My latest Coursera essay on science fiction is below. Not my finest work, but not bad for having finished the book at midnight last night. It’s a great book, by the way.
The relationship between Estraven and Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness represents the difficulty some people have in connecting with others, particularly across national, gender, or racial barriers. Both of them have trouble being open and honest with the other, for different reasons that neither can understand. Ai can’t be honest without understanding Estraven’s gender, and Estraven can’t be honest due to a code of honor Ai does not understand. These differences, while difficult to cope with, are ultimately necessary for progress.
Estraven is encumbered by shifgrethor, the shadow of the past that dictates much of his behavior (and that of all in his world). This shadow of the past (honor, pride, social propriety all rolled together) prevents open communication between Estraven and Ai, even when Ai wants Estraven to be more direct. Ai, for his part, does not ever truly understand this code, since his world has no equivalent except in the distant past.
Ai in contrast cannot open himself to Estraven until he can overcome his need to put Estraven into a gender role that literally does not exist. When Ai finally accepts Estraven’s dual gender, he is able to trust Estraven completely.
The blind spots of each character are examples of the ‘original sin’-style concept presented in the creation myth described, where the people are given shadows because they were born into the house of the deaths caused by their father. These need to be recognized in order to progress. They do not need to be overcome – the experience Ai and Estraven have struggling to walk when they lose their shadows demonstrates that the differences are necessary. Without the differences between us, we would not be able to progress as a society. Estraven and Ai never fully overcome their differences, even during mindpeak. Ultimately this allows them to succeed in their mission of getting Karhide into the Ekumen.