The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin Questions

1. This story was revolutionary for 1968, the year of the moon landing, for its treatment of gender and sexuality. Do you think it remains revolutionary today?

2. Do you read sci fi often? Was that aspect of the novel challenging for you?

3. Some critics question whether the androgynous nature of the Gethenians is central to the story or not. For some, the idea of androgyny exists independent from the story. Others find it essential. Do you agree with either of these assessments? Something in the middle?

4. Why do you think LeGuin decided to not describe the full details of the Gethenians’ gender identity until a third of the way through the novel? Did you find this disorienting?

5. The Left Hand of Darkness is written like a report by Genly Ai. This means Ai “selected” the extra materials to include (for example Estraven’s chapters, the Orgota creation myth, and so on). Why do you suppose he chose to include these sections as the in-story author? Alternatively, why do you think Le Guin chose to write these sections like she did?

6. As he reminds us often, Genly Ai thinks himself a manly, macho man. Do you think his views on the Gethenians would be different if he were a woman? How much would the story change?

7. Estraven never tells Ai about his child with Arek, his brother. We don’t discover this until the final pages of the novel. Why do you suppose Estraven never divulged the information? Also, why would Le Guin wait until the end of the novel to make the big reveal? What purpose do you think it serves? 

8. How are the past and the future related in The Left Hand of Darkness? What role does each play in Gethenian society?

9. In the decades after she wrote it, Le Guin came to criticise some of the decisions she made regarding the treatment of gender in the novel, particularly her use of “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun. In what ways do you think this novel is a product of its time?

10. LeGuin is a student of Taoism, and Ai explicitly mentions the yin/yang symbol. What other religious themes do you find in the book? Faxe tells Ai that they perfected Foretelling “To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.” What do you think of this? Do you think Ai asked the right question?

11. Do you think this is a love story between Estraven and Ai, at least in part?

12. The one biographical fact that is most mentioned about Ursula LeGuin is that her parents were anthropologists. How do you feel this influenced her writing and this book in particular?

13. Would you like to be a Gethenian? From an investigator’s field notes concerning the lack of gender-specific characteristics: “On Winter…One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.” What do you think that means? Would you feel that way?

14. Le Guin said this book was “descriptive not prescriptive”. What do you think she meant by that?

15. How did you respond to it from an LGBTQ perspective? Did you think it made sense to choose this for our club?

16. Do you agree with this quote?

Macro-scale: this depiction of androgyny was groundbreaking for its time, and arguably remains the most famous gender-bending in the genre to date.
Micro-scale: I longed to be Gethenian. As a closeted kid growing up Catholic in a conservative town, the idea that sex and gender had no default templates in nature was a life-saving epiphany. Imagine a society without sexual shame, without double standards, without rape. Imagine a world in which everyone has a monthly biological cycle that you get time off for, no questions asked. Imagine families in which you can be mother and father both. Now imagine the difficulty of being a person from our world, dropped into the middle of that and tasked with building a cultural bridge. Our narrator is the first to admit his shortcomings on that front: ‘My efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.’ Or, in modern parlance: Genly knows he needs to unpack his biases. He spends the entire book trying to do just that. In turn, the book helped me to do the same.
From by Becky Chambers

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