This book, which won the Hugo and Nebula awards in its year, is the story of a lone envoy to a cold planet inhabited by human beings who have been cut off from the rest of humanity for a long time. His mission is to persuade them to join voluntarily in the loose association that exists between the other inhabited worlds, and to this end he visits the two largest nations on the planet. These have contrasting styles, one being a monarchy and the other a kind of communist state. Both nations receive him well at first, then turn against him; but he finds one true friend who sees him through to the completion of his difficult, cold, and hazardous mission.
The people of Gethen, although human, have been genetically altered in one respect: theyíre sexless for most of the time. For a few days each month, a Gethenian becomes either male or female, more or less at random, and will normally experience both fatherhood and motherhood in the course of his/her life.
Obviously Le Guin came up with this idea in order to talk about sexual equality. But she avoids lecturing, and merely describes with care the differences between their society and ours. The other themes of the book are the contrast between the politics of the two Gethenian nations (she makes some effort to show the good and the bad sides of each), and the contrast between the cold of Gethen and our own warmer world. There seems no particular reason for making Gethen so cold, except that it adds a distinctive atmosphere to the story, and makes life more difficult for the envoy.
The world of Gethen becomes very real as we read, the characters are well drawn, the descriptions are well written, the plot is quite strong. The book is written in a contemplative, literary style thatís rather unusual in American sf. Much of the story is about difficulty and hardship, so I find it makes rather arduous reading, and I donít reread it often; but it is a memorable book and worth reading at least once.
Originally published in Thurb 24 in November 1992