I’m slogging through a book — review will follow soon — that’s using two different systems of gender-neutral pronouns: xe/xir and e/eir depending on the culture of the person in question.
So here’s my tiny rant, to all you sci-fi authors out there:
I applaud your actions that incite progress in accepting a wide variety of humans in our present reality via the way you imagine future or fictional worlds.
However, your readers live in this one, and we currently have no established, familiar, comfortable gender-neutral pronoun set, though they/them works ok in real life. Generally, if I’m talking about someone I know to someone else who knows them, the pronouns aren’t a big deal. We both know Mickey, and we can talk about Mickey in a text message without breaking syntactic sense: “I’ve asked Mickey to bring their cooler too, in case we need it. They said they’ll be here around 3pm.”
In a story, it’s different. In a story, where everyone is made up and nothing can be assumed, the author has to create reality for the reading one word at a time. In that environment, the gender-neutral pronouns are disruptive. Actually, I think they make some books and stories unreadable.
Just to be clear, I’m NOT saying it’s ever ok to misgender individual people in real life. If I had a friend who wanted me to use xe/xer as xer pronouns, I would do so without complaint….because it’s a small thing for me to do but large in acknowledging who xe is. However, the reality of xer’s full existence as a person looms large beyond the pronoun selection. Zer’s face comes to mind when I use zer’s name.
[See how annoying that paragraph is, because you don’t have this person firmly planted in your own mind? Yeah. Try reading 300 pages of it.]
Pronouns are the backbone of a language, along with other critical “function words” like prepositions. Central grammatical structures change slowly over time, if they change at all. English has been using I/you/she/they pronouns for what, a thousand years now? We can count on one hand the significant shifts to core grammar: the loss of thou/thee and ye from 2nd person pronouns; the Great Vowel Shift; the elimination of verb endings for individual person/number in the indicative. (We went from “I know, thou knowest, he knows” to “I know, you know, he knows.”)
By the 21st century we’ve lost a lot of clausal complexity, and YA writers are addicted to tagging every single line of dialogue with a “he/she said” marker. (Lazy writing!) Latin endings are nearly dead…. I cringe when I hear “indexes” and especially “curriculums.” *shudder* And the subjunctive mood is on its deathbed. Am I the only person who shouts correct grammar at the radio when the singer intones, “I wish she was you?” But those shifts are minor compared to the loss of verb endings or changes to pronoun structure in the early Modern era. Most of the time, our language keeps up with the times by shedding old words, inventing some new syntax (especially among youth), and adding new vocabulary every day. Not by breaking its spine on purpose to insert a new one.
I sincerely hope that English speakers come up with an agreed set of neutral pronouns, since it seems like we indeed need them. I don’t know anyone personally who is genderqueer, but I want them to have pronouns available, and I’m happy for all kinds of people to see themselves represented fairly in stories.
But right now, this thing that sci-fi writers are trying to do? This is too much.
You can’t shove whole new systems of pronouns at people in a 300 page novel and assume it’s just going to work. I read a story for the Hugo ballot this year that focused on a set of twins. One was clearly female and the other was genderqueer until [he] chose not to be. When they were children, the author referred to individual twins using “they/them”
….except they are TWINS.
For crying out loud. How the hell am I ever supposed to know whether the author was referring to one twin or the other or both of them?
If I hadn’t been reading for Hugo voting, I would have stopped immediately. Linguistic confusion makes poor writing, no matter how noble your cause.
Also, the current slate of popular sci-fi novels are stocked with like 50% non-hetero people and 25% genderqueer people, but …. human reproduction doesn’t work like that! This isn’t how biological evolution tends to progress. Current demographic data is fuzzy, but recent data suggests the entire population of LGBTQ+ individuals is less than 5%.
Look, I get it. Oppression leads to revolt which leads to change — and that is GOOD. I want to see acceptance be the norm in society, so the 5% of non-hetero folks are happy being who they are without fear. And making sure people have stories that reflect who they are. All of those things are good, and we’re getting a lot more of it in mainline media now, not just fringe.
But this pronoun thing has got to get sorted out, and it’s not going to happen by every frackin’ book published in 2018 using xim, ze, or eir to refer to characters constantly.
I think this current trend (especially in sci-fi/fantasy) reduces these characters to merely their gender identity, often giving us little else to round out the picture. As a reader, I’m left with an odd mental picture of a person who’s nothing but zir genitalia and sexual preferences and fashion habits. I think that’s reductionist and demeaning to the real humans who exist as genderqueer.
I fully support the inclusion of all kinds of characters into all kinds of stories. It’s just that few fictional universes make sense with majorly disruptive notions of gender identity crammed into the cultural development and world-building because “that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days. ”
Ursula LeGuin wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read, Left Hand of Darkness (Amazon), about a planet whose people exist within a single gender identity except when they differentiate for mating. I wasn’t annoyed by her prose even once. Authors can tell incredible, powerful stories without annoying the hell out of their readers by futzing with one of the backbone features of English syntax.
I’m firmly on the side of the SJW’s making life better for all people, but I’m longing for the pronoun fest to calm down so I can get back to reading stories for the reason I pick up books: to be challenged by big ideas and to learn something about humanity. Not to wander each page in confusion wondering who said what, or stopping every fifth word to process a sentence like “E sent xim a note through eir datapad asking if xe could bring eir’s favorite wine for supper tonight.”
Ugh. *puts book down, walks away*