The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is my favorite author. She takes the science fiction genre to a different level, one with more emotional and philosophical depth than most. I love sci-fi and will read, to some extent, even books that have little emotional depth. But when I read The Left Hand of Darkness it pried open my brain in a way that no other book had. And to think, it was published in 1969. It boggles the mind.
Humans on the icy planet Gethen (they are explicitly called human beings even though they live on a different planet) generally look like us but are androgynous most of the time. Only a few days of the 26 day month do they turn into the equivalent of males or females at which time they can either father or mother a child depending on what they develop into.
The narrator of the book is a man from Earth who visits Gethen in order to persuade them to enter the grouping of planets called the Ekumen. After spending some time there, over a year, he comes to certain conclusions.
(Genly Ai, the narrator, must use the pronoun “he” for an individual even though they are not males or females, for lack of better terminology. This caused me to inadvertently imagine all of the Gethenians as males even though Le Guin addresses the issue.)
This society’s daily functioning has little or nothing to do with sex (talk about higher productivity!). Each person has an equal chance of becoming “tied down to childbearing”, hence equality exists to a greater extent than on Earth. No rape exists, and no male-female strong-weak dualism either.
To meet someone without immediately placing them into a category seems impossible for us, and is for the main character, though he strives to overcome it.
“A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated… on [Gethen] they will not exist. One is judged and respected only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”
Gethens also lack “war” as we know it. Intrigue, murder, revenge, torture, all exist, but not war because they lack the ability to mobilize. The narrator says they behave “like animals, in that respect, or like women.”
Another human who had visited Gethen introduces the idea that some entity, perhaps humans, created the Gethen sexuality as an experiment, possibly in order to eliminate war. No other planet that the Ekumenical peoples have encountered has this kind of “androgynous” human life.
Fascinating, excellent read. Le Guin calls it a thought experiment, and that it certainly is.