It is the only one of her Hainish novels I’ve read so far, but that series of stand alone novels is set in a universe in which there are many worlds, including Earth (or Terra), all inhabited by humans descended from a common set of ancestors. Many of them have joined together in a confederation of planets called the Ekumen. Genli Ai, born on Terra, is a representative of the Ekumen sent to a planet called Gethen by its inhabitants, and Winter by the Ekumen due to perpetual winter. There are several nations there, and the primary action takes place in the largest two, Karhyde and Orgoreyn. The humans on Gethen are biologically androgynous. They have no primary sexual characteristics outside of a brief period each month when they can become either for procreative purposes. Any person can either sire or bear a child.
Like a lot of scifi novels of the 60’s and 70’s, there’s a lot of focus on political intrigue, primarily between Karhyde and Orgoreyn. And a main concern of the novel is examining the effects of true androgyny on the politics of the place. Ai’s main ally in Karhyde, where he spends the first couple years of this time on Gethen, is Estraven, himself an exile. (Even though all humans born on Gethen are androgynous Le Guin uses masculine pronouns for them.) Both Ai and Estraven end up in Orgoreyn. Ai’s goal is to try to get the planet of Gethen into the Ekumen. The book is part scifi, part gender studies, part survivalist thriller, part political thriller, and, once I got on its wavelength (which took a couple tries) absolutely compelling.
It is well structured. The bulk of the book are first person reports/journals kept by Ai and Estraven, sprinkled with folk tales from various places on Gethen. The folk tales give the reader enough knowledge of the customs and politics of the world without excessive infodump, and are interesting as short pieces in their own right. The alternating narratives of the two main characters, one Terran, one Gethen, allow Le Guin to examine the effects of gender on a range of issues without getting didactic. The way the two characters view each other is fascinating. And the intrigue and survivalist framework allows the book to move along without getting bogged down.
I need to ponder the book and likely reread it a couple times before I’m willing to make stronger statements about everything it is saying. But I can give it a full throated recommendation. I enjoyed it thoroughly and look forward to revisiting it.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 31/75
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