The story is about an envoy - Genly Ai -who is originally from earth, and who is sent to a planet to represent a galactic alliance of planets, which would like for this new planet to join up. The planet - which is called Gethen - is unaware of life on other planets. Right away, imagine the difficulty involved. Imagine if an alien came to earth and wanted to address us all us "earthlings" and ask us to join his planetary union. All the nations, agreeing on one thing. I'll note that while Le Guin kind of simplifies the nations of the planet in this story, she also makes it clear that an entire planet of nations agreeing on one thing is a bit difficult to accomplish.
Genly Ai has several troubles to overcome. The nation he lands in, Karhide, has bizarre politics that he doesn't understand. They have a system of honor and respect called "shifgrethor" in which they seldom speak plainly, which allows them to save face. They very seldom speak straightforwardly. The other Gethenian nation he deals with is Orgoreyn, where people act very straightforwardly but there are often hidden purposes behind it.
Additionally, almost all people of Gethen are androgynous. They have no gender except for when they go into "kemmer" once a month, which is basically like an animal going into heat. At that time their bodies choose a gender, and not necessarily the same one every time - one person may be a father to some children and a mother to others. There are occasional anomalies on Gethen in which a person is born with a gender and stays in that gender all the time. These people are considered perverts, as is Genly Ai. Meanwhile, Genly has trouble relating to these androgyns. He tends to characterize them all as men when they are not in kemmer, but is often put off by any feminine traits he sees in them.
Finally, Gethen is in an ice age. The conditions there are much colder than he is accustomed to, which leads to numerous hardships.
So clearly, Le Guin bit off a lot with this story. The book was published in 1969 when women writers were not very common in sci fi. While the feminist aspect of the story is not nearly the most significant issue, it's difficult for me to read this without concluding that Le Guin was overly eager to prove herself. There are just so many things - politics, gender, man vs. nature, war - the Gethenians have no word for war. They do not have wars, and it is suggested that this is because they have no gender, but this is not defended. I believe that she intentionally left it uncertain, but it's just one of many unresolved issues that left me feeling like the story was incomplete. My best sense of what the story is about is an outsider learning to understand a different race of people, and the story gets there eventually through the relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven, a Prime Minister of Karhide who assists Genly throughout the story. But it's a very slow story of understanding, partly thanks to the many sidetracks into other themes.
Kemmer is well explained. I could only figure out the meaning of shifgrethor through the internet, and even then it's unclear. There's also the Gethenian calendar, which is constantly being referred to, and which has no similarity to our calendar (of course). And the Gethenians have numerous words for snow, which are also often used. This seems unnecessary because Genly is translating to us from their language. Instead of using this particular word for snow, he could just say "sleet" or "slushy snow" or whatever. As if that isn't enough, Gethenians often have lengthy and complicated names which are not so different from the names of their months or their many words for snow. Often I got so bogged down in alien language that I got lost.
Of course, China Mieville also used his own made up calendar in The Scar, and it didn't cause any problems for me at all. The language isn't the only obstacle here. The pacing was very slow, and the story had no clear direction for a long time.
This is not the fault of the author at all, but while I've been finishing up the book, the weather here has been of the winter season so far. As I'm struggling to get my apartment warm, I've also been reading about Genly Ai and Estraven crossing over frozen lands that are barely hospitable to life. It's been a bit too easy to imagine their conditions. That last section of the book, when Genly and Estraven rely on each other closely for survival, is when Genly finally understands Estraven and shifgrethor. The book doesn't make it any clearer to the reader, though.
I think Le Guin was reaching for some very big concepts when she wrote this book, and she just didn't fully realize them all. I recognize that this book symbolizes a change in sci fi from stories about technology to stories about people, and that's certainly a contribution that changed the genre. But like so many influential works, it's rough and messy. The stories it inspired were more well crafted than this. It's value is obvious, but it's a dense read and doesn't really pay off at the end.
I've decided to take the Christmas holidays off and read some comics, which is my favorite way to spend a hiatus. This hiatus was inspired by Neil Gaiman's recent spot on Talk of the Nation. Neil was discussing The Best American Comics 2010, which he edited. I'd never stopped to consider that there are comic book anthologies, and hearing about this really thrilled me.
See, some time ago my comic book guy was fired. I don't really care the reason why he was fired (and in case you were wondering the owner did not say it was theft when he gave me a lengthy and extremely unprofessional lecture on why he did fire him). My comic book guy read everything, and every time I came in to the store he had recommendations for me. He was also a good, non-judgmental comic book guy. The store owner is more like the comic book guy on the Simpsons, and regularly let me know that he hated everything I was buying (let me translate that for you - I don't read superhero comics, and so he hates everything I read because that is all that he reads). Basically, no matter what may have been wrong with my comic book guy as a worker, he caused me to buy comics through his excellent recommendations. The owner, on the other hand, drove me off because I really have no desire to patronize a store where the owner openly despises my patronage.
So I stopped buying comics from Jerky McNerdy-Snob's Comic Shop, which works just fine as a statement of my displeasure, but left me in the lurch by way of new comic book recommendations. I tried getting comic book recommendations from the internet, but it wasn't all that helpful. I don't get that personalized touch I got with my comic book guy, who knew my tastes.
So this anthology comes as a real delight to me, because it provides a survey of stuff that I can browse through and pick what I like, and pursue it further. I immediately went to the library catalog and found the volumes for 2006 through 2009. They have them at the library! Actually they don't because I reserved them all and checked them out tonight. So wait your turn.
Now, I'm looking forward to a merry Christmas made all the merrier through new comic book discovery.
On that note, this is most likely my last post of the season, and also the year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!