Ursula K Le Guin won the Hugo award in 1970 with a thought experiment in sexual politics, The Left Hand of Darkness, but was she guilty of succumbing to 60s sexism herself?

It would be unfair to say that the winners of the Hugo award for best novel were all sexist before 1969. True, many of them demonstrated a fondness for big-breasted airheads who are perplexingly eager to service whichever goaty old man is standing in for the author – but Frank Herbert, Robert Zelazny and Philip K Dick all featured independent strong female characters. Even Robert Heinlein had a look at sexual equality in Starship Troopers. But The Left Hand Of Darkness, which won the Hugo award in 1970, marks a significant shift – both because Ursula K Le Guin was the first female winner of the prize and because a good part of its premise is based on playing around with gender.

Le Guin herself has described the book as a “thought experiment”. Winter, the ice-wrapped world she presents, is populated by humans – but humans who are neither male nor female. Once a month they enter “kemmer”, a period in which they can develop either male or female sexual characteristics, father a child, or become pregnant: “burden and privilege,” as Le Guin puts it, “are shared out equally”. Perhaps because of Winter’s climate (the cold is always the most important enemy) or perhaps because of its lack of definitely masculine or feminine urges, the planet has developed differently from the other 82 worlds known to be inhabited by humans. There’s a lot of squabbling and back-stabbing, for instance, but there’s never been a war. Industrial development has been glacially slow. Travel is normally conducted at walking pace and nobody flies anywhere.

This last quirk helps explain why the inhabitants of Winter find it so hard to get their heads around the fact that Genly Ai has come down from the stars to try to convince them to join the Ekumen, a trade and knowledge-based federation of human-occupied planets. Genly, who is a male from Earth, also finds there is plenty he does not understand about the people on Winter. Persuading them to join his federation is complicated …

Le Guin skilfully handles the opening few chapters detailing the unusual planet and its gnarly politics while ensuring there’s always more intrigue than exposition. The focus gradually narrows in on Genly, and things really begin to take off when he is betrayed and shipped to a Soviet-style prison camp where the cruelty of the surrounding landscape does more to prevent escape than the guards. He has to endure many brilliantly described privations (most notably a lightless crawl across the snow in a transporter where the prisoners have to sleep in a mound for warmth and travel with their dead) until eventually he is rescued by a character called Estraven (once a prime minister, now, thanks to his support for Genly, an exile).

There are a few niggles along the way. There’s the common SF problem relating to alien names which leaves us with sentences like: “He is lord of a Domain and lord of the Kingdom, a mover of great events. His name is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.” (Although some leeway should be granted here as Le Guin cleverly uses the problem to show how alien the planet is to her narrator as well as her readers.) Le Guin’s lovely writing is also occasionally marred by oddly clunky moments (“after a while we got to sleep at last”). I was also annoyed by the ease with which the large Genly could fit into the specialist cold weather gear of the far smaller Winter-dwellers. But – clearly – these complaints are cosmetic. For the most, it’s a fine reworking of the classic journey narrative through physical hardship towards personal enlightenment. Le Guin’s description of the cold, hunger and frustrations of Genly and Estraven’s painfully slow march across the ice provokes shivers, and the book could easily stand up as a good, old-fashioned adventure. But Genly and Estraven’s inner journey adds a further layer of intrigue. It’s a touching evocation of friendship in the face of mutual incomprehension, and it allows Le Guin to play sophisticated games with her characters’ confused gender roles. It’s only very late on, for instance, when Genly recognises that he has been viewing Estraven as a slightly smaller man. He’s always referred to Estraven as “he”, for a start, and hasn’t really taken account of the fact that “he” could bear children – and might be a potential sexual partner.

Or at least, that’s how I saw it: a clever use of unreliable narration and even the language of that narration, designed to make us take a good, hard look at our own assumptions. Le Guin herself, however, casts some doubt on this interpretation. I was surprised to read afterwards that some had accused her of using protagonists who were too “male” (a problem exemplified by the use of the masculine personal pronoun to describe the natives of Winter), and that in The Fisherman’s Daughter, an essay from 1988, LeGuin admitted that her critics were right and that she was guilty of following contemporary (1969) trends and making women “secondary”.

Graciously, in her recent introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of the book, Le Guin said she was content now to leave such issues for “my readers to judge”. I’m not going to presume to have an answer, other than to say that the confusion and emotion surrounding the debate shows what fraught territory the author has braved – and to note that part of the appeal of the book lies in just this kind of ambiguity. Like everything else – from the development of Winter to political motivations to religious philosophy – it’s open to multiple readings. This is a book that leaves you thinking. It’s so good I can almost understand how it beat the also shortlisted Slaughterhouse Five in the voting. Almost.

Next time: Ringworld by Larry Niven

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