There are ways in which reading Ice Song by Kirsten Imani Kasai made me think of The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt: the book’s deep rooting of gender in the binary, and the frustration I felt at its inability to see beyond that. The Blazing World is, however, a thought-provoking book inhabiting the tense space between contemporary binary gender sexism and the possibility of greater gender complexity.
Ice Song is not.
It is set in a world confusingly similar to ours yet not, judging by the geography, the same (despite having Mohawk haircuts, Eskimo, escargot forks, the tale of Bluebeard, and more), where information is scarce yet an internet-like system exists at least for the selling of scintillating videos, where a virus causes some people’s DNA to mutate, turning them into part-animal people—or granting them the ability to change “gender” between male and female, becoming people known as Traders. The Traders are outcasts, feared and—but of course—fetishised by other people, and the plot focuses on a Trader called Sorykah (when female) and Soryk (when male) seeking to rescue her twin Trader babies from a man who has captured them for cruel experimentation.
It is a very demonstrative example of why looking at gender through an incredibly binary lens—so binary it strays deep into gender stereotypes—is unhelpful and unpleasant.
The world only recognises two genders, and, aside from a mention of more progressive cities, is profoundly sexist. This is a set-up where Soryk can think of his “intrinsic sense of chivalry” or a man can slap other men on the back in “patriarchal camaraderie,” where Soryk can describe a woman as “a delightful, open meadow where any man might take his moment’s pleasure.” Sorykah thinks of Soryk as an exemplar of this masculinity: when, in unpleasantly contrived circumstances, she must choose a woman to have sex with after turning into Soryk, she thinks that Soryk is unlikely to care about the details of the woman underneath him. The quantity of Soryk’s sex-centric thoughts do little to dissuade this idea of him. Sorykah fares a little better: she’s a scientist as well as a mother, although only one of these activities is central to the novel, and it is teeth-grinding that at one point Sorykah considers “the man and mother in her.”
The ability of Traders to change “genders” is—to no one’s surprise—physiological: “female” means a womb and breasts, “male” means a penis and facial hair. More than that, sexist gender stereotypes are invoked to describe the differences between Sorykah and Soryk as people.
“It would be good for him to have a companion, and one such as yourself, well, you’d do double duty, wouldn’t you? Riding and hunting by day, the pair of you young lads, but a woman at night, like a warm homecoming for the weary soul. What man could ask more? He’d have the best of both worlds.”
This might be a character’s imagination running too wild, but an earlier exchange between Soryk and a woman who knew him first as Sorykah is not:
“You’re not the same person you were before. It’s bizarre. I mean, you’re you, yet you’re not you.” She grinned, flashing deep dimples.
“What are you on about?” Soryk asked, his irritation rising.
“So like a man, all cranky and impatient.”
I picked up Ice Song because fluidity of body and gender interests me a lot, because there is a strong space here for very interesting fiction that reflects and explores gender realities and future, technology-enabled possibilities. My partner and I have talked about how much we would like to be able to change our bodies (more swiftly and more often than current medical technology allows). I often think about the relationship between gender and body, which is so complex and personal and societal and intrinsic and irrelevant and important—so vast a conversation to be had. I hoped Ice Song—where body-change does not even require technology—would say something in that conversation.
It does not.
Or, it says that men are men and women are women, and changing between the two is like left and right.
It is moderately interesting that, at first, Sorykah and Soryk are not aware of each other’s memories. (Sorykah knows that she’s a Trader. Soryk only learns it in this book, despite invasive medical tests after Sorykah first changed into Soryk, during which someone surely mentioned to him “Oh, we’re testing you because two weeks ago you were a girl!” and, if there is an internet on which one character can intend to distribute footage of Sorykah changing into Soryk, surely Soryk can use this world’s version of Google, which is probably called Google going by the aforementioned presence of Mohawks and escargot forks.) It is less interesting that the two selves are bridged by a “sex cure”—actual quote—i.e., someone has sex with them both.
That Sorykah and Soryk are distinctly two people who share a changing body is the core of the book’s attitude to gender: there is no fluidity, only opposites.
“Couldn’t think of two people as one, couldn’t scrub away breasts and penis to see some genderless neuter; instead, their faces slid over each other in Carac’s mind, click-click, back and forth, like tiles being shuffled.”
(It is telling that Sorykah’s twins are said to change genders easily and often, yet Sorykah only thinks of them as Leander-the-boy and Ayeda-the-girl.)
There is no troubled space between or beyond. There is only gender stereotype, only man and woman in the most restrictive way possible.
Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian. Her science fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Clarkesworld, Interfictions Online, 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).