The prophetic insight of The Left Hand of Darkness lies in its exploration of what came to be called gender issues. As Ursula Le Guin herself has said, in 1969 the feminist movement was only beginning, and even gender bias in language—she uses “he” throughout for the hermaphroditic Gethenians—had not been investigated. The real difference between men and women, however, was an elemental question for Le Guin and other feminist thinkers of that time. Her “thought experiment” of having a hapless Terran male adrift in a world with no gender markers was inspired.
Ai’s discomfort at having no clues to guide his relationships is fascinating and instructive. He suffers far greater unease that he would have if confronted with a conventionally alien life-form. The book captures the common human process of perceiving a new acquaintance: The sexual shell often disappears and, over time, the inner, sexless personality emerges. To confront the personality without the matrix of gender, as Ai does, can be frightening. Ai’s accommodation to this new perspective is truly humane: To Ai, Estraven becomes familiar yet alien, reassuring yet finally mysterious, like another human. Le Guin thus makes her point about gender differences.
The novel involves far more than gender twisting. The two societies of Karhide and Orgoreyn are wonderfully conceived, evocative of familiar societies while retaining their distinct alien identity. Karhide is...
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