The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

by

Ursula K. Le Guin

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The planet on which the novel takes place. It is in the middle of an Ice Age, and much of its culture and customs have developed around preserving life in an essentially inhospitable environment. Residents are called Gethenians. The planet is called Winter by the Ekumen.

Gethen Quotes in The Left Hand of Darkness

The The Left Hand of Darkness quotes below are all either spoken by Gethen or refer to Gethen. For each quote, you can also see the other terms and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Truth and Storytelling Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Ace Books edition of The Left Hand of Darkness published in 1987.
Chapter 1  Quotes

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story.

Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:
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Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own. Thus as I sipped my smoking sour beer I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of him as a woman, that dark, ironic, powerful presence near me in the firelit darkness, and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture: in him, or in my own attitude towards him? His voice was soft and rather resonant but not deep, scarcely a man’s voice, but scarcely a woman’s voice either…but what was it saying?

Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
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“I’m afraid that Argaven also believes you. But he does not trust you. In part because he no longer trusts me. I have made mistakes, been careless. I cannot ask for your trust any longer, either, having put you in jeopardy. I forgot what a king is, forgot that the king in his own eyes is Karhide, forgot what patriotism is and that he is, of necessity, the perfect patriot. Let me ask you this, Mr. Ai: do you know, by your own experience, what patriotism is?”
“No,” I said, shaken by the force of that intense personality suddenly turning itself wholly upon me. “I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”
“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year. We’ve followed our road too far. And you, who come from a world that outgrew nations centuries ago, who hardly know what I’m talking about, who show us the new road—” He broke off. After a while he went on, in control again, cool and polite: “It’s because of fear that I refuse to urge your cause with the king, now. But not fear for myself, Mr. Ai. I’m not acting patriotically. There are, after all, other nations on Gethen.”

Page Number: 19
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Chapter 5 Quotes

“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomes, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion…. Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”

Related Characters: Faxe (speaker), Genly Ai
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 7 Quotes

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…“tied down to childbearing,” implies that no one is quite so thoroughly “tied down” here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be—psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.
…Consider: There is no unconsenting sex, no rape. As with most mammals other than man, coitus can be performed only by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible. Seduction certainly is possible, but it must have to be awfully well timed.
Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

Related Characters: Ong Tot Oppong (speaker), Genly Ai
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:
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Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as “it.” They are not neuters. They are potentials or integrals. Lacking the Karhidish “human pronoun” used for persons in somer, I must say “he,” for the same reasons as we use the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine. But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman.
The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

Related Characters: Ong Tot Oppong (speaker), Genly Ai
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 8 Quotes

Argaven was not sane; the sinister incoherence of his mind darkened the mood of his capital; he fed on fear. All the good of his reign had been done by his ministers and the kyorremy. But he had not done much harm. His wrestles with his own nightmares had not damaged the Kingdom. His cousin Tibe was another kind of fish, for his insanity had logic. Tibe knew when to act, and how to act. Only he did not know when to stop.
Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn, vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “Integrity of the Kingdom’s borders,” lectures in history and ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige. Had Karhide lost so much prestige in the Sinoth Valley business that the subject could not be brought up? No; for he often talked about the Sinoth Valley. I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something that the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”

Page Number: 107
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Chapter 10 Quotes

If you play against your own side you’ll lose the whole game. That’s what these fellows with no patriotism, only self-love, can’t see.

Page Number: 153
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Chapter 15 Quotes

…Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and river and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession…Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.

Page Number: 227
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I was galled by his patronizing. He was a head shorter than I, and built more like a woman than a man, more fat than muscle; when we hauled together I had to shorten my pace to his, hold in my strength so as not to out-pull him: a stallion in harness with a mule—
“You’re no longer ill, then?”
“No. Of course I’m tired. So are you.”
“Yes, I am,” he said. “I was anxious about you. We have a long way to go.”
He had not meant to patronize. He had thought me sick, and sick men take orders. He was frank, and expected a reciprocal frankness that I might not be able to supply. He, after all, had no standards of manliness, of virility, to complicate his pride.
On the other hand, if he could lower all his standards of shifgrethor, as I realized he had done with me, perhaps I could dispense with the more competitive elements of my masculine self-respect, which he certainly understood as little as I understood shifgrethor…

Related Characters: Genly Ai (speaker), Therem Harth rem ir Estraven (Estraven) (speaker)
Page Number: 235
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Chapter 16 Quotes

There is a frailty about him. He is all unprotected, exposed, vulnerable, even to his sexual organ, which he must carry always outside himself; but he is strong, unbelievably strong. I am not sure he can keep hauling any longer than I can, but he can haul harder and faster than I—twice as hard. He can lift the sledge at front or rear to ease it over an obstacle. I could not lift and hold that weight, unless I was in dothe. To match his frailty and strength, he has a spirit easy to despair and quick to defiance: a fierce impatient courage. This slow, hard, crawling work we have been doing these days wears him out in body and will, so that if he were one of my race I should think him a coward, but he is anything but that; he has a ready bravery I have never seen the like of. He is ready, eager, to stake life on the cruel quick test of the precipice.
“Fire and fear, good servants, bad lords.” He makes fear serve him. I would have let fear lead me around by the long way. Courage and reason are with him. What good seeking the safe course, on a journey such as this? There are senseless courses, which I shall not take; but there is no safe one.

Page Number: 246
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After all he is no more an oddity, a sexual freak, than I am; up here on the Ice each of us is singular, isolate, I as cut off from those like me, from my society and its rules, as he from his. There is no world full of other Gethenians here to explain and support my existence. We are equals at last, equal, alien, alone. He did not laugh, of course. Rather he spoke with a gentleness that I did not know was in him. After a while he too came to speak of isolation, of loneliness.

Related Characters: Genly Ai (speaker), Therem Harth rem ir Estraven (Estraven) (speaker)
Page Number: 250
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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.

Related Symbols: Shadows
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:
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After he had stared a long time at the glowing stove, he shook his head. “Harth,” he said, “I can’t tell you what women are like. I never thought about it much in the abstract, you know, and—God!—by now I’ve practically forgotten. I’ve been here two years….You don’t know. In a sense, women are more alien to me than you are. With you I share one sex, anyhow….” He looked away and laughed, rueful and uneasy. My own feelings were complex, and we let the matter drop.

Related Characters: Genly Ai (speaker), Therem Harth rem ir Estraven (Estraven) (speaker)
Page Number: 253
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Chapter 18 Quotes

And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me entire personal loyalty, and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance. I had not been willing to give it. I had been afraid to give it. I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.

Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 19 Quotes

“Fear’s very useful. Like darkness; like shadows.” Estraven’s smile was an ugly split in a peeling, cracked brown mask, thatched with black fur and set with two flecks of black rock. “It’s queer that daylight’s not enough. We need the shadows, in order to walk.”
“Give me your notebook a moment.”
He had just noted down our day’s journey and done some calculation of mileage and rations. He pushed the little tablet and carbon-pencil around the Chabe stove to me. On the blank leaf glued to the inner back cover I drew the double curve within the circle, and blacked the yin half of the symbol, then pushed it back to my companion. “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, and on Hain-Davenant, and on Chiffewar. 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.”

Related Characters: Genly Ai (speaker), Therem Harth rem ir Estraven (Estraven) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Shadows
Page Number: 286
Explanation and Analysis:
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We stayed two more days in Kurkurast, getting well fed and rested, waiting for a road-packer that was due in from the south and would give us a lift when it went back again. Our hosts got Estraven to tell them the whole tale of our crossing of the Ice. He told it as only a person of an oral-literature tradition can tell a story, so that it became a saga, full of traditional locutions and even episodes, yet exact and vivid, from the sulphurous fire and dark of the pass between Drumner and Dremegole to the screaming gusts from the mountain-gaps that swept the Bay of Guthen; with comic interludes, such as his fall into the crevasse, and mystical ones, when he spoke of the sounds and silences of the Ice, of the shadowless weather, of the night’s darkness. I listened as fascinated as all the rest, my gaze on my friend’s dark face.

Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 20 Quotes

“Why the devil did he cheat me?” he demanded in his high strident voice, and for the first time looked straight at me.
“Who?” I said, sending back his stare.
“Estraven.”
“He saw to it that you didn’t cheat yourself. He got me out of sight when you began to favor a faction unfriendly to me. He brought me back to you when my return would in itself persuade you to receive the Mission of the Ekumen, and the credit for it.”
“Why did he never say anything about this larger ship to me?”
“Because he didn’t know about it: I never spoke to anyone of it until I went to Orgoreyn.”
“And a fine lot you chose to blab to there, you tow. He tried to get the Orgota to receive your Mission. He was working with their Open Traders all along. You’ll tell me that was not betrayal?”
“It was not. He knew that, whichever nation first made alliance with the Ekumen, the other would follow soon: as it will: as Sith and Perunter and the Archipelago will also follow, until you find unity. He loved his country very dearly, sir, but he did not serve it, or you. He served the master I serve.”
“The Ekumen?” said Argaven, startled.
“No. Mankind.”
As I spoke I did not know if what I said was true. True in part; an aspect of the truth. It would be no less true to say that Estraven’s acts had risen out of pure personal loyalty, a sense of responsibility and friendship towards one single human being, myself. Nor would that be the whole truth.

Page Number: 315
Explanation and Analysis:
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Gethen Term Timeline in The Left Hand of Darkness

The timeline below shows where the term Gethen appears in The Left Hand of Darkness. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1 
Truth and Storytelling Theme Icon
Genly Ai has written a report describing his time on the planet Gethen. He explains he will present this report as a story, which will best present the... (full context)
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...out and he is briefly hot—a sensation, he notes, he will never feel again on Gethen.   (full context)
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
As Ai walks home he is noticed by native Gethenians, who recognize him by his height. Although this recognition is part of his job, he... (full context)
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...feels like he is constantly eating, but notes that he will soon discover that “the Gethenians have perfected the technique not only of perpetually stuffing, but also of indefinitely starving.” (full context)
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
Although Ai has been on Gethen for two years, he admits he has trouble seeing Gethenians “through their own eyes” as... (full context)
Chapter 2
Truth and Storytelling Theme Icon
...driven out not because of the incest, but because suicide is a high crime in Gethen, and the incest became shameful because it led to suicide. (full context)
Chapter 3
Truth and Storytelling Theme Icon
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...up the morning of his meeting with the King and nervously reviews his notes on Gethenian psychology and manners. He reminds himself that his job as Envoy is designed for a... (full context)
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...Argaven doesn’t understand what Ai wants, even as Ai explains that he wants to add Gethen to a vast trade network coordinated by the Ekumen. Argaven is used to speaking politically,... (full context)
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
...of the same Hearth.” He shows the King images of people from across the universe. Gethen’s sexual development is unique, and Argaven is disturbed by photographs of men and women, people... (full context)
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...feel, to him, like a few hours on a spaceship, and generations would pass on Gethen, at which point he could return and try again. Argaven sees this, together with Ai’s... (full context)
Chapter 5
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
...contested Sinoth Valley. Ai reflects that anywhere else, this behavior would lead to war, but Gethenians, lacking the capacity to “mobilize” militarily, instead behave “like animals” or at least “like women.”... (full context)
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...four days. He reflects that while people on Terra feel they need to get ahead, Gethenians are happy to live in the moment. However, even though he understands the cultural differences,... (full context)
Light and Dark, Religion and Spirituality  Theme Icon
...question. He cautions that “vagueness breeds vagueness,” and some questions are unanswerable. Yomeshta, the other Gethenian religion, famously began when someone asked a group of Foretellers the meaning of life, an... (full context)
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
Light and Dark, Religion and Spirituality  Theme Icon
...Foretellers to answer a question, he decides to ask something more serious. Ai asks if Gethen will be a member of the Ekumen within five years. Faxe tells him his question... (full context)
Light and Dark, Religion and Spirituality  Theme Icon
Ai wonders why even though Handdara can predict the future there is still conflict on Gethen. Faxe explains it can be hard to know the right question to ask, and for... (full context)
Chapter 6
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...an alien being, not a man to be feared, but a man who can connect Gethen with the wider universe. Yegey is made uneasy by the idea of eighty extraterrestrial worlds,... (full context)
Chapter 7
Truth and Storytelling Theme Icon
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
...of Sex,” is from the field notes of Ong Tot Oppong, an Investigator who explored Gethen forty years before Genly Ai began his journey as Envoy. In it, she describes her... (full context)
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
During kemmer, Gethenians sometimes present as male, sometimes as female. In Karhide individuals seem to have no preference,... (full context)
Truth and Storytelling Theme Icon
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...in her final report for the Envoy. She warns that is important not to see Gethenians as men or as women, as they do not see themselves that way. She also... (full context)
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Ong Tot Oppong notes that Gethenian society is not divided into male and female. By extension, she sees no division of... (full context)
Chapter 8
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
Ai observes that very little in Gethen has changed in thousands of years. They are in a Machine Age, but have had... (full context)
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...look like a monster, tall and dark, but was surprised to find Ai looked almost Gethenian.  (full context)
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...but he is not sure what they plan to do. It is considered rude in Gethen to talk politics over dinner and so Ai remains in the dark as to the... (full context)
Chapter 10
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
Yegey doesn’t understand why Ekumen is interested in Gethen, and Ai explains that he’s just trying to facilitate trade and the exchange of goods... (full context)
Chapter 13
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...going through kemmer, and has been drawn to him. Ai is unable to give the Gethenian what he needs. (full context)
Chapter 14
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...to be unjust, but Estraven angrily points out “I am the only man in all Gethen that has trusted you entirely, and I am the only man in Gethen that you... (full context)
Chapter 16
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...Estraven feels their sexualities to be equally strange and alien. Removed from the context of Gethenian society, he sees himself as isolated and unique. Ai remarks that in the universe, Estraven’s... (full context)
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
Light and Dark, Religion and Spirituality  Theme Icon
...hand of light. / Two are one, life and death” joined together. Ai hypothesizes that Gethenian isolation leads them to be interested in wholeness. Estraven disagrees. “Duality is an essential” as... (full context)
Sex, Gender, and Behavior Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...Ai reveals he has begun to forget what women are like after two years on Gethen, and that women are essentially as alien to him as Gethenians. (full context)
Chapter 18
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...this skill to Estraven, but has asked him to keep it a secret from other Gethenians until he can check in with his Ekuminical comrades. Ai feels that mindspeech is the... (full context)
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...to Ai. However, mindspeech remains difficult for Estraven, as it disturbs him. Ai wonders if Gethenians are ill-suited for it, or if Estraven is a special case. He understands that something... (full context)
Chapter 19
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Light and Dark, Religion and Spirituality  Theme Icon
...at the radio station. At the station, he signals a relay satellite in orbit above Gethen, which will in turn wake up the other men and women on his spaceship. He... (full context)
Chapter 20
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
Ai tries to explain that Estraven knew that if one Gethenian nation joined the Ekumen, others would follow. Ai tells Argaven that Estraven loved his country,... (full context)
Duty and Loyalty Theme Icon
...He feels he has betrayed Estraven, although he knows that Estraven’s primary wish was for Gethen to join the Ekumen.  (full context)
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
...disembarkment. His face, neither male nor female, seems more “familiar, right.” After three years on Gethen, Ai’s friends seem “like a troupe of great, strange animals, of two different species.” His... (full context)
Otherness and Connectedness Theme Icon
By the end of the spring Ai’s shipmates have spread across Gethen, working with the governments of all the planet’s nations. Ai has decided to take a... (full context)