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Hadens, Chris Shane, Gender and Me

Written by John Scalzi

About five years ago, when I started writing Lock In, for which my upcoming novel Head On is the sequel, I decided one important thing about the protagonist, Chris Shane: I decided that I would not know, and would not seek to know, Chris’ gender.

I decided this for a couple of reasons. One reason was that in the world of Lock In (and now Head On), there’s a thing called Haden’s Syndrome, in which people are locked into their bodies by a disease. Because of that disease “Hadens” encounter the world through an online community called the Agora, and by remotely piloting android bodies called “threeps.” Chris is a Haden and presents in a threep, and threeps are not (necessarily) gendered. So when people encounter Chris out in the world, they would not know if Chris is male, or female, or non-binary, or other, unless Chris chose to say. My feeling is that Chris wouldn’t say—even to me. Because it’s not necessarily anyone else’s business. So there’s that.

But another reason is that I thought that Hadens, because of various aspects of how they interact with the world and how they interact with each other, would not necessarily always place the same emphasis on gender that other humans might traditionally do. As noted above, Hadens have the option of not presenting any obvious gender at all, but more than that, they might decide, as part of the natural development of their community, that gender simply isn’t as important, or, even if it were, that it could be flexible in various contexts—one might present as male to some people, female to others, or non-binary or non-gendered to still others. When you meet people with your mind first, they are not prejudiced one way or another with your body (they still might be prejudiced in other ways, of course).

That being the case, while I think many Hadens would feel and be strongly gendered, I thought that many would not be, and would feel more at ease being non-binary or on a gender spectrum—and even many of those who felt gendered might not choose to make that gender known publicly. To those they trust, sure. To the public at large, maybe not so much. Because that was an option, and because that could be a growing aspect of an emerging Haden culture. It’s a speculative aspect of a speculative community.

To get back to Chris, knowing that I wouldn’t know Chris’ gender even before I started writing my novel (now novels) meant I spent a non-trivial amount time thinking about presenting my character in the world, and through speech and action. What I didn’t want to do was write a gendered (and given my own defaults, that meant probably male) character and then just erase all mention of gender. It’s not enough to just drop pronouns. I wanted to make an authentic non-gendered presentation, for a person who chose not to have gender a topic for general discussion, and lived life accordingly.

Whether I did this convincingly is up to the individual reader. I can say that after two books writing Chris, I’m happy that readers tend to gender Chris—or not!—depending on their own inclinations. My wife is convinced Chris is a woman and uses the corresponding pronouns when she discusses the character. Other people are convinced Chris is a “he” and proceed accordingly. Still others picture Chris’ gender as fluid. Some, like me, choose not gender Chris one way or another—or at least choose to follow Chris’ lead in keeping gender out of the general discussion.

As the author, I don’t have any particular problem with readers gendering Chris to their own satisfaction, whether male, female, non-binary or none of the above, and I think it’s interesting watching how people choose to answer that question for themselves, and how that influences and changes the experience of reading Lock In and Head On.

I should be clear that my choices in presenting Chris as a character are my own, and that I don’t see myself as a spokesperson on gender issues in general. Like many “cishet” folks, I’m still learning and trying to stay open to the experience of life that people outside gender norms live and choose to share with me and others. I’ve especially been grateful to the non-binary people I know who have talked to me about the world of Lock In, and their own thoughts about Chris, whatever those thoughts may be. They help inform my thinking, and the development of the world of the Hadens. And that’s a good thing, I think.

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35 thoughts on “Hadens, Chris Shane, Gender and Me

    1. Oh, gosh, the comment I was replying to got deleted.

      Uhh.

      ANYWAY. I’m NB and I’ll be getting hold of these books. They sound really interesting and I look forward to forming my own opinions about Chris!

  1. So Chris doesn’t say because ‘Chris’ is a remotely piloted Android body, piloted remotely by an andriod body remotely piloted by an android body? Now I’ve got to read the books.

    1. Erm…android body piloted by someone who has a human body that is immobilized with “lock in” syndrome (real thing) and has had surgery so that they can do remote piloting.

      But yes, read it, it’s very cool. I was originally heebie jeebied by the subject matter being too close to home for me with my dad’s illness, but the first one rocked.

  2. Whenever discussing Lock In, my first instinct is to always refer to Chris as he. I always catch myself immediately afterwards, but that first instant is kind of embarrassing. It doesn’t help that I never even really caught on to the non-specific gender until after I’d read the book and then saw Scalzi mention it and it was like, Wow, it really wasn’t ever stated, was it?

    Lock In is awesome by the way, completely aside of the non-specified gender of the protagonist. And the preview of Head On gives me real hope for another solid read.

  3. John Scalzi is one of my top 6 authors – ever. Head On is brilliant on so many levels. Stunningly well thought out from the perspective of the character, the culture, plot lines and voice. I can’t wait to read the second book in this world. All of his books make you want to read them over and over again. My advise is to buy everything he has written. However, be warned. After you finish all of his published work it is close to agony to wait for him to produce his next book.
    Thank you, John, but please get back to work!

  4. The non-specific gender thing has been interesting to me. I find I think about Chris as sometimes male, sometimes female. But outside that, the stories are just really good. They’re good police procedural/mysteries and have as the lead character, this person Chris.

    So a good read either as a gender exploration, or as a good story. Works either way. I’ve had the new book preordered for a while now knowing it’ll be a great read too.

  5. Funnily enough. Until this post I had never questioned the fact that Chris was female.
    (Yes, of course, female myself, trans too)

  6. Hello, I find it difficult to Think of Chris as a female. Only reading the Name – Chris is usually a Male Name.
    It would work better if the name were truly nongendered. What if the name were for example Ashley? Would people think mostly of female first or male? Or what do others think?

    1. In the US, at least, Ashley has become overwhelmingly a girl’s name, so I’m not sure it’s the example I’d use. As a girl’s name, it’s been in the top 100 for babies since 1978, and was in the top ten from 1983 to 2005 (and #1 or 2 from the mid-80s to the mid-90s). As a boy’s name, it’s hasn’t even been in the top 1000 since 1994, and hasn’t been top 300 since 1981.

    2. Chris (and Kris, the spelling of my version) split almost 50/50 M/F in the American population, so it’s a good choice. If it doesn’t seem like an even split to you, that’s probably an accident of the particular Chrises that you know.

    3. I have seen Chris as a given name for men a lot more than for women.

      But between Christophers, Christians, Christina, Kristophers, Kristinas, etc, I once concurrently knew over 130 people who went by a name that sounded like “Chris”. At least 10% were women.

  7. Long time Scalzi fan and loved Lock In but I never picked up on the non gendered aspect while reading. I consider myself fairly observant but John cleverly structured the book so as not to be obvious in his avoidance of gender. Impressive. And to anyone enjoying the books, please read Scalzi’s prequel novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome (available free here on Tor’s website at http://www.tor.com/stories/2014/05/unlocked-an-oral-history-of-hadens-syndrome-john-scalzi). As much as I enjoyed Lock In, I think I liked Unlocked even more.

  8. Really interesting, because I (cishet male) had just assumed that Chris was both male and a man. Another good example of what happens when you assume, I guess.

  9. I assumed Chris was a male, too–that’s kind of the default option for most books written by men or by women, for that matter, if gender isn’t mentioned. I so did not notice the lack of gendered pronouns.

  10. I bought both audiobook versions of Lock In (read by Wil Wheaton and Amber Benson) and switched back and forth in an effort to try to force my brain to NOT lock Chris into a gender. I wasn’t entirely successful, but it was an entertaining and mind-expanding exercise, which is all you can ask from a book.

  11. When I first got online in ’95 (Usenet, ancient history), one friend I met deliberately didn’t reveal their gender and preferred others to not refer to them as “he” or “she”. Mildly broke my editor brain adjusting to ‘singular they’, but… Um. Yeah. It can be necessary – and difficult – in our current world.

    (Me = cishet, female, white, reasonably middle-class until I became disabled starting about 20 years ago. Was interesting, in the Chinese curse way, to be living in homeless shelters on zero income, then on minimum welfare until SSDI finally was approved about four years later – and realizing just how much privilege I still had, *because* I’m white, cis, able to present as sane and middle class while dealing with the system to apply for disability, housing, etc., ad infinitum.)

  12. One of the things you notice when attempting to avoid gender in language in how exceedingly commonplace it is, and how difficult it is to remove gendered references from language without it becoming obvious that you have done so. And when people notice that gender is missing from language, they often have themselves placing inordinate importance on that fact, even becoming annoyed with what seems to them to be artificially refusing to use gender, when it is rather that gender itself which is artifice.

    For those who do not wish to be judged based upon their gender, conversing in ways which do not draw attention to gender are often difficult, with the result seeming detached and impersonal.

    In American culture, for instance, it is commonplace to refer to co-workers by given name, but to always address customers with gendered pronouns, and only in recent years has there been much awareness of how this may be discomfiting to some. While American English has largely done away with gendered nouns and declensions, many other languages have not, such as the Romance languages and German.

    Contrastingly, languages like Japanese are comparatively abstract, with mostly no plural forms or gendered constructions in the language. Even pronouns aren’t that commonly used in Japanese; it is common to use constructions like “that person” or to refer even to oneself by name, and standard honorifics are not gendered for adults.

  13. I really enjoyed Lock In, and I was made aware of the fact that the character never has their gender identified before I read it, so I was looking through to see if there were any clues. And there weren’t (that I could pick up, at least), so mission accomplished there.

    Another good example of being able to confront the reader with their own assumptions on gender is Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy; the society depicted does not place much emphasis on gender and the language itself is non-gendered. So every character is referred to as “she” and “her”, as English still has gendered pronouns. It sticks out enough in your brain that you start to remind yourself that you don’t know the genders of these characters, whereas if the writing used “he” and “him” you would likely have assumed it was all males.

  14. I was already looking forward to reading ‘Head On’.

    I think I’ll gender Chris, but I’m interested to see which way. And I’m curious what I would have done had I not known about the lack of gendering in advance…

  15. One of my first experiences of thinking of a person as non-gendered was when I was pregnant. Think of it: it’s about the most intimate human relationship that it’s possible to have (one human–or proto-human, if you like–is INSIDE the other person), and yet I didn’t know one of the bedrock concepts we use when thinking of another person: I didn’t know my baby’s gender. I decided I didn’t want to know until birth. I wanted to do all my thinking and preparing for “what will I be like as a parent?” without knowing. It wasn’t until I was actually pregnant that it occurred to me how really strange this is for our brains: to think of about a person without knowing the gender.

  16. A nongendered character appeared in The Android’s Dream—a minor character if memory serves—and I noticed quickly and then couldn’t stop noticing it. I’m not sure if it’s changes in me or in John’s writing but I never once noticed in Lock In. I just read Chris as a white male, presumably because I am a white male. I loved learning about the utter lack of gender after the fact.

    I love this kind of thing (when it doesn’t distract from the story, of course). I recently finished rereading Seveneves and realized that some of the key characters are not described in terms of general racial affiliation until very late in the book. It was interesting to find out how the actual character contrasted with my assumptions about them to that point.

  17. I was super annoyed when after reading Lock In I realized that I had gendered Chris without actual input from the text. Scalzi has written previously about straight white male being the default, and I felt like it was too easy to leave Chris in that default if you weren’t paying attention. It’s pretty clear from the story that Chris is not white (their basketball star father is described as an angry black man at some point) but like the gender thing I didn’t actually notice that until the second time through. I felt like it was too easy to default to Lock In being just another story about a white guy (albeit a good one) without any more direct guidance. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention the first time through.

  18. I really appreciated that you had made that effort. My father and brother are both known as Chris which predisposes me to assume that someone called Chris is male unless I am informed otherwise but more generally, I do not assume gender and I have NB and trans friends.

    Lock In and other books such as Ancillary Justice have meant that when I had to do a creative writing exercise recently, I attempted to avoid specifying a gender. I found it much harder as I was writing in French, my second language. I almost succeeded but not quite. There was only a small amount of time to write, about 20 minutes, so I wasn’t too disappointed. Everything else about the character remained completely ambiguous, so I succeeded there.

  19. There’s also a nongendered character in “The God Engines”, and in “The Ghost Brigades”, and probably in other Scalzi books that I need to reread more closely.

  20. I first encountered a non-gendered protagonist in four 1980s mystery novels by Sarah Caudwell. I had read at least two of them before I learned somewhere that the character Hilary was never given a gender. I’d assumed “she,” and I was compelled to re-read them to see how it was done!

    I recommend the books, starting with “Thus Was Adonis Murdered,” to any Anglophile who enjoys intellectual lawyer stories (although I don’t know how dated they seem now).

  21. When i first read Lock In, it was the audiobook version, read to me by Wil. However, i actually pictured Chris as female. (I’m male, btw)
    Something in the way you (or he) told the story, made me imagine Chris as a female, mentally piloting a threep.
    I have since heard Amber read it, and it just gave it an extra push in the female direction.
    I look forward to hearing them both read me Head On.
    Thank you so much, John. You and your many wonderful books have enriched my life.

  22. I found the entire discussion interesting – and then was very interested to see John refer to “gender norms” at the end of his statement. Isn’t the point that “norm” is not a thing with regards to gender?

  23. I related more to the “disability norms” questioned by “Lock In.” People with physical disabilities are often treated as though they also have severe cognitive disabilities, especially non-verbal people. The ability for non-verbal people to speak was fascinating to me.

    The non-gendered aspect reminds me of the Hilary Tamar character in the mystery series by Sarah Caudwell. I definitely saw Hilary as female since male Hilary’s aren’t too common in US. I’ve know a lot of male and female Chris’s and I assumed Chris was female too. Then again so am I 😉
    Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981)
    The Shortest Way to Hades (1985)
    The Sirens Sang of Murder (1989)
    The Sibyl in Her Grave (2000)

    Looking forward to Head On.

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