Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series burst upon the SFF world in 2013, drawing notice for (among other things) its linguistic worldbuilding. The Imperial Radch, the central power of the series, speaks a language that lacks any gender distinction in the pronouns. Linguistically, this feature in itself is hardly unusual. There are many languages spoken today (on Earth) that do not distinguish gender in their pronoun systems, ranging from Imbabura Quichua in Ecuador (pai), to Finnish (hän), to 252 other languages listed in the World Atlas of Language Structures as lacking all gender distinctions in their pronoun system (Siewierska, 2013).1
No, what made the Radchaai gender invariance striking was that Leckie chose to render that single, gender-neutral pronoun in English as she. And since the narrator, Breq, is Radchaai, every character in the book is rendered as she, regardless of their own individual gender identity. Furthermore, in a nod to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, speakers of Radchaai struggle to recognize gender as a property of humans.2 When Breq is forced to use gendered pronouns in other languages, she3 often resorts to guessing, based on what she knows of that culture’s arbitrary and idiosyncratic cues, and hoping she got it right. To Breq, categorizing humans as one gender or another is as pointless as many English speakers find categorizing inanimate nouns. In Spanish, key is feminine and bridge is masculine. In German it is the reverse, and what is more, girl is neuter. Bantu languages distinguish as many as ten, fifteen, even twenty different categories, at which point even the most classical grammarian gives up on the idea of sex-based gender terms and just calls them ‘noun classes’ (Marten 2021). Surely, thinks many an English-speaker, this grammatical ornamentation is an entirely unnecessary and frivolous complication. Likewise, to Breq, pronouns and gender.
But Leckie is not the first person to employ pronouns as a tool of linguistic world-building. Indeed, she is only the latest in a long series of SFF authors who have departed from English language pronoun conventions to enrich their creations. And by tracing the strategies these authors have used throughout the years, we can also trace the concerns of the time in which those authors were writing, both on the macro level of decades and generations, and also on the micro-level of years that separate a book and its sequel.
[T]his person, although clearly a human being, was neither man nor woman, nor anything between the two, but was unmistakably of a third positive sex, which was remarkable to behold and difficult to understand. In order to translate into words the sexual impression produced in Maskull’s mind by the stranger’s physical aspect, it is necessary to coin a new pronoun, for none in earthly use would be applicable. Instead of “he,” “she,” or “it,” therefore “ae” will be used.
Note that the link between sex and gender is taken for granted. The need for a new pronoun has nothing to do with social self-presentation in the phaens, and everything to sex and procreation:
He found himself incapable of grasping at first why the bodily peculiarities of this being should strike him as springing from sex, and not from race, and yet there was no doubt about the fact itself. Body, face, and eyes were absolutely neither male nor female, but something quite different. Just as one can distinguish a man from a woman at the first glance by some indefinable difference of expression and atmospheres altogether apart from the contour of the figure, so the stranger was separated in appearance from both. As with men and women, the whole person expressed a latent sensuality, which gave body and face alike their peculiar character.... Maskull decided that it was love—but what love—love for whom? It was neither the shame-carrying passion of a male, nor the deep-rooted instinct of a female to obey her destiny. It was as real and irresistible as these, but quite different.4
Now, to be sure, Lindsay’s brainchild is hardly a masterpiece of progressive foresight. In 1920, it was an uphill battle to suggest that male passion need not be shameful; that female sexual pleasure need not stem from a biological urge to “obey her destiny,” and Lindsay was evidently not interested in fighting that battle. But he could at least suggest that it was possible for people to land in a third box—even if you had to go to Arcturus to find them.
All or nothing, fixed or shifting, genders that don’t obey the male/female binary will run up against the question of pronouns. Lindsay, as we have seen, invented completely new ones. Intriguingly, although you’d imagine LeGuin’s readership in the 1960s would be willing to match Lindsay’s in their appetite for adventurous pronouns, LeGuin herself was more linguistically conservative. She decided to stick with the ‘gender neutral’ pronoun he/him/his in all contexts, defending this choice in an essay written from 1976:
I call Gethenians “he” because I utterly refuse to mangle English by inventing a pronoun for “he/she” “He” is the generic pronoun in English, dammit. (I envy the Japanese, who, I am told, do have a he/she pronoun.) But I do not consider this really very important.
Yet ten years later, in 1989, LeGuin revisited that essay,5 and describes how she changed her mind entirely not too long after such a breezy dismissal of the importance of pronouns:
This “utter refusal” ... collapsed, utterly, within a couple of years more. I still dislike invented pronouns, but now dislike them less than the so-called generic pronoun he/him/his, which does in fact exclude women from discourse; and which was an invention of male grammarians, for until the sixteenth century the English generic singular pronoun was they/them/their, as it still is in English and American colloquial speech. It should be restored to the written language, and let the pedants and pundits squeak and gibber in the streets.
Despite its grammatical conventionality, The Left Hand of Darkness is a much more thoughtful meditation on gender and society than A Voyage to Arcturus. Part of that is that it’s just a better book. But it’s also a book written in a society that had moved on in which conversations about gender it’s willing to engage in. Linguists in the 1960s and 1970s were engaging in lively discussions about how sexism is encoded in language,6 and whether he truly is as neutral and generic as people (like LeGuin in the 1960s) like to claim.7 In this context, LeGuin’s Gethenians don’t just represent a wonky biology that requires a matching pronoun. If they did, then their pronouns would have to change every time they enter and exit kemmer. No, the Gethenians allow LeGuin to explore the idea that gender need not dictate one’s role and recognized capacities. That gender is not, in fact, a necessary part of society.
Yet, like Lindsay, LeGuin was still controlled by the idea that sexual identity directly affects personality. Because, as we learn in Chapter 7, “the sexual impulse is tremendously strong in [kemmer], controlling the entire personality, subjecting all other drives to its imperative.” For all that the Gethenians are not sexual or gendered most of the time, the fact remains that when they acquire sexual organs, sex becomes dominant in defining their identity.
Furthermore, for all her progressive thoughtfulness, LeGuin still catered to a default male perspective. Beyond the decision to use default ‘he’ for Gethenians, she also presented the world of Gethen through the perspective of Genly Ai, a visitor whose own biology has fixed his gender as biologically male (a property that the Gethenians view as a bit perverse, to see a human who is perpetually and continuously a sexual being). And as the perpetually sexual and perpetually male Genly Ai grows closer to his Gethenian companion Estraven, who—if not always male—was always coded with male pronouns, we find that LeGuin also catered to a default heterosexual perspective. A certain amount of rhetorical gymnastics are used to sidestep the queer potential growing in the nascent intimacy and eventual sexual attraction between them. (LeGuin does say, in the same essay where she revisits her pronoun decisions, that she also regrets this knee-jerk assumption in her worldbuilding. Her views changed remarkably in the space of that decade.) Indeed, more generally on Gethen, a committed couple will match their biological sex 50% of the time they enter kemmer, and yet when Gethenians are in kemmer, they only ever choose heterosexual partners. Once again, sexual attraction and sexual identity cannot be separated from procreation, even on Gethen.
Jump forward another half century, and we have in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch books another set of perspectives separated by a decade. The originally Ancillary series came out in 2013, and her most recent installment in that universe, Translation State, came out just this year, in 2023 (reviewed (by me!) on Nerds Of a Feather here). And once again, we can trace developments in social concerns about gender by looking at the differences between Leckie in 2013, and Leckie this year.
From the beginning, Leckie was not so considerate of the default male, default het, default binary conventions as LeGuin was. Indeed, she is downright provocative.8 Rather than treading a truly neutral path with default they, as LeGuin later wished she had done, Leckie builds a world where the default coding is female. Although superficially this decision had the same effect as LeGuin’s genderless society with default male coding—the same pronoun for everyone!—its impact was very different. Not only was the male perspective entirely erased, but the Radch isn’t like Gethen, where everyone is by default sexless. In the Radch, people still have sexual organs in profusion. Those organs are simply uncoded by gender. And that idea made a vocal, active subgroup of science fiction readers extremely uncomfortable. The very idea of it! People with the same plumbing doing things, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria!
What the original Ancillary books did not do, however (or not much), was touch on questions of gender identity or trans issues. How could they? Gender isn’t a thing in the Radch. Everyone is she. It’s as impossible to misgender someone within the Radch as it is for a 21st century human, whose culture simply does not recognize the concept of questors, to misquestor another 21st century human.
I don’t know whether Leckie was deliberately side-stepping the issue, as LeGuin did on Gethen, or whether she merely overlooked it. Breq observes in Ancillary Justice that ‘the cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me’ (pg 3). This recognition that gender can be arbitrary certainly leaves open the possibility of transgender people outside the Radch. Yet, later, in a rather entertaining sequence in Ancillary Sword, we learn about the historical tendency of an annexed system, the Athoeki, to make ‘a division between people with penises and people without’ (pg 84), which is agreed among the Radchaai to be parochial and bizarre. Of course, there are more than just the Athoeki outside the Radch, but it is striking that one of the most in-depth discussions about gender-having, non-Radch is still explicitly linking gender to biology.
Within the original Ancillary trilogy, it seems, Leckie was primarily interested in exploring what happens when gender and biological distinctions are both removed entirely from society. She wasn’t quite yet ready to explore what happens when they’re still present, but delinked in the way that is necessary for building a trans-inclusive society.
And this decision is understandable, given the publication date of 2013 for Ancillary Justice. In 2013 society was not talking about trans rights the way it was talking about gender roles. 2013 was a lot longer ago, culturally, than it feels to middle aged ladies like me. Gay marriage in the US was not legal. J. K. Rowling had not yet alienated her readership with her anti-trans views. Trans people existed,9 but trans equality was not yet in the public spotlight the way it is now. Politicians were much more het10 up about which adults got to marry than about which people were allowed which kind of medical care. Forget banning gender-affirming surgery and hormone therapy—abortion was still legal in 2013. In 2013, only a decade ago, the dominant gender-related questions still centered on male-female binary oppositions. Sheryl Sandburg published Lean In in 2013. Remember Lean In? It’s the book that suggested that workplace sexism could be fixed if only women changed their behavior.
By 2023, however, trans rights have become a rallying cry for the progressive left (and a target of hate for the reactionary right), and Leckie has expanded the world of the Radch to address it in a fascinatingly deft way in her new book Translation State. Because, although the Radchaai do not distinguish gender in their pronouns, there are cultures around the Radch that do. The Athoeki of ten years ago stuck with a traditional Earthlike male/female-style binary, but in Translation State Leckie has introduced other cultures that have finally, fully delinked gender and sex, allowing more than just male-female binaries, and respecting people’s own choices about which gender category they use.
And when these people interact with the Radchaai, they get misgendered. Unlike Breq, who at least makes an effort to guess at what the correct gender coding might be, most other Radchaai don’t even bother. In Translation State, when a Radchaai official is explicitly and repeatedly corrected, she waves it off with a disdainful ‘Whatever. Anyway . . .’
This is not, in the world of the book, any kind of transphobia at work. To be transphobic, you must believe that gender is immutable; to believe that gender is immutable you must know what gender is, and the Radch are entirely blind to it. Rather, in the world of the book, this attitude is a reflection of the political dominance of the Radchaai, and their refusal to recognize cultural traditions that they do not posess themselves. This is an American asking a colleague whether they have plans for Easter Break, assuming that of course the colleague is Christian. This is a bathroom technology engineer assuming that of course all hands look like white hands, resulting in automatic soap dispensers refusing to dispense soap for people of color. It is cultural imperialism behind these misgenderings, not transphobia.
And yet—and yet and yet and yet. Even though the Radchaai can’t see gender, it’s hard not to read the repeated misgenderings as transphobia. It feels oddly reminiscent of white people who insist that they ‘don’t see color’ and then proceed to indulge in all sorts of racial microaggressions.
The insidiousness of this transphobic flavor to the Radchaai is characteristic of Leckie's deft touch. She never has the broader conversation explicitly with her readers. Her books are never about gender and pronouns, not the way that LeGuin’s work was, or even the bits dealing with the Phaens in Lindsay’s work. Leckie doesn’t have her characters discuss gender and pronouns explicitly. She doesn’t use them as mouthpieces, having them speechify her worldview, engage with each other to present The Gender Issue. Indeed, the books are very straightforwardly discussions of the consequences of cultural dominance and imperialism. But by simply presenting the treatment of gender and pronouns as she does, with their transphobic resonances, she forces the readers to have the conversation with themselves.
In the Ancillary books, Leckie also forced people to confront gender relations without ever explicitly discussing them, simply through the nature of the Radchaai’s pronoun system. This was an an important conversation in 2013. And now, Leckie is forcing people to confront transphobia and gender identity without ever explicitly discussing it, again, simply through the nature of the Radchaai’s pronoun system. In the space of a decade, the same linguistic worldbuilding has been repurposed to engage with the evolution of ongoing issues, without ever making those issues the focus of the book. It’s more elegant than Lindsay—no surprise there—but I’d argue it’s also more elegant than LeGuin. It’s all rather quite brilliant, actually.
——1 This number is an order of magnitude more frequent than the other possible systems of pronoun gender expression listed. Although WALS is not an exhaustive inventory of all languages, it is constructed with a particular eye toward representing the range and scope of diversity across human languages (Comrie et al 2013), and so I’m inclined to believe that non-gendered pronoun systems may well be the rule, rather than the exception, to human language grammars. ↩
2 Earthling speakers of Quichua and Finnish and 252 other languages do not have this problem. ↩
3 Breq’s own relation to gender is not quite the same as other Radchaais’, because she is not a human. Rather, Breq’s body is one of many biological avatars of a spaceship’s AI, which controls many human bodies as extensions of her own consciousness. I use ‘she’ here simply because it’s what Breq would use for herself. ↩
4 This sequence goes on quite a bit, with a lot of rather quite rude remarks demands on the part of Maskull, who says things like, ‘Never mind that. It is your sex that interests me. How do you satisfy your desires?’ At least buy the nice phaen a drink first! ↩
5 If you have read The Left Hand of Darkness, I highly, highly recommend reading this revisitation. It’s called ‘Is Gender Necessary: Redux’, and it is formatted in two columns, with the original text on the left, and LeGuin’s revisions and annotations about how her thinking has shifted in the intervening years on the right. It is effectively a three-way conversation between LeGuin-in-1968, LeGuin-in-1976, and LeGuin-in-1989. One LeGuin is brilliant; three LeGuins are triply so. See references for link. ↩
6 For a very accessible example of one such discussion, see ‘Language and Woman’s Place’, by Robin Lakeoff, 1973, link in references. She even talks about the use of ‘he’ as the neutral, unmarked pronoun for mixed groups. ↩
7 I’m reminded here of a line from James H White’s ‘Sector General’ stories, originally written in the 1960s and 1970s, which offers an interesting perspective on the universal use of he: ‘. . . When O’Mara became quiet and polite and not at all sarcastic, when he began treating a person as a patient rather than a colleague in other words, that person was in trouble up to his or its neck.’ His or its. Not His, hers, or its, but his or its. Clearly, ‘his’ can’t be truly a gender neutral universal pronoun, or else it would have included aliens who individually would take ‘its’. And since this book is wildly misogynistic in many, many other ways (oh, good gravy, far too many ways to remain within the scope of a footnote), I think it’s unlikely that White intended for ‘his’ to mean ‘his or her’ the way grammarians intended. ‘His’ meant ‘his’. Women need not apply. ↩
8 She is not the first to be deliberately provocative, of course. Samuel R Delaney springs to mind as a writer who made a point of pushing all sorts of boundaries with respect to gender identity and sexuality a generation before Leckie. But Delaney was not representative of the SFF reading public’s preferences. Indeed, his willingness to push boundaries cost him publishing contracts with Bantam when he explicitly included the AIDS epidemic in his Nevèrÿon books in the 1980s (Lucas 2023). He would not spring to mind so easily if he were not so exceptional in his work, if he were not an exception to a more general tendency. ↩
9 Trans people have always existed. ↩
10 Get it? Get it? ↩
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CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative.