



Study Materials

Course Policies

Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness


Contexts for reading The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Cold War (1947-1989)

  • Impossibility of 'hot' (nuclear) war
  • Nations "frozen" in struggle
  • Solution: an envoy from the Ekumen


  • saving disappearing cultures
  • Le Guin is the daughter of anthopoligist Alfred Kroeber
  • Ishi: "the last wild indian in North America"
  • radical cultural relativism
  • the envoy Genly Ai as participant observer

Ecological thinking

  • Ecology explores the "economy of nature," "the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and to its organic environment; including above all, its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes directly or indirectly in contact."(Ernst Haeckel, 1866)
  • Ai studies Gethen as a "whole system"
  • the ethos of ecology: valuing diversity, complexity


  • how does one explain the observed differences between men and women?
  • biology or culture?
  • A counter-myth: 4 stages of kemmer

Critical Questions:

  • What kind of s/f mirror does Gethen become for the earth bound reader?
  • How does Le Guin develop a fictional vehicle ["in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, " Preface] to take readers radically beyond the confines of our understanding of gender?
The Gethen difference
  • Kemmer/ sommer
  • Winter on Gethen
  • shifgrethor: honor, prestige, face, place, "the untranslatable and all important principle of social authority" (14)
  • Karhide's monarchy versus the commensalities, bureacracies, farms of Orgoreyn
  • the absence of organized war
  • art of foretelling
  • legends: Meshe at the Center of Time


  • Entangles the success of Genly Ai's mission on Gethen with the relationship he forms with Therem Harth Estraven
  • Estraven's manipulations
  • After rescuing Ai, Estraven's complaint
  • the meaning of the survival adventure
  • moment of wonder:
    • "I'm glad I have lived to see this"
    • Ai's aphorism: "It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end." [chiasmus = "end: journey :: journey: end"]
    • the 'joy' of cheating DEATH (for a while)
  • Estraven's heroism: cunning and tragic

Questions for reading:

How do Genly Ai and Estraven touch each other across the bridge of difference?
Please read (or reread) pages 221-261 for next lecture. Please consider these questions:

  • What is Le Guin's formula for resolving the radical differences between cultures?
  • Do you agree with it?

'Light is the left hand of darkness
And darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
Together like lovers in kemmer,
Like hands joined together,
Like the end and the way.' (233-4)

Yin Yang Symbol:

" 'Do you know that sign?' He looked at it a long time with a strange look, but he said, 'No.'
'It's found on Earth...It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness...how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.'" (267)


The Bridge of Difference between Estraven and Genly Ai


Each is opaque to the other, but the plot brings them together

  • Estraven's leap of faith
  • Genly Ai's capture and torture
  • They have a shared project
  • Result: they are alone together

Intimacy and trust as a problem: Estraven's narrative

  • The problem of the body: Estraven in kemmer
  • Genly Ai "sublimation": he initiates an abstract discussion of "isolation and loneliness"
  • Estraven recites a poem:
    • Light is the left hand of darkness
    • and darkness the right hand of light.
    • two are one, life and death, lying
    • together like lovers in kemmer,
    • like hands joined together,
    • like the end and the way.
  • Genly Ai and Estraven hear a different poem
  • Estraven asks: "Tell me, how does the other sex of your race differ from yours?"
  • Genly Ai tries to account for gender difference on earth, then gives up:
    women are "more alien to me than you are"


Sexual tension and the bridge of difference: Genly Ai's narrative
  • Speculations about sex between single-sexed and two-sexed humans
  • Estraven face looks as "soft" as a woman's
  • Acceptance after distrust
  • Sexual tension, friendship, love: the bridge of difference

what is Le Guin's formula from valuing, but also negotiating between, the radical differences between cultures?

  • imaginative sympathy
  • risking intimacy
  • neither for "mankind" (too abstract) nor for one other person (too singular and contingent), but both for mankind and out of love for one other

Le Guin's problematic humanistic solution to radical cultural difference

  • Aestheticizing the noble Indian: the example of "Tonto"
  • The primacy of the individual: it's so Western
  • Does the acceptance of radical difference presume the superiority and power of those who accept? What if your culture is weak and embattled?
  • Is humanism too species specific? Can't we be kind without being humane?
The Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Lone Ranger and Tonto

An Indian Princess

This page was composed by Professor William Warner. Last changed 4/2/02. This course is part of the Transcriptions Project of the Department of English at UC /Santa Barbara.