Written 23 May 2021
I came upon this book while searching for my next read and it popped up in a number of lists of can’t miss science fiction.
Written in 1969 and set on a planet inhabited by “ambisexual” or androgynous humans who mainly live in a state where the male/female distinction is redundant it has also gained real status as it deals with the absence of our conventional notions of gender, so it is pretty topical. The book is part of a series of six novels (the Hainish Cycle).
It is not difficult to find reviews eulogising the book, many of which stress how the novel repays rereading (over and over again seems to be the urging in parentheses) as this is a novel that reveals many layers and meanings. I can understand this: it is relatively short, deals with crunchy themes (not only gender but also the fact that Gethen, the world on which it is set, has political life and conflict but seems to have avoided war, an alien concept there) and as I say centring on gender and identity it very much chimes with the zeitgeist.
The plot centres on an envoy from the human planets of the Ekumen (a sort of interplanetary confederation or civilisation) who is aiming to establish relations and bring Gethen into the Ekumen. He struggles to understand the dynamics of the societies on Gethen he visits and ends up on an epic journey through the ice and glaciers of the planet accompanied by a character that at the beginning seems to be shifty, political and untrustworthy but who turns out to be his only real ally. It also seems likely they are romantically drawn to one another.
It is undoubtedly a good book. I’m not going to try and review it in detail. I am sure it is a set text on various university courses and there are dozens of reviews out there that are well written and in depth and probably speak of a more detailed and in depth reading than I managed. For myself I can’t really say I was particularly bowled over; if I hadn’t read about it or read a few reviews it would have left little impression. The main memory I have of the book is of the fact that the planet of Gethen is very, very cold, but I can’t imagine this was the intention of the author. But I didn’t hate it, I can see that I might have missed lots, and I will probably try and read another of the Hainish Cycle pretty soon.
There were some things though that I found rather annoying. The physical layout of the planet is important, but there is no map: I am sure that for some people they can read a novel like this and not think of turning to a map, but to me if you go to great lengths to describe a planet and a fairly epic journey from one end to the other (“Our only way would be north through the mountains, east across the Gobrin, and down to the border at Guthen Bay”) then I’d like a map. Maybe constructing fantasy worlds and then putting a map to help the reader is a bit low status, something that Lord of the Rings fans would like but not something for serious literature?
In fact, the book read much more like fantasy than science fiction. I did see a list of must read science fiction and this book came second to Dune by Frank Herbert. I read Dune last year and felt that I was reading a fantasy novel. I didn’t like the Lord of the Rings, I didn’t enjoy Dune, I’ve never read or wanted to read anything by Terry Pratchett. I’m not so sure that Ursula Le Guin isn’t really more of the same. Which doesn’t mean she is a bad author, but she will probably not be for me. Science fiction and fantasy are perhaps two sides of the same coin, constructing new worlds and new technologies with the real aim of exploring what are ultimately human themes. But I’d take Asimov over JRR Tolkein, Frank Herbert or Ursula Le Guin any day of the week.