Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publication Date: 7/1/00
Blurb (GR): On the planet Winter, there is no gender. The Gethenians can become male or female during each mating cycle, and this is something that humans find incomprehensible.
The Ekumen of Known Worlds has sent an ethnologist to study the Gethenians on their forbidding, ice-bound world. At first he finds his subjects difficult and off-putting, with their elaborate social systems and alien minds. But in the course of a long journey across the ice, he reaches an understanding with one of the Gethenians — it might even be a kind of love.
"The Left Hand of Darkness" turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise for me. I do not read science fiction often and had to abandon my last attempt ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy") for its utter stupidity, but this book was a sci-fi of a completely different sort. It wasn't just another novel about green aliens or space travel, it was an extremely clever and deep exploration of gender.
Genly Ai is an emissary of the Ekumen (a union of human worlds) to planet Gethen, or Winter (called so for its extremely cold climate). His mission is to convince inhabitants of the world to join the rest of humanity in exchange of ideas and technology. However Genly is met with some reserve as the decision to join is hindered by alien to him intricacies of Gethenian politics and culture. What makes Gethen so unique and thus so hard for Ai to understand is that it is inhibited by the race of ambisexual (hermaphroditic) beings. All Gethenians have an ability to be both male and female. Most of the time their sexualities lay dormant and awaken only a few days a month during a period called kemmer (mating period). At the time of kemmer each Gethenian can become either male or female. The choice of gender is always incidental. Between the kemmers Gethenians are asexual. This sexual peculiarity makes Gethen quite a subdued race - its inhabitants are not assigned any gender roles, they are not sexually driven or sexually frustrated, they are less violent and ambitious. As the story progresses, Genly learns to understand this strange world a little better and even finds love.
I was extremely impressed by Le Guin's imagination. The world of Gethen was thoroughly detailed and very well realized. Everything about Gethen - the direct effects of Winter's climate and Gethenians' ambisexuality on the social and political order, science, philosophy and even folklore - were developed in the most remarkable way. I was also amazed at how skillfully Le Guin presented romance in the story, because as you can imagine a love story between a man and an ambisexual being (or between two ambisexuals) can go horribly wrong in less talented hands.
My only reservation about the book was the language. It took a few chapters to get used to a huge amount of Gethenian words, names and concepts. At times I had to reread some passages to understand them, because they seemed a little too densely written (my recent obsession with YA literature might be blamed for the softness of my brain too I suppose). But this wasn't so overwhelming as to spoil the reading experience for me.
Highly recommended to those who enjoys quality science fiction.