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I’m in the middle of reading Ann Leckie’s fantastic book Ancillary Justice. One of the things I like about it so much is that it plays with our gender expectations. The story takes place in a fictional universe in which the Radch regularly annex planets to their empire. The language spoken by the Radch has no gender, it does not recognize male or female anything. This presents a conundrum for Leckie since English requires gender designations. How do you translate? Leckie has decided to make the default pronoun “she” serve for everyone.

The story is told from the point of view of Breq who used to be a starship. She knows many different languages but she is Radch and as such always has trouble figuring out gender when speaking a language that requires it.

What is super-duper fascinating is to read everything through the “she” pronoun. I picture all the characters as women and there is nothing in any of the characters’ actions that give away what their biology might be. Nor does anyone get described as curvy or beautiful or brawny or any of the other myriad ways gender and biology get marked. Everyone is just people who happen to be referred to as “she” when a pronoun is required. But, as I said, I keep picturing all the characters as women because that is what “she” asks me to do in English.

So you might be able to imagine then how disconcerted I was while reading last night to discover an important character is actually a biological male. He was only referred to as “he” once in a conversation Breq was having with someone in a gendered language and then it is right back to “she” again. My brain went all wobbly trying to replace a she with a he but it didn’t last long. The further I got away from “he” and the more “she’s” that got piled on in referring to this character, my mind reverted right back to picturing a woman.

The cool thing is there is no reason why all the characters couldn’t actually be women. In the context of this world, there is no question about whether a woman can lead an army or captain a starship or beat the crap out of someone or rule the empire or do anything else. Gender is not recognized and when there are no gender boxes to fill it is amazing what kinds of other things can be focused on instead.

Reading a book in which “she” stands in for the universal gender points out how fallacious English is to insist that “he” can be used as a universal pronoun meaning men and women. It can’t and it doesn’t and I never believed that it did. Whenever I’m reading and come across a “universal he” I am always brought up short. I have to stop and take the time to mentally insert myself into the equation because “he” is not me. I wonder, any men reading this, when you come across “universal he” do you think, oh that means men and women? When you see “he” standing in for everyone do you picture everyone as being male? And if you are a male who has read Ancillary Justice, what was your experience reading a book where everyone is “she”?

I can’t begin to say what a pleasure it is to read a book like Ancillary Justice. It’s no surprise Leckie won the Nebula and the Hugo for it. I can’t wait to find out how it ends and I am greatly looking forward to reading the second book, Ancillary Sword.

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