How To Suppress Women’s Writing

This week I saw the second instance I’ve seen of someone claiming that the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie is not science fiction. I’ve already ranted on this blog about how ridiculous it is to dismiss these novels for their choice of pronouns, but this is an even sillier tactic. It takes place in space! Where people talk to aliens and travel through gateways! The main character is a sentient ship! But nope, not sci-fi, nothing to see here.

In the most recent issue of Uncanny Magazine, Annalee Flower Horne and Natalie Luhrs make the case that these are all techniques long ago outlined in Joanna Russ’s work on How to Suppress Women’s Writing. The article is great (like all of this issue!!) and really worth a read.

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‘She’ as a literary technique in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series

I need to write and revise this quickly because I just realized that my appertif was poured more strongly than I intended and I’m about to go downhill fast. I just wanted to make a short note about the use of the pronoun ‘she’ in Ann Leckie’s series beginning with Ancillary Justice.

Ancillary Justice often gets pegged as social justice-y. In fact, one of the implications of the Puppies campaign for this year’s Hugo ballot stuffers is that the Ancillary series is only popular because of its social justice elements. While the plot is definitely anti-colonialist, my impression is that their real complaint is about the use of the pronoun ‘she’ for all genders. Anti-colonialism abounds in sci-fi, so in this case it’s the ‘she’ that stands out. These critics seem to think that Leckie is using ‘she’ for political or social reasons like one might use ‘womyn’ or ‘ze’. From folk who claim to love sci fi enough to participate in dramatic campaigns to change fandom, I expect more than that facile reading.

Leckie uses ‘she’ in order to force the reader to feel the same confusion that Breq, the protagonist, feels about the strange cultures that ‘she’ is visiting. It’s not so relevant in the second book, in which Breq is primarily surrounded by others of her own culture, but in Justice she is on a strange planet, among people she cannot trust. Throwing the reader into an unusual situation and expecting them to think like anthropologists is a classic sci fi technique. The Ancillary world is not that different from ours beyond space faring, and the parts that are significantly divergent, such as ship minds, are now practically sci fi tropes. A ship mind no longer makes us sci fi readers uncomfortable and confused in that pleasant way that we seek. Instead, to create this confusion, Leckie introduces a culture that does not use gender tells. Not only does this provide a challenge to the reader, the kind sci fi readers crave, but it helps the reader understand the distance that Breq, as an ancillary, feels when communicating with normal humans. It’s really clever and is pulled off smoothly and beautifully in the books.

Of course, calling everyone ‘he’ would not have this effect because there are hundreds of sci fi books that already use ‘he’ exclusively. In most cases, it’s not usually for any narrative purpose, it’s simply because the author is either lazy or has world-building priorities other than creating a realistically diverse set of characters. Those authors have slid by for a long time without anyone questioning if there were political reasons behind those choices.

Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Ancillary Justice, as I mentioned above, mostly features Radchaai, people of the same culture that Breq belongs to. ‘She’ no longer serves to demonstrate Breq’s confusion and discomfort. Instead, ‘she’ becomes normalized for the series’ reader… until it’s not. The book mentions both domestic abuse and rape. I found myself wondering what gender the involved characters were, despite it being not at all relevant to the plot in this case. This led me to question my own subconscious beliefs and assumptions. Why would it matter what gender they are? If Leckie thought it mattered, she would have made it clear. Thus, in this book, ‘she’ serves another classic sci-fi purpose: making the reader question their own subconscious judgements.

tldr: ‘she’ serves a literary and not necessarily social justice purpose in the Ancillary series. It’s in line with other classic sci fi techniques and tropes, which complement the pretty standard space opera elements in the novel. By ignoring this fact, puppies and other critics are politicizing their fiction in exactly the same way they accuse others of doing.