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Women in sf reading challenge #9: Shadow Man, Melissa Scott

If I’ve had trouble reading the books for my challenge in their proper months, it’s not because reading them is proving a, er, challenge. On the contrary, it’s because I’ve made a change in my reading patterns which makes the books I chose for the challenge less of a conscious or deliberate act of selection of reading material. I now read more books by women writers, and so the dozen books of my reading challenge are just twelve among many. In that respect, the challenge can be counted a success – and only nine months in, too. Nor have any of those nine books been bad books, though a couple I didn’t enjoy as much as the others.

Which brings me to Shadow Man by Melissa Scott, September’s book for the challenge. I was aware of the book’s reputation before choosing it – in fact, it was that which likely led to its selection. However, that reputation had not really prepared for what I found when I started reading it. Because what Shadow Man is, is Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness through a funhouse mirror. It is also a more political novel than the political The Left Hand of Darkness. Comparisons are inevitable, even though LeGuin’s novel takes place on a world with one gender and Shadow Man takes place in a universe with five genders. Both novels have placed the treatment of gender – culturally and legally – front and centre.

In the universe of Shadow Man, the use of a drug to offset “FTL shock” has resulted in a far greater than normal incidence of intersex and hermaphrodite births (miscarriages are also correspondingly higher). The Concord Worlds now recognise five genders – woman, man, fem, mem and herm; respectively, she, he, ðe, þe and 3e. (Unfortunately, I kept on reading the pronouns referring to herms as if they used the Arabic ﻉ (‘ayn) rather than the numeral 3.) These five genders have led, in turn, to nine sexual preferences, and this has bearing on the plot of the novel.

On the world of Hara, a colony planet re-contacted 100 years previously after several centuries of independent development, the law and society only recognise two genders – man and woman. So the herms, mems and fems must take on the role of one or the other – though there is apparently a facility for herms at least to legally change gender. The Traditionalist Harans feel that true humans have only two genders, and they do not want to join the Concord. The Modernists want the other three genders to be recognised in Haran law. It is the battle between these two groups which drives the plot of Shadow Man.

Warreven is a herm, but legally male, and works as an advocate in the Haran legal system. Years before, 3e almost married the son of the Most Important Man – the de facto ruler of Hara – but 3e refused to change legal gender. Now, 3e fights for gender rights in the courts. Mhyre Tatian is the manager of a middle-sized Concord pharmaceutical company’s operations on Hara. The world’s biggest export is its drugs, all derived from the local flora. Also important is “trade”, which is prostitution, mostly involving the three genders not recognised on Hara.

Warreven is involved in a court case which looks set to play a major role in the fight for gender equality. But the Most Important Man doesn’t want that to happen, because as long as things muddle along as they presently are doing, a delicate balance between the Traditionalists and the Modernists is maintained. But his son, Tendlathe, is a staunch Traditionalist – a blinkered, chauvinist and conservative Traditionalist of the worst kind. In an effort to keep Warreven from the courts, the Most Important Man has him elected as his clan’s seeraliste, the person responsible for selling off the clan’s surplus crops. Meanwhile, the Interstellar Disease Control Agency, the organisation responsible for preventing the spread of diseases – a variety of HIVs were also created by the FTL drug – also wants to prevent that case from going to court for their own reasons. Tatian is caught in the middle as one of his employees is a key witness. When Warreven offers Tatian the entire clan surplus in return for the employee’s testimony, it kicks off a series of Traditonalist attacks on the Modernists and the “odd-bodied”.

Scott makes no concessions when introducing the world of Shadow Man. It’s straight in at the deep end. There are one or two info-dumps streamlined into the narrative, but they provide little more than local colour. The story is told from the points of view – alternating – of Warreven and Tatian. From Warreven, we see what it’s like to be a herm in a society that does not recognise it as a gender, and we get the politics which affects that. Tatian provides an outsider’s view of Hara and its culture. Though both mention at various points some physical attraction between them, it never amounts to anything.

As a sf novel set in a strange and interesting world, with a pair of likeable protagonists, Shadow Man succeeds. There’s an air of exploration to the story, as it spends a great deal of time savouring the culture of Hara before the somewhat abrupt final confrontation. Yet the action never moves outside the capital city, though places elsewhere on the world are often mentioned. It makes for a languid read, a story in which the politics of the climax seems to page by page subsume the story of Warreven and Tatian – in fact, for at least half of the book, they’re barely acquaintances.

But it is the gender politics for which Shadow Man is known, and I found them a little problematical in places. For a start, the thing driving the gender politics in the story is “trade”. It’s almost as if the odd-bodied genders are defined by the roles they play in prostitution. There’s a level of prurience implicit in the Traditionalist response to herms, mems and fems, and given the focus on trade it’s not hard to understand why they might hold such an opinion. Perhaps Shadow Man needed to show a Concord world’s society as contrast, because all the reader has with which to compare it is the situation in the real world. It’s also worth noting that the genders in Shadow Man are defined by biology – it’s the secondary sexual characteristics and equipment which determine which gender a person is. And while the book’s glossaries helpfully explain the nine sexual preferences – there is a glossary of Concord terms and one of Haran words – those sexual preferences make only a few appearances in the story. Haran society is dual-sexed, and the story treats all interactions as such, acknowledging the existence of sexual preferences beyond woman-man but not really exploring them. And this is in a novel whose story describes the start of a sexual revolution comparable to the fight for gay rights in the real world. In fact, Shadow Man‘s penultimate chapter is very much an analogue of Stonewall.

Literalising a metaphor is not uncommon in fiction, and is an excellent tool for commentary. I’m not entirely convinced that literalising sexual preferences as biological gender necessarily helps discussion, though in Shadow Man it has resulted in an interesting universe. It’s a pity Shadow Man doesn’t explore more of it. Which is not to say it’s a bad novel by any means. I enjoyed it and thought it good. I’d happily recommend it. I am somewhat surprised it has never been published in the UK. It seems to me it would fit in quite happily with a number of sf novels which have been available here over the years – not just the aforementioned LeGuin, but also books by Storm Constantine, Samantha Lee, Mary Gentle, or even Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy…

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