You read something first when you know nothing. Thus in my youth, when I first encountered 'The Left Hand of Darkness'. How was I to know that Ursula LeGuin was Taoist, and that the ForeTellers of Gethen/Winter continued in the ancient tradition of Lao-Tzu, as did the Ekumen of Known Worlds?
Genly Ai is the Envoy to Gethen from the 83 planets of the Ekumen. In mediaeval Karhide he tries to persuade the king to join his nation to the stellar alliance but his patron at court, Estraven, falls foul of court intrigue and is exiled. Ai barely understands the swirling politics about him and soon he too finds himself in the neighbouring police state of Orgoreyn, where Estraven has washed up.
If Karhide is a backward, hearty, mediaeval kingdom mostly constituted from independently-minded clan kin-groups, Orgoreyn is a bureaucratic, stalinist society where people are 'units', allowed no possessions. Again, Ai understands nothing of the machinations of the power elite and ends up a political prisoner in the frozen north.
His escape across the glaciers with Estraven is the final epic section of the book. His mission, however, is in tatters: it seems that none of the rulers of Gethen see their interests furthered by recognition of the existence of the Ekumen.
This is a novel deeply infused by the ethos of feminism: life-affirming, welcoming diversity of experience, warmly optimistic, with a horror of violence and war. LeGuin is too smart not to recognise the dualities of real life (her poem in the book: 'light is the left hand of darkness') yet the masculine principle barely registers. Her male characters could as well be female: there is a certain, predominantly male characteristic of vigorous, analytic and interests-driven brutality which is entirely absent from this novel.
The beautiful writing in this novel doesn't entirely hide the structural flaws. The Envoy is astoundingly stupid, unempathic, bull-headed, incurious and under-trained for his assignment. While his endless errors and misjudgements are needed to drive the story along, it cannot be imagined that the Ekumen would have sent such a one to such a vital assignment.
This was the second book Adrian bought me for Christmas. Two out of three isn't bad but Neal Asher's 'The Skinner' will be a forthcoming library donation as I find that author unreadable.