Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I enjoyed Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit: 2013) a lot. It’s such fun. A spaceship AI with human bodies that it uses to sing! Fragmentation of many-bodied entities! A culture with a non-gendered norm!

That last is both a strength and a place where it stumbles.

Ancillary Justice is not about gender, which is a strength: it normalises non-gendered people and doesn’t present a narrative in which they are exceptional, strange or a source of curiosity. It also means this post doesn’t spoil the plot in the slightest.

The book opens on the planet Nilt, where gender is binary. This forces Breq, who comes from the Radch, with little interest in gender distinctions, to think in these terms:

“She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak—my own first language—doesn’t mark gender in any way. The language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms.”

Breq makes guesses about other people’s gender, while defaulting in the narrative itself to ‘she’. In the context of Nilt, this worked reasonably well for me. Breq is required to use binary gender (which Breq finds nonsensical) and in frustration chooses a default. Given that it’s almost never done in our world, there’s an undeniable power in choosing ‘she’—but more on this, later.

It’s also pleasing to see a future with multiple systems of gender. The Radch are non-gendered, while the people of Nilt are gendered. I do hope the Radchaai aren’t uniquely non-gendered, but there are other systems besides these two. Breq notes later: “I saw all the features that would mark gender for non-Radchaai—never, to my annoyance and inconvenience, the same way in each place.” Biological features are not necessarily relevant. In an aside, Breq pokes fun at a society with rigid genders that claims to ‘not see gender’:

“The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant. Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably. And yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did hesitate or guess wrong.”

However, when the narrative occurs in Radch space or among Radch characters—where gender is meaningless—the use of ‘she’ jarred me.

This is where I need to raise a hand and say, “Wait, stop, ‘she’ is not a gender neutral pronoun, and using ‘she’ for non-gendered people—for an entire non-gendered culture—makes me very uncomfortable.” I can see why ‘they/them/their’ would be confusing, given the presence of many-bodied characters, but there are alternatives: Spivak pronouns and more.

The apparent purpose of using ‘she’ in Ancillary Justice is to question and remove assumptions about the gender of the Radch characters. This it achieves. Some are gendered by other cultures’ assumptions and norms. Most remain ambiguous, and I enjoyed this. I would have liked all the Radch characters’ ‘genders’ to be left ambiguous. They are non-gendered, so how other people might (mis-)gender them is of limited relevance.

Using ‘she’, a gendered pronoun, inadvertently genders them all.

It feels like Ancillary Justice is in conversation with Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which describes a non-gendered culture with male pronouns. One criticism levelled at this is that it belongs to the widespread default to male (to include all genders) in our world. Le Guin herself wrote a Gethen story where ‘she’ is the default (“Winter’s King,” in its revised form in her 1975 collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters) in conversation with her earlier pronoun choice, and wrote in a later essay that she came to regret using gendered pronouns for the people of Gethen, as the conversations about gender in our world developed. They have been developing since. The greatest problem with the use of male pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness is not that defaulting to male is bad, but that defaulting to any gendered pronoun to describe non-gendered people is bad.

Placing Ancillary Justice next to The Left Hand of Darkness shows its critical flaw: it’s out of date. Le Guin made the same riposte in 1975. Ancillary Justice has some significant improvements on The Left Hand of Darkness—such as the fact that multiple systems of gender exist and that the book is not about how discomfiting non-gendered people are—but its use of ‘she’ feels incredibly distant from conversations about gender today.

Non-gendered people are not a science fictional concept. They are real people. Non-binary pronouns exist that would better represent them.

The previously mentioned power of using ‘she’ as a default instead of ‘he’ comes with the cost of non-gendered people’s erasure.

I’m left with a few other questions. Does the Radch impose its non-gendered norm on the cultures it controls, or does it let them continue that aspect of their culture? What about people who move from gendered cultures into the Radch? When speaking Radchaai, they would not be using gendered forms, but that would not automatically affect their gender. Are there any gendered Radch? A norm does not create a uniformity of gender. I hope these questions are answered in later books.

Ancillary Justice is a delightful book in many ways, including its acknowledgement that the future of gender is not necessarily binary-gendered and not uniform in its systems of gender. I want to hold it up and say “More like this!” from the wider field as well as Leckie. I’m glad Ancillary Justice is doing well and I’ll be reading the rest of the series. It’s unfortunate, however, that it undermines its non-binary future with a device it uses to demonstrate it: ‘she’ is ultimately very frustrating.

Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian. Her science fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Clarkesworld, The Other Half of the Sky, Gigantic Worlds, Solaris Rising 3 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2014. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (forthcoming in late 2014).


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