"To oppose something is to maintain it."
Imagine a place where there's no gender. Literally, people haven't any; no genitalia, no masculine or feminine characteristics, no one living their lives according to a plan dictated by their anatomy. You did? Good. That's the Left Hand of Darkness.
People on planet Winter periodically go through a phase called kemmer : that's when they're sexually active. They seek a companion and when they meet someone else in kemmer their anatomy takes shape. If the chemistry's right, you're both turned on and...*scene fades to black*
Now, consider what this means. First, everyone gets pregnant at some point of their lives (woo-hoo!). Second, everyone is man and woman at the same time and yet, nothing of the two. Third, love knows no sex, only people. Fourth, there is no concept of rape, for no one can be raped if their genitalia haven't formed - and if you don't want, they don't. And fifth (my favourite), you have a bunch of strange, incomprehensible, anal-retentive beings.
At least that's how the protagonist of the story, a foreigner, views them. These people have a notion very much like our own pride (but much, much more complex) called shifgrethor. They're touchy and grumpy about this. A social faux-pas might be what they fear most. Their politics is full of conniving and corrupted individuals. They are too alien and sometimes a complete mystery.
But Ai, our friendly protagonist, gradually comes to a level of understanding with one of these people and so does he (or is it she?). You might call it love. Isn't love some threshold of understanding between two people anyway?
Le Guin is one of those writers that make me shiver. Her words are always immaculate, her view of the world of a holistic, peaceful quality. I loved the fact that this was far from a utopia, but a deeply troubled society instead. Utopias aren't very useful; stories about people though, are.
You can buy The Left Hand of Darkness here.
Photo by David Maisel - History's Shadow: x-ray photos of statues.