This is a difficult book to talk about.
There is no doubt that it is a great book – but is it a good book?
Ursula LeGuin, as always, writes well. Her prose is something that all aspiring writers (and many established ones) should study and learn from. She can turn phrases and weave themes and words together so deftly that it feels beautiful and natural. She is, likely, the most skilled writer of science fiction and fantasy that I have ever read. It’s like an aria of words. The best part, though, is that she never feels like she needs to show off. The language never sounds stuffy or over the top or packed full of metaphors that don’t really work. It’s simple and beautiful, rather like reading a prose version of Mozart’s ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ It starts familiar and easy and builds into something so much more than most writers can even imagine. If you’ve never read LeGuin then you need to. Anything she wrote.
The story is adequate. I think it is sort of secondary to the world that LeGuin is trying to explore here. The world, Gethen, is peopled by a race that is completely androgynous. They spend four fifths of their lives without any gender at all. The result is a society and culture built around there being no possibility of sexual crimes and no gender discrimination. Of course, being LeGuin she goes much deeper than that and shows us some truly brilliant characters and an astonishing world. The world is so alien and yet so comfortable in its culture that I found myself wanting to visit the world and meet the people that live there.
I’ve heard that this book is difficult to get into – and it is – and I think that it is because it feels more like a fantasy book than a science fiction one. There are all the foreign words and cultures to learn (there is no word for male or female) and the main character, while from another planet (Terra) is completely alone on this world with little interaction from his peers.
It’s a great book because of the significance that it holds for the genre and the questions that it raises about gender and the interactions thereof. It’s way ahead of its time, both literarily and literally.
It is, I think, a good book because LeGuin handles it brilliantly. It is slow but it’s not meant to be an action story. It’s supposed to make you think – and it does.