Gender in Cold Worlds

The Left Hand of Darkness

I first read Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness in eighth grade, and though for the years following I called it one of my favorite books, I couldn’t have given a very solid account of the story or its meaning.

I learned the word “envoy,” and the next few stories I would write, in pencil on lined notebook paper, featured alien envoys navigating a stubborn planet. I didn’t know enough about sex to recognize the power of omitting it from daily life, as LeGuin’s androgynous inhabitants of the planet Gethen do, but I wrote about big-headed green aliens who reproduced through a sort of meditative mind-meld, which I suspected to be more evolutionarily sophisticated than the mess of feelings and fluids that my own species engaged in. I didn’t know enough about the cold to recognize how it creates a bond among those who endure it together, as it does between the novel’s two central characters as they traverse the planet’s desolately beautiful ice fields, or its power to remove sex from the equation. What I recognized, and kept with me, were these words from the book’s introduction: “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”

And that, for an adolescent trying on artistry and atheism, was enough to make the book a favorite—story, metaphor, and meaning be damned.

I’ve pretty much abandoned science fiction as an adult. I’ve read more “natural histories of (region/action/element/food)” than I care to admit. My imagination became, shall we say, more grounded. I moved to Alaska, watched snow melt and refreeze, studied glacial recession and thawing permafrost, stopped scanning for UFOs flown by sexless interstellar envoys.

I finally reread The Left Hand of Darkness—though I remembered so little of the actual story that “reread” seems an exaggeration—at the tail end of the winter I rediscovered science fiction. This winter was the first in years that my reading wasn’t directed by my MFA. Too often throughout this too-warm winter, the little snow we had melted, which for many Alaskans meant less exercise and more Netflix. Since I wasn’t skiing, I streamed Firefly and Star Trek. I didn’t mind the campiness or the bad acting. Often a storyline snuck in through the special effects that elicited the same tired rage as contemporary pop and political culture. A rape threat. A paternity battle. A planet full of nymphos distracting space travelers from more important work. When Kylie, the sprightly, unapologetically feminine space mechanic, gets tied up and threatened with rape in Firefly, I railed for days against a genre that can imagine almost anything but a world without at least the ghost of rape infiltrating the story. I read some natural histories of whatever.

And then I remembered Ursula LeGuin on stage at AWP last February, petite and perpetually bemused, reflecting on the science fiction of the 1960s as “engineering fiction, mostly.” She called the genre a “marvelous kind of untapped field.” And then it slowly came back to me that before Firefly, before anyone had given me vaguely menacing lectures about spaghetti straps, eyeliner, and shadowy places, before I knew anything of victim blaming or slut-shaming or fundamentalists selling teenage girls like weapons, I’d read about at least one world that had no rape, no war. The world was far from Utopian; that was never LeGuin’s project. But the power and violence came from other sources, had other motivations, and I wanted to revisit that world.

I recalled Genly Ai, the Terran envoy and the book’s primary narrator, as a fairly dull guide. LeGuin described him, in an essay written seven year’s after the book’s 1969 publication, as “conventional and rather stuffy,” which makes my adolescent understanding of him fairly accurate. We meet him two years into his stay on the planet Gethen, or Winter, where he is recruiting Gethenians to join the interplanetary network called the Ekumen. The Ekumen “doesn’t govern, but coordinates,” a sort of vaguely benign network that reminded me of Star Trek’s Federation. Genly understands some aspects of this alien culture better than others, and is especially challenged by accepting its androgynous inhabitants, who display a gendered sexuality for a few days a month, and are neither or both women and men for the rest of their lives. He is also perpetually cold on Gethen, and notes that even in summer he is “dressed for the Ice Age and not for sunshine.” A creation myth tells of humans descending from ice, when the only other element was sun. The climate has not changed much by the time Genly arrives.

While I holed up on the couch with Genly and the Gethenians, the 2015 Iditarod was wrapping up in Nome, Alaska. It followed an alternative course this year, because, as some say, “winter is broken,” and the snow never came to the usual places. A third of the mushers racing this year were women, a fact noted for its irrelevance by journalists and commentators. “It is difficult to tell if the musher standing behind a sled pulled by 16 dogs and wearing a puffy red parka and a face protector shrouded in frost is a man or a woman,” said the New York Times. “But in competitive sled dog racing, it does not really matter.” Deedee Jonrowe, a musher known for her iconic pink gear, restated in another article that mushing “is not a sport defined by gender. You have to prove yourself as an individual.” Still, she notes that she’s proud of having maintained her “feminine grace” over the years. “I always felt you didn’t have to give up your femininity to be a gender-equal athlete.” I wonder if she’d agree with Genly Ai’s Ekumenical earthly predecessor on Gethen, that “when one is judged only as a human being… (i)t is an appalling experience.” I wonder if I would. I’ve been known to bring multiple pairs of earrings on a two-day camping trip. I’m always on the lookout for paired skirts and leggings that can get me by at forty below. Is this gender or artistry? Do I even know the difference? I am therefore a liar. Disbelieve everything I say…


I’m not particularly interested in the Iditarod, by Alaskan standards. But I’m not so uninterested that by the time the top ten mushers have sorted themselves out and are leapfrogging down the Yukon River and along the Bering Sea coast that I don’t keep a browser tab open listing the current standings, and I’m certainly not so free of the gender binary that I don’t root for a woman—any woman, but in recent years mushing badass Aliy Zirkle—to win. (She didn’t.) And I’m not so cynical about the corporate sponsorships, GPS trackers and cult of celebrity that I don’t see the Iditarod as, still, an expression of what Genly Ai, quoting from the doctrine of the Ekumen, calls the “conscious extension of the evolutionary tendency inherent in Being; one manifestation of which is exploration.” Though their genetic lines parted ways millennia ago, Genly and his Gethenian companion Estraven share at least this biological impulse: to see and experience a place for the sake of knowing it.

The descriptions of winter landscapes and deep cold shared by Alaska and the Gethenian ice fields are now comforting to me in their familiarity, though LeGuin said it was Antarctic explorers’ descriptions that informed her creation of Gethen. The cold of the planet that LeGuin creates freezes on your eyelashes and blows frosty wind under the door, and it feels like home. But this past winter brought too many forty-degree days and too little snow to settle into it, to hunker down, to trust the cold to hold the shape of things. Camped out on the ice field, Estraven reflects on Gethenian scientists’ predictions that increased volcanic activity on the planet “presages the end of the Ice, or at least recession of it… CO2 released by the volcanoes into the atmosphere will in time serve as an insulator,” and “the average world temperature would be raised some thirty degrees.” A native to cold, he (I use the pronoun LeGuin used, though she wrote later that had she realized how this choice controlled her own thinking, she would have done differently) concludes, “I am glad I will not be present.”

LeGuin cautions readers against taking her metaphors too literally. She wrote The Left Hand in 1969, before readers—even those listening to snowmelt dripping off a roof two months early—were likely to find a metaphor for climate change in every mention of global temperature. “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive,” she says in the introduction, reminding us that a novelist’s business is lying. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.

But. Here is this world, described “at the hinge point, at the moment the change was happening.” They are exposed for the first time to humans like Genly Ai whose gender defines them. The citizens of the planet’s two largest countries, Karhide and Orgoreyn, have developed a sense of patriotism strong enough that they are on the verge of war for the first time in their frozen world’s history. “I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism,” Estraven explains cautiously to Genly in the opening chapter. “I mean fear. The fear of the other… it grows in us year by year. We’ve followed our road too far.” He says this before Estraven’s exile into Orgoreyn, before Genly’s travels voluntarily land him there, before Genly becomes a pawn in the country’s petty politics, lands in prison, and is rescued by Estraven, who will be his guide and companion across the ice, back to Karhide.

And I know every generation thinks they are living at the hinge point, that change is always happening, but here is the moment this story—and I know that’s all it is, Ursula, a damn good story, a damn good lie—came back into my life: a bunch of strong women finished what is referred to as “the last great race on earth,” across a landscape shaped by cold and changing faster than any other. Some of them wore pink parkas and their dogs wore pink booties. I tried to ski on bare ground and pavement and it was so warm I barely had a chance to wear my beloved wool skirts. Across the globe, hundreds of girls and young women have had their lives and homes stolen from them because of what their abductors believe the assigned category of “woman” says about them. I am so tired of this story that I turn to TV shows about space ships only to find that the space ships turn to women tied to stakes and stripped of clothing and humanity. And then I turn back to Ursula LeGuin, who knew enough to know how these stories, even for those of us for whom they are only stories, shape our lives and our imaginations, and she took it upon herself, almost fifty years ago, to imagine something different. “Truth,” she said, “is a matter of the imagination.” And I am telling the truth. This time, I’ll remember.

Erica Watson lives outside Denali National Park, Alaska, where she hikes, skis, gardens, knits, and pursues other wholesome rural activities. Her writing has appeared in VelaISLE Journal, regional journals, and a government website. She blogs, sometimes, at

1 Comment

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One Response to Gender in Cold Worlds

  1. horusfitzfancy

    Thanks so much for posting this. I read “The Left Hand of Darkness” for the first time in college and loved it, even though I am not typically a science fiction person. I get where you’re coming from with the location being important. I’m from Minnesota and I feel like reading this when you are legitimately freezing every time you step outside really adds to the experience.

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