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Editor's Note: Readers have rightly raised concerns over terminology. Editor has duly re-edited the problematic paragraphs/terms. Content warning for misgendering is now included. Editor is deeply apologetic.
Care is such an interesting word. It runs a gamut of meaning, from suffering and grief to worry and anxiety, to watchfulness to responsibility to the maintenance of a system or an appliance, to a mild form of love or affection. We talk about a careworn face, or a spirit beaten down by care and trouble, but we also speak of medical care, eldercare, childcare, and care homes in the United Kingdom. Lack of care and attention can cause a machine to break down or a person or an animal to become sick or die. It’s a range of emotion: I care for you; I care too much; I couldn’t care less; I don’t really care, do you?
Science fiction addresses care in all of its contexts. From dystopia to utopia, from the glorification of war to the condemnation of violence, through the full range of emotion both human and otherwise—alien, artificial, virtual—the genre is, in its way, about the many faces of care. We care about the field as fans, about the past and the present and the future, about the world we live in and the worlds we hope to explore, in all their many manifestations. Even when we don’t care, we tend to be passionate about it.
The first science fiction novel I ever read revolved around a particular form of care, one that has been especially prominent in this year of pandemic: medical care. My local public library had a large science fiction collection for a smallish town, and my brother happened across a title that seemed interesting to us both. Star Surgeon, it said on the cover, by Alan E. Nourse.
Here was a story about a young person who wanted to be a doctor. But he wasn’t just any person. He was a person from another planet, who wanted to be a doctor in space, traveling from world to world, solving medical mysteries and saving lives.
Dal Timgar was my first experience of a literal space alien in a book. I’d seen a movie or two, and my father and brother liked to watch science fiction on television—Star Trek hadn’t yet aired, but there were other, earlier shows, which I noticed in passing. But here he was on the page, this small person (like me; I never did grow very large) with his soft grey fur and his gentle personality, who had to fight hostility and bigotry at every step of the way, but who never gave up. No matter how much he was bullied, no matter how many obstacles he had to face, he kept on going.
He didn’t go it alone, either. For every human who stood in his way, who attacked him as alien and unfit, who declared in so many words that “if you succeed, humans not only won’t be able to become full galactic citizens. You’ll replace us in the one thing that distinguishes us from all other species, our mastery of the biological sciences,” there was another one who stood up for him. On his three-man spaceship making the rounds of an outlying sector, he had to work as a team with one man who supported him and one who answered to the chief of his detractors. But, no matter how much personal conflict there might be among the three of them, ultimately they had to work together as a team. They had to learn to care about each other, whether or not there was any liking between them, in order to provide medical care to a universe that needed it.
That became my baseline for what science fiction was. You could say I imprinted on it. Science fiction, Nourse taught me, was about people caring about people—regardless of their physical appearance or their cultural norms.
As I grew older, I continued to read everything I could find that had a rocket on the spine or “science fiction” in the catalogue description. I read everything the library had, and bought what I could, when I could afford it. One of the latter, rather early on, blew my mind in all the best ways.
It was a thin paperback with a less sexualised cover than usual for the time, though the woman shown face-on was unusual enough in those very white days, with distinctly Asian features. The title had that not-quite-comprehensible air to it, that random combination of word and number that we’d see in bestsellers here and there: Catch-22, Stalag 17, Slaughterhouse-Five. Babel-17, this one called itself, by an author I hadn’t seen before, Samuel R. Delany.
I was used to having my mind expanded by science-fiction novels, but this one went direct to where I lived. Its passionate love of words, its bravura use of language. Its characters—the brilliant Rydra Wong, worlds-famous poet and starship captain. Her motley crew, both alive and undead (the discorporate, whose speech and actions no living person can retain in memory). The constellation of people and institutions circling around the center that was Rydra. The mystery she had to solve, and the startling form that its solution took.
It was a revelation. Not just the language—I can still recite the flyting of Geoffrey Cord, the would-be lord of Jebel Tarik—but its deeply human, and humane, core. Rydra is unique and remarkable, and no one else has the skills or the talents to solve the mystery of Babel-17, but she doesn’t do it alone. She’s the centre of an expanding circle of government agents, friends and supporters both old and new, and the crew she brings together to man her starship.
It’s a universe at war, with a ferocious and dedicated enemy. And yet there’s a sense that, if both sides can figure out each other’s languages, if they will find a way to resolve their differences, there might be some hope of ending the war. In the meantime, Rydra pulls together an eclectic mix of personalities, both on her ship and in the wider universe. They all care about and for her, and in their various ways they care for each other.
This universe is solidly gender-binary, but these binaries come together in all sorts of combinations. The ship’s Navigators are in a three-way marriage, which is an essential part of what they are and do. The below-decks crew consists of twelve rowdy adolescents and their older babysitter/father figure. The whole ship is profoundly communal. There’s space for the lone talents, of which Rydra is one; she needs her alone time, very much. And yet everything she does, she does out of care for the interstellar alliance of which she is a part, the ship and crew whose captain she is, and the massive asteroid/starship that rescues them all after they’re attacked by the enemy. She lives in a complex web of honour and obligation, an intricate social construct that shapes itself in and around and through everything she is and does.
If Babel-17 opened up my consciousness to the nature and power of language and the ways in which it defines a culture and the people who live in it, another novel of that same era did things that, at the time, were completely new. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness took direct aim at the concept of gender, and presented a world in which everyone was effectively non-gendered. It’s still binary in its way; Gethenians in kemmer, the monthly peak of the reproductive cycle, manifest as either male or female, but there’s no set pattern as to which they may be from cycle to cycle. But that’s only for a few days at a time. For most of their lives, they’re neither.
It’s easier to imagine this in 2021 than it was in 1969, and Le Guin’s book is one of the reasons why. This isn’t an essay about gender, however; there have been whole books written on that. When I reread The Left Hand of Darkness for this article, I read it for its deeper, human core: the core of caring, of taking responsibility for another person.
Young male human Genly Ai is the first envoy of the Ekumen, a trade alliance of eighty-plus worlds, to the newly discovered planet Gethen. He’s arrogant, narrow-minded, and he despises women. And yet here he is, the only human in a world that considers his unchanging sexual status to be a perversion, surrounded by people whom he cannot label as either male or female.
It’s a profoundly uncomfortable situation for him. He has a job to do, which he isn’t particularly good at, even without the challenge of living among people whom he can’t slot into simple binary boxes. What nearly destroys him, and eventually forces him to grow up, is one person whom he never actually likes, but about whom he learns to care deeply: Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.
In the beginning, Estraven is the prime minister of the king of Karhide, but his support for Genly and the Ekumen causes him to be exiled and condemned as a traitor. Genly bumbles about, bouncing toward and away from Estraven, until a combination of miscalculations and political machinations lands him in a prison camp in the totalitarian state of Orgoreyn. It is Estraven who rescues him—whose honor and profound sense of caring for the whole world and not only its individual nations drives him to risk his own life for the Ekumen’s emissary.
The journey of Estraven and Genly across the ice from Orgoreyn to Karhide, racing against time to summon the next round of envoys to continue the process of admitting Gethen to the Ekumen, is one of the great arctic adventure stories of the science-fiction canon. It’s not just the grueling conditions and the constant danger; it’s the relationship between the man from Earth and the person from Gethen, when the man learns to see beyond gender, and the Gethenian learns the truth of what and who Genly is—and by extension, what his people are. There are no other gender-neutral species in the Ekumen. Gethen, if it chooses to join, will be the only one.
The book is not perfect. Le Guin herself admitted that choosing to call all Gethenians “he” was a misstep. Yet, that’s a reflection of Genly, too, of his flaws as a narrator and a character; likewise, it reflects the world Le Guin wrote in, when it was possible to imagine a gender-neutral species, but not to admit that humans might themselves run a gamut of genders and identities. The world of 1969 was still terribly binary.
Genly learns a great deal on his journey with Estraven. He learns to understand a person who is completely different from himself. He learns to care about and for that person. He even, to an extent, learns to question his own assumptions, though he never really moves past the male gaze.
These three books showed me what science fiction could be. It’s fascinating to reread them in the new millennium, in a field that has begun to open itself to so many new and diverse voices. They’ve aged remarkably well, all things considered. And that, I think, is because at their core, they’re about caring for others. About listening; about absorbing views that aren’t one’s own. They’re about community, about sharing lives and resources and knowledge. They are, in a deep and non-species-specific sense, humane.
Because of these books and others like them, I’ve gravitated toward some of the strongest of the new crop of writers, whose works build on what came before, and sometimes enter into dialogue with it. I had to reread Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice after I finished The Left Hand of Darkness, because in many ways Leckie’s work is an answer to Le Guin’s.
Reading them back to back was an illuminating experience. Leckie’s Radch is an imperial rather than an entrepreneurial universe, but where the Ekumen is fairly standardly gender-binary, the Radch is genderless altogether. Humans are still humans, still manifest the range of human sexual characteristics, but citizens of the Radch are not confined to their gender identity. Leckie demonstrates this by calling everyone she regardless of actual physical sex. A few characters are described as male, in contexts where it matters, but they are still referred to by the female pronoun.
The protagonist, Breq, truly is genderless, in that she is the last surviving unit of an artificial intelligence in the form of a troop carrier. She is an ancillary, a corpse soldier: a person from a conquered planet whose mind and will have been slaved to the ship. When the ship is destroyed, all that’s left of its intelligence resides in Breq. There is nothing left of the original consciousness. She is, as completely as one single mind and body can be, the Justice of Toren.
Breq remembers what it was like to inhabit multiple bodies at once. She mourns the destruction of the ship and its human crew, and has committed herself to demand restitution for what was done to them all. She also, in the course of her mission, happens across a former officer whom she never liked at all, and never does like—shades of Genly and Estraven—but she cares about Seivarden as she cares about everyone else who was ever attached to the ship.
The echoes of Le Guin are distinct, especially at the beginning. There’s the odd couple on the ice world. The sledge across the ice. The danger, the daring, the urgency.
But not the male gaze. Citizens of the Radch don’t have that. Seivarden is an asshole, despite the fact that she possesses a penis or male genitalia. She’s a self-conscious aristocrat, a terrible snob, and a straight-up sonofabitch. She’s also, once she gets over the worst of herself, a loyal and fairly competent officer. In her own way, like Breq, she cares.
Breq’s loneliness is terrible, her isolation just barely bearable. She was a whole community, a multifold being. In her, care for others is an imperative. It’s a deep and ingrained need. Over the course of the three-volume series, she gathers a new community, seeks and finds justice, and does her best to make the universe a better place.
Emotion is essential for an AI, she says. They have to care. Otherwise they can’t make effective decisions.
A much less willing but still deeply responsible and, ultimately, caring nonhuman entity is Martha Wells’ Murderbot. In a series of novellas and then in the novel Network Effect, a security unit has managed to disable its governor module. Rather than going off on the murderous rampage the module is supposed to prevent, it carries on with its job of protecting humans from themselves and each other, and spends its downtime watching soap operas.
Murderbot only wants to be left alone to watch its shows. But it keeps being pulled into Situations with the humans who’ve contracted its services. Then it gets involved with ART, the Asshole Research Transport, and its binge-watching time is even more drastically curtailed.
Murderbot at base is a beloved science-fiction trope: the robot who can’t stop helping the humans who created it. It’s cranky and irritable, it has next to no use for the majority of humans, but there is one, Dr. Mensah, for whom it feels something like love and personal obligation. It cares for her. And she cares in return.
That caring, that sense of community, of mutual responsibility and emotional bonding, is what makes the series so compelling. Murderbot is a wonderful character. It isn’t human at all and has absolutely no desire to be. And yet it’s deeply—yes, that word again—humane.
At the other end of the human-mechanical spectrum is another millennia-old empire like the Radch, but built on completely different foundations. The universe of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy, which begins with Gideon the Ninth, is utterly weird and frequently over the top. It’s a space opera and a mystery series and a macabre comedy of manners, but the force that drives it is the ancient art of necromancy.
It is also very much about care. Care as grief, care as anxiety and worry and fear for one’s life and love and world. Care as love and regard, as concern for one’s close friends and colleagues, one’s family, one’s House. Necromancer Harrow is bound to her Cavalier, Gideon, in an inextricable tangle of love and hate and bitter rivalry, a love-hate so strong that it immolates itself—over and over, in multiple ways.
It’s a wild ride, and it’s outrageously original, but like the rest of the works I’ve immersed myself in since my first encounter with the field, it has a tremendous amount of heart. It cares about its characters, and they do their best to shift the arc of the universe toward, if not justice, at least something less messed up than it was when they started. In this time of plague and creeping dystopia, that’s something to aspire to.