More Feminist Science Fiction Analysis: Genderless Worlds

Slowly, but surely, the Pedal Zombies Kickstarter campaign is wending its way to its goal. We got a nice boost yesterday when Cory Doctorow blogged about us on Boing Boing (praising our production values, no less—we swooned). We also found out that some less-enthused Redditors discovered us, but were disappointed that they only assigned the project 4 Oppression Points. Can’t win ’em all.

As promised, here’s another batch of feminist science fiction analyses. (Read the first two here!) Both of these books were requested by Bikes in Space 2 backer (and two-time contributor) Emily June Street (keep an eye out for her reproductive apocalypse story “Breeders” in Pedal Zombies):

I read this book when I was a teenager and my main memory is of mortification upon reading the sex scenes—I thought that someone might walk past me and just know, perhaps through telepathy or x-ray vision. Returning to it as an adult was in fact a bit nostalgic; not just for the dimly-remembered story of a woman who makes what turns out to be a one-way trip to a planet where a virus has long-ago killed everyone with XY chromosomes, but for an era of half-awed, half-ashamed discovery of early-90s feminism, lesbian separatism, and a sort of post-Mists of Avalon ecological mysticism. Times and tropes have changed so much in 20+ years, but slowly and organically enough that it wasn’t until I reread this that I was able to pinpoint exactly what I’ve seen them change from.

What seems amazing now is that the thing that sets Ammonite apart from other books I’ve seen about all-women worlds is, well, the actual lack of men. No hapless male explorer needs to stumble on this strange society in order to interpret it for a bewildered audience. There’s no Lysistrata-like parable here of how zany and strewed up things can get when women are in charge and men become the underdogs, and also no posturing about how much better a world run by women would be. Maybe it seems like a subtle difference, but it’s a big thing. Instead of a parable about gender differences, the story becomes a case study in genderlessness. Femininity just isn’t a thing on this world, so there’s no need to interrogate what it means. Instead, its inhabitants have a whole complex range of traits, interests, backgrounds—a range usually reserved, especially in science fiction, for the default gender (ahem, men). 

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I remember reading books by Ursula LeGuin as a young person and one of the many things that set them apart is that the human characters of her very distant worlds of the very far future were almost never what we’d think of as, well, white. It’s kind of an obvious point if you think about it—why would race in a galaxy far, far away exist in the same exact way that it does now? But back then, space was populated either entirely by white men, or when others were allowed in, governed by the same unfortunate racial and gender power dynamics of the authors’ time. That’s still very much the case in today’s writing about the future, unfortunately (and oh, the movies, let’s not get started). But there’s a refreshing trend away from that. Ancillary Justice, in winning the 2014 Hugo Award, has come to represent it. The book has inspired many science fiction writers and readers to question their assumptions about race. And at the same time, it’s sparked a countermovement of writers, readers, and losers who don’t approve of science fiction that describes anything but the heroic white male norm. 

The book is lots of fun. It’s a good, classic story of humans and robots and empires engaged in an interstellar, interspecies war. The main drift of the book is the conflict, at points embodied in one consciousness, between two different ways to manage an established empire: Constant, cruel expansion, or methodical, democratic dismantling. On a smaller scale, the book is about personhood: What does it mean to be an individual, the protagonist of your own story? Who qualifies, and who gets to choose? 

Class hierarchy has more meaning than gender in the ruling group. Skin color is meaninful: dark skin is a hallmark of the aristocracy, though it is mentioned that both skin color and gender can easily be altered by anyone with a decent paycheck.

In some of the societies in the book’s expansive universe, gender is so unimportant as to not even be marked by language. The protagonist, who comes from this culture, constantly screws up pronouns as they travel from place to place. For us earthbound readers, the author defaults to the pronoun “she” to describe every character, even if we’ve been told that character happens to be male. The result is pleasantly disorienting. As I read the book I was constantly backpedaling mentally, realizing my subconscious assumptions one at a time as Leckie blasted them to bits with plasma guns. I’m excited to read the next two books in the series.

I’ve got one final batch of reviews coming up in the next 10 days. In the meantime, please check out the Pedal Zombies Kickstarter campaign and consider throwing down $13 for a book and some stickers… or $50 for a chance to see your own sci fi choices raved or panned here!