Let's perform a little thought experiment. Imagine a planet in the middle of its ice age, snow blanketing everything, always seeing your breath puffed into the wind. Every aspect of life from traveling to housing to eating is dominated by just how frigid the world is. Drinks even come with little ice-picks so you can break up the ice that's constantly forming on top.
So, who do you imagine would live on such a planet? Probably some burly Viking-type dude who wears animals he personally killed, carries an axe instead of a cell phone, and listens to Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" on loop. Right?
That's what we thought, until we read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, one of her Hainish Cycle novels. (Don't worry; you can read this one without reading the others—but you might not be able to help it.)
Le Guin's novel tells the story of one Genly Ai, a human whose job is to convince the people of the planet Gethen to join the Ekumen (think United Nations but in space). But the Gethenians aren't the manly-men Vikings we might expect to live on such a planet. Instead, they're an androgynous race, neither male nor female but capable of being both (and neither), depending on the lunar cycle.
When The Left Hand of Darkness hit in 1969, it produced some huge waves both in and outside the science fiction community. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, which is like winning an Oscar and a Golden Globe in the sci-fi community. In fact, Le Guin was the second author—and the first female author—to accomplish this double-win feat, following Frank Herbert's double win for Dune and helping set the trend kept alive by William Gibson's Neuromancer, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and Gaiman's American Gods.
Beyond the awards and heaps of loving praise, Le Guin's novel was also a milestone for science fiction and feminist works in general. Before The Left Hand of Darkness, science fiction was mostly seen as a boy's clubhouse, the kind with a No Gurls Alowed sign crudely spray-painted on the door. Women (like Le Guin herself) certainly wrote science fiction before The Left Hand of Darkness came along, but there was a hush-hush understanding that the material should be aimed at boys. Le Guin helped break down this barrier, just when the Second-Wave Feminism movement was picking up steam.
Of course, when a major work is penned, controversy follows. Some critics argued the sexual ambiguity of Le Guin's Gethenians wasn't sexually ambiguous at all. They were just typical sci-fi bros who occasional took on female physical traits. And it turns out that Le Guin herself agreed: in 1987, she agreed that maybe she didn't do such a great job of dealing with the gender issues. But just the fact that she tried—totally radical.
Intrigued yet? Just wait until you read it.
You're going to have to deal with other cultures in your life. Get use to the idea.
What's that, you say? You're nestled good and safe in your hometown in your own country? No foreign languages? No weird food? No strange mannerisms?
Yeah, we don't think that's going to work out for you. Here's why:
No culture exists inside a protective anti-foreign bubble. Thanks to the Internet and globalization and The World Is Flat, those bubbles have all popped, and cultures as distinct as America is from Egypt or Japan from South Africa are interacting with each other in ways never imagined. Even if you stay offline and never visit a foreign country, you'll still have to deal with the mini-cultures in your homeland. The American South has a completely different culture than its Northwest.
Believe us; we've lived in both.
So, you can think of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness as a literary how-to guide for dealing with other cultures. Ambassador Genly Ai's struggle is a battle to connect his own understanding of culture and society with one utterly foreign and alien to him—and it doesn't get much more foreign than androgynous aliens.
Ai must learn to communicate and interact with the Gethen as they expect him to. He has to be willing to be changed by their differences and integrate those differences into his new and expanding view of the universe. If he can't, he'll fail at his mission and nobody, neither the Gethenians, the Ekumen, nor himself, will benefit as a result.
Of course, the ultimate culture lesson in The Left Hand of Darkness is that underneath the androgyny, we're all the same. Hey, there's a reason that phrase became cliché. It's pretty hard to argue with.