Science fiction as we know it was born in the 1930s and 40s, a time of social and political crisis for many in the world. When people weren’t certain if they would see tomorrow, stories about the future often became an outlet for the fears and concerns of the present. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, for example, centres on the fall of a Galactic Empire and the reassurance that might come from being able to predict cycles of prosperous times and dark ages. In the late 1960s, in another time of crisis, an author proposed that science fiction could be more like a thought experiment; instead of mirroring what we currently felt and how we already saw the world, it could instead become a lens that showed us a different way of seeing. Her name was Ursula K. Le Guin, and the novel that put her on the literary map was The Left Hand of Darkness.
In a far future where multiple inhabited worlds coexist as the Ekumen, a man named Genly Ai has come as Envoy to the newly discovered world of Gethen to persuade them to join the interplanetary community. Gethanians are ambisexual, and most of the time completely genderless; once a month they enter a biological phase called kemmer and take on either male or female characteristics (it can be different each time). The sexually male Ai has trouble understanding this society, resulting in a series of miscommunications and misapprehensions that threaten not only his mission but also his own life.
The Left Hand of Darkness takes time to deliver on its thematic promises, and really it’s only in the last third that threads come together and begin to drive home what Le Guin is exploring. It’s a slow burn of a book, necessarily so, since we have to travel with Ai and navigate with him through a society that does not base everything on the masculine/feminine dymanic. Our own sexuality means that gender is part of our “social imaginary”, the way we not only see the world but also they way we live in it. Gethen’s ambisexuality means that gender is not a daily reality, and takes hold of its social imaginary in different ways; most fundamentally, in how they approach differences and dualities, seeing them as coherent rather than in competition. There is no ‘battle of the sexes’ on Gethen, because it would mean that each Gethenian was in battle with themselves. “Light is the left hand of darkness,” opens one of their poems, “and darkness the right hand of light.” And so is held together the broad theme of the novel: relating to one another across unimaginable barriers. Genly Ai begins at last to realize not only how Gethenians live and think, but even why his own people have sent him alone as Envoy:
Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou. Not political, not pragmatic, but mystical.
The book, in today’s discussions about gender identity, has its problems in how it presents an ambisexual species and culture. Chief among these is the complete lack of gender neutral pronouns: every Gethenian is called “he” regardless of the fact that they are not male (or female) in our sense. Nowadays we seem to have settled on using “they” for non-binary persons, but of course this linguistic discussion wasn’t happening in 1969. Le Guin herself shifted in how she acknowledged the book’s shortcomings, first defending her choice of pronouns because she didn’t want to disrupt the novel’s language (a legitimate concern in what is clearly one of the most literate science fiction novels ever written) and later admitting to being haunted by that choice.
As in the 1930s, and the 1960s, so today in the 2020s—a time of social and political crisis for many in the world. In our era of extreme polarization into opposite armed camps ready to go to war at the slightest provocation, we can see backlashes against what is perceived to be dangerous taken to extremes. We’ve long recognized the power of stories to change our social imaginaries, affecting how we see and live in the world. But among such powerful stories are the conspiracy theories and paranoid narratives that destabilize our society; there’s legitimate concern that ‘alternative facts’ are dangerous, and so there is also a natural backlash towards the opposite notion that only verified and empirical facts are capable of holding and telling truth. But this entirely expected backlash may also destablize the place of art and literature. Their very power lies in their capability to change our ways of thinking. Humans will almost always value stories over facts: hence the danger of conspiracy theories.
A paranoid narrative reduces anyone who is Other into a threat. In the fight against such dangerous aspects of our storytelling, will we still be willing to turn to fictional stories to shape our imaginations? Will we still be willing to have imaginations at all? Or will we inreasingly freeze ourselves into our mindsets, hardening the polarization, and becoming ourselves the threat: unwilling and eventually unable to communicate with or apprehend the Other?