Two beings from different worlds rely on each other for safety and survival as they traverse one of science fiction’s most famous ice sheets: the Gobrin Glacier. First, we meet the envoy, Genly Ai, an Earthling whose cultural blindness repeatedly endangers him on an icy, remote planet. His rescuer is Estraven, the androgynous Gethenian and exiled politician from Karhide. Their journey through Ursula Le Guin’s fictional universe demonstrates how glacial settings inform fictional narratives, prompting readers to greater understandings of both science and themselves.
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) was one of the most admired American science fiction novelists. Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Le Guin earned an M.A. from Columbia University before briefly embarking on her doctoral studies in French, only to choose marriage instead. Many consider “The Left Hand of Darkness,” published in 1969, to be her greatest novel. She became the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Hugo Award (1969) and the Nebula Award (1970) for the work.
Many audiences read “The Left Hand of Darkness” as a story of gender. Indeed, one prominent and consuming plotline is the internal transformation of the Earth-born main character in response to the cyclical gender-changing, yet primarily androgynous alien he encounters and develops a relationship with. However, some scholars are now focusing on the intersection of environmentalism and science fiction. In the genre of science fiction, we are able to see ways in which the natural world imbues human nature.
In an interview with GlacierHub, Gerry Canavan, professor of English at Marquette University and author of “Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction” (2014), discussed the role of the environment in science fiction. “Once you understand that the environment is something that shapes the horizon of what is possible for a society to achieve, and something that is being put under dire threat by the negative externalities of industrial capitalism, it becomes a major concern for speculation about the future,” Canavan said.
“The Left Hand of Darkness” is primarily set on the planet “Gethen,” nicknamed “Winter” for its bitterly cold and unchanging climate. The main character, Genly Ai, is an envoy to Gethen representing the “League of All Worlds,” whose purpose is to persuade the Gethenians to join their coalition. During his travels, Ai finds himself imprisoned in a hostile country. When Estraven breaks Ai out of prison, the two realize their only way back to safety is over 800 miles of glacier ice.
The “magnificent and unspeakable desolation” of Gobrin Glacier provides total isolation for Ai and Estraven. The glacier itself is described as “blinding and horizonless to the utmost north, a white, a white the eyes could not look upon.”
In the novel, the glacier is represented metaphorically as an unknowable, unseeable landscape enabling Ai and Estraven to transcend the material world. The glacial winds, “blowing north to south, off the glacier,” continually bore down on the characters from their left, eventually freezing Ai’s left eye shut and prompting physical intimacy between the two when Estraven “thawed it open, with breathe and tongue.”
Psychological intimacy followed when for many nights the glacial storms made incredible noise, and the characters “could not converse by voice, unless we shouted with our heads together.” To continue their conversations non-verbally, Ai teaches Estraven his “Mindspeech” skills, through which they “shared whatever we had worth sharing.” Together, their physical and psychological journey over the glacier catalyzes their journey inward; a journey toward a greater self-determination and awareness of each other.
What follows is a narrative where trust, care and understanding flourish between Ai and Estraven on the glacier. They protect one another while subtly revealing their vulnerabilities, teach each other their respective cultures and languages, and through their learning, find themselves to be more alike than different. The intensity of the whiteness surrounding them leads to a mutual “dark night of the soul.” Thus, the frigid, inhospitable, unforgiving conditions of the glacier melt the otherness that once existed between them.
In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” we view the glacier as both a setting and a character; the Gobrin Glacier is the preeminent force that shapes Ai and Estraven. The glacier contextualizes the meanings that both characters give to their experiences of each other and ultimately to their journey over the ice.
Of Le Guin’s environmentalism in science fiction, Canavan says, “She understands the way that human societies are embedded in a natural context rather than existing apart from it. So her speculative societies are places that really exist in a natural context and which make sense given that distribution of living things and natural resources.”
By placing Ai and Estraven on a glacier, Le Guin does more than provide a location for each character’s self-defining trials, she utilizes the environment— the glacier— as a metaphor for Ai and Estraven’s journey to their most true and authentic selves.