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A Beloved Sci-Fi Novel Says a Lot about Gender and Politics

Kids today. (This isn’t going to be what you expect.) They navigate the world of gender fluidity freely. They don’t stumble upon words or terms. They are the natives in this world, and it can feel like we—the older generations—are immigrants in this land. We seem dated to them, from another time and place when things were needlessly complicated and needlessly cruel.

I was struck, when the pandemic led me to pick up the classic science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin, by how prescient it is about this generational split. Once we were all the protagonist Genly Ali, an envoy from another world struggling to communicate with the Gethenians, struggling to convince them that his and other worlds exist, struggling to get them to understand the value of what he is offering them: knowledge, power, peace. And he’s struggling partly because he cannot understand their world, in which there is no war (but it’s coming); in which there is no gender.

Even as the novel seems timeless, and prophetic, and even as it offers us hope of another way of being as both individual beings and as citizens, there are reminders that it comes from another time and place. The default pronoun for the genderless Gethenians is “he,” and most of the scenes involve traditional male labor. We read nothing of childbearing, and little of cooking, cleaning, and nurturing, even as we bear witness to moving moments of kindness, all the more powerful for the backdrop of a harsh, cold, and cruel environment. Quite literally: this is a freezing, freezing land.

It’s also a land of great hospitality. In the land of snow and ice, that’s a necessity, but it’s also a value. This kind of hospitality for strangers in a strange land alongside family and friends is another radical lesson, even as it is one that for many of us within the Jewish community is easily understood. When you have a long history of being outside, you create a world that welcomes others in. Including outsiders (and gender non-conformers!) like Genly Ali, who don’t quite fit in and can’t quite understand or be understood.

We are all—but not The Kids today— Genly. We too, reading this now 51-year-old book, struggle to understand a world in which there is no gender; in which sexuality is limited to a set time each month—called Kemmer—for which one gets time off to satisfy these needs without embarrassment or judgment, or even pause; in which everyone can be both a mother and a father; in which there is no division of labor, no division of professions, no division of value, no division of desire.

When you remove gender, it turns out, you change everything.

That’s one of the enduring lessons of this remarkable novel, but it’s far from the only one. It’s also a finely drawn portrait of daily life and a great quest, with world-altering stakes. It’s a political treatise, musing about the relationship between nation-state and aggression, and asking whether those stages can be skipped entirely through a model of Enlightenment that is both aspirational, and, to these despairing eyes, impossibly naïve. And yet also deeply prescient. The novel asks: would you work with someone you hate to save the world you love? And, as it progresses and that hatred abates, the novel asks: would you sacrifice your life to save someone you love?

Sharrona Pearl is an Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at Drexel University. Her most recent book is Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other