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Shadow Man by Melissa Scott

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In the far future, human culture has developed five distinctive genders due to the effects of a drug easing sickness from faster-than-light travel. But on the planet Hara, where society is increasingly instability, caught between hard-liner traditions and the realities of life, only male and female genders are legal, and the ”odd-bodied” population are forced to pass as one or the other. Warreven Stiller, a lawyer and an intersexed person, is an advocate for those who have violated Haran taboos. When Hara regains contact with the Concord worlds, Warreven finds a larger role in breaking the long-standing role society has forced on ”him,” but the search for personal identity becomes a battleground of political intrigue and cultural clash.

Winner of a Lambda Literary Award for Gay/Lesbian Science Fiction, Shadow Man remains one of the more important modern, speculative novels ever published in the field of gender- and sexual identity.
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It was perhaps inevitable that, between Cheryl Morgan and Alex Dally MacFarlane, with their very different conclusions about the presentation of a queer future in Shadow Man, Scott’s novel was always going to be one of the first books I tackled as part of the Queering the Genre project.

It’s interesting to see Lethe Press’ blurb for the novel describe it as “one of the more important modern speculative novels…in the field of gender… identity”, because in reality, Shadow Man is barely interested in gender identity. The two legal systems in the book are both biologically determinist, with the Haran system flexible only in allowing the “odd-bodied” to choose and change their gender while the Concord only recognises five sexes, and doesn’t seem to have room for fluidity of sexuality let alone changes of gender (the shock espoused by Myhre Tatian on hearing his ex-partner has taken up with a “mem”, one of the three intersexed sexes recognised by the Concord, having thought she was “man-straight”, is very strong). While watching the three systems practiced in the book – the Concord system, the Haran system and the hardline radical interpretation of the Haran system espoused by Tendlathe, in which the “odd-bodied” are nonhuman – is a fascinating vision of how different systems of gender, sex and sexuality interact and collide, and an interesting take on the inevitable crumbling of systems that don’t reflect reality, for a genderqueer person who is male-sexed, Shadow Man doesn’t seem to reflect the messy reality of sex and gender.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an enjoyable book taken as a story, of course. Scott’s novel consistently rejects, in its plotting, easy answers; from start to finish, Shadow Man is a story of the way that economics, politics, personality and power all come together to create, reinforce and bring down systems, the way that myriad different factors impact on the motivations of characters, and the ways in which personal morality and political expediency can collude in real horror. All this plays out in a plot that is actually surprisingly slow and quiet, focused on the offworlder Mhyre Tatian, the representative of the pharmaceutical company NAPD on Hara, and Warreven Stiller, a lawyer whose practice focuses on questions of “trade” (effectively sex work) who is sidelined away from this into representing 3is clan as their negotiator with the offworld pharmaceutical companies thanks to the machinations of the Most Important Man, Temelathe Stade.

Whilst sounding like an incredibly difficult universe to understand and a hard novel to get into at first glance, in fact Scott’s novel is incredibly accessible; very readable, fast-paced language, with definitions between each viewpoint-section of both social terms and terms around the systems of gender and sexuality used by the Concord and Hara, combine with the plot to draw the reader on and never let up; Shadow Man is one of the most simply enjoyable books I’ve read in some time in that regard, because it really plugs into that part of the reader which simply wants to know what happens next. The delayed climax, and the intricacies of the plot, all fall into place over the course of the novel which ends, like China Mièville’s Iron Council, just before the inevitable revolution explodes and takes hold; Scott’s refusal to answer the questions the clash of cultures asks is excellently executed.

The characters of Shadow Man are a more mixed point, however. Whilst Warreven and Myhre Tatian are both fascinatingly painted, rounded characters, they’re probably the only two who really are; Temelathe is very simplistically painted as simply interested in power, his son Tendlathe is almost the archetypical homophobe sublimating his desires into anger and bigotry, and the rest of the cast are equally simply portrayed. Motivations appear to be single-stranded, and largely responses to the social pressures of two cultures coming into conflict, rather than the more interesting, varied rainbow of human actions that the world and our experience presents. It’s also surprising to note that, in a book about sex, gender and sexuality, we barely see women; all of our main cast but for Warreven are male-identified men, and even Warreven spends the majority of the book as a male-identified “herm”. This is a strange lack, and a noticable one.

In the end, Shadow Man deserves praise for a fascinating portrayal of cultural change and shift, and for some excellent writing around its central duo; but Scott’s interrogation of gender and sex really falls down on inspection, and her male-dominated cast tends towards the flat. This is an important and enjoyable book, but not necessarily an successful one, interesting more for its failures than its successes.

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1 Comment

  1. […] Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man is one of the most famous works of science fiction to have really questioned the gender binary, and one of the earliest to do it well. The clash of cultures between a five-gendered and a binary-gendered society still has problems related to essentialist assumptions, even while challenging binarist thinking, but it at least opens the discussion up in an interesting way, similar to the questioning of our understanding of gender the Raadch of Ancillary Justice provokes. Like Ancillary Justice and, more so, Ancillary Sword, Scott’s Shadow Man also tackles issues of colonialism and the relationship between dominant and nondominant cultures, and ethical relations between them, in a brilliantly done and never overstated way. My review of Shadow Man. […]

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