I am admitting, right here and now, that I had never read an Ursula K. Le Guin novel before. I know. I had, though, read a couple of her short stories, most notably "Schrodinger's Cat," which I found strange and wonderful and perplexing.
I'd apply those same adjectives to The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that is unlike anything else I've read. Its exploration of how gender and environment shape culture is fascinating and made Winter/Gethen so real, I felt chilly the entire time I was reading the book.
And while I appreciated the complex political system that Le Guin describes in the first part of the novel, I was more interested in the second half's more spare, philosophical aura, in which two people (aliens from separate planets) together brave the intense ice and snow and cold on a treacherous crossing back to civilization. It takes this kind of environment, in which survival depends on trust and even intimacy, that enables the envoy to Gethen to finally see past the perplexing reality of Gethenian androgyny and accept pure personality.
Often, while reading this novel, I thought of the Star Trek: TNG episode, in which the Enterprise crew encounter a species that has evolved into andarogyny. And while the connections between the episode and the novel mostly stop there, both do raise questions about the expectations and suspicions we bring to relationships based on the other person's gender. Both, too, invite us to think about how we would act without preconceived notions.
Ultimately, what I most appreciated about The Left Hand of Darkness was Le Guin's effort to push the boundaries of what we know about ourselves and offer an alternative. She has created an entirely new set of worlds and peopled them with beings that prompt self-reflection. So clearly I'll be reading more Le Guin.