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New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Paired Particles: Space Operas and Gender Shoals

2012 Pair

In 2011/2012, two SF works formed a conceptual pair: Morgan Locke’s Up Against It and Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier.  Both are ambitious space operas that take place on belaguered space habitats.  Both brim with originality and bravura, field a host of complex issues, portray fluid/non-binary genders, use non-Anglo settings and are as hard SF as can be (provided you don’t count orbital mechanics as the sole hard science, as genre fundies do; Locke is a chemist, Slonczewski a biologist and their first-hand expertise shows).  Both obey marketing directives: they are parts of projected trilogies and have adolescent protagonists.  In Up Against It, a sharply etched adult woman thankfully shares center stage.  The Highest Frontier is more Harry-Potter-in-space but the quirks and gender of its protagonist mostly redeem the YA concession.  The Highest Frontier got a lot of recognition, including the Campbell award.  Up Against It went by almost unnoticed.

I gamma-read these two, so I already reviewed them extensively, if privately.  This was not the case for the paired set of 2013: Deborah Wheeler’s Collaborators (a standalone) and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (first volume of the now-obligatory trilogy).  Like their 2012 counterparts, these are ambitious space operas that tackle many issues.  Whereas the 2012 two focus on can-do survival and are relatively small-scale (no galactic empires), the 2013 ones focus on colonialism and gender in Le Guin and Cherryh’s wake, but their scientific concepts are more SF-traditional.  Both use multiple narrative viewpoints – condemned as “romance cooties” in SF circles, though the technique is routine in literary fiction – and have made conscious decisions about pronoun use, of which more anon.  Like the divergent fates of the 2012 pair, Ancillary Justice got a rousing reception whereas I count formal reviews of Collaborators on the fingers of one hand.

Collaborators is obviously descended from Le Guin kernels but carves its own unique path.  Following The Left Hand of Darkness it posits the Bandari, single-gendered humanoid aliens who polarize slightly when in estrus and a bit more during gestation.  Like Le Guin (who defended her choice until she retrenched in short stories that featured Gethenians), Wheeler uses exclusively male pronouns for the species.  And similar to the settings of Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, Collaborators shows how a non-terrestrial culture interacts with a stranded human starship whose crew, bolstered by its formidable technology, forgets that they are not gods and interfere heavily in the politics of two adversarial nations.  The major conflict is nuanced by ambiguities and dilemmas on all sides and at many levels.

Wheeler’s Quaker beliefs are visible (including the refusal to indulge in charismatic saviors) and the parallels to the havoc wrought by imperial-nation interventions on earth are clear.  The alien biology and first-contact dynamics are handled unusually deftly; the narrative polyphony weaves complex melodies and harmonies.  Wheeler’s world is effortlessly immersive and teems with fully realized characters.  At the same time, the human side is conveyed almost exclusively by male characters and the Bandari occasionally leave behind them a Wraeththu-like whiff.

Ancillary Justice posits the Radchaai, a galaxy-wide dominant polity that is rather obviously modeled on imperial Rome futurized by the customary space opera panoply (nanotech, up/downloading, FTL) and replete with cultural-specific quirks to quickly individualize the groups within it – including the author’s own unabashed love of tea.  The Radchaai, the obverse side of Banks’ Culture (with ship Minds to match), share the Romans’ casual, pragmatic cruelty including the citizen privilege boundary.  Their resources permit them to animate corpses from uprisings against the Radchaai with AI “consciousness”.  The resulting constructs are used as starship crews and planetary enforcers.  These ancillaries are descendants of Cherryh’s Union/Alliance azi and of the Star Wars stormtrooper clones: essentially cheap disposable zombi.

The protagonist Breq (a now-isolate ancillary who harbors a portion of the AI consciousness of a once-mighty starship) sets out to assassinate a powerful Lucifer/Palpatine figure for reasons of personal loyalty.  So the scaffolding is a traditional revenge quest, garnished with Breq’s fraught dealings with an ambiguous ally of once high status – very similar to the currents between Ai and Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness.  Like Collaborators, Ancillary Justice shows several worlds and the complex interactions between them.  However, the characters in Ancillary Justice are far less sharply drawn than those in Collaborators to the point of blurriness and the novel contains many lumpy passages.  Also like Collaborators, Ancillary Justice switches between viewpoints, finessed by the conceit that the ship’s AI is tallying ancillary inputs in situ – a clever dodge though its execution is not entirely smooth, augmenting the murkiness (it would do better in film).

Last but decidedly not least, and a point highlighted in all the reviews of Ancillary Justice, Breq designates everyone with female pronouns.  The rationale is that Radchaai make no gender distinctions: their technology allows them biological fluidity, so that familial/client status has now become the primary hierarchy marker.  Hence Breq either cannot comprehend or chooses not to master such distinctions in non-Radch cultures that have them.

The 3.5 people who have read my writings know my views on colonialism, gender and their intersection.  It’s good to see the ubiquitous pseudo-inclusive “he” subsumed for once and it’s fun to hazard guesses at the genderings that are left truly ambiguous.  However, I think that the conflation of grammatical, cultural and biological gender blunts the story.  The former is arbitrary and would be unavoidable in many languages (it’s an acid test for true fluency).  The middle is a battleground frought with both promise and peril – but it’s unlikely that the status-conscious Radchaai would not have other distinctions.  The latter, whether one chooses traditional or novel terms, whether one adheres to gender binaries or not, is one that an advanced AI would sense, even when diminished.

One could argue that we’re seeing a carryover of Radch arrogance by a multiply unreliable narrator.  However, the fact that Breq’s inability/unwillingness to distinguish gender (which type?) is constantly mentioned, explained and defended puts it in the “protesting too much” category: it punctures the immersive membrane of the narrative, turning the device into a  self-conscious flag rather than a fully integrated (and hence submerged) core context.  It doesn’t help that the primary antagonist is given many trappings of a male/masculine terrestrial, which shows how hard it is to write truly gender-blind narratives.

Caveats aside, both the 2012 and 2013 space opera tangled pairs are intriguing; it will be interesting to see where their sequels go.  The pronoun issue is vexed, though Anglophone SF is lucky to only have to worry about third-person singular pronouns.  Melissa Scott, always a forerunner, put down five sets of pronouns in The Shadow Man way before this became the burning issue in SF that it has become.  Other writers did without pronouns or expanded their vocabulary: neologisms aside, why not press the neutral option or the third-person plural into service?  Female- or male-only are clumsy instruments to designate either mono/multi/fluidly-gendered species or cultural gender blindness.  We need different mindsets, and different words, for such horizons.

2013 Pair

8 Responses to “Paired Particles: Space Operas and Gender Shoals”

  1. Caliban says:

    Samuel Delaney, in his novel “Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand,” introduces a novel use of pronouns for one of his cultures: the default for all persons is our feminine, unless the speakers desires the object; then the pronoun is our masculine (thereby inverting the male gaze, I suppose). I’m afraid I only read the opening chapter, where Delaney introduced this idea, and then my copy got lost…

    It seems to me multiple narrators, or at least multiple POVs, are quite common, certainly in space opera. Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, and Stephen Baxter all use them routinely, just to name the first to come to mind. And of course George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” (that’s Game of Thrones to the non-readers our there) uses so many narrators one needs a supercomputer to keep track of them. He keeps killing off his characters, so I realize he needs some spares, but still…

    I happen to dislike the use of multiple narrators/POVs, or at least the overuse of multiple narrators, but for reasons that have nothing to do with “romance cooties.” (I was unaware of this critique.) I find too many narrators/POVs, like too many cooks, diffuse and spoil the narrative. My own personal approach to fiction is that a story should be some person’s story; one can, if necessary, expand it to be the story of a small group of people. But even then it tends to revolve around a key person. For example, Lord of the Rings, despite its multiple POVs, is, at heart, Frodo’s story. The rest is frosting. The multiple POVs in Lord of the Rings works for me because the alternate POVs tell the fringes of Frodo’s story. The novels by Reynolds, Hamilton, and Baxter sometime irritated me–which is why I remember they have multiple POVs–because in the end it didn’t seem to be about someone. That irritation also goes for Martin (though I think the novels do have central characters in Daenerys and Tyrion, and they’d be a LOT better if he whittled down the story to focus on them).

    Of course, one may have a different approach/taste to fiction, but that is mine…

  2. Athena says:

    I know your preferences as you know mine. Like all techniques, multiple POVs work as well or as poorly as the writerly brain/mind that wields them can convey them. Space operas are almost obliged to use more than one narrator: the scale alone demands it. I agree that few, well-fleshed characters (with fringe narrators) tend to work best — or at least are most easily digestible. However, I just finished a Colum McCann novel, a fictionalized Nureyev bio, in which the switches are relatively extreme — and he manages to carry it off just fine (the caveat here is that I’m familiar with the outline of Nureyev’s life; it might be different for someone reading it cold turkey). And LotR may be Frodo’s story but the POV shifts/slips are frequent, abrupt and make zero concessions to readerly comfort.

  3. Caliban says:

    Of course skill makes all the difference! There are no hard rules in fiction, except for whatever makes the story work.

    It seems to me that often in space opera many authors seem to feel obliged to use multiple POVs, as if to signal to the reader that This Is A Big Story. See, e.g., Reynolds, Hamilton, Baxter, etc. But in many of those cases the multiple POV is not carried off with any particular skill and doesn’t serve much purpose except to pad out what might be a decent novel into an n-logy as dense as neutronium. Seeing it badly or indifferently done, over and over again, is part of the reason I sometimes get itchy when a story has multiple POVs. If it’s handled well then there’s no problem. But often I get the feeling that multiple POVs are a substitute for an actual story–a Bunch of Stuff Happens, but it’s a pile of events rather than a narrative.

  4. Athena says:

    Exactly: gimmicks of the Emperor’s New Clothes variety cannot hide lack of talent or sloppiness. But that is not an intrinsic problem of the technique.

  5. Asakiyume says:

    I suppose the power of the Hachette Group, one of major publishers, versus Dragon Moon Press, which presumably doesn’t have quite the same marketing budget, may account for the dearth of reviews of Collaborators–which sounds intriguing!

    I *loved* Ancillary Justice, but I take your point about the multiple things gender can refer to, and also, to a degree, what you say about the unlikelihood of being unable to determine an appropriate form of address. I was interested, though, in what the use of a female pronoun did for my sense of power dynamics–but I’ll get more into that when I post a review of my own.

  6. Athena says:

    I liked Ancillary Justice, especially taking into account that it’s a debut novel. Mind you, my comparisons are not with many (most) by-the-numbers space operas, but within a high-bar subset. At the same time, I thought the gender issue could have been handled with a lighter and surer hand.

  7. Caliban says:

    Well, all technical choices have their strengths and weaknesses. For example, first person lends itself well to a strong “voice.” But this itself can be a weakness, as “voice” may overwhelm or substitute for other aspects of the story, especially in very short stories.

    Multiple POVs allow one to see a story from, duh, different points of view. But it does also make it easy to be lazy and not really think through what is the central story, to the point of incoherence. I’ve seen that over and over and over and over again, especially in space opera and so-called high fantasy.

    In other words, that kind of narrative incoherence is not an intrinsic problem of the technique, but it is a common occurrence nonetheless.

    I haven’t read the novels in question and those authors probably handle it fine. But multiple POVs are not rare in SF, although they are frequently badly done.

    As you know, I myself almost never use multiple POVs, because I seldom write a story that requires it. (I do have an unfinished novella which probably does require it, so I have to go back and put in those other POVs.) In large part that’s because I am drawn to writing stories that, at least in origin, are intensely personal, and those kind of stories seldom require multiple POVs to tell, or least not a large cast of POVs. That’s not an absolute, of course; I don’t believe in absolutes aside from writing the best damn story possible.

  8. Athena says:

    To some extent, first-person POV and multi-POVs are at two ends of a spectrum in terms of narrative purposes (though I have seen stories with multiple first-person narrators and written them myself). I agree that most multi-POVs are poorly done in SFF… but then so are most techniques.

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