First published in 1984, Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand is one of the older science fiction novels to present a gender system different to those on Earth—although it’s more accurate to call it a pronoun system. Gender is unchanged. The system is explained early on:
“…‘she’ is the pronoun for all sentient individuals of whatever species who have achieved the legal status of ‘woman’. The ancient, dimorphic form ‘he’, once used exclusively for the genderal indication of males (cf. the archaic term man, pl. men), for more than a hundred-twenty years now, has been reserved for the general sexual object of ‘she’, during the period of excitation, regardless of the gender of the woman speaking or the gender of the woman referred to.”
Which is to say: everyone is referred to by female pronouns—unless the speaker wants to have sex with the person they are referring to, in which case the pronoun shifts to ‘he’. It is in the specific association between sex and male pronouns, however, that I started to suspect the book’s concerns: it isn’t really a book about gender at all!
Sex is also central to the book’s plot: Rat Korga, the sole survivor of a planet-wide catastrophe, is calculated to be the “perfect erotic object—out to about seven decimal places” of Marq Dyeth, a diplomat from a planet where humans live alongside the evelm. This perfection is calculated to be mutual. Halfway through the novel, they meet, but Rat Korga’s arrival on Marq Dyeth’s world has political consequences far beyond their mutual sexual attraction.
(A side note: I found it discomfiting that Rat Korga is referred to by the name of a procedure—Radical Anxiety Termination (RAT)—done to make him a better slave on his home world. I found it outright disgusting when he is depicted, in the book’s opening chapter, as enjoying rape—not the physical release that some people experience as a result of rape, but the satisfaction of sex more-or-less enjoyed—as a slave who cannot refuse an order.)
At times, the pronouns in Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand disassociate ‘she’ and ‘he’ from their current meanings, a similar effect to the ubiquitous ‘she’ and complete non-use of ‘he’ in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. This lasts until the characters are gendered by other words. Unlike in Ancillary Justice, where gender is only sporadically remarked on as it would be assigned in non-Radchaai cultures, in Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand gender is regularly remarked on: the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ remain in widespread use, as well as ‘neuter’ for the third sex of the evelm. Sex and gender aren’t separated. Gender variance isn’t mentioned. (I couldn’t quite tell if there were ‘neuter’ humans as well, but I don’t think so? I welcome correction in the comments if I’m wrong.) (Incidentally: we need a better word(s) for a third sex and/or gender, one that doesn’t set it against the binary of female and male.)
As a result—and perhaps because I read Ancillary Justice first—the pronoun system’s default to ‘she’ didn’t particularly impress me.
In the second half of the book, where Marq Dyeth (the book’s narrator) constantly refers to Rat Korga as ‘he’, the pronoun system’s centralisation of sexual desire becomes more visible—and thus, its focus. I don’t know if part of my poor reaction to the pronoun system is a matter of personal preference: I really don’t understand finding sex or sexual desire so important that it could be reflected in my language. That aside, it is in the specific association between sex and male pronouns that I started to suspect the book’s concerns: it isn’t really a book about gender at all!
The pronouns ‘she’ and ‘he’ have different meanings in Stars in my Pockets Like Grains of Sand, yes, but it is inescapable that they are also pronouns we use today, with gendered meanings. Restricting ‘he’ to objects of sexual desire and sexual partners utterly masculinises sex, which is reinforced by both Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga being male. Homosexual males, no less. The pronoun system of Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand felt much more like a focus on male sexuality rather than an attempt to talk about gender.
This is, I hasten to add, only a problem inasmuch as I was told (when I was pointed to Stars in my Pockets Like Grains of Sand) that I was going to read a book about gender.
The gender system is not any different: we are well aware that Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga are male, and while it is easier not to consider other characters’ genders than in another pronoun system, their genders are often mentioned. The evelm have three sexes, but they are described by their sexes: whatever gender system they might have, it is lost in the human pronouns ‘she’ and ‘he’ and the terms ‘female’, ‘male’ and ‘neuter’. Where Ancillary Justice is most successful is in its reluctance to reveal the gender of the characters using the non-differentiating Radchaai pronoun. Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand seems to have no—or incidental—interest in this. Rat Korga is the male object of Marq Dyeth’s homosexual desire, and Marq Dyeth is the object of Rat Korga’s—and that is the book’s concern. Its ending, where Marq Dyeth’s life has been profoundly disrupted by meeting a “perfect erotic object”, makes this clear.
If Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand is also trying to challenge the way we think about gender, it is not successful. Its centralisation of sexual desire creates a pronoun system completely different to the one used in most, if not all, languages on Earth today. That’s all it does, though.
It demonstrates that to really talk about gender, a book needs to be a lot more radical: pronoun systems need to belong to an upheaval of binary gender.
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).