Fiction — audiobook. Read by George Guidall. Recorded Books, 2016. Originally published 1969. 9 hours, 39 minutes. Purchased.
The sixth book in the Hainish Cycle series follows a human emissary from Earth (also known as Terra) on behalf of the planetary confederation of Ekumen to a planet roughly seventeen light years away from the previously known boundary of the universe. The Ekumen refer to the planet as Winter because of its observed climate and landscape, but the inhabitants of the plant call it Gethen and live in either the kingdom of Karhide or the idyllic yet totalitarian-controlled Orgoreyn.
“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 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.” (pg. 212)
Despite the harsh climate of Gethen — or, perhaps, because of — all inhabitants are androgynous until the hormonal cycle of “kemmer” begins. Once an individual enters kemmer, they can engage in sexual behavior and, if birth control is not utilized, procreate. One Gethenian will take on female characteristics and carry the infant for a roughly 8.4 month gestation period, but they return to features more associated with men on Terra following the birth of the child. Hence why the Ekumen emissary, Genly Ai, still refers to all Gethenians with male pronouns two years after he first arrives in Karhide.
In those two years, Ai has been unable to persuade the government of Karhide — namely, the king, Argaven Harge XV — to accept his credentials and allow him to present on the benefits of joining Ekumen. Only one government official, Prime Minister Estraven, seems to believe who he is, and the novel opens the day before Ai’s audience with the king, which Estraven arranged. However, Estraven invites Ai to dinner at his home — at first — and tells Ai that he can no longer support Ai’s cause with the king. The next day Ai learns Estraven has been accused of treason and exiled to the neighboring country of Orgoreyn, and the novel begins alternating back and forth between Ai and Estraven’s point of views as the two experience the different governmental responses to Ai and the confederation he represents.
My first experience with Le Guin’s writing occured back in 2009 for a political science class, and it was tempting to try and analyze this novel within that frame again. Karhide must bend to the whims of the monarchy yet its citizens are “freer” than in Orgoreyn where those who do not conform to the expectations of society are banished to “farms” where they are starved and worked to death. Clearly a fictionalized take on the Soviet Union and the gulag, no?
“A man who doesn’t detest a bad government is a fool. And if there were such a thing as a good government on earth, it would be a great joy to serve it.” (pg. 213)
However, the examination of gender is really the “purpose” of the novel, and I found Ai’s intrigue and simultaneous revulsion with the androgynous state of the Gethenians to be the saving grace of this meandering novel. Ai seems almost in awe of the fact that Gethen does not experience war — the neighboring nations are antagonist towards one another, but they do not engage in battle — and he attributes that the lack of gender. There is no such thing as masculinity or “fragile male ego” that must be expressed and defended through war.
“He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make people into a nation: war. His ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound. The only other means of mobilizing people rapidly and entirely is with a new religion; none was handy; he would make do with war.” (pg. 102)
There are, of course, those who want to go to war, as the quote above suggests. How does a government foster nationalism without a ‘us vs. them’ construct? And yet societies in both Karhide and Orgoreyn aren’t structured to handle war. It is less a question of materials and supplies — although, the harsh winter climate makes such preparations difficult — and more because sex and hormones run on a set twenty-six day schedule.
Everyone goes into kemmer together; everyone comes out of kemmer together. Some individuals create marriage-like associations, although neither governments really acknowledge these constructs, but it is accepted that those in kemmer must mate with anyone they desire. Ergo, there is no (romantic) jealousy on the planet.
Surrounded by individuals with more “male” characteristics, Ai becomes suspicious of individuals who present as more effeminate, of which Estraven is one. It becomes easy for Ai to blur the lines between the different societies and where he sees himself fitting in — the name “Ai” sounds like “I” in the audiobook, which is a nice touch on Le Guin’s part.
Yet, it is clear that blurring is available only to men from other worlds. While it is perfectly acceptable for a Gethenian to become pregnant as society knows they will revert back to a more “male” appearance, Gethenians are shocked and revolted to learn there are individuals on other planets who live in a permanent state of kemmer (i.e. with female attributes). Which then begs the question if binary constructs of gender and masculinity are ever really gone, if we can achieve a gender-less society or are doomed to keep looking for the “weaker” individual? A fascinating question, no?
“Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.” (pg. xii)
While I did find the ultimate premise of the novel fascinating and can see why it is considered a classic, it took me several attempts with the novel before I could move past the first three chapters. Switching over to the audiobook helped tremendously; in fact, myself and the other two who listened to the book seemed to be the only ones who ended up enjoying the book.
Le Guin’s novel won the 1969 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 1970 Hugo Award for Best Novel. It was announced yesterday that Le Guin passed away on January 22 at the age of 88. Bizarrely enough, the news of her passing broke in the middle of my book club’s discussion about her novel.
Nice review. It seems the author just passed away two days ago. RIP Ms. Le Guin.
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Thanks, J.E. Yes, she passed earlier in the week. Such sad news, but what a wonderful body of work and legacy to leave behind.