A stand-alone SF book focusing on gender issues.

Publication year: 1995
Page count: 320
Format: print
Publisher: Tor

Humanity spread on different planets centuries ago. FTL travel had its problems but humans solved it with a drug: hyperlumin. Unfortunately, the drug caused two genetic side effect: miscarriages are far more common and about one fourth of the population is born intersex. These days, the interstellar culture has five sexes and nine sexual orientations.

Warreven Stiller is a hermaphrodite but he was born on the planet Hara which was isolated from the interstellar culture for centuries and so still clings to the old ways: only two sexes are acknowledged officially and only heterosexuality is approved. The other three sexes are called halving or odd-bodied. Gender role are also rigid: women have to wear a customary dress that emphasizes their bodies’ femininity. Sexual roles are also rigid: women are passive in bed and men active. The only concession to the new reality is that people can officially change their official sex apparently pretty easily. Warreven is officially a man.

Haran culture has a strong hierarchy descended from the ship that brought the humans to Hara. The Stiller and Stane families are still hostile to each other because of the ancient history and the Captain is a great mythological figure. The roots of the local religion seems to be in Christianity but there are five spirits between humans and God.

Warreven is a lawyer and part of a three person firm. Often enough, they handle cases around “trade” as the commercial sex trade between Harans and the off-worlders is called. However, Warreven has a comfortable life and he even knows the Most Important Man and his son. One of Warreven’s partners is another hermaphrodite who tried to sue Hara over the gender issue and be called legally a hermaphrodite. However, the person lost the case and their legal gender was changed to a woman.

Mhyre Tatian is an off-worlder and in the employ of one of the medical companies that buys stuff from Hara. The company’s mandate is to steer clear of any local trouble and Tatian does his best to do just that. He’s a man but still Hara’s sexual politics make him uneasy at times. He also has intersexed friends and is gradually drawn into Haran politics.

The plot focuses on intrigue, local customs, and the possibility of social change, so it’s a bit slow. Also, there are some scenes that don’t really go anywhere; people going about their daily lives. They are great from character perceptive and for showing off the culture but not so good for plot. However, when action starts, it’s fast and furious and has consequences.

The three additional sexes have their own pronouns in the interstellar language and they all have letters that my keyboard can’t make. I find this a very interesting choice because surely Scott could have used more ordinary made up words, or words that mean something different for the new pronouns. Still, this forces the reader to really see the different sexes as different and to acknowledge them in a way that the Harans refuse to do. The book has a number of made up words for Haran and galactic cultural stuff and there’s a glossary at the back of the book.

I wonder if this book would lose some of the impact if it were translated into Finnish, because we don’t have gendered pronouns. Everyone would be just “hän”. In fact, I would think that just one non-gendered pronoun would have been more useful to the galactics than adding more gendered pronouns that segregate people more effectively. But maybe that’s the point. The galactics have also pretty rigorous customs, boundaries, and stereotypes even though they are different from the Haran ones. I mean, unless you’re thinking of dating every person you see, what difference does it make what genital configuration, for example a waiter, a cashier, or a plumber has?

The book’s world if full of shades of gray. Even those whose actions are pretty vile from their victims’ POV are motivated by fear or even a need to balance old and new, and not change too quickly because it might destabilize the whole society. From their POV, they are keeping people safe by forcing them to conform.

Oh, the book doesn’t have any sex scenes and there’s no romance.