“Winter’s King” launched Le Guin’s Nebula-Award-winning tale, “The Left Hand of Darkness”. On Winter/Gethen, everyone is androgynous. The King, although referred to as a "king" (a gendered title on Earth), is discussed using female pronouns throughout the tale.
The king, named Argaven, is the ruler of Winter who has been kidnapped and subjected to mind control. She abdicates her rule while fleeing Winter in order to find treatment for the effects of the mind control. She leaves control of the planet in the hands of her child, Emran, and her child’s advisors.
Emran’s advisors are supposed to help her lead the people until she comes of age. When Argaven leaves Winter, she joins a group of helpful aliens who take her to a planet many light-years away. As she travels at near light-speed, her age remains the same, while everyone back on Winter continues to age.
Twenty-four years pass while she is in transit. When she arrives at her destination, a planet called Ollul, she is cured. She remains on Ollul for twelve years, studying the way that gender functions on other worlds in the galaxy with two distinct genders. She observes the ways in which gender simplifies life, and the ways in which it complicates it.
Word eventually reaches Argaven that there is civil unrest on Winter. After much thought she decides to return home. She believes that if she returns she can set things right. Another twenty-four years pass while she is in transit.
By the time she reaches Winter, Emran is an old woman. Argaven has been away for sixty years and yet the people still remember her. The public quickly ousts Emran and restores Argaven to power. Dejected, Emran commits suicide.
In many ways, “Winter’s King” is a typical Le Guin story. With a blend of futuristic science fiction concepts and sociological theories, she creates a complex society. She then uses this short story to build a much more expansive narrative.
“Winter’s King” lays the groundwork for “The Left Hand of Darkness”. “The Left Hand of Darkness” is a space epic full of psychological and political intrigue. “Winter’s King” introduces the planet of Winter and its social and political workings. Winter is an important setting in “The Left Hand of Darkness”.
One of the central features of Gethen is the lack of gender amongst its population. The lack of gender roles and gendered positions ignites the desperate struggle to attain positions of power. This is the only way to establish oneself in this society. Le Guin’s exploration of this idea in “Winter’s King” and “The Left Hand of Darkness” are often considered examples of feminist thought in science fiction narratives.
According to novelist Robin Reid in her book Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, “The Left Hand of Darkness” is among the first books published in feminist sci-fi. It is also the single most famous examination of sexless androgyny in any science fiction narrative.
Even though “Winter’s King” is unique in its exploration of certain sociological ideas, in many ways it is a normal science fiction tale. As with many modern science fiction works (e.g., Star Trek, Stargate SG-1, Battlestar Galactica), this story features the concept of travel at or faster than the speed of light. This plays on concepts in theoretical astrophysics based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. Travel at speeds approaching light-speed is important in “Winter’s King" because it allows Emran to age rapidly while Argaven remains young.