Ursula Le Guin was one of the most prominent figures in the science fiction New Wave movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which introduced a greater variety of voices to the genre and refocused on peoples and cultures rather than potential technologies. It’s difficult to overstate how groundbreaking The Left Hand of Darkness was when it was first published in 1969. Many sci-fi writers had dabbled with alien sex and gender before, but they did so in the same way they might give that alien an extra arm or eye; it still wasn’t something normal or natural to them, or even human. But in Le Guin’s work, these issues are nothing if not human. Her explicit goal was to “[eliminate] gender, to find out what was left”, and the result was a near-universally acclaimed classic work of literature.
Genly Ai is a human emissary tasked with contacting the planet of Gethen to invite them into the Ekumen, a galactic confederation of planets. For most of each month the Gethenians are androgynous, and only assume a male or female sex as needed when they enter their period of sexual fertility. The effective non-existence of gender has caused Gethenian culture to develop in ways never before seen by humans, and this creates a cultural gap Genly Ai must struggle to overcome. Together with his Gethenian patron, Estraven, he journeys across the planet and learns to navigate its complex political and cultural structures to accomplish his mission.
What I admire most about Le Guin’s writing is her ability to secure buy-in from skeptical readers. Her world-building is meticulous and strategic, designed to respond to those who might claim that her ideas are delusional and have nothing to do with humanity. All she asks of her readers is that they listen, even if they’re skeptical, because if they start to listen then she can start to change their minds. The Left Hand of Darkness is more like an anthropological journal than a galactic space-opera, but it still has a clear plot and narrative arc. The relationship between Genli and Estraven is ambiguous and dynamic, and there’s a nice dose of political intrigue to keep events moving. Plus, there’s cool sci-fi stuff like space travel, telepathy, and prophesying, which keeps the book interesting all the way through.
Also, nobody can make me like the ugly 50th anniversary cover 😡