Looking at Gender Tensions in SF

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been reading. I finished Octavia Butler’s trilogy (Xenogenesis), as well as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and James Tiptree Jr.’s The Women Men Don’t See. I’ve come up with a few preliminary observations on these readings.

In Women on the Edge of Time, a woman (Connie Ramos) visits a future utopian society. In this society, the people use the ungendered “per” and “person” as pronouns. However, these pronouns stand in contrast with the pronouns that the narrator and Connie give the people—which give way to a confusing flip-flop between gendered and ungendered perspectives. In addition, Connie repeatedly misgenders the people in the utopian society, switching back and forth between traditionally feminine and masculine descriptors. In this society, even biology isn’t an indicator: a male (male in Connie’s perspective) can have breasts and nurse children; the word “mother” no longer refers to the female who birthed a child, but to the three people who raise the child. There is a tension between the narrator/Connie’s perceptions of the people in this future society and the people’s own perceptions of themselves. I’m especially looking at comparing the gender tensions in different science fiction books.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, people are androgynous, but turn male or female once a month to mate. The gender to which each turns depends on the mate (the two mates always form a heterosexual couple). However, Le Guin uses “he” to describe the people in their androgynous state. In a later interview, Le Guin expresses regret at this choice; when she wrote the book, she figured that her readers would interpret “he” as a gender-neutral choice. The combination of the pervasive “he” and the rigid heterosexuality of the society seem to undermine Le Guin’s attempt to create an androgynous society free of gender bias. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice takes the opposite route, using “she” to describe every character, regardless of gender. There is tension between the use of “she” and the traditionally male occupations of most of the characters.

I’ve also added two books to my reading list: Anne Garréta’s Sphinx and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Sphinx is a love story between two characters, both of ambiguous gender. Garréta is a member of the Oulipo, a loosely-connected group of French writers that impose linguistic constraints on their writing. Sphinx isn’t a science fiction (or speculative fiction) book, but I’m interested in the ways Anne Garréta (and her translator, Emma Ramadan) tell a story without using gender markers (particularly pronouns). A lot of the science fiction books I’ve been reading explore “neutral” or “third” genders and sexes, from sexually “neuter” children to completely different adult genders. Some of the books make up pronouns for the different genders and sexes, and others default to “he” (The Left Hand of Darkness), “she” (Ancillary Justice), or “it” (the Xenogenesis trilogy). Garréta uses a completely different approach, and I’m interested to compare it to the approaches I’ve come across thus far. The Argonauts is a memoir that documents the author’s relationship with a gender-fluid artist. I’m hoping this can add to my research yet another perspective about literary, linguistic, and semantic approaches to gender.