By Ursula Le Guin
The most enjoyable thing about science fiction is neither laser guns nor preposterous aliens. It is the genre’s ability to explore any topic with no bounds. No surprise that some of the biggest social leaps have taken place in invented universes (Kirk’s famous interracial kiss with Uhura one fine example).
Penned towards the end of Sixties but seemingly plucked from the stars outside of any era, Le Guin’s novel takes us to a world known as Winter, where a single human envoy is attempting to convince the inhabitants that he and his people come in peace, and that they could form an alliance. While the novel is a subtle study in diplomacy and politics, it is more an experiment. The race that lives on Winter is ambisexual: individuals have no sex until they enter their monthly cycle, where they become either male or female depending on the partner they choose. Le Guin builds a comprehensible biology and an even more comprehensible – if complex – culture around it. Importantly, our man is no mere cipher nor an agitator; he is a fascinating study himself, his humanity in contrast to that of another species of mankind.
This exploration of sexuality seems obvious to us now – especially looking back at the Sixties. But Le Guin’s novel is no less profound, and certainly no less educational. It is a deep and gripping study. Moreover, it is a fine novel. Her prose flows and drifts like a Winter show shower: beautiful and timeless. I had been waiting to read this book for a long time – ever since I first heard of it one year ago – and I am so pleased that it is now a part of me. The Left Hand of Darkness is a significant book in 20th Century literature.