Imperial Radch Part 1: Radchaai Linguistics–“she was probably male”

my heart is a fish

So, this started out as a simple review of Provenance, the latest book by Ann Leckie, sci-fi writer extraordinaire. But it quickly devolved evolved into an in-depth look at the world of the Imperial Radch and all the varied thoughts that came to the surface as I was reading.

Part 1: Radchaai Linguistics–“she was probably male”

Provenance is the latest book by Ann Leckie, author of the Imperial Radch series that started with Ancillary Justice. She raked in the Hugo, Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke award for Ancillary Justice which should tell you just how world-churning of an entry she made onto the science fiction scene. When I started reading the series I simply devoured it.

Minor synopsis for the uninitiated:

There’s a giant multi-galaxy empire called the Radch. Not aliens. Just humans so far into the future that their culture is radically different from any we know. Glove-wearing, tea-drinking, and honor-obsessed. The main character is a military starship AI that can control thousands of human ancillary bodies. It’s a long, complicated plot, but suffice it to say that what was once an AI with thousands of bodies, connected to a human crew, and tasked with military missions and purpose is whittled down to one single ancillary–One Esk Nineteen.

That’s not even one of the most interesting parts. In the Radchaai language, there are no gender-defining words, no he vs. she pronouns. Everyone is simply referred to as ‘she.’ The Radchaai make no effort to differentiate gender and neither does Leckie, leaving the reader a little at sea when attempting to visualize the characters, much less make judgements about their actions.

Not to mention that Ann Leckie’s writing style is particularly cryptic. The stereotypical writing advice “show, don’t tell” is often taken to an extreme. Pair that with the 1st person narration of an AI who still doesn’t fully understand humans and why they do they things they do and…well…Leckie makes the reader work to understand. Something I really admire.

But I digress. The twist on gender is one of the more interesting things about the Imperial Radch universe. It’s one thing to know that a lot of unconscious bias occurs because of a person’s gender. It shapes our perceptions of them, our interpretations. But it’s quite another to have that crutch so blatantly snatched away. It made me question how I read. Would I have thought differently of this character if I knew she was, in fact, a man? Why? Would it have made much of a different in her (his?) behavior anyway.

Behind me one of the patrons chuckled and said, voice mocking, “Aren’t you a tough little girl.”

I turned to look at her, to study her face. She was taller than most Nilters, but fat and pale as any of them. She out-bulked me, but I was taller, and I was also considerably stronger than I looked. She didn’t realize what she was playing with. She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak—my own first language—doesn’t mark gender in any way. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me.

excerpt from Chapter 1 of Ancillary Justice 

Linguistically, this kind of gender-neutral language doesn’t exist on Earth. Sure, we have grammatically neutral languages where nouns, adjectives, and adverbs are largely gender-neutral. English itself is one of those languages. I still remember how strange it was to memorize genders when I started taking Latin as a foreign language. Anima, the soul, is female. Dies, the day, is male. And still others are neuter, or have both masculine or feminine endings. As an English speaker, it was odd. Just as learning a language where nouns and such don’t have genders is probably odd for others.

But all languages have semantic gender. Words for man and woman. Father and mother. Son and daughter. Even if they aren’t grammatically gendered, they are gendered by their definition.

And that’s where the Radchaai language differs so fundamentally from any on Earth. Part of me wonders how that could have evolved. I can buy that the Radch are so advanced that they don’t need gender-differentiating terms in day-to-day life or the workplace. But medically there’s still an undeniable difference between male and female that should be taken into account. Maybe they have words and phrasing that bypass that whole problem altogether. Probably. But it’s still interesting to think about.

Leckie’s use of ‘she’ as the dominant non-gendered pronoun seemingly creates a universe of women, where I was surprised every time a character was revealed to actually be male. And even when they were revealed to be male (cough a certain arrogant someone cough), I still forgot that they were for quite a while. It took an actual re-read for me to remember. Maybe that’s my fault for not paying better attention, or maybe it says something significant. Either way, it definitely upsets the ‘default’ in many English languages of using the male pronoun to refer to groups of men and women, but the female pronoun to refer to only groups of women.

As I was browsing the interwebs for other articles on this, I was surprised by the reasons behind some of the negative reactions. Being shocked or offended by using ‘she’ was expected. Leckie meant to be shocking. But some were disappointed that a supposedly non-gendered society used ‘she’ pronouns, even going so far as to name it erasure of non-gendered people. If everyone is a ‘she,’ then there are no non-binary characters.

Some of the great articles I unearthed are below:

I tend to disagree with the non-binary argument posed by some. As far as I see, Leckie was striving to create a truly alien culture where labels like straight, gay, queer, etc, didn’t matter at all. In that sense, I think she was successful. There is an argument for how that use translates to our culture, where such labels are still pervasive (but maybe that’s, in part, the reason for Provenance). Either way, her use of ‘she’ was purposefully disruptive; and it certainly disrupted my reading experience. I spent so much more time struggling to get a sense of the characters, trying to interpret their actions as best I could, than I normally do. But that only made the reward of comprehension that much more satisfying in the end.