There are a lot of books, I think, that are classics in their field, required reading, not because they did their ideas best, but simply because they did them first. Lord of the Flies is my go-to example for this — it didn’t thrill me when I read it, because by that point I’d already read Galax-Arena and Battle Royale (among others) and seen those same ideas explored better elsewhere.
The critical buzz that greeted the release of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice suggested that it was doing just that to Left Hand of Darkness: that this was the gender-bending sci-fi of the new millennium, the long-awaited upgrade to LeGuin’s seminal work on the subject (by now nearly fifty years old). But after reading it, I couldn’t disagree more — Ancillary Justice doesn’t replace Left Hand of Darkness or retread that ground; rather, it complements LeGuin’s story in a way that I have never before seen two novels do, especially not novels written by different authors and separated by decades. In tandem, they explore how gendered pronouns influence the way we perceive and interpret human behavior. They come at the issue from different angles, and in so doing, call into question some of our most basic assumptions about masculine and feminine.
In Left Hand of Darkness, we have Genly Ai, a dude from “our” society, more or less — it’s set in the future, but he comes from a world with our familiar binary sexes and gender roles. He’s on a mission for the space equivalent of the United Nations to make first contact with a planet called Winter, which is populated by hermaphroditic humans who only assume a physical sex when in heat, which is about four days a month. He splits the narrative with a native of Winter named Estraven, who is kind of really a badass and, incidentally, my gold standard for characters who don’t think with their dicks. For ease of reference — and because male is the default and unremarkable, amirite? — Genly opts to use he/him pronouns for everyone on Winter (and I believe that male pronouns in Estraven’s portions are explained as being Genly’s “translation”).
It’s not striking at first, because let’s face it — there’s a lotta sci-fi books out there without a “she” in sight, and they aren’t doing it on purpose. And so even though we’ve been explicitly told that these humans are legitimately gender-neutral, that their bodies and features don’t look distinctively male or female, the presence of those male pronouns exerts a subtle force, and your mental image of Estraven and the other people of Winter is likely to skew male. Likewise, it brings you up short when Winter residents behave in ways that we don’t expect from men, even if it’s immediately checked with, “Right, because they’re not actually male. I knew that.”
But over the course of the book, what we come to understand both from Estraven’s insider perspective and from Genly’s gradual change in perception, is that male is not unmarked, it’s not some kind of neutral default. It brings with it as much baggage and preconceptions as female does. Which begs the question of how different the book would have been if Genly had gone with female pronouns for everyone instead.
…and which is why Ancillary Justice is such a brilliant companion piece to Left Hand of Darkness, because Ann Leckie takes that question and runs with it.
In Ancillary Justice, the viewpoint character is an artificial intelligence from a society in which gender makes no difference socially and, accordingly, isn’t encoded in their language. The blanket pronoun for everyone is she/her, so what you end up with is the opposite of the Winter situation: instead of a sexual binary imposed on a unary people, you have a single pronoun applied to people who do, in fact, have binary physical sexes. And the narrator may not care whether the person she’s talking to is physically male or female, but you-the-reader do.
It’s just something we are so accustomed to knowing. For walk-on characters in most books, it’s often the only thing we know about them — how many times have you been reading a story with a random passerby who was identified only as “a nearby man” or “the woman next to him”? Even when the character’s gender isn’t the slightest bit important to their role in the story, it’s still information that feels fundamental, that we expect to know — but in Ancillary Justice, more often than not we don’t.
Sometimes we find out — through other, more binary-minded people’s conversation — or enough hints about their physical appearance are dropped that we’re pretty sure what sex they are. But most of the time it’s ambiguous, and in the absence of knowing one way or the other, you find yourself scrutinizing interactions, character descriptions, for clues that will tip it one way or the other.
…And then you find yourself wondering, Why does it matter? Why do I care so much?
Why do we feel such a powerful urge to know whether someone is male or female? Shouldn’t their actions be able to speak for themselves, and tell us all we need to know about their character?
Well… in a word, no. Because coming as we are from a world in which binary sexes exist physically and binary genders exist socially, we look very strongly to the sex/gender of an actor before judging their actions. In that sense, both books are pushing their readers toward a similar realization: that we interpret the same behavior very differently when it’s coming from a man vs. coming from a woman. (I’ve been playing in this pool long enough that that’s not really news, but outside of feminist circles, I think it’s something that a lot of people have yet to recognize.)
Deborah Tannen, preeminent sociolinguist whose best work is on gendered differences in communication styles, has observed that when female executives adopt the same language and confrontational approaches as their male peers, what was read as large-and-in-charge for him is perceived as pushy and abrasive from her. (Sam wrote this well in Ironsides, with a gender-swapped Tony Stark who is just as much an asshole as canon-Tony ever was, but still gets called a bitch for her trouble.)
Likewise my adviser, who as a young professor was told by her older male mentor that being thoughtful and polite was the way to succeed in departmental politics — and promptly found that it wasn’t, because courtesy is a display of benevolence, a favor, when coming from an old white man, but is taken for granted and seen as meekness when coming from a young Asian woman. (These days she’s got a reputation as a dragon lady, though I suspect her un-nurturing nature would be unremarkable in a male professor.)
(Are we seeing a pattern here? That the behaviors congruent with authority and command are coded as the province of masculinity?)
Or — and I haven’t decided whether I agree or not, but it’s worth thinking about — the argument that for all the flak Kristen Stewart gets about her “wooden” performances, her acting style is actually remarkably similar to Heath Ledger’s. Only what was ~masterfully understated~ coming from him is a ~limited emotional range~ coming from her. It is undeniably true that women are held to different standards of expressivity (give us a smile, sweetheart) and also true that when women don’t conform to those societal expectations, that difference is read as failure.
Which makes the criticism surrounding Left Hand of Darkness as instructive as the book itself:
Among others, Stanislaw Lem (whose name carries the same sort of potency hers does) accused her of basically painting a false picture of Gethen — writing the Gethenians as men who very occasionally exhibited womanly characteristics, and thus hardly exploring the intriguing notion of what people who were both sexes at once would really be like. (x)
(I think that article is dead-idiot wrong, btw, like someone stepping in to ‘splain how The Color Purple isn’t ~actually~ about race, but if you’re interested in the controversy, this page has more detail about LHoD’s critical reception, along with direct quotes, more rigorous citations, and LeGuin’s rebuttal to Lem.)
I confess, I would be more receptive to Lem’s criticism if it had been a man who wrote this story about supposedly androgynous humans who just happen to all get called by male pronouns — but accusing a female writer of failing to represent femininity? Of saying that LeGuin accidentally wrote a race of bro-dudes instead of a race of hermaphrodites? I’m not buying it. What, in the behavior of LeGuin’s Gethenians, is Lem looking at and characterizing as distinctly and exclusively male? What exactly would they have to do for him to deem them adequately feminine?
(I’d also be more receptive if he’d made his own stab at writing what he thinks LeGuin should have done, instead of just taking potshots. Then again, considering that Lem appears to be one of those men who writes women like an inscrutable species of Other, I cringe to think what his idea of distinctively feminine characteristics would be.)
Furthermore, I can’t imagine anyone levelling the same criticism if LeGuin had gone with female pronouns for the default. If you took the same book and swapped out he’s for she’s, I think Lem et al would have had no trouble picturing Winter as a world of lesbians rather than a world of slightly wide-hipped dudes, and it would never have occurred to them to accuse LeGuin of inauthenticity in writing the feminine. Hell, they probably would have pointed to the Gethenians’ aversion to warfare as proof that she wasn’t adequately representing the male side of her androgynes.
It seems obvious, rather, that Lem’s criticism is informed more by his own biases and blind spots than by what’s actually in the book — that he sees male pronouns, sees actions that are acceptable for men, and fails to realize that they’re not exclusive to men. When he calls her Gethenians men with only occasional womanly characteristics, he is claiming as masculine everything that is not absolutely predicated on female biology.
Which is where Ancillary Justice steps in, because suddenly you can’t overlook the possibility of the feminine. All the textual cues are saying she, she, she, but you’re also explicitly told that they’re not actually all female, and your only clues toward the sex of the characters are the actions themselves: is this behavior male or female? The answer, we find almost inevitably, is that it could be either.
And that, my friends, would be the point that Leckie and LeGuin — each bookending half a century of desultory social progress — are trying to make.