Twelve years ago, give or take a few, Gregory Frost and I guest taught one of Judith Moffett's science fiction classes. This was back when she was at the U of P. It was a good class. The experience was satisfying to everyone involved. Then, after the class, two of the female students approached Greg and me with a question that was obviously burning in them: "What do you think of The Left Hand of Darkness?" Which was a strange question because Judy worshiped at the altar of Le Guin specifically because of that novel and we were sure she'd taught it intensely. Hell, in person she could hardly stop talking about it.
"We think it's a very great book," Greg said.
I nodded. "Why? What do you think about it?"
They looked embarrassed. Then one of them said, "We think it's sexist."
To say that the male components of this exchange were flabbergasted is an understatement. But we did as well as we could in the conversation that ensued to put the book into perspective in a way that did not condescend to either Le Guin or her young readers.
Recently, I wanted to re-read a specific section of LHoD and discovered that I was no longer satisfied with the copy I'd owned for decades, a coverless paperback bought back when I had far more reading time than money. Time has reversed those proportions and so I bought a hardcover.
Behold the (admittedly still partial) triumph of feminism: Now I can see what those students were talking about.
Take a look at the last full page of this work about a sexless culture, starting with Genly Ai's meeting with Therem's father. The male nouns and pronouns pop from the page: old man... he... his... son... old lord... brother... son... him... he... he... old man's... boy... heir of Estre, my son's son... boy... king... old lord... he... he... Lord Envoy... the boy, Therem's son...
And then the conclusion: "Will you tell us how he died?--Will you tell us about the other worlds among the stars--the other kinds of men, the other lives?"
It was as if the female pronoun and all related nouns had been banished. It was as if being male were the default position of humanity. It was as if women didn't count.
It seems so obvious now, forty-four years after the book's first publication. But the year before that, 1968, when Le Guin would have been writing the novel, I remember a friend (we were both freshmen at William & Mary then) who, crying and in extremis, drunkenly said, "Everybody says that men and women think differently -- but we don't! I think exactly the same way a man does." I could hear the truth in her voice. But I was baffled by it. Everybody knew that men and women thought differently. All our literature said so. Every woman I'd ever known said so. My mother said so.
And here was a woman saying: No. It's not so.
I didn't know what to make of it. I thought about it for years, trying to understand it.
That was the world in which Le Guin wrote The Left Hand of Darkness. Which had at its core what then seemed to almost everyone to be an obvious untruth: Men and women are in essence the same.
What an extraordinary work for a woman of her times to have written! Le Guin must have known, as she was writing it, that she was working on a novel that might well have been beyond her capabilities. How astonished we were by it when it came out!
What a triumph for her that nowadays even a male reader can wonder, if only for a moment, if it's sexist.