In Reading Women, the Cut talks to women who interest us about the books by women that transformed the way they think.
I’ve always been a science-fiction freak. I read The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin, when I was in sixth grade and was just starting to develop rules for how the world works and doesn’t work. The book is about a human envoy trying to get this alien civilization to join their collective. He’s confronting a civilization that is biologically and culturally utterly alien, and he struggles through the entire novel to understand them. It isn’t easy. In order for him to do it, he has to start exploding bits of his own universe, and then he’s left with rubble and confusion. It’s really a book about getting over one’s preconceptions about gender and politics and biology and climate — and trying to reach across impossible strangeness in order to find common ground.
It came back to me in recent times because there seem to be so many absolutely unbridgeable gulfs, where we just can’t figure out what is going on in the other person’s mind. The other person seems to work according to entirely different rules and values and principles, so that even things that seem intuitively obvious are rejected. A big theme in the book is that you can’t make assumptions about anyone, including on the basis of their gender. In the book, gender is very fluid. It was way ahead of its time. Reading it, I had a sense of great liberation and a sense of great responsibility. The fundamental moral lesson is that doubt is the beginning of wisdom. Certainties can’t exist. That was something explored deeply in Le Guin’s multilayered novels, which worked itself into the way I approached the world.
I returned to the book after the election. I went back to old science-fiction favorites, probably to distract myself from reality. But really good science fiction is never a distraction. It’s a reflection, a refraction, and a reconsideration of reality.
If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.