Tripping Over Gender in Ancillary Justice

I’m just starting in on Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. And, for those of you who don’t know… the main character used to be a troop carrier. (Not exactly a spoiler. That’s the beginning of Chapter 2.) And as a troop carrier, she refers to everybody as “she.” Everybody. Male and female alike. Which does kinda make sense… after all, ships are pretty much referred to as she. (Although I’m not sure how that works with a ship with a male name. You know… the Jeremiah O’Brien… she…)

A fairly good chunk of the first chapter is her–the troop carrier–debating whether people are male or female, and considering the implications of guessing wrong. (Her first language does not mark gender.) And how, exactly does a troop carrier figure out if humans are male or female? Yeah. Not easy.

And she spends a lot of time referring to the wounded (male) soldier she finds as “she.”

Let’s be quite honest, and say that I like her “remembering life as a troop carrier” voice a lot better at this point. It’s easier.

But that’s not really the point.

I could play with pronouns a long time before I got bored, but in some weird way–maybe because you’re just dropped into the middle of it–it’s a little confusing at this point in this book.

The change to pronouns that I’d make? Well, shoot. There are just so many options.

I could actually see one set of pronouns for people the speaker is sexually interested in, or whose gender makes a difference in some way. (Your surrogate is she, for instance.)

And a different set–or for that matter a different pronoun, singular–for people where gender does not matter to the speaker.

A lot of clarity in relationships, if your boyfriend is he, but your English teacher (technically male) or your gymnastics coach (technically female) are both just “os”–people whose gender is none of your business. And that guy you’re just not interested in? Os, os, os…

Clearly, there’d be a level of formality involved… That “os” is vous, and “he” is tu.

But I could see teenagers stressing out over whether their love interest would freak out over gendered address, or parents figuring out something was wrong, when they switch back to non-gendered.

Obviously, these are not real-world examples, or at least, they are not the current issue with real world pronoun issues. They both have more to do with the way the speaker perceives the other person’s gender (and its impact on their life) than with how the person they’re talking about wants to be perceived.

Which is, of course, also a marker of the society’s values. Who gets to choose? Who decides whether that guy is tu or vous? (I believe the story I heard in high school was that the girl is the person who can informalize the relationship, and as a lazy person, I always choose formal, because I can keep the verbs the same. Also, you get a higher quality of trouble by choosing a greater social distance.)

I might play with that in a short story, sometime.