The Left Hand of Darkness -- Ursula K. Le Guin
If you go to Ursula K. Le Guin's website, you can read a rejection letter she received for The Left Hand of Darkness. Considering that the book later won both the Hugo (1970)and the Nebula (1969), is considered a science fiction classic and is used in loads of college courses, the guy is probably STILL kicking himself.
I finally read it partly because it's a must-read -- it has a very definite place in the sci-fi canon -- and partly because I'm still on my Le Guin kick. And okay, let's face it: I read it partly because I've always loved the cover art. (Don't ask me why. I just have.)
I'm not going to get into a description of the book and the issues Le Guin explores -- at least half of the people reading this have probably already read the book, so I don't want to retread old territory. If you want a description, read the Wikipedia article -- it's got some spoilers, but just enough to get a general understanding of the background.
As usual, I loved the voice of the narrator. Genly Ai isn't an anthropologist -- he's on Gethen to try to convince the inhabitants to join the Ekumen, not to study their culture without interfering -- but to a large degree, the book still reads like an anthropological text. His worldview is so different from the Gethen worldview that he spends a lot of his time just trying to understand (and trying to be understood):
Everything I had said, tonight and ever since I came to Winter, suddenly appeared to me as both stupid and incredible. How could I expect this man or any other to believe my tales about other worlds, other races, a vague benevolent government somewhere off in outer space. It was all nonsense. I had appeared in Karhide in a queer kind of ship, and I differed physically from Gethenians in some respects; that wanted explaining. But my own explanations were preposterous. I did not, in that moment, believe them myself.
He's occasionally funny, usually in the form of being a crank:
I lodged in a dreary overpriced inn crouching in the lee of the Towers. I got up at dawn after many bad dreams, and paid the extortioner for bed and breakfast and inaccurate directions as to the way I should take, and set forth afoot to find Otherhord, an ancient Fastness not far from Rer. I was lost within fifty yards of the inn.
It is so very easy to use science fiction as a way to make a point. It is, unfortunately, a genre that is very prone to the Frying Pan Syndrome. BLAM! Banning books is bad and dangerous. BLAM! We're all a bunch of monkeys! BLAM! Don't trust computers that have been patterned after the human brain because, hel-LO, humans can be bad news. I've never found Le Guin to be guilty of that -- her books feel more like she's trying to figure things out than preach. They feel like she's on the journey, too.
More than the exploration of sex and culture, this bit rattled around in my brain for a good while:
To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus proof is a word not often used among the Handdarata, who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: and they have broken the circle, and go free.
To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.