Around a year ago, Ann Leckie wrote her novel, Ancillary Justice, which won several awards in science fiction. The story revolves around a character named Breq, who seeks revenge for her ship’s destruction. This novel is set far in the future and against an imaginary backdrop of the Radsch Empire.
Although the setting sounds like your typical sci-fi novel, Leckie incorporates an important aspect: the use of gender-neutral pronouns. In this case, she uses the pronoun “she” for every character, making it impossible to identify the gender of any one. Likewise, her female and male characters have interchangeable appearances, which makes them even harder to differentiate.
During a podcast, Leckie explained her reasoning behind her decisions:
It’s more easily noticeable in older science fiction. We’ve got this future society and the technology’s all very different, but people are smoking cigarettes and using slide rules, and the social relationships are exactly like they would have been in the 50s. You know, the wife is bringing in coffee.
Rather than write a novel in the future that reflects our modern society, Leckie decided to write about a possible future where a species has reached gender equality.
In a community where sexist allegations are not uncommon, Leckie is among the first to try and settle the raging internal fight.
As modern society advances, our perspectives regarding social equality begin to change. Just fifty years ago, women in novels were portrayed completely differently than they are now. Most genres of today’s novels reflect modern society, which include plenty of sexist tropes and stereotypes. However, genres like fantasy and science fiction allow the writer to have complete freedom over social relationships.
The funny thing about Leckie’s novel is that it does not delve into the social ambiguity between the genderless characters. Her novel is a space opera first and foremost, and that’s why it’s so amazing. Rather than writing a novel with gender equality as a topic of debate, she merely incorporated the idea into her world. Her prime focus is the melodramatic adventure in space, not gender.
Although her novel has very good reviews, Leckie has received negative criticism regarding the pronoun “she”. Even if all of the characters in her novel are sexually ambiguous, Leckie’s audience stated their concern regarding the feminine implications.
Some readers have claimed that a single pronoun creates problems with the mental depiction of a character. Although the language and society in Leckie’s novel disregards the gender binary, our modern society does not. The intention of a singular pronoun was to try and erase the binary that we have created; however, this results in implying that every character is female —leaving males mis-gendered. In her novel’s case, there was a mistranslation, which Leckie has realized and confronted.
People have also been feeling angry that the male characters in the story are persistently mis-gendered, because they’re continually referred to as ‘she.’ I understand where that’s coming from, and it certainly wasn’t my intention to make anybody feel like they were being maliciously mis-gendered, and in some ways I share the frustration of folks about the third person neutral pronouns. I wish they were used more. … I think at the time I was working very strongly from an assumption … that in fact gender is a binary, and the implications of that do turn up in the text, and I know some people have pointed it out, and they’re right, it’s there, and had I been writing it now I probably would have handled those moments a little bit differently, but I think I would still have gone with ‘she,’ because I think it has a much stronger, more visceral effect.
Although Leckie continues her battle with the science fiction community, she should really be thanked for bringing up this sort of topic. Leckie’s novel is doing fantastically and is selling like wildfire. Her success makes her readers eager for the next installment of her trilogy, Ancillary Sword.
Hopefully, we see more kickass authors like Ann Leckie in the near future.