I decided to read this with my fiance because I yanked it out of his hand at the library one month and shoved Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey's Elvenbane into his hand instead. It wasn't until we decided to read this together that I realized I haven't ready any LeGuin before this.
Readers, this makes me slightly ashamed of myself. I am a huge sci-fi fan. It is my genre of choice, and the fact that I haven't read someone who's been in the business for over 50 years is just kind of lame. On the other hand, I do have a tendency to shy away from the founders of sci-fi because the writing tends to be clunky. It's almost like they used a scientific method to write the books. Not that they're formulaic, they wrote the formulae, but the sentence structure in Asimov, etc. is so stodgy it feels like they methodically cycled through a list of options before figuring out which one was the best catalyst. Not necessarily the best way to write a compelling novel.
LeGuin is a tiny bit stodgy, but I think this has more to do with the tastes of the time. She also wrote a compelling anthropology of a completely fictional race of human beings. That is a fantastical feat. Not only did she create myths, culture, history, politics, and gender for these beings, but she wove it into a readable narrative. I've always been somewhat fascinated by anthropology because it actually involves the study of two cultural perspectives. Despite any attempts to be neutral, anthropology by its nature cannot be neutral. Even if no judgments are being made on the culture being studied, there is still the issue of presenting that culture in terms that the audience will be able to understand. Some cultural differences are so alien to other cultures that it has to be explained in terms that don't define it exactly, but that get close enough that the concept can be retained and eventually digested in a way that is close enough to the original concept.
There are several elements of Gethenian culture and physiology that are
so alien that they would be difficult to accept (particularly by anyone
in the European mindset). The first one is probably the concept of Shifgrethor. Maybe twenty years ago I would say it was the dual-sex of the
Gethenians, but transgender people are becoming more and more common,
which is not the same, but I think it does make it easier to accept the
idea of genders outside of male or female.* Shifgrethor on the other hand is a kind of fluid concept; it seems to
incorporate a sense of honor and decorum and hospitality and protocol
and a couple of other things.
You can offend someone's Shifgrethor, which felt (to me) like it was the equivalent of calling a man a faggot. Not in the sense that you are actually implying that a man has sex with a man, but that they are Unmanly, and negatively so. Since the Gethenians don't have separate genders, you can't imply that they are less manly or less feminine, but you can imply that they are less Them. It doesn't involve their humanity so much as it involves how well they fit in with society. The same kind of goes for the terms faggot, nigger, dyke, and many, many others whose use I really don't encourage (including the ones mentioned here).
Yes, on the one hand they are terms for differences between us, but they are also used in a way that singles out the Others. They are a means of separating Others from the normal in a way that gay, black, or lesbian do not. These latter terms are a means of defining without setting the individuals outside of the norm or insulting their Shifgrethor if you will. Whereas the previous terms carry connotations of distaste and imply that these individuals are somehow inferior and unwanted, that is why they are so repulsive. They automatically conjure up images and feelings of being cast out (or never included), and as social creatures that is one of the most offensive thoughts we can have.
*I recognize that transsexual people typically choose to be a different gender than the one they were born into. And I recognize them as their chosen gender, however I know that the transitional stages have helped me to become more aware of different genders and gender options.