The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is somewhat of an outlier compared to other science fiction classics of the ‘60s. It is focused not on grand cosmic battles but on the interpersonal relationships and experiences of one man, Genly Ai, who is sent on a diplomatic mission to a frigid planet called Gethen. Gethen itself is an anomaly, too, as its people only develop a gender once a month in order to procreate. The Left Hand of Darkness is largely concerned with how this development impacts Genly’s mission and his ability to understand the Gethenians. The questions of gender within the novel are also what makes it so profound even now, over fifty years after its publication.
So, what makes the exploration of these themes so compelling? In my opinion, it comes not only from Le Guin’s excellent worldbuilding but also from the contrast in perspectives. Putting us in the mind of Genly—an outsider as a man in this sexless society—helps us get acquainted with the world, as he attempts to understand it himself. It also lets us compare through his eyes the gender politics of Gethen as they relate to our own world. The Left Hand of Darkness also has sections written from the perspective of a native Gethenian, Estraven; these sections are where the criticism on gender truly shines, forcing the reader to confront the absurdity of Genly’s own reading of sex as essential. Ultimately, these two differing perspectives on the question of sex give the reader a better understanding of what Le Guin is trying to say: perhaps gender is less essential to the human experience than we believe.
There are, however, points at which The Left Hand of Darkness shows its age in regard to the question of sex. One of the main points critics point to is the novel’s use of pronouns. The Gethenians are referred to universally with the pronoun “he” and are often described as men. Of course, they/them pronouns were not popularised at that point, and so Le Guin instead went for whatever seemed the most universally applicable. However, this has the unintentional side effect of downplaying the androgyny of the Gethenians.
Another oft-repeated criticism is that the novel is still entrenched in the gender roles it is attempting to subvert. Genly often refers to characters as womanly when they betray too much emotion or scheme against him, showing a very antiquated vision of how gender is performed. While this could be argued to be a symptom of who’s narrating the story—Genly is a man from Earth who time and time again misunderstands the gender politics of Gethen—it does also work against the novel’s main goal of questioning the role gender has in our own society. There is also a biologically determinist conception of gender on display throughout, as shown in the actual mechanics of how the Gethenians change sex; there is no real point in which human sexuality and gender are explored outside of a cis-heteronormative perspective.
Still, I think The Left Hand of Darkness has a lot to say about the gender politics of its time—and ours—that no other science fiction novel has ever managed to match. By removing the gender of the Gethenians and examining its impacts through an Earthman, Le Guin can question what role gender plays in our own society. Are we placing too much importance on something that ultimately has little impact on personhood? Perhaps we have been ignoring the androgyny present in our own society all along. Le Guin herself engages with this point in the author’s note, saying, “indeed the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are.”
Ultimately, the novel pushes this point forward when Genly finally makes peace with the fact that the Gethenians are both male and female, and yet neither. This is what makes The Left Hand of Darkness so profound even now: it prompts us to question whether our conceptions of sex and gender-based personhood are really so essential or whether they’re already outdated. Although the novel was published over fifty years ago, its exploration of the human relationship to gender remains fresh, unique and thought-provoking.