Le Guin, through the eyes of Genly Ai, allows readers to peer into a world void of gender—or rather, a world consumed with gender, allowing it to shed the tension and crimes that can be attributed to differences between “the sexes”. The people of Gethen are “ambisexual”, meaning that they are simultaneously men and women, as seen by the character Estraven described as “womanly” in his actions. And, yes, that is not a typo from his. Today, in 2021, society is coming to terms with the use of the singular they (which this blog-writer agrees), though during publication, Le Guin thought it more stylistically appropriate to keep the androgynous characters described with typically male pronouns. This is the avenue into some tricky lines of thinking, especially when Le Guin herself has admitted to regretting the decision. Namely,
How do we separate pronouns, and to an extent, gender presentation from an individual’s actual gender? As more people embrace the state of being non-binary, it becomes increasingly clear that one cannot tell the gender of another based off of looks alone. This becomes especially clear when some of these non-binary people continue to use “binary” pronouns, such as he and him. This further gets exposed when considering other categories of LGBT history, including the practice of butch lesbians using he and him as self-descriptors while all the same not being men. Perhaps, at this point, Le Guin continuing to use he for Estraven has circled back around to being appropriate, though it would still be easier for the general audience to see a neo-pronoun such as xe or xir in place. At the same time, that is not to encourage readers to see non-binary, or ambisexual, identities as simply a third gender. These identities seek to exist completely outside of the binary, rejecting the monikers of man and woman entirely, or falling somewhere in between, or containing elements of both at once.
Despite my own vested interest in this topic, this is not a blog about LGBT history and theory. The Left Hand of Darkness is not just a departure from traditional Western gender values, but also a departure from its contemporary science fiction. Le Guin focuses on one relationship, the rocky journey of Ai and Estraven’s from cold to close. And it is interesting, for Estraven is very human, despite being an alien. There is a bad habit seen in modern media where a character will indeed be nonbinary, but it is seen as an “easy” way out, for the character will always happen to be a robot or an alien. Yes, “Double Trouble” from the reboot of She-Ra is nonbinary, but they are also a shapeshifting alien who is able to physically change their appearance. Estraven, while also having a gender that somewhat relies on “doubles”, shows a more realistic depiction of a nonbinary identity.
“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness,” Le Guin writes. Despite this novel being published in 1969, the question is naturally apt today. It is apt too in the sense of identity, for as the world moves forward with accepting non-binary identities, it is not up to the non-binary individual to explain their life story, trauma, or various preferences to any stranger who demands it. As it is right now, many people’s reaction to hearing of someone’s non-binary identity is: Prove it. I cannot expect everyone to do on a journey through deathly cold with a non-binary person to understand them such as Ai and Estraven, but I can hope that these prying questions become fewer and fewer in number until they cease to be asked.
So, what are the shortcomings of this book? It has been described as feminist science fiction, and I would agree. However, despite there being mostly no men or women, there is a glaring lack of women still. There is a King, and though he becomes pregnant, it is purposeful that he is King and not Monarch or simply their Majesty. Most of the main characters are referred to with typically male pronouns, and shockingly, there are still “straight” couples in Gethen, couples who form a family unit similar to the way straight Earth couples would. There is certainly an exploration of non-binary identities and androgyny, and an exploration of what it takes to love someone truly different from oneself, but at the same time there seems to be an odd clinging onto Earth-like gender roles and gender identities. It reminds me of concept art for alien movies, for as otherworldly as the alien may seem, there was a concept artist who had to draw it from their human brain, usually with references to Earth-dwelling animals. It can seem impossible to draw upon inspiration that is truly otherworldly. With that in mind, I think Le Guin does a commendable job. The only thing I am unsure I understand is Ai connecting with Estraven, finding his forbidden love with his brother. Incest is taboo here, and it is also apparently taboo on Gethen, but it is unclear why Le Guin chose the sensitive deuteragonist to partake in such history, especially when non-binary people may feel as though they are seeing themselves in fiction for the first time. Truly, I am curious about what The Left Hand of Darkness would look like written today. Of course, it is not, and I am certainly still impressed with the contents written nearly 52 years ago.