Ann Leckie is Hacking Your Brain

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”.

Why I Write What I Write

I’m a straight, married man, and I write, among other things, lesbian romance novels. I feel like this requires some explanation.

I’ve always been drawn more to women and their stories and life experience than to men, even outside the complication of physical and romantic attraction. I don’t know why this is; it’s just wired into who I am. Always has been.

I grew up like a typical boy, with mostly boys as friends. Societal pressure, my interest in math and science (stereotyped as male pursuits), and activities like the Boy Scouts saw to that. Still, I preferred the company of girls to boys in just about any context.

My favorite playmates in the first grade, before any of that societal pressure, were girls. In high school, as soon as I was allowed off campus for lunch, I joined a group of six girls for cheap takeout at Chop ‘N Wok, and I learned to use chopsticks when they made it clear I wouldn’t eat otherwise. Among my fellow engineering students in college, my best friend was female, and outside classes my social circle was mostly made up of women from my girlfriend’s dorm. My career choice – software engineering – skews overwhelmingly male, and it’s actually gotten worse since I graduated from college, but even there I’ve had the privilege of working with some fabulously smart women.

It’s not that I don’t value male friendship – many of my best friends are dudes. It’s just that in any group, a disproportionate number of the friends and colleagues I value and remember are female.

In my reading, too, I seek out women’s voices. I mostly read science fiction and fantasy as a kid, where women and girls have historically been poorly represented, but I still found female characters I loved. Perhaps my strongest personal connection with a fictional character was with Menolly of Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall books. Though my life was nothing like hers, I immediately understood the shy, exceptional girl who ran away from the limits of her small, closed-in life. That she was a girl didn’t make it any harder for me to relate to her struggles and her successes. In retrospect, it might have even made it easier for me.

When I read, and particularly when I write, I get to be somebody else for a while. I get to step into somebody else’s shoes. Whether those shoes are sneakers, heels, or combat boots, the foot that goes into them is female more often than not.

So that’s why I read and write female characters. Why lesbians? The simple answer is that the part of women’s life experience I find it hardest to relate to is romantic interest in men. As we’ve already established, I generally find women more interesting than men, and I’m not attracted to men at all. I perfectly happy for people, male or female, who are attracted to men; I just don’t get the appeal. Falling in love with a woman, on the other hand, is something I understand.

There’s more to it, though. Women, especially straight women, have limits in both narrative and real life that men do not.

When a woman settles down with a man, his needs expand to fill up the available space in the relationship, only leaving room for hers to squeeze in around the edges. This happens even in modern, enlightened couples – they may strive for equality in the big things, but unconscious biases inevitably sneak into the million little things that make up a marriage. It happens all the time in my own marriage (to that high school lunch pal and college girlfriend), no matter how I try to fight it. We simply don’t have the mental capacity to think through every action, every situation, so we fall back on routine, and routine is reflective of a society that undervalues women even in this age of supposed equality. There are exceptions, of course – stay-at-home dads, mothers with high-powered careers – but they’re depressingly rare. Rarer, I would guess, than women who identify as something other than completely straight.

Lesbian relationships completely upend this dynamic. They start on even ground. Differences in age, income, class, ethnicity, religion, and all sorts of other things may unbalance a relationship between two women, but the big hammer is completely absent. A lesbian is never the lesser partner just because she is a woman. Lesbians do face all sorts of other hardships, including appalling discrimination and hate, but in this one way they retain a kind of agency in their lives and relationships that straight women rarely do, even today. I find that inspiring.

More than anything else, though, lesbian stories just make sense to me, deep down in that part of me beyond thought. I saw Stop! Kiss! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival back in 2000, and to this day I still remember it as the most beautiful love story I’ve ever seen on stage, screen, or page. I read Nicola Griffith’s The Blue Place two years ago, and it affected me more powerfully than any story I’ve ever encountered. A rare few stories have brought me to tears; The Blue Place knifed me in the gut and left me for dead.

So when I write, most of my protagonists are women, and many of them are genderqueer. I am aware that a straight man – top of the privilege ladder – writing about people who are neither of those things may make people uncomfortable or cause offense. Both the potential for offense and the writing itself make me a little uncomfortable as well, but not enough to stop.

I do the best I can to write with respect for all the cultures and social groupings – women or men; queer or straight; Asian or white or black or Hispanic; rich or poor; able-bodied or not; programmer or artist or doctor or Wizard of the Guild; etc. – from which I draw characters. I hope the results speak for themselves.

Thanks for reading.