By Mark Alpert
My reading habits usually align with my writing habits. I write thrillers and science fiction because those are my favorite genres. Reading novels by Stephen King, Lee Child, and Liu Cixin is more entertaining, in my opinion, than almost anything else.
But I recognize that I sometimes stick too close to my favorites. By focusing so much on familiar authors and styles, I’m surely neglecting a slew of amazing novels that are just as good and maybe better. So every now and then I try to diversify my reading list. Earlier this year, for instance, right after I finished reading a thriller by a long-time favorite author (The Night Manager by John le Carré) I started a somewhat experimental literary novel I’d heard raves about (Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders).
And sometimes I try to get the best of both worlds by exploring the innovative fringes of familiar genres. Science fiction is a particularly good field for this kind of exploration because many sci-fi authors aren’t afraid to strike out in new directions. This year I finally got around to reading the works of Ursula Le Guin, one of the pioneers of the so-called New Wave science fiction of the Sixties and Seventies, starting with her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness.
It’s a fantastic book, decades ahead of its time. Le Guin imagines a planet named Gethen whose inhabitants are very similar to humans except for one important difference: they’re neither male nor female. For the great majority of their lives, they’re asexual individuals with neutral, indeterminate genitalia, or maybe no genitals at all. (Le Guin doesn’t go into the anatomical details in The Left Hand of Darkness, but I thought of the crotches of my boyhood GI Joe dolls, which had nothing but blank skin between their legs.) Every month or so, the Gethenians go into a four-day-long state called “kemmer” during which they temporarily develop male or female genitals and feel a strong desire to have sex. What’s more, the transition to male or female isn’t a matter of choice, and it isn’t fixed for a lifetime; a Gethenian could become male during kemmer at the beginning of the year, then female the next month, and so on. You could be a mother to some of your children and a father to others. Cool idea, right?
Like many sci-fi ideas, this one makes you wonder: What would society be like if there were no permanent gender identities? Le Guin does a great job of envisioning this society, describing it from the point of view of an outsider, an emissary from Earth. I enjoyed the book so much, I decided to read Le Guin’s Earthsea books, the beloved fantasy series that’s a bit like The Lord of the Rings and just as well-written.
Le Guin’s literary successor, I believe, is Margaret Atwood, who also enlivens science fiction with provocative ideas and wonderful writing. She’s most famous for The Handmaid’s Tale because that novel was turned into a hit television series, although the book is actually much better than the TV adaptation. This past summer I read Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, which starts with the 2003 novel Oryx and Crake. It’s a dark, mordant story of a genetically engineered apocalypse that destroys a near-future society so corrupt and polluted that it probably wasn’t worth saving. But the second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, is even better, because it tells the same story from the point of view of a whole new set of characters, members of a back-to-nature religious cult that seems to be involved in engineering the apocalypse.
I’ll mention two other inspiring writers who demonstrate how you can lift genre fiction to the level of literary greatness. The first is Brooke Bolander, who writes award-winning novelettes and short stories. My introduction to her work was the story, “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” which is such an arresting title that I had to read the story immediately. Luckily, the whole text is on the Web, and you can read it too, right here. It’s only a thousand words long, but I think it’s one of the most breathtaking thousand-word passages ever written in the English language. But don’t take my word for it. Read it right now.
The second remarkable sci-fi writer I’ve discovered in the past year is N.K. Jemisin, who recently won a MacArthur Fellows Program Genius Grant. The short story that grabbed my attention was “The City Born Great,” which is also available online. I’m not even going to try to describe this story. Just read it.
Next on my reading list is Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. But last night I took some time to reread an old favorite, a very old favorite: Horton Hears A Who by Dr. Seuss. I found a copy in my daughter’s bedroom. (She’s off on her own now, like her brother, but I still linger in their old bedrooms and stare at the books I used to read to them.) And this particular book, my God, is so attuned to the present moment in American history, it’s positively eerie. So I’ll end this post with Horton’s desperate exhortation to the minuscule inhabitants of a dust speck as they struggle to make themselves heard:
“Don’t give up! I believe in you all!
A person’s a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!”