Have you ever read the book Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie? It’s a good book, won some awards a few years back. You should read it. Avoid the sequels. The central conceit is that the narrator is a human who was once controlled by the AI of a warship but is now the only piece of the AI left after the ship was destroyed. So you might say she is an incarnated AI. Maybe you can already tell one of the major themes is identity. Who is this incarnated AI? A piece of a machine, a tool, part of a larger mind? Or a genuine person, an individual? More importantly in this context, how should she think about herself? Because that’s what matters here. Not reality itself, but how one relates to reality.
The distinction becomes clearer when you add that the narrator is part of a galactic empire which does not consider gender important, and thus refers to every person using female pronouns. This is why the book won awards, and it’s a fascinating verbal trick. Because this isn’t a picture book, you generally have no idea whether a given character is male or female. Most people (speaking for myself) can’t conceptualize a person without some image. Inevitably when you think of someone an image will flash into your mind, consciously or not. As a reader, this leaves you with a conundrum. Either you conceive of everyone in the book as female, which doesn’t make sense, or you separate the male and the female by other characteristics. Small and slight? Female. Tall and strong? Male. Kind and gentle? Female. Brash and violent? Male. But is there actually any justification for that? I suspect that’s what Leckie wants you to ask. And it’s a fair point. Brilliant, even, and worthy of consideration. But I’m more interested in what she doesn’t intend to say, the points where reality seeps through the narrative.
One thing you may notice as you read the book is that you spend a lot more brain power than usual just trying to figure out who everyone is, specifically whether they are male or female, and trying to keep it straight as you learn more about them. Our minds recognize the incongruence and are always trying to sort it out. You might attribute this to our cultural norms (it’s clear Leckie does), and I might agree with you, except for one thing: the narrator does it too. In her interactions with foreign people, she is extremely anxious about using the right pronoun, far more anxious than any person in a normally gendered culture would be, and she is always thinking about gender and a person’s qualities while pointing out that gender doesn’t matter to her. It’s a striking irony, and it reveals a crucial fact about the world. The more you try to deny some truth about reality, and the more fundamental the reality is, the more effort you have to expend to do it.
This is true of everything. It’s built into the nature of the distinctions we make. You might enjoy imagining yourself a chicken, you might even learn a valuable lesson about humanity from it, but if you truly want to believe you’re a chicken and have others believe you are too, then it becomes a full-time job. You can’t just slap on some feathers, move into a coop, and call it a day. You’ll have to really work for it. And no matter what you do, you can’t lay chicken eggs. We recognize that, while they share some categories (earthlings, animals, organics, etc.), there is a fundamental difference between chickens and humans, and it’s that difference alone which is being expressed when we differentiate humans from chickens, not denying about that which they share. It’s possible to imagine a world where no one considers any distinction between animals (maybe I’ll write a novel about it), but it would require exponentially more work to determine in every case what anyone was talking about or what anyone should do with their fellow “animals,” especially, for instance, if you worked at a zoo. Without a preconceived distinction, you would always have to be evaluating how all these identical “animals” were different so that you could care for them accordingly. That is the irony Leckie’s narrator demonstrates: to get rid of gender is to never stop thinking about it.
Maybe you think this would justify every possible distinction we can imagine (discounting the obvious uncertainty that exists when making such judgements; I am only describing a tendency of the human reaction to a partially known world, not asserting a universal law), but the effect works in reverse as well. Creating artificial differences where they don’t exist also requires an excessive expenditure. How much time do we spend trying to prove we are better, smarter, funnier—different—from everyone around us? We may naturally fall into various clubs and cliques and classes which we enjoy, as some distinctions are truly cultural and not fundamental, but it becomes a tedious (and destructive) effort when we try to justify them, for the purpose of excluding others, based on anything other than convenience and coincidence and culture. On the scale of societies, creating these arbitrary differences between groups generally requires complex and coercive legal and regulatory structures, lobbies and advocacy groups, inquisitions and apartheids, like Jim Crow, like Roe, and, like all lies, it always faces toward death. If ever those walls cracked, if ever the laws were lightened, if ever a free moment were allowed, the whole system would come crashing down. By necessity, those with that kind of power are the most paranoid.
But the same irony infects every part of our lives. It’s why telling a lie is always more work than telling the truth. You might forget the truth and rediscover it later unchanged, but maintaining a lie requires constant attention lest you let it escape. The bigger the lie, the more attention required. It’s why denying you have a problem can be a stressful job but confession is almost always a relief. And it’s why humility is as self-regarding as arrogance. Building an identity around any given thing, be it gender, career, sex, race, or religion, is tiring and full of anxiety, because with each action and decision and thought you have to evaluate whether you conform to some standard—which, of course, you don’t, and the standards are changing anyway—or whether you might need to switch your allegiance.
Determining your own identity, choosing your own path, never lets you stop thinking about yourself. It confines you to a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting. That’s how I know it’s such a lie. If at any moment you confess the truth, that you are not your own, the artifice you built around yourself will break, and the beauty and the freedom of the world will sweep you away on a wave of sweet forgetfulness.