First off, the book is a science fiction novel. But, for those of you who don’t like science fiction, LeGuin mostly uses science fiction as a way to examine people and our relationships. She uses fantastical locations and biology to shed light on who we are as humans. In this book, the entire population of the planet Winter are androgynous. They only engage in sex at specific times, like estrus (menstruation) in women, called kemmer. So, yes, it has a sexual component. But, I think it still has value to our community. Anyway, you can become (i.e. physically transform) either male or female during kemmer and usually people alternate or change genders each time. So, when our main character arrives on the planet (a normal earth male). He is considered by the inhabitants to be a complete pervert, staying in the male sexual state all the time. I just think it is a really interesting and thought-provoking concept. It also brings up issues that our community has to deal with all the time, such as being considered deviations from the “normal” (although almost in reverse) and the “perverse and often baffling” fluidity of our sexuality or lack there of.
Even before you get to the bulk of the novel, my edition of the book has a forward from the author. She states that while she doesn’t predict everyone will become androgynous or that we all ought to be androgrynous, but that “I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are.” I think that’s how I’ve come to view a lot of people in my life now. There are heterosexual “women” who are more like heterosexual “men” are supposed to be in the relationship and vice versa. I have a female friend who is dragged to romantic comedies with her husband all the time. I have a male friend, who calls me up just to talk (he does this to everyone, it’s his thing). I think we all encompass some “male” and “female” traits and that even sexuals can be a bit androgynous at times.
The entire book is a look at sexuality and non-sexuality. It focuses on the duality and the complexity of relationships and life. It is truly one of my favorite books. However, it is not very action packed, so if you’re looking for epic space battles and laser fights, you should look elsewhere. This tends to move a bit slower and is all about people, relationships, and society. Ultimately, it is also about a companionship that is more than friendship (but not about sex). [I was going to say “less than lovers”, but realized that’s privileging sex as the ultimate goal and it’s not. Forgive my caveat.] You may also want to keep in mind that it was originally published in 1969, when the LGBT community was just a fledgling and had just begun to fight for rights. I find it a very enjoyable interesting read, especially in light of my new view of myself. I’m currently re-reading it and I’d love to discuss!
On a side note, I find it amusing that many of her books are published by Ace Books.