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The Problematic Presentation of Gender in Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of ciscentricity, allocentricity, intersexism, and gender essentialism, and for quoted anti-trans and anti-intersex slurs apply to the following essay, as well as SPOILER WARNINGS.

TLTL Cover.jpg

Too Like the Lightning has been feted and critically acclaimed, and now nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I read it back when it first came out, after hearing about how well it supposedly handled queerness, and especially gender in the context of queerness, from a number of people whose opinions on the topic I usually respect; I did not agree with these assessments. I’ve been asked a number of times to discuss more fully my issues with the presentation of gender in the novel, so, with the Hugo Awards now open for voting, it seems like this might be the moment, to let voters see what this particular genderqueer person thought of the presentation of gender in the book. For context, I’m a bisexual nonbinary person and my pronoun is they.

It’s worth establishing some baseline elements. Supposedly, the world of Too Like The Lightning is a post-gender world; “gender, we were supposed to be past that too”1 the narrator says of the world. This is somewhat undermined by the way other characters occasionally make reference to biological sex2, and by the way sex is referred to as being “neutered egalitarian copulation” when done outside of the gender binary3. This is also evident in titles; the frontispiece of the book references “His Majesty Isabel Carlos II of Spain”4, and another character is given the title “Princess”5. We can therefore see that this supposed post-gender world is no such thing, but that gender is apparently not something normally discussed – Mycroft, the narrator, says to the reader that “you must forgive my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, my ‘he’s and ‘she’s”6 on the very first page of actual prose we encounter, as opposed to what appears to be the societal norm of using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.

Mycroft is, then, instantly established as breaking the societal norms by their use of gendered pronouns; indeed, on multiple occasions, Mycroft directly addresses the reader on the matter of using them, and tends to justify it in the most distressingly binarist and allocentric of terms, very early in the text, for instance saying that gendered pronouns “remind you [that is, the putative future reader] of their sexes” and that “gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors [that is, us, the reader] as it is to us”, despite the putative reader Mycroft addresses protesting that their “distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place”7. Indeed, Mycroft states that the singular they is the product a “prudish” era, and a “neutered”7 (in this case, meaning unsexual, desexualised) pronoun. Another character states that “sex is in everything… If you don’t believe that, you need to get laid”8; thus we see binarism and allocentricity as apparently common beliefs.

The text, however, cannot support the weight of Mycroft’s reasoning in the way it uses gender; most egregiously, in the fact that the Mukta, the prototype of a fleet of vehicles that is now planetwide, is gendered as female9, and in the gendering of a hypothetical person used in a simile10. Beyond that, however, children are gendered; rather than referring to Bridger as a child, Mycroft refers to them as a boy11. There’s also the repeated turn of phrase, “a day on which men had honoured their Creator in ages past”12; none of these examples can be seen to be referencing sex, except that of Bridger, and if that’s meant to be sexual, that’s a strange comment on Mycroft and Palmer both.

The exceptional case in which Mycroft as narrator does, however, use ‘they’ is of characters whose gender they are unable to guess; particularly of Utopians, because of their manner of dress13. Mycroft also briefly uses they of Eureka, whose status as a set-set means they’ve never been exposed to the outside world, and whose nerves are all rewired as input modes; but very rapidly, Mycroft in narration switches to using she, for no clear reason14.

The most interesting, and problematic, case of how Mycroft refers to a character in this particular book is the case of Dominic Seneschal, who presents as aggressively male, although is explicitly described as having “breasts beneath that taut waistcoat, that the thighs and pelvis which the coat’s high cut displays are very much a woman’s”15; Mycroft refers to them as “the woman… is the boldest and most masculine of men”16, and uses the pronoun he for them throughout the text. So far, this would seem to simply be Mycroft following the gender preferences of the character; however, Mycroft puts the term “she-man”17 into the mouth of the putative reader about Dominic. If the term is unfamiliar to you, perhaps a close analogue, ‘shemale’, might not be; it is a slur against trans women, which has no place without serious critique of the term going on around it and the user being very explicitly called out for its use18.

The way Mycroft’s gendering works is consistently unclear; the narration suggests that Cousins should always be pronouned with she because of their caring role, “maternal heart[s]” and “flowing robes”19. Carlyle, however, because of genitalia, is referred to as he, something which you’ll note does not constrain the way Mycroft refers to characters such as Dominic; there’s a confusion of whether genitalia or role plays the centre of how Mycroft chooses pronouns, perhaps most pronounced when Mycroft genders Chagatai as female:

With Chagatai, however, your guess [that is, the guess of the putative future reader as to why Mycroft genders Chagatai female] is wrong. It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes. I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood berserks them. That strength wins her ‘she’.20

The way that passage assigns gender to Chagatai is based on the stereotypical image of the mother, something that follows for a lot of the way characters gendered as female are portrayed.

This is a consistent problem with the way Mycroft approaches femininity. The first time this appears is in a reference to “practiced femininity”21, something which ought to have no meaning in this supposedly post-gender world. However, this “practiced femininity” is apparently incredibly and inherently sexual, and makes others think of sex, something against which Mycroft states they have no defence. A later discussion of a different character talks about a “display of ‘wife'”22; this is part of a series of pages describing a conversation with Danaë, who is described as acting and appearing in incredibly gendered ways, and builds up to “the husband wrenching the kimono back to bare the honey-wet vagina”23. This section is apparently why Mycroft feels they have to gender all the characters in the narration; because of the way Danaë uses a particular idea of femininity as a weapon.

Now, so far, almost all discussion has been about how Palmer’s choice of narrator has gendered characters, albeit with one exception noted above2. But the problem extends beyond Mycroft. Two chapters are narrated by another character, Martin Guildbreaker, who uses they as the pronoun of choice in them24; however, in discussing the vital statistics of interviewees in their chapters, Martin marks gender in one case (a character Mycroft has not encountered), but not in the other (a character Mycroft has gendered as male)25. A later example is the way two characters gender Carlyle Foster, gendered by Mycroft as male, as female in a discussion, until Carlyle is mentioned as having a penis, at which point both characters switch to using the pronoun ‘they’26; if the point of the pronoun were the transgressive reference to sex and gender, surely it should be consistent or change to he?

Perhaps the strangest example is that of the animated toy soldiers brought to life. They are brought to life with “attitudes of hundreds of years ago when those ancient toy soldiers were made; one of those attitudes Mycroft explicitly mentions in this description is “They use ‘he’ and ‘she'”27. However, in the actual quoted dialogue of the toy soldiers, the only pronoun we ever hear them use is they28; however, they are gendered by other characters, as Thisbe refers to the Major as “he”29, strangely.

The single most problematic portrayal in this book is one that reveals issues with the whole society of Too Like The Lightning, and that spills over and becomes worse in the sequel, Seven Surrenders, revolving around Sniper. In the first book, Sniper is pronouned as he, but Sniper is “tantalisingly androgynous” and “Sniper’s publicity team has worked so hard to keep the public from learning the androgyne’s true sex”30. Indeed, the genital configuration of Sniper is such a mystery to the public that it is something to be discovered by the media31, and a sibling of Sniper’s refers to something being “a public mystery to rival what’s in Cardie’s [that is, Sniper’s] pants”32. Indeed, dolls are made of Sniper for people to play with, including as sex toys; these final category of dolls come as “fully anatomical Sniper-XX and Sniper-XY models”33, suggesting that either Palmer or the world, or both, believe that chromosomes only come in these configurations, and define an exclusively binary set of genitalia, neither assertion of which is true. All this revolves around a character who is, in book two, revealed to be intersex; at this point the narration ceases to use the pronoun he and switches to the pronoun it to refer to Sniper34. If you are unaware, it as a pronoun refers to objects and sometimes animals; but people, adults, are not generally referred to as it, and it is incredibly offensive to almost all intersex people to pronoun them as it, with the exception of those few who reclaim it as their own pronoun, knowing how controversial it is.

All of these choices reflect worldbuilding choices Ada Palmer made, and arguably, they could be justified as being part of the world Palmer chose to build. But there are no constraints on Palmer’s choice of worldbuilding; she could have, instead, built a truly genderless world. She could have built a world where Sniper’s being intersex, Carlyle’s penis and Dominic’s gender identity have no relevance whatsoever; where there truly is not gender or sex differentiation in society, only biologically. Instead she built one which claims to have this while significantly undercutting it; that’s an authorial choice, and one that led to her book punching me in the face35 repeatedly. Insofar as it is related to her choice of narrator in Mycroft, there are a number of other characters who could relate the story; but Palmer chose to give us Mycroft, who forces gendering on us because it’s part of an Enlightenment style they adopt. However, it is notable that the Oxford English Dictionary, in talking about the usage of “they”, makes reference to historical use of the singular they in the Sixteenth Century; and one of the most prominent writers in English of the period, Jane Austen, used the singular they across her body of writing36. The style Palmer is having Mycroft emulate has no constraint against the use of the singular they.

In sum, this book has severe issues with ciscentrism, allocentrism, intersexism, and gender binarism and essentialism. Palmer cannot justify this by saying her hand was forced; she chose this set-up for the book, she chose how to present gender, she chose to have other characters reinforce Mycroft’s assertions about sex and gender, and she chose the whole frame in which the discussion in the book takes place. Too Like The Lightning isn’t progressive or doing interesting things with gender: it is painful, regressive, and I’m going to be ranking it below No Award in the Hugo voting. You, of course, should do as your conscience dictates.

Edited to add links to some others’ interesting, differing opinions on the approach to gender in Too Like the Lightning:

Yoon Ha Lee

Cheryl Morgan

Please note all page numbers refer to the pagination of the 2016 first printing first edition hardback published by Tor Books. Many thanks to my paid sensitivity reader for this essay, who asked to remain anonymous.
1. Page 337
2. Eg Thisbe questioning Mycroft on Mycroft using male pronouns in conversation about a character with breasts, page 248
3. Page 322
4. Page 5, frontispiece in the style of an Enlightenment-period printed book
5. Page 48
6. Page 13
7. All references to page 27. Note also that “neutered” is a term many intersex and trans people regard as a slur, per this poll.
8. Page 331
9. Page 35
10. Page 43
11. Page 24
12. First encountered on page 14, but repeated multiple times through the book, always using ‘men’
13. Page 361, although note that earlier Mycroft has gendered Utopians based on an unknown and unclear metric, pp156-7
14. Page 57-8
15. Page 89
16. Page 90
17. Page 94
18. See Wiki for more on the term ‘Shemale’
19. Page 70; see also page 269, where Cousins’ wraps are referred to as “dresslike” and feminine – although this femininity seems to derive as much from them being worn by Cousins as anything else, with a certain circularity
20. Page 237
21. Page 30
22. Page 48
23. Page 50
24. Page 163-174, 339-349
25. Martin describes Tsuneo Sugiyama as female on page 165 in giving their vital statistics, whereas their recitation of the vital statistics of Cato Weeksbooth does not give a sex or gender
26. Page 368-9
27. Page 66
28. See for instance the dialogue of the soldiers on page 19, where they consistently use they
29. Page 26
30. Both page 138
31. Page 143
32. Page 299
33. Page 139
34. This happens on page 98-9 of Seven Surrenders, according to Marissa Lingen, who discussed the presentation a little more here
35. For an explanation of the term “punching in the face”, see this blog post by Ann Leckie
36. The Oxford Dictionary, and specific references to the singular they in Jane Austen’s corpus

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  1. strider66 says:

    This was a fascinating essay. I highlighted so many passages in Too Like the Lightning that it’s a veritable patchwork and I still missed a lot of what you pointed out. There were several things about how gender was presented in the books that annoyed me, but I couldn’t articulate them as well as you did.

  2. I’m still trying to get my head around this book in so many ways, but this was a strong and persuasive discussion. (I haven’t read Seven Surrenders yet though) Thank you.

  3. […] versus how Mycroft deals with gender (likewise with religion) but they look at it deeper than that:… I’m back to the dilemma of whether this is a *good* book or a cynical one which partly hinges […]

  4. […] D Franklin: “The Problematic Presentation of Gender in Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning” […]

  5. […] The Problematic Presentation of Gender in Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. […]

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