Ursula K. Le Guin has described The Left Hand of Darkness as a thought experiment, a place where she changed the world in her imagination, then observed how this change affected her understanding of human nature. The book was written in 1969, near the start of the late twentieth century women’s movement, when women were struggling with the issues of what is essential about their gender and what seemingly gender-driven behaviors are the results of cultural adaptation. The novel won two prestigious awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, both given for excellence in the genre of science fiction.
Drawing on her background in mythology and anthropology, Le Guin incorporates several different points of view in chapters that retell the mythical tales of the planet and other chapters written as scientific reports from the Ekumen’s first, anonymous corps of observers. All deal with the concepts of duality and unity, and seek to explain how the Gethenians’ unique sexual nature has influenced their civilization and worldview.
Some critics, including science-fiction writer Stanisaw Lem, have taken Le Guin to task for creating androgynous beings who seem more male than female. She has challenged these critics to show her a single action performed by a character in the novel that had to be performed by a specifically male or female character. At the same time, she has noted, the novel does not show many characters engaging in activities that have traditionally been regarded as feminine, such as child rearing. Le Guin has also lamented the lack of a genderless pronoun in the English language that would have allowed her to avoid calling the Gethenians “he” and “him.”
Without a male/female split to suggest an intrinsically dualistic worldview to the Gethenians, they have created a society that, in many ways, seeks to see all in one. Genly Ai at one moment muses, “Perhaps you...
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