Genly Ai - missionary of the Ekumen (an intergalactic union of 83 worlds), arrives on the planet Gethen (also known as winter for its perpetual cold & harsh climate), to convince Gethenians to join the union. Genly Ai is a black, male human, an ethnologist by training, and lone diplomat of the Ekumen on Gethen. 'One alien is a curiosity, two is an invasion' he tells the Gethenians - half self-deprecating humour & half-warning. The Ekumen is a union of trade, technology, philosophy & the like (no mentioned of the military), and welcomes planets peacefully and only with unanimous willingness. TLHOD is about Genly's 'adventures' on Gethen but is only partly told from his POV; the other parts are narrated from the POV of Therem Harth Estraven - a Gethenian, disgraced former minister who sees promise in joining Ukumen.
Gethen has two main countries. Karhide - a monarchy, where a pregnant king fears losing power to schemes and plots in his court & government, and is afraid to join Ekumen because he does not want to lose influence. He sees Genly as a potential pawn to increase his grip on power. The other country is Orgoreyn, a paranoid Oligarchy with a bloated bureaucracy, rampant corruption, violent nationalism & opportunistic politicians.
TLHOD is humanitarian fiction; where basic goodness wins over differences through the sacrifice of ones own. It has made a strong impression on readers and peers alike having being in print for over 50 years and winning prestigious SF awards like the Hugo, and the Nebula. The anthropological claims about the Gethenians bring a lot of questions to mind. Genly learns that they have never had a war on Gethen - a suspicious claim considering how crucial war is in the development of complex political structures like monarchies and oligarchies. How did Gethenians come to favour plots and schemes without ever having gone through bloody battles? Estraven also talks about the dark side of patriotism - nationalism & fear-mongering - as tools of political power, which is another unlikely development in the absence of wars. Also - how do stratified societies like monarchies on Gethen reconcile themselves with the unforgiving climate there? How did the biting cold allow agriculture and concentration of wealth that leads to stratification of civilizations?
One topic the book is widely remembered for is its exploration of gender, because are Gethenians ambisexual (and / or androgynous, inter-sex, fluid-gender, hermaphrodite neuters / potentials / integrals) humanoids; and Genly cannot wrap his mind around this reality in practice. Unbelievable that in 82 other worlds of Ekumen the diplomatic corp hasn't encountered or sensitized itself to fluid gender beings, not to mention the variety of the animal kingdom on Earth itself like the flatworm.
The sexual phase the Gethenins follows a lunar cycle. Their neuter state is called Somer and they remain in Somer for most of the cycle. Their sexual state is called Kemmer, during which their sexual organs take a male or female form depending on their own and their partners phermones and then revert back to the neutral state. Kemmer is not a monogamous state, and has a social function of bonding entire communities where anyone can be a lover. Kemmer ranges from monogamy to orgiastic promiscuity. Marriage can happen through a vow of permanent Kemmer. Remaining in a state of one gender is considered a perversion on Gethen, and Genly Ai is therefore seen to be in a perpetual state of arousal (because of his male aggression? facial hair?). The fluidity of gender makes Gethenians share the trials of child-bearing & male aggression, but also complicates families and maternal and paternal ancestry. The fluid gender on Gethen throws Genly Ai off his mark and he begins to see Gethenians differently - effeminate, indecisive & confusing.
Another cultural stumbling block for Genly Ai is the Gethenian concept of Shifgrethor. Shifgrethor can mean social currency, prestige, reputation, pride, face, integrity, status. Loyalty and betrayal mark a person severely on Gethen. The idea is ingrained and unspoken and Genly takes time to grasp the presence & impact of this social currency; he severely misinterprets it early on. All these differences cause Genly be dismissive, condescending and mistrusting of Gethenians; and his confusion increases at he spends months and years on the planet.
TLHOD is impressive in the breadth of topics discussed - biology, sexuality, colonialism, politics, war and so on; but the ideas are novel and believable for younger readers. Parallels can be drawn between Genly Ai and John Blackthorne from James Clavell's Shogun, who is shipwrecked off the Japanese coast and is in fact used as a pawn by the warlord Toranaga (based on the historical Tokugawa shogun). Blackthorne is also confused by Japanese culture and attitudes but thrives as a courtier, and like the Gethenians - Japan also faces a choice of opening up to the rest of the world (Britain, Portugal, France etc) or remaining secluded.
Like Shogun, TLHOD leaves you with curiosity and questions. How do Gethenians (ambisexuals) mate? Matt Simon (from Wired) describes the mating ritual of some species of hermaphroditic marine flatworm who dance around trying to impale the other and inject their sperm while trying to remain uninseminated themselves. The dance can last hours and the impregnated flatworm is also left with stab wounds; but natural selection dictates that if you're going to be impregnated this way its better its better to be stabbed a whole lot by an accomplished 'fencer' whose genes will have better chances of being passed down generations. A different species of flatworm can impregnate itself in the absence of prospective mates.
Another unlikely scenario from TLHOD is the peaceful arrival of Genly / Ekumen on Gethen. The history of man tells a different story - the genocide of the Moriori at the hands of the invading Mori-ori (Chatham Islands, 1835), the execution of the Inca emperor Atahuallpa on his own soil by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro (Cajamarca, 1532), and the pillage of India after the decline of the Mughal empire by the British East India Company that lasted almost two centuries are just three examples in popular consciousness.
Contrast the behaviour of the Gethen leadership to willingly join Ekumen with the isolated community of the Sentinelese on the Andaman Islands. The Sentinelese have (wisely) not been welcoming to any outsider and have resorted to killing any visitor, included missionaries and fishermen who stray too close to their shores. The Gethenians seem to have assumed a relationship of equals with a people whose capability vastly outgun their own. The absence of war on Gethen would assume the absence of mass communication and coordination; it would also stymie technological development and has left Gethenians harmless towards themselves and also towards the other.
1. Shogun by James Clavell
2. Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond
3. The Anarchy by Willian Dalrymple
4. The Wasp That Brainwashed The Caterpillar by Matt Simon