The Left Hand of Darkness Summary
The novel opens with a parade: colors, marching, instruments, the Macy's Day works. But Genly Ai isn't on the planet Gethen to enjoy parades. He's there to convince the Gethenians to join the Ekumen—think the United Nations, but spanning the universe.
And things could be going smoother. For starters, the Gethenians are androgynous beings, neither male nor female. This aspect makes their entire culture distinct from any Ai has ever encountered, meaning navigating their politics and social mores is tricky-tricky business.
And then there's Estraven, prime minister of the country Karhide (on planet Gethen) and the guy (guy?) vouching for Ai to the country's King Argaven. Too bad Ai just can't figure this dude out. Like, why is the Gethenian so cold and remote? What kind of power does Estraven hold over Argaven? No clue.
Ai receives a summons from King Argaven the same day Estraven is run out of town for being a traitor. Not good. Luckily, King Argaven doesn't blame Ai for Estraven's mistakes—but that still doesn't mean he's going to join the Ekumen. Because he's not. It's back to square one for Ai.
Time for a vacay. Ai heads to the Fastnesses of Karhide and meets Faxe the Foreteller. He asks Faxe for to prophesy whether or not the planet Gethen will join the Ekumen in five years time. Faxe checks his Magic 8-Ball and answers yes, so Ai decides to restart his mission. With Karhide a total bust, it's off to a different country, Orgoreyn, to try his luck.
Now things start getting interesting, because war is brewing between Karhide and Orgoreyn. Oh, and Estraven is heading for Orgoreyn too.
The Orgoreyn Commensals, the 33 people who run the government, openly welcome Ai into their country. Things seem to be going great for Ai on the surface. He's set up in a comfy apartment and has friends in high places (the government). The Commensals even seem to be working with him in ways King Argaven never did.
Luckily Estraven is paying attention, because he knows that Ai has some way powerful opponents in the Orgoreyn government. Estraven tries to warn Ai, but Ai's had just about enough of Estraven's secrecy and ignores him.
Bad move. In the night, Ai is whisked away by the police and sent to the Volunteer Farm, which comes across as more "Enslave & Torture Farm." There, Ai is at the brink of insanity and death when is Estraven swoops in awesome-style and saves him. Together, the two make a daring escape over some of the most inhospitable landscape this side of Antarctica and, in the process, become friends who finally understand one another.
They barely manage to survive the trek to the Orgoreyn/Karhide border. There, Ai signals for his ship to come down, proving his story once and for all. At the same time, Estraven is betrayed by a friend and killed while trying to escape back into Orgoreyn.
But it's all well that ends well (unless you're Estraven). Ai accomplishes his goal, King Argaven accepts the Ekumen's proposal, and Ai knows the truth of his friend's sacrifice.
A Parade in Erhenrang
- As with anything worth your time, this story comes with a warning. Genly Ai, the man writing the report, will be presenting it as if it were a story.
- Also, it's not his story alone. Others will add to it, but it's still one story.
- Fair enough; we're here for a story.
- Right-o. We start in Erhenrang, the capital city of Karhide.
- Don't worry; you get use to the names.
- The people of Karhide are having a parade. Ai gives us some amazing details of the procession, everything from the merchants to the King and even the royal musicians playing their gossiwars.
- Gossiwors: the only instrument more embarrassing to play in your high school marching band than the tuba. (Just kidding, guys: the tuba is awesome.)
- The parade comes to the new arch being built at the Port of Erhenrang. King Argaven XV is there to put in the keystone.
- Unlike other kings, Argaven isn't there just for show. He actually puts in the keystone with his own two hands.
- Ai asks Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, the King's prime minister, why they use red cement.
- For the sake of our sanity, he'll be referred to as Estraven from here on in.
- Anyway, he says it's the tradition to use blood-mixed cement for the keystone.
- Ai notes how he thinks of Estraven with words like man, he, and him even though the terms don't rightly apply here. Gee, that's funny. Wonder what he means by that?
- Estraven gives Ai a tour of the clan banners. He's interrupted by Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe, the king's cousin.
- Yeah, he'll be Tibe from now on.
- Ai considers how power is different on the planet Gethen. For the Ekumen, a universe-wide United-Nations government-type thingy (to use the official term), power is subtle. But this planet still has that "hey, look at my power" complex going for it.
- On that note, Ai doesn't trust Estraven because his motives are always obscure and his power seems to influence Ai on a level he can't understand.
- The sun ducks behind some clouds as the parade ends. Ooooh, we love foreshadowing.
- Estraven invites Ai to dinner that night.
- Ai walks back to his lodgings, and Tibe catches up with him. This Ai guy sure is popular around here.
- They talk about Estraven and his kindness toward foreigners (namely the foreigner Ai), but Ai can't help thinking that Tibe's smiling teeth make his words take on multiple meanings.
- Through Tibe, we learn that Ai is an alien on Gethen. Like full-blown spaceship, beam-me-up type alien.
- After the conversation, Ai heads to his apartment and eats dinner, reflecting on the eating habits of the Gethen.
- He sure spends a lot of time thinking to himself about the Gethen.
- Anyway, since their meals are lighter and the weather is frigid (to say the least), the Gethenians eat a bunch of meals during the day, and yet remain fit as a…fiddle? Gossiwor?
- Oh, and while we're here, you should just get use to these little side discussions on Gethen customs. Ai moonlights as an anthropologist, so he's just doing what he does. We can't cover all these little tidbits of information, so make sure you check out the book.
- Ai joins Estraven for another dinner. Following another Gethen custom, the two don't talk business during the meal.
- Instead, Ai thinks about how difficult it is for him to categorize Estraven by Earth categories. Estraven has a womanly way about him, "all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit" (1.38).
- Yeah, Ai can be a tad sexist.
- But Estraven's powerful presence is manly. Not to mention the fact that such categories are meaningless on Gethen, where the whole population is androgynous (neither male nor female).
- When the business chit-chat finally gets going, Estraven explains to Ai that he can no longer act on his behalf with the king.
- Since Ai relies on Estraven saying good things about him and his mission, he's a little irritated by this.
- Estraven warns Ai that some of the king's advisers aren't too thrilled with Ai's mission. Gee, wonder if that's Tibe.
- Ai takes this to mean Estraven's selling him out.
- Actually, Estraven claims to have gotten into trouble with the king. He forgot that a king "does not see things rationally, but as a king" (1.70). Whoops.
- Basically, this means the King doesn't trust Estraven anymore, and he doesn't trust Ai either.
- As Ai leaves, Estraven asks what the Ekumen call his planet, Gethen. Ai says they call it "Winter." Gee, wonder how they came up with that name?
The Place Inside the Blizzard
- Second Warning: Chapter 2 doesn't follow Ai's story. Instead, it's a Gethen tale included by Ai to supplement his story with more information. There are a few of these chapters. Sometimes, they even foreshadow upcoming events or provide parallels to other characters. Basically, don't skip them but don't worry if you don't get right away why they were included.
- Where were we? Right. This story tells the tale of two brothers, Hode and Getheren, who fall in love during kemmer.
- What's that? Well, kemmer is the phase when a Gethen is sexually active. So, a little like being in heat.
- The inhabitants of Gethen are neither male nor female. But during kemmer, they find a mate and settle down as male or female, until the whole thing is over.
- Chapter 7 is dedicated to exploring the phenomenon, so feel free to pop over there for the oddest sex-ed class ever.
- The law says brothers can stay in kemmer until one produces offspring. Then they have to break up. No life-long incestuous relationships, in other words.
- Guess what happens.
- When Lord Shath commands them to separate, Hode commits suicide, a huge no-no in Gethen culture.
- The people of their homeland Hearth drive the other brother out of town and into the Ice (think the coldest, most barren part of Antarctica then subtract the cute penguins).
- The brother travels for two days until he's frostbitten and ringing death's doorbell.
- He wanders into an odd groove, where the trees are pure white and the ice grows like grass. There, his frostbitten hands become pure white, and he can use them again.
- We're getting the feeling this is some sort of myth or legend.
- Oh, his dead brother, Hode, is also there. Hode says this is the land where suicides go and asks Getheren to stay with him. But Getheren says he won't stay because Hode broke his promise to him when he committed suicide.
- And you thought your family had drama.
- When Hode tries to seize him, Getheren breaks free. He heads south, eventually reaching a village. His only permanent injury is that his left hand must be amputated.
- Hey, wait a minute. This whole book is called The Left Hand of Darkness. Coincidence? We're going to go with "no."
- Getheren takes up the name Ennoch to hide his identity.
- To wrap this thing up: meanwhile, Hearth has been suffering bad famines after going lynch mob on Getheren.
- Years pass, and Getheren meets a traveler heading down to Hearth.
- Getheren tells the traveler to tell his people that he takes his name and shadow back. Not long afterward, Getheren dies, and the Hearth begins to prosper again.
- Yeah, we're a little confused, too.
The Mad King
- Ai sleeps in late. When he wakes up, he goes over his notes to prepare for his audience with King Argaven.
- At the palace, he's put in an anteroom. There, he hears the news bulletin that King Argaven exiled Estraven from Karhide. His incentive for staying away is, oh, that he's going to be put to death if he returns.
- Remember, this is the guy who vouched for Ai. It's not looking too good for our intrepid hero.
- Ai's first impulse is to call for help, because death totally wasn't on his to-do list today. But before can panic his way into action, he's called into his audience with the King.
- King Argaven asks Ai for his message, but Ai is a tad flustered by the threat of death and can't remember it.
- Argaven informs Ai that Estraven advised him to refuse Ai's audience, which is odd given what we've read beforehand.
- Ai asks if he's been charged with Estraven's crime as well. But Argaven says he only punishes the criminal not the tool.
- If there's ever a time to be happy about being called a tool, this is it.
- For some reason, Ai asks Argaven whether he believes that Ai is an alien envoy.
- Argaven says yes, because Estraven's physicians gave him the data proving Ai to be an alien.
- Well, says Ai, the Ekumen want the Gethen to join their league of planets. We know that when we say it like that they can come off a bit super-villainy, but they're actually pretty nice guys.
- Membership perks would be trade of goods as well as communication to trade ideas, techniques, and technologies.
- During his spiel, Ai drops some hints about the universe, the Ekumen, and the Hainish race. Head on over to the "Setting" section for a more in-depth discussion of these.
- Argaven basically rolls his eyes at Ai's proposal and instead questions him about Ekumen. Are they are all as dark-skinned as Ai? Is sexual perversion (i.e., the existence of males and females) prevalent? Oh, and what's that device on your wrist?
- Ai answers the questions. Turns out, the Gethenians' androgyny is unique in the known universe.
- And the device is an ansible, a communication machine that allows one to instantaneously send messages like "LOL :)" across the vast gulf of space.
- They give the ansible a whirl. King Argaven asks what makes a man a traitor (3.62). He gets a reply: no one knows what makes a man a traitor, since no man considers himself one (3.64). Gee, King, wonder what's on your mind.
- Is Argaven tickled pink that he just spoke to an alien light-years away? Nope. Instead, he refuses Ai's offer. He claims that he's afraid: "I fear those who sent you. I fear liars, and I fear tricksters, and worst I fear the bitter truth" (3.69).
- Okay, well, we're with him right up until the end there. Being afraid of tricksters and liars sounds pretty reasonable.
- His mission a bust, Ai leaves the castle to think some thoughts, like whether or not Estraven ever lied to him.
- Ai decides his next action will be to go to the neighboring country Orgoreyn and try to get them on board. But before that, he's going do a little sightseeing and head east to the Fastnesses to get info on the Foretellers.
The Nineteenth Day
- Once again, we find ourselves reading a story within a story. This time, we're going to get some information on the Foretellers.
- Some dude named Lord Berosty rim ir Ipe asks the Foretellers when he will die. The Foretellers answer: Odstreth, the 19th day, any month.
- As is the case with most prophecies, no more information is available, and Berosty freaks out every 19th day of every month afterward. Wouldn't you?
- His kemmering (life partner), Herbor, goes to the Foretellers to get more information. He offers his life as the payment.
- The Foretellers agree, and Herbor asks, "How long will Ashe Berosty rem ir Ipe live?" The answer, "Longer than Herbor of Geganner!" (4.16).
- So, yay…kind of.
- Herbor goes home to bells Berosty with the good—well, goodish—news. But Berosty is enraged at Herbor for not asking a better question.
- In a Hulk-like rage, he smashes a table of red stone over his lovers head. Yikes.
- Herbor dies, obviously. Well, he did offer his life as payment.
- Berosty is really bummed out by what he's done. We're talking really bummed. In fact, he goes crazy and eventually hangs himself on the nineteenth day, thus fulfilling the prophecy.
- Look, guys, if we've learned anything from Oedipus, it's that prophecies are always bad news.
The Domestication of Hunch
- There's a new prime minister in town, and it's Tibe, the creepy guy with the teeth.
- The radio bulletins are full of his news. Seems a land dispute between Orgoreyn and Karhide might erupt into the first-ever war on Gethen.
- Ai takes a landboat east. This journey gives us lots of time for details on the Gethenian lifestyle and planet.
- For example, their attitude about hurrying (they don't). Not to mention how dangerous the glaciers and mountains can be, outside of the city's safety. Basically, "Karhide is no country for comfort" (5.7)—pretty much what you'd expect in a frozen wasteland.
- At the end of the journey is the city of Rer. It's an ancient city that once housed the Kings of Karhide before Argaven's ancestor moved to Erhenrang. Bet this place is full of interesting history to explore.
- But we won't be doing any of that, because Ai sets out again the next day.
- He travels to a forest and meets a Gethenian named Goss.
- Goss takes him to the Fastnesses, and en route the two see Gethenians practicing the "Handdara discipline of Presence" (5.28).
- Oh, and there's going to be a lot of mention of Handdara from here on out, so feel free click over to our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section for some thoughts on the subject.
- In the Fastnesses, the home of the Foretellers, Ai meets Faxe the Weaver. When Faxe asks him if he has a question, Ai says he doesn't know. So, Faxe asks Ai to stay with them a few days.
- Ai does, and it sounds pretty nice. Hard work, good times with dance and song, that sort of thing. The Fastness is basically the Rivendell of this novel.
- Goss sticks around too and warns Ai to ask a good question. He says, "Vagueness breeds vagueness" (5.41). He also warns that some questions will not be answered because of the consequences.
- Like, a thousand years ago, someone made the catastrophic mistake of asking what the meaning of life is. People died, some went catatonic, and others drove themselves insane.
- There's a slight chance the answer was 42.
- Finally, Ai asks whether or not the Gethen world will join the Ekumen in five years. Faxe says the question is answerable, and the ceremony begins.
- This ceremony of foretelling is one dense and rich passage of writing. It involves Zanies, Gethenians who might be schizophrenic, a kemmer, and a pervert (the Gethen word for one who keeps their male or female sex permanently). No paraphrase, not even Shmoop's, can do it justice. After all the awesomeness subsides, Faxe has Ai's answer.
- Yes, the planet Gethen will join the Ekumen.
- After the foretelling, Ai and Faxe go for a walk. Ai tells Faxe that Faxe must be a natural empath with the ability to read minds.
- Ai asks if Faxe wishes to learn mindspeech, which is exactly what it sounds like. Faxe declines. He says he has no desire to change the world. His "business is unlearning, not learning" (5.90).
- As it begins to rain, the pair walks under a tree, and Ai wonders why kings don't use foretelling in everyday decisions (although he now knows why Gethen doesn't have a lottery).
- Faxe says that every answer leads to more questions, and every question must be precisely formed. For the foretellers, the idea is not to tell the future but "to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question" (5.111).
- We do love our philosophy with a bit of Zen flavoring.
- In the end, Ai realizes that there's only one true answer to any question of the future: we all die.
- On that chipper note, on to the next chapter.
One Way Into Orgoreyn
- Don't be fooled by the "I" here. It's Estraven's "I", not Ai's "I." This is great, because we finally get to see some of the events from Estraven's perspective.
- Anyway. The cook wakes Estraven up and tells him a runner has come from the King's House.
- The runner gives Estraven a paper and then nails it to his door. Never a good way to start the day.
- Estraven packs his stuff and heads west, deciding he was "born to live in exile" anyway (6.5).
- Yeah, why not. Thankfully, the chef packs him some food to help him get by.
- He heads for a town called Kuseben. There, he meets his former kemmering, Ashe.
- Estraven tries to sneak by, because conversations with ex-boyfriends are always tricky.
- But Ashe follows him and tries to convince Estraven to let him come on exile too. Then Estraven brings up a broken oath, and things get a little heated. Awk-ward.
- Then Ashe tries to get him some money, but Estraven declines even that. Super awkward.
- Seems Estraven must bounce from the country by the sixth hour or else Tibe's men can legally have "justice done."
- We're guessing murder-type justice here.
- Estraven decides theft won't matter in the long run, since he's already a traitor, and promptly jacks a row boat.
- Rowing away from the port, he spies two figures on the pier. One of them has a sonic gun with which he promptly blasts Estraven. He's doesn't die, but the shot hurts something fierce.
- He rows as fast as he can toward Orgoreyn, his body going numb with each stroke. A patrol ship picks him up. Very unlucky.
- However, his time's not up yet, so the boat's officer can't legally kill him.
- Instead, he takes him to Shelt Port in Orgoreyn. So, some pretty lucky bad luck there.
- Estraven regains full consciousness in a Commensal Hospital. A physician checks in on him and is promptly followed by an inspector.
- Apparently, that's how they do their thing in Orgoreyn.
- The inspector asks him for his papers and how he plans to return to Karhide. Estraven laughs, saying he'll return in a coffin.
- Pretty dark sense of humor you have there, Estraven.
- The inspector fumes a little, until the doctor pulls him aside and talks to him. Estraven is then asked if he's here for permanent residence.
- Estraven works his way to Mishnory, his new home, by working as a landboat loader. It's probably just as fun as it sounds.
- He moves up in the world (we think?) when he gets a job working in the ice-house, living in a place called Fish Island. Sounds delicious.
- Eventually, a guy named Commensal Yegey shows up at Fish Island and takes Estraven into his service.
- Movin' on up again: Estraven is now Yegey's secretary.
- Are you starting to think Estraven's planned this whole thing out? Because it sure isn't sounding much like lonely exile, here.
- One day, Yegey calls Estraven to his study where Obsle, the Orgota Naval Trade Commission head, waits.
- Wow, that's a whole lot of alien words. (Well, not "Naval Trade Commission." We got that.)
- Obsle wants to know what Tibe has planned regarding the Sinoth Valley dispute. Estraven says Tibe wants to run Karhide like Orgoreyn.
- Why? War, of course.
- Obsle then brings up the Envoy, one Genly Ai, leading Estraven to believe Ai has asked permission to enter Orgoreyn.
- Estraven confirms that Ai is indeed an alien from another world, though he's not a threatening alien. You know, the "we come in peace" rather than the "we come with ray guns" variety of alien.
- Estraven tries to convince Obsle that Ai could really help out, maybe straighten out the whole Sinoth Valley dispute.
- Obsle seems on the fence about the whole situation and asks Estraven to tell him everything he knows.
- Looks like Ai's coming to Orgoreyn.
The Question of Sex
- Okay, chapter seven is a weird one for plot summary. Why? Because there is no plot. Not a scrap, iota, or pinch of it. We're talking Michael Bay's Transformers level of plotlessness.
- Just joking. It's not that bad. It's actually an investigator's notes on the androgynous gender and sexuality of the Gethenians.
- So, we'll point out the key info for you, but don't expect any heart-pounding cliffhangers.
- The Investigator believes that the Gethenians were experiments. She theorizes that they're humans made androgynous and then set loose millennia ago by the Hainish.
- So, think human mice in a big old planet-shaped cage. Minus running wheels.
- She can't understand why they picked such a planet. Her best guess is that the planet used to be much nicer (less Arctic wasteland and more "California Love"). Then the Hainish civilization went belly-up and the poor Gethenians were left behind to suffer the planet's ice age.
- The Gethenian sexual cycle goes for 26 to 28 days, so roughly a moon cycle. Also, you know, roughly the length of a woman's menstrual cycle, not that that could possibly mean anything. Or something.
- During days 1 to 21, the Gethenians are in somer; i.e., they are androgynous and could care less.
- By day 23, they enter kemmer and get to prowling for some action. When they find a partner, their hormones wake up, giving female genitalia to one partner and male to the other. Basically, all systems go.
- The male/female change only lasts for one kemmer cycle, so "the mother of several children may be the father of several more" (7.4).
- If you really like the dude you've mated with, you can vow kemmering, which is their version of marriage.
- Odd though it may seem to us, incest is permitted with restrictions. Siblings aren't allowed to vow kemmering and can't continue to pair with each other after having one child together.
- The investigator also notes how kemmer runs their entire civilization. Since anyone can be a mother, that means a mother can be anyone, from a guard to a baker to a politician. Anarchy! Downfall of civilization! Moral turpitude! You know, that sort of thing.
- Anyway, what this means is that sexual discrimination is not only uncool, it's downright impossible.
- Of course, this makes trying to live with the Gethenians very difficult for cisgendered human beings.
Another Way Into Orgoreyn
- Okay, we're back in Ai's shoes, erm, perspective.
- Ai spends the summer traveling Karhide. He takes in the sights, investigates the Gethenian way of life, and wears—we imagine—one of those tacky tourist shirts with the camera constantly hanging around his neck. You know, just doing his thing.
- While staying in a place called Gorinhering, he hears a radio broadcast that the King is pregnant with an heir.
- No, that's not a typo.
- Beyond that, Tibe takes up most of the radio time as prime minister. He speechifies about patriotism for Karhide and distrust/hatred of other countries such as, oh, we don't know, Orgoreyn. In short, he has developed into quite the demagogue.
- With that thought, Ai decides it's time to head to Orgoreyn and chat with them as Envoy for the Ekumen.
- Ai hears a radio broadcast about a scuffle in the Sinoth Valley. He imagines full-on war might become a reality for the first time on Gethen, as Tibe sets himself up to reap the rewards.
- That night, a Gethenian visits Ai. It's Ashe, and he gives Ai the money he tried to give to Estraven in the first place. Ai agrees to pass it along to Estraven if they cross paths.
- Permission to enter Orgoreyn comes much sooner than Ai expects. He heads out, with a small detour to see this Sinoth Valley everyone keeps talking about.
- Because that sounds like a good idea, right?
- There, he crosses a bridge into Orgoreyn. After playing 20 questions with the inspectors, he's in.
- He finds a Commensal Transient-House, has a meal, and goes to bed. While sleeping, he has a bad dream, "the kind in which you run down a strange street in the dark with a lot of people who have no faces, while houses go up in flames behind you, and children scream" (8.50).
- Yikes. Can't say we've ever had one of those.
- Still in a dream, he ends up in an open field with his pack but without his pants and barefoot.
- At least he doesn't have to give a report naked in front of the whole class.
- And even in bad dreams, he still has his ansible and rubies.
- He follows a bunch of refugees to a communal farm-center. Wait, is this still a dream or has the dream bleed into reality? Was it ever a dream in the first place? Hmm, we'll have to read on.
- Orgoreyn officials interrogate the group. Those without papers, including Ai, are separated and sent to another room.
- Seems it wasn't all a bad dream after all. Some of it was just bad reality. Ai now lives with a bunch of other refugees who ended up here after being yanked out of their beds in the middle of the night.
- Ai overhears some people talking about how the city was attacked with guns and fire. No one complains.
- The door opens, and Ai is called out. Officials recognize him as the Envoy and give him new papers and a car.
- Sure, it only goes twenty-five miles per hour, but hey, better than the pants-less alternative.
- Ai drives to the city of Mishnory, listening to some tunes on the radio. He notices that no one mentions the attack. Otherwise, the drive seems pleasant, and Ai reaches his destination.
- In Mishnory, he drops off the car and heads to Commissioner Shusgis's house by either invitation or command; he's not sure.
- Shusgis sets Ai up in a sweet pad in his own building. It's warm, has electric heating, and even a hot shower. On Gethen, those alone equal an MTV Cribs level of opulence.
- His host lays it on a tad thick, claiming that Karhide was afraid of Ai and the changes he would bring. Not Orgoreyn, though. Orgoreyn can appreciate him.
- Ai knows a line when he hears one, but he plays it cool.
- Shusgis invites Ai to a bigwig get-together, so Ai showers, primps, and gets ready to mingle.
- At the dinner party, Ai meets the who's who of Orgoreyn. Obsle (remember him? The head of the Orgota Naval Trade Commission?) asks Ai questions about Earth, and Ai answers.
- Ai's answers blow his mind a little. What do you mean that some planets are composed entirely of deserts?
- Then Estraven enters the room. Ai tells him he has a message for Estraven in the form of money.
- Like us, Ai starts sensing that Estraven has planned this all along.
Estraven the Traitor
- Confusion Warning!
- In Gethenian society, Estraven is a land-name. It means "one who comes from Estre," sort of like being called "da Vinci."
- So, the Estraven from this story is not the same Estraven we know and love from Ai's story. His name is Arek although he is sometimes called Estraven because it's his birthplace.
- Still, the name is meant to clue us in that he connects somehow to Ai's Estraven. If not literally, then metaphorically or perhaps both.
- Okay, everyone on board? Let's get this chapter rolling.
- So, there's this blood feud between two lands, the Domain of Stok and the Domain of Estre.
- One day, the young Lord of Estre is skiing over Icefoot Lake when he falls through some rotten ice.
- He manages to free himself from the frigid water, but he's not out of trouble, yet. He wanders around, slowly freezing to death, until he comes to a small house.
- Like a pro, the house's owner quickly gets the young lord out of his wet clothes and next to a fire.
- If you think this sounds like the set up to a romantic comedy, you'd be right. Except about the comedy part.
- Turns out, the owner is Therem of Stok, mortal enemy of Arek, the Lord of Estre. They immediately fall in love with each other Romeo and Juliet-style.
- They spend a few days together in the cabin. Then a party of Stok men comes into the cabin. Evidently, no one taught them to knock first.
- They see Arek and kill him, effectively ending the honeymoon.
- Therem tells the men to take Arek's body to Estre for burial. The men just drop the body off somewhere, because they aren't stupid enough to take the person they killed to his powerful and presumably ticked-off father.
- But when Therem discovers their trickery, he has them banished. Then Therem disappears as quickly as Tom Green's career. Who's Tom Green?
- In the Domain of Estre, they search for Arek's body but find nothing. One day, a man arrives with a newborn baby. Surprise! It's Therem, son of Arek of Estre.
- The Lord of Estre agrees to raise the child and even keeps the name Therem. How they can tell it's actually Arek's son is anybody's guess. Maybe he had his father's nose or something.
- Years pass, and the baby grows up. He's named the heir of Estre, an idea the Lord's other children don't really cotton to. They try to ambush Therem, but the boy is apparently a Bruce-Lee-level fighter, as he kills all three of them.
- Wounded and getting weaker, Therem sees, guess what, a cabin. It's abandoned, so the boy enters it and collapses on the floor.
- A man comes to the cabin and tends Therem's wounds.
- When Therem comes to, he realizes that the man is Therem of Stok, his mother, er father, uh…birth parent?
- The two reach a peace agreement with each other. When Therem of Estre becomes king, he makes peace between the lands as well.
- The end.
Conversations in Mishnory
- After a late breakfast, Estraven comes to check on Ai. Ai gives him the money, more to get rid of him than anything else.
- Estraven suggests Ai needs information and advice. From him.
- The advice is simple: Ai is a tool and he needs to be careful because they will not use him well.
- What's with people calling this guy a tool?
- Then Estraven leaves before clarifying what it means, spoiling an otherwise decent morning for Ai. Typical.
- Ai has lunch with many of the Commensals of Orgoreyn. He meets a bunch of people with funny names, like Mersen, a spy for Tibe but one everyone knows about; and Gaum, an agent of the Sarf.
- News comes from Karhide that King Argaven's child was born and died that morning. Gaum cheers and others follow with a toast.
- Thankfully for our opinion of the Orgoreyns, some people think it's a little distasteful to cheer that a baby died.
- There is some discussion as to who will be Argaven's heir now, but the talk is interrupted by lunch.
- After the meal, the men question Ai. Since, after all, he's an alien.
- Ai can't believe how straightforward the Orgoreynians are with their questions. Some openly don't believe Ai's story, which would never happen in the much more proper Karhide society.
- Ai tells them about the Ekumen and how it isn't really a government so much as a society and culture of planets.
- To summarize: the planets help educate one another to advance themselves and each other. Like an intergalactic study group.
- When they ask why the Ekumen want to bring in Gethen, Ai answers that he is there to set up open trade. Trade in "goods, of course, knowledge, technology, ideas, philosophies, art, medicine, science, theory" and so on (10.34).
- The choice will also be available to all the countries on Gethen, not just Oregoreyn or Karhide.
- Ai mentions that he's got a ship orbiting around Gethen's sun. This causes quiet a stir. If movies have taught us anything, it's that people freak when they discover alien spaceships in orbit—what with the death rays and all.
- Ai thinks things are going well. He sees that some of the Commensals want to use him in a power grab, but Ai believes he can use their power hunger to his own advantage.
- Of course, he's asking them to swallow a huge belief pill, so the Commensals want proof.
- Ai tells them he can radio his spaceship and have it land. How's that for proof? All he needs is a guarantee of the ship and crew's safety, meaning a public announcement made by the whole board of Commensals.
- While driving home with Shusgis, Ai asks about Sarf. Oh, good, we've been wondering.
- It seems it's an administration tasked with dealing with information processing and, though left unsaid by Shusgis, control. A sci-fi Big Brother if you will.
- Ai finds it interesting and hilarious that the governments of Gethen are so similar to the ones of Earth's history. Anybody want to bet on whether those words will come back to bite him later?
- Then they start talking about Estraven. Shusgis doesn't know much, just that he's a traitor who now works for Yegey.
- Ai realizes that he hasn't felt cold since he arrived at Mishnory. He also feels the leaders of Orgoreyn are "not quite solid" (10.92). In the words of the famous Han Solo (and everyone else), he's got a bad feeling about this.
Soliloquies in Mishnory
- Another switch in perspective. This time, we're diving into Estraven's diary.
- Note that the entry dates are in Gethenian. You'll have to use the "Gethenian Calendar and Clock" appendix to solve the code, although it's not necessary.
Mishnory. Streth Susmy
- Estraven secretly works on Ai's behalf, colluding with Yegey and Obsle to help accomplish the Envoy's goal. Sarf, however, blocks information about Ai from the public and opposes his mission in general.
- Obsle and Yegey hope to win a majority of the 33 Commensals to their side. Anyone else get the feeling we're reading C-SPAN in space?
- Estraven is not hopeful their plan will work.
- Thanks to the money Ai brought him, Estraven now lives on his own.
- He remembers the time Ai gave it to him. He is amazed at the alien's ignorance although he admits it's a result of him being a total stranger to their ways.
- Estraven now spends his days working in a factory and practicing the "skills of stillness and fasting" (11.10). Why, we don't know, but we're willing to guess it isn't about getting his figure back.
- No word on the radio about Ai.
- Estraven wonders if Ai realizes that he is actually being hidden in plain sight.
- Another scuffle at the across the river Ey. Sarf gets what it wants + Tibe gets what he wants = everyone else loses (a.k.a. the War Equation).
- Commensal Slose sees mystical implications in Ai's message. He believes the second coming of their prophet Meshe will begin with the coming of the spacemen. So, Commensal Slose is basically the L. Ron Hubbard of this story.
- Estraven considers the notion that "to oppose something is to maintain it" (11.18).
- He writes that, if Karhide and Orgoreyn are going to stop feuding, they must move in directions not heading toward each other.
- Man, Estraven is even cryptic when no one is watching.
- Still no word of Ai on the radio, and no broadcast from Erhenrang ever reaches the Orgoreyn public.
- See, Sarf has complete control over all communications going in and out of Orgoreyn, and they don't like the Envoy. Not exactly a recipe for success.
- Estraven thinks this has less to do with fear of Ai (like Argaven had) but of how the other Commensals will use him against each other.
- Again, Ai's a complete tool in Estraven's mind.
- Obsle meets with Estraven, and Estraven implores him to get word out about Ai anyway he can.
- Obsle complains about Sarf's control over the radio and printed media. Too bad the Internet doesn't exist on this planet yet.
- Estraven counters that he should start people talking to get the gossip wheel moving along.
- Countering the counter with a counter, Obsle says Ai needs to bring his ship to the planet ASAP.
- When Obsle complains that Ai doesn't trust them, Estraven asks if he should. Obsle doesn't reply, evidently on the principle that if you don't have anything nice to say, you just should say anything at all.
- Estraven believes he must be the most honest politician in the whole Orgota government. (A regular politician will lie to your face, but an honest politician just keeps his mouth shut.)
- Gaum "accidently" runs into Estraven and invites him out for a cup of ale.
- He takes him to one of the Public Kemmerhouses and orders lifewater—the hard stuff—instead.
- Gaum then tries to seduce Estraven with all the subtlety of a WWE wrestler.
- Estraven declines but is bummed out that Gaum must have a really low opinion of him, to think he'd sell himself out so low.
- Estraven listens to a tape of Ai addressing the 33 Commensals, giving a transcript of the event from memory. It's impressive, really. We can't even remember where our keys are half the time, but he remembers what amounts to a Congressional hearing.
- The short and sweet of it: Ai wants to bring down the ship to prove his story but won't do it until the Commensality makes a public announcement on his behalf.
- Some of the 33 heckle Ai like he's a bad stand-up comedian. Kaharosile thinks Ai's playing a joke on them, and a public announcement would simply lead to a mockery of the government.
- Estraven finds his helplessness insufferable and is saddened that he can never "set [his] heart on a possible thing" (11.56).
- Ai has turned over his anisble for the Orgota government to look at, but Estraven doesn't believe it will change any minds. If they can't understand the device, they won't understand what it means.
- Estraven presses Obsle to have Ai get word to his ship, so the people aboard can chit-chat with the Commensals.
- Obsle says it's impossible since the Sarf control all radio transmissions and also want to see Ai fail.
- Although Estraven knows there are ways around the Sarf, he also realizes that Obsle fears for his job.
- Estraven bumps into Ai Gaum-style: the old "what a coincidence" meeting.
- He tells Ai that it might be wise to go over the heads of the Commensals and just call down the ship himself.
- Ai argues that it is not Estraven's business here in Orgoreyn. With that, Estraven simply says Ai's life is in danger and then leaves him.
- Again, Estraven, buddy, would it kill you to give a little more information to the whole "life in danger" thing?
- Estraven worries fear has undone Ai's mission once again and feels it his fault that it has come to this.
On Time and Darkness
- Another plotless chapter. This time, we have an excerpt from The Sayings of Tuhulme the High Priest, a book concerning the Yomesh of Orgoreyn.
- It reads like Biblical scripture meets the Tao Te Ching, so be prepared.
- The chapter starts by discussing how Meshe is the center of time.
- So, Meshe was a Foreteller. He had two lifetimes, and at the center of these lives was an event called the Seeing. All time before the Seeing leads up to the Seeing, and all time afterward leads away from it. Sounds…complicated.
- Since Meshe is at the center of time, he sees everything that was and everything that will be. Great if he's your Messiah; awful if he's your Tuesday night poker buddy.
- One day, a poor man came to Meshe distraught over a bad harvest. Meshe told him where to dig for a treasure buried by an ancient king.
- The poor man did so, and bam, insta-wealth.
- But Meshe is super bummed, because he also saw how the treasure's original owner was killed over those jewels, and he also saw how the poor man will die.
- How does he see so much? "The life of every man is in the Center of Time, for all were seen in the Seeing of Meshe, and are in his Eye" (12.5). Whoa, heavy.
- Another story of Meshe follows. There's a gigantic hemmen-tree with thousands of branches and millions of leaves. It keeps one leaf hidden for itself in the shadow, but when Meshe passes, he plucks that one leaf from the tree.
- Why does he take it? According to the Meshe religion, darkness is only for mortal men, not Meshe.
- So, darkness is a bad thing, directly contrasting to Gethen's other major religion, Handdarata.
- Feeling just a tad baffled? Click on over to the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section for more about the Gethenians' religion.
Down on the Farm
- Ai is a little freaked out that Estraven has suddenly reappeared knowing such much about him, so he hails a cab and rushes over to Obsle's place. Dude's not home. On to Yegey's house. No one's there. How about Slose? Nope.
- Snow begins to fall, and the taxi driver refuses to go any farther.
- Ai returns to Shusgis's house just in time for dinner. Shusgis tells him everyone is at the Yomesh festival of Solemnity, so they'll be out all night.
- Ai passes up supper and goes to bed. He awakens to strangers telling him he's under arrest.
- Oh, man, who hasn't been there, right?
- He has the right to have no rights and just come with them.
- On account of having no rights, Ai does what he's told.
- At Kundershaden Prison, Ai tries to tell the guards that Obsle will vouch for him. The guards more or less inform him that, actually, no one's going to vouch for him, because they've all betrayed him.
- After a good old-fashioned drugging, Ai is interrogated to the point of unconsciousness and wakes up in a truck heading…somewhere probably unpleasant.
- He's naked with twenty-six Gethenians, who are equally naked. They have no provisions, and no one talks.
- In the night, one of the prisoners bleeds to death. Ai keeps the man's head on his lap to ease his suffering.
- When the truck stops the next day, everyone starts yelling that, hey, there's a body in here, and could you please remove it? Instead, the truck just sets off again.
- Like we said, this is going to be unpleasant.
- The group forms an interesting dynamic. No one asks for help or even says anything. But when water is finally supplied, no one takes more than his fair share.
- During the cold nights, they huddle together for warmth and instinctively give those weak to the cold, like Ai, the center section—like penguins.
- One of the Gethenians enters kemmer and is drawn to Ai, wanting comfort. Ai says it is "[t]he one time any one of them asked anything of me, and I couldn't give it" (13.20).
- It's a super depressing scene.
- On the fifth morning, the truck stops, and the prisoners are herded out. They're lead to a camp where they are given breakfast and clothes and then sent to work.
- Ai gets a job at a sawmill, moving lumber from the mill to the storage shed.
- The place is called Pulefen Commensality Third Voluntary Farm and Resettlement Agency. Evidently the Orgoreyn government has a sick sense of humor.
- History FTW: Like most science fiction writers, Le Guin draws her inspiration from actual events. In the case of the Voluntary farms, she's working from the model of gulags, forced labor camps created during Russia's Soviet Union era.
- Everything runs smoothly, in party because the Gethenians are given drugs to eliminate their kemmer cycles. They're basically eunuchs.
- Ai and other prisoners undergo examinations where they are given drugs for questioning and anti-kemmer shots. Ai's human body doesn't take so well to the drugs on account of he's, well, human.
- Eventually, the guards just leave him on the sleeping-shelf with an infirm Gethenian named Asra. Asra is slowly dying from a kidney infection, so obviously he's great company.
- The two talk to keep their minds off the fact that they're in a prison camp.
- Ai asks Asra to tell him Gethen myths and tales. Maybe this is where all the non-story chapters came from?
- Asra asks Ai for stories as well. Ai tells him of far-off planets where the inhabitants have learned to fly. Crazy, right?
- Actually, for a Gethenian, yeah it is.
- He also talks about when the Hainish came to Earth and taught humanity how to travel to other worlds. This is also pretty hard for Asra to imagine.
- When he gets to the part where people are in kemmer 24/7, Asra laughs like its an old joke. On Gethen, it is. He wonders if such a world would be a punishment or a reward.
- Ai asks him what world this one is, and Asra says it's neither. You just get born into it.
- Well, no Ai. A little regretfully, Ai says that he chose this world.
- A few nights later, Asra dies.
- The next day, the guards carry Ai into his examination.
- Back to Estraven.
- Unlike Ai, he knows what it means when Obsle, Yegey, and Slose all leave town, so he takes action rather than wait for the midnight train to labor camp.
- He heads to Shusgis's house and lies like nobody's business. He tells Shusgis he's a spy from Karhide planning to assassinate Tibe. If Shusgis doesn't give him the information he wants, Estraven will tell everyone he's a double agent.
- Naturally, Shusgis talks.
- Estraven sets a plan into motion. He asks a favor of a friend in the Royal Embassy, Sardon rem ir Chenewich.
- Chenewich agrees to get a message to King Argaven regarding the whole situation, although what that crazy king will do is anyone's guess.
- Estraven jumps ship. He forges papers and works his way across Orgoreyn as a carry-loader on a landship.
- He realizes he has to hurry. Winter is coming to Gethen, and Ai's body will do about as well in the arctic weather as, well, a human in the arctic.
- In an Ethwen Transient-House, Estraven hears talk of fur traders in the area and decides that's the ticket.
- After buying "skis, snowshoes, traps, and provisions" and picking up a hunter's license (14.7), he joins a party of hunters lead by a guy named Mavriva.
- In the town of Turuf, he ducks out of the party by pretending to be sick.
- Wonder if he used the classic "heat the thermometer with a light bulb" trick?
- Estraven heads north, gets the lay of the land, and hides his gear.
- Then back to town to buy a second set of gear. This thing's quickly turning to the science fiction version of The Great Escape here.
- Estraven is totally McQueen. You know, Steve McQueen…. Oh, just Google it already.
- J/K. We would never make you Google something yourselves. The Great Escape. You won't be sorry.
- Finally, Estraven just waltzes up to the Voluntary Farm and hands them more forged papers. (He's getting really good at the whole forgery thing.)
- These new papers say he's been sent for a stint as a prison guard.
- Dinner is over, so Estraven goes to the kitchen to ask the cook for a bite to eat. There, he spies the cook's stun gun and decides to gank it.
- He gets a guard to give him a tour of the camp. Bathrooms on your left, depressed prisoners on your right, and an alien creature from another planet over there.
- Estraven is given the graveyard shift where it's just him and another dimwitted guard wandering about. He prepares himself to enter dothe (i.e., a state allowing him to perform super acts of super strength).
- It's go time.
- He stuns Ai in the head to knock him out and pretends he's dead. The other guard says to dump him outside.
- Taking a side trip to the inspection office, Estraven casually shuts off the electric fence. Then, he just walks out.
- Okay, this plan actually seems pretty simple. Is it seriously this easy to break someone out of Voluntary Farming?
- He heads to his provision cache and loads Ai onto the sled, covering him up with some convenient piles of fur.
- When the men from the Voluntary Farm show up, they only see Estraven the trapper. After all, it's what his papers say.
- Estraven sets up camp and tries to return Ai back to health. Two things to note: Estraven is in thangen (a weakened state from using dothe), and Ai is still drugged out of his skull.
- For a few days and nights, it snows, and Estraven tries to help Ai, who is currently in a delusional state due to a massively bad trip. It gets so bad that Estraven worries they mindchanged him.
- Eventually, Ai wakes up to recognize Estraven. He's still weak, but his mind is back.
- The two talk. Ai learns that Estraven was brought up in the Handdara religion, hence the reason he can go into dothe mode.
- Ai doesn't understand why he went through all the trouble though.
- Estraven is mad about this at first, but then he remembers just how foreign Ai is to his culture.
- See, it was his fault all this happened to Ai. He initially tried to protect him from Tibe's power grab but failed. Then he tried to protect Ai in Orgoreyn by gathering friends to his cause. Again failure.
- He's done all this because he believes in Ai's mission and thinks that the Ekumen will be able to save the Gethenians from themselves.
- His greatest error was not making himself clear to Ai (you think?).
- Ai accepts the apology and agrees to teach Estraven the lie-free language of mindspeech.
To the Ice
- Ai wakes up and is still pretty excited about not being at the Voluntary Farm anymore.
- They discuss their travel plans. Stowing away on a ship is out, because ships rarely leave the coast during winter.
- Hanging out in Orgoreyn doesn't hold many pleasing prospects either. So, it's off to Karhide.
- Oh, and they'll have to walk. Roads aren't an option because of the Orgoreyn's inspectors, and travel agencies don't seem to exist on Gethen.
- Aaand, they'll need to cross the Ice, a giant glacial desert.
- Hey, if it were easy, no one would want to read it. You know, took a nice stroll through some bucolic pastures, hung out with some sheep, and then walked on into Karhide. Not too thrilling, right?
- Estraven heads out for more supplies while Ai stays behind to practice walking in snowshoes.
- Trust us, it's harder than you'd think.
- At twilight the next day, Estraven returns. He's loaded down with a sack of dried goods. Ai asks how he managed to get the stuff, and he says he stole it (a vile crime in Gethenian society).
- Estraven considers the food, the "hyper-food," the distance, the weather—basically everything—to determine they can make the 800 mile trip back to Karhide in 78 days.
- Quick math: that's about 10 miles a day. Not bad if you're traipsing through a sunny field, but a lot harder if you're crossing a glacial desert.
- He asks Ai one more time if he can't call down his ship, but they realize it won't work. Obsle still has his ansible, and using an Orgota transmitter would alert Sarf to their presence.
- Nope, it's into the wild with them.
- They spend a day resting, storing up their energy. Estraven writes in his journal and asks Ai why there aren't two Envoys.
- He originally thinks they must not value life, but Ai points out that two Envoys might be seen as an invasion, plus it means two lives are at stake instead of one. So, actually, they do value life. Just not Ai's.
- Finally, it's time to start. The first day, they manage fifteen miles even though the sledge is constantly getting stuck in the snow.
- That night, they talk some more.
- And, yes, this will be the story's plot pattern for some time.
- Ai learns Estraven has traveled by sledge before—reassuring to say the least.
- The two become better friends, deciding to call each other by their first names, Ai and Harth.
- Ai questions whether he can be friends with a being who could turn into a lover with the cycle of each moon. He's old school like that.
- The next day they set off again. When they reach the Tarrenpeth Forest, Estraven sets up traps. He's hunting for food.
- Luckily, Gethen has no large predators. If you've seen Liam Neeson in The Grey, you know just how lucky they are not to have a pack of wolves stalking them across the glacier.
- They catch six pesthrys—some kind of tasty mammal that everyone likes to hunt—and Estraven makes a stew. Delicious!
- Protein for the power surge! Ai is unstoppable the next day, until the stew starts to disagree with him.
- Great. Ai is officially sick, and Estraven orders a stop.
- Ai takes offense to his friend ordering him about particularly since Estraven looks physically more like a woman than a man. Sexist much?
- Eventually, he realizes that Estraven wasn't patronizing him. Well, that's a relief.
- It's raining, too, and they can only make about six and seven miles a day.
- Eventually, the rain clouds ease and disappear. Finally, they reach the top of a high plateau and can see out into the horizon.
- In the distance they see the Gobrin Glacier—aka the Ice. It's beautiful from up there, but it's not going to look so beautiful when they're trying to cross it.
Between Drumner and Dremegole
- It's time to treat ourselves to some more of Estraven's journal.
- Ai asks Estraven what the journal is for. Estraven tells him it's for the Records of his family's domain.
- This leads to a conversation about Ai's family, who are seventy years dead. Estraven is amazed by this fact since Ai is only thirty-ish, but Ai explains that faster than light travel means time passes by slower when he's traveling on a spaceship.
- Science Snackaroo: Ursula K. Le Guin is playing off The Twin Paradox, a famous thought experiment by some guy named Albert Einstein. Maybe you've heard of him. We could detail it here, but wouldn't you rather watch a cartoon explaining the whole thing? We thought so.
- Estraven realizes both of them are exiles in their own way.
- Actually, Ai points out, in a way they both became exiles for the other. That's, um, sweet?
- The two travel into a volcanic wilderness. Of course, the volcanoes are active and spitting out ash and smoke. What kind of adventure would it be otherwise? (Answer: a comfy one.)
- They discover the straight path to the Ice won't work. The grade is too steep and the rocks too loose. They'll have to go way out of their way between the two volcanoes.
- Light blizzard. No traveling; time to catch up on reruns of House. Oh, yeah, and sleep.
- More snow. Another stay-in-bed day.
- Ai teaches Estraven how to play the ancient Chinese game of Go.
- Estraven discovers just how poorly drawn his map is. How poorly? It's missing a whole mountain.
- We've had similar experiences with Google Maps, to be honest.
- Although the food supplies seem almost depleted, it's just because they've eaten through the heavy stuff. That's actually a relief, since the sledge is now easier to pull.
- The bare rocks force them to put the wheels on the sledge. The same bare rocks promptly break the stupid wheel.
- The volcano Drumner is currently active. The air tastes of sulphur and the sun is blotted out.
- On the plus side, the volcanic activity pushes CO2 into the atmosphere. This means the planet may eventually reach an average of 72 degrees.
- Not that it'll be any help to our heroes anytime soon.
- The volcanic activity continues to make the going tough.
- And when the going gets tough, the tough get frostbite.
- At any rate, Ai does. He develops a touch of frostbite in his face, but Estraven massages it away, and there's no permanent damage.
- The two discover they have farther to go than they though as the volcano grows more violent around them.
- Now they have to decide whether to follow "the glacier on its long sweep westward and so up gradually onto the plateau ice, or [climb] the ice-cliffs" (16.25).
- Ai thinks they should man up and climb.
- Estraven is amazed someone who's so susceptible to cold could be otherwise so strong.
- And climb they do. They also fail.
- Estraven notes that this would be a very bad place to get injured.
- If one of them breaks their leg, both of them will die.
- Pro tip: always carry your cell phone when you go out to climb ice cliffs.
- They try another spot on the ice cliff and fail again. They have to head farther west.
- Ai is mad at the failure, and Estraven recollects how odd it is that Ai should find crying shameful.
- Still no luck, and the travelers are moving farther and farther from their goal.
- Ai is impatient with the slow progress, but Estraven keeps his temper in check. He'll be in kemmer in a few days, which should prove…interesting.
- They finally make it on the Gobrin Glacier. Ai is overjoyed, and Estraven is pretty pleased himself.
- Sure, they still have to worry about plummeting to death in the crevasses but whatever. At least they're on their way.
- They begin to make better time but not without minor peril.
- Estraven slips on the ice Home Alone 2 style, and Ai laughs. It hurts the Gethenian's feelings at first until Ai explains he thought himself the only man who fell on Gethen.
- They keep up the pace but they're still behind.
- Estraven is in kemmer and having difficulty ignoring Ai's full-time kemmerness.
- When Ai asks what's wrong, Estraven has to tell him about the kemmer.
- Ai talks of loneliness. He imagines the Gethenians find their planet lonely: there are only a few other species, and none of them are even as intelligent as a dog.
- They talk about singularity, dualism, and wholeness. It's super important to the book thematically, so check it out (16.44).
- Estraven notes that even though Gethenians are undivided in sex, they are still dualist since there is the self and the other.
- Ai tries to explain the difference between human men and women. He finds he can't do so beyond a very basic anatomy lesson.
- Well, Ai, maybe you can't explain them because they're a very numerous set of incredibly diverse individuals. Just like men.
- Nope. In the end, Ai says that women are more alien to him than the Gethenians.
- And you wonder why not everybody was too into Le Guin's portrayal of gender.
- The two make good time, moving light and fast.
An Orgota Creation Myth
- And what a creation myth it is. Be sure to check the whole shebang in your book. The details are lost in paraphrase.
- Okay, in the beginning there is only sun and ice on the whole planet, but one day the sun melts the ice. Three shapes are melted from the ice and fall into an abyss.
- The shapes eventually crawl back onto the ice. One shape uses the sun's excrement (delicious) to make the land. Another breathes onto the ice, melting it and making rivers and oceans. The final one creates the plants, trees, animals, and people.
- The sun melts the three shapes, and the people drink them and come to life.
- The first to wake up, Edondurath, is a giant and one mean jerk. He kills 36 of the original people by hulk-smashing them with his fist.
- One named Haharath runs, but Edondurath catches up with him. Care to guess what happens? Yep, he's smashed too.
- When Edondurath returns, he finds the last person has escaped.
- He constructs a house from the frozen bodies of his fellow humans, clearly not considering the limited market value of a house built with corpses.
- Edondurath enters kemmer while sleeping. The escapee comes back to the house, and the two couple. This is where all the people of Gethen come from.
- Happy ending? Not quite.
- Since the Gethenians were born in a (literal) house of flesh, death follows them everywhere.
On the Ice
- Ai thinks back to his time on the Ice. Okay, so maybe he wasn't exactly happy, but he considers it a joyful turning point nonetheless.
- Their days basically go like this: Ai wakes up first and cooks their breakfast of the gichy-michy "hyper-food." Doesn't it just sound delicious? Mmm.
- They eat, pack up, and fold the tent, and then they're off for another day of traipsing across the giant glacier.
- Some things to watch out for: (1) sunlight reflecting off the snow and causing snow-blindness; (2) wind that feels like razor blades to breathe; (3) their nostrils and eyes freezing shut.
- They pull all day in these conditions. Can you even imagine it? Most of us get frustrated when we have to leave our cars to pick up dinner.
- Sometimes, Ai is so tired that he doesn't even want to go to the effort of setting up camp. You get the sense that Ai would have survived, like, three days on his own.
- Thankfully, Estraven makes sure everything is done properly, so they can avoid the whole freezing-to-death thing.
- Inside the tend, they forget the day's travels, cuddle up (not literally), and talk.
- Fifty days of this. Wow.
- Important point: they never tried to have sex. Ai really emphasizes this, so let's assume it's important and not a case of too much information.
- During Estraven's kemmer, Ai sees his friend as "a woman as well as a man" (18.28). But the two are careful not to touch, since Ai believes sex would only lead them to be aliens to each other once again.
- Instead, Ai teaches Estraven mindspeech.
- Ai tries to communicate with his friend for a few days using only his mind, but there is nothing. Estraven seems mindspeech deaf.
- But when asleep, Ai connects with him. What's weird is that Estraven doesn't hear Ai's voice but the voice of Arek, his brother.
- Ai can't explain this.
- Estraven tries to contact Ai using mindspeech and manages to say "Genry" (even in his mind, he can't hit the "r" of Genly's name).
- Inside Information: Ai mentions the "first Educers" centuries back on "Rokanon's World" (18.76). He's alluding to the events of Rocannon's World, Le Guin's first novel and the first novel in her Hainish Cycle.
- We've got a "Brain Snack" connecting all the Hainish Cycle books together, so check that out if you're interested.
- The mindspeech helps bond Ai and Estraven further, although it is an "obscure and austere" bond (18.76).
- Appropriate given how obscure that comment is.
- Estraven begins eating less and less of the food. Ai argues against this, but his friend tells him he's been practicing starvation since he was a child. It's the Gethenian way.
- A blizzard comes, so bad that Ai can't see Estraven, who's a mere six feet away. For two days the storm bellows. The food supply dwindles dangerously low.
- Estraven lets Ai know he contacted King Argaven before the rescue. He tells Ai that for their plan to work he must contact his spaceship as soon as he possibly can. Anything else will give the tables a chance to turn.
- The next day, the two head out of their tent and into nothing. Seriously, nothing: just dull light and no shadow.
- This is actually a problem. Without shadows, the travelers are effectively blind and can't tell where the crevasses are.
- So, the journey's immense physical toll takes on an immense mental toll, because every step could be a death drop.
- One day, black tentacles creep out of the void and toward them. They turn out to be the shadows from Esherhoth Crages. They are miles away, but Ai thought them right beside him. That's pretty creepy.
- The map shows them to be "somewhat north of [their] shortest course" (18.109). But then again, can they even trust the map?
- The companions are getting tired. Yeah, so are we. But at least we're not on a glacier full of rotting ice, sunken pits, and false floors.
- One time, Ai is pushing the sledge when it stops dead. And Estraven is gone.
- Actually, he's in a death trap of a crevasse, and only alive because Ai was still holding onto the sledge.
- Estraven asks Ai to choose the path, but Ai breaks down with fear. He cries.
- Yeah, time to set up camp and be done with this day.
- In the tent, Estraven talks about how they need both shadows and light to walk safely. Hey, that reminds Ai of something! He takes Estraven's journal and draws a yin-yang in it. Light and dark.
- Days later, a whopper of a blizzard hits—three days of a deafening, madness-inducing sound.
- After the blizzard breaks, they have another day of traveling. Estraven busts out full rations to beef up their strength before it gives out (and with hopes the food doesn't give out either).
- On their seventy-fifth day, they step off the Ice and onto Guthen Bay.
- 840 miles, and they're finally nearing civilization.
- Entering a house in Kurkurast Domain, Estraven asks for hospitality. The Gethenians bring food and welcome them openly.
- Using his shifgrethor (something like "honor" or "prestige"), Estraven manages to conceal their identities and true reason for crossing the ice, all without insulting their hosts.
- Estraven may be a wanted man, but he's still a deft politician.
- When they've recovered a little, Ai and Estraven decide to head to the border. Estraven can then sneak back into Orgoreyn, and Ai can use the transmitter in Sassinoth to contact his spaceship. Compared to their last journey, it will be a 150-mile walk in the park.
- Ai agrees, but only if Argaven revokes Estraven's banishment before Karhide can join the Ekumen.
- During their last two days in Kurkurast, Estraven delights his hosts with stories of their travels across the glacier.
- It takes them eight days of easy travel to reach the border.
- Estraven calls on an old friend of his, Thessicher. Thessicher doesn't love having public enemy number one under his roof, but he eventually agrees to hide Estraven until he can safely cross the border.
- Ai leaves Estraven the next day and skis to the College of Trades in Sassinoth. There, E.T. phones home. So to speak.
- By the time the message is sent, the snow is falling so hard that he can't get back. The College puts Ai up for the night.
- The next morning, on his way to Thessicher's farm, Ai meets Estraven unexpectedly.
- Seems Thessicher pulled a Judas and sold out his friend.
- The two hide in the woods and recon the situation at the border. No guards on the Orgoreyn side, but the two guards on the Karhide side are packing heat.
- The two huddle for warmth and wait for darkness. It reminds Ai of being inside the tent again.
- Ai suddenly realizes what his "selfishness and Estraven's silence had kept from [him], where [Estraven] was going and what he was getting into" (19.107). In other words, he finally realizes that Estraven is a really good friend and tries to stop him.
- Too late. Estraven sprints for the border, and the guards gun him down.
- Ai holds his friend until he dies, and the two are separated one last time. Ai goes to jail, Estraven "into the dark" (19.108).
A Fool's Errand
- Ai is taken to Sassinoth and imprisoned, but, hey, it's not so bad. He even gets his own physician.
- The physician prescribes rest, but when Ai sleeps, he always finds himself back in the truck.
- Ai assumes he had a bad fever during this time because he can remember very little.
- He remembers suggesting that Estraven might have committed suicide, a notion the physician baulks at. The physician believes suicide and being a traitor weren't Estraven's style.
- In other news:
- The King learns of the ship's imminent arrival. That's kept secret but the rest of Ai's story and return is freely reported across Karhide's airways.
- In Orgoreyn, Obsle's party takes over the Commensals once it's learned the spaceship will arrive in Karhide.
- Tibe resigns, deciding to quit the game rather than lose it outright.
- And King Argaven summons Ai.
- Caught up on current affairs? Excellent. Moving on:
- At the palace, Ai reunites with the Foreteller Faxe the Weaver. It seems Faxe was elected to office in Ai's absence and is rising fast in politics
- Good luck, Faxe. Karhide politicians seem to fall rather quickly.
- During his audience with the King, Ai notices Argaven looks "unwell, and old […] like a woman who has lost her baby, like a man who has lost his son" (20.31).
- Ai tells Argaven that the spaceship is inbound with only eleven crew, nothing to be afraid of.
- Argaven mentions he is no longer afraid of Ai (and by proxy the Ekumen). He even suggests Ai was in his service the whole time—though it's really not clear what this means.
- Ai defends Estraven's actions, claiming each served the same master, mankind.
- When asked if he will lift the exile charge, Argaven tells Ai not yet. Ai accepts, breaking his promise to Estraven.
- Ai prepares for the arrival of his shipmates.
- When the ship lands, Faxe is with Ai to greet the new visitors. He says he's happy to have lived to see this day, mirroring Estraven's words from when they saw the Ice on the plateau.
- A woman named Lang Heo Hew is the first to exit the ship. She and Faxe both do the classic "We Come in Peace" thing.
- Although Ai is happy to see his shipmate, he's amazed at how different she looks to him. Three years have past, but she's the same age as before.
- Imagine how awkward high school reunions must be in this universe.
- She's also the first woman he's seen in three years, a concept now perfectly alien to him.
- At the end of spring, the Ekumen envoys travel across Gethen to start building relationships for the next seventeen years (it'll be that long before the next ship arrives).
- Ai returns to Horden Island, where he first landed his ship. But this is only a pit stop. His destination is Estre, Estraven's home.
- A young man named Sorve Harth admits Ai into Estre. Ai meets Esvans Harth rem ir Estraven, Estraven's father.
- Ai can't see his friend in his father's face and feels his chance at receiving solace from the visit is impossible.
- Instead, he gives Esvans his son's journals to add to the archives.
- Sorve suddenly asks if they still call him Estraven the Traitor in Erhenrang, and Esvans introduces the young man as his son's son, the offspring of Arek and Estraven.
- Estraven's father desires to hear the tale of how the two crossed the ice, while Estraven's son wants to know how his father died and what kind of men live in the stars.
- Guess that's why Genly wrote this book, hm?