FREQ #17: ANN LECKIE IMAGINES A WORLD WITHOUT GENDER
Interview by Laura Hudson
When Ann Leckie wrote her debut novel, the best-selling Ancillary Justice, she was a stay-at-home mom well into her 40s without any published work to her name and unsure about her writing chops. But after participating in National Novel Writing Month, she decided to try her hand at a science fiction book, and the results were nothing short of spectacular. Ancillary Justice, which explores a fantastical universe through the eyes of a sentient AI ship called Justice of Toren, went on to win the hat trick of sci-fi literary achievement: Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Along with the sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, it takes place in a vast interplanetary empire where people are not distinguished by gender, and where the default pronoun is “she.” With her fourth book, Provenance, hitting shelves on September 26th, FREQ spoke to Leckie about the complexities of gender identity and language, in both the fantasy worlds we create and the real world where we live.
FREQ: Your original trilogy is set in a society called the Radch Empire, where gender is not considered particularly relevant and the default pronoun is “she” — much like “he” was long the default pronoun in English. What did you want to explore about gender with these books?
Leckie: Initially, I very naively thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have a culture that just didn’t care about gender? Where gender isn’t something weighing over you every minute of the day? Part of what I was trying to do by using a single pronoun was to convey just how little the society cares about gender. I know there are quite a few real-world languages that don’t use gendered pronouns for people, and no, those societies are not ungendered utopias. But in English we are constantly having to call out one of two genders for somebody. And I thought, if I just use one pronoun, it’ll get across this idea that it’s not just part of how these folks think about people.
I actually wrote a short story that I never sold where I used “he” for everybody, and I did not like the effect at all. Because the effect wasn’t “this is a culture that doesn’t care about gender,” it was “this is a story all about men.” It just didn’t work for me. Around this time I read The Left Hand of Darkness where Ursula K. Leguin was faced with a similar choice and went with “he.” It’s a brilliant book, but later on she did have some of those thoughts, that maybe she should have used “she.” And I thought, what if I did?
It doesn’t entirely do what I wanted it to do because “he” and “she” are so viscerally connected to gender expectations that when I use “she,” it makes a lot of readers assign feminine genders to all the characters instead of giving a gender neutral impression. That’s a failure of it, but its success is that because it doesn’t use the default gender pronouns, a lot of readers found themselves very aware of the fact that a default was being used, and it wasn’t the normal one. I thought that a really interesting experience. Some readers didn’t realize that they hadn’t just read a book that was full of women, though I didn’t mind that reading either, because that’s unusual in and of itself. I was just trying to produce a society that genuinely didn’t care about gender. That isn’t quite what I managed, but what I did manage was really pretty cool.
FREQ: It’s an interesting interrogation or even critique of that defense you still even today, that “he” can or should function as a neutral pronoun.
Leckie: Using “she” as the default proves that it’s not. The [male] default is so invisible to some people. They don’t understand that saying “he” isn’t a gender neutral term — it’s a societal assumption about who the default human being is. Or they’ll say it’s just too awkward to say “he or she,” when you could easily say “they,” or alternate pronouns, or any of these solutions. But somehow, they always seem to have a reason for using “he.”
FREQ: Were there readers who were frustrated by not being able to determine the gender of the characters?
Leckie: Oh, plenty. There are folks who spent a lot of time trying to figure out the “right” genders or the “real” genders of the characters. I don’t want to say that anyone’s reading of the book was wrong, but I found that a little frustrating, because I had worked very hard to say that people’s gender in this world didn’t actually matter.
There were a number of readers who commented that because there was no reference to gender, they had trouble visualizing the characters, which I found super interesting.
It’s not like all women look like other women. So if you say “she” about somebody, you haven’t learned something that important about how that person looks, but it feels like you have. I do understand where they’re coming from, though, because it’s also an experience I had while I was writing. When I first started Ancillary Justice, I did assign binary genders to the characters. But when I decided to use “she” for everybody, my mental image of those characters changed. That’s how powerful pronouns are.
FREQ: It’s so strange that we often don’t know how to think about someone as a person until we know their gender.
Leckie: When I had my kids, I would take these adorable babies to the grocery store, and people would come up and want to talk the baby and coo at the baby. Then they’d stop and ask if it was a boy or a girl, because they could not interact with my baby without knowing what their [gender] assignment was. And babies don’t care. Babies don’t know. It doesn’t matter to babies. You put a baby in a diaper and a onesie and you don’t need to know anything else. And yet, people didn’t know how to interact without that. My son had beautiful long eyelashes, and always looked like he had baby mascara on. People would address him as a little girl, which is fine, but then if they found out he was a boy, they would say, “I’m so sorry.” Like they’d just run over my dog. We want to think that we treat everybody the same whether they’re a man or a woman. But most people don’t, and they know they don’t, because they feel so weird trying to talk to somebody without knowing their gender.
FREQ: And of course, the greatest discomfort for many people is when someone assigned male is treated as female.
Leckie: It is far worse in our society for a man to be coded as feminine than for a girl to be coded as masculine. But the reverse is also upsetting for a lot of people. I had a relative who really wanted me to put a bow on my daughter’s head when she was a baby, because they were afraid that someone would think she was a boy. That this would be something bad. I also know a woman who had short hair in childhood and would cry if someone addressed her as a boy. Of course, there are people for whom being misgendered is a life-threatening thing and I don’t want to make light of that. The basis for a cis person finding that upsetting is very different than a trans person finding that upsetting. But the person I was talking to was a cis woman, and the idea of being mistaken for a man was truly distressing to her. There is a fear of having something terrible happen if you’re caught outside the boundaries of where you’re supposed to be.
I grew up saying that gender didn’t matter, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I can say that because I’m in a very secure position. I don’t generally have people questioning my gender or trying to punish me for not performing my gender appropriately. But trans folks are in a very different situation, because gender is policed on the daily in our culture. And if you’re caught far enough outside where people think you ought to be, that’s physically dangerous. So I’m glad people have spoken up about that and we’re talking more about that. You can say gender is a social construct, but money is also a social construct. And just try living without it.
There is a fear of having something terrible happen if you’re caught outside the boundaries of where you’re supposed to be.
FREQ: The trilogy deals with identity in a lot of interesting ways, and how it is both inherent to and separate from our bodies. It seems like it’s asking this deeper question of what a body means. How much of being human is being in the body we’re in?
Leckie: Personally, I suspect it’s all of it. I know other people have different constructs, but I don’t think there’s some external spirit that’s separate from our bodies that is us. Those standard body switch stories frustrate me, because I’m like, how does that even happen? Your emotions are in your body, all of your reactions to things are in your body. How can you still be yourself in someone else’s body? I don’t see how it makes any sense at all unless you’re assuming that bodies are basically robots that we’re all riding with a spirit that sits in your head and remote controls it. If you put your core self in someone else’s body, you’re going to be someone completely different.
FREQ: We see that mutability in Anaander Mianaai, a character who occupies so many different bodies that they start to form opposing factions amongst themselves, almost like a starfish that has been cut up.
Leckie: The more I researched the neurological basis of identity, the more creeped out I got. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked into split brain patients, folks who have had their corpus callosum severed so the two hemispheres of the brain don’t communicate as they did previously. If you isolate one hemisphere and talk into one ear or show images to one eye, you only get the reaction from that side of the brain. So you can set up situations where it looks like you’re talking to two different people in one person’s head. If you tell one side of the brain to pick up a spoon on the table, the appropriate hand will pick up the spoon. Then if you ask the person’s other ear, why they picked up the spoon, will make up a story about why they did. They do not know why they picked up the spoon, but they will they make up a story.
Then there’s Alien Hand Syndrome where your hand just does things and you can’t stop it, or people who become convinced that one of their body parts is not part of their body. If the doctor asks whose arm it is, the patient might say it’s not mine; it must be yours. There are so many different parts of ourselves that contribute to making decisions, and then we make up a story over the top of it to explain why we did what we did. So I was very much thinking about the way that our selves, as small as we are, may not be as aware of the systems working within us as we think we are. I suspect we aren’t as unified as we think we are.
FREQ: Artificial intelligence plays a big role in your books, particularly since the main character is this body-hopping, sentient ship who of course is also referred to as “she.” It’s interesting to consider how insistent we are on gendering AI, and why services like Siri, Cortana and Alexa are coded as female.
Leckie: It’s also interesting to notice how AIs that are considered experts, like Watson and Deep Blue, aren’t gendered as feminine. But assistants like Siri and Cortana and Alexa are, because we expect our virtual servants to be feminine. Because while Siri and Cortana and Alexa are experts too, they’re gendered as female because they are presented as assistants, and we expect our virtual servants to be feminine.
FREQ: It reminds me of so many of the original computer programmers were women, because initially it was viewed as secretarial work. When it became perceived as more of a science and something that conferred power and expertise, it immediately became dominated by men.
Leckie: When work is done by men, compensation increases. That’s happened even with things like making beer. Beer used to be a something that women made at home, but as soon as it becomes something that could make a lot of money, it became something men did. The medieval knitting guilds were filled with men because you could make huge amounts of money with knitted products. But you can’t make a lot of money with hand knitting today, so guess who knits now?
FREQ: I’m sure if it were more lucrative, all of the most famous knitters would be men, and they’d be claiming they were just naturally better at knitting because they had more methodical and orderly minds.
Leckie: Exactly. Because knitting is all algorithms, right? But someone who sews — oh no, she couldn’t be an engineer. [laughs] You hear men like that Google guy [James Damore] say that women aren’t made with the right minds to program, but men like him wouldn’t even have jobs if it weren’t for a bunch of women setting up their industry.
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