Genly Ai is an ambassador, an envoy from a confederation of planets and peoples, the Ekumen. He has been sent down to the planet, Gethen, to see if they will join the Ekumen.
It is a winter world, cold and alien to Genly who nonetheless almost blends in with the humanoids. He has learnt their languages. He is learning about their cultures.
The novel is a famous, classic of science fiction, mostly because the people of Gethen are genderless. They only develop female or male sexual traits at the peak of their sexual cycle and do not always become one over the other, meaning that they can both father children and gestate and birth them. When not at that point in their cycle, they do not engage in sexual intimacy.
Of course, the novel isn’t just about gender and sex, it is about cultural misunderstanding, the weight of preconceptions, the wheels of power and politics, and the trust and honesty required for love.
It is a dense book that would reward multiple readings. It has all the joys of Le Guin’s ability to invent alternative mythology and legend. Inventive, awkward and provocative. It is a book that lingers in the mind. As well as politics and philosophy, there is adventure and a long journey across an extreme winter landscape. The wild fantasies of interstellar travel are brought down into the minutiae of food rationing and frostbite. I hope I will return to it.
I’ll be reading A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers next.