One of the reasons why I love book clubs is that they force you to read books that you would normally never even think of reading. Take this book for example. In my perusal of the shelves at the library, I would have casually glanced over this title without a second glance and it would have been a shame.
I am glad that I had the chance to read this book because it stretched my imagination with ideas that left it almost, for a lack of a better word, uncomfortable.
In the first chapter, we are dropped on another planet, called Winter or Gethen, where we meet our main character Genly Ai, who is from Terra. Ai is on a mission to convince Gethen to join the Ekumen, a confederation of planets. It is a bit of a shock and at first Le Guin almost loses me. Not only are you dropped in an unknown place, you are dropped alone for Ai has already been on the planet for some time. I could feel my brain trying to process everything Ai is trying to tell me but it seemed too much.
And to make it even harder still, Le Guin has decided to make an “ambisexual society” or a society without a dominant sex.. At first my head could not wrap around this concept. Every living being has some sort of sexual orientation, whether animal, human or plant. How can this be? It takes awhile for Le Guin to fully describe how this society functions, but once she does, the plot makes a lot more sense and you totally get engrossed to find out what is going to happen.
While it took me a bit longer to read this novel than normal, all I have to say is that Le Guin is a genius. In reading up on the author, I found out that she wanted to explore what was left in a society when you take the female/male formula out of the equation. This book was written in the 70s when ideas such as adrogyny and sexual orientation were just being explored. Imagine if she wrote this today?
It gets even more interesting when Gethians want to reproduce. How? Well they all go through Kemmer, or our version of a female cycle, but in this case the individual transforms more into the more feminine role. There is one part when the king is going to have a baby because during his kemmer cycle he had turned into the female being. Can you imagine, men having babies?! It is every women’s wish come true! But think about it, wouldn’t it make life so much simpler? At a time when equality is still at the forefront of debate, it makes you wonder, why do we even have gender?
What I particularly liked the most was how Genly Ai’s character changes throughout the book. At first, he too can’t wrap around the non-sexual identity idea. You see this when he describes some of the other characters and how he is trying to label them either more male or female. He tries to give them the stereotypical labels: strong/weak, bony/soft, muscular/curvy. He is frustrated when he can’t.
Over time, as he is forced into their society, he slowly begins to understand them and you can see him transform his thinking. At one point he is telling Estraven, a politician who ends up helping him when becomes a fugitive, about Terra and how the males and females are different. This is his normal, but at this point in the book, we have been so engrossed in Gethian society, the idea that sexual identity seems to be foreign. It becomes even more apparent when other Terran reach the planet. Ai looks upon them in a different light. They are almost alien to him as he once was to the Gethian.
And this is all within a plot of two warring factions upon which Ai must play his cards in the hopes of staying alive and completing his mission. The book started slow but ended on a strong note.