Non-Binary Narratives: “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “Ancillary Justice” as Genderpunk Genesis

JANK
4 min readJul 3, 2023
A genderpunk person with short-cropped black hair and light skin wearing big mission control type headphones, and jacket with electronics on it. In the background is a gritty city.

The genderpunk genre, characterized by its spirited questioning and often radical dismantling of traditional gender norms, owes its genesis to a range of trailblazing literary works. These forerunners dared to deviate from traditional gender narratives and challenged readers to reevaluate their preconceived notions about gender. By presenting worlds that deconstruct the gender binary and delving into the complex exploration of gender fluidity and non-binary identities, these novels laid the groundwork for the edgy, transformative genre that is genderpunk.

Two such remarkable pillars that helped to shape the contours of the genre are Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Both these novels are daring in their experimentation with gender representation, radically defying established norms. Their powerful narrative structures, the societies they create, and the characters they breathe life into, collectively, are a testament to the spirit of innovation and bravery that is essential to the genderpunk genre.

The Left Hand of Darkness presents a world that is strikingly different from our own, with an entirely unique interpretation of gender. Le Guin introduces readers to the Gethenians, an alien race that exists beyond the constraints of binary gender. The Gethenians spend the majority of their lives in an androgynous state, physically transitioning into male or female forms only during their “kemmer” or monthly reproductive cycle. This fluid and transient gender representation stands in stark contrast to our own static and binary perception of gender.

The protagonist, Genly Ai, a human male, serves as our guide through this alien culture. Through Ai, we see the implications of a fluid gender society, both in terms of power dynamics and personal relationships. The novel, therefore, serves as an allegory that invites readers to scrutinize their own understanding of gender and its societal constructions. The radical vision of a society liberated from the constraints of the gender binary offered by “The Left Hand of Darkness” is a crucial stepping stone in the emergence of the genderpunk genre.

Ancillary Justice, on the other hand, presents a different but equally provocative exploration of gender. Set against the backdrop of the far-flung Radch Empire, this space opera eliminates the concept of gendered division entirely. Leckie’s innovative narrative strategy goes a step further by employing a universal ‘she’ pronoun for all characters, regardless of their gender. This bold linguistic choice represents a direct challenge to gender norms and a refusal to acknowledge them within the novel’s universe.

By using ‘she’ as the default pronoun, Leckie forces readers to confront their own ingrained gender biases and expectations. This strategy prompts readers to re-evaluate their understanding of gendered language and its effect on their perception of characters and their roles. In doing so, Ancillary Justice breaks away from gender binary norms at a fundamental linguistic level, representing an essential evolution in the genderpunk genre. The novel shows that the deconstruction of gender can be achieved not just through the development of societies and characters, but also through the very language used to narrate the story.

Examining the narrative techniques of both novels, we can discern the individual contributions they have made to the genesis of the genderpunk genre. The Left Hand of Darkness invites readers to question the very foundation of gender and its role in structuring society, through the depiction of an alien race that defies the binary notion of gender. Le Guin’s exploration of a society free from gender norms forms a critical part of genderpunk’s ethos, inspiring future works to envision societies where individuals can embody a fluid spectrum of gender identities.

Moreover, through the experiences and observations of Genly Ai, readers are invited to deconstruct their preconceived notions about gender. Le Guin places a ‘standard’ human male from Earth in the midst of an alien society that doesn’t conform to his gender expectations, thus emphasizing the societal construct of gender norms. This novel lays bare the human tendency to perceive and categorize individuals based on gender, thereby highlighting the restrictive nature of such a binary system.

In a similar vein, Ancillary Justice also experiments with the representation of gender, but it does so in a much more linguistically innovative way. Leckie’s decision to use ‘she’ as a default pronoun across the board represents a conscious rejection of gendered language, thereby pushing the boundaries of traditional gender narratives. This fundamental shift in language use forces readers to question their subconscious gender biases and expectations, thereby encouraging introspection about the very concept of gender.

By challenging the normative use of gendered pronouns, Ancillary Justice adds another layer of complexity to the portrayal of gender in literature. The novel reinforces the fact that gender is not just about physical attributes but also involves the way we linguistically refer to and perceive individuals. This deliberate linguistic blurring of gender boundaries contributes significantly to the ethos of the genderpunk genre, which seeks to deconstruct traditional gender norms and expectations.

The innovative narrative and linguistic techniques employed in both The Left Hand of Darkness and Ancillary Justice have left an indelible mark on the genderpunk genre. Both Le Guin and Leckie have paved the way for a genre that challenges the traditional understanding of gender, offering alternative visions of societies where gender norms and expectations can be fluid and diverse. Their pioneering works have encouraged the rethinking and reimagining of gender in literature, opening the doors for new narratives that defy binary notions.

In conclusion, The Left Hand of Darkness and Ancillary Justice are trailblazing works that have defined and shaped the genderpunk genre. By daring to defy traditional gender norms and expectations, they have set a strong foundation for a genre that seeks to continually question, challenge, and ultimately transform our understanding of gender. These novels stand as enduring testaments to the power of speculative fiction to inspire societal introspection and, ultimately, to promote more inclusive, diverse, and fluid understandings of gender.

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JANK

Author, screenwriter, publisher, game maker, musician, & organizer. EIC at Android Press, Solarpunk Mag, Rural Oregon life. Trans and anti-authoritarian.