The Word for Empathy is Sci-Fi: On Le Guin, Kress, and Kindness


Cover detail, Probability Moon © Macmillan

A few years ago, I read six books by Ursula K. Le Guin within the space of about five weeks. Helped by a Netflix-for-books startup service that sadly no longer exists, I mainlined her Hainish Cycle, a cluster of books set at various times in the evolution of a galactic diplomatic cooperative. I’d read the Earthsea books as a kid and in college—apologies to all my professors from spring of sophomore year—but I grew up on Star Trek. Of course the Hainish books were what would sing for me.

This isn’t the only thing they have going for them, but, two words: space anthropology. Is there anything better? An outsider—an emissary, researcher, or, in my favorite book, The Dispossessed, visiting physicist—comes to a strange world and, through his or her or their eyes, we see a new facet of humanity. Because, as alien as the subjects may be, that’s always what human writers are writing about in these stories. By imagining another way to be people, human or not, we learn a little more about what it means to be people ourselves.

A couple of years after my Le Guin binge, I consulted a list of books that had been recommended to me by the same wise friend who had told me to start Le Guin with The Telling. (It was a very strange, but ultimately perfect, place to start.) By some luck of mood or what was available to download, I ended up with Probability Moon, Nancy Kress’s 2000 novel. I don’t remember why I got it as an audiobook—was I walking a lot those days? Preparing for a trip? All of that context is gone, impossible to see against the bright glare of my reaction to this book: holy shit this is amazing.

And: holy shit this is just like Le Guin.

It is a strange and marvelous feeling to discover that a singular voice has a sister. In Probability Moon, a team of scientists embarks on a mission to a planet called World. The sentient inhabitants of World—they are humanoid, with neck fur instead of hair—have a sense called shared reality; they feel pain when they encounter ideas that contradict their sense of truth or the majority view (and oh how the line between those two blurs). Because of shared reality, World’s society is altruistic and peaceful. You can imagine, eventually, what Terran interference does to that peace.

Of course, this is more than a diplomatic mission. There is an artifact on World, and one orbiting in its sky, that seems connected to the mysterious space gates that allow Terrans to traverse the galaxy. And the research team is just cover for a military investigation—could these artifacts be used as weapons?

The heart of the book, for me, was the team on World, and their main contact and translator there, Enli Pek Brimmidin. She is secretly a spy for the governmental agency of Reality and Atonement, and her mission is to discover whether the Terrans are “real.” This is the flip-side of the peacefulness imposed by shared reality—anyone who flouts shared reality is declared “unreal,” as Enli herself was for murdering her brother. Her spywork is atonement; Enli wants, with her whole heart, to be declared real, welcomed back into her world and its truth. Of course, eventually, Terran interference complicates that process, too.

I can’t write the names of Kress’s characters without hearing them in the gentle voice of the audiobook narrator, Gregory Linington. Usually I find science fiction hard to digest aurally, but this was, for some reason, the best audiobook experience of my life. There was something in the narration, which was clear and—the highest praise here—unobtrusive, that gave the characters all a shade of compassion. But Linington didn’t conjure that from thin air—the book is full of it.

That’s what made Le Guin’s work so powerful to me: the entanglement of imagination and compassion. Because what else is compassion but the rich imagining of another person’s inner life? Of their pain, their hopes, their desires, their love, with no concern for their differences. Le Guin imagined her characters’ inner lives and their strange worlds with equal vividness—the two weren’t even separable. She imagined vivid, human hearts in alien situations, and that was part of her great gift to us.

Probability Moon gives this gift, too. It’s written into the book, in Enli’s struggle to understand the Terrans, who challenge her very conception of reality, sentience, and truth. One member of the Terran mission becomes obsessed with the altruistic implications of shared reality, and goes rogue trying to figure out how to open earthling minds to that experience. And, more subtly, it’s in the friendship that develops between Enli and Ann, the mission’s xenobiologist, and the delicate relationships between the members of the team. This book is part space opera, part hard sci-fi, and something much gentler, too.

This isn’t about women writing socially and emotionally thoughtful science fiction, though maybe it would be wrong of me to dismiss Le Guin and Kress’s gender. In her essay “Compassion and Terror,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum—another woman, for whatever, if anything, it’s worth—wrote:

Compassion begins from where we are, from the circle of our cares and concerns. It will be felt only toward those things and persons we see as important, and of course most of us most of the time ascribe importance in a very uneventful and inconstant way. Empathetic imagining can sometimes extent the circle of concern.

All science fiction is work of imagining. Empathetic imagining, though, is the real gift. There is so much that Le Guin gave us: her stories, her wisdom, her righteous anger, her blogs about cats. The feeling that we weren’t alone, in the literary world or the scores of worlds that she invented. I was bereft when I read that she’d died—almost inexplicably so: she had lived a long and very full life, I didn’t know her personally, I loved her books but I’ve hardly read them all. But I’m holding on to what her work brought to life, the connection that’s the opposite of hatred but also of loneliness. In her characters and through her books, and through the other writers whose work resonates with hers.

Kress is younger than Le Guin, but they were colleagues and contemporaries—they both began publishing in the 70s, and over the years they found themselves together on panels and in roundtable discussions. In one group interview, I scour for moments when they speak directly to each other, and find none. But when Kress say, “I was swept into the field among a great tide of female writers,” Le Guin must be among them. In another interview, solo, when Kress is asked for the books everyone should read, her first two are Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed. The name-making classic, and my favorite. They are both books in which outsiders learn to understand an alien world—perhaps to love it, perhaps to fear it, but either way it breaks their heart. Empathy begets openness, after all, which includes openness to hurt. But it begets more empathy, too—a rising tide.