It was probably forty years ago that I first read this book in a science fiction as literature class at Northeastern Illinois University. It was taught by Tom Hoberg, one of the most interesting professors I’ve ever encountered. (I can still recall the names of the teachers who made a difference to me in those years, and maybe one day I’ll do a retrospective just to honor them.) He led off the class with this book, and even though I’d read SF and fantasy all my life, it was a remarkable introduction to a body of truly great science fiction writers and their work. I’m not sure I adequately appreciated how ground-breaking this novel was. I’ve heard it said that Le Guin didn’t do a very good job in creating an androgynous society — a criticism that even Le Guin admits may have some truth to it — but for the time in which it was written, it was about as bold a statement as I could ever imagine.
For those who have been living under a rock since it was first published, TLHoD is a first contact story. It’s about Genly Ai, an emissary from a body of united planets called The Ekumen , who has come to the planet Gethen in order to convince them to join that group. Gethenians are androgynes who enter what they call “kemmer” once a month in order to breed. When not in kemmer or pregnant, they go back to being androgynes. A Gethenian can enter kemmer as either male or female, they can sire children or bear them. Most have done both. Because Genly Ai is a human male, this state of affairs is difficult for him to comprehend, and adds a layer of visceral difficulty to the already complex task of learning the cultural norms of a new world.
Much of the novel focuses on Ai’s relationship with Estraven, a lord of Karhide who has been helping him try to win over the Karhidish king. Through political intrigues, a banishment, imprisonment and escape, and a long and fearful flight through some of the bleakest parts of a bleak country in the dead of winter, Ai and Estraven are forced to drop the walls of custom and meet as human beings. And this is what the novel is ultimately about: crossing the boundaries of our differences to see the essential humanness of another person.
Since it’s been about 40 years since I read TLHoD, I can’t tell you what I thought if it then, save to say that I loved it. What I can tell you now is that it remains timely in terms of its political content, its message about gender and other differences between people, and also because it is a book written by a woman in what was once a sausage-fest genre. To some degree, that Le Guin knocked down the boys’ club door and helped to pave the way for so many wonderful women writers in this genre might be its greatest legacy.
This is not to deny the value of the story itself, a story which still moves me, which made me cry again even though I knew what was going to happen, a story that made me think more deeply about not just gender but about the human condition. It is not a book to dismiss for being dated or having shortcomings that are only important in retrospect, but rather one to read and cherish.