Thursday, June 04, 2015

"Just this one teensy, tiny little change..."


A 2013 SF novel by Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice, introduces us to a space-faring society that, unlike modern English, has the default generative pronoun  as feminine, rather than masculine.  In fact, the culture of the main viewpoint society, the Radch Empire does not seem to recognize essential differences in roles based on the gender of the person performing any role.


There has been a *lot* of ink/electrons expended on comments about this, with opinions ranging from "I just don't like it" to "Hell, yeah, 'bout time!"  A lot of those comments, and a lot of the more in-depth analysis of this point in the  direction that this background choice must have been done to make some kind of political point.  If you were going to say this was a signifier of authorial political intent you could go two ways - either (from the fringe Right) that it's just a case of what could be called "feminist imperialism and co-option" or (from the Left) the views that this is an inevitable consequence and easier to use than he/she/it or heshe constructions and (from the far Marianas-Trench deep end of the Left pool) "Hell, yeah, 'bout time the Goddess set things straight!"))

One of the great divides in SF/F right now is between groups of readers that want to claim SF and Fantasy as purely descriptive entertainment, the epitome of escape literature, just living in shared authorial moments of the storyteller entertaining us at the fair, or in the tavern, with no other motive express, implied or accepted. You pays your pennies on the drumhead for the entertainment and that's all you want to see and hear.

 On the other side of the table or those who say that all stories have some ulterior external dimension, some subtext,  some "message."  There is no choice, there is always subtext, whether the author means for inclusion or not.  It is inevitable.

In the Interests Of Full Disclosure, I will tell you that I belong in the second camp: not from any skill at analysis, nor any training in critical literature theory, just cause it seems like the way things are.

From my viewpoint, the very act of reaching for the ability to entertain, or the ability to make any kind of contact with the intended audience requires an assumption of commonality of fundamental background points.

It's the same shared societal assumptions that leads a 17 year-old groundling boy at the Globe watching a boy player dressed in wig, gown or kirtle sees Juliet or Prospero's daughter Miranda.

The analogous Junior in high school watching the young male actor in wig and kirtle, in the same roles, lacking the innate bias about women being on the stage, sees the male actor and needs to consciously transform the perception to the male actor to the role of Miranda.   Of course, the Elizabethan groundling  would indeed find Robbie, in the role as Caliban, truly monstrous

If this background tic in Ancillary Justice (use of female as the default gendered pronoun) is not essential to the storyline, e.g.: could just as usefully use the masculine, as we do in English, as the default, does that authorial choice *have* to be political?

I don't think it has to be.

Why not view it as "this is an alternative, lets explore what this change from the norm implies for the characters and their society, and what does it provoke in the reader?"  Now, isn't that a completely fundamental trope for SF?

And, yes, what *does* the reaction, by the readers, to that single change in the society depicted, and their language choices, tell us about *ourselves?*


And, yes, what does the reaction, by the readers, to that single change in the society depicted, and their language choices, tell us about *ourselves?*

Which is another basic trope in SF.

I mean, if all you are going to do is have shoot-em-ups in starship corridors, spaceships commanded by Fine Upright Admirals and Hard-Bitten Detectives  taking appointments by televisor, why not just read Zane Grey, C.S. Forester, Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler?  The originals are usually done better, anyway, if all you are doing is copying.

But even there, in the originals, the subtext always carries a message: for Grey it was the larger-than-life legend of the American West he wanted to idealize; for Forester it was the superiority of the British class system; for Chandler and Hammett it was the endemic corruption of the political environment of the time.

Those writers may have been trying to be descriptive, not necessarily pushing a "message," 'though I suspect Hammett was being very deliberate in what his subtext expressed, but the very act of writing to those shared assumptions denies that, if the writers are going to be able to connect with the audience.

The same as those bards and storytellers in the square, tavern or campfire.  Their stories are entertaining, but they are also passing along and reenforcing the mores and other shared fundamental understandings of their society.

So, where shall we look for the future in SF?  Will we look back to the imitators of Zane Grey and say "this was their peak," or will we look forward, and view Dr. Morbius cast in the role as Propspero?

8 comments:

Cynthia Wood said...

I fall firmly in the second camp as well - if only for the reason that I have yet to read several stories from the same author, and not be able to figure out some fundamental things about how that individual thinks the universe works. Not necessarily political stance, or anything that overt (though sometimes that is evident too), but at the deepest reflexive level, how they think things just are - the unquestioned axioms about the functioning of the universe.

If an author didn't have established paradigms about how the universe functions - she couldn't function, let alone write. And those will show up in her writing; it can't help but do so.

Craig R. said...

I think that this is one of the huge issues I have with both Wright and Kratman - without massive and intrusive info-dumps there seems to be no way to get a grab on what they are trying to show in their world building.

And they would be completely at sea if they were challenged to build a story like LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." A story without plot, with only one individual character, and with presentation and resolution of the story's main tension.

And she makes the writing seem so effortless, so inevitable. With prose that, like poetry, can command parallels and exposition on so many simultaneous levels.

Now, the author has said that the use of the female pronoun as the default was something she chose from the start, not open for negotiation, and Orbit wasn't initially very happy, but agreed.

As I said, the decision *may* have been political, but there is no reason that it *had* to be.

Kate Orman said...

"What if...?" stories are always going to be at least a little political, because they portray our world with some change made to it, for better or for worse. It's doubly true for stories which change one part of the status quo without changing another part of it. "Caves of Steel" (one of my favourites) is set both in the detailed future of the overpopulated Earth and in the US in the early fifties - so it includes both intentional politics (the warning about overpopulation) and unintentional politics (the 50s nuclear family will persist). Or, for a less sophisticated example: "The Jetsons"!

Brian said...

In the context of the Hugo nominations, I would find the argument from the anti-message-fiction faction more persuasive if the nominees they put forward didn't themselves have overt and heavy-handed messages. Either they're disingenuously using "message fiction" to mean only those with left-leaning politics, or else they're blind to the politics in their own nominees. Having now read the Hugo nominated works by Kratman and Wright, though, I find the latter a bit hard to believe.

Craig R. said...

(I should read my own space more frequently)

I'm not a literary critic. It's been 30 years since I did any reviews (doing book reviews for pay means you have to both start to read, AND FINISH books - After throwing some concoction of Andrea Dworkin's against the wall about 4 times only meant I had pick it up off the floor each time, and then keep it to hand as I wrote the review. And "AAARRRGGHHH! INCOHATE RAGE! GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD!" is considered neither complete or impartial. And, yes, I did savage the writing, both in style and substance. But, as in Butcher's "wizard's sight," what has been seen cannot be unseen.

You cannot write something that does not have subtext. Cannot be done.

In the case of the Puppy-noms, I really don't think they were actually counting on getting on the ballot, so it didn't really matter what they put up.

They didn't think it would ever face close scrutiny. As several people have noted out on File770, the absolute worst outcome for these writers is that people are actually reading the submissions, and taking the pups at their word that this is the best they have to offer. And it ain't pretty. The "quality" of these works, accompanied by the rhetoric and flounces they have shown are not going to be held in wide regard in either convention fandom or publisher's/editorial suites.

Craig R. said...

in re "changing one thing," Ancillary actually changed two things, the abolition of gender roles, and the use of the feminine for default nongenerative pronoun. And showed that if the gender roles are no longer preferential (matriarchy/patriarchy) the pronoun really *doesn't* matter

Lee Billings said...

The most interesting thing I found about the default-female pronoun choice was that my own brain followed along with it; lacking specific callouts for characters being either male or female, my mental depictions of the characters also went default-female. I tend to visualize what I'm reading, as if there was a movie scrolling along in my head, and with Leckie's work that meant that I was mentally watching a movie with an almost-entirely-female cast. I found this to be both interesting and cool, and a very different experience from reading most books (SF or otherwise). But if something similar was happening to the male-centric critics, that would explain a lot about the level of vitriol.

I should also note that the amount and style of criticism leveled at this one single authorial choice absolutely gives the lie to the frequently-asserted claim that male-default pronouns are automatically understood to include women as well. Women have been saying for decades that this isn't true, but it took one person actually making the experiment to prove it.

Craig R. said...

Lee -
I always find these kinds of experiments fun, and a little unsettling, as I try to bring the story into focus.

Another SF writer that has that kind of altered-presumptions base is Melissa Scott. Granted, I haven't read much of her work in too long, but she used to write with the unstated presumption was that a character was not straight unless they were explicitly declared so.

She took this to another level in one of her novels (The Kindly Ones?) where the gender of the main viewpoint character is never explicitly established. She said that there were lots and lots of [people who claimed that she declared the gender of the character, but, when challenged, could never find the place (because it didn't exist)