Great books ask big what if questions. And Ursula Le Guin asks a doozy in The Left Hand of Darkness: What if gender wasn’t permanent? If you really think about it, a lot of the way a person behaves and is treated by others comes down to their gender because there are so many unspoken expectations about what gender means. Le Guin’s Gethenians turn that on it’s head, because they don’t have gender as we know it. Between their biology and their environment, the Gethenians are the most alien humanoids I’ve encountered in science fiction.
The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a planet aptly named Winter. They’re in the middle of what appears to be an Ice Age. (If it turns out their in an interglacial period, nothing will survive when that Ice Age does come back.) An envoy from the intergalactic Ekumen alliance landed on Winter two years before the book opens, but Genly Ai hasn’t made much progress. The king of the country he landed in is very suspicious of Ai and might actually be insane. Ai has an ally in Estraven, the current prime minister, but things quickly go to pot when Estraven is fired and exiled. Ai decided to try his luck in the neighboring country, Orgoreyn. Estraven has also taken shelter there. Orgoreyn is very different from the medieval society Ai and Estraven left behind. In fact, it reminds one of Stalinist Russia, even down to the secret police and the gulags. When Estraven’s replacement, Tibe, tries to start a war between the two nations, things get even more tense.
While the plot is interesting, and I could actually recommend the book on that score alone, what’s most interesting thing about this book is the way that Le Guin explores her primary question. The people of Winter think that the envoy, Ai, is a pervert because he is capable of sex pretty much all the time. The people of Winter are only capable at certain times of the month, when their hormones make them more female or male depending on a variety of circumstances. The rest of the time, they are effectively neuter. Without the biological drives we have, the Gethenians are generally a placid people. There is some violence, but there has never been a large scale war. They are reserved, concerned about preserving face. Their environment also helps keep things tamped down as the Gethenians have to spend most of their time and energy just staying alive. The book is interspersed with stories and reports that shed a bit more light on the Winter lifestyle, though they remain fairly mysterious.
Psychologists–especially Freud–will point out what a large role sex plays in adult life. But this book really makes me wonder if Le Guin’s version of things is really how a society would be if sex were taken out of the equation. I don’t know if I entirely agree, possibly because I have such a dim view of humanity most of the time that I don’t think anything would get rid of war. But I do appreciate the equality in a genderless society. There’s no automatic prejudice about what a person can and can’t do with their life. This doesn’t mean that everyone gets to be President (so to speak), class and opportunity and experience, etc., still play a big part. But parts of the world are not closed off based on biology.
The Left Hand of Darkness is completely fascinating. So fascinating, that there were parts where I wanted to set down the book and just ponder it for a while. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.