Among Others inspired me to try some classic sci-fi, and LeGuin's well-known The Left Hand of Darkness seemed to be a good place to start (gotta give the love to the women sci-fi writers!). I was worried the novel would be dry or dated, as it was written over forty years ago, so I found myself pleasantly surprised at how engaging it is.
The novel follows Genly Ai, the first Envoy to the planet called Gethen, or Winter. He has been living on the planet as a representative of the Ekumen, a sort of interplanetary alliance, and has not been having much success. Winter's inhabitants live in an Arctic landscape, to which Genly is poorly suited, and he has made little inroads with the Karhidish king, whom he is trying to convince to align with the Ekumen.
The first half of the novel is a bit slow. Genly engages in vague politicking around Karhide and complains about their unusual customs and habits. Though he feels he has an ally in Lord Estraven, he's never certain, and I didn't feel especially connected or interested in Genly. However, about halfway through, the novel plunges into action. After Lord Estraven is declared a traitor and exiled by the Karhidish king, Genly travels to another country, Orgota, in hopes of forming an alliance with them. He fares even worse there and is abruptly thrown into a prison labor camp. Suddenly, a somewhat slow political novel becomes a daring escape tale when Estraven rescues Genly from the camp and they begin an 800-mile journey over ice back to Karhide.
Though the first half of the novel is necessary set-up, it's the second half that makes the whole piece worthwhile, as a strong friendship forms between Genly and Estraven. This relationship is all the more important because of the singular unique trait of the people of Winter: they do not have gender (at least, not as we see it). Most of the time, Gethenians are essentially neuter (or, more accurately, "potentials"), not having sex organs or traits associated with men or women. However, during part of each month (much like a woman's period), each Gethenian goes into kemmer and adopts male or female sex parts in response to another individual in kemmer. In this phase, the "female" Gethenian can become pregnant and have children. However, after the child is born and weaned, that same Gethenian could take on male characteristics in kemmer and sire a child. Though Genly has difficulty with many aspects of Gethenian culture, it's this inability to classify individuals by gender that is the most challenging. And even though I'd like to think we've come further in being comfortable with gender ambiguity since then, it's a challenging part of the novel for the reader too. After all, Genly refers to the people he meets as "he," and as an investigator writes, "The very use of the pronoun [he] in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman" (69).
Traveling and becoming close with Estraven forces Genly (and the reader) to accept Estraven as a person, not a woman or a man. Writes the same investigator, "The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience" (69).
What I love about classic sci-fi and fantasy, in particular, is the detail and thought put into the worldbuilding. In that regard, The Left Hand of Darkness reminded me of Dune, though I felt for the characters much more here.
LeGuin challenges us to reevaluate the way we judge and assume based on gender, but her book is not heavy-handed about it. She seems to suggest (in a real and not a kid's cartoon kind of way) that true friendships and understanding can happen if there is a willingness to put aside one's prejudices and, at times, pride.