Doren Damico
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

What if all people were gender-fluid and capable of becoming impregnated at any sexual interaction?

The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, was the first major science fiction novel to seriously explore sex and gender. In 1970, it made Le Guin the first woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel. 

Alien ethnologist, Genly Ai, has come alone as Envoy to the planet, Gethen, to invite the native Gethenians into a community of worlds known as, Ekumen. Unsuccessful, exiled and jailed, Genly Ai is rescued by Gethenian, Therem of Estre (Lord Estraven), and the two embark on a treacherous journey across the barren Gobrin Ice. One night, 55 days into their trek, Genly Ai finally comes to terms with the gender-fluid nature of his Gethenian companion.

And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him; that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me personal loyalty, and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance. I had not been willing to give it. I had been afraid to give it. I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.

                                     (Chapter 18, p 267)

Arising out of the second wave of feminism, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was a brave discourse that changed the world. She wrote about a culture of gender-fluid people for which any given mating cycle might lead to either partner becoming impregnated. She did this in a time where most science fiction was androcentric and often quite misogynist. Overall, her story was seen as subversive and highly controversial.

In a 2009 New Yorker interview, by Ligaya Mishan, Le Guin shares that men seemed to receive her book better than the feminists. “It was the feminists who gave me a hard time about it for years. They wanted me to have been braver. I guess I wish I had been. But I did the best I knew how to do.” Over the years, the book has also been criticized for using male pronouns for the Gethens, and for protagonist Genly Ai’s tendency to identify with his society’s definition of women as weaker than men.

Regardless of these criticisms, Le Guin’s work is a brilliantly written, mostly first-person reflection of an encounter with “the other.” Le Guin interrupts the traditional science fiction plot-based structure with “hearth-tales,” short story interludes providing a more intimate view of the Gethenian culture. The world has complex societies, and an unforgettable landscape of ice age glaciers and the human and societal adaptations that make living there possible. The plot draws the reader into the characters’ lives, and along an epic adventure across 840 miles of ice, ultimately delivering the characters and the reader, transformed.

Today, The Left Hand of Darkness tops the list for pathbreaking non-binary and gender-fluid novels. Even with the protagonist’s biases, Le Guin teaches us to see the gender-modulating Gethenians through a perspective that is curious, dignified, and self-honest. For the person who may see themselves as non-binary, this book provides a great character example in Therem of Estre, someone with multiple modulating expressions: great strength and great sensitivities; a diplomat and a “traitor in exile”; a parent, a lover, and a sibling; someone who has known deep love and can demonstrate amazing loyalty and personal sacrifice for the good of society; heroic and real.

The Left Hand of Darkness Triptych Summary

In Essence: Le Guin’s pathbreaker is a story of the risks and rewards of profound friendship.

A Lesson: Le Guin teaches us how to see “the other”: First, with an assumption of acceptance, and second, with a fierce will to understand.

For Writers: Be braver than you feel. Break the rules. Trust your story.

Read the Triptych Introduction for more information about “feminist” speculative fiction, and essential reading lists.

Read the other 2 reviews in my “feminist” triptych: Leni Zumas’ Resistance Literature: Red Clocks and Margaret Atwood’s Historical Allegory: The Handmaid’s Tale.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Is Gender Necessary?” Essay

For an insightful intersectional analysis of the book, see Tuesday Smillie’s “Radical Imagination and The Left Hand of Darkness” 

For a more detailed summary, check out Jo Walton’s 2009 review, “Gender and Glaciers: Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness”.

For a reminder to read The Wizard of Earthsea books, by Ursula K. Le Guin, because they are the best wizarding books ever, read: David Mitchell [author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks] on Earthsea-a rival to Tolkien and George RR Martin


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Doren Damico

Doren is a salsa dancing philosopher poet, slinky sculptor, and fan of science fiction.

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