Genly Ai has been on Gethen for two years. He is the First Mobile, send by the Ekumen to be the first contact between them and a new world. The Ekumen is a federation of planets and worlds, not in a Star Trek way, but in a trade and diplomatic way. They have sent their hidden investigators to Gethen to find out as much about the world as possible. Then it was Ai’s turn, sent as an envoy to openly reveal the existence of other worlds to the Gethenians and to try and bring them into the Ekumen.Gethen is unique among all the known worlds. Its inhabitants are neither male nor female, but, once every 26 days or so they enter what they call kemmer, they then become male or female, it can very from one kemmer to another, and find another in kemmer and have sex. On occasion they can make a kemmer vow to their partner, this is somewhat similar to marriage, but is not practised by everyone. And it doesn’t seem to be legally recognised. The children take the mother’s name and in the case of kemmerings they know their father. Otherwise he is just their getter and not that important to them.
Genly Ai, in a way around the difficulty of pronouns tends to use he when talking about the Gethenians. Although occasionally he will make some disparaging remark and then usually follow it up by calling the individual a female. Not that he is a terrible misogynist, that would be too harsh. He is simply used to the default view of an average person as a man. Therefore the other is female, and so it follows that normal behaviour can be filed away under male, and behaviour that stands out is, well, other and female.
This isn’t just a book about gender and sexism though, there is plenty more going on here. Trust, friendship, and culture clash. Ai and Estravan, his main contact, have huge misunderstandings and distrust based on a lack of understanding and differing conventions. They think they are helping one another when the other doesn’t know what has just happened. But gradually, they come to learn about one another, and realise the extent of these differences.
It is also an adventure story. Maybe not an action and adventure story, but it is a first contact story. That very notion has to be exciting in and of itself, and when you add in a world of constant winter and a trek across the icy wilds… it certainly kept me reading.
I don’t think I liked Ai very much. As Le Guin says of him, he is a stuffy conservative character, but he certainly grows and develops over the course of the book. I was also very much aware that this is a book written over 40 years ago. A lot of the gender problems we had then are still around today, but I think they are a lot more subtle than the book portrays. Possibly they are harder to unearth, and so harder to combat. But that is beside the point. I don’t think that a character like Ai would be written today.
I’m not sure if I will read the other books in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. I’d like to, but I don’t know if I loved this enough to make sure and find the time to read them.