One of the (many) challenges of science fiction, both for readers and creators, is conceiving of things for which humans have no frame of reference. HP Lovecraft used to confront us with such intellectual challenges in rather a simple but effective method. In The Color Out of Space, the narrator is forced to grapple with a totally new color — not a new shade or variation, but a completely new color. Lovecraft leaves it at that, affording no aid to the reader in visualizing that color. Because indeed, how could he? Similarly, Lovecraft frequently referred to angles that don’t conform to any geometry known to this universe, turning something as innocent as the corner of a room into a thing disturbing and difficult to picture. Beyond, that, there is perhaps the question that lies at the very fabric of science fiction: where did this universe come from, and what was there before existence? And what was there before that? Often science fiction attempts to grapple with these — not abstract, but simply unknowable — questions. More often though, science fiction is happy to leave such conundrums in the realm of science and mathematics and present readers (and viewers) with a much more digestible, comprehensible vision of the universe. Life out there is much as it is here. The same political machinations. The same wars. The same passions and fears. The same sex and the same genders. Especially the same sex.
It’s a bit mad to think that “science fiction with female characters” is one of those things that is considered as impossible to comprehend for some as is “a new color.” Yet even dreaming up something as simple seeming as different genders can be difficult and is done far less often that it probably should be done. Oh sure, we might make changes at the superficial level. Add some wings, change the skin color to green, things like that. But at the end of the day, it’s still men and women coupling with one another in more or less the same fashion they do on Earth. Playing with gender can prove off-putting to a segment of a story’s potential readership, and so it is the rare story that strives to give us something out of the ordinary. Octavia Butler did it in her “Xenogenesis” series, introducing a species with three sexes, none of which line up exactly with human male and female. In his “Culture” series, Iain M. Banks gives us a race that can change gender at will (though still among male and female). But my favorite of recent books that play with gender expectations is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, a book written from the point of view of an entity that lacks the ability to differentiate between genders and so refers to everyone with the generic pronoun “she.”
In Leckie’s universe, we have a very familiar set-up: humanity has expanded across the galaxy, establishing for itself a few different autonomous governments that don’t always get along. There’s also an alien species out there, one with which relations are prickly and occasionally violent. The most powerful of human governments is patrolled by a space fleet that uses ships powered by incredible AIs which, in turn, can inhabit vat-grown human bodies, allowing through the ship’s “ancillaries” the computer consciousness to be in multiple places at once. When one of these ancillaries, designated Breq, is caught in the middle of a local uprising on some backwater planet, she finds herself disillusioned, caught up in a conspiracy, and eventually severed from the rest of her consciousness — and from the galactic empire she has always served. Breq’s story is split into two timelines: one tracing how she came to be in this precarious state, and the other set in her present, as she is forced into an odyssey that results in revelations that could well bring down the entire government.
I don’t demand science fiction challenge my preconceptions at every turn. That would be exhausting and even repetitive after a while. I’m a fan of golden age pulp, and lord knows that stuff is full of two-fisted spacemen bedding alien women who are mostly alien because they have red skin, don’t use contractions when speaking, and maybe have an extra breast. When I come across something that does challenge a basic assumption, I’m excited. That may be a bit of a mental conundrum. I think science fiction should strive to challenge us more, but it’s precisely because it often doesn’t that it is so thrilling when it does. When it comes to gender, the notion that it all looks and thinks and gets laid the same way we do is limiting but relatable for the mainstream of a book’s readership. How do you spin those preconceptions off into something new without alienating the people most in need of having their minds expanded a little? Ancillary Justice finds a way to split things down the middle, to tweak gender expectations in a way that never gets confrontational. There is a place for that sort of in-your-face challenge, and I invite it. I’m the kind of reader who doesn’t mind a story that disillusions me with myself and my own way of thinking or that calls me out on a conceit. But those sorts of stories can chase away as many readers as they enlighten, so there needs to be something else, another way that seeks to change rather challenge minds.
Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is a simple subversion of pronouns. Traditionally, “he” is the default more times than not, especially before the days of “he/she” sensitivity. “He” is also the expectation for most well-armed space marines. but undermining gender expectations is not the point of the story. Well, not entirely. It is purposeful and not without a point; but it’s not the point. It’s just one element in a complicated story that otherwise conforms pretty steadfastly to accepted norms of space opera — which might be why it’s easier for people to digest than a story that wages an all-out assault on assumed, familiar genders. I think in these instances of the older members of my family, people who harbor no particular malice toward things like same-sex marriage or gender fluidity but who have spent the last ninety or so years in one system only to see that system upended and replaces with something they aren’t well equipped to grasp. The reaction to that is often confusion, frustration, and anger, but that’s directed more at change itself than what the change is. Leckie isn’t asking us to do much. These are still men and women. These are still humans. And because we assume the viewpoint of a being that never fully grasps gender (when your mind can inhabit a whole army of bodies, male and female, what’s the point of gender anyway?), it becomes an easy thing to question without feeling like we’re being challenged to a fight.
Most of all, referring to everyone as “she” or “her” within the constraints of an otherwise traditional space opera causes one to eventually assume the womanhood of every character, thereby discovering that, despite the fact that some in science fiction react negatively to calls for more diversity in the genre, it’s really easy to write and enjoy a story in which the principle (if not all) characters are female. Or black. Or whatever is divergent from the default white guy. They aren’t all women in Ancillary Justice, but we are “tricked” (as a magician tricks, to entertain and enlighten) into assuming they are, into the female being the default. Even when clues are given that point to a character being a man, even when it’s stated outright, or when the story shifts to a space station populated largely by humans who have abandoned traditional male-female signifiers in clothing and ornamentation (which change anyway — remember when the fedora was a woman’s hat?), the ancillary still thinks in terms of “she.” Eventually, it just doesn’t matter anymore. And it turns out that impacts the quality of the story none at all. It turns out conceiving of a woman is much easier than conceptualizing Lovecraft’s unknown color or impossible wall angles.
Yet still, using “she” instead of “he” was a shocking controversial choice, one publishers pushed back against with ferocity and one on which Leckie refused to budge. No one would have thought twice about a book full of “he.” But “she”??? Ann Leckie went on to win a Hugo Award (and a Locus, and a Nebula, and a few more) for Ancillary Justice. And as for that cadre of Hugo voters who rebelled recently against certain types of science fiction and demanded the awards get back to the “whoosh whoosh pew pew” style of sci-fi, well guess what? Ancillary Justice is just that. It’s space opera first and foremost. Almost retro. It toys with gender expectations so deftly that it quickly becomes easy to forget that what she’s doing isn’t the norm. Fears over the inclusion of more and better female characters (as well as creators and fans) are unfounded. It isn’t going to change science fiction; it’s only going to expand it. It’s like creating your Shepard in Mass Effect. Shepard can be male or female. And every player has their own idea of who and what Shepard is. It doesn’t impact the story. A damn good book is still a damn good book, even when you have no idea who is which gender. Ancillary Justice weaves gender confusion into itself organically while rarely putting it front and center. Which leaves us with a rollicking, pulpy space yarn full of action and intrigue — albeit one where the brain assumes everyone is a woman.