Both The Mirror Empire (Kameron Hurley) and Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie) have been receiving critical acclaim for their handling of gender. Aside from the fact that I wanted to read both books because they were being favourably reviewed for other reasons, I was particularly interested in their gender implications, because science fiction and fantasy have long been places where people push at the margins of how we conceive of and talk about gender. While many readers sneer and dismiss them as ‘genre fiction,’ the fact is that when literary fiction lags far behind, SFF has been ahead of the curve for decades.
Ultimately, though, I was actually really disappointed with the way gender was dealt with in both, which honestly surprised me, given how highly many people spoke of them. It may be that my expectations were too high, and they wouldn’t have satisfied me no matter how well gender was handled — I definitely do not discount that possibility. It’s also conceivable, though, that the handling of gender in both of these texts wasn’t as good as it could have been, but people were so excited by any form of nonnormative approaches to gender that they perhaps gave it a little too much credit. I say this not by way of invalidating the experiences of those who really enjoyed the books and their treatment of gender, but to contextualise my own approach to it and why I was left underwhelmed. I would also note that I really loved Ancillary Justice overall and do plan to read Ancillary Sword, though I felt more cool about The Mirror Empire and probably won’t be picking up future books in the series.
So, gender. In Ancillary Justice, the narrator refers to everyone by default with female pronouns, reflecting social and cultural norms, and struggles with male pronouns when traveling to other regions — our narrator has issues like feeling embarrassed and being shamed for getting pronouns wrong, for example, or struggling to conceive of how gender is expressed in other cultures. This sounds right up my alley, right? Except that it’s not, really. Because the way gender was actually dealt with made me deeply uncomfortable.
For starters, the fundamental view of gender was still binaristic. When our narrator plunged into a wider sea of pronouns, they were still male and female. Furthermore, the text was extremely gender essentialist, and gender essentialist — the way the character distinguished between genders, and even commented on gender in the context of her own society, had a lot to do with genitals, and which ones other characters had. When genitals weren’t discernible, our main character fell back on other phenotypical characteristics. While cultural and personal expression of gender played a role, it seemed overshadowed at times by the need to reduce people to their genitals, which made me uncomfortable — I had hoped that in a text where radical challenges to gender norms were being made, we could decouple gender and genitals. I have now said ‘genitals’ so many times that the word appears to have lost all meaning. The irony of this is not lost on me.
I saw the same problem in The Mirror Empire, which actually has several complex gender systems within its multiple cultures. That in and of itself was exciting, and I wanted to be intrigued and delighted by the fact that Hurley wanted to explore gender as an aspect of society. However, the book seemed at times to fall into the ‘gender is a social construct’ trap often used to erase very real-world gendered experiences, and it, too, was genital essentialist at its heart, with ‘biological sex,’ in the words of one reviewer, still underlying the gender systems discussed in the text. There were other issues with the text, such as the gender flipping that many people delighted in which only made me comfortable — I fail to see how reversing oppressive and hateful behaviour is somehow redeeming, and while I understand that it was not done uncritically, it still left a bad taste in my mouth, and one that looped back to gender essentialism, suggesting that relations between people of different genders would always be marked by social, political, and power disparities in a way that I really didn’t like.
Gender is complicated, and I don’t want to suppress or condemn texts that attempt to experiment with it a bit, because it’s impossible to get it right on the first try (I certainly wouldn’t pretend that I don’t trip sometimes, because I do). But it’s also, by the same token, important to interrogate such texts and explore how and when, and why, they may have stumbled when it comes to gender; because that’s the only way we learn, as readers, reviewers, and writers. While I may be a minority when it comes to my troubled interpretation of gender in both of these texts, that doesn’t necessarily mean I am wrong; I just have a different take, and one that is important to discuss, because readers matter, and gender matters, and pretending that a text is perfect does no one any favours.
I know that I am not the only one to express misgivings and doubt about some of the ways in which gender is explored in these texts, but I feel like a bit of a minority, and, to be honest, a bit nervous about sticking my neck out in the face of such an overwhelmingly positive reception. It can be difficult to go against the stream and challenge a book that’s been so highly acclaimed (and Ancillary Justice in particular deserves that acclaim, because it’s an excellent book with a lot of deconstructed social norms and fascinating explorations of identity). Yet, I feel like I’m failing myself and other readers if I suppress my opinions on the grounds that they might not align with those of the majority. Where’s the justice there, to the text or to myself?