This is not a review, so much as a connected set of observations about this novel. All of these comments are merely thoughts that went through my mind as I became aware of what was missing, what seemed odd, in this otherwise rich and compelling tale, governed by the overarching question in my mind about how UKL would write this, were she writing it in 2012.
First, by way of caveat, I've read only one other UKL novel -- A Wizard of Earthsea -- and that was more than 25 years ago in what was known as a "kiddie lit" undergrad class (there was no "YA" back then, when books were chiseled with flint tools on rock from the precambrian shield).
That was still well after this book was written: 1969 - the year the US landed on the moon; the Vietnam War was in full swing; and the summer of love had turned into assassinations, race riots and Altamont. Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and founded NOW in 1966; and the Stonewall riots occurred in 1969 (thank you, Wikipedia) - but the reality is that it was still pretty early days in terms of consciousness-raising all 'round, especially on the gay rights and women's movement fronts.
I have absolutely no doubt that this novel was barrier-busting in its presentation of a non-gendered world. But in another, it is absolutely mired in a time in which the public discourse and general zeitgeist was - even for progressives as I have no doubt UKL is - pretty damn archaic, by today's standards.
From a 2012 vantage point, this set up a very interesting reading experience.
Let me say right off the bat that I really enjoyed this novel. I found it engaging; I loved the gap in understanding between Estraven and Genly Ai, and how UKL wrote that to resolution, bringing the two perspectives together in the service of a lofty goal. I love the artfulness and thought-experimental concepts and the 'world-building.' I love the insertion of oral tales and mythologies, and the subtle satire and analogy of the politics, especially the allusions to the UN (in many ways - many - this novel reads more like a post-war/Cold War novel, despite the gender/sexuality/environmental themes it raises, which seem more contemporary).
All that aside, though, back to the reading experience circa 2012. There were times when I winced at Genly Ai's attempts to describe the differences in mind and manners between men and women ("I don't know. They don't often seem to turn up mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers. But it isn't that they're stupid.")
At first, I thought this was UKL's technique for showing Genly's arrogance and blind spots, despite being from a presumably more advanced culture. But that reading doesn't hold up given how things turn out (if it were so; he would have had a come-uppance).
And the treatment of the sexual conflict between Estraven and Genly is, well, positively quaint. Two people are on a long and dangerous journey together. One has betrayed the other; the one betrayed has saved the other's life; they are escaping as part of the plan to bring the planet Gethen, aka "Winter", into the United Federation of Planets, ooops - no, I mean the Ekumenical alliance of worlds. This is an ideal for which both have made great sacrifices, and will sacrifice their lives. They are cold, they are tired, they are hungry ... and they are realizing they have deep feelings of friendship, even love, for one another. They are realizing that they are the only two people who can and should trust each other on the entire planet. And you know, things go as they will, the cozy glow of the Chabe stove holding at bay the blizzard outside, but: one is "bisexual" (a term UKL uses that confuses the hell out of me, until I realize she's talking about coming from a planet with two sexes) and male; the other is ambi-sexual and coming in to 'heat'.
And how was it written? They sidle up to the topic, say something *cough cough* that lets them each preserve their pride while never really acknowledging the sexual tension, then *cough cough* scurry back to their own side of the tent seething in embarrasment and conflict.
Oh, how differently she would write that scene today, I bet!
And one other thing: this is a planet that is significantly colder than Earth, where life exists in a narrow equatorial band hemmed in by two glaciers, and where the topic of what causes Ice Ages, including those on Earth, is raised directly at least twice but discussed without even the most oblique reference to global warming/climate change.
Again, it simply could not be written that way today by UKL or anyone else, I don't think; and cannot be read today without noticing the omission.
One final thought: I'm glad I read this in the middle of the summer. Brrrrrrrrrrrr.