As a not-quite-heterosexual high-school girl, I considered the grand science-fiction gender experiment in The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018), one of my formative love stories. The book was published in 1969 and won Hugo and Nebula awards, but it was still radical when I devoured it in the eighties and is still radical today. It tells the story of Genly Ai, a human-diaspora interstellar explorer who arrives solo on the planet Winter to convince its citizens to join the Ekumen, a benevolent interplanetary federation. Ai is a human man, but the humanoid people on Winter have no gender and instead go once a month into a kind of estrus called kemmer, in which their bodies are spontaneously inspired to become either male or female, for the purpose of sex. (Sounds fun … right?) As a person who is always a “man,” Ai is considered a pervert on Winter, but in their society—unlike ours—this isn’t a very big deal. More central is how Ai grapples with his relationships with the local people, in particular a government minister named Estraven, who may be an ally or an enemy or a friend … or more than a friend if Ai can expand his categories.
Le Guin said that she wrote her science fictions as thought experiments, skewing our world in search of moral insight, and her imagined society on Winter poses questions of how humans would organize themselves if we could all bear children and if we saw ourselves as humans first and sex objects only sometimes. It’s much more than just a love story, but in high school, I took it as one. Genly Ai’s long, slow, dawning appreciation of Estraven—and especially a night when he sees his friend shirtless, by a fire, as “gaunt and scarred … his face burned by cold almost as by fire … a dark, hard, and yet elusive figure in the quick, restless light”—set my standards for the highest romance.