The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula Le Guin.
This is the second Le Guin book I've read, following on closely from The Dispossessed. Like that book, this was a very good read: thoughtful and intelligent.
It's not a long novel, the paperback (yes, I read the dead tree version) being under 250 pages. Quality wrapped up in a small package.
The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of an envoy from the Ekumen, a commonwealth of planets, to the world of Winter (known to its inhabitants as Gethen). As the name suggests, Winter is a world of cold, harsh winter temperatures most of the year. The planet is being investigated for its readyness to become a part of the Ekumen and is therefore a form of first contact tale.
There is a similarity between this novel and The Dispossessed in at least one aspect: a contrast is drawn between two quite different societies. One is Karhide, a conservative, autocratic and old fashioned culture, scared of change. The other, Orgoreyn, is more organised and technocratic, but dissembling and cruel.
The big difference here though, and the defining aspect of the novel, is that the people of Gethen are sexless, neither male or female. Apart from a few days every lunar cycle (roughly 26 days), the natives are only latent and can be seen as potential males, or potential females. Le Guin explores what this might mean from multiple aspects: social, linguistic, political, economic and personal. The personal relationship that develops between the envy and Estraven, a native he completely misreads and distrusts initially, is the powerful core.
Like The Dispossessed, this is not a book full of action or excitement, although there are exciting parts and some action. The interest is in the meeting and eventual trust between the representatives of two alien cultures: one a terran man (the envoy) and the other a Gethenian. Until some understanding of the reality of life without gender, the envoy's mission and his life is in great danger.
Once again, an adventure book with extra depth from an interesting author.