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Outies, Gender Neutrality and Social Science Fiction

An Interview with Jennifer Pournelle

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Outies - Cover Art

Outies - Cover Art

©Jennifer Pournelle

In 2010, archaeologist Jennifer Pournelle published a sequel to A Mote in God's Eye, a classic "hard science fiction" novel written by her father Jerry Pournelle, and Larry Niven. In Outies, Jennifer Pournelle introduces a gender-neutral human character as the lead. In this interview, conducted by email in February 2011, Dr. Pournelle discusses why she wrote the book, what gender neutrality means, and how social science fiction applies to archaeology and the modern world.

About.com: Why did you write a sequel to A Mote in God's Eye with a gender neutral aspect? What was your initial motivation and did that change over time? Is that motivation specific to the Motie series, or science fiction in general, or is it separate?

Jennifer Pournelle: Mote was written in the early 1970s, roughly contemporaneously with LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness. Both of those works were pretty edgy for their time, but we've learned a lot about the biology of sex and the sociology of gender since then. I didn't see how it could be possible to approach a group of species whose very motivational and social definition centered on their putative reproductive biology without re-addressing those issues. Gender issues are all around us now, including (and especially) in the military.

Is this your first attempt to write a gender-neutral character? How would you define "gender-neutral"? Is it some inborn characteristic of your lead character Asach Quinn, or is it just that you wanted the reader to make up his/her mind about the character's gender?

JP: Well, this is my first novel, so yes. Since "gender" is a social construct, it's not possible for it to be inborn. A child may have inborn preferences for bright paisleys, silk fabrics, rich perfumes, and long, curly locks - but depending on social context, those preferences may be considered feminine (20th century America), or masculine (16th century Turkey). So, in that sense, gender neutrality is situational too. But in general, I wrote Asach as a character who has lived in so many societies that Asach simply dresses, behaves, and acts with utter disregard for any (local) conventional ideas about what is "masculine" or "feminine." This means that some see Asach as one; some as the other, and some neither notice or care.

How extensive is this aspect in Outies? Are other (human) characters deliberately gender-neutral, or just Asach?

JP: Well, to my mind, Asach was the only human deliberately constructed as a gender-neutral. However, there are other female characters that spend no time whatsoever with hair and nails, and other male characters who are not the least concerned with musculature and bravado. Unlike Asach, however, they ARE identified as being male or female, which may inspire readers to mentally ascribe to them secondary gender characteristics - or to view them as crossing gender lines.

Writing Outies

What do you want the reader to get out of your novel?

JP: That monolithic viewpoints tend to drown out available options. That "first contact" is not a singular event. That urban sustainability depends upon ecological sustainability. That local people are not necessarily incompetent. That religion is as much about organizing principles as about belief systems. That the "hard science" in science fiction isn't (or should not be) limited to physics and rocketry - to genuinely do "hard science," you need to get your biology, geology, archaeology, anthropology, etc. right too.

What were the mechanics? When you began your novel, visualizing the scenes with Asach, did you ever visualize him/her as gendered? At what point did you decide to make Asach gender-neutral?

JP: At the outset. I wanted a human character that in some ways had more in common with Moties than with other humans.

How difficult was it to write Asach? Did you need some specialized editing to remove any leftover gender cues? What are "gender cues" anyway?

JP: Asach's point of view - the slightly jaded pragmatist - is an outgrowth of my own, so out of all the characters Asach was the easiest to write. I did have to double-check that I'd never referred to Asach with a gendered pronoun. I discovered that I had slipped once or twice. It's not easy to eliminate referential pronouns without sounding stilted. Obvious gender clues are items of apparel, mannerisms, habits of speech, hairstyles -- but what would those be, a thousand years hence? So other than Asach's cloak, and passing references to Asach's "inappropriate" hair, I was careful never to offer a physical description.

Did you ever consider writing the novel with a gendered Asach? I'm not kidding when I say I would have liked to have seen an explicitly female Asach, so I'm very curious as to why you chose not to do that.

JP: You are conflating biological sex (male/female) with gender (masculine/feminine). I wanted Asach to share a similar biology with Moties. Therefore, Asach could not be "female," because Moties are neither male nor female - they are both. As for gender, the Moties have no concept of gender - and I envisioned Asach as being so jaded with the project of changing, conforming, and reconforming to gender expectations across multiple societies as to be beyond its pull.

Is Asach a new type of human or were you vamping on existing ideas of gender neutrality?

JP: In the late 1990's, I was co-chair of the UCSD Chancellor's Advisory Committee on LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersexed) issues. At that time, we had a number of presentations by members of the transgendered and intersexed communities. As I got to know them, and listened to their concerns, struggles, and accommodations, I came to realize that, as a member of the "flannel shirt and overalls" generation, we had much more in common than I would have thought. Books like Jeannette Winterson's Written on the Body and Eugenides' Middlesex opened up those issues to the general reading public. So I thought it might be time to take them on in the Mote universe. All of that informed the Asach character.

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