What are the strengths and weaknesses of The Left Hand of Darkness as a work of science fiction?

The strengths of The Left Hand of Darkness as science fiction include rethinking the necessity of gendered differences and their relationship to reproduction. The detachment of masculinity from superiority allows for a critique of both Genly Ai’s status and his society’s preoccupation with biological traits. One weakness is a conventional approach to civilization and politics, with Karhide and Orgoreyn presented as extreme ends of a spectrum.

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The Left Hand of Darkness was especially groundbreaking in the 1960s as one of the first science fiction works to problematize the question of gender. Rather than reverse gendered roles by offering a feminist utopia, the novel interrogates the centrality of gender and of sexual reproduction. In doing so, it also encourages the reader to assigned earthly gender prejudices. Author Ursula K. LeGuin effectively creates a society, Karhide, where the humanlike beings, called kemmerers, have achieved a civilization that beneficial to all. Although they resemble human beings in many regards, the kemmerers’ nature may be considered androgynous or non-gendered: each adult has the capability of reproducing during a specific period.

Along with this investigation of gender, LeGuin offers a social critique in which the superiority of male traits is questioned in a world where sexual dimorphism has no perceived value. The male protagonist, Genly Ai, learns about his values through the example of selflessness of his kemmerer friend Estraven.

In terms of science fiction, other elements of the societies she presents are less innovative and successful. With its cold climate and repressive social and political practices, Orgoreyn seems a thinly veiled representation of the Cold War–era Soviet Union. Critics might also find that she emphasizes the gender issues at the expense of other topics, and wonder why an apparently feminist novel features a male protagonist.

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