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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