The story is about an Envoy sent from a collection of planets attempting to make first contact with an unimaginably foreign civilization. The story is sometimes told from Genly's perspective and sometimes from his friend Estraven's perspective. The amazing part of this narrative is how Leguin is able to capture the culture shock between Genly and Estraven, and what it says about patriotism, jingoism, and xenophobia, similar concepts that by the end of the book are given sharp relief.
The story is told in 4 acts, but this is not evident at first glance, for the segments flow well from one to the next. This is both a benefit to the narrative and at the same time removes a clarity that is needed in as complex a story as this. I had a hard time reading this book; many times I had to stop reading and scan back to remember ideas of the culture, to catch details important to the story, or even to remember the first person speaker. This is in fact one of the worst features of the book; Leguin's quick change of first person without warning makes it extremely hard to follow unfolding events, and frustration at this tendency almost made me quit the book at several opportunities. I am very fortunate that I did not.
In several points Leguin breaks into Gethenian folk takes. This is not uncommon for science fiction about foreign or alien civilizations. What makes Darkness unique in this regard is the importance and timing; almost every single story is a foreshadowing or directly involves the plot. It is not as if they are thrown in for the sake of color; Leguin really wants you to understand what the motives of the characters are, and how influential the myths really are to Genly and Estraven. Not only does it add to the epic nature of the plot but also makes it understandable. It saves the book from incomprehension.
Another interesting plot point is the usage of foretelling. Early on in the book Genly meets up with a foreteller named Faxe. There are two different directions one can go in a precognitive narrative. One can allow the future to mutate (like a Back to the Future situation) or one could not permit the future to change (like in a Twelve Monkeys sense). Writers usually pick one side or the other, but will usually agree on the utility of being able to see the future. Leguin accepts the Twelve Monkey's perception of precognition, but doubts the usefulness of it. Faxe lets Genly know early on that his mission would be successful, but as Faxe says: "You don't see yet, Genry [sic], why we perfected and practice Foretelling? To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question."
Leguin hits upon many difficult philosophical questions in the narrative, which seems to small and complex to tackle them all. Admirably, she writes around what I would consider a crutch of storytelling in the late 1960s/early 1970s when this book was written, and that is the preoccupation with sex. Gethenians are neither male nor female, but rather permute their sex during a biorhythic breeding time called kemmer. If procreation is successful, the one who is female carries a child to term and stays in kemmer, but otherwise Gethenians return to a "neuter" gender. Many times in Darkness, Genly is pejoratively referred to as "the Pervert" because it appears that he is in permanent kemmer. I call this initially a crutch, because it was during the "Summer of Love" that too much attention was paid in science fiction to sex by the most prominent of authors. This obsession with countering the "obscenity" of sex would IMHO negatively influence stories such as Silverburg's The World Inside and Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, or even movie adaptations of earlier works such as Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, which had broader themes that were unnecessarily shortened by the preoccupation with sex.
Instead of focusing on the sexual act, Leguin handles this topic brilliantly; while the gender issue and prejudice against Genly for this is a main factor of the plot, she never features any sexual acts and instead of dealing with the attitudes about perverseness, she focuses on two deeper points about gender commonly overlooked: an alien concept of duality that emerges from a lack of permanent gender, and the differences in a society that is rid of gender roles. Without a permanent gender, any Gethenian can be deemed ahma, or the "parent in the flesh". This encourages a number of concessions made by the community for procreation, not to mention a manipulation of many concepts that become alien (or at least muted) in Gethenian eyes, such as rape (sex can only happen while in kemmer, and when both participants are willing), incest (which is permitted as long as it's intergenerational), and seduction (which is impossible to engineer if cycles aren't in sync, although this becomes a plot point in the middle of the story). One of the chapters of the book is written from the perspecive of a scouting mission to the planet that discusses this subject in detail.
In that chapter about sex, two really interesting subjects are elucidated. Because of the lack of gender, the race of planets that Genly comes from (the Ekumen) are almost convinced that the planet is an experiment, and Leguin slips in almost slyly
"But not that there is evidence that the Terran Colony was an experiment, the planting of one Hainish Normal group with its own proto-hominid autochthones, the possibility cannot be ignored."Although she doesn't comment further on how Earth was an experiment, she does tie in "creation myths" to the story that try to connect in some diagonal way the Terran experience to the Gethenian one, as if the existence of creation myths indicate a pre-engineered society. Secondly, the purpose of this experiment was theorized to be about prevention of conflict. As is illustrated throughout Darkness, this is ultimately a failure; where there isn't full-scale conflict, the jingoism and xenophobia are highly prevalent, and cause many deaths and atrocities, while not paralleled to full scale war, are indicative of the times.
I would go so far as to say that Darkness was more influenced by the Cold War than it was by the Summer of Love. This would put me in conflict with many other reviewers, who consider Leguin's novel to be mainly about the Genderless Experiment. In fact there are numerous comments made in the third act of the book (Genly and Estraven's trek across the northern Arctic region) that speak to the dangers of jingoism. My favorite quote in this novel comes from Estraven (a Karhidian):
"Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? How does one hate a country or love one? ...I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks , I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name seases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry? Then it's not a good thing."Leguin's main point is in this jingoism. The main purpose of Karhide's reluctance to submit to the Ekumen is the simple motive of it's national pride; by accepting their place among the collection of worlds they lose their dominance and importance on the world they inhabit. There are many discussions between the two main characters that separate jingoism (a warlike stance to assert one nation's superiority) from patriotism (a love of one's homeland). Genly comments about this near the end of the book:
As I ate, I remembered Estraven's comment of that, then I had asked him if he hated Orgoreyn; I remembered his voice last night, saying with all mildness, "I'd rather be in Karhide..." And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend's voice arises: and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?Politics plays center stage in the plot of this novel and Leguin shines in illustrating the subtle maneuvers performed by the (overly) numerous politicians in the book. The concept of shifgrethor plays a prominent role in Gethenian politics and is not completely explained. In one sense it is a level of honor between two people. In another, it is a mind-game of secrecy played in political dealings. In a third, it is a general sense of political power. This game that Leguin plays with the word shifgrethor is similar to Heinlein's trick of obscuring the meaning of the word grok. Unlike Stranger in a Strange Land, which places the concept of grok in the middle of a satire on American culture, Leguin's world makes use of shifgrethor in a more constructive fashion that adds more to the character development than the cultural and political argument the book makes.
In the same vein though, this also belies one major influence in the book that bothered me. It seems that Gethenian culture is borrowed (more than created) piecemeal from a mixture of Inuit and Japanese cultures. Many anecdotes are lifted from Japanese culture (or the American impression thereof) , from the mispronunciation of Ls (Genly is referred to many times in the book as Genry) to the concept of shifgrethor (which is very similar to the concept of giri, and similarly untranslatable). Leguin also refers to other Oriental concepts in the book, introducing the main Gethenian character to Go and the concept of the yin/yang. From the Inuit side, since Gethenian is a planet in the severe stages of an Ice Age, Leguin refers to the extreme survival tactics that are similar to Inuit experiences, creation myths that are very similar, facial and other physical features are disturbingly similar, and influences in language are plentiful (for example, there are multiple words for snow, snowstorms, and icy conditions). These cultural similarities could unfairly reflect on the cultures they're borrowed from if the overall perception of Gethenians were at all negative. Luckily it is not, but it seems a rather risky position to take. It could also be that these borrowed influences were unintentional, more from the research into different cultures than it was from stereotypical beliefs. This is my belief, but the overall impression cannot be ignored, and it did influence my perception of the novel just a little bit.
Overall, I do believe this novel to be a science fiction classic, and one that should be in the canon of anyone wanting to start reading this genre; however it does come with its problems. It is a very dense read, requiring concentration and slow reading, and may turn off potential readers in the first few chapters. Its very slow and suspense-less plot make it hard to become engrossed and involved in the story until at least the third act. Its Gibsonesque pseudovocabulary (like reading Neuromancer for the first time) makes comprehension frustrating. However, for the very same reasons this book shines. Its slow reading makes you think about the multitude of different topics presented, from dualism and patriotism to gender roles and cosmology. The characters are human, even for being alien, deeper that most science fiction novels permit. The diverse language of the Gethenians give life and inspiration to their culture. Finally, the book ends in Shakespearean fashion (the last chapter's name even quotes from the Bard), and forces you enigmatically to think about what just happened. The book is indescribably deep, which is both its worst failing and its strongest asset for this genre.
Wow... didn't intend to write a 2000 word essay... it just happened. I love the weekend.