When you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept.I had of course read this before, long ago, and you probably have too, as it came joint top of this poll (with Rendezvous with Rama), so this isn't a review, more a list of things I spotted this time round:
- The passage quoted above comes just before the paragraph justifying the author's use of "he" for the Gethenians. I go back and forth on this myself. She uses "she" in the version of "Winter's King" in The Wind's Twelve Quarters; is it more jarring to read of he's that can bear children, or she's that can beget them? Would "zie" work for today's reader? Would it have worked in 1969? Of course the author's job is done by raising questions rather than by answering them.
- Actually the Gethenian sexuality is rather simple; apart from normal Gethenians there are only "perverts" who are those stuck in one gender. All Gethenian ἔρως appears to be between those taking different gender roles; there is no same-gender sex, and no playing around at the margins. OK, we are getting this from the viewpoint of an outside observer who may not have sought or been given full information, but this time round I found it paradoxically heteronormative. (Presumably Genly Ai has LGBT friends and colleagues, out there in the Ekumen?)
- One mustn't only think about sex. There's quite an intricate political plot, about industrialisation, developing economies getting hold of new technologies, constitutional monarchies vs authoritarian oligarchies, and the impact of a single outsider whose mission is to transform the world. At first it looks like Le Guin is trying to replay the Cold War on a cold planet, but that is (perhaps deliberately) quite misleading.
- And speaking of cold, the most effective passages for me are still the chapters covering the epic arctic journey, where Le Guin's sparse prose style is perfectly suited to the bleak setting, and vividly conveys the intense intimacy that you get between two people thrown together in isolation with a shared task, with the added factor of kemmer.
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