Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness is about a planet where the genetically-engineered inhabitants randomly become male or female for a few days each month. Science fiction professor Lisa Yaszek says that the book is one of the genre’s most important explorations of gender.

“This stuff was all in the air, so I think that Le Guin is definitely thinking about it at the right time,” Yaszek says in Episode 464 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “No one had really put it together into a sustained novel—well, I think some people had, but they hadn’t been published yet. She was definitely the first to the punch. So this is the first person to pick up some things that were beginning to happen in some of the edgier, more avant-garde science fiction.”

The Left Hand of Darkness features multiple factions and religions, each with its own history and mythology. All this complexity can make the novel somewhat daunting, but science fiction author Rajan Khanna says it’s worth the effort. “I’m amazed that it became as successful as it did,” he says. “I’m kind of in awe of her skill to take something that is probably slow-paced, and that isn’t traditional, and that can be sometimes challenging, and make it so engaging.”

The book is often criticized for presenting its androgynous characters as too masculine, but writer Sara Lynn Michener says some readers might not read it that way. “I feel like it’s probably a very different experience between a male reader and a female reader,” she says. “But for me it was like, ‘Oh yes, we’ve done this before—this business of the male is the default—and therefore I’m already seeing myself in these characters.’”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley was disappointed that the book focused more on politics than sociology, but ended up appreciating its unique style of court intrigue.

“It really had an emotional punch for me at the end,” he says. “Everything fell into place, and I could see why everything was the way it was. I do think that there’s lots of room for other authors to write about [androgynous] characters, and explore that in more detail, but I’m certainly glad this book exists exactly the way it is.”

Listen to the complete interview with Lisa Yaszek, Rajan Khanna, and Sara Lynn Michener in Episode 464 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Sara Lynn Michener on books:

“When I started reading science fiction, I was sort of investigating in the dark. My parents were not readers at all. I had gone to a Christian private school for part of middle school and part of high school, and we were actively discouraged from reading anything ‘secular.’ During that time I went through this horrible dark period where all I was reading was this fat textbook from Bob Jones University Press of short stories written by staff there—basically written by pastors. … I had a teacher stop me in the hallway because I was putting a Willa Cather book in my backpack, and she was like, ‘Does your mom know you have that?’ Imagine discouraging a ninth-grader from reading Willa Cather—she’s basically like Laura Ingalls Wilder for grown-ups.”

Lisa Yaszek on gender barriers:

“When [Le Guin] published ‘Nine Lives’—which was a story about a group of clones who are sort of siblings but sort of not, and they hang out and have sex together, and they work together and all this—she published that story around the same time in Playboy, and she had to use her initials. They wouldn’t let her publish under ‘Ursula K. Le Guin.’ It’s not like anyone wasn’t going to know who she was, because she was well enough known, but they were just like, ‘Oh no, a woman couldn’t do this.’ So there were definitely these weird sort of gender barriers there, and I think that in some ways they were more levied against women than men.”

Lisa Yaszek on worldbuilding:

“I love [in The Left Hand of Darkness] when we get all the myths and the inserted parts, and I think what was funny about that editor that sent that [rejection letter] to Le Guin is that they’re completely right and completely wrong all at once. It is boring, and those do break apart the narrative, and that’s totally the point. If you dismiss them, you’re being as bad as Genly Ai. If you dismiss them, you’re making the same mistake he does, because that’s where you get the clues to figure out how you actually have to interact with these people on this planet—the clues are in their culture. And he’s just like, ‘Well, whatever.’”

David Barr Kirtley on Genly Ai:

“Genly is pretty sexist. … When asked by Estraven if women are mentally inferior, he says, ‘I don’t know. They don’t often seem to turn up mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers. But it isn’t that they’re stupid.’ And it just seems like this super-enlightened civilization—that spans 83 worlds and 100 light years—can pick anyone to send as an envoy to this world where the inhabitants take on [multiple] genders, and this is the best candidate that they can find? So it just seems like there’s kind of a weird tension to me between the plot, which requires Genly to go on this character arc of growth toward greater understanding and enlightenment, and this idea that the Ekumen is already enlightened.”

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