The term “feminist science fiction,” has come to describe the subgenre of science fiction that tackles issues of gender inequality and fluidity, sexuality, reproduction, and often serves as a political and social critique of the dominant culture. While Ursula K. Le Guin wasn’t necessarily the first writer to ever tackle feminist science fiction, her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, is considered one of the earliest entries into the subgenre.
The Left Hand of Darkness, while examining themes of gender as it relates to society and culture, is most notable for its exploration of androgyny. The story follows the Terran (aka Earth-born), Genly Ai, who is serving as an envoy for the Ekuman (a kind of open alliance of worlds throughout the galaxy). As an envoy, Ai is tasked with the job of convincing the peoples and nations of the planet, Gethen, to become a part of the Ekuman.
As Ai navigates his way through the geopolitical and social organizations of Gethen, he finds himself more and more challenged by his lack of understanding of Gethenian culture – specifically, the Gethenian trait of ambisexuality.
Throughout the story, the concept of the Gethenian ambisexuality allows the novel to challenge conventional notions of gender and androgyny – especially those at the time of its publication. These notions, while at the forefront of Le Guin’s writing here, are not the only concepts explored or challenged. As the story progresses, and as Ai immerses himself further in Gethenian culture, the themes range from objective examinations of religion, the concepts of loyalty and betrayal, the challenges of communication and non-traditional language pieces between races, as well as comparisons of varying political systems and different styles of political posturing.
The exploration of these themes runs deep and pushes readers to think objectively about their own notions of what might seem normal vs. alien. Similarly to Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Asimov’s Foundation, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is definitely more of a meditation on society and culture, focusing more on sociological concepts with the hard science fiction piece serving more as a backdrop. Also like Clarke & Asimov, because of the nature of the grandiose themes explored, the characterization and relatability of some of the characters tends to suffer from time to time. We do, however, get some good – and interesting – development from Genly Ai as well Estraven (a politician, fugitive and eventually friend to Ai), but much of this comes in the novel’s back half.
All in all, despite some small shortcomings, The Left Hand of Darkness is a fantastic read and deserves its status as a science fiction classic.