A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away called the 1970s, there was a bad-ass princess who wielded a mean blaster … and was also, bizarrely, just about the only woman in the entire Star Wars universe. But since then, there’s been progress. Female action heroes like Rey and Jyn Erso have helmed the last few films in the franchise. Television shows like Westworld and films like Ex Machina explicitly criticize the exploitation of women, and (in Westworld especially) of women of color. Next year’s edgy sci-fi event film, Annihilation, based on a Jeff Vandermeer novel, stars Natalie Portman as one of four women explorer/scientists venturing into the wild and foreboding Area X.
But while science-fiction film and television have arguably made strides in terms of female representation, they’ve carefully avoided the more adventurous storylines and approaches of feminist sci-fi in print. Meanwhile, science-fiction writers like Ann Leckie write about future societies in which gender is so different as to be virtually unrecognizable.
Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy is a sweeping space opera with a sprawling cast of characters, a ruthless space tyrant, sentient ships, mysterious alien races and a tortured, determined, daring superpowered protagonist. The first book in the series, Ancillary Justice, won the prestigious 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
“Much like a lot of books aren’t interested in whether somebody is left-handed—it’s just not relevant.”
The series is mostly set in a society, the Radch, where gender is irrelevant. Virtually every character in the book is referred to as “she,” and our tortured, ruthless protagonist, One Esk, is artificial intelligence implanted in a human shell. Her relationship to her own body is complicated, and doesn’t include much interest in sexual intercourse or, for that matter, her own genitals, whatever they may be. Occasionally she vaguely notices another character is male or female, though the terms are so indistinct it’s hard to tell what they mean to her, if anything.
“I know I’ve seen readers talk about going through and trying to figure out every character’s real gender,” Leckie said. “I know where that’s coming from, but it’s not something that I meant to be an issue in the book at all for any of the characters. It’s not something that the text is interested in. Much like a lot of books aren’t interested in whether somebody is left-handed—it’s just not relevant.”
Of course, gender is very relevant in our society. Even as state governments have tried to legislate which bathroom transgender people can use, and President Trump moved to ban trans troops from serving in the military—a policy that was blocked by a federal judge in October—young people are adopting more fluid views on gender identity. According to a study by research firm J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, more than a third of Gen Zers (ages 13-20) strongly agree that “gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to” and 56 percent know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns like “they,” “them” or “ze.”
Reading a book in which gender is totally irrelevant forces you, as a reader, to confront your own preconceptions. Do you see One Esk—who is super strong, super fast and generally super physically impressive—as a man? If so, why? When one plotline describes a case of sexual abuse, how do your assumptions affect your ideas about the genders of the abuser and the abused? For that matter, how do you even imagine someone as genderless? Do people in the Radch appear androgynous? Or do the characters simply not notice physical cues that we would see as male or female?
Leckie isn’t the first science fiction author to tackle such questions. There’s a long tradition of feminist sci-fi directly challenging our default assumptions about gender. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is set on a planet in which all humans are hermaphrodites. Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975) partially takes place on a planet of all women. Leckie says she read Samuel Delany’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), a novel which includes homosexual encounters with aliens. She also read Octavia Butler’s three-gender, tentacle sex, Afrofuturist Xenogenesis trilogy not too long before she began her Imperial Radch novels.
Most of these predecessors set out specifically to explore themes of feminism and gender. Leckie’s books take a different approach. Gender in the Radch may be different from our own time, but that’s not the focus of the series. Rather, the Radch’s approach to gender is part of the world-building background for an epic space adventure.
“I just wanted to blow some things up, but I also wanted to blow them up in a context that was interesting to me,” Leckie explained. The focus of the book is on the hairsbreadth escapes, the political machinations and the drama. The feminist gender exploration is a bonus. Similarly, in her latest novel, Provenance, from earlier this year, Leckie introduces a society with an entirely different three-gender system—a system that is never fully explained amidst a story of art fraud, murder and kidnapping.
Leckie’s use of radically different gender systems as a casual backdrop for her adventure stories underlines the gap between print and screen when it comes to thinking about feminism and gender. Filmmakers have expressed interest in turning her books into movies, but the Radch approach to gender presents immediate and obvious problems. How do you show a genderless society with actors who are likely to read as male or female to viewers?
“All of our cues are very visual, aren’t they?” Leckie said. “We sort people into gender based on hairstyle and clothing style and how people take up space and how they move. So, it would be difficult to do visually without triggering our cultural assumptions.”
Beyond that, Leckie points out, films require a huge amount of money to make. Blockbusters can be a blast, Leckie says, but after spending millions on a film, “you have a strong motivation to try to make it palatable to as many people as you possibly can. And doing explorations of gender is very disconcerting for a lot of folks.”
Science-fiction readers have had decades to adjust to a future of different genders. Science-fiction on screen is still jittery about the idea that women can be heroes at all, if the backlash to the 2016 all-female Ghostbusters is any indication.
Perhaps that will change in the coming years. Ava DuVernay is reportedly working on an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Dawn for television, and the success of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale might open the way for adaptations of other feminist classics—maybe even Leckie’s. In the meantime, though, science-fiction that challenges accepted notions of gender remains mostly confined to prose—which is a shame. Perhaps if science-fiction on screen had incorporated some of the ideas of feminist science-fiction earlier, we’d have slightly less resistance to making a future like Leckie’s, in which people of different genders and different gender expressions are treated equally.