Genre: Queer Science Fiction
Series: Hainish Cycle (all are standalones set in the same universe)
THE FIRST edition of this book was published the month after I was born, so while I was reading Catwings, Le Guin kindly had this book waiting for me for when I was older. How thoughtful of her!
This is an “idea story”, where unlike some science fiction, it is not character or plot driven, but rather seeks to answer a question.
What would happen if there was a single gender, capable of binary sexes?
Le Guin attempts to answer this question with the humanoid race on the alien world, Gethen.
For twenty-three days out of their lunar cycle, the Gethenians are of no gender. They do not desire sex, and are physically incapable of breeding. Then, for three days, they take on characteristics of opposite mating sexes, in a transition they call kemmer. Some Gethenians will develop female-like sex characteristics, and some will develop male-like sex characteristics, and while the hormonal changes aren’t completely random, they can be, so they mate according to their kemmer cycle, and then after it’s over the process starts again. Therefore, it is quite normal for Gethenians to have fathered and mothered children, and in fact, those who haven’t performed both roles tend to feel a loss psychologically and socially.
Enter–our emissary from space! Who better to explore this new world than an “alien” (one of us)? Genly Ai comes to Gethen through space travel, to invite them into the intergalactic community. Unfortunately his presence isn’t as welcomed as the Ekumen would like, but we’re rest assured that they’ve been sending single emissaries to planets for centuries, and know what they are doing.
Genly and the Gethenians both react rather poorly to their differences. Genly can’t seem to get over the gender ambiguity of the Gethenians, and the Gethenians can’t seem to get over the idea that Genly seems to be some sort of sexual pervert, stuck in kemmer. However, in true idea story fashion, through their differences the culture is thoroughly explored, and the plot brings Genly on an impressive tour of the world.
Although Genly is our main viewpoint character, I found myself rather fond of our true protagonist, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, one of the ministers of the king. Estraven is probably the only person besides Genly interested in Gethen becoming part of the Ekuman for the good of everyone, but it takes much sacrifice to get Genly to believe it, and in turn trust him.
Le Guin masters the art of leaking backstory and details, and as usual with her work, be on the lookout for fun alien language, used in perfectly appropriate places. Read this for the intriguing worldbuilding, and stay for the compelling sociology. Cheers.
Review Originally Posted to Queer Sci Fi: