4 out of 5 StarsGenly Ai has been sent to convince the Gethenians on the Planet Winter to join a planetary alliance. The Gethenians are asexual – they only become male or female once every month. Genly has to learn to navigate his way through the strange rules of this planet and to forge relationships that transcend sexual identity.When I first heard of The Left Hand of Darkness, I expected it to be more of an exploration of gender and how gender influences destiny a la a Joanna Russ novel. Gender is touched on but it isn’t the focus of the story. Going in with very different expectations (excpecting Russ when I got…well, le Guin), I didn’t really enjoy the first few chapters. The book felt more like an antholopological study. I was completely bored and almost DNFed. But when I let go of my RAH RAH FEMINISM expectations, and read the book for what it was, I began to enjoy it. What I first had assumed was purely anthropological was setting the groundwork for the eventual political drama. By being immersed in Gethenian society and politics the reader really understood why groups and characters acted as they did and eventually came to better understand the Gethenian characters, especially Estravan, and how he deviates from the norm.The focus of the book is Genly and his complicated relationship with Estraven. Although neither are particularly close or even like each other at the beginning, both eventually come together over their goal for Winter to join the Ekumenical Council and the hardships they face to achieve that goal. Experiencing so much together, they begin to relate to each other on an almost spiritual level, based on who they are, not what they are (male/female, earth/alien, norm/other, etc.)The best parts were the Gethenian myths, legends, and religious texts interspersed throughout the book. They probably were much more interesting and informative on Gethenians worldview than the chapters spent describing Winter and the various countries. I loved how each of these stories eventually came back and reflected the journey and friendship of Genly and Estraven and their own individual lives.However, the book is a bit dated. Written in 1969, some of the gender politics are old-fashioned (seriously in a 1000 years, women haven’t been able to achieve equal status with men? On any planet? In 40 years we’ve accomplished much more than what le Guin predicts for the future). The gender politics on Terra and the other planets part of the Ekumenical council sound close to those of 1960’s middle class America. There is an interesting chapter where a female scientist muses that it’s hard to live on Winter because the people don’t notice or recognize your sexuality. As a female scientist, this seemed a really odd statement, especially since it flies close to benevolent sexism (i.e. You’re really pretty for a scientist!)This is compounded by the fact that Genly is pretty sexist. He constantly looks down on the Gethenians he sees as having “female” traits (even though they do not identify as either male or female but asexual). While he eventually does move past this with Estravan, and sees him as truly asexual, Genly never really leaves his sexism behind. While this is probably more realistic than Genly suddenly quoting Gloria Steinem and marching for equal rights, his actions and feelings were a bit too close to Poe’s Law for comfort. Especially considering the sexism plaguing sci-fi, Genly could easily be any one of these men.Despite being a bit dated, this book is a wonderful exploration of relationships – how people relate to one another, how they can bridge differences and learn about each other – and one planet adapting to their whole worldview changing. The Left Hand of Darkness broke my heart and made me think. I don’t know if I feel it was worthy of winning both the Hugo and Nebula in 1969 (all that anthropological stuff and survival stuff did weigh the book down a bit), but then again I wasn’t alive back then. What I can say is Le Guin definitely deserves her place as the premier female science fiction author, and is a must read for any fans of the genre. She brings a unique perspective that is different from the Bradburys, Huxleys, and Orwells. She deserves to stand next to the greats.