When I was much younger, I attempted to read the first of the Earthsea books. I didn’t get very far, having already been tipped into Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and finding very little else to compare once my imagination had clung so tightly. Thus it was that Ursula K. Le Guin found her way to the background, one of the acknowledged masters that I never read. Her name was always praised in song by her devoted acolytes, whispered in the same breath with Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Ellison, Shelley, Herbert, and the other gods of science fiction. Every now and again, her works would make their way up towards the top of Mount TBR, and I would find myself distracted once more by something else, being the flighty mess that I am.
And now, here I am decades later. I’m a very different person than I was then. I’m no less flighty, but I pay heed to those around me who know of which they speak. I acknowledge that since her passing, Le Guin’s status as one of the goddesses of science fiction — perhaps the lead goddess, depending on whom you ask — is no less secured than it ever was. Her torch blazes ever brighter, and I… was left behind in the shadow my ignorance, on the outside looking in. It was past time to change that. But which book to choose? I almost returned to Earthsea, feeling that now to be a matter of unfinished business. But that isn’t the book that called to me. This goddess of science fiction, I was told, had done what few had ever to dared in the annals of literature; she had written a book where an entire population was transgendered. Not in the traditional manner as those of us who experience that reality can understand, but in the way that makes it overt enough for the cisgendered to wrap their heads around. Of course, an idea like this would make me sit up and take notice, even if there would be some natural skepticism. On one hand, the cisgendered can’t possibly appreciate the devastating nuances of being trans. On the other… imagining the impossible is precisely the stock in trade of a great storyteller. I had heard before of The Left Hand of Darkness, but as one with mystical inclinations, I took a different meaning from the title and, while I had suspicions of how those words might fit, I decided to let the story speak for itself, on its own terms. After all, science fiction and mysticism don’t usually cross paths. Sometimes, but not often. And so, Le Guin floated effortlessly back towards the peak of Mount TBR, now properly positioned so as to dazzle me with her works.
She revealed herself as the goddess of her earned reputation, blinding me with the introduction alone, before I ever started on the story itself. It wasn’t much by comparison, simply an essay of what it means to be a novelist. But in those words, she reached into my heart and offered a proper “hello.” It was the perfect explanation of ideas I already knew so well regarding the place of the novelist and the realm of science fiction, the explanation of metaphor and how to wield it. Of how to use words to say what cannot be expressed in words: the secrets of literary godhood that translates far beyond the realm of mere science fiction, using that format to do what no other genre can because of limiting expectations. If the book is even half this brilliant, I told myself, it’s no wonder this is considered to be the novel that cemented her reputation. Hello, goddess. You now have my attention.
Genly Ai is a native of Terra, sent as an envoy of the Ekumen, a loose-knit confederation of planets. His mission is to persuade the nations of Gethen to join the Ekumen, but he must first overcome his limitations in understanding of the Gethen culture. The Gethen are amisexual, gendered androgynous between male and female at most times, but capable of shifting to either gender. Exiled, captured, and escaped, Ai is helped along by Estraven, the exiled politician who trusts Ai implicitly and works to help him fulfill his mission. During their time alone in survival situations, Estraven begins to shift feminine as their connection develops.
The book is one of the Hainish Cycle, a loosely-connected, non-sequential series of stories and novels about the aforementioned confederation of planets. The various social and environmental settings within the cycle are used to explore anthropological and sociological ideas of human evolution, influenced by her anthropologist father. The Left Hand of Darkness earned Le Guin the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1970.
Reading this novel with an understanding eye towards 1969, when this book was published, I’m going to go out on a limb and say the intent was not to spotlight the idea of transgenderism, nor to help anyone work through the idea. It was, I suspect, more a novel about feminism and equality. What happens when a species is mostly androgynous, stimulated towards the poles of the sexual binary only on occasion? The result is more equality, less stigma. As the narrator of the book puts it so well, there is no Oedipus complex on this world. But, you see, the best literature out there can transcend even the original intent. In breaking the lens of the gender binary, all of the possibilities open. All of them. Even a transgirl like myself, who has struggled with gender identity all her life, can see things in a completely new light. Does this help things? As with anything, it does if people are willing to remain open-minded and actually read the book, but even with the progress we’ve made since this book was published, our society is still light years behind the potential of what claim to praise. It does, however, give me hope. After all, if one person can “get it,” and especially if that one person can put into such simple and beautiful understanding, then…
I won’t say that this book lived up the fullness of my hopes, but being trans, my hopes on such things are so bottomless that it’s impossible to feed that beast. That’s certainly no slight against Le Guin. Her reputation is most secure and well-earned. As with most science fiction of this type, the plot is far less important than the characters and situations. And that’s perfectly acceptable. I had a feeling that would be the case going in. It’s a high brow idea, told with heart, and infinitely quotable. If you were to spin the sentences around a bit, about half of this book would feel right coming out of the mouth of Master Yoda. Le Guin, I think, missed her calling as a philosopher, but that may be for the best. More people will read — and accept — the ideas of a brilliant novelist before those of a philosopher. For myself, this book has really jolted me into thinking about my gender identity in completely new ways. Perhaps I’ll stop using this notion of the “hetero-normative, cisgender binary” as the baseline. I am, after all, on the outside of any of that. I’ve given a great deal of thought to who I am and how I’ve come to be over the years and decades. I can explain it both biologically and spiritually, and while it still comes with all manner of dysphoric frustrations that I have to deal with at a number of levels, my biggest fears come from those with a narrow-minded perception of what is “normal.” That’s where this book excels, by turning those expectations on their ear and reframing the entire gender identity spectrum. I’m sure the arguments about traditional gender roles would have been a much bigger deal for Le Guin’s readership in 1969, but like I say, the evolution of understanding is what keeps books like this relevant. I positively admire what she managed to pull off with such a simple, yet perception-altering concept.