In 1969, gender was a fixed concept. The world didn't know Boy George or Annie Lennox. There were no how-to websites for pursuing ambiguous gender expression. Jeffrey Eugenides hadn't written Middlesex. The New Yorker didn't publish articles about transgender children. No one talked about intersexuality or androgyny.

Which is what made Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness so prescient. The Portland author set her novel on a genderless planet called Gethen, where people have neither gender identity nor sexual urges—except during a short period of the month when they become either male or female, depending on their partner.

"It wasn't written as a utopia," says Le Guin, 83, sitting in her living room in Northwest Portland. "It was written as a thought experiment. What is left if you take away gender? What's interesting is that they still seem to be so fully human."

Yet what began as a thought experiment has become, in the 44 years since the book's release, something edging closer to reality.

"You walk downtown and you see Gethenians all the time," Le Guin says, referring to her novel's androgynous characters. "I don't know whether that's a man or a woman. It's a human being. I always like to see that. Those are my people."

And now her people are coming to life onstage, with an adaptation of Left Hand of Darkness co-produced by Hand2Mouth Theatre and Portland Playhouse, with a script by John Schmor. Le Guin's work has been adapted for stage and screen before, but it's been 17 years since anyone tackled The Left Hand of Darkness. What surprises Le Guin is the novel's staying power. When it was released, she worried it would be dismissed as too radical. But its publication coincided with the growth of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution, and the book won over both readers and critics. Pushback came not from male readers but from feminists, who tagged her too conservative—Le Guin used "he" for genderless characters rather than creating a new pronoun, for example. Despite such complaints, though, the book has remained relevant.

"We didn't even have the phrase 'gender construction' in 1969," Le Guin says. "What's changed is that people are able to see gender as a spectrum instead of complete opposites."

This transformation of gender conceptions also pushed Jonathan Walters, the artistic director of Hand2Mouth and the director of this adaptation, toward the story. "I think the next step forward that we're about to take is understanding gender and people between genders," he says. "I feel like that's about to come into our consciousness, in the way that being openly gay has."

Gender, though, isn't the only twist in The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel's only Earthman is black, which Le Guin reveals casually midway through the book. It's something she's called her "evil activist plot."

"I do that all the time in my books," Le Guin says. "You can't do that when you're writing about contemporary America. That would be phony. That would be concealing very important information from the reader. But you can do it in fantasy and science fiction, because the white reader will assume 99 percent of the time that they're reading about white people. And then you just put in a little..." She makes a clicking sound. "Actually, you’re not. Didn’t know that, did you?” 

It's alarming for white readers, Le Guin says, when they realize they've been identifying with a black protagonist.

It's all part of Le Guin's thought experiment. Unlike sci-fi movies that rely on extravagant special effects and space fiction that doesn't take science seriously, her science fiction demands intellectual engagement. (Still, she acknowledges a special affection for Men in Black. "I just watched Men in Black II," she says, laughing. "It's so funny. I just love the worms.") Her writing—just like live theater—can be intimidating. Does that make a stage adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness a perfect storm of dread-inducing art?

"It's funny that we talk of people being scared, both of science fiction and of theater," Le Guin says. "We have to tell people, don't be scared. Sit down. We're not out there to scare you.” 

SEE IT: The Left Hand of Darkness is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 488-5822. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Saturdays-Sundays through June 2. $23-$32.