When people recommend novels to me because of their gender themes I can often be disappointed, because I have a rather different perspective on this to cis people. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a wonderful book, but the Gethenians are not trans people; they change gender entirely naturally, and in a way fully accepted within their culture. John Varley’s Steel Beach was apparently held up (by cis people) as the finest treatment of trans people in science fiction for many years. I found it laughable. So it took me a long time to get around to reading Shadow Man by Melissa Scott. Then again, Matt Cheney has described it as “one of the great science fiction novels of the past 25 years”. As the book is now in my store I figured that I had no excuse for further delay. And you know what, while the whole idea of “great novels” is highly subjective, I think I agree with Matt.
Of course once again the book isn’t exactly about trans people. As I’ll explain, many of the characters in it are intersex, and the book is very much about gender, but the ideas in the book are wholly biological and social; there is no concept of gender identity as separate from biology. None of this should detract from how good the book is at what it sets out to do.
The basic setup is that in the far future mankind has learned to travel to the stars and, as always, there is a price. Frank Herbert’s space pilots famously required “Spice” to allow them to navigate the spaceways. In Shadow Man everyone who travels FTL takes drugs; they need to do so in order to avoid the physiological side-effects. But the drug, hyperlumin, also has side-effects. Everyone who takes it suffers mutations to their DNA, and as a consequence the number of intersex births increases to more than half the population.
Humanity now effectively has five sexes. There are men and women, as there always have been. There are herms, who have characteristics of both men and women (both testes and ovaries, both penis and vagina). In addition there are fems, who have the outward appearance of women but have XY chromosomes, and mems, who have the outward appearance of men but XX chromosomes. Cheney says that this idea is based on the work of biologist Ann Fausto-Sterling, in particular the 1993 essay “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough”, and that seems a reasonable assumption. Five sexes is, of course, still inadequate to describe the whole range of intersex conditions, but it is a start, and it works well for Scott’s purposes.
Most of humanity has long since adapted well to the idea that there are now five sexes (and nine sexual orientations). It is, after all, an obvious biological fact (and for those of a biological bent, nothing compared to the magnificent diversity of slime molds). One planet, however, is different. For reasons of plot, cunningly disguised as a brief dark age in interplanetary civilization, Hara has been cut off the rest of the colonized worlds for a long time. Now it has been re-discovered, but the locals have some very odd and backward attitudes to gender. Despite they fact that they too exhibit the same large proportion of intersex births as the rest of mankind, they insist that there are only two genders. It is written into law. Anyone born mem, fem or herm can choose which gender they wish to adopt, but male or female they must be. There are no alternatives.
Representatives of the rest of humanity trade with the people of Hara, but find them quaint and primitive. Unfortunately they also have sexual needs, and while they can get together with each other, there is also a thriving business for the locals in providing companionship of a variety of types that local law insists are impossible. This is known simply as “trade” because it is, after all, the oldest profession. Responsible companies insist that their staff steer clear of trade, but the locals make a huge profit from it and like to snare the off-worlders in illicit activities so that they can later blackmail them.
The current Haran government, headed by the “Most Important Man”, Temelathe Stane, is happily corrupt and supportive of the status quo, but the effective dictator’s son, Tendlathe, is a radical conservative. As one of the off-worlders explains:
“He’s very sensitive to issue of gender, it seems. And to trade. He seems to think that if they could just get rid of trade, all the herms, mems and fems would just — disappear.”
Tendlathe and his allies are deep in denial. While most of humanity accepts the scientific evidence that the rise in intersex births was caused by hyperlumin, the social conservatives insist that this is a lie, and that the real cause is the moral corruption of the off-worlders.
Scott never says so explicitly, but it is strongly implied that Tendlathe’s hatred for the wrangwys (a general term for mems, fems and herms) is a reaction to his adolescent crush on Warreven Stiller, a herm. Warreven could have chosen to register as female and marry Tendlathe, but instead 3e chose to register as male and become a civil rights lawyer. Tendlathe, it seems, has never forgiven 3im, or got over the shame of being sexually attracted to someone who is legally male.
Those pronouns? Scott uses them throughout: 3e, 3er, 3im, 3imself for herms; %e, %er, %er, %erself for fems; þe, þis, þim, þimself for mems. No pronunciation guidance is given.
The basic plot of the book follows the growing social tensions as, on the one hand, Warreven and 3er allies look for test cases in court that will help bring pressure for political change, while on the other Tendlathe encourages the police and gangs of thugs to take an ever more intolerant attitude towards the wrangwys. Caught up in all this is Mhyre Tatian, an honest and politically aware off-worlder male who befriends Warreven and acts as our lens through which we view the bizarre behavior of the Harans.
Except we shouldn’t see it as bizarre. It seems bizarre to us because we see it through the eyes of Tatian, who is totally comfortable with the idea of five genders. After all, for him that idea is a commonplace. Many of his friends are wrangwys, though they are rarer amongst the off-worlder community because of the discrimination that such people face on Hara. A wise company does not send valuable staff to a world where they will be persecuted.
No, the Harans are not bizarre, they are us. They way in which they try to insist on the existence of only two genders is exactly what we do, in our world, now. The only reason it doesn’t seem crazy to us is that there are far fewer wrangwys in our world, and those that do exist are so likely to be discriminated against that they often hide their nature obsessively. Mems, fems and herms are often not told of their true nature by their parents until they are adults, despite having been forced to undergo “corrective” surgery in childhood to allow them to pass for “normal”.
Shadow Man might be over 15 years old by now, but it shows no sign of aging. The problems faced by the offworld traders, the denial of science by the conservatives, the contentious civil rights trials, the use of paid thugs and corrupt police to bully minority groups when they try to stand up for their rights — all of these things are very much still with us. If Shadow Man were published today, no one would be much surprised, except perhaps by the simplicity of the 5-gender system (Fausto-Sterling herself has admitted that reality is far more complex). What’s more, it is expertly plotted and filled with fascinating characters. The use of the three new sets of pronouns probably put a lot of readers off, especially as it isn’t clear how to pronounce them, but you get used to them fairly quickly.
Of course, being a book that is very explicitly about gender, Shadow Man has not done well in awards and has not been well remembered except in the LGBT community. It won the Lammy and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. Much to my astonishment, it only made the long list of the Tiptree, but then Liz Hand’s Waking the Moon was a joint winner that year, and “And Salome Danced” by Kelley Eskridge was on the short list, so competition was pretty fierce. But if you were to ask me for a list of classic feminist science fiction novels, from now on I am naming Shadow Man on that list.