The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Genly Ai is a diplomat sent to the planet Gethen in order to bring them into an alliance with other worlds. The people of Gethen have no concept of gender or fixed biological sex. Along with Estraven, a Gethenian, Genly Ai navigates the politics of rival countries on Gethen in an attempt to foster harmony between all worlds.
A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters...
Science fiction, queer
A book written in 1969 exploring the concept of a genderless society is certainly a rarity. Ursula K. Le Guin has always been ahead of her time. All characters but Genly Ai have no gender, and switch their sexual anatomy during monthly cycles.
Genly attempts to explain the concept of men and women being different to his friend Estraven, but the concept is alien to them. Genly himself grows confused, as his beliefs about gender are confronted and challenged on Gethen.
Of course, as it was written in 1969, the book isn't perfect in its portrayal of a sexually fluid people. Gethenians have no gender, yet are referred to as "he." This makes sense for Genly, as he harbors sexism that he must confront, but even when not from Genly's point of view characters are consistently referred to with male pronouns, under the logic that "he" is a more gender neutral term than "she," establishing male as the default and female the anomaly. This is a major drawback to the story and interrupted my enjoyment.
However, it was nice to read sentences referring to people with he/him pronouns being in love and being pregnant. This isn't sensationalized, but is normalized by the text. The very idea of a novel normalizing these concepts would have been nearly unheard of for the time.
Aside from the explorations of gender, this novel, like all Le Guin's novels, was a wonderful and thought-provoking read. While science fiction, it dispenses with action-packed laser battles in favor of philosophy and thought-experiments. The focus of the novel is on the countries of Gethen, and these are developed far more than typical fictional cultures. Le Guin takes the time to make her worlds seem real and lived in, not just in the present but in the past. Myths from Gethen are sprinkled throughout, and history is referenced as much as it is in real life. Small, everyday moments are given detail and attention, and everything is influenced by the unique set of values Le Guin gave her world.
Genly is the outsider, so the reader can relate to him and learn along with him. He is unfamiliar with the cultural ideas around pride, honor, and ignorance, just as Gethenians are unfamiliar with his concept of manliness and fixed sexuality. Genly must work to understand people different from him, and grows throughout. His relationship to this culture is represented in his relationship to Estraven, a Gethenian helping him bring Gethen into contact with larger civilization. Genly distrusts Estraven and is uncomfortable when they show feminine qualities. He is unable to see them as genderless. Yet Genly grows from distrust and misunderstand toward Estraven to a strong bond with them. The two connect and learn from their differences, reaching understanding and acceptance of their different experiences of gender and sexuality.
While the book seems bleak much of the time, it has warmth at its core. Le Guin combines the politics of nations, themes of patriotism veering into nationalism, and barriers between cultures with the simple everyday life and bonding between individuals, creating a unique, touching story. Another excellent novel from one of my favorite authors.