In honour of today being the International Day of Tolerance, I am looking at Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, the most celebrated examination of androgyny in Science Fiction and, interestingly, also among the first in the Feminist SF genre (as it is now known, of course – when it was published in 1969, it was simply Science Fiction).
Now, tolerance can be of many different things, for example points of view, beliefs or lifestyles, but for this book, I am looking at tolerance of, at its root, the different and misunderstood.
Genly Ai is a native of Terra (Earth), who is sent as an ambassador to the planet of Gethen, in order to persuade them to join the loose confederation of planets that Terra belongs to. However, Gethenian natives are ambisexual, with no fixed sex; they spend 24 days out of every 26 (based on the Gethen lunar cycle) as androgynes, and the other two days in kemmer, a sort of oestrus or heat, when they are highly sexual and become either male or female but with no particular predisposition towards either (though context and interpersonal relationships will play a part). This obviously has a huge impact not only upon Gethenian culture and outlook but also upon Genly Ai’s understanding and acceptance of the people he meets.
Le Guin is quoted as saying that SF allows the use of imaginary situations to explore their impact upon human behaviour and interactions, and I believe it was no coincidence that this novel was published just three years after the first sex reassignment surgeries to take place in the USA.
Whatever someone’s thoughts on gender, sex, sexuality or, indeed, tolerance, I heartily recommend reading ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’.
Genly Ai is an ethnologist observing the people of the planet Gethen, a world perpetually in winter. The people there are androgynous, normally neuter, but they can become male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle. They seem to Genly Ai alien, unsophisticated and confusing. But he is drawn into the complex politics of the planet and, during a long, tortuous journey across the ice with a politician who has fallen from favour and has been outcast, he loses his professional detachment and reaches a painful understanding of the true nature of Gethenians and, in a moving and memorable sequence, even finds love…