On Stories

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“And it’s a human need to be told stories.  The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.”

Alan Rickman

The Anyuvin universe grew out of what was supposed to be a very simple exercise in writing: the backstory for my online persona, “JD Bane”, for use in the online video game Star Citizen.  I was going through some of the game lore, looking for a ‘hook’, when I came across a reference to an alien race called the “Tevarin”, a race “that lived by a Bushido-like code.”  And I thought, cool, what if JD learned some alien martial art from an old Tevarin master who refused to speak Standard.

Well, then I was stuck making up a language that JD has to learn.  I had played around a bit with Loglan in my youth, I knew about Esperanto, and everyone knows about Klingon, (and now Dothraki) so I knew this is not going to be a simple project.  A little research on conlangs (constructed languages) and the scope of this became apparent.  It’s huge.  And it looked like a boatload of fun.

Making up a language requires a lot of decisions.  And one of the first I ran into was gendered language and, I thought, what if they didn’t have any?  Not that they were hermophrodites, but simply that their sex didn’t matter in their culture.  Literally.  I mean  what if sex was about as important as hair color, or height – that it was simply one more fairly meaningless difference between individuals.  Creating a race for which this was true was challenging – I was fairly sure sexual dimorphism had to be reduced to an absolute minimum and that the reproductive process couldn’t be a more of a burden for one sex than the other.  So, I tinkered with the physiology.  A bit.  OK, a lot.

The next problem that cropped up was that I had gotten rather invested in these guys and wasn’t really thrilled with the way the Tevarin were being presented in Star Citizen.  They started a war with the humans because they “wanted what we had”?  Really? Not my Tevarin!   So I started writing backstory for the Tevarin that made the whole Tevarin-Human war a little more believable (in my humble opinion.)  At which point I realized they weren’t ever going to fit into Star Citizen, not even as backstory for a PC.

So, they got a name change, the Star Citizen lore got stripped out, and here we are.

Creating a language without gender is easy.  (Less work!  Huzzah!).  Writing about a people who don’t ‘do’ gender – in their own language – is easy.  Writing about them in English sucks.  And English doesn’t do gender half a much as a lot of other languages do.  What have we got?  A couple of puny third person gendered pronouns?  A tendency to call some inanimate objects ‘she’?  (Telling as that may be.)  You’d think it would be easy, but it isn’t.  It sounds wrong.  It feels clumsy.  Still, short of writing in their language and making you all learn it before you could read the book, I was kind of stuck with English.

Using the pronoun ‘one’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’, shouldn’t make any difference if you’re talking about one character.  It shouldn’t be any more confusing if you’re trying to distinguish between two characters unless one is male and the other is female, in which case the gender would help keep the references straight.  I’d like to think I’ve developed a style that minimizes the impact, but it still sounds – wrong – our minds do rebel at not knowing.

I know mine does.  Even I find myself starting to think of a character as being one gender or the other.  I try not to, but somehow it creeps in there.  It doesn’t keep me from making the character strong, capable, nurturing, whatever I want them to be, but it’s in there, at least for the major characters, and – dammit – and it shouldn’t be.

For a while, I took to writing my characters until they had a mind of their own.  And only then did I roll the dice to find out what sex they were.  And I mean that literally.  I pulled out a d6 and rolled it.  Odds for male, even for female.  It seemed only fair, really, it’s what nature does to us, when you get right down to it.  It’s our culture that piles on the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” bullshit, nature doesn’t.  Then I realized that I was giving in to my own culturally induced “need to know”.   So I stopped, and now I try very, very, very hard not to think about it.

By now you’re asking what all this has to do with Alan Rickman’s quote.  My answer  is everything, because it’s not just about the stories we tell each other, but how we tell them.  It’s about the stories that others tell about us and how those stories, and the people in them are framed.  The academics might not buy into linguistic relativity any more (the notion that our language constrains our thoughts) but it would be stupid to think that language doesn’t affect our thoughts.  Words have cultural baggage.  Gendered words even more so.

On the day we’re born we’re wrapped in a blue blanket or a pink one and that cue governs how we’re thought of for the rest of our lives.  And if we dare to blur the borders of gender, we are taken to task for it – sometimes killed outright.  You can’t write stories about “what we could be without gender” unless you get rid of the gender.  And you can’t do that writing about people in our culture.  Gender is too pervasive.  (Try describing your character’s clothing without gender and pretty soon everyone’s running around in jeans and a T-shirt.)

The Anyuvin are my little “gender free sandbox”.  It’s fun making up the rest of the culture, but that little whim that said, “what if they had no concept of gender?”, that became their real purpose.  To explore what it might mean to be ‘human’ without all the limitations our gendered culture imposes.  To talk about love and hate; honor and loyalty; about strength and weakness, about all the those things that make us human, without gender getting in the way.  I’ve tried doing that in this universe and those ‘other stories’ get in the way.  (You know, the ones that “those governing us” like to tell?)

If learning how to write without gender is hard, learning to read without it is hard as well.  So if it sounds a bit clumsy, or wrong (somehow) stop and think about why.   But not too much, because, in my universe, it really doesn’t matter.