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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.

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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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Kaleidoscope ed. Alisa Krasnostein & Julia Rios

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What do a disabled superhero, a time-traveling Chinese-American figure skater, and a transgendered animal shifter have in common? They’re all stars of Kaleidoscope stories!

Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. These twenty original stories tell of scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage.
~~~~~
Diversity is an increasingly strong theme in discussions of the state of the genre, and the inculcation of that diversity, but rarely are practical steps taken. Rios and Krasnostein decided to take a practical step through Krasnostein’s Twelth Planet Press publishing business, and with the help of Pozible (a crowdfunding site), Kaleidoscope was born!

I have to declare a certain interest here; Kaleidoscope is dedicated to me (in the Acknowledgements section – flip to the back and check!), and I have consistently supported the project and cheered as Krasnostein and Rios brought a host of voices both veteran (Garth Nix! Karen Healey!) and new (Sofia Samatar!) to bear on the broad theme of “diversity”, an idea that the fan community is coming to terms with but that is still seen as too “PC” a theme for an anthology by some. Kaleidoscope is an excellent artistic rebuttal of that.

Entirely made up of original fiction, Kaleidoscope covers themes from trans narratives (though not the narrative you’re expecting!), ablism and the perception of the disabled, and neurodiversity (two stories centre on OCD, one on schizophrenia) through to immigration, class issues, racism, and a lot of sexuality; it’s impressive to see the broad scope of “diversity” Rios and Krasnostein have embraced in collecting and curating this anthology, and the avoidance of some of the common, awful tropes that tend to reoccur in stories. There are no magically fixed people here, and indeed magical fixing as a theme is interrogated quite harshly; there is no sudden cathartic moment of universal reconciliation, and no utopias of perfect acceptance. Instead, the fantastic is used as a lens to interrogate our own prejudices, our own ideas of normalcy.

There is a wide range of types of storytelling on display here, from Samatar’s tragic and beautiful ‘Walkdog’, in the form of a book report, through Susman’s archival compilation of emails, phone transcripts, application forms and more in the stunning and unexpected ‘The Lovely Duckling’, and achronological chapter-sectioned wonderfully self-referential myth in El-Mohtar’s ‘The Truth About Owls’. The table of contents also boasts a lot of more conventional stories, including Roberts’ ‘Cookie-Cutter Superhero’, a truly wonderful subversion of superhero narratives and brilliant satire of the comics of the Big Two all at once. Indeed, to highlight every story here that is a stand-out beauty would take too long, and involve listing every single one; this is an anthology of what would be highlights in any other anthology, truly superlative work.

There is, unfortunately, one misstep in Kaleidoscope, and it is Flinthart’s ‘Vanilla’. ‘Vanilla’ is the sole story that discusses nonbinary genders (there are multiple stories about trans characters, but all within the gender binary), and it situates that nonbinarism in its aliens; that is, literal, non-homo sapiens aliens. Indeed, the story includes the idea that even without gender, the being carrying the child is made female by the act; that femininity is defined by the ability to give birth. Now, it’s inevitable that one story in the anthology would be problematic, and ‘Vanilla’ is, in its discussion of immigration and integration, amazing, but it feels rather unfortunate that the problems in the story punch me in the face.

That said, Kaleidoscope is overall a wonderful, monumental achievement and a really stunning collection of good fiction quite apart from Rios and Krasnostein’s efforts to foster a sense of diversity, empathy and understanding. If you can, buy this book. If you can’t, ask booksellers to order it in so you can buy it. Give it to teachers, to teenagers, to educators of all kinds; to politicians, to friends and family, to community leaders. Kaleidoscope deserves to be distributed far and wide, and its message needs to be distributed far and wide.

And it really is that good.

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The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood

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Salisbury Forth is a courier of contraband in the alleyways of inner Melbourne, a city of fuel rationing, rolling power outages and curfews.

It’s a stressful life, post-pandemic. A vaccine dispensed Australia-wide is causing mass-infertility, and the government has banned all remedies except prayer.

Vigilantes prowl for transgressors while the pious gather like moths under the streetlights at dusk. Then someone starts trading tainted hormones on the boss’s patch. Salisbury must find whoever is trying to destroy the business before everything goes belly up…
~~~~~
For a novel that made the Tiptree Honour List and won an Aurealis and a Ditmar Award, and that is cited in every discussion of queer science fiction, The Courier’s New Bicycle is hard to find in print; in the end, I resorted to asking Alisa Krasnostein to lay hands on a copy and bring it with her to LonCon 3 – which I am grateful to her for doing!

The Courier’s New Bicycle is not only cited in every discussion of queer speculative fiction out there, it deserves to be, and in any discussion of near-future or postapocalyptic science fiction too; the world posited by Westwood is terrifying, but also terrifyingly plausible. In the wake of environmental catastrophe and pandemic, fertility has dropped, green vehicles are not just the norm but the law, and a Christian fundamentalist government with very strict ideas of morality (cisgendered male and female are the only acceptable genders, hetero the only acceptable sexuality) rules Australia. Westwood paints this, and its consequences, vividly and in strong forceful strokes; the images of scooters and beetle-wing-quiet cars crawling the streets of Melbourne, bicycles whipping past them and ruling the road; fanatics gathered in prayer-shawls beating up “deviants” – these are described with an amazing vividness and immediacy.

The role of the fanatics is in part driven by the degree to which this is a book peopled by “deviants”. Salisbury Forth, Sal, is intersexed; various of Sal’s friends are homo- or bisexual, a number are trans, and her closest friend is also her boss, a producer and provider of fertility hormones. Every character has their own interests, voices, motivations, and characterisations; that The Courier’s New Bicycle manages to be sympathetic to some of the grimmer villains of the piece while still being absolutely clear that they are villains is impressive, and fantastically well done. Westwood’s ability to give each character interiority despite the book being wholly from Sal’s perspective is really a beautiful thing to see.

The Courier’s New Bicycle is a queer book through and through, treating queerness as the norm and repression/suppression of that as a deviation form it; but this is done subtly and neatly, worked in throughout the book as the various characters interact. It’s certainly subtler than the animal rights message Westwood wants to put across, which is very direct indeed, but also effective; it’s not a character giving a Goodland/Rand style diatribe, but descriptions of abuses of animals for economic purposes that drive this element.

Finally, the plot; The Courier’s New Bicycle could be accused of falling into tropes here, with elements of cyberpunk and the mafia novel both involved, but the way Westwood brings it off the page and into a kinetic, powerful life of its own puts it a cut above most novels of either type. The various threads which tie in, the refusal of Westwood to ignore the role of the personal in economic and political relationships and dealings, the fast pace and brilliantly done laying of clues, all combine to be a stunningly good plot; it doesn’t tread new ground per se, but once the layers of the queerness and the setting are noted, it stands above most books around it.

Westwood’s second novel is hard to find. But, with awards aplenty, accolades abounding, and absolutely wonderful writing, The Courier’s New Bicycle really rewards the hunt!

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The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

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In the desert colony of Khandar, a dark and mysterious magic, hidden for centuries, is about to emerge from darkness.

Marcus d’Ivoire, senior captain of the Vordanai Colonials, is resigned to serving out his days in a sleepy, remote outpost, when a rebellion leaves him in charge of a demoralised force in a broken down fortress.

Winter Ihrenglass, fleeing her past and masquerading as a man, just wants to go unnoticed. Finding herself promoted to a command, she must rise to the challenge and fight impossible odds to survive.

Their fates rest in the hands of an enigmatic new Colonel, sent to restore order while following his own mysterious agenda into the realm of the supernatural.
~~~~~
On the one hand, mysterious desert peoples colonised by Western-styled nation, with a fanatical and murderous fundamentalist religion; on the other hand, cross-dressing lesbian and an interrogation of colonialism. The Thousand Names has a blurb at once compelling at repelling, but Wexler’s brick of a novel proves that one half of that outweighs the other…

The Thousand Names is, on first blush, a sort of Sharpe-meets-Tolkein novel; Wexler’s style and content are both drawn from those areas, his musket-volleys straight out of the Napoleonic Wars while his magical maguffins are a sort of darker One Ring. But underlying that veneer is a darker one, with notes from Abercrombie and Monette; characters are wounded and killed, and Wexler isn’t presenting war as a clean activity – rape, murder, and death are a real part of the world of The Thousand Campaigns, although it isn’t treated as acceptable. This is also a war with no “right” side; there is an overt and a covert war, different sides and different alliances in each, and the full extent of the interlocking wars is only revealed as the novel goes on, with some really well done, as well as some obvious-to-the-reader, twists along the way.

The characters, though, are what really sells The Thousand Names as being more than Bernard Cornwell meets Sarah Monette; they all start out with every appearance of being archetypes, from the worldweary (and just plain weary) Captain d’Ivoire, through Colonel Janus Vahlnich, the eccentric commander who is brilliant but bad with his troops, to Winter, the woman who joined the army to escape abuse at home. Each of these characters, and all the rest of the cast which is as broad as one might expect in a military novel, grows, shows more of their original facets and also developes as a character as the novel progresses; Wexler brilliantly manages to balance the characters’ viewpoints in such a way as to make The Thousand Names incredibly deceptive, including the brilliant approach to the two nationalities in play: Vordanai and Khandarai.

The two nationalities have, as one would expect from two countries in a colonial relationship (well, client-kingdom, technically), a mutual loathing-cum-respect. Each has racist insults for the other (“grayskins”, “corpses”); each has stereotypes about the other, including cliches about the taste of steel; each has built up myths and stories about the other. The Thousand Names also challenges all of those things – each nationality having representatives who both demonstrate and challenge those stereotypes and prejudgements. Wexler’s cast is fantastic in doing this, in challenging racisms on all sides; it works impressively well, despite some flaws as the Khandarai and Desoltai are portrayed as culturally rather stereotypical.

All the social justice elements are worked in subtly and well; Winter’s lesbianism and her gender aren’t key issues of her character any more than Marcus’ heterosexuality or maleness, and the approach Wexler takes when they do come up is fantastically sympathetic and interesting, incredibly good at getting into the heads of his characters whomsoever they are, at understanding their different viewpoints and at imagining himself into their thought processes and hearts. The Thousand Names manages this trick incredibly well, giving its implicit message the strength of empathy and truth, whilst also avoiding turning it into message fiction.

The Thousand Names is a debut novel, and has some of the flaws that involves (including postponed reveals and overcomplexity of plots), but overall Wexler has written a fantastic, powerful, beautiful novel well worth the reading and drawing one into the world of the Shadow Campaigns. Next up, The Shadow Throne, or what Liz Bourke has called “FANTASY FRENCH REVOLUTION WITH LESBIANS”!

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Infidel by Kameron Hurley

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The war may be over, but the battle’s just begun…

Nyx used to be an assassin, part of the sisterhood of the Bel Dames. Now she’s babysitting diplomats to make ends meet and longs for the days when killing was a lot more honourable.

So, when her former ‘sisters’ lead a coup against the government, she’s the perfect choice to stop them. But can one lone assassin stand a change against the elite?
~~~~~
Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha has had an interesting publication history, some of which she discussed here. Infidel, the second installment (and the often-difficult middle book), was published at the start of this month. It’s also an interesting case study in the Queering the Genre product; the Bel Dame Apocrypha has queerness as the unmarked state, at least in one culture, but at the same time it’s only on one access of queerness…

Hurley’s pseudo-Islamic societies were first introduced in God’s War; one, Nasheen, is a matriarchy due to the meatgrinder of the war with Chenja, it’s patriarchal neighbour that is more immediately recognisable to Western eyes as a repressive Arabic state. Both present case studies of responses to the mass-slaughter of one gender, in the context of the same base religio-cultural imperatives; Chenja controls its women very strictly, enforces femininity, demands their subservience to men. Nasheen is run by women, controlled by women, policed by the Bel Dames – women trained to kill, nationalised bounty hunters who mainly go after traitors and male deserters. In all the societies of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, of which we see more in greater detail in Infidel than ever before, this rigidity and inflexibility of gender roles hold true, although the margins have different rules, and it is in the margins that Nyx exists. The place queerness exists is in the utter unremarkability of female homosexuality in Nasheen; the lack of men normalises it as a way to, as it were, scratch the sexual itch, and Hurley’s treatment of this as utterly unremarkable when writing Nashenians and utterly strange when writing Chenjans demonstrates the oddity of anti-homosexuality attitudes.

Of course, that’s largely side-story in Infidel, where it played some – although still not extensive – role in the plot of God’s War. Here, Hurley is writing much more of an intrigue, and somehow an even more grimdark one than God’s War; the brutal meatgrinder of war, the horrific damage of an internal civil war, the politics of those around a long-term war (Hurley’s absolute contempt for the Tirhani, an arms-dealing nation selling to both sides and trying to prolong the war because of it, is very clear). It’s a complex plot, but one Hurley pulls off; Nyx’s determination and the way she doggedly chases down the plot amongst the Bel Dames to overthrow the queen, and the way all sides use and abuse her, is fantastically executed. It’s a dark and strange plot, but Hurley carries off the twists and turns excellently.

It’s hard to assess the characters of Infidel, however, because they’re tied in, in a number of ways, to the events especially at the end of God’s War. Indeed, despite the six-year time gap between the two novels, Hurley’s characters are defined by the traumatic events at the end of the book; it’s excellent writing, and the ways that the effects of decisions and actions taken at the end of God’s War impact on the characters are well explained within the novel to allow new readers to jump into the series in book 2. Indeed, Infidel avoids the middle-book problem by being both a standalone novel that provides a satisfactory conclusion and is self-contained, but also drawing on the events and character development of God’s War.

I wouldn’t say Infidel is a book I’d have read for the Queering the Genre project if I’d known how little role it played going in; on the other hand, it is a fantastic, and very feminist book, and as a whole Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha so far are a fascinating case study in the normalisation of homosexuality.

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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.
~~~~~
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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