Science fiction is a genre of ideas, and a lot of world-building in sci-fi starts with tweaking one small part of our universe and extrapolating from there. Gender seems like one of those unquestioned aspects of existence, until you pause and actually question it—are there just two genders? Do they have specific roles?—so it shouldn’t be surprising that gender often plays a role in science fiction. John Scalzi did something subtly amazing in his most recent novel, Lock In. It’s a great book about a future where a virus has caused a portion of the population to be “locked in,” awake but unable to move or use their bodies in any way. People called Integrators can take on the consciousness of those afflicted, and the story centers on a murder of a locked-in person using one such Integrator.
So far so intriguing, and the book works wonderfully as a sci-fi procedural. But what makes this book amazing is the fact that the point of view character, Chris, is a consciousness housed in an android body, raised in machine environments with the ability to switch aspects of perception at any moment, and thus has no gender whatsoever. The greatest part of this trick is that Scalzi doesn’t make note of it—he draws no attention to it whatsoever. The reader might notice something slightly off about Chris’s perspective, but it’s often only on a second reading that you’ll notice Chris offers zero gender perspective at all, and that any perceived gender bias most likely comes from a reader’s own experience and expectations.
Lock In is the most recent in a slow wave of sci-fi novels that explore gender in unexpected and challenging ways. Here are some other notable stops along the way.
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Any discussion of gender in sci-fi generally starts with this classic 1968 novel. First-time readers in the modern day might not see the big deal, but 46 years ago LeGuin’s concept of a race of people who spend the majority of their time as sexless “potentials” and only take on sexual characteristics (either male or female) once a month for breeding purposes—and who are all referred to as “he” regardless of their nature—was kind of mind-blowing. LeGuin has stated that the book began as a thought experiment about what a society would be without gender, and it sometimes has the stiff feel of experiment. To the modern reader the book can seem much less daring—the POV character is a heterosexual male, and while he forms a deep emotional bond with one of the planet’s inhabitants, sexuality is not explored directly in the book—and LeGuin herself later expressed regret that she defaulted to the pronoun “he” instead of “she,” or some other alternative (such as Spivak pronouns).
Everything he’s written, by Jack L. Chalker
It’s hard to pin down a single book from Chalker’s bibliography to discuss gender with. His writing had its limitations, but just about every book he wrote dealt with gender switches and other body modifications. Chalker ultimately viewed physicality as the ultimate determinator; identity in his books had everything to do with the brain chemicals and sexual organs you were wearing at the time, not any sort of “core” or true self. While the gender issues in Chalker’s books were a bit more on the squicky side of things, he’s one of the few sci-fi writers of any era that consistently looked at gender as something other than a fixed binary code of nature. The characters in Chalker’s books often moved from one gender to another (often involuntarily), making their sexual characteristics less important than their actions and reactions.
Shadow Man, by Melissa Scott
In this fascinating novel, Scott creates a universe with no less than five genders, caused by a drug given to people to mitigate the deadly effects of faster-than-light travel. On one colonized world that was cut off from the rest of human society, a strict binary gender culture is enforced despite the presence of Fem, Herm, and Mem genders. An explicit exploration of two systems—one where additional genders are forbidden, one where they are rigidly (perhaps too rigidly) supported—is interesting, and refreshingly dealt with straight on, without any winking, wordplay, or copping out.
Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
Another obvious choice for this subject, Ancillary Justice again plays with gender in a very straightforward way: the POV character in the book comes from a society without gender, and is forced to interact with a gendered society, referring to everyone they meet as “she” internally and making some occasionally dramatic incorrect guesses about the gender of others. Perhaps the greatest power of the novel in regards to gender is that it isn’t really treated as a subject to be discussed. The genderless society just is, where a lesser writer might have made it the whole point.
What’s your favorite sci-fi story that tackles gender in interesting ways?