Gender and Science-Fiction
So far this year, I’ve read four science-fiction books, and of those, two have dealt pretty heavily with gender norms. Those two books were also recently published. It seems that this is a topic on a lot of writers’ minds right now, and though these two novels dealt with gender in very different ways, there was definitely a challenge underlying both of them to view the topic from new angles. Both books surprised me with the depth of their impact on my thinking. Those two books?
Ancillary Justice, and Too Like the Lightning.
Both of these are well-crafted novels, and worth reading for a variety of reasons. But in this post, I’m going to specifically focus on how they treat gender. One of my favorite things about science-fiction is the way it can push readers to think outside the confines of their learned standards and norms. We come to science fiction with the expectation of seeing the world in a new way, so altered social norms are much easier to accept than in many other genres. Sometimes, science fiction is even able to lift aside illusions and show us, in a very stark way, what those norms look like.
I would argue that both of these books are successful in the way they ask readers to look at gender in a new way.
In the case of Ancillary Justice, the twist on gender norms is simple, but has a dramatic effect. The ruling group of aliens in the galaxy, the Radch, do not have a separate pronouns for male and female members of their race.
Instead, everyone is referred to as “she”.
In Ancillary Justice, “she” can be male or female. “She” is an emperor, an officer, a wealthy citizen, a soldier, a doctor, a parent, a musician, a criminal, a farmer. Everyone, in the language of the Radch, is a “she”.
At first, it felt strange, to read the female gender pronoun being attached to everyone. As I read, I constantly tried to mentally correct it when the narrator referred to a character who I knew was male. My brain wanted to know, as soon as a character was mentioned, what gender to assign them. As I built an image in my mind of this person on the page, that was one of the key pieces of information, the thing that usually comes first in any other book, on the screen, even passing someone on the sidewalk.
In our world, it is coded in hair, the movement of the body, clothing, shoes, and accessories. Those who defy the codes stand out, sometimes are ridiculed. In Radch society, to distinguish by gender goes against their culture.
Eventually, my brain adapted. After a few chapters, I stopped caring, from the moment a character appeared, if she was male or female. Within the pages of this book, that didn’t matter so much. It became far more important to know what the characters did, how they behaved, what they wanted. There was a certain purity to them when they could exist without the heavy constraints of gender expectations.
By the end of the book, I still hadn’t determined the gender of some characters, and I didn’t ultimately mind. Nothing that any of them had done, none of their struggles, relied on the kinds of constraints that we typically see in our society. There were certainly questions of class, and questions of the ruling race exerting authority over the rest of the galaxy, but the idea of gender had been lifted away.
Not so say that gender was left entirely neutral by every character in the book. The protagonist does move through cultures where male and female are distinguished by their appearance, and in fact, when this character moves back into Radch society, she finds the gender neutrality of Radch appearances a little disconcerting. The signifiers that the Radch mix and match in their dress with wanton abandon seem confusing to those who are accustomed to the symbols being used with purpose.
Ultimately, Ancillary Justice spent a lot more time on other questions of identity and morality, with this twist on gender running through the background. The way it was embedded so deeply in the language of the book, however, made it a very effective way of dismantling notions attached to the pronoun “she”. Just reading the book is a confrontation of one’s own expectations.
Too Like the Lightning
Too Like the Lightning is a book that takes on a variety of subjects in a very direct manner. It delves into philosophy, as well as futuristic science fiction. Here, a network of flying cars (controlled by people whose brains have been shaped to work as computers) exists comfortably alongside a faction that serves people’s spiritual needs when religion has been outlawed.
Like Ancillary Justice, Too Like the Lightning imagines a place where gender identifiers have been reduced to almost nothing. Instead, most people dress to express their allegiance to a particular mindset. The Humanists wear boots with treads that leave an unique imprint wherever they go, and engage in risky, thrilling behavior. The Utopians wear coats that display ever-changing images of the world around them as they wish or imagine it to be, while reaching for impossible-seeming ideals.
Unlike Ancillary Justice, though, the narrator of Too Like the Lightning talks about gender all the time. He calls his good friend Thisbe a witch, claiming she possesses dark arts and mystical powers available only to females. In a society that attempts to maintain a level of gender neutrality, Mycroft regularly points out how a person’s behavior makes them male, female, or puts them somewhere in between. He even makes a point of discussing some around him who are anatomically one gender, and yet because of their dress or behavior he identifies them as the other gender. And he spends an enormous amount of time making his arguments for doing so.
Mycroft definitely gives a reader the sense of speaking with a time-traveller. He is at odds with the society he lives in, a society that is striving to remove the indicators of male and female. He constantly points out identities, explaining them to the reader, while also explaining the enormous impact when antiquated gendered clothing is worn. Mycroft exists in both spaces, the place where male and female aren’t supposed to matter, as well as the place where it is coded in every part of a person’s appearance.
If Ancillary Justice frees the reader almost entirely from considerations of gender, then Too Like the Lightning is more of a challenge to the reader’s thoughts of gender, no matter what those thoughts are. It is almost impossible to follow Mycroft without asking questions about why certain standards are in place, while also questioning what the detriments might be of leaving those standards behind. Too Like the Lightning presents what might be considered an ideal world, and simultaneously dismantles it.
Writing on Issues
A lot of books attempt to discuss the weightier topics facing society, with a broad range of success. At one end of the spectrum are those books that do more harm than good by bashing at an idea with little sensitivity or understanding. At the other end are the books that are so blindly enthusiastic about a topic that they ignore all the little snarls and complications. Somewhere in the middle are the works that dig in and really bring to light all the nuances, subtly weaving the truth about our world into the story.
These kinds of books are rare, but I think the skills behind them are of benefit to every author – really, to every human being – and worth cultivating.
I think one of the primary things on display in works that achieve that balance is self-awareness on the author’s part. The writer of work like this must know how other people think, yes, but even more they must know their own thoughts and prejudices. In order to treat the characters on all sides fairly, the writer has to be aware of when their own feelings on a subject might cause them to make a villain out of someone who is, in fact, a complicated human being.
One of the other vital pieces at work in successfully discussing issues in fiction is a connection to the subject. If the writer doesn’t have a personal interest in capturing the nuance of a topic, then it’s likely to be misrepresented on the page. Without thought or consideration, something like the discussions of gender could easily get distilled in ways that don’t contribute anything useful to the subject. Or even in ways that are harmful.
This connection to the subject is important even when the writer isn’t delving into some serious modern-day issues. If a book is going to have soul and life, the author has to care, and has to keep caring for hundreds of pages.
I remember discussing in one of my college creative writing courses the use of pronouns, particularly attempts to speak in a way that was gender-neutral. In a lot of formal writing, the use of the phrase “he or she” when talking about some theoretical person feels stilted, but not too much so. That same “he or she” phrase in fiction is so unnatural that writers avoid it at all costs. Many students in my class confessed to using the grammatically-incorrect “they” to refer to a hazy person of unspecified gender. The professor did not give an opinion as to whether this was right or wrong, and at the time it felt entirely theoretical.
I figured, “let’s just use ‘he or she’ and move on with our lives!”
But the world has changed a lot since then, and increasingly we as a society are confronting the spectrum of gender identity in an open way. Also increasingly, I think we find that language fails us, which is why it’s not only interesting that science fiction like Too Like the Lightning and Ancillary Justice are tackling the topic, but also vital.
Too Like the Lightning, by the way, takes the stance of many of my fellow-students, and refers to most characters as “they”. Ancillary Justice applies “she” to every character. In one case, a plural pronoun has been hijacked to cover the singular in a gender-neutral way, and in the other, every person regardless of sex is given the female pronoun. Both tactics work within the context of the story in which they appear, but in the outside world, they both feel inadequate.
I think both of these books demonstrate just how important science fiction is to the broader conversations that we, as a society, are engaging in. The futuristic worlds allow all of us to examine the questions that we face now – in these two novels, we get to see two very different treatments of gender, both of them tackling the effects of gender roles in our society. As these conversations unfold in fiction, they help advance our language and our understanding of how deeply gender is woven into our society, influencing and enhancing the nonfiction work on the same topic.
This, in my opinion, is science fiction at its best.