This is the second Le Guin piece I've read, following the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. This one is a full-length novel, though not particularly long. It took me about a week and a half to get through, reading a chapter or two a day.
The book covers the attempts of Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen, an alliance of spacefaring human worlds, who has come to the brutally cold planet of Winter to invite the residents to join the Ekumen. The residents of Winter, though human, are unique among all other known human species, in that they are androgynous most of their lives, and are only overtly sexual during a two day period in a 28-day cycle (each person may be male or female at random, and possibly different from cycle to cycle). They view the envoy Ai as a "pervert" who is always in sexual form.
It's an interesting exploration of what an androgynous society would be like; when everyone can be either male or female there is no form of gender discrimination or prejudgment. Initially the envoy has trouble with the nuances of communicating with the residents and navigating their politics, partly because he still views them as either primarily male or primarily female and treats them accordingly.
Like our own world, the residents of Winter are not united, they are divided into nations, and the book chronicles Ai's attempts to convince each of the two dominant countries, one after another, to accept the alliance with the Ekumen. He has to navigate their politics and faces betrayal and even imprisonment. It is implied that the first envoy is always sent alone so as to be nonthreatening, but later in the book Ai speculates it may be so that the envoy can truly embed himself in the target society to learn their ways.
A point of interest for me was that the Ekumen sent an envoy even though the residents of Winter were not yet a spacefaring race; in fact, since there were no birds or other flying animals native to the world, they never thought to invent flight, even though they already have electricty, vehicles, radio, and such. It's a contrast to more popular sci-fi like Star Trek, where First Contact only happens once a species is warp-capable.
I liked the book overall, the prose was pretty good and the subject matter was interesting, including the explorations of androgyny and also how a harsh wintery climate would affect the evolution of a society.
I've started using the Kindle app's highlighting feature to note and export passages which stand out to me, here are the ones I highlighted for this book:
As they say in Ekumenical School, when action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.
“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. . . . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable-the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?” “That we shall die.” “Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer. . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.
Another guess concerning the hypothetical experiment’s object: The elimination of war. Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? Or, like Tumass Song Angot, did they consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped? God knows.
How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession. . . . Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”
Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light. Two are one, life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer, like hands joined together, like the end and the way.