In this virtually flawless new tale set in her Hainish universe, Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness; Four Ways to Forgiveness) sends a young woman from Earth on her first mission, to the planet Aka as an Observer for the Ekumen. Although well prepared for her role, Sutty has been horribly scarred by her past. She grew up gay in a North America badly damaged by ecological stupidity and the excesses of a fundamentalist state religion called Unism. Traveling to Aka, she expected (and had been trained) to deal with a peaceful, essentially static culture based on an ancient, all-encompassing belief system akin to Taoism and known as the Telling. When she arrived, however, she discovered that during the decades it took her to reach the planet, Aka's culture has been radically transformed. The Telling has been all but banned, replaced by a soulless form of corporate communism. It becomes Sutty's task to take a harrowing journey into the high mountains, searching for the last, priceless depository of Akan traditional culture before it can be destroyed. As Le Guin notes in her preface, similarities to China during the Great Leap Forward are not entirely coincidental. Although this is a political and philosophical novel of the purest sort, it is anything but dry. With an anthropologist's eye, Le Guin develops her Akan culture in great detail, as she does her characters. Sutty is an entirely successful viewpoint character, a quirky mixture of competence and intense emotion. The Monitor, her primary nemesis on Aka, is nearly as compelling. This is a novel that aficionados of morally serious SF won't want to miss. (Sept.) FYI: Le Guin is the winner of several Nebula and Hugo awards for outstanding SF, as well as of a National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Newbery Honor and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement.