The meagre 2* is more a reflection of my enjoyment rather than an objective measure of the book (it has won prestigious awards). It wasn't to my taste, and that was exacerbated by mismatched expectations. It is not really sci-fi, but is part political intrigue and part boys-own adventure in an inhospitable climate. The setting is another planet in the future, but right from the start, mentions of rain and reign contributed to the non-sci-fi feel.
There were some some fascinating ideas, but I felt they weren't really developed. Also, the multiple names of many people and places made it a little less reader-friendly than it might have been.
Genly Ai is a single human envoy sent to very cold planet (Gethen, aka Winter) to see if the humanoids there want to join the inter-planetary alliance, the Ekumen (etymologically related to "ecumenical"). He isn't first contact, but he is the first overt contact. The idea of him being alone is that "One voice speaking the truth is a greater force than fleets of armies", and also that although the planet might change him, he won't be able to change it.
The planet does not have a single government, and Ai inevitably becomes enmeshed in power struggles between different realms. He starts off in Karhide, and compares subsequent events and encounters in Orgoreyn with those in Karhide.
The other main character is Estraven, a senior courtier in Karhide, who is the second narrator.
This is the book's USP: not people leaping in and out of bed with each other, but the fact that the Genthenians are ambisexual: most of the time they are both/neither sex (hermaphrodite neuters, or more positively, potentials or integrals), and when they go into kemmer (like being on heat), they can be either.
It's easy and convenient to pigeon-hold people based on sex, and Ai understandably struggles with that framework not applying. One manifestation is linguistic: he admits defeat and mostly uses male pronouns (in part because he often meets people in male-associated roles, such as King), but it makes it hard for the reader to view the characters as anything other than male.
Feminine qualities are rarely mentioned, but when they are, it is invariably pejorative, which feels strange coming from a female author. For example, "effeminate deviousness", "sullen as an old she-otter", someone's behaviour was "womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit". Furthermore, an earlier female investigator from Terra comments, "A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated... On Winter... one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience."
For Ai, awkwardness extends to distaste: "It was impossible to think of him as a woman... and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture." Much later, there is grudging acceptance: "I saw... what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him".
Gethenian sexual behaviour and taboos are necessarily different from those typical on Earth, though this includes very relaxed (though still regulated) traditions regarding incest.
In some ways, Winter is a very samey planet with one season and one/no gender (being fixed in one of two sexes is considered a peversion, though is tolerated). Does that make Gethenians more or less complete than Terrans?
The title of the book is said to come from a Handdara poem, and after hearing it, Ai says to Estraven "You're isolated and undivided. Perhaps you are obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism". The phrase is also likened to the duality of yin and yang.
There are feuds and rivalries on the planet, but no war, and no word for it. This is curious, but not really explained, other than that in Karhide hospitality, "The stranger... is a guest. Your enemy is your neighbour", along with another dig at women: they don't have war because "They lacked... the capacity to mobilize
. They behaved like animals in that respect, or women"!
They may not have a word for war, but they do have 62 words for snow, so The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax continues... ;)
The book opens with the narrator brazenly stating that "Truth is a matter of imagination", facts are not fixed, so the reader "can choose the facts they like best". However, although the book is mostly told in the first person, by either Ai or Estraven, there appears to be little contradiction in their accounts, so the point is wasted.
Ai's people have developed mindspeech (telepathy), which clearly limits the scope for privacy and lying, but apart from one scene, this is another lost opportunity.
The first-person narratives are occasionally interspersed with snippets of Gethenian folklore. Two religions are mentioned: Handdara, which is "a religion without institutions" and which involves meditation, trance-like superstrength (dothe) and foretelling. The other is more monotheistic, and mentioned rather less.
The predominant religions and consequent (or caused) different cultures in the two countries may be a factor in their political differences.
A short appendix explains quirks of the Gethenian calendar compared with Earth's, but the only interesting aspect is mentioned on page one of the story: it is always year 1; all other years are counted relative to now, which is potentially confusing (though not in practice).
Another curious idea (even more so nowadays) is that "Karhiders don't read much... and prefer their news and literature heard not seen; books and televising devices are less common than radios, and newspapers don't exist"!
Gethenians are adapted to the cold climate biologically (enduring low temperatures) and socially, in that they live somewhat communally.
Their technological development has been steady, but slower than that on Earth. They have no flying vehicles, and it's suggested that, lacking any flying creatures on the planet (not even insects?), the possibility never occurred to them.
Karhiders also have an important system of protocol/face/etiquette, called shifgrethor
, which is mentioned often, but somewhat opaque (which is fair enough, as it puts the reader in a similar state of disquiet as Ai is in).
There isn't much (it's primarily plot-driven), but some characters do change their opinions of others as events unfold. Although the King is often described as mad, he didn't seem particularly so.
I was reminded of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide", which is possibly no coincidence. There is a discussion of what sort of question one could or should ask Foretellers, including the danger of asking "What is the meaning of life?" In fact, they perfected foretelling "to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question".
A FEW QUOTES
* A powerful person "cannot make an empty gesture or say a word that is not listened to. He knows it,and the knowledge gives him more reality than most people own: a solidness of being, a substantiality, a human grandeur."
* A grand palace is "the product of centuries of paranoia on a grand scale".
* Patriotism is "fear of the other. And its expressions are political not poetical".
* "my landlady
, a voluble man
* "The coldness of it was perpetually incredible. Every morning I had to believe it all over again." (Shades of believing "six impossible things before breakfast" in Alice in Wonderland.)
The blurb from the GR description says in the final paragraph that this is "science fiction for the thinking reader", so I guess failing to like it must be a fault in me as a reader, rather than Le Guin as the author!