This is the eighth part of a series of articles on The Tyrant Baru Cormorant—part review, part meta, part commentary. For intro and links to the others, go here!
Hello again, dear readers. It has now been more than a year since I last wrote about Baru Cormorant. That is tragic and I regret leaving you hanging for so long. A lot has been happening in that time, and most of my creative efforts have gone into learning animation.
But I won’t abandon the effort. After all, this next subject is very close to the heart: the question of gender.
- All right then lady, what is gender?
- Egregregory who?
- The demon gender, cruellest of egregores
- Baedlings, ergi, and ‘procht’
- And The Genders
- Gender in the Mbo
- Horse-archers and anti-mannism
- Aminata and her whores
- Isometric exercise
- Conditioning, socialisation, and Baru’s sexuality
- The parents
- Exorcising the egregore
- How did it come to this?
- But can we get rid of it?
Gender is, although only sometimes discussed directly, a very important component of the Masquerade series. This is obvious from the premise: Baru is a lesbian, she comes from a homophobic dystopia. But it’s also closely related to the broader themes of the book. All that stuff we said about self-replicating systems and means of social control—after all what is gender if not that?
All right then lady, what is gender?
Hahahahahahhaa god where do you even start. There’s a reason it’s taken me a full year to get to this point!
‘Gender’ is something which, if you are a human reading an article written in the English language, you certainly already have some idea about. Possibly a very carefully studied and sophisticated idea about.
You will have been raised in a society run through with the narrative that there are two kinds of people, referred to with distinct types of language, associated with different classes of labour and symbol clusters and ethoses (…ethea?) and emotional ranges.
But on top of this ‘explicit’ model, you will have developed a much subtler ‘implicit’ understanding of the different kinds of people there are: how the two ‘kinds’ are inflected by the whole suite of social markers like class and race and so on, and the different roles that occupying a particular gender implies modulated by circumstances. A very stereotypical white woman’s life might be defined by the expectation she perform as a dutiful caregiver and dainty ornament in a nuclear family, an equally stereotypical Black woman’s life might be shaped by an expectation of absolute emotional resilience and willingness to serve. But for both of them, the large scale picture is made up of a lot of smaller ones: the particular way you express gender around your parents and your BDSM club are probably a little different.
Of course, along with this sense of the very complicated play of how to do a gender, you will have gotten the message that it’s all laced with a severe threat: DO NOT FUCK IT UP. Like god, do you want to be a faggot? A tranny? Before you have any sense of critical thinking you’ll be introduced to the idea that there are gender un-persons, and they represent both an omnipresent threat of social decay, and also a convenient outlet for all kinds of violence and unwelcome desires you wouldn’t want to perform on a real person. (Depending on all those other social markers, someone might be considered a gender failure automatically in some circumstances; in others, it may be necessary for a group to gradually settle on who gets to be the bottom. Uh, on the bottom. But more on that later.)
Which means the whole thing is poised in a state of total precipitous instability. Terrifying if you’re cis and straight; if you manage to rewire your brain in the right way with a little trauma in the right spot, an opening for delicious rebellion.
From such a description, it’s hopefully clear I think of gender not as some essence that each person has, but something that we’re all constantly creating by acting as if gender is real. Enacting, if you like, like a ritual.
Like magic? Oh yes, very much like magic.
I think it’s time to deploy one of my favourite occultist concepts: the egregore.
We’ve seen a story in which one person develops another mind inside her body… but why should a thoughtform be limited to just one person? Could a group of people, through their collective behaviour, act as if animated by some kind of entity… an entity with its own motivations and desires and in particular, reproduction?
The concept of an egregore previously referred to a certain sort of oblivious angel, as Wikipedia relates:
Eliphas Lévi, in Le Grand Arcane (“The Great Mystery”, 1868) identifies “egregors” with the tradition concerning the “Watchers”, the fathers of the nephilim, describing them as “terrible beings” that “crush us without pity because they are unaware of our existence.”
This was picked up by the more postmodern tradition of Chaos Magic (e.g. here). I’m not at all acquainted with that tradition, but when I heard of this concept it struck me as much tastier than similar ideas like ‘meme’ or ‘social construct’.
Throughout this series we’ve been coming back to the idea of reproduction, and the ‘will’ that manifests from the behaviour of a nation. We can call this an egregore: a kind of almost demonic entity expressing itself through the patterns of behaviour.
For example, there is no such thing as a country, as beautifully expressed by R near the end of Nagisa Oshima’s film Death By Hanging. (Though the translation in this Youtube upload isn’t the one I’ve seen floating around, which renders it “I refuse to be killed by an abstraction”.)
But despite this, none of us can ignore the fact that we live in this abstract thing, because everyone around us acts as if countries are real. We can hardly make sense of why someone might walk up and down a stretch of land with a gun, shooting anyone who tries to cross, without the idea that they are ‘defending’ the ‘border’ of ‘a country’. Before long we find ourselves speaking of what, say, ‘China’ or ‘America’ ‘wants’ as a practical handle on geopolitics.
If we want to defect from the idea of countries, we’ll soon find that it is very difficult to reproduce this ‘break’ in any sort of concrete way. I might decide I do not wish to pay taxes, or acknowledge property laws, or walk across a border without a passport… but if I don’t go out of my way to hide my activities, it is very likely violence will be done to me.
And as Fredy Perlman famously remarked, before long this coercive division gives rise to a kind of speciation event creating patterns of language, differences in customs etc. Meanwhile, the believers in countries will go to great lengths to declare their existence in the symbolic realm: constructing rituals, hanging flags etc. to constantly reinforce the notion of, say, ‘Britain exists’ in everyone’s head.
Other egregores have smaller scales and are easier to defect from. Part of the effort of e.g. corporate branding is to enforce in everyones mind that say “Google” actually exists on any level other than a pattern in the behaviour of humans; and hide the individuals who make it up. Soon we start thinking ‘Google wants us to behave this way’ or ‘why did Google pull this product?’.
In each case, we might be able to find a specific human who wants us to behave in a particular way, a human who made a decision to disable the machines that made ‘Google reader’ exist—but that person did it on the belief that it would be profitable for “Google”, whose interests they have defined as their own, and if they were to leave the company, ‘Google’ would appear to take actions still.
What else to call these things but an egregore?
Once we have named them, we can start talking about their reproduction and evolution. To continue to exist, an egregore must continue to inspire people to act as if it exists. A ‘nation’ exists in a relatively stable equilibrium; it may be threatened by secessionist movements and the like but it will be very difficult for a nation to disappear without an extreme act of violence (a genocide, say). An online roleplaying group is much less so, and can easily collapse if people are busy, and fail to observe it for a couple of weeks.
So through its ongoing existence, the egregore must compel humans to think of it when they made decisions, and on longer timescales, must be able to spread itself to others to overcome attrition. We can view history through the lens of individual actors, but we can equally adjust our frame to the ecosystem of egregores fighting each other for control over their human hosts.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this…
The demon gender, cruellest of egregores
Gender is seemingly inescapable: there are very very few societies in history which did not observe something similar to it. We could explain this by claiming that it represents something fundamental and intrinsic to humans: the ‘natural’ division of sex. This belief is known as ‘bioessentialism’. It is one of the more potent weapons in gender’s extensive arsenal.
But as we’ve spent many years hashing out, ‘sex’ is not natural, but the application of gender to biology—“gender in doctor’s clothing” as the pithy quote goes. The fact that human sexual characteristics and reproductive capabilities broadly come in two patterns, with frequent exceptions, says nothing about how this will factor into the organisation of society any more than any other factor of human variation.
Despite this, gender persists. It is one of the longest-lived (and cruellest) egregores: empires rise and fall, human projects of all kinds come to ruin, and still we say there are ‘men’ and ‘women’ and maybe a few other categories, and organise our lives and desires and self-conceptions around this concept, consciously and unconsciously.
It fucking sucks dude!!!
So why is gender so adaptive? We can find many answers to this question, all of them partial, just like Baru’s speech about the various ‘hows’ of the Masquerade’s rise to domination. We can say for example that it is deeply connected to the fundamental question of reproducing humans: the family unit (of whatever scale) and the idea of succession hinges on it. We can take after Freud and acknowledge that sexuality occupies a particularly fundamental role in our desires (impetus to act) and traumas (violently imprinted behaviour patterns), and gender is entirely written in the language of sexuality. We can take after materialist feminists and look at the interests of a dominant class of men, and the benefits they get from having a dependent class assigned to tasks of emotional, sexual and reproductive labour.
For all these reasons and likely more, gender persists. And yet, it is always unstable: at every point in history it has had to delineate a mode of failure…
Baedlings, ergi, and ‘procht’
Of course, when we speak of ‘gender’, we’re talking about very different things at different points in history and different parts of the world. One of the most interesting patterns that has recurred in many different societies is the close connection between taking a penetrative role in sex and being considered ‘male’.
For the ancient Norse, one of the most terrible sins a man could commit was ergi, meaning effeminacy and unmanly behaviour. This was so severe a charge that, if one Norseman was to accuse another of being argr (the adjectival form of ergi), the latter would be expected to immediately challenge him to a duel; if he didn’t make this challenge the accusation would be considered true and the accused would be declared an outlaw, a kind of unpersoning similar to homo sacer. (It keeps coming back to the same things!!) Whether this law was actually enforced beyond the ideal is another question (any more than ‘chivalry’ or ‘bushido’), but it was certainly part of the Norse body of narrative.
What made you argr? One of the causes was practing magic (seiðr); another was bottoming in sex. Thus while in contemporary society all kinds of gay sex are considered evidence of effeminacy, for the Norse, only bottoming carried this severe stigma.
But it’s not just the vikings. In Old English, we encounter the infamous ‘baedling’. I can think of nobody better to introduce it than my beloved Jackie, who pursued her curiosity about the etymology of ‘baeddel’ and ‘baedling’ to a seriously committed study of Old English.
One of the earliest references is in the Canon of Theodore, a penitential manual describing what infractions are appropriate to various ecclesiastical (rather than secular) crimes: this enigmatically introduces the ‘baedling’ as something distinct from ‘man’ (wer) or ‘woman’ (wif), and declares the baedlings especially sinful to sleep with ‘for he is soft, like an adulterer/harlot’. Old English speaking lexicographers, attempting to translate from Latin, further judged ‘baedling’ a suitable translation of ‘effeminatus’. You can read Jackie’s detailed description here, and further discoveries here, here, here and here. The term connects to various others: ‘baedan’ is said to mean ‘to defile’ (though jackie tells me it meant closer to ‘rape’) and passes its name to a nihilist communist journal, ‘baeddel’ is a variant of the ‘baedling’ that rises to enormous prominence when trans women pick it up in the last decade; others are more obscure e.g. there’s a town called Baeddelsmere (which we could gloss as faggot lake, if we wanted to be cheeky).
You may recall a previous time I walked in this territory in soft, like an adulteress—largely a collection of quotes by people who were miles ahead of me in this analysis.
These examples I’ve chosen are mostly western, an artefact of what I’ve happened to learn about—and after all, if I attempted to say what ‘halekon’ or ‘transpinay’ means, someone could very reasonably come up and say “no, you have it all wrong, parochial white girl”, while there are not currently any baedlings in the historical sense around to defend themselves. I do not mean to claim this is a universal model accounting for all the ways gender can break down. But it is a persistent element that seems to be inscribed quite deeply into the thing. We might wonder if there is some fundamental logical fault line in gender which causes it to reach for “there is a kind of terrifying corrupting un-man who loves to get fucked in the ass and tell lies” as a way to rationalise its self-exciting instabilities.
Oh, but this post was about a book. Luckily for us this is relevant because Seth went and put it in there, with the concept of procht and a culture whose gender system is defined entirely on the basis of acting, particularly penetration. Something which becomes very significant here in book 3.
In the books, procht is a term from the Stakhieczi, who live in a mountainous region that is short on arable land but rich in minerals. We occasionally meet Stakhieczi viewpoint characters at home, and from Monster on, we join the character of Svirakir, one of the cryptarchs, who finds himself stuck on a boat with Baru. Naturally they end up talking gender, in which Svirakir describes how his particular self-understanding was a poor fit for his native culture…
“No, no. I was a man by Stakhi reckoning.” He shook his head, dizzied by the gulfs between cultures: to think back on his voyage was to cross not just time but an entire mode of being. “At least I was a man by my age. In the mountains we don’t… it’s not like Incrasticism, see, there’s no concept of an essential male or female nature. You become as you act. That’s why the Stakhi people in Aurdwynn are so fixated on manliness and womanliness: because you can lose those things by acting incorrectly. You can imagine how it was for me at home… wearing a man’s crampons and sitting at the high table as a prince, but making a woman of myself in bed. They would have liked me better if I called myself Princess.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because I’m not a woman. Anyway, princesses don’t inherit. They’re married off to other Mansions. Or they become sacred weatherworkers. They go up onto the mountaintops when they die, to be mummified in the cold dead air. There are crevices full of princesses.”
When Svir says the Stakhieczi are obsessed with gender, he isn’t kidding. In book 3, we encounter viewpoint chapters from the ‘Necessary King’, who is desperately attempting to prove he is worthy of his authority because he will be killed the minute his followers decide otherwise. We first meet him during Monster. He’s very, very afraid of acting unmanly, which is to say, with too much subtlety:
“Svir?” Ataka whispered, but a king cannot whisper, it stinks of procht, the sick-thought of schemers, so he cried it aloud instead. “My brother, Svir, is alive?”
We learn more about ‘procht’ in book 3:
Quotes on procht
The hubris of her! To betray him, to destroy his reign, and then to send an agent sauntering into his court as if she had done nothing wrong. It was the conduct of the worst kind of liar. A woman lost to procht, the sickly thought of schemers.
Procht concerns politics, secrets, and lies. It is generally disliked, but it’s especially sus for a man to behave procht-ly:
“Politics is the art—”
“Of staying in the arena.” He sighed. She said that a lot. When it came out of her mouth—unbound by manly honor, unconstrained by the fear of procht—it made sense.
For fear of procht, our Necessary King will do some stupid shit indeed:
“We care for the eunuch,” Ochtanze snapped, “because he knows secrets no one else can tell us.”
“That’s procht! I told you to leave him on the summit to die!”
Later we see a chapter from Svir’s POV, and while he’s rather less neurotic about the subject, he cannot ignore it:
A round-faced fox had been dogging their trail, which was an omen of procht, the Stakhi word for things which come of thinking. Procht might intimate a well-timed hunting foray or a clever new climbing route. It might also mean treachery afoot. Svir wasn’t hunting for condor eggs or scouting out a place to abseil, so he expected this fox was an omen of treachery.
So that’s one side of it. But the other—if you top, you’re a man, if you bottom, you’re a woman—affords a strange opportunity. Throughout the books, various parties are trying to figure out a way to get the Necessary King on their side as a military power and advance their schemes. The minute Baru meets Svir, she immediately considers packing him off to the mountains as a dowry for her preferred choice of bride. Yawa meanwhile hopes to lobotomise Baru and send her off: the King can get over his loss of face after she snubbed him, and she gets rid of her problem.
Later, Baru and Yawa have a change of heart in keeping with Baru’s newfound sense of ethics. But they still need to solve the Stakhieczi puzzle to get her whole trade route flowing. She discovers that Tain Hu won the right to a Stakhieczi ‘mansion’ (essentially, tribe) in a duel, and this sets off a mad chain of realisations: she very publicly snubbed the King in order to marry Tain Hu, which means she gets the claim. So if she married him, he would be able to secure his power base under Stakhieczi law. The only catch is that he would very much want a kid and Baru very much is not into that.
Barhu thought about this for a moment, this matter of women fucking women, in the context not of Falcrest’s Incrasticism but of Stakhieczi custom as Svir had taught it to her.
“I’m not a woman,” she said. “I’m a man. I can marry women.”
“That’s how it works in the mountains, Svir said. Only a man can marry a woman. But whether you’re a man or a woman is decided by how you act. I can act as a man, and so I can become a man.”
“Act like a man?” Yawa tucked her chin in, put up her heels like she was wearing horse-archers, crossed her arms in a pantomime of Falcresti manhood. “Exactly what are the qualifications?”
Barhu described the qualifications with her hands. Yawa laughed like a gutter girl. “Oh! You always struck me as the one on the other end—”
Most of the fandom, in my experience, shared Yawa’s opinion.
This allows Baru to set up an even more complicated plan: she will marry governor Heingyl Ri, the current ruler of Aurdwynn, as a ‘man’; then divorce her, leaving her the claim to the Mansion; then Ri will head over and marry the Necessary King.
“…The king will make sure it’s all legal because it benefits him. And I won’t have to fuss around with semen samples, I won’t even have to meet this king, I’ll just send him my divorced spouse to be his wife.”
Thus Svir can return home not as a ransom but as a marriage broker; Baru doesn’t have to have anyone’s kid and can continue gallivanting about the globe fucking various economies and women as is her wont, and the only problem—Ri’s existing husband—is conveniently suicide-baited to death by the ever helpful Iscend Comprine who decides not to wait for Baru to persuade the Governess to arrange a divorce.
But the Stakhieczi way is just one. You may have noticed that rather unfamiliar description of ‘Falcresti masculinity’ in that quote. What the heck is a horse-archer?
And The Genders
Many years ago, I wrote an article about gender in science fiction and fantasy novels. You can read it here. I criticised the two books—the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie, and The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley—for treating gender very superficially: the language may express a variety of ‘genders’ but the social meaning was either hopelessly vague, or an unsatisfying inversion of the familiar terms of patriarchy. Having read many more books and developed my thinking since then, I am much less enamored with Imperial Radch than I used to be (oh, a tea-sipping space empire called the Raj? and we mostly take their pov?), including its treatment of gender.
In some ways, this article is intended as an update of Wot I Think About Gender; but we can also ask: how does Baru Cormorant fare in this arena of constructing fictional gender systems?
Shockingly, I think it holds up well!
One of the key components of the whole machine of Baru Cormorant is the various constructed cultures, which act as representative illustrations of some of the different permutations of human societies and how they interact. Naturally they all get handed a different gender system. So what have we got?
Gender in the Mbo
The Oriati have a trinary system with men, women, and lamen, the last of whom take ‘they’ pronouns in the English-language narration; children are invited to choose their own gender at age six. We don’t get as direct an explanation of what gender signifies in an Oriati context, but the existence of lamen is a constant sticking point for the Falcresti, who consider it a ‘pre-hygienic’ barbarity. Non-Oriati viewpoint characters, especially those with a Falcresti background, tend to stumble on the pronoun.
What exactly does a laman entail? It seems to be especially revered, associated with Princehood. For example, when Tau and Kindalana confront a mob, their gender markers are part of the spell that convinces the people to behave in a properly Oriati fashion:
Then Tau-indi spoke beside her, the laman with the round hips and the coiled hair, telling the mob in a voice like the monsoon drumming on mangrove leaves that Lonjaro’s principles had already visited revenge on Cosgrad Torrinde.
That simile is perhaps another piece of the puzzle: almost every time Tau speaks, we get some kind of nature metaphor.
Another time, Tau discusses with Cosgrad Torrinde the nature of lamen. Cosgrad is convinced that lamen are intersex, and that the Oriati must practice gender assignment based on sex characteristics:
“You asked me how I’d been made,” Tau-indi said. “There are no lamen in Falcrest, are there? Is that what you meant?”
“In Falcrest they taught me that lamen were sacred Oriati hermaphrodites who could, ah, be conjugated by men, and conjugate women in turn. Having seen you,” and here Cosgrad flushed faintly, something that could be seen more easily on his skin, “less than modest, as I understand is common and natural here given the climate, I know…”
Tau-indi laughed. Cosgrad’s ideas of lamen might have fit in rural Segu, four hundred years ago, when men were raised in convents and girls became women by wearing gloves made out of biting ants. “You thought I had a penis and a vagina?”
Torrinde is puzzled by his inability to find a ‘functional’ explanation for the role of lamen, which leads to an amusing exchange:
“What are lamen for, then?”
“Now? In these enlightened days? Whatever trim moves us toward.”
“Just like anyone else,” Abdumasi interrupted. “I mean, what are you for? What about me? What are men for, really? Why don’t people with wombs just pop babies out all on their own, and live in big termite mounds? Wouldn’t that be a lot easier?”
Cosgrad’s forehead knotted up and he looked like he might think himself back into a fever. “Termite mounds,” he muttered. “Termite mounds… I’d never considered…”
Years later, when Cosgrad Torrinde produced his seminal (an Aphalone word that meant exactly what it sounded like) work on the similarities between Oriati Mbo and the colonies of insects, Tau would regret this conversation.
However, we do get to find out a little about the ‘traditional’ role of lamen elsewhere. It seems that the Mbo was once much more strongly gendered, and lamen were considered to have a ‘mediating’ role:
Tau watched Abdumasi and Kindalana as the griots sang. They sat together between two raspberry bushes, and Abdumasi settled against Kindalana’s side, his head pillowed on her breast. Kindalana stroked his head, but her eyes were far away, and thoughtful.
The men of Prince Hill were all love-struck, and the women of Prince Hill all thoughtful. It was up to Tau, as it had been up to the lamen in ancient and more traditional days, to mediate.
The narration carefully avoids telling us Tau’s genital configuration (I was gonna say CASAB, but hooray, they don’t have that in the Mbo). Nevertheless, we see characters from other cultures react in various ways. Baru is pretty chill since lamen often came to hang out on Taranoke, but Svir has trouble:
The laman seemed to make Apparitor uncomfortable too, or, at least, self-conscious: his eyes skittered over their hips and up their soft proud throat, where they had painstakingly reapplied the golden paint of their station. Baru remembered Apparitor saying, a man can become a woman, or a woman a man, depending on how they dress and act—but what we hate, in the Mansions, is a liar.
For Tau, dressing as a laman and dressing as a prince seem pretty intimately connected. Elsewhere, we see how lamen fit into the society of Kyprananoke, which has a particular tradition of dress:
The barber-general waited with his band and retinue, surgeons in white caftans with bandoliers of scalpels, generals with peace-knotted rapiers on their belts and soft orange shoulder-length gloves. The men and some of the women went sensibly bare-chested in the late spring heat, the men shaved sleek, the more heavily built women haltered in nets or cotton strophia. A few of them, men and women and a scattering of lamen, favored khanga; the tradition upon Kyprananoke being that lamen should dress to hide their bodies.
This is the majority of what we get explicitly from the text; there are other conversations about birth assignment elsewhere, mostly Torrinde getting very upset about the degeneracy he’s encountering. Face paints seem to be one of the primary markers of gender in both the Mbo and in the neighbouring island of Kyprananoke; at one point we meet someone we might see as a trans man, from Baru’s POV:
A fat Kyprananoki man in a lovely dashiki dress came at them sidelong, and archly: his body was female and the dress was androgynous, but he made his masculinity plain with paint and carriage.
…though strictly speaking ‘trans’ is not apt, because all gender in the Mbo is elective, so he was never assigned female in the first place. Shao Lune has some trouble:
Shao said, puzzling over Ngaio’s bare chest, until she figured out what Baru had intuited at once. She was, at least, blessedly cosmopolitan, and did not need Ngaio’s masculinity explained to her.
As can probably be seen from some of these quotes, once of the principal devices the book uses to exposit is to put the various cultures into contact and get them talking. This follows a general principle I find very admirable in Seth’s writing: just about every line is serving multiple purposes, serving simultaneously to characterise the narrator and the culture they’re from, as well as the Other they’re attempting to comprehend.
But to try to do more than provide a collection of quotes, we can ask questions like, how well does the story handle this nonbinary character? What impression do we get of Tau, as readers from a society with its own gendered mores?
Tau’s story—which we learn in Tyrant is something they recited to Baru, in the third person—places them in a group of three friends which is disrupted by interpersonal drama created by a love triangle. We have Kindalana who is, like Tau, a privileged Prince raised to take pride in her role as administrative busybody, and Abdumasi Abd, a child of merchants. All three of them are very ideologically committed to being ‘Mbo people’, which carries with it a particular ethos; Tau especially is a very pious believer in the idea of trim. Ironically, the role they pick for themselves as empathic mediator confers a kind of aloofness… which ends up separating them from their friends, leaving them terribly lonely, a loneliness that is only accentuated when the other two start a sexual relationship.
Tau’s jealousy is largely to do with feeling left out of a feeling of connection:
Tau sat there and decided to be happy for them. How happy, how satisfied, how glad, how delighted Tau must be to have this new joy in the Prince Hill mbo.
How happy. How glad.
They prodded at the thought like a bee sting and it made them sick with jealousy—not for sexual want of one or the other of them, but for jealousy of this secret Kinda and Abdu had. Listen to them! Listen to those curious secret sounds, those answers to questions they had asked each other in the past months, with odd silences and shy hesitations. Listen to them becoming less alone.
But when they do express attraction in the narrative, it is primarily towards Kindalana, invoking to a certain degree a love-triangle dynamic. But we are reminded fairly often that these kids are not hetero; here is Abdumasi commenting on Cosgrad Torrinde:
“Oh,” Abdumasi said, disappointed. “What a waste! Have you seen him? He’s like one of those bulls whose muscles are too big for their skin! Tau, do you ever,” and he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial hush, “I know he’s quite a bit older, but do you ever, you know, get to peek?”
Eventually we do get Kinda’s side of it, and a little info about Oriati womanhood:
Maybe right now,” Kindalana said crisply, her two fingers moving down-sideways-down-up-down, “maybe right now, I suppose I do, half of me is thinking about him all the time, but Tau—” She rinsed her hands and they both went for the saris; they wrapped each other up. “Tau, in Segu women marry late, and people will question your womanhood if you haven’t had lovers before. There’s a… it’s a tenuous thing, being a Segu woman. You have to prove yourself to other women, and part of that is your ease with men. I thought I could learn some of that by practicing on Abdu, like the grownups do, like our parents, we’d just fuck and be friends—”
“Of course it does,” Kindalana sighed. “People listen to you. I know all these things, I’ve figured out so much, but who wants to listen to me? You’re strange with women here in Lonjaro, did you know that? Not hateful, but particular. Women have certain jobs, certain roles. You don’t like it when we go beyond them.”
In this situation, the two are dressing each other up in identical clothes and makeup. Honestly, rereading it, book goes to pretty impressively studious lengths to thread the needle of avoiding cueing us in to one or other familiar Western gender narrative. Yet, rather concerningly to a reader who would like to imagine she has managed to break out of a lot of the prisons of gender, I often found myself thinking of Tau as (a relatively effeminate) boy/man, even embarassingly typing ‘he’ while writing this series previously. I don’t think it’s anything especially subtle: literally the combination of ‘title of Prince’ and ‘primarily attracted to girl as primary object of love triangle’ and it activates that automatic association mechanism. All I can say is that the poison runs terribly deep! But I don’t really think Seth could have done anything especially different on this front; I don’t find grounds to see the portrayal as unconvincing.
Kindalana, meanwhile, is considerably more astute than Tau, and gets a handle on how she can use sexuality to her own ends in the nasty sexual politics of the Masquerade (which we will get to shortly, believe me there’s a lot there). Playing on the allure of being a foreign exotic temptress, she manages to get with Farrier, in violation of Falcresti prohibitions on royalty—and this is the big secret giving Farrier his vulnerability.
We see how she uses this when she appears near the end of the book in a Falcresti court:
Kindalana of Segu leapt up from the floor of the Levelest Gallery onto the Emperor’s first step. She shrugged off the cotton gown that had concealed her majesty. No one there, except Tau and Abdumasi Abd and perhaps Farrier himself, could say if what she wore was the traditional garb of a Prince of Segu Mbo. But everyone who saw her thought it must be: her bare clavicles painted in gold, the slender length of her neck ringed in silver, her sinfully delicate shoulder blades bare to the chandeliered oil lights so far above. The parts of her that were modest were very modest; the parts of her that were naked were not the parts anyone in Falcrest would call taboo.
But all who looked upon her saw, first and most easily, the thing that they associated with an Oriati woman of high station: the foreign princesses in the rag novels, who wore jewels and chains and nothing else, who were always wide-hipped and cunning and at ease in their sensuality. Women who seduced the weak-minded with their sinful physicality. A conniving manipulatrix. Ideas as camouflage and armor, and Kindalana had gathered those ideas, and gone to war.
Here she’s not playing on Oriati gender so much as Falcresti idea of Oriati gender. An instrumentalisation of sexuality that Tau found deeply uncomfortable, many years prior:
“Among other errors, they insist that women are predisposed to use sexual unavailability as a technique of manipulation. He doesn’t understand why I make my own pursuit. He can’t read me.”
“But you are manipulating him, aren’t you? You’re trying to lure him into some kind of mistake.” Tau-indi felt prudishly hung up on Lonjaro mores, the kind of mores that had kept their mother and Padrigan off each other for years and years. “It just seems to me that if he’s expecting barbaric, lustful women, you’ll only be confirming his thoughts.…”
She shrugged, untroubled. “So I confirm his thoughts. It doesn’t make them true.”
“Does this actually work?” The idea of taking this friendly, warm, intimate thing and making it a tool…
Going all out on this project, Kindalana seems to have fucked both Farrier and Torrinde, and planted enough of a seed of doubt in them to raise the possibility that either could be the ‘biological’ father of her child. Baru, naturally, hopes to use this to press her advantage on Torrinde, having dealt with Farrier.
So what is it about all this I find particularly compelling? Mostly that gender is not treated superficially, but thoroughly integrated into the themes of the book.
Tau’s story is a story of loss of childhood innocence (but hoo boy that is one of our society’s own chunks of mythology that is not to be taken lightly). The three privileged children of Prince Hill are raised on a relatively simple idea of society: they are there to help people, honesty and kindness are virtues. They are thrust into an epistemic morass, where interpersonal snafus can happen even with the best of intentions, where truth and lies are deployed in the interests of ruthless manipulation, where they are forced to reconsider the things they saw as ethically questionable. The reaction of all three is to reach for a kind of power. Kindalana decides to play Falcresti politics, using their racialised perceptions against them; Abdumasi finds his way to the Cancrioth, hoping to find the secret of immunity to pain both physical and emotional… and Tau clings ever more devoutly to their childhood belief system, believing they can somehow solve the whole war by fixing the interpersonal relations between their friends.
And a lot of this, as we have touched on, also has to do with the introduction of sexuality into their lives. Which acts as a lightning rod to the place of emotional intensity: there are so many complicated ways we narrativise sexuality and relationships and a fair few of them get exposed in Tau’s story. So the treatment of gender in its constraining, desiring, painful complexity is vital to this story working.
But that said, we still only have a fairly vague picture of how things work in the Mbo. We do see a different reaction to Oriati gender—or, particularly, Oriati-gender-as-perceived-by-Falcrest—in Aminata, the tenuously assimilated Oriati woman serving in Falcrest’s navy. (To recap, Baru meets her early on in Traitor; later we meet her as a torturer who dreams of commanding a ship, and she joins the Navy mutiny pursuing Baru around the world desperate to believe her childhood friend and definitely-not-crush has not betrayed Falcrest.)
In Monster, she runs into Cosgrad Torrinde, although she does not recognise him. She is at pains to distance herself from being seen as Oriati:
“I’m a federated citizen of Falcrest,” Aminata warned him. “I’m not part of the Mbo.”
In part this is due to the sexual stereotypes, which she blames on other Oriati women rather than recognise Falcresti racism:
Aminata stowed away her irritation. “What about Cairdine Farrier? I knew him, actually.”
“Did you?” Calcanish said, and somehow a certain heaviness of eyelid, a wrinkle of the lips, implied a kind of disgust.
“Not in that sense,” Aminata reassured him (damn the women of her nation, for giving the world the impression they were all cads).
But mostly, Aminata tries to shape herself into being a good Navy woman, fully internalising the Falcresti value system in the hope it will give her the belonging she craves.
She drew the line, however, at his request for her to come not in uniform. Who would she be without the reds? They might take her for a Mbo Oriati. So she wore full starched dress, tall boots polished and buffed, her pins and links shining, a smart little folio on her hip, a clean shave for her scalp and a jaunty cover. Perfect.
So let’s get to the anti-mannists…
Horse-archers and anti-mannism
(Yeah, it’s the title of the whole essay!!)
Falcrest is the main vehicle for critique and indeed satire in these books, and naturally its model of gender is as thoroughly fucked up as the rest of it.
Much of it functions on the same model of defamiliarisation that we discussed previously with technical terms. Falcrest absolutely has a binary gender system which it enforces violently and motivates it to suppress homosexuality with quite extreme ruthlessness, but it is not our model of gender, with differences both superficial and substantial.
Let’s start with the more superficial:
The ‘horse-archer’ in this instance is simply a high-heeled shoe: as has been the case at certain points in European history, Falcresti men are expected to wear high heels and dress ostentatiously. Of course, crossdressing can happen. At one point Iscend Comprine dresses up in horse-archers:
A fine ink silhouette against the lamplight. A marvel of illustration, that such presence could be suggested by a few lines. Long legs, gloved hands braced against the walls, shoulders back: and her astronomically cheekboned face tipped down into darkness, to Barhu. She wore a sleeveless suit of black silk under a short and faintly royalist cape. She was wearing men’s heels, called horse-archers because they were invented to fix the rider in the stirrup while taking a bowshot. But they had really quite fascinating effects, Barhu discovered, on the human leg.
(Don’t ask Baru to keep it in her pants, she never will.)
Even back in Traitor, we can notice that all mentions of makeup are associated with men; Baru of course does not think to remark on this in her narration, and treats it as a natural and expected thing, which is a nice device.
Falcrest’s norms of gender presentation are justified, as usual, by pseudoscientific appeal to Nature: “look at birds, don’t you see how the male…” Kindalana gets to see this from the outside:
“Unsettling him,” Kindalana murmured. “The whole time he lived with me, he was scrupulously modest. This is a chance to touch him, to make him look a little foolish, to diminish him and make him want my approval as repair.” She leaned up on the rail, arms outflung, and eyed Farrier with amusement. “Look at him. He’s so confused.”
Farrier spent a while mixing his drink and reading the labels off a Falcrest bottle. His motions were swift and confident, and he made jokes to passers-by. He was acting nonchalant, and acting hard. When he was alone he scratched at his beard.
“Spent his whole youth traveling the world, plundering everywhere he went,” Kindalana murmured, “and yet he’s still a Falcrest man. Someone taught him that the male of the species is always brightly plumed and forthright, and the female’s dowdy, studious, and cold. He has no idea what to do with me.”
What of the Falcresti ideal for women? It also goes for bird metaphors:
The woman slips in. Bel makes an immediate note to have a talk with his doorman—not a reprimand, but rather an apology of his own, because he understands why the doorman warned him. Whoever she is, she’s perfect. Not perfectly a match for Bel’s taste, but perfectly in accord with the classical Falcresti ideal, from her brushstroke cheekbones to her narrow coat and gracefully simple stride. Writers of rag novels overheat into metaphor to create women like this: the “sparrow-like gait” of Tinadette Bane, the “essential and irreducible” form of Goodbake’s Diligena Sum, the “very provocation of unapproachable virtue and cold disregard, which invites in the male heart the need to approach and be regarded,” from something Bel doesn’t remember.
The ideal is therefore something like: men are colourful and ostentatious, women use concealment and secrets to entice them.
Ostensibly, Falcrest is a meritocratic society where, behind masks, anyone can advance to any level. Of course the truth turns out to be that gender in Falcrest is a vicious conflict over power like everything else. On one side, this is expressed by the ‘anti-mannist’ movement, essentiailly a kind of very bourgeois feminism, particularly strong in the Navy which is, exceptionally in Falcresti society, dominated by women. Naturally Shao Lune sees opportunity there.
“You shouldn’t do his work,” Shao said. “He’s a mannist. He comes from a mannist society.”
Baru blinked. “What?”
“You’re taking the red man’s side, Apparitor’s side, against the navy. He’s Stakhi, and they’re a patrilineal culture. He’s an instrument of the sexual dialectic.”
“Oh, Captain, I don’t think the sexual dialectic has much to do with this—”
“Of course it does!” she crowed. “You child. Listen: Parliament doesn’t like the navy’s difficult women, doesn’t like us asking for fair pensions and seizing their trade ships for leverage. So Parliament asked the Emperor to put a man in the Empire Admiralty. To do that, to put Lindon Satamine in that post, Apparitor had to sabotage Ahanna Croftare’s chances. She worked her whole life for that post. And she lost it to Parliament’s stupid fears. If Croftare can’t get a fair chance, why should any woman?”
Dialectics! Good heavens. I can’t believe I didn’t remark on that before. Shao Lune lives up very well to the ideal of Falcresti womanhood, sometimes provoking a complex jealousy in Baru, who knows she can never possibly do so by virtue of being Taranoki.
Another time, we learn a bit about the talking points of the anti-mannist movement, which is still so very caught up in Falcresti gender ideology:
SHE had loved working alone, as a student: she had even, in a taboo (at least in the Iriad school) simile, thought it was like swimming naked, free of any drag or constraint. That was apparently ordinary for boys in Falcrest, and in fact mandatory for reasons of hygiene. But neither women nor Souswardi were permitted nakedness, both being intrinsically sexual. (In Falcrest, the anti-mannist movement argued that it was unfair to women, whose advantages were in concealment and control, if they were forced to be immodest, fully revealed.)
It is also, naturally, very overtly racist. Shao Lune once again provides our illustration:
“Like a prize horse,” Shao said, as if this were any sort of compliment. “But there’s a reason gava women aren’t invited to the anti-mannist leagues. Or to the Case for Isosocial Safety.”
“What reason is that?”
“Because it undermines our united female cause to complicate it with racial divisions.”
“So even in the city of merit, in this republic of merit, I don’t belong in the women’s organizations because I’m from Taranoke?”
“A woman’s merit must be evaluated against the background of her race,” Shao said, airily. “You are an extraordinary Souswardi. Isn’t that enough?”
Naturally Baru is far from impressed by this. The issue of race is not just a recent sticking point either; Iscend relates a story about ‘womanism’:
“A very anti-mannist sentiment.” Barhu frowned. “Why is it called anti-mannism, anyway? Why not womanism?”
“There was a woman’s movement, early after the revolution. They demanded the vote, a law requiring gender-blind legislation, hysteric self-determination, and so forth. Iro Mave was involved—”
“Lapetiare’s tactician. She was of Oriati ancestry, which is rarely touched on in popular histories. She caused a schism in the movement over issues of race. Afterward, ‘womanism’ was seen as a word too closely tied to racial affairs, particularly the rights of Oriati women. Anti-mannism, a movement against the preeminence of men in society, became more socially accepted.”
This choice of words is undoubtedly deliberate: ‘womanism’ in our world refers to a cluster of movements that was first named in the late 70s, advocating specifically for Black women who were poorly served by the existing feminist movement.
The metaphor here is well, pretty straightforward. In our world, the early feminists were by and large eugenicists, and there was considerable overlap with bourgeois moralist movements like the temperence movement, which campaigned against sex workers in the 19th century. Remarkably, at the time attempts to ban sex work faced considerable resistance, to the point that the government was forced to walk back its criminalisation under the Contagious Disease Act. (The Act would instead be exported to colonial India.) Jackie pitched a zine article on this whole subject which I’m very much looking forward to reading.
A century later and feminism developed a bewilderingly complex array of movements and waves—and many of them continued to carry the poisons of the dominant society. Some were laced with Catholic moralism, some were basically just cults, some focused narrowly on the interests of bosses. One particuarly unfortunate strain that has gained a great deal of power in this country has basically fully ended up almost identical with fascism: bioessentialism, fearmongering over sexual threat created by trans women, great replacement conspiracy theories, extreme controlling behaviour towards children.
And while this is not a major theme of the book, I appreciated the defamiliarising angle: the attempt to imagine how a similarly broken feminism could occur within a similar-but-different gender system.
This all comes to a head when Iscend Comprine provokes an unfulfilled, horny, former banker (until he was ruined by Baru) Bel Latheman into suicide by tickling his masculinity:
“Yes,” she says, tensely, “people think I’m too good at my job, and therefore that I’m a plant.”
“Ah. Women do get that, I understand. The impostor complex: a belief that women aren’t showing their true selves among men.”
“Does it bother you very much?”
She looks at his wall, in stiff profile. “I’m not an anti-mannist. I just want to do my work and be assessed fairly.”
“That’s all mannism wants,” Bel assures her, “a fair shot for both sexes, and fair value on the different strengths of each.”
A spark of interest in her eyes. Why do people call it a spark? Because, Bel thinks, guiltily, they want it to catch. “Do you find it difficult?” she asks. “Being a man in a woman’s job?”
“People check my math a lot,” he jokes.
“That must be hard.…”
Anyway she basically calls him a cuck and he overdoses on nootropics and picks a fight with his doorman…
“Get the fuck out,” he says, “you motherfucker.”
“Don’t talk about my mother,” the doorman says: he does not understand the idiomatic usage of the word, he thinks he’s been accused of incest.
“Why shouldn’t I? You’re happy to talk about my wife.”
The man is breathing hard. “It’s just that you mustn’t say such things about the Duchess Heingyl. Especially as you’re a foreigner. It’s not right to call people whores. It’s not safe. The Judiciary could become involved. The hygiene courts.”
“Why,” Bel repeats, “shouldn’t I talk about your mother? Is something wrong with her?”
“Your fucking people took my mother away!”
“Whores get bores,” Bel says, out of mad self-destructive self-loathing, and pushes his finger into his brow above his eye, where the lobotomy pick goes.
So some things are the same.
Aminata and her whores
One perhaps fairly significant difference in the Falcresti gender politics is that these Navy women are frequent clients of full service sex workers. We see this from the perspective of Aminata, who speaks rather candidly about her desires:
He woke up with a guilty start. He was a Stakhieczi boy from Aurdwynn and he had exotic skin like chicken sausage. She’d picked him out of sentiment, and paid him extra to stay over. Now the whore boy smiled expertly. She’d ruined his makeup last night, with her hands clawed around his skull and her thumbs digging into his cheekbones. But he was beautiful still, and he wore the ruin well enough.
“I hope you got your money’s worth,” he said, and he stretched to show her the fans of muscle off his shoulders, the arch of his pectorals, the narrow cut of his abs. “You were so good.”
Remember when you thought whores liked you in particular? Because you were kind, and you never beat the shit out of them if they didn’t perform? Give a woman a blackjack and a navy behind her and a man’s strength didn’t matter. And a lot of navy women liked to hit a man who couldn’t hit back.
Indeed it seems rather that sex work is considered a stereotypically male profession, at least in the seaside towns that serve Falcresti ships that tend to be crewed by women. We may recall when Baru ‘helpfully’ intervened in the Llosydane economy in Monster, part of her plans involved debt restructuring the sex workers:
Someone hired the prostitutes who served sailors as second spouses to come and amuse. When those ran out, someone else hired the low-end seasonal whores who worked off debt indenture during trade season. These were, to Baru’s pleased surprise, as much women as men, or at least as much female as male. Some were even trawling for Falcresti trade—women in severe buttoned-down formalwear and waistcoats, subtly made up to look stern and severe, their hot eyes prepared to deprecate and dismiss those who would buy their attention. The game worked on Baru, too, who had suffered her fair share of adolescent torment in Miss Pristina Struct’s class.
She made a tipsy advance toward one of the women, in the only language she really knew. “Could I buy out your indentures? You’re in debt, right, your madams hold the debt? Could I buy those out and—I don’t know, what could I do with them?”
Note once again the Falcresti emphasis on concealment as a feminine ideal.
Aminata’s own particular attitude towards sex work is shaped by her rather fraught position in the Falcresti racial order. Much later, she fucks Cosgrad Torrinde during a chance encounter:
“Kindalana? Don’t tell me you didn’t want to fuck her. Everyone goes for important Oriati women. They’re so unattainable.”
A tremble of passion across his broad face. It took a moment for him to master himself. “You seem quite attainable,” he said. His eyes had gone casually dead, neither eager nor fearful, simply resigned. Aminata realized, with a soiled thrill, that he must be a whore of some kind. He’d said he was a womanizer, yes. Was he ashamed? Was he debased that she’d recognized him as wanton? She liked that a little. Men had strange reasons to proposition her, racialized and fraught. Whores did it for sex and money, which were much safer.
The encounter is mostly shaped by well, Aminata’s resemblance to Kindalana, which is remarked on on several occasions; it’s entirely possible that Aminata is her daughter (in which case Cosgrad has now had sex with both generations!), though I rather hope that’s not the case because it kind of invites the Star Wars problem where every important person in the world is part of one tiny little family lol.
“Pretend I’m Kindalana,” she teased, which made him tremble all over, and sent him into a frenzy whose emotional components Aminata had neither the interest nor the concentration to analyze. For a long exultant time she arched against him and savored his desperation. He must be twenty years older, and she’d had him on their first meeting, a man of good status and carnal delight. What a catch. She might have a new story to impress sailors on the first night drinking.
At last she got sore, and as happened with overused men, he couldn’t come with ordinary sex. They took turns on their knees on the soot-scattered flagstones: she came on the thrill of his beautiful upturned face, on her guilty delight in his confusion and lust. Afterward, she could see he was ashamed.
Later, Aminata encounters Iraji, and she describes attraction in different terms, still heavily inflected by Falcresti race and gender politics:
The boy stood in the doorway, naked to the breech under a silk robe, beautiful as anyone she’d ever seen. He was Oriati and his eyes were brown and gold and fixed on hers. She was having trouble keeping her own eyes fixed in return. He walked like a pinstep dancer, each step happening in all the muscles of his calves, his hard hips, his lean and girdled core.
Aminata grinned stupidly at him. “Hey,” she said. She felt suddenly very glad to be alive.
The boy bowed like a very expensive whore. Aminata thought about what kind of habits she had, to see this man, not a boy, and to call his grace whorish. She corrected herself forcefully. The man had bowed with class.
And she has few illusions about gender and power.
It had been said in certain quarters that the Llosydanes, being ruled by women, must be immune to animal passion and reckless violence. Aminata, born in matriarchal Segu, felt a little cynical pride that she knew better. Give a woman power—not a hearth to keep or an office to run, but real power, power she didn’t have to constantly guard or justify—and she would gain all power’s evils with it. Evils which were not intrinsically masculine at all, but which, in societies that gave men power, belonged most often to men.
Which, although it’s from Aminata’s POV, is a pretty clear and straightforward statement that seems well supported by the text.
As far as Cosgrad, he is perhaps one of the people in the book who everyone is most horny for (after perhaps Tain Hu—Baru does a lot of work there!!). He obsessively cultivates his body with ‘isometric’ exercise. Here is how he is described when Aminata meets him:
In good time said man arrived in a corseted wedge of perfume and color. Aminata had bought a dram of import whiskey, the strong conservative Grendlake with its smoky tones. She looked up with practiced challenge. Her first impression was of composition, like a sculpture.
“Miss Aminata isiSegu?” His voice crisply Falcrest-accented, in his thirties or forties. “I spoke to one of your colleagues yesterday.…”
He had a face like the morning, wide and bright, with a small flat nose, powerful cheekbones, and perfectly classic eyes. His sherwani flattered a muscular body of pornographic leanness. He was quite uncomfortable to look at, in the sense that it was hard for Aminata not to stare. How had he gotten so definite? Isometric training, perhaps, to isolate and endow each muscle?
And here’s Tau’s impression:
The first of the hostages was beautiful and shy. Cosgrad Torrinde was a slim tall man of twentysomething, a few shades lighter than already cool-skinned Kindalana and Padrigan. His eyes folded elegantly, his nose flat and thin, his smile easy, his laugh full of wonder. He did not have the name Hesychast yet, of course. Tau-indi would only learn about that later.
Despite this huge emphasis on beauty, it is usually accompanied by reference to shyness and self-denial—perhaps because his obsession with shaping his body comes from the same place as his neurotic belief in ‘racial hygiene’. But he can be persuaded to show off, in the right circumstance, e.g. at Oriati court:
Shy Torrinde had been convinced to take off his shirt and display the principles of isometric bodily control, which Farrier insisted allowed him to twitch his tits individually.
It is notable that the word ‘beautiful’ is almost always used, rather than, say, ‘handsome’. The word ‘handsome’ instead gets applied mostly to spymaster Faham Execarne:
Faham Execarne was the man in charge of the Morrow Ministry detail, a handsome leathery old guy with a farmer’s hard shoulders and big sensuous lips.
Cairdine Farrier also merits it occasionally, in a chapter from the POV of no particular individual character except perhaps that of Falcrest itself:
Affectionate applause, cheers, boos, whistles of love and lust; he came dancing down the steps, wearing the polestar of Imperial authority on his half-mask. His handsome beard smiled with his mouth.
And Baru will occasionally apply it to women, bless her. But we’ll get to the matter of Baru’s Sexuality shortly.
What to say about all this, beyond, yeah, people do tend to like a guy with muscles? The thing that stands out to me in all these various expressions of attraction in description is how they all talk about the speaker as much as the character being observed. They obliquely tell us about that character’s particular hangups and psyche, and locate it subtly or overtly in a broader cultural system of socialisation, but don’t fall prey to determinism.
Conditioning, socialisation, and Baru’s sexuality
And speaking of socialisation, the other side of Falcresti gender is that they go to great lengths to enforce their precepts on their various subjects.
Jackie once wrote an excellent article on gender socialisation, and I think a quote from it is relevant here:
Socialization does exist, but I think we should rather see it as nondeterministic (in fact highly negotiable and in flux), unindividuated (a larger social process which exists outside of individual children, parents or institutions), and - as a necessary consequence - at least in some sense unintentional (there is no actor which could be credited with the ‘act’ of socialization). Another important difference between [child abuser and early gender ‘scientist’ John] Money’s theory and ours is that we see the child as an active participant in the socialization, and not a passive subject of categorization.
This memo has naturally failed to reach the powers of Falcrest, who are determined to understand the deterministic, behaviourist model of human behaviour so that they can engineer a perfect society. So much of it has to do with violently punishing gender crimes, especially in the newly colonised areas.
Back in Traitor, Baru observed a torture facility run by Xate Yawa, which attempts to use means of conditioning to shape the sexual subjectivity of Falcresti citizens:
“She volunteered for fidelity conditioning to repair her marriage,” the functionary explained. “Wise. Two of her social proximates reported on her behavior. She could have been found responsible for hedonic sociopathy or hereditary misconjugation.”
“Simple conditioning. We pair pleasant stimuli with facsimiles of her husband. If that fails, we’ll proceed to paired-icon behavioral coaxing, manual stimulation, or sterile proxy conjugation. The final option is a diagnosis of hereditary nonmonogamy defect and sterilization.”
Baru found herself grateful for the mask. “What about surgical intervention?” she asked, thinking of Aminata’s warning, of the nauseating threat. “To render conjugation joyless? Do you conduct those here?”
On Baru, Farrier has deployed a much subtler program while grooming her into his agent:
REMEMBER the Cold Cellar?
In that pit of Incrastic hygiene, Xate Yawa used simple conditioning to treat marital infidelity. Show a woman her husband, and at the same time feed her a pleasant smell, dose her with a wonderful drug. Soon the woman will learn to associate pleasant feelings with the husband.
Show this woman a man who is not her husband, a man like the men she lusts for. Then make her taste acid, and batter at her ears with a horrible gong. She will learn to cringe away from those men.
This was the technique of simple conditioning.
But there were more sophisticated techniques. One of them was called operant conditioning, or, in clinical parlance, paired-icon behavioral coaxing.
In this paradigm, the subject was always allowed to make her own choices. No external force inflicted stimuli. No handsome stranger or faithful husband, no soft music or crashing gong. The subject was offered the illusion of freedom. The experimenter only controlled the response to her choices.
As the subject explored possible actions, and discovered the planned responses, she was allowed to teach herself the rules of the conditioning.
This theory largely reflects, to my limited understanding, the existing psychological model. And the deployment of operant conditioning in our world is no less sinister, for example, training soldiers to overcome their reluctance to kill:
Human beings have an innate resistance to killing and are reluctant to act in a direct, aggressive way towards members of their own species, even to save life. This resistance to killing has caused infantry to be remarkably inefficient throughout the history of military warfare.
This phenomenon was not understood until S.L.A. Marshall (Brigadier General and military historian) undertook interview studies of WWII infantry immediately following combat engagement. Marshall’s well-known and controversial book, Men Against Fire, revealed that only 15% of soldiers fired their rifles with the purpose of killing in combat. Following acceptance of Marshall’s research by the US Army in 1946, the Human Resources Research Office of the US Army began implementing new training protocols which resemble operant conditioning methods. Subsequent applications of such methods increased the percentage of soldiers able to kill to around 50% in Korea and over 90% in Vietnam. Revolutions in training included replacing traditional pop-up firing ranges with three-dimensional, man-shaped, pop-up targets which collapsed when hit. This provided immediate feedback and acted as positive reinforcement for a soldier’s behavior. Other improvements to military training methods have included the timed firing course; more realistic training; high repetitions; praise from superiors; marksmanship rewards; and group recognition.
The thing is of course that, as a way to suppress the inherent instability of gender and heterosexuality, this does not work. Comprehensively: Baru’s overt lesbianism shoots through every line of the book. What it does do, however, is traumatise the living shit out of her. So much of the whole series is Baru struggling to overcome this deep set belief that she has been trained into: homosexuality will always end in disater, for her and her lover.
And this shapes her sexuality a lot. She refuses to express her desire to Tain Hu until the very last minute, where she knows that the impending betrayal will separate them forever and thus need not fear it. She struggles to enjoy sex in her relatively healthy relationship with Ulyu Xe, despite attraction, but finds it so much easier when she slips into a much less mutually respectful relationship with the condescending racist she trapped in prison, Shao Lune. Their sexual encounters are very much oriented around power:
“Let me breathe.”
“Tell me what I want to know. Would Ormsment attack an Oriati diplomatic ship?”
“I’d tell you anything—to breathe.”
Baru gave her an inch. Shao gasped in relief, panted, her icy composure in disarray. The effect was intriguing. Baru suddenly missed Ulyu Xe very much.
Noncon breathplay if you want to be taxonomical about this fetish. Here’s a few other scenes of this delightful couple:
“I came to bring you more soap.” Baru underhanded the sac of gut into the bilgewater just outside Lune’s reach.
“Cunt,” she said, without much enthusiasm.
“Get a little dirty,” Baru suggested. “Worth it to get clean, isn’t it?”
“Did you come to watch me wash my filth off? Is that your peccadillo?” Shao Lune cast the slack of her chain into the bilge and managed to hook the floating bag.
And an excerpt of the time they fuck:
Then Baru was pinned beneath her on the hardwood, cold chains slithering over her skin, Shao Lune’s teeth in her lower lip. A long vague interregnum of foreplay. Shao’s attentions wrapped Baru in chains and stretched her taut across the platform. Was she afraid, Shao Lune wondered? Didn’t she think Shao Lune might drown her in the bilge?
Baru had answered with husky honesty. I’d deserve to drown. I would be glad to rest.
(Had she said that? Fool.)
Shao Lune had looked down at her with irritation and dismay, not amused or entertained by self-pity, but instead obviously turned off. Then she’d berated Baru, excoriated her for wanting to give up. Shao Lune would not be imprisoned and manipulated by a spineless self-pitying slug. Was Baru a spineless self-pitying slug? Did she have no will of her own?
Baru had tried to get up and get at her and that provoked Shao Lune’s merciless counterattack. Baru remembered the tremendous relief of having no control. She remembered her release, the climax she couldn’t reach with Ulyu Xe. She was pragmatically relieved to have that release, and she ought to be a little gleeful to have scored a Falcrest woman.
But she wasn’t proud.
We can even tick off raceplay for a Problematic Relationship speedrun:
“You sound like a whore. A kneeling Souswardi whore.” Shao Lune smirked at her. “Oh, oh, listen, I can do whatever you need.”
Baru seized Lune’s chain and she whipped the iron links once, twice, up under Lune’s left armpit and around the right side of her throat. She yanked the chain tight. Shao Lune fell down with her head snapped down against her shoulder and her eyes dimmed by blood-lack.
How queasily satisfying to see the proud Staff Captain forced to kneel. Baru smiled at her. “Did Ormsment act alone?”
The relationship is extremely fucked up on both sides, which makes it very compelling fiction. For Baru it’s another act of self-destruction, both compromising more of her principles and getting off on being treated like shit by a proper Falcresti lady; for Lune, it’s both a desperate way to claw back some power as a prisoner and also a way to indulge her own narcissism.
You see: faced with an obstacle, an evolving brain is good at finding a route around it, even if it behaves a little weirdly.
But the thing is, Baru is not the passive recipient of permanent, lifelong conditioning. Anymore than a member of a cult is unable to escape it, or someone in abusive relationship cannot find their way out of the emotional labyrinth. She starts to recognise the pattern in Tyrant:
She’d met a woman she loved.
And she’d kept that woman at a distance, despite Tain Hu’s cunning and charisma and devastating presence, despite Baru’s own fantasies. She’d kept that woman at arm’s reach until the very night she knew Tain Hu and all the rest of the rebels were doomed.
Only then had she allowed herself to fall.
When their love could only lead to death.
As she had allowed herself to be with Ulyu Xe only on the night before they were separated.
As she had allowed herself to be with Shao Lune only when drunk and desperate and certain Shao Lune was using her.
She loved women only when that love was deniable and doomed. Farrier had taught her so. How could she have missed it?
Once she catches on she can start to assert her own agency and start to build up an alternative self-image, weaking the conditioning. We’ve said earlier that the arc of Monster and Tyrant is Baru learning to figure out a route out of her mega trauma; but here we see how said mega trauma integrates into her sense of gender/sexuality.
This theme is vital, and it’s also quite indirectly pertinent to the question of like, gender socialisation and the fact that trans people exist. Gender in all its incarnations is unstable, and it must find some mechanism to recuperate the fact that its most overt, ‘official’ mechanisms of socialisation will fail. The homophobic torture and conditioning is a vital part of Falcrest’s gender system, but so also is the myriad ways we’ve seen that people will operate against its strictures, from Aminata’s interactions with sex workers to Baru’s trauma pretzel of a sexuality. All of this is part of the replicating system—not just the overt part.
This is also the case in reality. Rape is one of the principal mechanisms of terror by which gender relations are maintained; it is also, as any investigation of fanfiction or porn will tell you, a huge presence in sexual fantasies. Does that people everywhere are eager to rape someone? Not as such (this may be true but it is not proven by the existence of such fantasies); rather it is a matter of processing a world in which sexual coercion is ubiquitous and its functioning addressed only obliquely. A dialectic perhaps but one where the more significant pole—the base for Marx fans in the audience—is gendered society and the particular psychic structure of heterosexuality.
As we discussed many subheadings ago, societies throughout history have created various categories of person to contain gender variance; we might throw in Herodotus’s writing on the Scythian ‘enaree’, or the priestesses of Cybele described by Roman writers. In the last century, the Hirschfield institute attempted to come up with a modern scientific taxonomy of ‘inverts’ and started conceiving of a gender transition, before the Sturmabteilung burned it down. In modern English we are furnished with quite a few words which vary in how derogatory they are: the trans woman or transsexual or transgender (once a subject of fierce debate), the crossdresser, the faggot (and various other slurs connoting effeminacy), the enby; online porn has added many more, some imported or constructed as fantastical like the futanari, others which came into existence as a social category like the otokonoko; lately the femboy has leapt up into the broader sexual imaginary, along with a great deal of curiosity towards standins such as catboys.
So for Falcrest, this is the isoamorist (who transgresses the “proper” reproductive structure regardless of whether they continue to id clearly as ‘male’ or ‘female’), or the “prehygienic” Oriati laman; we have not seen how ‘native’ gender defiance apart from homosexuality is treated within Falcrest but I think we can guess. They end up playing out a drama, inevitably shaped by this dominant power, but by their defiant existence, carving out a path for others to follow. Baru’s various lovers—Tain Hu especially—manage at last to overshadow Cairdine Farrier.
She breaks up with Shao Lune, incidentally.
Overall, then, what of Falcresti gender? It’s something that is mostly hinted at in the margins: nobody ever sits down and lays it all out, and it’s only because I have an ebook reader with a search function that I can line it all up like this. Instead, it forms a simple background to the viewpoint of the majority of characters, which they’re forced to examine mostly when they run into cultural difference.
And honestly? I love how this is done. It’s distinct enough to have a recognisably different logic, and enough little hints of description to render it strange; yet it is still very recognisably gender, performing the same role of constructing the particular classes of people, structuring desire, organising reproduction, and the way it does this is very precisely observed. It is the kind of writing about gender that can only be performed when you’ve felt some of its sharp edges.
It’s just very well observed. I don’t know if I’ve managed to draw out all the interesting facets, but it’s certainly one of the reasons I love the book, and a considerable advancement on the rather sorry state of stories about gender variance in fantasy societies.
We have so far treated the subject of gender for the Stakhieczi, the Oriati Mbo, and Falcrest. The pre-invasion Mbo probably comes off the ‘healthiest’, if only because we mostly see it from afar, but all of them are interesting flavours of fucked up, egregores replicating through the successive application of trauma.
But Baru hails from Taranoke.
We see Taranoke directly only briefly, in the chapters dealing with Baru’s childhood, and this mostly concerns the domination brought by Falcrest. From that point, Taranoke (renamed Sousward) becomes an increasingly distant memory. We know that they had extended polyamorous family units, a cheerfully positive attitude towards sexuality:”pineapple-eating sluts” as Tau once snaps in a fit of rage about the Cancrioth, leading to a very amusing exchange…
“I do not like pineapple!” Baru snapped, because she was so bemused at being called a slut.
“YOU DO!” Tau screamed, and the blood rushed into their eye like poured wine. “I ASKED YOUR PARENTS WHAT FOOD YOU LIKED! AND THEY SAID PINEAPPLE!”
But in Tyrant, Baru ends up meeting two of her parents, her mother Pinion and one of her fathers, Solit. They are not, despite Baru’s belief, in a ‘prison hulk’ off Taranoke; indeed, they organised a resistance movement that has at least survived if not succeeded in overthrowing the Masquerade, and later managed to escape as part of a smuggling operation for fugitive Taranoki.
And they’re fucking great.
Barhu cut her hand on a stone as she ran to her mother’s voice. Blood ran down her fingers; blood pulled her forward. She saw Pinion’s dark thundercloud face in the clearing ahead. Her cry of joy nailed Pinion to the spot: still expressionless as Barhu came into her arms, halfway knocked her over, clung to her, saying, in Urunoki, “Mother! Mother!”
“Baru,” her mother said, “your hands smell like pussy.”
In just a few exchanges of dialogue, Pinion and Solit establish themselves as unreasonably funny, charming and present.
“It’s very rude to get cunt on your mother,” Pinion said. Then she began to laugh. “Solit! Solit, come down! We caught our daughter fingering some falca girl in the woods! She’s so embarrassed!”
I know I have a pathological tendency to pull out quotes but honestly.
HER parents had never ridden in a carriage before.
“I’ve never heard of a Cancrioth.” Mother Pinion handed her blackberry scone to father Solit. “Eat that, it’s delicious.”
“Why don’t you eat it, then?”
“I want you to have it, dear husband.”
“You always give me the things you don’t like.”
“If we liked all the same things, dear husband, we would not like each other.”
“I’m not sure that follows from reason.”
“You’re being very difficult for a man who’s just been given a scone.”
One of the achievements here is that, at this point in the story, the narration itself feels joyful, full of funny little observations that make it feel like the moment of relief that it is for Baru. Even the detailed explanation of the exact mechanism of genocide on Taranoke does not manage to sour it. Baru starts falling in to her old childhood patterns, which are rather less horrible than the ones she’s been living so far:
“Baru,” her mother called, attuned by some parental proprioception to the motions in her house, “get washed, please, you have visitors.”
Visitors! Shit. “Is it Governor Heingyl?”
“No, dear. It’s much more important. All your aunts and uncles have come.”
Oh no. Barhu did not even remember having aunts and uncles, except as vague presences around her parents. She was reasonably certain in retrospect that one “uncle” had been a man her father Solit was either sleeping with, or who shared with Solit an obsession with ancient arrowheads.
The encounter is inevitably very brief, and as we discussed ends with Baru exiled from her culture in a far more definitive way. But it provides a melancholic contrast to our previous visit to this group of Taranoki people, in that they are now getting along a lot better in this new world than at the moment of conquest, pursuing their own projects of resistance…
Now, it would not be right to say the Taranoki have solved everything about gender and sexuality by any means (and the book would be worse if they had!). But they’re certainly a lot closer to being on a ‘reasonable’ track than, well, pretty much everyone except perhaps the Oriati: their “extended kinship structure” appears to remove a lot of the concerns around inheritance that play a large part in motivating reproductive control, and as such they can cheerfully fuck around. Neither appearance really breaks it down in much detail—in one, Baru is a child and then increasingly indoctrinated by the Masquerade, the other she views it through a nostalgic lens and isn’t especially concerned with teaching the reader.
We might ask, what does gender mean to Taranoki people? There is relatively little to go on, but there seems to be little ambiguity: Baru is very clear that two of her parents are ‘fathers’ and one is a ‘mother’. And they have a phrase, ‘the game of fathers’, to refer to gay relationships/sex:
Children began to vanish from the school, sent back out onto the island, into the plague. “Their behavior was not hygienic,” the teachers said. Social conditions, the students whispered. He was found playing the game of fathers—
A little might be gleaned from descriptions, in Baru’s eyes. Here’s Pinion in Traitor:
“Baru Cormorant,” mother Pinion said, smiling. In Baru’s eyes she was a coil of storm surf, a thunderbolt, as slow and powerful as sunlight. Her dark eyes and the teeth in her smile were the shapes that Baru imagined when she read about panthers.
Pinion in Tyrant:
She saw Pinion’s dark thundercloud face in the clearing ahead. Her cry of joy nailed Pinion to the spot: still expressionless as Barhu came into her arms, halfway knocked her over, clung to her, saying, in Urunoki, “Mother! Mother!”
Her mother’s pox-scarred face, her trim body, all shockingly older. She’d gone gray. She wore a dirty mulberry work shirt and rough canvas trousers. Her head had been shaved, recently, for passage on a ship, in a cheap hold full of lice.
Father Salm shaded his eyes and watched the ships, peeling lips pressed thin. He had the shoulders of a mountain and they corded as he moved.
Here are Salm (‘shield-bearer’, the Taranoki term for a soldier, particularly one who participates in a ritualised duel of champions) and Solit (blacksmith, and telescope manufacturer):
Watching their reflections, Baru saw Solit take Salm’s shoulder, callused hand pressed against his husband’s bare strength. Each man wore his hair braided, Solit’s burnt short for the smithy, Salm’s an elaborate waist-length fall—for glory in the killing circle, against the plainsmen.
In Baru’s eyes, a lot of her view of her parents seems to have to do with them being active, powerful presences in her life; despite her estrangement, or perhaps especially because of it, they still loom very large. For her dads, a lot of her description emphasises physical strength. One could imagine that living with such impressive and decisively actualised parents would perhaps even be kind of overbearing; no wonder perhaps that Baru is as proud and desperate to show off her own talents. But as powerful as they are, they are eclipsed and displaced by the Masquerade over the course of the first chapter, against which Pinion is helpless.
As fictional characters, I love how vividly they’re drawn. Despite the brief time they’re in Tyrant, they really steal the scene–and so many people I’ve seen reading this book react with absolute delight when they reach this part!
Anyway, let’s see if we can speculate a little, given the limited information. We know well the Taranoki’s mode of life is largely in profitable trade and farming; we know there are two groups, we might call moieties, who occasionally fight—but this has been heavily ritualised with duels of champions standing in for battle. Baru belongs to the harborside people, but there are also the ‘plainsmen’ from further inland, and this division is exploited by the Masquerade.
So is there a gendered division of martial roles, like in the Masquerade where the primary branch of the military, the navy, is considered feminine or the Stakhieczi where it seems to be primarily men who fight? This seems unlikely: Baru thinks of both her mother and one of her fathers as being powerful champions when boasting to the other children in Traitor:
How extraordinarily satisfying to be the daughter of Salm the shield-bearer and Pinion the huntress, foremost among the harborside champions. “Wars are fought between champions in a circle of drums. The drums beat and the champions trade spear-cast and shield-push until the loser yields or dies.” Baru cracked her throwing stone against the stone beneath her, to make them leap. “And then the plainsmen go home to sulk, and we sell them textiles at outrageous prices.”
Notably the word used for a warrior, ‘shieldbearer’, emphasises a defensive rather than offensive aspect of combat.
That’s about all I’ve got based on the text. I could try and speculate about how things might work, but that seems a pretty fraught exercise leaning on a very colonial discipline of anthropology which I scarcely understand.
I could also try to write about Aurdwynn, but that will lean on more distant memories of reading Traitor, so perhaps I should hold that off until I inevitably give that book a full reread. Which you can bet will have a long article about it.
Exorcising the egregore
In the previous article, we asked how we could break free of capitalism and empire. An even harder question is how we break free of gender!
Capitalism, for all its immense reproductive success in displacing the other ‘modes and orders’, is at least recognisably recent. We know when it started to happen, and while we can argue about the exact factors that made it possible, we can have obvious proof that a self-replicating socioeconomic system (‘mode of production’ if you prefer) can be overthrown and replaced with another. Indeed, capitalism’s brief life has been characterised by all sorts of crisis—though it has so far proven resilient, it is easy to feel confident that it will have to give way to something else sooner or later.
How did it come to this?
The origins of gender on the other hand are much murkier.
Anarchists and others on the origins of gender
Gelderloos, for example, remarks that
Ideally, the antithesis of patriarchy would be a society with absolutely no differentiation of gender or with a gender performativity that is constantly in flux. Clearly, gender differentiation is a prerequisite to patriarchy, and it seems that societies that make gender immutable are more likely to develop as patriarchies. However, this ideal seems to reach an incorporeal extreme that does not find expression in human history. Even societies with gender mutability and more than two gender categories were based, it seems, on the two primary genders common throughout the world.
and he instead describes a nonpatriarchal society as one in which the gendered categories are considered ‘complementary’, admitting at least that this past limitation does not constraint the future.
There are certainly speculative accounts certainly of how it could have developed in the distant past, spinning theories out of their preferred corner of the anthropological literature. Most of them, frankly, kind of suck, but their limitations can be useful to try and step further.
Engels, for example, leaning on 19th-century anthropologists, attempts to chart a series of stages from undifferentiated ‘primitive communism’: how the universal ‘consanguinal’ family of the ‘primitive and barbarian’ peoples must have given way to increasing divisions: a prohibition on sex between parents and their children and then later between siblings leading to increasing pressures to divide households once they reach a certain upper limit of size.
Arthur Evans, in Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, seems to argue that many early societies had quite a strong gendered division, but homosociality and -sexuality was a primary factor in what he romantically terms ‘nature societies’, drawing again on anthropological writing:
Among humans, early social forms resemble these animal practices, as can be seen in surviving stone and iron age societies. There, men and women associate more often socially with members of the same sex; sometimes the sexes live in separate common houses. For example, such separate housing arrangements have existed among the Moto, the Bassa Komo of Nigeria, the Hottentots, the Zulus and the Aranda of the Upper Congo. Among the Aranda, the sexes once even lived in separate villages (Briffault, I: 509-13). In many of these common houses, homosexuality is regularly practiced, and “in such cases the first homosexual intercourse is a rite of friendship” (Van Gennep, 171). Even when the custom of separate houses isn’t found, the sexes in nature societies still tend to live their daily lives apart. “In all the North American Indian tribes there was scarcely any social intercourse between the men and the women; the sexes lived their lives separately” (Briffault, I: 510).
We would, I think, now dispute the idea that the various societies listed here belong to a category of ‘surviving stone and iron age’ societies, rather than evolving in their own way, including being shaped by Roman or European colonialism. Gelderloos does a little better:
In any case, the gender complementarity of many African societies was eroded by European colonial influence. British, French, Portuguese, and other colonizers saw patriarchies where none existed. By only dealing with male institutions and leaders, and ignoring or even annihilating female institutions and leaders, they gradually created the very societies they had projected.
We would also be inclined to think that the exact gender categories recognised by the colonisers would probably have an effect. Just as, when there are no chiefs to be found, a coloniser will declare someone the chief and start bargaining with them in a way that incentivises them to act as a figurehead and exert force, we might think that a society that does not create a stark division between ‘penis people’ and ‘vagina people’ would find a gender division in itself once the colonisers start making a point of interacting with ‘men’.
So far these accounts all seem very weak. A better one might come from Baedan, who locate gender in their preferred narrative of ‘civilisation’ and ‘domestication’ inherited from Fredy Perlman. In Against the Gendered Nightmare, they survey some writing on gender from within the ‘green’ anarchist tradition. For example, they quote Green Anarchy:
Toward the beginning in the shift to civilization, an early product of domestication is patriarchy: the formalization of male domination and the development of institutions which reinforce it. By creating false gender distinctions and divisions between men and women, civilization, again, creates an “other” that can be objectified, controlled, dominated, utilized, and commodified. This runs parallel to the domestication of plants for agriculture and animals for herding, in general dynamics, and also in specifics like the control of reproduction
and then extend it a little with the works of Fredy Perlman and John Zerzan, before critiquing (correctly in my view) all these writers for essentialism in assuming the categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ pertain.
They move on then to examine the work of materialist feminists like Gayle Rubin:
She concludes her critique of Marxist feminism by illustrating the silliness of reducing the vastness of the sex/gender system to being simply ‘the reproductive’ sphere. For her, there is far too much excess in that system to be solely the reproductive aspect of industrial production. Not to mention that it is also productive in its own way: producing gendered subjects, for example. The origins of gender domination, she claims, must be located outside the ‘mode of production.’
Her attempt to find this outside is to first look at the writings of Levi-Strauss in his explorations of early kinship structures. His writing places gender and sexuality at the center of these structures; he develops a theory that links their essence to the exchange of women between men of various social groups. In doing so, Rubin believes he has sketched an implicit theory of gendered oppression. He primarily comes to this conclusion after studying the role of gift exchange in pre-state arrangements. He finds that the exchange of gifts was the first measure taken in the long road toward the development of ‘civil society’ and the state. For him, marriage is one of the most significant forms of gift exchange, with women themselves being the gifts given from one man to another. From here, he analyzes the incest taboo as a means of policing and enforcing this exchange of women as gifts. The taboo is less about preventing endogamous sexual relations, and much more about obliging the exchange of sisters and daughters into exogamous relations; it is an early expression of commodity society. The exchange of human beings is more powerful than other gifts because it is not simply an arrangement of reciprocity, but one of kinship. This results in a more long-lasting and expansive relationship which orders all other types of exchange through the established kinship network.
All this talk of prohibition on incest and introduction to kinship structures brings us into the territory of psychoanalysis, with Freud’s famous account of how an infant goes to the undifferentiated world of ‘polymorphous perversity’ through various stages: anal, Oedipal (in reference to the Greek myth), etc. This is admittedly territory which I am not well acquainted. (No doubt this series of essays would be a lot stronger had I actually read Deleuze and Guattari, who seem from outside to be immensely relevant.) It is a sufficiently dense topic that I think the place to begin the enquiry is not 15000 words into an essay about a book. Suffice to say that this entire section of Against the Gendered Nightmare is very compelling, even if I hesitate to call myself part of the ‘anti-civ’ tradition.
The problem is of course this is mostly speculation: we have no clear record of a time before gender. Certainly, gender has gone through various notable historical shifts (c.f. the medieval ‘one-gender model’, or the many ways a ‘family’ has been constructed).
But can we get rid of it?
Nevertheless I believe it can—and I desperately hope, will—be defeated. And speculative fiction has at least some role in attempting to construct a horizon of what it would be like to live free of gender, regardless of the fact that there is no way we can be confident of any predictions.
Unfortunately this theme seems to be visited only rarely, and attempts to push beyond the very shallow state of writing on gender in science fiction are met with a sickening transmisogynist hostility, as recent events have illustrated too painfully. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is probably the best known example of scifi that has a go at life without gender, but although Le Guin was an exceptionally skilled and insightful writer, and the book is deeply compelling on a character level, her ungendered society is still shot through with unexamined vestiges of bioessentialism which end up weakening the thought experiment.
This is not a project that is within Baru’s remit. The disintegration of gender is not really on the cards in Baru’s world, any more than it was in our 17th century, except in the dark sense of genocide and one model displacing the others. But it works very well for the book’s project to capture an oblique picture of what the enemy is. Sometimes declaring for an unknown future is all we can manage, after all; there are many pitfalls in trying to draw a map of the future utopia.
In our world, in the ‘imperial core’ where I write this essay, the gendered/sexual imaginary seems to be going through some pretty big disruptions right now. This isn’t necessarily anything completely new: the things that are becoming more common now (e.g. gender transition, attempts to articulate an outside to the binary, nonmonogamy, recognition that multiple minds/subjective experiences may exist in one body) have historical precedence in many different forms. It would be strange if we didn’t see some kind of dramatic change, given the huge social changes that have come with the last few decades where capitalism’s ability to terraform the land has reached new heights (literally, with skyscrapers lol), the internet has completely changed how we relate to each other, and a larger proportion of the population gets by in rented accomodation and temporary work.
No doubt had I been born a decade earlier, without various cliques of argumentative, traumatised, theorypilled trans women within ready reach of my computer, my life would have been very different. My ‘self exciting instability’ attached to a path (a form of ‘trans womanhood’) that had only fairly recently been carved, one whose shape—the language, the symbols, especially the forms of desire—is still far from settled. In that respect, it’s very exciting.
But it seems too much to hope that these disruptions, as much as it has been vital for me to recognise my personal ‘break’ from gender, are the first wave of a collapse of the whole system. Like capitalism, gender comprises many different sub-complexes which may prevail in different circumstances. It may recuperate one type of gender variance as part of the fold of normality (humanity), while drawing a new line around another type of pathetic gender failure to absorb the runoff of violence. Already we see various institutions—from financial companies to the military—picking up the theoretical machinery we’ve developed to explain our lives and discover that a sanctimonious lecture about gender can be a valuable branding tool.
Trying to speculate on what form a genuine break would make is perhaps too much for this essay; at least, I’m struggling on how to come up with a way to end it that doesn’t launch into another ten thousand words, and take us a long way away from the book.
So let’s just say: thank fuck for writing like this, and let us endeavour to find another step towards the world that terrifies the Masquerade.
It’s very pleasurable.