Ive read this classic (winner of both the Hugo & Nebula awards) more than once before. Although well known for its exploration of alternate views on gender and sexuality, and it does discuss that, it, in the end, is really a story about humanity and the nature of friendship.
Genly Ai, an Envoy of the Ekumen, a sort of non-partisan organization that facilitates travel and communication between worlds, has volunteered to try bring the Karhide into the Ekumen. On the planet known as Winter, he is overhelmed an alienated by the cold and inhospitable weather, by the inscrutable social customs and baffling political machinations of the people of the country of Karhide, and perhaps most of all by the fact that the the people of Karhide are asexual for much of the time, only coming into heat or kemmer at certain periods at which time they could become either gender.
Following his mission, Ai meets Estraven, an official of Karhide who falls out of favor and is exiled the events that follow are both bitter political drama and action-adventure quest, during the course of which Ai and the reader learn more of the nature of humanity.
A truly excellent book.
I have been wanting to read this sci-fi classic for a while so I finally brought it on the plane with me. This is a very good book. I can't say it was the most enjoyable read, but it is an exquisite read...kind of like a work of fine art. In general it was hard to decide if this was a 4 or 5 star book. It wasn't personally my favorite book, but it was a very well put together book and a book that asks a lot of very deep questions.
Genly Ai is an ambassador to the planet Winter. Winter is a planet that has the unique distinction of being the only planet where the humans are both genders at once or have no gender at all depending on the moon cycle. Genly's goal is to bring Winter in contact and into trade agreements with the rest of galactic civilization. He starts his quest in the somewhat uncivilized nation of Karhide; where he is eventually driven to the countryside. Next he seeks to win over the more civilized and lawful nation of Orgoreyn. But which nation is really the more civilized of the two? Estraven, who starts the story as the chief adviser to the King of Karhide, ends up being Genly's companion for much of his journey...and at points the story is told from Estraven's viewpoint.
The story starts out a little slow and it has a lot of throwing around of terms that are unknown to the reader (as many sci-fi books do). Maybe a third of the way through the book the story really picks up and starts to get interesting. This is not the easiest book to read. The detail is meticulous and the reader must concentrate and really pay attention to what they are reading. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I wouldn't pick this book up for a fun/quick read.
The plot is well-woven and the worlds Le Guin build's are amazing. She has extensively developed language, culture, policy, and structure of the societies on Winter. The detail she took with this world building is just fantastic. The other amazing thing is that in this well woven story she manages to touch on a multitude of issues humanity faces now and will always face. Much of the issues she delves into are of a political nature, but many of them are also of a personal nature. Probably the most interesting issue she deals with throughout the book is how society would be changed if everyone was both genders or did not have a gender.
All in all it is an interesting read and the book is well done. Given how long ago the book was written it has aged pretty well. Some of the writing style is a little archaic, and as I had mentioned it is definitely not an easy or particularly fun read. Still, it is a good book for everyone to read because the ideas presented in it are intriguing and it is just such a classic work of sci-fi. Did this book make me want to run out and read everything by Le Guin? Not really, but if I am in the mood for a heavier sci-fi read I might consider it.