How the @ann_leckie’s #Ancillary books use language to hijack the reader’s biases and turn them inside out.
I just finished Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy, and it’s really good. If you go in for science fiction that makes you think and you haven’t read it yet, you should go do that now. I’ll wait.
There are a whole lot of reasons why the series is among the best fiction I’ve ever read, but I’m going focus this post on just one.
Radchaai culture – the dominant culture in the books – has no gender. People are still female and male, like always, but that’s a minor detail, like being right or left handed. Fashions in clothes, hair, cosmetics, etc. are the same for everyone, with minor adjustments for body shape. There’s no difference between female people and male people in social or professional settings, and it would never even occur to most Radchaai that there could be.
The specifics of sexual relationships do obviously vary according to anatomy, and females presumably still get pregnant and bear children while males do not, though maybe technology takes care of that. The books don’t really go into specifics. Beyond that, though, there’s no difference between the genders.
This is not because the Radch is some sort of progressive-utopian, hyper-rational, Star Trek-style meritocracy; quite the contrary. There is enough inequality of wealth and status to make Jane Austen blush, and people find all sorts of reasons to look down on and even to hate others, including money, ethnicity, religion, language and accent, family and social connections, and so on. It’s just that gender isn’t one of those reasons.
As a result of the lack of gender, along with the author’s spare physical descriptions, the reader doesn’t know whether most of the characters are female or male. They’re just people. The only time gender becomes a thing is when the protagonist is dealing with a foreign culture. It’s invariably awkward, because the protagonist is constantly afraid of mis-gendering everyone, which just serves to illustrate how completely not-a-thing it is in Radchaai culture.
That, by itself, is really cool, but it gets even more interesting.
The lack of gender in Radchaai culture necessarily extends to language – if people don’t really distinguish between female and male, you can’t have separate pronouns for “she” and “he”. It would be like forcing English speakers to use “she” for right-handers and “he” for left-handers – nobody would have any idea who was who or which pronoun to use. Lots of present-day Earth languages are (mostly) gender-neutral like this, with one pronoun representing both “he” and “she”, often with another for “it”. Examples include Finnish, Persian, Malay, and Chinese (sort of). Also Klingon.
If the author were writing in one of these languages, that would be that. Every character would be referred to by the pronoun hän or t¬ā or ghaH or whatever, and nobody would have a problem. But the author didn’t write in a gender-neutral language; she wrote in English. In normal English, we use “she” to refer to female people (and animals, robots, etc. Also, ships) and “he” to refer to males. That obviously doesn’t work for Leckie’s novels. So how does she handle the problem?
She could use “he”, traditionally used in English for people of unspecified gender. There’s also the singular “they”, the ugly workaround “s/he”, and new alternatives like “ze” or “xe”. None of these are particularly satisfying, and all but “he” read as super-awkward on the page. Leckie doesn’t use any of them.
Instead, the pronoun she uses for all of her characters, male and female, is “she”. And it’s not just pronouns; it’s also “mother”, “daughter”, “sister”, and so on.
This leads to some (deliberately, I assume) jarring language, including “She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain.”
That’s where the brain hacking comes in.
When a writer introduces a character, she can’t possibly describe every detail, so the reader has to fill in everything the writer doesn’t provide, and the reader will fall back on her own expectations to fill in those details. Until the writer tells the reader otherwise, a character named Detective Smith is probably a middle-aged white guy in a cheap suit, maybe with a five-o’clock shadow, a thick Brooklyn accent, and an alcohol problem. Similarly, the military ship captain is another middle-aged white guy, this time with a wiry build, short graying hair, and ramrod-straight posture. They’re stereotypes.
While stereotypes do vary somewhat from person to person, they’re pretty consistent across a given culture, and they are almost invariably male. Male is the default, even for roles that could be filled today by either gender – cops, doctors, professors, soldiers, random drivers on the freeway. It’s only when you get to traditionally female roles like nurses, schoolteachers, or parents on the playground that the default changes.
In the Ancillary books, the reader knows pretty much upfront that almost all of the characters could be either male or female, and Leckie doesn’t usually give much physical description to tilt the balance one way or the other. Normally, the reader would fall back on stereotypes based on the character’s title, job, social position, etc. to form a mental picture. Ship’s captain, system governor, station administrator, head of security – probably all male. Horticulturalist, servant, tea server – maybe female?
But in the Ancillary books, even though the reader knows that any given character could be female or male, there’s still that “she”. Every time a character is mentioned with a pronoun, it’s “she”, not “he”. The reader starts to imagine every character as female, even the ship captain, the governor, the station administrator, the head of security. The author gets into the reader’s head, hacks into the reader’s existing biases, and turns them around. The default becomes female.
Once you’ve gotten used to the effect, it doesn’t seem strange at all. When you’re inside the world Leckie has created, reading along, it seems perfectly natural that the sea of faces staring out at you from the page is mostly female. And it’s not some hidden subtext thing – Leckie is able manipulate readers’ biases even when they know they’re being manipulated. It’s all much subtler and more effective than an angry feminist polemic (not that I don’t love a good angry feminist polemic).
Best of all, the effect doesn’t go away when the reader leaves the book and comes back into the real world. It weakens over time, but the female cop, the female captain, the female doctor all seem a little less unexpected, a little more normal.
All that with not much more than a pronoun, a choice to see the power of “she”.