Lock In and the Vacuum That Gender Creates

John Scalzi’s near-future thriller Lock In throws out plenty of larger issues to consider in regards to robotics technology: where the consciousness truly sits, the civil and legal rights of non-human humans, the definitions of disability, and how current societal expectations of class and wealth affect these issues. What may not become immediately apparent to the reader, even after finishing the book, is what Lock In has to say about how the fluidity of gender would evolve in a world where one can exist separately from one’s body.

Amazon buy button FirebugBy virtue of being a procedural thriller, Lock In is a quick read, and it’s easy to miss this aspect of the book, especially because the reason it is notable is primarily due to its absence. We see the main character, FBI detective Chris Shane, in a variety of mechanical bodies, avatars, and briefly in the flesh. We are given a multitude of perspectives with which to define Chris.

Spoilers ahead for Lock In. Make sure you’ve read the book before proceeding.

In the book, Chris Shane experiences childhood, the maturation process, and adulthood while living inside of machines, with the ability to alter one’s senses, pain and pleasure receptors, and chemical makeup at the flip of a switch. Chris is not tied to a singular biological sex and therefore does not internalize or develop according to external gendered expectations.

To clarify, for the purposes of this essay the term “sex” is in reference to the biological makeup of Chris Shane upon birth, be it male, female, or intersex. “Gender” is the assignation that we as readers expect the characters and the world of Lock In to base their interactions with Chris upon. As opposed to most fiction, Lock In does not provide familiar benchmarks for the reader in this regard.

Interestingly, this creates a vacuum of expectation, which the reader consciously or subconsciously fills with their own perception of gender norms. At least, that’s what happened to me. I initially thought of Chris Shane as a he, mostly because I am also a Chris and I identify physically, emotionally, and culturally as a cis male. I’ve never been locked inside of my mind but I certainly felt that way at points throughout my life, and I do spend my days expressing my viewpoint through machines, so I identify with and partially personify Shane in this regard. (Also, I wouldn’t mind being a robot from time to time.) I heavily inhabited the main character of Scalzi’s story and in the absence of obvious identifiers I filled the vacuum with the same male viewpoint that I experience on a consistent day to day basis.

Thus, I came to Lock In with a personal gender bias, and even when I am aware of its existence that bias remains strong. It is supported by not only my identification of myself but by consistent and repeated input from the society around me. For the most part this gendered input isn’t purposeful but reflexive. I don’t purposefully insist that Chris Shane must identify as male for the story of Lock In to remain consistent, but I still reflexively assign that gendered viewpoint because that is what is assigned to me and that is how I am most comfortable viewing the world.

The movies I watch (and write about) favor this viewpoint. A 2013 study by Martha Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that of the highest-grossing domestic films of that year, regardless of genre, female actors accounted for less than a third of all speaking parts. That percentage doesn’t translate to science fiction and thriller books but it makes one consider whether these two genres, which Lock In is commercially considered a part of, attract predominantly male audiences in the same manner. Idaho State University English professor Brian Attebery suggests in his 2002 book Decoding Gender in Science Fiction that this perception is indeed present and is in fact so overwhelming that it has since resulted in the elements of those stories, in this case robots and technology, becoming identified with maleness. In other words, no matter how the reader self-identifies, in terms of gender, most people tend to perceive a robot as inherently male. Since these genres and mediums are the media I primarily consume, my gendered viewpoint therefore becomes consistently supported, and I echo that viewpoint in turn.

As if that wasn’t enough, there might even be a linguistic bias at play here as well. Although John Scalzi crafts a tale of a main character who is undefined by gender, while skillfully avoiding calling attention to that fact in the text, there are analytical schools of thought that insist that a male or female writer can be identified through word choice and repetition of such. This 2003 paper found evidence for successful parsing of gender bias in an author’s text, although their tests only resulted in an accurate guess around 65% of the time.

So did Scalzi unknowingly write Chris Shane from an inherently male viewpoint? Plugging the Tor.com Lock In excerpts into the above-linked analyzer based on their data produced some…inconclusive results. It was 56% sure that Lock In was written by a male, but a “weak Male,” who is “possibly European.” That’s not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement for inherent gender viewpoint on the part of the author.

Further, trying to pin down a gender viewpoint stemming from Lock In itself ignores the very world that the story has created. The point is that the circumstances in which Chris Shane grows up allow for a lack of gendered viewpoint. I spoke to John Scalzi at the 2014 Book Expo America about the logical emergence of this topic: “If you think about the world of someone who is locked in all the time, and who has been locked in since they were a child, their apprehension of biological processes, for example, or biological biases is going to be mitigated and filtered to an extreme way—that the way that someone who has always been mobile through a threep [the robot bodies in the novel], or has always been on the Agora [the Haden-only VR internet], where you can basically develop who you are however you want, is going to be a lot more fluid.”

The author does one thing quite purposefully in that he never mentions which sex (and relatedly, which race) Chris Shane was born with. Other than that, gender fluidity emerges naturally from the environs of the world of Lock In. Scalzi could have assigned a sex to Chris, or had Chris self-identify as a singular gender, but that wouldn’t be entirely realistic within the world of Lock In. Conventional ideas about gender would not necessarily apply to the Haden community; they would not highlight and enforce difference in the same way.

Chris’ lack of gender definition therefore becomes a commitment Scalzi is making to the world that he has created. Says the author: “The primary thing people are seeing threeps as are – are as threeps. Right? The gender of the person contained within the threep is secondary at best.” That perspective extends to Lock In‘s readership. Chris Shane can be defined by gender by the reader (You may have noticed that the audiobook actually comes in two versions, one male and one female in order to better serve a reader’s gender preference for the character), but it’s more true to the world of the novel if Chris is not. Scalzi took this to heart while crafting the story: “I personally don’t know Chris’s gender.”

The only thing we can really know about Chris Shane’s gender is how powerful our need is to define it. Lock In doesn’t insist that gender doesn’t matter. Instead, by not offering an easy definition that allows us to check a box and move on, Scalzi makes the point that these issues are far more complex—and far beyond just a question of “male or female?”—and multi-faceted than we often realize. But they still matter very much—we just need to think differently about them.

Update: You can now read the details behind Scalzi’s approach to gender and Lock In over on Whatever.

Chris Lough is the production manager at Tor.com and reviews television a lot.


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