Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula Le Guin
By the time I read Left Hand Of Darkness in the 1990s, science fiction novels addressing issues of gender and sexuality were, if not mainstream, certainly not revolutionary. Not so when Le Guin published this landmark book in 1969. This is the story of Ai, sent to the planet Gethen to convince its citizens to join a confederation of planets. Ai’s mission is by turns stymied and complicated by the fact that Gethen is a populated by ambisexual people for whom Ai’s conceptions of gender and sex make no sense and with whom Ai struggles to connect.
The book is like much of the science fiction that came out during the New Wave era — a social thought experiment. What would happen to religion, political debate, and the home if gender were removed and sex was not a fixed construction. That description could make this book seem like heavy lifting. It isn’t. Le Guin can write, and the book moves through its socio-political theorizing easy as the plot propels Ai from unfamiliar situation to unfamiliar situation. It’s been almost twenty years since I read this, but there are scenes that I still remember vividly. That should tell you something about the power of the book to both force inquiry into gender and sex but also to captivate the reader. If you have any tolerance for the confines of science fiction (we are talking about space flight in the distant future here) than I cannot recommend this one highly enough.