You might have heard about this but it’s – unusually for a famous old SF book – as good as its sales and reputation suggest.
This book has joined To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, Catch-22, The Gulag Archipelago, Fahrenheit 451, Of Mice and Men, Catcher In the Rye and Neverwhere as a book the deranged American ‘family values’ zealots have banned. A library consisting only of books on this list would be almost ideal for raising well-adjusted teens and this novel is, in every other regard, worthy of mention alongside the others. And you need to read it, just as a citizen.
This is a narrative punctuated by old stories. The stories offer sidelights on the events in the main story. That story is the account by a human anthropologist sent as an emissary to a world that might want to join the rest of the humanoid races in the galaxy. All the major civilisations seem to have been seeded on planets with small genetic tweaks and left to see how they developed. Earth may or may not have been one of these. Gethen, or Winter, is an ice-world with scarce resources but as much technology as it needs, if no more. They’ve not had a war for millennia, but instead conduct intricate political deals and a system of owed favours and implied insults. Our narrator is not a fool but still manages to fall foul of this byzantine politicking. How he gets out is the substance of the story.
And if you have heard of this book, you’ll undoubtedly know the one thing I’ve not mentioned. A lot of people have assumed that the thing I’m omitting is what the book’s ‘about’. They aren’t really right; it’s more about the difficulty and importance of trusting someone you know to have a completely different set of beliefs and values. University courses have tried to cramp this book into headings such as ‘Feminist Utopian Fiction’ but it’s not really a Utopia (it’s too readable and the society is flawed in ways that make the protagonist’s mission worth doing) and it takes a bit of squinting to make it an uncomplicatedly Feminist work (it predates a lot of the debate and indeed much of the current vocabulary for discussing such issues). Read it as a Historical novel set in a bit of history that hasn’t happened yet and you’re closer to the mark.
By Tat Wood