Translating gender: Ancillary Justice in Five Languages
November 8, 2015 7:09 AM   Subscribe

In Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice (Orbit Books: 2013), the imperial Radch rules over much of human-inhabited space. Its culture – and its language – does not identify people on the basis of their gender: it is irrelevant to them. In the novel, written in English, Leckie represents this linguistic reality by using the female pronoun ‘she’ throughout, regardless of any information supplied about a Radchaai (and, often, a non-Radchaai) person’s perceived gender. This pronoun choice has two effects. Firstly, it successfully erases grammatical difference in the novel and makes moot the question of the characters’ genders. But secondly, it exists in a context of continuing discussions around the gendering of science fiction, the place of men and women and people of other genders within the genre, as characters in fiction and as professional/fans, and beyond the pages of the book it is profoundly political. It is a female pronoun. When translating Ancillary Justice into other languages, the relationship between those two effects is vital to the work.
posted by sciatrix (95 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
You think that's confusing? Try reading "Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand". (without reading the wiki entry first)
posted by selfnoise at 7:14 AM on November 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


fwiw, i just came across Ancillary Stapler :P (via)
posted by kliuless at 7:21 AM on November 8, 2015 [28 favorites]


I just finished the trilogy yesterday, and hope for another novel from Leckie soon.

I never particularly tried to decipher how I would have gendered the characters. Did I miss anything important that way?

kliuless: oh that is excellent!
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 7:24 AM on November 8, 2015


The first book is great, very Robert Heinlien. But I think the second two lost a lot of, something, unique perspective maybe, once the protagonist loses the ability to be a starship with 1000s of individual bodies. The gender thing is also unique, but it never really seemed to matter at all to the story, except maybe to reinforce the vibe of the Radchaai as the "Roman Empire in space", with everyone referred to the same as "Citizen" or some other rank, which isn't really new ground. I saw it as more of a meta-commentary on the state of the SciFi genre than critical world building. But I'm sure it does present translation problems.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:48 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Fascinating article. Haven't read the third book in the series yet (because I am busy preparing for a war 450 years in the future) but what I liked most about the pronoun issue was how it kept part of my brain busy chewing on that while the rest of it was working on plot. It's true that it didn't really affect the story at all, but the gimmick made the book much more absorbing to me than it would have been otherwise.

I am definitely glad I'm not trying to translate this one. Tough order!
posted by asperity at 7:51 AM on November 8, 2015


i preferred the second book, in many ways (although it wasn't as much of a page-tuner, and could have been shorter), because the lack of action gave more room to explore a whole pile of different ways that relationships work without gender. for examples: sexual abuse without gender; inheritance and disownment without gender; the strange (to me at least) relationship between breq and seivarden; the scene near the end where breq wants to curl up asleep with everyone.

(it's not just gender; there's also questions of power and hierarchy, particularly in relation to privacy and privileged knowledge).
posted by andrewcooke at 8:06 AM on November 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


The gender thing seemed silly, but the most annoying thing about the trilogy lay in the selection of names. Every time I encountered Anaander Mianaai or Seivarden Vendaai or Basnaaid Elming I would pause and silently experiment with different pronunciations -- unfortunately, never coming to any conclusion.
posted by fredludd at 8:08 AM on November 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


The first book is great, very Robert Heinlien. But I think the second two lost a lot of, something, unique perspective maybe, once the protagonist loses the ability to be a starship with 1000s of individual bodies.

...now my curiosity is piqued
posted by clockzero at 8:12 AM on November 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I read the first book when it came out, and have the second sitting on my shelf calling my name. I forgot most the characters and plot of the first book, which is why I am hesitant to start reading the story again.
posted by rebent at 8:15 AM on November 8, 2015


I read Ancillary Justice in English, and kept thinking how much it will lose in translation into Finnish (my mother tongue), which has gender neutral pronouns. Which itself can be interesting - I know there has been at least one book written in Finnish where you never find out anybody's gender. But still, gender neutral is different from generic feminine, which I got a kick out of.

Translations into Finnish are awkward sometimes; the gender of a character often needs to be pointed out in a bit of a clunky manner ("said the woman"), unless the translator is confident that e.g. their appearance or name is already a giveaway.

Which led to the following hilarity when I was reading Harry Potter to my kids years ago: We were nearing the end of the first book, where Severus Snape comes walking down a corridor with someone else (Filch?), and they were referred to as "two men". And both my kids sat up in shock and shouted: SNAPE IS A GUY????

And I had even done my best Alan Rickman with his voice!

A bit less spectacularly, it also took my eldest till finally watching the movie last year to realize that Griphook had been male all along, too.
posted by sively at 8:15 AM on November 8, 2015 [57 favorites]


The weird thing is that for all the fuss it's very, very old school SF, with a Heinlein comparison very apt. A great read though.
posted by Artw at 8:17 AM on November 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


(For those that didn't catch the fuss it generally went like this)
posted by Artw at 8:22 AM on November 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


I forgot most the characters and plot of the first book

I read the first two back to back, and if I remember correctly there's plenty of re-introduction to any characters and problems that carry over from the first book (and the plot's mostly new, in a new place.) I wouldn't think you'd need to do a re-read unless you're otherwise inclined to do so.
posted by asperity at 8:23 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Leckie represents this linguistic reality by using the female pronoun ‘she’ throughout

It's a bit more complicated than that, isn't it? Yes, the Radchaai attach no importance to gender and have an ungendered language; but the story is narrated by a zombie android former ship (cut me some slack on this) who has trouble identifying people's sex/gender, and tends to default to 'she'. We're given clues that she is wrong quite often, eg about Seivarden. On some worlds it matters.

I thought it was cleverly done but imo the first book is best.

Slightly puzzled to hear that apparently there are modern languages with no titles for female military officers? How is that possible?
posted by Segundus at 8:26 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


the Radchaai attach no importance to gender and have an ungendered language

Though sone of the roman notions of patronage could arguably substitute.
posted by Artw at 8:31 AM on November 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Fredludd, The (very good) audiobooks are very helpful with the pronunciation of the characters' names.
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 8:39 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The weird thing is that for all the fuss it's very, very old school SF, with a Heinlein comparison very apt. A great read though.

The Heinlein comparison is apt, mixed with Banks. How would a militarized, expansionist Culture enforce their worldview on others?

The Heinlein comparison also proves that the sad puppies' call for a return to old-school space opera sci-fi was never true. Here was the best space opera of the 21st century, and they hated it because everyone was a "she."
posted by thecjm at 8:40 AM on November 8, 2015 [29 favorites]


Well, that and the hate on they have for Scalzi, who is Heinlein as fuck.
posted by Artw at 8:43 AM on November 8, 2015 [10 favorites]


Slightly puzzled to hear that apparently there are modern languages with no titles for female military officers? How is that possible?

Sounds like an interesting intersection between no longer wanting to gender job titles, and not having allowed women into the military until recently. You could argue English does the same. We don't have words like "sergeantess."

The books actually do the same. I'm reading the third book now, and they still us "Sir" to address a superior officer.
posted by thecjm at 8:45 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Read only the first book but liked it. I didn't think the gender thing was central--it was noticeable, but a bit beside the main themes. Like Artw I was mostly struck by how traditional SF it was. There was some sad puppy complaining about how you want a book about a spaceship and you get a book about race relations--well, this was very definitely a book about a spaceship.

Slightly puzzled to hear that apparently there are modern languages with no titles for female military officers? How is that possible?

I think they just meant that titles were strongly gendered in all cases (like actor/actress and waiter/waitress, you "expect" major/majoress). Only with female military titles it sounds weird because those words don't exist . . . I think they implied that you just use male military titles normally in Bulgarian speech, but the default male is of course at odds with the rest of the gendering.
posted by mark k at 8:46 AM on November 8, 2015


If somehow you're reading this and have no idea what the sad puppies are there's a excellent summary here.
posted by Artw at 8:56 AM on November 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


If somehow you're reading this and have no idea what the sad puppies are
you should consider yourself extremely lucky.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:21 AM on November 8, 2015 [25 favorites]


The Heinlein comparison also proves that the sad puppies' call for a return to old-school space opera sci-fi was never true. Here was the best space opera of the 21st century, and they hated it because everyone was a "she."

not to necessarily diminish your point, but the characters in the books spend a lot of time processing their own emotions and the emotions of others, especially the main character as it's part of their nature. while thematically it's a space opera, the books are really about the many forms of love. which I imagine could make a certain kind of sci fi reader nervous...
posted by ennui.bz at 9:22 AM on November 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


What I really want to know is, how are they going to translate this into a movie?
posted by Troupe of trained rats at 9:23 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


You're saying Heinlein didn't have time enough for love?
posted by Artw at 9:24 AM on November 8, 2015 [21 favorites]


What I really want to know is, how are they going to translate this into a movie?

by making all the characters CGI composites of Tilda Swinton...
posted by ennui.bz at 9:26 AM on November 8, 2015 [19 favorites]


Or that the the puppies can't deal with any kind of harsh mistress.
posted by mfu at 9:28 AM on November 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


You're saying Heinlein didn't have time enough for love?

the first novel reads a lot like a queer "coming out" story where the main character struggles to find a name for her trauma ridden feelings... not sure Heinlein would be into that.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:30 AM on November 8, 2015


Lalalalalalalala......I can't hear you.....I just started reading Ancillary Justice.

*bookmarks thread for later*
posted by Fizz at 9:39 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


FWIW, my book club read Justice awhile back. One of the bits I remember was that there was a pretty strong divide between the people who kept trying to gender the characters and the people who didn't.

the first novel reads a lot like a queer "coming out" story

I suppose that's one take on it. But feeling alien and of lower status isn't remotely unique to being queer, and that theme can be read in any number of different contexts. (FWIW, I'm sick of using Heinlein for everything, and I have no desire to re-read the book, but I remember Friday invoking a few of the same themes.)
posted by steady-state strawberry at 9:45 AM on November 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


>You're saying Heinlein didn't have time enough for love?

that's difficult to do when you're a stranger in a strange land
posted by AGameOfMoans at 9:47 AM on November 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


steady-state, how do they gender characters other than Breq, Sevadrin, and possibly the Lord od Radch? There's nothing to indicate the genders of, say, lt Awn or Klar Five.

Do they expend mental energy trying to guess based on things like Five's desire for her captain to have impressive dishes?
posted by sotonohito at 9:57 AM on November 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ursula Le Guin, in the 1979 version of "Winter's King" published in her short story anthology The Wind's Twelve Quarters, uses the same grammatical technique. The people of Gethen (the planet where the story is set) are mostly androgynous, becoming either male or female only during estrous and alternating between male and female across their lifetimes. The Gethenians in this edition of the story are always referred to as "she".

Le Guin wrote several other stories set on Gethen, most famously the excellent novel The Left Hand of Darkness (which holds up well even today) all of which use "he" as the universal pronoun for Gethenians. It is interesting to me to compare the two choices in terms of how they impact me as a reader.

Despite being two stories written in the same year (1969) by the same author and in the same setting (and despite the fact that "Winter's King" was originally written with "he" when it was published in Orbit) they carry noticeably different flavors for me when I read them. Not dramatically different, as Le Guin is excellent at portraying characters of whatever gender (so that Gethenians mostly come off to me as androgynous and asexual, as Le Guin intended) but different enough so that I notice.

The stories are otherwise so similar that I, the reader, am forced to conclude that I am experiencing the effects of the biases, preconceptions, and subconscious connotations that I carry inside myself regarding male and female genders. Confronting, or at least acknowledging, those biases becomes unavoidable. It is a very mind-opening experience for me and one that I highly recommend to anyone. They are both really excellent, timeless stories in their own rights with much to recommend them, but reading them in tandem is particularly worthwhile for anyone who is interested in exploring their own internal biases and dissonances. In an incremental way, I think I am better off because of it.

Anyway, now I'm off to read Ancillary Justice. I'm about two chapters in (picked up a copy after reading that amusing "Ancillary Stapler" parody/homage and deciding that I need to see what the book is really about) and so far I am really digging it. Thanks a lot! I have been dying for some new SF to read, but my unreasonable pickiness about things like gender portrayals makes it hard for me to find new stuff. This looks like the real deal so far.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:03 AM on November 8, 2015 [17 favorites]


I thought Ancillary Justice was Heinleinesque more that it began as a character study then part way exploded into a giant galactic adventure. The pronoun (as an old school SF reader) peaked my curiosity about where it was going but somewhat disappointed when when it was less than an essential key to the central plot, interesting but could have been much more something.
posted by sammyo at 10:23 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Confronting, or at least acknowledging, those biases becomes unavoidable. It is a very mind-opening experience for me and one that I highly recommend to anyone.

I will try reading the two LeGuins. I had very similar feelings to yours just from reading Ancillary Justice, which I thought was a very cool book, deserving of awards. It had many strong points in addition to the pronoun oddity. For me the dominance of the female pronoun prompted an intriguing mental shift. I felt a bit like I was holding my head tilted at a 15 degree angle off of vertical. The "she" pronoun prompted me to visualize every major and minor character that popped up as female, at least at first. Sometimes I reminded myself that I might be wrong, but it was cool to picture women in so many roles.
posted by puddledork at 10:25 AM on November 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


To build on what you just said puddledork (the "15 degrees off vertical" metaphor rings true for me) it also for me serves as a reminder that normally, when a character has been introduced in a story but there is not yet any information about them, I tend to subconsciously label that character as provisionally male pending contradictory evidence. There is absolutely no reason for me to do this beyond ingrained gender bias, and yet it is a deeply-rooted habit and one that I may perhaps never shake off fully despite knowing intellectually that such biases perpetuate real-world discrimination in very real ways.

It is humbling, and a little uncomfortable, and reminds me to check my biases, to open my mind, and to have empathy both for those who suffer under the patriarchy and for those who unknowingly perpetuate it. We are all of us in both camps, even as we struggle to free ourselves and our minds. Even when we know better, our thoughts and actions are mediated by our culture, even by the parts of that culture which we explicitly reject. It's troubling, but also human, and reinforces the principle of perpetual self-improvement through experience and introspection.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:44 AM on November 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


I love the series. Any time a book has a love triangle between a space ship, a space ship in a human body who used to have thousands and now has only one, and a recovering drug addict whose sex is unclear, you have my attention.

I read the whole trilogy, and count me among those who never bothered to follow the breadcrumb trails to the main characters sexes. I didn't care. The gendered language is just one of many small interesting world building choices, and while I understand why it gets attention, it's really only icing on the cake of an excellent story about who and what counts as a person. Loved it all.
posted by Rinku at 10:46 AM on November 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


>> You think that's confusing? Try reading "Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand". (without reading the wiki entry first)

That's what I did wrong....
posted by cleroy at 10:50 AM on November 8, 2015


Sevadrin is explicitly gendered, in her internal monologue Breq notes that like all Radchii she knows perfectly well the difference between men and women and notes that she knows Sevadrin is male.

Breq herself is identified as female, "little girl", by barbarians who speak a language that includes gender in pronouns.

And that's it. One thing that makes me worried about the possible TV series is that by having actors who will have sexes, it inevitably will paint the affair between Awn and Awer in a different light depending on whether they are male/male, male/female, or female/female. To the Radchii it doesn't matter or change anything, to a us it does.
posted by sotonohito at 11:12 AM on November 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Very interesting article, and on reflection, it seems that the particular stylistic choice made in the Ancillary series with regard to gender might only work fully in English. We have the rarity of a pretty-much-vestigal grammatical gender: outside of pronouns, gender isn't really a concept appearing in English grammar, and that's in between the two far more common systems --- most languages either have no gender or a gender pretty heavily intermingled with noun inflection (and there are fun oddballs like Bantu languages, which have quite rich gender systems which do not map even remotely onto sex).

The thing about languages with pervasive sex-linked gender, which both the German and the Bulgarian translators seem to have struggled with, is that not only do nouns having gender mean that every professional noun has two variants, but that as a general rule the feminine form is the marked one, which makes using the feminine a rather explicitly attention-getting device (it's the old "men are people, women are women" issue woven into the fabric of a language). English has this too in the professions which do have gender ("actress" as a marked form of "actor", and so forth), but it's a far less pervasive issue which would only attach to a few roles (and fewer all the time: nobody is called an "aviatrix" or "Jewess" any more). So while we can just switch all the pronouns to "she" and have a comparatively unobtrusive statement about gender, pretty much every other language ends up, in the course of making that stylistic statement, having to make it a lot louder one way or another.
posted by jackbishop at 11:18 AM on November 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


Count me among those who love the series and is even hoping that there will be more adventures with Breq. It's a big empire out there, after all.

I reread the first two before tackling the the third just to remember everything. Totally worth it.

Something that I think might not be clear is that it isn't just that the Radchaai language uses she as the default pronoun, it's that they regard the differences between the sexes as meaningless.

(Slight spoiler here). In Ancillary Sword, this is made explicit by some of the Radchaai characters condescendingly talking about a society that made "a division between people with penises and people without." I took it to mean they regarded those differences as we might regard, as a silly example, having an innie or outie belly button. Sort of - yes, there is a difference, but why would anyone care or base anything on it?
posted by AMyNameIs at 11:33 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


What I really want to know is, how are they going to translate this into a movie?

It wouldn't be that hard, I don't think, except that obviously pretty much everyone would end up being visibly one sex or the other. There's a bit in AJ when they finally arrive back in Radchaai space and go out into a crowd and describes what Rachaai genderlessness means -- yes, some people have breasts and others don't and some have flared hips and others don't, so it's not hard to tell physical sex for most people, but all the social signals of gender are basically randomly scattered. Some people wear cosmetics and others don't, some people wear their hair long and others short in any range of styles, some people wear trousers and others wear skirts, and so on, but these aren't correlated with penises. And everyone's body language is a mix of what would get coded feminine and masculine in our societies.

Breq herself is identified as female, "little girl", by barbarians who speak a language that includes gender in pronouns.

But just to note, this doesn't 100% mean that Breq is female. It means she presents as female to those particular barbarians, but we don't know whether that's because she is busty/hippy/otherwise obviously physically female or whether it just means that her hair is long or that she wore clothes they mark as feminine and her physique doesn't clearly mark her as male.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:38 AM on November 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


The Ancillary series is very good, but it does go downhill a bit after the first book. I'm in the midst of reading the third one and it's really tiresome to have each go through the backstory of large cast of characters again. The first book was very good because it had Breq as the main focus. Dealing with the various clans of the tea pickers downwell and the like gets tedious.

Using the pronoun she for everyone was confusing with no real payoff. If gender doesn't matter, then explicitly choosing a particular gender associated with a specific gender for everyone doesn't really get that point across.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:47 AM on November 8, 2015


I read the novel in English and way afterwards noped out of the Spanish translation as soon as I saw that the title was "Justicia Auxiliar" and the translation of the text was as clunky as the title; but I've taken a quick look to recheck and everything seems to be defaulting to feminine, yes.
posted by sukeban at 11:48 AM on November 8, 2015


Seivarden and Breq were the only characters who were explicitly male and female. Even though other characters are gendered in other non-Radchaai languages, I think it's not safe to assume that those languages follow English gender rules. For example, one character refers to Anaander Mianaai as "he," but by that point the reader realizes that the character say this is from a culture where the powerful are gendered masculine—not the same thing as being male.

The only one I would bet on would be the Delsig that the monotheistic Valaskaay speak. As I recall the Valskaay faith is supposed to be one of the major monotheistic religions on our Earth. And even then if I were to bet, the odds are at best 50/50.

Also: name pronunciation guide, spoilers for all three novels.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:52 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The second two books in the trilogy are definitely different than the first. I personally loved all of them, but it's totally plausible to me that one might not.

Somewhere along the line Ann Leckie mentioned she had re-read the entirety of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin series between writing the first book and writing the second, which I think describes some of the differences in tone/plot. The second two books definitely have a pronounced naval warfare-imperial diplomacy-shipboard politics component that's not really a part of the first one until maybe the very end.
posted by Tesseractive at 12:15 PM on November 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I consider Ancillary Justice bit so much a classic space opera, as a commentary on space opera. It has the Galactic Empire, but then looks at it from a post-modern perspective where we consider the exploitation and inequality inherent in empire- including the justification of "If we don't have an empire, someone well make us part of their empire".

The fact that it doesn't look at militarism (along with expansionism, imperialism, and other isms) as an unalloyed good is probably another reason why the Puppies hate the series.
posted by happyroach at 12:17 PM on November 8, 2015


Apparently one of the short stories also states Breq is female. She and Seiv are the only two major characters where this is definitely known, I think.
posted by jeather at 12:17 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Count me among those who love the series and is even hoping that there will be more adventures with Breq. It's a big empire out there, after all.

Wikipedia says she has two more novels contracted: one set in the Radch (though no word if it will be about Breq), and one unrelated.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:38 PM on November 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Pretty sure Anaander Mianaai was referenced as a female, but it's possible that person adopts varies as needed.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:39 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


If gender doesn't matter, then explicitly choosing a particular gender associated with a specific gender for everyone doesn't really get that point across.

Same arguments are used for why including black/gay/trans/female/disabled characters in tv/movies/Sesame Street/politics/CEO suites is unnecessary. They're bad arguments.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:51 PM on November 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


the first novel reads a lot like a queer "coming out" story

I suppose that's one take on it. But feeling alien and of lower status isn't remotely unique to being queer, and that theme can be read in any number of different contexts.


I meant the ship coming to terms with the emotions she felt towards her favorite officer and the consequences of those feelings...
posted by ennui.bz at 12:51 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Same arguments are used for why including black/gay/trans/female/disabled characters in tv/movies/Sesame Street/politics/CEO suites is unnecessary. They're bad arguments.

Including different types of people in fiction is great, adds a richer blend of characters.

Calling every character by a pronoun specific to a certain gender to illustrate that gender doesn't matter didn't add a similar richness for me. Your mileage may vary.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:15 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


My mileage may vary? Yep. People who are female, like me, don't always feel warmly included by a generic "he" pronoun. People who identify with that pronoun may not identify with my feelings.
posted by puddledork at 1:24 PM on November 8, 2015 [16 favorites]


@ sotonohito: Do they expend mental energy trying to guess based on things like Five's desire for her captain to have impressive dishes?

Yes, they (plural they; these were several people) expended mental energy. I don't think most admitted to gendering people in the absence of social cues, but they definitely seemed annoyed by the absence of them. Anaander Mianaai wound up with a male pronoun (which is in the book at one point), but at least one person gendered Seivarden Vendaai as female (despite being explicitly labeled as male in the book), so I think (as much as they didn't want to admit it) they did rely on social cues.

There was a pretty strong correlation between the people who tried to gender every character and the people who insisted the use of the "she" pronoun didn't matter, which I found kind of amusing.

FWIW, the only character I wound up trying to gender was the little girl in Justice. It turns out my stereotypes for girls and boys are very different.

@ ennui.bz: YMMV, I guess. If it speaks to you as a queer narrative, take it, but it's hard for me to read it that way.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 1:26 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


@ Brandon: Even if it doesn't make a difference in the way you view the characters (and I suppose for some people it doesn't), for me, it made a huge difference in the way that I saw the interactions between the characters. IIRC, there were one or two times when a character was crying in the presence of another character without real shame, which is something that women do a lot but I've never seen a man do (at least in mixed company?).

On the other hand -- and this stunned me when I realized it -- there were at least three or four times that Breq walked into fairly dangerous situations (early on when she gets the sled, staying in a room with a drug-addicted, hostile Seivarden) and never even considered the possibility of sexual violence.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 1:40 PM on November 8, 2015


I'm... finding this talk about Breq and Anaander Mianaai's genders confusing. They're both multibody AI's, right? I don't really understand how either Breq or AM could have a gender; their numerous bodies were of different sexes and IIRC neither exhibited any kind of gender identity at any point. Yes, Breq survived in a single body, which the barbarians seem to have gendered female. But to me her inner self always read as completely agender.

I've only read the first book, so if I'm unknowingly begging for plot spoilers, please show me mercy.
posted by sively at 1:56 PM on November 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


Steady-state Though that may not so much have been due to Breq being from Radch, as Breq being an anecllary and thus both physically enhancedv to the point where she is supremely confident in her own combat prowess and also as a ship just basically asexual so she doesn't really think about it even as a possibility. Sexual violence is, per Awn's conversation with the priest in the swamp, not at all uncommon for Radch soldiers to inflict on populations during an annexation.
posted by sotonohito at 2:02 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


On the other hand -- and this stunned me when I realized it -- there were at least three or four times that Breq walked into fairly dangerous situations (early on when she gets the sled, staying in a room with a drug-addicted, hostile Seivarden) and never even considered the possibility of sexual violence.

Sure, but Breq wasn't human, though the final form she was in was female. As an ancilliary, she had superior reflexes, strength and other things, as she constantly reminded. She literally had no reason to fear most other beings because she was physically superior in many ways.

As to the use of 'she' in reference to everyone, it was eye opening as male to have all the characters referenced in that way. But it was more a confirmation of things I already knew as opposed to something new.

As to the story itself, it felt clunky for reasons stated previous comments. Using a pronoun that was neither she or he to get across the point that gender didn't matter would have been more effective.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:04 PM on November 8, 2015


Sively, AM started as a normal human, or so if it's implied. And all of her bodies are referred to as clones. So in theory her bodies might all be the same sex. Our maybe not. The only real gender clue for AM was that the instance Breq meet at the end of Justice was described as singing in a baritone voice.

Brandon, but English doesn't have such a pronoun. Radchii does, it is stated several times that they don't really use feminine pronouns but that Radchii has a single non-gendered pronoun. For representing that in English there's a problem that Leckie solved by using our feminine form, and also feminine relationship terms such as daughter for all children and aunt for the siblings of one's parents and so on.

Leckie says that originally she used masculine terms, but that it didn't really convey much since so much in our language is a sausagefest anyway. How c would you have had her do it? Use an invented term like hir? Or gender all her characters explicitly which would kind of undermine a lot of what she was trying to do?
posted by sotonohito at 2:11 PM on November 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Brandon, but English doesn't have such a pronoun.

Well, it is fiction, so yeah I would have preferred that Leckie invent a pronoun, once that wasn't already used in English. That would have really been interesting as all gender assumptions in would have been throughout all the books. Because if the Radchii don't use gendered forms, then why is everyone referenced using one? Yadda, yadda...

That is my particular preference, not meant to imply there's only one correct to view what Leckie was doing.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:21 PM on November 8, 2015


I've only read the beginning part, but I found the gendered pronoun to be really effective and interesting.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:23 PM on November 8, 2015


Oh cool. How so, if you don't mind going into detail?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:46 PM on November 8, 2015


I think if it were a made-up science fiction pronoun, I would feel like "well, you know, that's space and they have their crazy space ways". It wouldn't bring home the weirdness (i.e. the weirdness of our gender expectations) as effectively as having a familiar thing with familiar associations be pointedly subverted. I've enjoyed stories with madeup pronouns, it's a thing I like. But I was pleasantly surprised with how the female pronoun changed the reading experience for me.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:55 PM on November 8, 2015 [15 favorites]


And I should say, following on from that -- this article was really interesting, thanks for posting it sciatrix.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:56 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Using a pronoun that was neither she or he to get across the point that gender didn't matter would have been more effective.

I disagree. Speaking as someone who grew up in a language with gender-neutral pronouns: the default assumption still tends to be male, unless the context is really coded female (eg. a nail salon). I really think the Finnish translation will lose something wonderful about these books. Everybody will be referred to as hän, but when we're talking about soldiers and spacefarers, most readers will sort of "tint" the characters male and wait for any contradictory evidence.

You don't have that when the narrative is using the feminine pronoun for everyone. As a reader, you're constantly reminded that this person can just as well be female - it really doesn't matter in this culture.
posted by sively at 2:58 PM on November 8, 2015 [15 favorites]


There is no mental concept for "neutral" even if there is a linguistic one, because we rarely or never meet people growing up who are not presenting as one of the binary genders. Even when you are presented with a being who is referred to as an "it" the chances are you are going to think "male" unless otherwise told. I mean, that's why you have regular cartoon characters with no specific gender markers, who are not even human, and female characters have to have bows and eyelashes. We assume maleness, whether it's told to us or not.

I think there is some resentment that Leckie's use of she/her is some kind of trick, because it is, but it's a trick that shows up the shortcomings in our language and concepts of gender. I had to struggle to assume anyone was male while reading her book. A neutral pronoun would not have had that effect on me. I think that's not only a neat writer trick, but a useful thing.
posted by emjaybee at 3:27 PM on November 8, 2015 [15 favorites]


Even when you are presented with a being who is referred to as an "it" the chances are you are going to think "male" unless otherwise told.

Using "it" to refer to people also doesn't really work in English, in my opinion, because it's not normally used for sentient beings. It would carry pejorative connotations of the being referred to as something less than human.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 3:33 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Besides, "it" is already used for ancillaries and ship or station AIs and it's a plot point that it shows they're not considered humans.
posted by sukeban at 3:58 PM on November 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


both my kids sat up in shock and shouted: SNAPE IS A GUY????

Not according to Wizard People, Dear Reader, which as far as I'm concerned has the final say on everything Harry Potter.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:04 PM on November 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't recall explicitly trying to gender anyone in the trilogy, but what ended up happening instead is that instead of thinking of everyone as either non-gendered or ambiguously gendered, I just subconsciously assumed everyone was a woman. It was just easier to take the "she" at face value instead of reminding myself "oh but that could also be a man and also it doesn't really matter." I kind of assume Leckie intended this as a counterpoint to the usual assumptions in sci-fi novels, but I'm not sure if I should be disappointed in myself for this since it is literally just the inversion of a bad assumption and perhaps I shouldn't be making such assumptions at all.
posted by chrominance at 4:07 PM on November 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


One point that Leckie explicitly notes about ancillary sexuality is that though ancillaries are slaved to the ship's AI core, they do have some mental autonomy and a large degree of bodily autonomy. Ships may be asexual, but ancillaries have sex with each other when their bodies need to do so. It's not really an important part of Breq's story, which is likely why it's only mentioned in passing.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:15 PM on November 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think CJ Cherryh's Chanur books did a great job of seamlessly importing explicitly political concerns into a pulp narrative by way of ragingly sexist space cats.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:08 PM on November 8, 2015



You think that's confusing? Try reading "Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand". (without reading the wiki entry first)

Heh. Not only did Wikipedia not exist yet, the internet didn't even exist yet, the first time I read Stars in My Pocket...
posted by aught at 7:12 PM on November 8, 2015


I read Ancillary Justice having carefully avoided all reviews. The gender thing didn't trip me up or seem particularly notable - I noted it, thought it was an interesting call back to The Left Hand of Darkness, and moved on. I think I vaguely pictured all the characters, including Seivarden, as women, which was nice but not a fundamental questioning of assumptions about language and gender. What struck me was the exploration of power, of the relations between the coloniser and the colonised (colonised in terms also of values and vision of the world, or soft power as the US often exercised it) and I was amazed that that wasn't what most reviewers wrote about. Maybe it's because I'm from a part of the world which has been the weaker half in a relationship of international power for a long time, and most reviewers are not.
posted by tavegyl at 7:16 PM on November 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


NOPE NOPE NOPE

#SeivardenIsFemale
#headcanon
posted by sixswitch at 7:28 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Huh? I didn't find "Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand" confusing at all. Delaney's a great-enough writer that even with pronoun usage similar to that in the "Ancillary" books, I always knew who was who and what their biology/species was. The wiki article would, I think, confuse new readers more than help them.

I enjoyed the "Ancillary" books but also I think the gender thing was not very prominent or important to the story; what Delany does with it (the feminine is universal and for strangers; the masculine is private and for intimates) was more interesting in part because it prompted me to really think about what default associations I attach to gendered entities and actions.

tl;dr - read both Delany and Leckie - both are well worth your time.
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:30 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm... finding this talk about Breq and Anaander Mianaai's genders confusing. They're both multibody AI's, right? I don't really understand how either Breq or AM could have a gender; their numerous bodies were of different sexes and IIRC neither exhibited any kind of gender identity at any point. Yes, Breq survived in a single body, which the barbarians seem to have gendered female. But to me her inner self always read as completely agender.

I think that's an important point. There's whatever physical sex the Ancillary that housed Breq may have been, but that was completely separate from whatever gender Breq the AI would be. And frankly, it makes sense that a ship AI would be agender. So there's a bit of weirdness about asking what gender Breq is.

But not at the level of weirdness frankly, of gendering AIs, especially gendering them as female; that really leads to some very sexist and creepy implications.
posted by happyroach at 8:26 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


the first novel reads a lot like a queer "coming out" story where the main character struggles to find a name for her trauma ridden feelings... not sure Heinlein would be into that.

I'm guessing you never read Friday or Time Enough for Love, then.
posted by gingerest at 9:02 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


happyroach

Cortana's mostly naked look in Halo 4 was extremely cringe inducing. I never played any other game in this series besides Halo 1 on my friend's console (which is one of the best SF games of all time, hands down) and lacking a console myself I've mostly been following the series from the trailers, her character gets significantly more sexualized in Halo 3, and then Halo 4. At the beginning of Halo 4, she appears in her sexiest form yet then tells John she's dying - he says he'll bring her home to be cured (there's no cure for rampancy) and she tells him, "Don't make a girl a promise you can't keep." At this point I was like, what the hell? When did she turn from a combat AI into a romantic lover?

Then in Halo 5 she's all business, fully clothed with armor / jacket.

I'm more willing to entertain some of the wilder theories given how deep most of the lore in Halo goes. Cortana's personality is modelled off Halsey who is essentially John's mom, so there's this whole thing about the mom trying to seduce her own son, and then the sudden break at the end of Halo 4 where she turns into the antagonist after she sacrifices most of her personality to save him and her new look reflects that.

I quite enjoyed Ann Leckie's book. I think it won every single SF award it could win that year!
posted by xdvesper at 10:49 PM on November 8, 2015


I consider Ancillary Justice bit so much a classic space opera, as a commentary on space opera. It has the Galactic Empire, but then looks at it from a post-modern perspective

Yes, the second and third books are explicitly concerned with colonialism and the ways in which empire exploits its subjects.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:18 PM on November 8, 2015


It's interesting to me to see so much discussion of the gender of Breq, Anaander, and Seivarden; yes, they're all assigned a gender at least once by various parties (mostly on the Nilters). Even leaving aside complexities of Breq and Anaander being multibodied (and Breq in particular being artificial in origin).

They're 'native' Raadchai. It's only explicitly stated that the language doesn't gender pronouns, but I at least got a strong vibe that the culture is agender. Not unaware of sexual dimorphism, of course, but not gendered in the way that our society is.

At which point ... yeah, the Nilters seem to read Breq and Seivarden as unambiguously gendered, according to their (the Nilters') system. But I don't think it then follows to say that those determinations are correct statements about people who didn't grow up within that system and have (presumably) never moved through that system except as an outsider.

(And I say this as a reader who did a lot of internal gendering [and sexing] of characters, in ways that I think match up really well with puddledork and Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The's comments. The '15 degree angle' metaphor hits the nail on the head, for me.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:53 PM on November 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Am I the only one who took the pronouns at face value and just assumed that the Radch was literally entirely female?

I mean, why not? They constructed a Dyson sphere: why wouldn't they be able to make the culture entirely female?

I actually took it as a subtle but barbed commentary on how men, despite our pig-headed insistence that we're essential, are actually completely unnecessary.

A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from feminism: women contain multitudes, and there's pretty much nothing men bring to the table that women can't supply on their own.

As the series indicates, there are peaceful and warlike women, there are manipulators and manipulated; any human trait imaginable exists in the Radch, and none of those traits require the male gender.

A culture that can build a Dyson sphere can synthesize anything they need.
posted by scrump at 12:48 AM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


rebent - I am hesitant to start reading the story again.

The second book is full of clunky, superfluous back story exposition for some reason I don't understand. There is also lots of hand holding through the ethics and morals of the Radchaai society like a Disney production or similar. There is no need to read the first book before the second one, indeed it might be a bad idea as the second one is a disappointment in many ways if you have read the first one.

The second book isn't a bad book, it just feels like a bit more time should have been spent on it.

Hannu Rajiemi managed a similar trick with The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince, the first book was a polished gem whereas the second feels less finished and jars with the concinnity of the first book.
posted by asok at 2:35 AM on November 9, 2015


Am I the only one who took the pronouns at face value and just assumed that the Radch was literally entirely female?

It was certainly mentally easier to just think that at times, than wonder about who's got what bits.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:35 AM on November 9, 2015


scrump, I didn't take it that way because it is explicitly mentioned that the Radchii have both sexes. It is Breq who identifies Seivarden as male and in her internal monologue notes that the Radchii aren't different sexually from other humans.

As you note, it'd certainly be possible to have a society with nothing but women, but that isn't how Leckie described the Radch.
posted by sotonohito at 7:21 AM on November 9, 2015


I must have missed something, then, because the only time I saw reference to the male gender was in the context of the Nilt, who were unreliable narrators in terms of gender.

I've read the books multiple times each, so whatever I'm missing, I'm missing repeatedly. Wouldn't be the first time.
posted by scrump at 7:58 AM on November 9, 2015


Well, it is fiction, so yeah I would have preferred that Leckie invent a pronoun, once that wasn't already used in English. That would have really been interesting as all gender assumptions in would have been throughout all the books.

I liked it the way it was, especially since how at least in English using only feminine words tweaks gender expectations in a way that using ve/ver/vis just doesn't.

But I might have liked it even more if she'd more or less randomly assigned gender to different relationships. So personal pronouns stay feminine, but all parents are mothers, all children are sons, and all siblings are brothers. So your brother became a mother and had a son, who may become a mother herself someday. And your brother's son is your niece, and you're her uncle. OTOH, my sense is that defaulting to feminine words for everything really tweaked the puppies more than a mixed scheme might have done, and that's a worthy goal in itself.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:59 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


@ asok: I've yet to read Mercy, but the second book fell flat to me. Like, there's a civil war going on, there's possibly going to be one (if not two) alien invasions -- and half the book literally is about the price of tea.

And you can justify on the basis of its exploration of the impact of colonialism and other kinds of oppression and all that stuff -- but the Puppy in me is saying that this just isn't nearly as interesting as the book I'd been promised I'd be reading.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 9:50 AM on November 9, 2015


Tea is very important.
posted by Artw at 9:58 AM on November 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


Impressions on the second book really differ a lot by perspective, it seems. Hearing it reduced to the price of tea is extremely jarring.

Scrump, I really like the default female pronoun, but I don't think she's suggesting anything about the necessity of sexes. Also, Sev remarks that Breq has trouble identifying genders, I believe.
posted by halifix at 10:07 AM on November 9, 2015


and half the book literally is about the price of tea.

That, and the value placed on tea sets. Plus, did you understand that Breq was not human and could move considerably faster than one?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:26 AM on November 9, 2015


Plus, did you understand that Breq was not human and could move considerably faster than one?

Than a tea set? I suspect that depends upon your throwing velocity....
posted by steady-state strawberry at 2:41 PM on November 9, 2015


She'd kill you just for throwing a set. But only after drinking from a bowl of tea.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:09 AM on November 10, 2015


Sigh...

A: If there’s one thing the two sides in the Hugo controversy agree on, it’s that the most important thing about Ancillary Justice is not the story itself but the way it used pronouns to obscure gender.
posted by Artw at 11:18 AM on November 14, 2015


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