While this is a work of science fiction, in tone it is much more like a work of epic fantasy. It tells the story of Genly Ai, an emissary from a broader human alliance on a remote, wintry planet where the people and the culture are utterly alien to them. A strong cultural value of shifgrethor (which is, roughly, about keeping face) seems, to him, to impede honest communication and leads him into political trouble in two countries. Then there is Estraven, prime minister of Karhide at the story’s beginning but quickly disgraced and exiled, who must save him from the dire situation he gets himself into.
Like most epic fantasy, the story unfolds at a glacial place. However, rapid-fire plot developments are not why anyone reads that genre. Where this book excels is the beautiful, intimate, and intricately detailed depiction of this world, which Ai’s coalition simply refers to as Winter.
The book is famous, of course, for the fact that the people of this world are ambisexual: androgynous for much of the month, but for a few days they go into kemmer (i.e. into heat) and will adopt a sexed form, the opposite one of their partner. Genly Ai, hailing from a society of “normal” humans, finds this very disorienting: he wants to pigeonhole everyone he meets into filling “male” or “female” gender roles (and mostly, the former) but then feels a private disgust when people he”s mentally classed as male engage in “womanly” behaviours. That in itself is a fascinating theme of this story, and yet what I hadn’t expected going in is that it’s also only one part of a much larger work.
Like in The Dispossessed, social structures and the development of societies over time make up another big theme of this novel. Given the harshness of Winter’s climate, Le Guin presents a world in which technological progress has unfolded at a very slow rate, although it does unfold – societies expend so many resources keeping themselves alive that they have little “surplus” for scientific progress. The first country that the reader is introduced to, Karhide, is an absolute monarchy where hospitality is an enormous, integral part of the traditional culture. From there the action moves to Orgoreyn, which is a more modern, communalist country which has much in common with the states of the former Eastern Bloc. Genly Ai is impressed by Orgoreyn at first, with their more generous provision of heating and governmental structure that isn’t totally beholden to a single, paranoid king, and yet in the end it proves not to live up to his expectations.
Aside from the world-building, the other main focus of this novel is the relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven, which builds slowly but is deeply compelling and heart-touching.
In line with Goodreads’ description of 4 stars as “I really liked it”, this is a book I’m giving four stars. It’s a book that could easily deserve 5, but such dense, slow-paced books have trouble extracting 5 stars from me, so I’ll leave it at four. Just know, though, that when I say I really liked it, I mean I really liked it.