When people write without considering the implications of material culture & social space in the story they are writing, they often unwittingly default to an expression of how they believe the past worked. This is especially true if they are not thinking about how the material and the social differ from culture to culture, across both space and time, or how it might change in the future.
Which details a writer considers too unimportant to include may often default to the status quo of the writer’s own setting and situation, the writer’s lived experience of social space, because the status quo does not need to be described by those who live at the center of a dominant culture.
This is a fantastic observation, and I would extend it a little further -- when the writer leaves out world building details, the readers are going to fill them in, and whether it was the author's intention or not, the readers will default to either the writer's dominant culture or their own. And this got me to thinking about John Scalzi's latest novel, Lock In.
(Note: Spoilers ahead! Well, sort of. No plot spoilers, but there are storytelling spoilers, one in particular that Scalzi seems to have gone out of his way not to mention. So if learning that kind of thing in advance of reading the book will bother you, read the book before you read my comments. It's a great book, and a fast read. So go on, read it. We'll wait.)
Lock In is a near-future detective story set in a world where a significant portion of the population contracted a disease called Haden's Syndrome, which leaves many of its victims "locked in" -- fully conscious, but unable to move, speak, or otherwise interact with the world without assistive technology. The book features a complex and satisfying murder mystery, but it's also about the ways in which Haden's Syndrome has changed the world. The main character of the story, Chris Shane, is a Haden and a rookie FBI agent deeply involved in the murder case.
Scalzi's world building is somewhat minimalist, which is typical of his style, but for the most part it works. He drops just enough detail at just the right time to give readers the sense of how the world has changed and how it's remained the same. But that's not why the Elliott article struck a chord with me in regards to this book.
The really fascinating thing Scalzi does with this book involves how he describes his protagonist, which is essentially not at all. Although hints are dropped earlier in the story, it's not confirmed that Chris is African-American until near the end of the book (when Chris's father, Marcus, is described as a black man), and Chris's gender* is never revealed. When I noticed what was happening, about halfway through, I couldn't quite believe it -- I figured there must have been some throwaway pronoun use I had forgotten. So I went back to check, and lo and behold, I was right. The book is written in first person, and no one ever uses a pronoun or a gendered term of any sort to refer to Chris in dialogue. But this narrative choice is completely seamless. It never makes the writing awkward, largely because Chris has no physical presence in the story. In almost every scene, Chris has no body to describe, so we never look for the author or narrator to describe it. I might not ever have even noticed, if I hadn't been thinking idly about the audiobook, which was produced in two different versions, one read by Amber Benson (a woman) and the other by Wil Wheaton (a man). And that's when I realized that Chris could be any gender, including agender, genderqueer, bigender -- anywhere on the spectrum. We don't know how Chris identifies, and that identity has absolutely no bearing on the story.
My first thought was along the lines of "Well that's pretty awesome; kudos to John Scalzi for pulling it off." And I still feel that way, and I hope people have lots of interesting conversations about identity and presentation in a post-Haden universe, where technology makes it possible to interact with the world without depending on a human body. But that's not what this essay is about. This is about the assumptions made by readers. When I first started the book, I assumed that Chris Shane was a white man. I never made any kind of conscious decision to cast Chris as white and male; it's simply that I've learned to default to that assumption in the absence of further information -- a name, a pronoun, a physical description, stereotypically gendered behavior (of course all these assumptions can also be problematic). I was forced to confront my assumptions about Chris's race fairly early on, when we learn that Marcus Shane was a professional basketball player (see what I mean about problematic?). But nothing in the text ever challenged my assumptions about Chris's gender -- I came to my realization based on factors completely outside the reading of the book itself. And as I read Kate Elliott's essay, I had to wonder: how many people, reading that book, will make the same assumption I did and cast Chris as a man, never realizing what they have done?
I want to be clear that I don't mean this as a criticism of Scalzi or of the book. Whether Scalzi obscured Chris's gender as a writerly exercise or as a purposeful commentary on the post-body society, I think it was an interesting choice, and I enjoyed seeing how he made it work. But we should also never forget that ambiguity will always tend toward the status quo, unless we work hard to fight against it.
*It bears mentioning that Chris's sex is also kept ambiguous.
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