A human is sent to a planet in a solar system that is reached only after decades of travel at speeds close to the speed of light. He is an envoy and his mission is to determine if the inhabitants of that planet are willing and able to join an interplanetary confederation referred to as “The Ekumen.” The inhabitants of that planet, called Gethen or Winter, are human and resemble the humans of earth in many ways, with one major difference. More about that later.
The envoy, the protagonist, is also the narrator for much of the story. His name is Genly Ai, although he is also referred to as Genry Ai in several places because the inhabitants of Karhide, one of the geopolitical regions on Gethen, can’t pronounce the letter L. His interactions first with the Karhiders and later with the inhabitants of Orgoreyn reveal just how human the inhabitants of Gethen are. Intrigue, mistrust, conflict, betrayal both presumed and real, and political machinations drive the story throughout. The king of Karhide himself tells Mr. Ai to “trust no one.”
The intrigue and conflict entrap and buffet Mr. Ai and the secondary narrator, a Karhide courtier named Estraven. To say more would be to spoil the plot.
Gethen is much like Earth. The year on Gethen is almost as long as the year on Earth. There are seasons, although Gethen has the alternate name of Winter because the snows begin to fall at the end of the summer season. In the depths of winter the roads in some regions are not plowed because plowing snow would use up most of the government’s budget. Instead motorized vehicles are sent to pack down the snow, and runners replace wheels on most modes of ground transportation. The descriptions of the climate raises questions about how the people of Gethen, being carbon-based life forms, are able to grow enough food to sustain themselves.
The people of Gethen are ambisexual. For most of the twenty-six to twenty-eight–day month they are neither male nor female, although the narrator uses masculine pronouns to refer to Gethenians. Once a month they enter “kemmer,” a state that resembles estrus in mammals. In kemmer a Gethenian becomes either male or female depending on the hormonal balance in effect at the time. While this characteristic of Gethenians is imaginative and interesting, what Le Guin says in developing this description also provides insight into her egalitarianism. Two excerpts illustrate this:
Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) “tied down to childbearing,” implies that no one is quite so thoroughly “tied down” here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be—psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else (page 93).
Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter (page 94).
The description of gender on Gethen includes the theory or legend that the ambisexuality is the result of an experiment conducted in the distant past: Humans or Terrans (from Earth?) established a colony on Gethen and modified the genetic code of some of the colonists. The modifications apparently produced some monsters but also resulted in ambisexuality for those colonists who otherwise retained “normal” human characteristics. Exploring possible reasons for such experimentation, which the narrator characterizes as barbarism, this commentary is offered:
Another guess concerning the hypothetical experiment’s object: the elimination of war. Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? Or, like Tumass Song Angot, did they consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped? God knows. The fact is that Gethenians, though highly competitive (as proved by the elaborate social channels provided for competition for prestige, etc.) seem to be not very aggressive; as they apparently have never yet had what one could call a war (page 95).
Readers won’t find much futuristic technology in this story, which may arise from a desire to keep the focus on interactions among the characters. Genly Ai traveled to Gethen in a star ship and spent the voyage in suspended animation. He uses a communication device, the ansible, capable of instantaneous communication over many light years. A remarkable heater-and-stove combination called a Chabe stove is employed in a critical episode. The terrestrial vehicles described in the story could easily be from Siberia, Antarctica, or New York.
What readers will find is a finely crafted story of human behavior, bad and good, with characters who are all too human, and themes that don’t require willing suspension of disbelief to appreciate.
Thanks as always for stopping by.