Tue
Feb 18 2014 10:00am

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

Ann Leckie Ancillary JusticeI 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).

39 comments
ilgiallomondadori
1. ilgiallomondadori
This is one of those books I just didn't get. It's been raved about, so I grabbed it, and I am definitely interested in these gender issues, but as you did, I found the "she" extremely offputting. It's not gender neutral, its just defaulting to the feminine. I found the characters indistinct, the prose often very flat, and I never felt immersed in the narrative because nothing really meshed to a point of internal consistency. I abandoned it after about one hundred pages.
Perhaps I'll give it another try some day, but for the moment I'll be adding this to the shelf labeled, "Never Listen to IO9 Reviews."
Jennie Stevens
2. Guinevere
I think this is one of those situations where the author can't win. Using Spivak pronouns (which I had to look up) would have been extremely distracting because they are not in common use. Authors of science fiction and fantasy need to translate their alien/foreign ideas and cultures into English, which is limited, especially in regards to gender.
Steve Oerkfitz
3. Steve Oerkfitz
I looked forward to this book because of all the rave reviews, but also couldn't get past the first 100 pages. I found the default to feminine pronouns irritating and the writing flat. The book never engaged me on any level.
ilgiallomondadori
4. Herb25785
We get fewer novels like these than we would like in part because the same people complaining the loudest about the dearth of them are the same ones who invariably complain about the books that do.
Scott Silver
5. hihosilver28
I wasn't terribly keen on the plot and how it turned out, but I really enjoyed the concepts. One thought; as I was reading it, I assumed that the Radchaai were physically gendered, they just didn't acknowledge it. Basically, that the Radchaai were human, but sociologically didn't acknowledge any gender differences.
Gerd K
6. Kah-thurak
Wouldnt "it" have been the obvious choice for a gender neutral pronoun? Or do I only think so because I am not a native english speaker?
Steven Halter
7. stevenhalter
I enjoyed this quite a lot. I found the pronouns an interesting device both in the story and how it reflected upon my assuptions as a reader. It took a little while for the metaness of this to smooth out but I found that process fascinating.
Equally fascinating for me was how the book approached the concept of identity and distributed personality. Since this is a non-spoilery review I won't go into the specifics, other than to say that this was also very well done.
Most importantly (for the book as a story) I enjoyed the base story and what was going on there with the mystery/thriller aspects.
Paul Keelan
8. noblehunter
@6 In English, "it" has solid connotations of referring to an inanimate object or a otherwise a not-person. It can be used as a gender neutral pronoun--Bujold has her Vorkosiverse hermaphrodites use it--but it can be used to imply some fairly nasty things as well. Different problems than 'she' but probably more significant.

I'd be interested in how the connotations shake out for languages with a more developed neuter gender, such as German. Is "das" as potentially offensive as "it?"
Gerd K
9. Kah-thurak
@noblehunter
"Es" the german translation for "it" ("das" is the gender neutral "the") , might be used with a negative connotation, but but not necessarily so. I would probably find it the less irritating choice.
Paul Keelan
10. noblehunter
Are there Germans who use "Es" and related pronouns to refer to themselves and request that others do likewise?
Gerd K
11. Kah-thurak
I wouldnt know of such a thing, but that does not necessarily mean that nobody does.
Alex Dally MacFarlane
12. Alex.Dally.MacFarlane
A question for anyone who found the female pronouns "off-putting": how did you feel about the default to male pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness?

I ask this because I'm well aware that we exist in misogynistic culture(s) and I don't want this post to become a validation for people who found the female pronouns troubling because of deep-rooted (and perhaps unrealised) sexism. I want to ensure that the specific nature of my trouble with the pronouns is understood. So: did you get thrown out of The Left Hand of Darkness too? (Possibly hard to answer, as many people read it when too young to know about these issues, but I want you to stop and think about the two books' pronoun choices nonetheless.)

Using Spivak pronouns (which I had to look up) would have been extremely distracting because they are not in common use.

It's been done in other books, and not just brand-new ones. It's not actually difficult to adapt to pronouns that aren't 'he' or 'she'. All it takes is clarity of context and/or a note at the beginning - and, of course, readers not being narrow-minded.
Steve Oerkfitz
13. Steve Oerkfitz
Alex:Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favorite books. I had no problems with gender pronouns in Darkness. I think my main problem with it in AJ is that I found the book poorly written and structured. LeGuin is a much better writer than Leckie. In LHOD the were better integrated into the story. In AJ they keep stopping the flow of the story.
ilgiallomondadori
14. Alain
I thought exactly the same as stevenhalter. Maybe I misread but for me the fact that the narrator is unable to distinguish sex of humans is due to it's very nature. I did not necessarily think the "human" Radchaai shared that difficulty. judging by the interviews I read or heard I think people are seeing things into it that the author did not intend.
Steven Halter
15. stevenhalter
I thought "she" worked very well. I didn't find it off-putting at all. Once I figured out that there were various genders (or once Breq told us) I did find an interesting tendency to try to assign genders almost as a background process going on while I was reading. This was somewhat caused (I think) by my own internal biases that I brought to the table and also by Breq being puzzled by the whole notion. I found it to be a fun and useful experience.
Once I realized that was going on I was able to flow with Breq and accept the gender as she explored it.
Spivak pronouns could have worked. I suspect that there are underlying reasons in the Radch development (that we will hopefully find out more about in future volumes) as to why they generically use she rather than the Spivak versions. (And all evidence did seem to point to actual Radch using the forms of their language as Breq did) Of course, Breq would have actually been thinking in Radch rather than English. I would guess that this was influenced by the prism of distributed identity.
ilgiallomondadori
16. jenphalian
Another great piece; I love this series of posts.

I have raved about AJ and called it my new favorite space opera. Choosing 'she' was definitely one of the things I liked about the gender elements in the book when I read it, but I hadn't even thought of using an entirely different set of pronouns. That would have been cool. I really don't understand an argument that writing in this genre with uncommon words could be distracting and therefore bad. Do a google search for words invented by science fiction.
ilgiallomondadori
17. Mike Allen
"Spivak pronouns (which I had to look up) would have been extremely distracting because they are not in common use."

I disagree here. Science fiction excels at acclimating readers to language use they might initially find unfamiliar.
ilgiallomondadori
18. iucounu
Seconding Stevenhalter - I thought this was an excellent novel and reminded me of Iain M Banks more than anyone else. I can't quite grok the problem with defaulting to 'she', really, because the non-gendered pronouns available to us are probably too alienating. (It's something I considered while reading it.)
Rich Bennett
19. Neuralnet
I really loved this book. We all latch onto and take away something different from these books, because the gender ambiguity wasnt really that important to me. It just seemed like another quirk of an AI. I liked the story, setting and overall mystery. If it had just a little bit more action it would have been my perfect sci-fi book.

I sympathize with those of you who picked up the book based on rave reviews only to be dissapointed. That happened to me last year with 2312 by KSR.
ilgiallomondadori
20. Jordan360
I've tried twice now to get through this book, once reading, once listening. I can't make it past the halfway point. The world and characters are intriguing, but I was bored reading and listening. What's the point in finishing a boring story? I'm still confused about the avalanche of positive reviews.
Sanne Jense
21. Cassanne
@8 Noblehunter
Dutch is like german in that it has a neutral pronoun, 'het'. But it would be pretty offensive to call a person that. You'd be declaring them a thing, a non-person. The only other use for it is to jokingly call a pet that has been neutered, and even that is not exactly nice.

In a story, it would be an extremely distracting thing to do, possibly even more so than in english. (I can't really judge, english not being my first language.)

I like 'she', but mainly because it goes against the default 'he', so as a kind of 'balancer' I like to use it myself, when writing instructions or similar texts.
In science fiction I think I'd prefer an alternative word, like 'zee' or something made-up. (SF readers can handle that, I'm sure.)
ilgiallomondadori
22. tnv
I quite liked it. And I liked Ann Leckie's choice. I think in this case, as a previous commenter said, the author can't win --- somebody would not like it. For years and years, we've had the gender-neutral pronoun be 'he' when describing things like 'the reader' or 'a doctor' in general terms.

I would say that the language of the Radch has the same issues as, say, modern Turkish (among many other languages), which does not mark gender on nouns. Turkish speakers who are new to speaking English would often use the wrong pronoun when referring to people --- just like native speakers of, say, French would often say things like "The door is open; please shut her" when getting used to a language that doesn't mark gender on every noun, animate or inanimate.

And I don't think one can make a case that Turkish (or Hungarian) culture is any less sexist/gender-normative than French at different periods in its history, or than that of the Bantu peoples --- whose noun classes have been referred to as genders, and can number up to eighteen, depending on the language!

So I think there is some confusion here between _performative_ gender (more precisely, a gender _role_) and _linguistic_ gender. The Radch language has only one (or no) linguistic gender; its culture does not distinguish performative genders as far as we know.

I for one am just fine with this.
Kate Willshaw
23. TheBagfish
The way I read the book, it appeared that the Radch had many different genders, this became clearer to me at least in the final quarter of the book when Breq is on the space station, there's quite a lot of clues in the writing which aren't there when Breq is outside or on the periphery of the Radch.

Like you I also wondered why Leckie used "she" rather than gender-neutral pronouns such as zie or hir (I have come across gender-neutral pronouns on various web communities, but had never heard of Spivak - thanks for the enlightenment).

In some ways it would have been easier to read the book if Leckie had used zie or hir to refer to people. Then the gender really would be post-binary, and as you say, using "she" seems to corral people in the story into being misgendered rather than gender just being a non-issue.

But, despite the above criticism, I loved Ancillary Justice and Leckie's world building and I can't wait for the next book to come out.
Kevin Baijens
24. ImRhoven
Reading the book I assumed that Ann Leckie's intentions with the use of "she" were to challenge reader's default gender assumptions, not to create a sense of gender neutralitiy I think it worked great, based both on the reactions from people who hated the book and people who loved it for basically the same reasons.

In this essay Leckie explains her reasoning when deciding on the pronoun. Amusingly she made all the same considerations the above article does, she just came to a different conclusion. http://www.orbitbooks.net/2013/10/01/said-said/

Here she reacts on this critique of the book on her blog: http://www.annleckie.com/category/ancillary-justice/

snippet: "I admit I’m a bit surprised, because I honestly don’t think it’s a particularly good example of non-binary SF. For the most part, I think the pronoun thing does what I meant it to do. But I never did think that “she” could genuinely function as a gender-neutral pronoun. That wasn’t actually the point. Which, of course, has its own drawbacks–if I had been in a different place, when I began writing, I would no doubt have started with a slightly different aim. And while I might or might not have still used “she” as a default (my reasons for wanting to use it still stand) I almost certainly would have made some changes in my approach."
ilgiallomondadori
25. Bookworm1398
Speaking for myself, I pictured all the characters as being female in my imagination until proven otherwise when reading this. If a made up word like the Spivak pronouns had been used, I would have pictured them all as male. I can't really see myself imagining the characters as non gendered unless it is explicit as in Left Hand of Darkness.
Steven Halter
26. stevenhalter
ImRhoven@24:Thanks for the links to Ann's own thoughts on the subject. It's clear she put quite a bit of thought into the pronoun choice, balancing advantages and disadvantages as she progressed. Nice insights into her process.
Michael Grosberg
27. Michael_GR
I loved AJ - one of this yer's best, IMO. For me, using female pronouns worked well. It added a certain flavor to the Radchaai culture. But I wonder whether it could have worked this way in real life - we humans have extensive brain wiring that is dedicated to detecting facial features. I believe we are, to some degree, hardwired to notice gender differences in face and body, even if we all dressed the same and acted the same. I imagined that the radchaai have lower sexual dimorphism (My mind kept imagining all Radchaai as looking like Jaye Davidson in Stargate) and therefore have not been "trained" on noticing the differences from birth. But the issue wasn't directly addressed in the novel.
Michael Walton
28. tygervolant
It's been done in other books, and not just brand-new ones. It's not actually difficult to adapt to pronouns that aren't 'he' or 'she'. All it takes is clarity of context and/or a note at the beginning - and, of course, readers not being narrow-minded.

Let's not discount the power of force of habit in this matter. I've contributed quite a bit to the Orion's Arm Universe Project, which uses gender neutral pronouns as a matter of course, and I still have to take time to think about the correct pronoun for a given situation. In my native English I use correct pronouns without having to rack my brain. So I can relate to Breq's problem -- language barriers can be hard to climb, especially when the habits of thought engendered by language cause you to miss handholds.
Tom Smith
29. phuzz
Instead of referring to someone as 'it', you can often substitute
'they', 'their' etc. which can be much less jarring. I think it would
be difficult to pull this off over the course of a full book without
looking odd though.

I quite enjoy the challenge of writing without using gendered pronouns,
it puts an interesting constraint on your vocabulary. It's satisfying
to write a few paragraphs and to watch people's assumptions about gender
in their reactions.
Derek Broughton
30. auspex
@12 Yes, Alex, the use of male pronouns in Left Hand of Darkness annoyed me, and most of my fellow readers in a recent book club reading. It seemed as if LeGuin had decided that her characters would be non-gendered but then wrote them all as men.

The odd thing here, I think, is that not only would it have made more sense to the reader to use an ungendered pronoun, but it would have made more sense to Breq! Surely, in a trans-stellar civilization where there are both gendered and ungendered societies, they would understand the use of an genderless pronoun, even if they wouldn't use it for themselves.
Shane Stringer
31. ShaneStringer
Well, I thought it was a delightful book.

I didn't get the impression that the genderless language of the Radchaai implied that the Radch culture was entirely ungendered. Perhaps I need to reread more closely? As has been noted above, there are major languages here and now that do not have grammatical gender, yet their cultures are as gendered as any.

I found the "misuse" of grammatical gender enjoyable, like a little *poke* in the brain; every time someone was referred to as "she", I had to poke myself and say "NOT NECESSARILY A SHE". It was an interesting sensation, and while the Spivak pronouns would have been interesting in their own way, I think this way was better. I would note that Greg Egan, in his novel Diaspora, introduces a class of pronouns to refer to persons existing in a virtual reality (ve, vir, vis, etc...), and this posed no great difficulty to this reader.
D S
33. Ithilanor
First off: I really enjoyed the book, though I don't think it's flawless, and I can see why some people didn't like it.

I came away from the book with the same sort of attitude it sounds like Leckie was aiming for; the use of "she" made me question my default attitude, it created some interesting ambiguity, it added to the flavor of the worlds Leckie created without being overtly focused on it. I think if the book was more focused on exploring non-binary gender, the use of neutral/non-binary pronouns would have been better. I feel like they could be used without being overly clunky or forced; however, like Bookworm @25, I probably would have defaulted to thinking of the characters as male.

ImRhoven@24: Thanks a ton for that link to Leckie's thoughts; it's illuminating to see the process she went through and the reasons she decided to use "she".
ilgiallomondadori
34. SpaceBoots
Ancillary Justice drinking game: take a shot every time a character "gestures."

The pronouns were a little distracting for the reasons discussed in the article. But I was also disappointed with the prose in general. I also wish the various cultures, scenery and peoples were explored more in-depth. According to the extras in the copy I read, the book is the first in a planned trilogy, and it feels like details were deliberately left unexplored in order to reserve them for the following two novels. I feel like Ancillary Justice itself could have stretched across multiple novels had things been explored more thoroughly. It could've been a very meaty, satisfying book to chew through; as it is, it's more of a light snack.
ilgiallomondadori
35. Gerry__Quinn
'In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print -- I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

"Gretchen. Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

Wilhelm. She has gone to the kitchen.

Gretchen. Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

Wilhelm. It has gone to the opera."'

- from _The Awful German Language_, by Mark Twain.
Sam Kelly
36. Eithin
Just a quick note - the "ve/ver/vis" pronouns ShaneStringer refers to (@31) were actually coined by New Zealand writer Keri Hulme in the '80s sometime (Diaspora came out in '97) and IIRC Egan is using them to indicate agendered entities rather than virtual entities.
ilgiallomondadori
37. TomcatintheRedRoom
Hang on...

Have I misundetstood the book? I got the impression that the Radch *were* binary-gendered: there are males and females (which is distinct from Le Guin's LHOD, in which everyone is specifically, biologically non-gendred), but that the Radch *language* contained no gendered pronouns. (hence Strigan noting that the Radch character Seivarden is a male... because Strigan speaks a language that *does* have gendered pronouns, hence making him able to declare such a thing)...

Maybe I was misreading the whole book though...
Kevin Baijens
38. ImRhoven
No, you didn't misread. The Radch are binary gendered, they just don't distinguish between gender in their society. So there're no specific social gender roles, no gender specific fashion, and their language doesn't distinguish between gender either.
Michael Johnston
39. JohnstonMR
I wouldn't say they were binary gendered, but binary-sex. They clearly had all sorts of genders.

Also, I'm pretty sure the book explicitly says the Radch are a post-Earth human civilization, but that could be my interpretation of a passage and not reality. I'll have to look again.
Chris Meadows
40. Robotech_Master
I got the sense that "she" was a sort of "translation convention" in terms of translating the protagonist's inner monologue into English. As anyone who translates languages will tell you, there quite often isn't a "correct" equivalent for a particular word or phrase in another language, so you end up choosing the one that will convey the nearest possible sense of what is meant to the intended audience. That's why translation is a creative art, and why there are so many different versions of the Bible.

That's particularly true here, where the pronoun used carries no sense of gender. We do, of course, have singular pronouns in English that carry no sense of gender, but they're just the ones for "I" or "me" and "you," whereas in Radchaai none of their pronouns have gender. So there would need to be a pronoun that has the same genderless sense of "me" but the meaning of "he/she". Tricky.

In this case, "it" or "they" might be the closest thing to correct in the purest gender sense, but "it" has certain negative connotations of non-personhood and "they" really just looks awkward, especially to someone who grew up in the era where "he" was considered the "correct" "gender-neutral" pronoun. (Even so, "it" is used at one point in the book, when Justice's lieutenants refer to ancillaries that way—which serves to show how those soldiers assign those negative connotations of non-personhood to the ancillaries.)

But on the other hand, using "he" would lead to certain incorrect assumptions. So instead the imaginary translator opts to go with "she," which not only leads us to question our assumptions, it lends a greater sense of alienness to Radchaai culture than many thousands of words of descriptive prose could convey. That's killing multiple birds with one stone, something translators love to do.

It especially fits given how many other points there are in the book where tricks of translation and language are important—the way that "Radchaai" means both the name of their culture/civilization and "civilized," making some concepts hard to convey in the Radchaai language.

And that, in turn, helps the book to come alive. It actually feels like something that's been translated from another language into one that doesn't quite have equivalences for all the necessary concepts, so the poor beleaguered translator does the best she can and hopes it's enough.

I strongly suspect this book is going to get my Hugo vote.

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