Welcome to my stop on the TBR and Beyond Tours Book Tour for Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer. When I found out about this tour, I was excited to learn about a new to me adult science fiction series to try. I’ve been wanting to read more (any) adult science fiction, and what better way to start than one published by Tor – a publisher I tend to trust.
Ada was kind enough to do a guest post on her thoughts for creating a society that doesn’t recognize gender. Be sure to scroll all the way down to read her thoughts! Thanks Ada for taking the time to write this.
Ada Palmer is a historian focusing on the history of censorship and radical thought, especially the ways censorship evolves and changes during revolutions in information technology, from the print revolution to the digital. An Associate Professor in the History Department with affiliations in Classics, Gender Studies, and the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, she works broadly on the history of science, religion, heresy, freethought, atheism, censorship, books, printing, and long-term European history, especially the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Her current research focuses on how studying the print revolution can help lawmakers and corporations make wiser choices today during the digital revolution, while her first academic book Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance (2014) explores the impact of the rediscovery of classical atomism on the development of modern science and thought. She is also a science fiction and fantasy novelist, author of the award-winning Terra Ignota series (four volumes, beginning with Too Like the Lightning, Tor Books), which explores a twenty-fifth century civilization of voluntary citizenship and borderless nations, written in the style of an eighteenth-century philosophical novel. She is a disability activist with a focus on self-care training and invisible disability, a composer of polyphonic a cappella music, studies anime and manga, works as a consultant for anime and manga publishers, blogs for Tor.com, and writes the history, philosophy and travel blog ExUrbe.com, which hosts her recent essay on the question “If the Black Death caused the Renaissance will COVID-19 cause a golden age?” and her celebrated guide to how to find good gelato anywhere in the world, once featured in The Economist.
About The Book
Title: Perhaps the Stars
Series: Terra Ignota #4
Author: Ada Palmer
Publisher: Tor Books
Publishing Date: November 2nd, 2021
Page Length: 586
Genre: Science Fiction
Age Range: Adult
World Peace turns into global civil war.
With the arch-criminal Mycroft nowhere to be found, his successor, Ninth Anonymous, must not only chronicle the discord of war, but attempt to restore order in a world spiraling closer to irreparable ruin.
The fate of a broken society hangs in the balance. Is the key to salvation to remain Earth-bound or, perhaps, to start anew throughout the far reaches of the stars?
The Terra Ignota Series:
- Too Like the Lightning
- Seven Surrenders
- The Will to Battle
- Perhaps the Stars
The final instalment in Ada Palmer’s award-winning, critically acclaimed Terra Ignota series.
The long years of near-utopia have come to an abrupt end. Peace and order are now figments of the past. Corruption, deception, and insurgency hum within the once steadfast leadership of the Hives, nations without fixed location.
The heartbreaking truth is that for decades, even centuries, the leaders of the great Hives bought the world’s stability with a trickle of secret murders, mathematically planned. So that no faction could ever dominate. So that the balance held. The Hives’ facade of solidity is the only hope they have for maintaining a semblance of order, for preventing the public from succumbing to the savagery and bloodlust of wars past. But as the great secret becomes more and more widely known, that facade is slipping away. Just days earlier, the world was a pinnacle of human civilization. Now everyone? Hives and hiveless, Utopians and sensayers, emperors and the downtrodden, warriors and saints scramble to prepare for the seemingly inevitable war.
Guest Post: A Society That (Pretends It) Doesn’t Recognize Gender
Dystopia and utopia are great tools for examining social questions like gender—another tool, subtler and often less conspicuous, is to imagine futures in which gender equality efforts have sort-of advanced and sort-of failed. After all, as shown by the many partial victories and alternating leaps and setbacks that feminism, trans rights, and other progressive movements have encountered in the past century, between perfection and an Orwellian iron boot smashing gender in our faces forever lie innumerable paths to incomplete change, and looking at these can help us reflect on how complex a knot gender tensions truly are.
When I was invited to write this piece about creating a society that doesn’t recognize gender, my first thought was that my books are the exact opposite of that, but I realize they’re the opposite in a very uncommon way. I have described my Terra Ignota world as a future which “failed the endgame” of feminism and gender equality, achieving surface victories while leaving deeper problems to linger. During the 22nd century “Church War,” the groups the narrator calls the “worst of both sides” (i.e. the violent extremist fringe religious groups, including Christian, Muslim, and other groups, which were conspicuous on both sides of the military conflict) were mainly groups which also had more binary and restrictive gender norms than most of the population. Consequently, the cultural reaction against them when peace came created a society in which overt gender expression was associated with violence and religious extremism, and became largely taboo. This triggered post-war changes, such as clothing becoming less gendered, and English and many other major languages adopting gender neutral forms, changes were partly about gender equality but largely, in that historic moment, became cultural tools for publically declaring one’s rejection of factions who were most blamed for the war. We see aftereffects of this in the books’ nearly-genderless dialog, in which most characters use they/theirs for everyone, and in the dominance of gender-neutral fashion. But we also quickly see signs of the opposite: hairstyles and clothing which still code in gendered ways even within the seemingly-neutral label “suit” or “wrap”, in people still recognizing and responding to historical costumes that use the gender use of earlier eras, in gendered behavior used for seduction or manipulation, and especially in the narrator, who we quickly realize uses gender neither the way we do nor the way his culture usually does, and assigns gendered pronouns to characters based on his own conspicuously idiosyncratic ideas of gendered archetypes.
Why the contradictions? Because in this imagined future, the end of formal gendering in the 2100s was also, as the characters describe it, the beginning of a great silence. With its self-declared victory over the most conspicuous marks of gender, the culture declared itself genderless, so stopped examining the question, dissolving offices and institutions designed to address gender inequality, no longer tracking things like gender ratios, hiring bias, pay or education gaps, or hate crimes, no longer considering the intersectionality of gender with other axes of inequality, etc. I modeled this imagined path for the future of gender on the history race relations in the USA, where, after the US Civil War, the abolition of slavery and extension of the vote were for a long time declared enough, so, for decades, other major inequities, such as segregation, wealth and employment gaps, educational exclusion, voter suppression, racially-biased urban planning, and many other forms of systemic inequality continued unaddressed, silence and inaction justified on the grounds that the big things had been done. Even with further civil rights pushes like those of the 1960s, we continued (and continue today) to see not only resistance but denial of the problems, periods of inaction justified by the claim that the previous reforms were enough.
The histories of racial oppression and gendered oppression are very different, and US racism in particular is shaped by many embedded legal and political structures very different from those affecting sexism, transphobia, homophobia etc., but I was interested in depicting what could happen if a similar denial period, enabled by false victory claims, affected a different axis of inequality. After all, one does hear parallel claims made about feminism or gay rights, that with some particular landmark—gay marriage, for example—their work is “done” and the movements “should be over now,” (comments which were much more common when I was first planning the series than post-2016). This aspect of the series is intended as a warning about the danger of such claims, as we see this tactic—the post-false-victory declaration that a moment is ‘done’—which was so effective in slowing down racial equality activism, being picked up by opponents of other civil rights movements, since tools successful in weakening one movement are often reused to target others. I also hope that people who are working to understand the history of race in the US and elsewhere, especially the systemic failures of the post-US-Civil-War period which are so often erased in textbooks and classrooms, might find a useful tool in this depiction of the imagined harms that such a false victory could do to a different equity movement. By picking a different movement to experience the silence—gender, not race—the differences between the fiction and our lived reality are very easy to see, which I hope will make it easier for readers to compare those vivid fictional differences to the real histories of race, both in the US and in many other countries around the globe, where variations of “this isn’t a problem here” or “this isn’t a problem anymore” are still doing damage.
Thus, in world building Terra Ignota, I set out to imagine, not a future which no longer recognizes gender, but a future that pretends it doesn’t recognize gender, the long-term consequence of such a silence following a surface victory for gender, leaving old unconscious biases and systemic inequalities unaddressed. Gender is a social construction, but it’s a very deep social construction, much of which is passed on unconsciously. Studies show how adults treat even newborn infants differently depending on perceived gender—for example when a newborn grips an adult’s finger, the adult is much more likely to test the child’s grip strength by tugging if the child is perceived-male, a precursor to the general rougher play encouraged in male-perceived kids. Such unconscious teaching of behavior differences would, in the Terra Ignota future, continue, not unchanged, but unexamined and unaddressed, so any larger behaviors or inequalities that stem from such invisible sources would continue too. This underlies the strangely layered gendering of my world building, a future that doesn’t acknowledge gender on the surface, but still recognizes gender, and in which unacknowledged cultural constructs of gender still affect the way people act, and treat each other day today, but no one admits or addresses it.
The result is neither utopia nor dystopia, but dissonance, a world which does not have our gender problems, but has new gender problems of its own. For some readers the gender neutral language and clothing feels like liberation. Open-gendered sports and genderless journalistic language make it possible for even celebrities to live without a public gender identity, but it is uncommon, and we see that most people in their daily interactions still fall into gendered patterns. Two important characters—notably Dominic Seneschal and Carlyle Foster—would consider themselves transgender if they lived today, but the Terra Ignota future hits them with a different set of problems from today’s. While gendered pronouns aren’t a daily issue, people still demand and enforce unspoken gender conformity in often-unconscious but still emotionally hurtful ways, but since the society denies the existence of gender, Carlyle lacks an apparatus for articulating and processing the pain of being misgendered, and there is no trans label to embrace, nor trans community through which to find solidarity and help; Dominic in contrast grew up in a segregated community that still uses archaic gender expression, so he has the tools to express his gender, but is consequently viewed with confusion and discomfort by the rest of the world. Their experiences show how this future that suddenly fell silent about gender and gendering might somewhat diminish the daily experience of being gendered or misgendered against one’s wishes and identity, but would also allow individual prejudices, such as belief in a strict binary, or the harmful TERF vein of feminism, to persist unaddressed in people’s unacknowledged actions.
Not all gender development in such an unexamined world would be bad, just unplanned and unexamined. A political group called the Cousins has developed which embodies a number of values which our era associates with the feminine—nurturing, kindness, conscientiousness, running schools and hospitals, clemency, rehabilitative justice—so anyone who feels drawn to those values can freely join that group and be received positively for expressing them, regardless of the person’s gender presentation. This creates a very inclusive path for expressing one set of ideas/values that gender used to cue, but without corresponding ways to express other elements of what gender used to cue, and without acknowledgment of assumptions and stereotypes that follow this covert relic of binary gender roles. I modeled the Cousins partly on 20th century changes in educational labor, and the special case of Finland. Before the second world war, primary and secondary school education systems in many countries relied heavily on female labor, since there were very few avenues of employment open to women interested in scholarship and study, but gendered associations between femininity and nurturing meant that teaching younger pupils was, like nursing and caregiving, considered appropriate for women. Schooling systems relied on their ability to offer extremely low wages and still draw an ample pool of extremely intelligent and capable women who had few other options. Then, as the 20th century saw other avenues of employment open more to women, the pool of people willing to take hard teaching jobs for low compensation shrank, and many school systems faced a crisis-level teacher shortage, and consequent drops in the quality of education. Finland recognized this problem early and stepped in at the government level by offering extremely high teacher salaries, and making it a very exclusive profession with strict entrance exams, granting teaching the prestige and financial benefits of practicing medicine or law. Finland’s school system, now considered the finest in the world, continued to attract extraordinary teachers by noticing that gender had served a function—propping up schools—and that as gendered barriers broke down steps had to be taken to fulfill that function in a new and better way. Dismantling social constructions like the gendering of labor can be a huge equalizer, but has side-effects which can be disruptive if not planned for, much as purging an invasive species from a disrupted ecosystem can have bad short-term side-effects if not managed carefully (too many predators, not enough predators), or as dismantling abbeys during the Reformation or eliminating the nobility during the French Revolution had positive effects but also required creating new infrastructure to fulfill the functions abbeys or nobles used to fill (maintaining roads and bridges, administering justice) and could have negative side-effects on communities if replacements were not put in place. I imagined the Cousins as an institution which developed to take on many the types of labor (including emotional labor and political labor) which society currently codes female, and that by doing so it filled vital and positive functions, like the Finnish school system, but also enabled a version of gendered labor ideas to continue into Terra Ignota’s gender-silenced future, ending the association between “Cousinly” labor and a particular sex or gender presentation, but allowing much of the body of formerly-female-coded labor to continue to be grouped together, with accompanying stereotypes attached, and with global political results both bad and good.
The conspicuous female-coding of the Cousins also raises the question of whether there are corresponding male-coded groups (the Masons are most often suggested by the narrator), though the fact that the feminine-coded Cousins are perceived by the characters in a more gendered way than masculine-coded groups is also intend to depict a continuation of the old attitude (going back centuries especially in Western medicine) that sees male as the human default/normal while female is the other/abnormal, defined by having gender. This attitude is visible in many aspects of our culture, from the testing of pharmaceuticals on men by default, to the marketing of women’s variants of non-gendered products like snacks, games, pens, binoculars, and gardening tools far more often than male-coded variants (i.e. default = male), to syllabus design in which it is so common for the only texts assigned by female authors to be texts about gender, such as how Wollstonecraft’s Declaration of the Rights of Women is assigned so much more than writings by enlightenment women about science or broader politics, or, as Jo Walton observed, how Le Guin’s gender-focused The Left Hand of Darkness is assigned in SF courses so much more often than The Dispossessed. The conspicuous unspoken genderedness of the Cousins vs. the less conspicuous gendering of other groups in Terra Ignota is intended as a partial descendent of the male-as-normal, female-as-gendered attitude, which this underexamined future is still struggling with.
One of my goals in inviting readers to Terra Ignota’s strange mixture of utopia and dystopia was to get readers talking to each other about how different parts of the gender dissonance made them feel. This applies to many parts of the world building. In the realm of religion, for example, Terra Ignota’s future has severe censorship of religious discourse and bans organized religion, and friends who read together often discover that they have very different reactions to this. For some it feels liberating—Great, no evangelical relatives or interfering theocrats forcing their religion on me!—yet for others the silence feels dystopian—No shared holidays? No religious weddings, Passover Seders, or Christmas dinners? Similarly, when two friends sit down to discuss gender in the series, they often discover they had very different reactions to whether the genderless language feels like liberation or erasure, whether a particular instance of gendered expression defying this gender-silenced world felt good or gross, when the narrator’s assignments of gender to characters feel comfortable or jarring, or whether the Cousins feel like an inviting or uncomfortable evolution of today’s gendered ideas.
My hope is that reading Terra Ignota will furnish readers with new tools to reflect on how silence can harm civil rights movements and social progress, and on what a massive array of changes moving toward a society that doesn’t recognize gender would truly entail. While we can imagine other worlds or beings that have never had gender, imagining a path from our present to a genderless future is much more complicated. Gender is a social construct, and like all social constructs can be changed, but it is such a complex and all-saturating construct that—much like race or social class—truly changing it requires changing not only language, law, and policy, but in innumerable tiny practices many of which, like playing with an infant, we do not even recognize as gendered. Achieving that would require robust and constant evaluation, never ceasing studies and analyses to discover and track the many unconscious ways gender affects our thought and actions, to avoid the kind of shallow genderlessness of my imagined 25th century. Achieving that would also disrupt existing systems that depend on gender, and require thoughtful new solutions, like Finland’s solution to the teaching labor crisis, or the Cousins which I depict still imperfect and evolving even in the 2450s. Achieving that could, if not managed carefully, have the potential to harm people like Carlyle Foster or Dominic Seneschal who need gendered conceptual tools to understand and express themselves, or very good new successors to today’s gendered conceptual tools. And achieving that would, if attempted, take time, a multi-century process of change and constant reassessment as each generation learns to pass on less of what it inherited unconsciously from generations before, and to protect better against the unintended side-effects of change. In this sense, changing how gender operates in global society is very much like changing how race operates, or social class, projects which have also seen centuries of gradual efforts to reduce inequality, yet are far from finished, and have had very different speeds of change and degrees of success in different countries and cultures around the globe. And all three are very like another project we now face, the restabilizing of Earth’s climate, which will also take innumerable contributions from innumerable people, and constant reassessment over more than a century, with potentially devastating consequences if we meet some particular target (women’s suffrage, emancipation, gay marriage, carbon-output zero) then declare the project prematurely “done” without examining the many ways its consequences are ongoing. Looking at the messy middle of that kind of process is not comfortable, but by imagining mixed worlds like Terra Ignota—where changes we long for are mixed with changes that alarm us, changes that don’t alarm us but alarm our friends, and things that remain eerily the same—I think we can equip ourselves better to understand what social change of such a scale would really mean.