I last read this in the early to mid 1990s. I recall not liking it that much. I came to it as a huge fan of The Dispossessed and was disappointed. At the time I didn’t see the books as being very similar but, having also re-read The Dispossessed a couple years ago, I think that they are.
This is a first contact novel. An alien, Genly Ai, is sent as an emissary to the planet Winter on behalf of his civilisation. The inhabitants of Winter are human, but they do not have permanent gender. Most of the time they are an androgynous neuter, occasionally going into “kemmer”, at which time they may become either male or female (it’s random, they don’t get to choose) and procreate.
Genly lands in the country of Karhide, which is a messed-up monarchy in a society way too hung up on duty and honour. He spends a lot of time trying to get close to the king so that he can speak to them about joining an inter-stellar alliance of human(ish) races. As a result he is caught up in some political infighting and has to escape to neighbouring Orgota, which is more of a socialist-collectivist society. He ends up in an analog of the gulag there, so Genly has to undertake a supposedly impossible trek across an ice sheet to get back to where he can summon his ship.
Though it has largely entered popular culture as :”the gender one”, it’s about a lot more than that – autocratic government, how humans react in various situations. The two quotes that I made note of are about repression and happiness.
I liked it more this time round and definitely got more out of it. My main issue with it is at the basis of why I don’t read a lot of high fantasy – the incessant travel bores me rigid. (Put me in front of a factual book about polar exploration and you can’t prise it out of my hands, but Genly’s expedition across the ice went on for far longer than I liked). It’s the setting up camp descriptions – hate them in LoTR, didn’t like them here either, after the first one. Overall, though, I was entertained by the story and interested by the observations about life.
It hasn’t aged too badly (originally published in 1969, so very nearly as old as me). The main thing that obviously dates it is the length – today it would probably be more than twice as long. The world building is as full and realised as in any modern doorstop. Genly is bemused by the genderless world but tries not to be judgemental. (Everyone is called “he”, which Gently himself admits is not satisfactory).
I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of value in a book I had previously written off. Even though there were parts I didn’t enjoy much, it has given me much to think about and that is always a good thing.