The novel by Ursula K. Le Guin in 1969 The left hand of darkness talks about a planet where genetically modified inhabitants randomly turn male or female for a few days each month. Science fiction teacher Lisa Yaszek says the book is one of the genre’s most important explorations on the genre.
“This whole thing was in the air, so I think Le Guin is definitely thinking about it at the right time,” Yaszek says in episode 464 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy Podcast. “No one had really put it together in a sustained novel – well, I think some people had, but they hadn’t been published yet. She was definitely the first to hit the nail on the head. So he’s the first person to point out some of the things that were starting to happen in some of the most cutting-edge, cutting-edge science fiction.
The left hand of darkness features multiple factions and religions, each with their own history and mythology. All of this complexity can make the novel somewhat intimidating, but sci-fi author Rajan khanna says it’s worth it. “I’m amazed he’s been so successful,” he says. “I’m kind of impressed with his ability to take something that’s probably slow, and that’s not traditional, and can be difficult at times, and make it so engaging.
The book is often criticized for portraying its androgynous characters as too masculine, but the writer Sara Lynn Michener says some readers might not read it that way. “I feel like it’s probably a very different experience between a male reader and a female reader,” she says. “But to me, it was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve done that before – this man thing is the default – and so I see myself in these characters already.’ ‘
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley was disappointed that the book focused more on politics than sociology, but came to appreciate its unique style of court intrigue.
“It really had an emotional impact for me at the end,” he says. “It all fell into place, and I could see why it was all like this. I think there is plenty of room for other writers to write about [androgynous] and explore this in more detail, but I’m certainly glad this book exists exactly as it is.
Listen to the full interview with Lisa Yaszek, Rajan Khanna and Sara Lynn Michener in Episode 464 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Sara Lynn Michener on the books:
“When I first started reading science fiction, I was sort of investigating in the dark. My parents were not readers at all. I had gone to a private Christian school for part of middle school and part of high school, and we were actively discouraged from reading anything “secular”. During that time, I went through that horrible dark time when all I read was this big Bob Jones University Press textbook of news written by the staff there – essentially written by pastors. … I asked a teacher to stop me in the hallway because I was putting a Willa Cather book in my backpack, and she said, “Does your mom know you have this?” Imagine discouraging a ninth grade student from reading Willa Cather – she’s basically like Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults.
Lisa Yaszek on gender barriers:
“When [Le Guin] published ‘Nine lives’– which was a story about a bunch of clones that are kind of siblings but aren’t, hanging out and having sex together, and they work together and stuff – she posted this story pretty much near the same time in Playboy, and she must have used her initials. They did not let her publish under “Ursula K. Le Guin”. It’s not like no one is going to know who she is, because she was famous enough, but they were just like, ‘Oh no, a woman couldn’t do that. So there were definitely these weird gender barriers there, and I think in some ways they were more on women than men.
Lisa Yaszek on world building:
“I like [in The Left Hand of Darkness] when we get all the myths and parts inserted, and I think what was funny about this editor who sent this [rejection letter] for Le Guin, it is because they are completely right and completely wrong at the same time. He is boring, and these break the narrative, and that’s totally the point. If you send them back you are as bad as Genly ai. If you send them back you are making the same mistake as him because this is where you get the clues to understand how you should actually interact with these people on this planet – the clues are in their culture. And he’s just like, ‘Well, whatever.’ “
David Barr Kirtley on Genly Ai:
“Genly is quite sexist. … When Estraven asked him if women were mentally inferior, he replied, “I don’t know. They don’t often seem to appeal to mathematicians, music composers, inventors, or abstract thinkers. But it’s not that they’re stupid. And it looks like this super-enlightened civilization – spanning 83 worlds and 100 light years – can choose anyone to send as an envoy to this world where the inhabitants clash. [multiple] genders, and that’s the best candidate they can find? So it seems to me that there is a sort of weird tension between the plot, which forces Genly to pursue this arc of character growth towards greater understanding and enlightenment, and this idea that the Ecumenical is already illuminated.