It was not until after her death this past January that I finally picked up one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books. The Left Hand of Darkness is widely considered one of the best science fiction novels ever written and so it felt like the obvious book to read first. In Le Guin’s universe, humans colonized planets across the universe hundreds of thousands of years ago and then lost contact with one another. Each planet has developed its own societies and history, but humans on Gethen have an even more fundamental difference from humans on any other of the 83 known worlds: they are all androgynous and lack a sex drive, except during the four days of “kemmer” every month. All people become either female or male during kemmer and then return to being androgynous when it ends, and during their next kemmer they can become a different sex than they were last month.
This means Gethenians have none of the day-to-day gender roles other humans understand automatically—whether they are the book’s interstellar space travelers, or us readers. When a human from Earth, Genly Ai, arrives to make first contact with Gethenians, he also finds that no language spoken on the planet has a word for “war”. But war seems to be exactly what the countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn are heading towards, and Genly finds himself in a struggle just to stay alive.