Over at According To Hoyt today (linky), Sarah has quite a bit to say about the sterility of what the Social Justicy Glittery Hoo Haas call “proper” creative/artistic/literary pursuits. She’s right. More than that, she knows the emptiness of the kind of ideologies that have to lock people inside neatly labeled little boxes to “protect” them from the big bad world outside (hint: if merely being exposed to something else is enough to turn someone against your faith (or ideology or whatever the hell you want to call it), your thingummy belief whatsis sucks.
One of the side-effects of the sterility and mental walls is breathtaking ignorance from people who should – in theory at least (wonderful place, theory. Everything works the way it’s supposed to) – know what the freaking hell they’re talking about. And that in turn leads to the kind of nonsense that I, being a charter member of the Evil League of Evil (but not the Beautiful Evil Space Princess – that’s Sarah’s job) am obliged to poke fun at.
Exhibit howtheheckdoIknowIlostcountmonthsago: a book review column from the NYT. A little over halfway down the page you’ll find the review for the sequel to the Hugo winning Ancillary Justice (yes, yes, I know, but trust me I do have a point here. Remember what I said about breathtaking ignorance a paragraph back?). Now, the esteemed reviewer starts with the credentials of Ancillary Justice, then moves on to a truly impressive piece of ignorance, which I quote:
The central question is whether the story’s structural gimmick — the protagonist’s tendency to refer to all people as “she” regardless of actual gender or even humanity — is sufficiently mind-blowing as to merit all the accolades. It isn’t a gimmick, though; it’s a coup. Rather than seriously entertain the endless, if stupid, debate on whether women have a place in stories of the future, Leckie’s book does the literary equivalent of rolling its eyes and walking out of the room. Her refusal to waste energy on stupidity forces her audience to do the same: A few pages into the first novel, the reader gives up trying to guess each character’s actual gender, and just accepts that this will be a story full of interesting women doing awesome things.
Okay. First – if you have to say “It isn’t a gimmick”, it’s a gimmick. Second, this is only “mind-blowing” for a) English speakers who are also b) criminally ignorant of science fiction. Aside from the well-known efforts of Ursula Le Guin, I recall books from the Golden Age where there were species with sexes that completely defied human or earthly categorization. Of course, those were written by males, so they must not count.
Second, the grammatical gender one uses is a cultural thing. English has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Most English-speaking cultures consider it highly impolite to refer to people by the neuter gender: if you’re talking about a person, you’re supposed to use he or she. Not, under any circumstances, it. Heck, some people are uncomfortable referring to their pets with neuter pronouns (which, just in case anyone is thinking of saying so, has nothing to do with getting said pet neutered).
Third, picking one quasi-random grammatical gender and using only that is not by any stretch of imagination, a coup. I’ve seen frigging fan fiction – and crappy fan fiction at that – do a better job of questioning so-called gender norms.
Fourth, while I agree that the so-called debate on whether women have a place in the stories of the future (when did they ever not have a place? There have always been women in science fiction and they’ve occupied the same wide range of niches that the men occupied. Sometimes you just have to know enough about the conventions of the times to read between the lines to see it) is as stupid as it’s become endless, the book (and its sequel) does not do “the literary equivalent of rolling its eyes and walking out of the room”. Would that it had. No, the book goes into a lengthy explanation (in the first damn chapter) of the POV character’s native language not having separate gender pronouns. The author could just as easily have rendered the pronouns as the English masculine or the English neuter but that wouldn’t get the Glittery Hoo Haas of Social Justice all hot and happy, would it?
Finally (well, not really finally but I can’t be bothered wasting any more time on this: it’s a work night and my alarm goes off at oh god AM each morning), just because everything in the book is referred to by a grammatical feminine pronoun does not make the book “a story full of interesting women doing awesome things”. For starters, the preview that was available before the Hugo ballot was anything but awesome. For seconds, since there’s some familiar anatomy there the odds against every character of note being actually female is kind of small. And for thirds, anyone desperate and stupid enough to claim that a bit of pronoun trickery is enough to make the book full of… well. Yeah.
There’s more ignorance to the review, claiming new and original for plot lines where Star Trek has gone before – repeatedly (and frankly in at least some episodes Star Trek did it a damn sight better). No, Ms Jemisin, Leckie is not “attacking the self-absorption of science fiction itself”. She’s following a very well-trodden path of which you, with your breathtakingly arrogant ignorance possess neither knowledge nor understanding.