Our home library is filled with well-worn vintage paperbacks by some of the most iconic science-fiction authors of the 20th century: Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, Vonda N. McIntyre, Isaac Asimov and many more. I've read only a third of these influential classics, but the goal is to finish them all. It's a difficult balance to stay abreast of new releases while also catching up on classics, so I've devised an every-other strategy: Read something "new," then "old," and repeat. With summer reading season here, I'm recommending three throwback titles (coincidentally all by women authors of the Pacific Northwest) for your to-read list.
The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
The late Ursula K. Le Guin produced an impressive sci-fi bibliography, including her esteemed Earthsea trilogy geared toward younger readers. The Left Hand of Darkness is considered Le Guin's other masterpiece, and was awarded the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, making her the first woman to receive both. Set on the glacial planet Gethen populated by ambisexual human hybrids — mostly sexless beings who only adopt male or female reproductive traits for a few days each lunar cycle — Left Hand was one of the first sci-fi works to explore androgyny. Another major theme is gender's influence on culture and politics. The book's plot largely follows a male diplomat from Earth sent to Gethen to convince its nation-states to join a large interplanetary alliance. He struggles, however, as his own views on gender roles get in the way.
by Vonda N. McIntyre (1978)
First, the bad news: Dreamsnake is currently out of print, so you'll have to find a used copy or listen via audiobook. Good news: It's well worth the effort to track down. Dreamsnake follows a healer fittingly named Snake as she journeys across a brutal, post-nuclear-holocaust landscape in Earth's far future. Healers like Snake use the venom of genetically engineered serpents to treat all sorts of ailments, from tumors to infections, and are revered for their skill. Dreamsnake also won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and its themes still feel ahead of its time. Snake is independent, fierce and smart, and the novel completely flips the lone hero, epic journey trope. I immediately hoped for a follow-up, but unfortunately, Dreamsnake stands alone. The late McIntyre did, however, write another separate (and also riveting) novel set in the same universe: The Exile Waiting.
The Clan of the Cave Bear
by Jean M. Auel (1980)
Don't let its 500-plus pages deter you: Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear is an epic prehistoric tale that goes by quickly if, like me, you're barely able to put it down. The speculative fiction story about Ayla, a Cro-Magnon woman orphaned as a child, and the Neanderthal clan that adopts her, is first in the massively bestselling, six-book Earth's Children series. As a member of "The Others," as the clan calls her people, Ayla's physical and mental differences present numerous challenges as she matures. She constantly struggles to be fully accepted by the superstitious, tradition-guided clan. Contributing even more to this conflict is Ayla's deep desire to partake in vital rituals such as hunting, a skill she's far better at than most clan men, and which clan women are strictly prohibited from. Yet despite the many burdens she must overcome, Ayla remains determined and true to herself. ♦