I enjoy Egan's hardest-of-hard SF a lot, even though a lot of the really technical sciencey shit goes over my head. This is one of his earlier novels, though, and as Egan books go it's on the "softer" end. The story is set in 2055 and deals with intrigue surrounding several competing physicists and their attempts to develop a successful Theory of Everything.
The stuff I have to say about the SF premise is all spoilery, so I'm going to talk about the setting first. Egan has written other books set in postgender futures; the 2055 society of Distress
hasn't gotten that far yet, but the traditional two gender categories have splintered into seven: en-male and en-fem ("natural" males and females); umale and ufem (genders which exaggerate the traditional masculine and feminine qualities); imale and ifem (which move the other way, toward androgyny); and asex (total androgyny). The asex pronoun is ve/vis/ver/verself, which Egan also used in his later book Diaspora
; out of the various gender-neutral pronoun sets I'm familiar with, I find this to be one of the less awkward examples.
The people who've adopted these new gender identities are known as "gender migrants", and it's explained that, unlike transsexuals, most of them are motivated by a purely social feeling of discomfort with their assigned gender role and not any kind of physical dysphoria."The whole point of being umale is to distance yourself from the perceived weaknesses of contemporary natural males. To declare that their 'consensual identity' -- stop laughing -- is so much less masculine than your own that you effectively belong to another sex entirely. [...] But... that is the commonest reason people cite for gender migration: they're sick of self-appointed gender-political figureheads and pretentious Mystical Renaissance gurus claiming to represent them. And sick of being libeled for real and imagined gender crimes. If all men are violent, selfish, dominating, hierarchical... what can you do except slit your wrists, or migrate from male to imale, or asex? If all woman are weak, passive, irrational victims -- [...]
But the point is... gender migration is ninety percent politics. Some coverage still treats it as a kind of decadent, gratuitous, fashionable mimicry of gender reassignment for transsexuals -- but most gender migrants go no further than superficial asex. They don't cross right over; they have no reason to. It's a protest action, like resigning from a political party, or renouncing your citizenship... or deserting a battlefield... but whether it will stabilize at some low level, and shake up attitudes enough to remove the whole reason for migration, or whether the population will end up evenly divided between all seven genders in a couple of generations, I have no idea."
Gina grimaced. "Seven genders -- and all of them perceived as monolithic. Everyone stereotyped at a glance. Seven pigeon-holes instead of two isn't progress."
"No. But maybe in the long run there'll only be asex, umale and ufem. Those who want to be pigeon-holed will be -- and those who don't will remain mysterious."
"No, no -- in the long run we'll have nothing but VR bodies, and we'll all be mysterious or revelatory in turns, as the mood takes us."
"I can't wait."
(The distant future where everyone has VR bodies and most people just don't bother with gender anymore is the actual setting of Diaspora
The idea of being able to just opt out
of being gendered is hugely appealing to me, and I wish that were a viable option in real life.
In the book, just as people may have various (political or social) motivations for gender migration, the process itself is highly individualized and can be purely a matter of a change in outward gender presentation or involve various forms of body modification. One major character is an asex person who's chosen to become physically neuter and (through some kind of brain chemistry alteration) asexual, and the (en-male) protagonist experiences some angst when he finds himself becoming attracted to ver despite knowing that his feelings can never be reciprocated or consummated.( Spoilers start here.Collapse )This entry was originally posted at http://swamp-adder.dreamwidth.org/104360.html.