A guest post by Verity Ritchie
Gethen is a world where there is no gender. There are no common sex differences. For the majority of each month a Gethenian is entirely androgynous and completely disinterested in sex. Reproduction takes place during a short period each month where the body briefly becomes sexed as feminine or masculine, but otherwise life goes on ungendered.
So when a (distinctly male) man from Earth comes to Gethen as an envoy for a united league of planets, he is seen as a hypersexed pervert, looking to the natives as if he were perpetually horny.
From the envoy’s perspective, everyone else is uncomfortably genderless. Behaviors and traits he has come to comfortably associate with men or women on - the still quite traditionally gendered - Earth now confuse him and lead him to dislike or distrust the Gethenians. He seems to need a foothold on gender, but there is none.
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The Left Hand of Darkness is about politics, it’s about gender, and it’s about learning to see beyond your own cultural expectations for people. It’s not an easy read, but one I felt very satisfied with having read; my memories of it are precious to me now.
If this book is bisexual, it’s on a spacey-wacey technicality, but I think that’s okay. The word “bisexual” in the book refers to androgyny, but sex and romance feel queer also; lovers are always he and he, and the envoy’s introduction means that in a sense there are multiple genders in a way there never has been on this world before.
And ultimately the love story between the envoy and a Gethenian felt to me like a particularly bisexual experience.
Published in 1969, Le Guin’s perception of gender was definitely limited to her own culture and experience at the time (her work became much more feminist and sexually fluid later). She would revisit Gethen in 1995 in the short story "Coming of Age in Karhide", which I highly recommend as a companion piece to the original novel.
There is another short story set on Gethen called “Winter's King” (published in The Birthday of the World, alongside a few other bisexual stories), noteworthy because it was originally written earlier than The Left Hand of Darkness, before Le Guin had decided to make Gethenians androgynous/bisexual, and later reworked to make more consistent with the novel. Where Left Hand used “he” pronouns for every Gethenian, “Winters King” uses “she” for them. “Coming of Age in Karhide” is told by a Gethenian narrator who creates their own spin on English pronouns usage.
So much has happened to gender in the last half a century that in some ways Left Hand feels dated. The idea that a distant future Earth society would be so conservative about gender and not have any third gender pronouns seems odd to us now, but undoubtedly seemed natural to any writer of the English language in the 1960s. But even today a line like “The king was pregnant” is poignant and probably all the more likely to enrage certain kinds of people. And let them rage while we curl up with this weird wonderful classic!