left hand“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

So many books I read take place on Earth. In fact, I think most books take place on Earth, or at least the ones written on this planet do. As such, it’s nice to occasionally make a beeline for somewhere entirely different; a whole new world. Ursula K. LeGuin is often billed as one of the greatest science fiction writers ever, so why not take to the stars with her and visit her famous planet of Gethen.

Gethen, known as Winter by explorers because of its permanently freezing temperatures, is a planet in a remote corner of the universe that has no knowledge of anything living beyond its atmosphere until an envoy comes down to meet them and welcome them to the Ekumen, a league of planets that is trying to work together in harmony and to share information and technology between them all. The envoy is Genly Ai, who has been on Gethen for two years now, trying to convince the people of Karhide, a Gethen kingdom, to join with the other humans on other planets.

Shortly before his meeting with the king is finally arranged, Genly finds that the Prime Minister, Estraven, is a traitor and has been accused of treason. He is banished from Karhide, and Genly must meet with the insane king alone, only to discover that he is not trusted. Frustrated, Genly meets with the Foretellers, a group of people who can see the future, to ask if Gethen will ever be part of the Ekumen. When he is informed that it will, he moves to another country, Orgoreyn, to try his luck there. But soon his luck will run out, as the people of this planet are highly suspicious and before he knows what’s happening, Genly has been imprisoned and carted off to work against his will. When things start to seem completely hopeless, help might just come from the place he would least expect it.

Notably, I’ve managed to summarise the plot without mentioning one of the key things about this novel, and one of the things that is most well known about it. That is, that the Gethen people are neuter, having no gender or sex or most of the year, and then once a month entering a state called “kemmer”, in which they turn into either a male or female – which isn’t constant in an individual – and breed. After this passes, they return to a neuter state again. This way of living has shaped their entire culture, and so they find Genly strange, since they view him as permanently being in kemmer, which is perverse to them.

Estraven and Genly Ai (Copyright: Evan Dahm 2013)

There’s a lot going on in this book but despite the fact it’s set in a different world with a different calendar, you find yourself very quickly invested in Genly Ai, his mission and the world of Gethen. Exposition is delivered via the use of notes taken from the first investigators, or from old stories told by the Gethen people about their history. The themes are manyfold, but none detract from the story. Clearly, it is primarily a story about gender and sex. Genly has difficulty at first in understanding a society where there is no division of the genders, so there are no dominant/subservient or protector/protectee relationships based on different parts of the population. Genly attributes “he” and “she” almost randomly, based on whether someone seems masculine or feminine in his eyes, but he trips up. The King has been both a mother and a father, and his “landlady” has only ever fathered children.

Communication and the struggle of communicating with different cultures is also a key topic. The people of Gethen have something called shifgrethor, which appears untranslatable to non-Gethen ears, but refers basically to a set of social rules to do with pride, honour and respect. The people of Karhide and those of Orgoreyn treat it differently, and Genly is slow to realise that he’s often been misunderstanding people because of it.

It also appears that in this story there was an original race of humans who spread to different planets and then, when their civilisation collapsed, each planet lost contact with the other. This explains why people look basically the same across the galaxy, as they try to re-establish these connections thousands of years later. Genly is explicitly stated to be from Earth, known here as Terra, which was simply one of the planets populated by the Hainish millennia before. A whole series of books is built up around this by LeGuin, but this is the most famous.

Nonetheless, the story is keenly interesting and mostly about a political situation brewing thanks to the arrival of Genly Ai. The use of many words that are native to the planet or can’t be translated can be a bit overwhelming at times – some of the Karhide people have very long names that, when used in full, can dominate a paragraph – but there’s something about it that makes everything seem believable. At the back of the book, or my edition at least, is a guide to the calendar of Gethen and the names of all the days, months and seasons. This is a great resource to check back on, but not essential to one’s enjoyment.

There are some incredible ideas going on in this book, not least the idea of a population that doesn’t understand gender, and it should be compulsory reading for absolutely everyone. And it’s not often I say that about a book.

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