A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters…
Let me preface this review by saying I went into this book blind. I haven’t read anything by the author previously, but this book is mentioned and recommended often enough in some of the reader groups I follow that I thought I’d check it out. I like most science fiction, so it seemed like a good pick.
Originally published in 1969, the writing is definitely indicative of its era. It is at times very dense with a tendency to throw an overwhelming amount of information at the reader (not quite to the same level as say, Tolkien, but it’s not far behind.) The writing style itself is what I’ve come to expect from books written at the time; even though it’s written in first-person, there is a distinct level of detachment between the reader and the characters.
But the story itself was fascinating. The main character is Genly Ai, an Envoy sent to a world his people have called “Winter” with the hopes of incorporating the planet and its people into a trade network spanning eighty-three other worlds. He’s mired in politics from the start, and struggles to understand the motives and subtleties that drive Winter’s government officials.
All of the eighty-three worlds (or eighty-four, if you count Winter) are the home to some variety of human. There is some discussion about how that came to be, with hints at genetic experimentation long ago that may have created some of the human species. Genly Ai seems to be from our Earth (though it’s referred to as Terra more often than not.) The people of Winter are similar in form, but are a distinctly different species, and an anomaly when compared with the other eighty-three in terms of gender and reproduction. Their genetics and biochemistry was fascinating when it was discussed (but I’ve always had an interest in that stuff.)
There were two predominant factions (or Hearths) on Winter. Karhide was based on the monarchy system of government, replete with court intrigue and subterfuge. It was common for Karhiders to talk around a subject, neither lying nor coming to the truth. Orgoreyn seemed to be based off a true communist state, where the government found employment for everyone and ensured they had a place, but there was no single person in charge of making decisions. The people of Orgoreyn seemed happy on the surface, but they were often kept in ignorance of the events going on around them, as news and communications were strictly controlled.
Beyond all of that, this was at its core a story of finding true friendship despite the major differences between Genly Ai and the man who ultimately becomes his closest acquaintance on Winter. It’s a story of overcoming those differences and seeing the other person as they are. It’s a story of acceptance—across worlds, across cultures, across political divides.
I can see why this book was considered so groundbreaking at the time of its publication. While this isn’t a new book, I believe much of it is still relevant today.
If you haven’t read The Left Hand of Darkness and enjoy science fiction, I recommend you give this book a try.