The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuinn
LT recommended this one to me, and since I remember enjoying reading The Dispossessed a few decades ago, I eagerly gave it a try.
This is classic sci-fi from the eighties. Guy shows up on a planet where gender relations are very usual because, well, gender isn’t binary. Turns out that the inhabitants of this planet are neither male nor female most of the time, but enter a sort of estrus state where they can become a specific gender for a few days when it’s time to reproduce or to, you know, party. As you might imagine, this adds an usual dimension to the politicking and interpersonal relationships in their quasi-feudal society. Our primary narrator observes all of this and gets deeply involved in palace intrigue and international diplomacy. Then the story takes a radical right turn, and we get an extended men-vs.-nature bit in which a couple travels across arctic wastes for a few hundred pages.
All of this works out okay, I suppose, but several issues kept me from really enjoying the novel too much. The first was its plodding prose – frankly, just plain bad in many cases and dull in most others. The second was that I felt the novel was unable to maintain focus. If the idea was that traditional gender roles has a huge influence on society – okay, fine. Tell me about that. If the notion was that realpolitik works differently in a culture where gender is non-binary, okay, fine, keep focused on that. Instead, I’m left with a setup, and elaborately explained set-piece dealing with this core conceit (“What if instead of having a predefined gender, people could become male or female when it was time to have sex?”) that ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. The politics and behaviors of the characters and kings here was basically what you’d get from similar Earth societies. The interpersonal relationships and intrigues weren’t markedly different either. And then, as if she was as bored as the rest of us with the notion, the author wanders into a different story for the last third of the book. Now, if the point is, “gender roles don’t really influence the machinations of culture all that deeply”, then I suppose this book would serve as some low-grade ammo for this perspective. But I’m nearly certain that this is exactly the opposite of what Ursula was trying to wrestle with.
Finally, I’d be curious to get The Professor’s take on this one, since she’s so much more deeply initiated in to the arcane of 21st century gender studies than am I. She might understand what was attempted here in a way I’m just missing. But, since it just wasn’t that cool or interesting, I don’t think I’ll ever recommend it to her.