Therefore “Ae” Will Be Used, or, Overcoming the Binary Gender Assumptions in Science Fiction

For those of you concerned with the recent discussion over at the Tor Books website, I wanted to weigh in on the nondiscussion of the noncontroversy the postrational postmoderns were having with themselves, I assume in a safely padded room.

The fires of reform have let fall a spark upon wood which they perhaps find sadly dank, and the furious wind of words is attempting bravely to blow on an idea with no merit that arouses no interest in the reading public: and so far the idea has burst into no particular blaze.

Namely, the reform proposed is that readers should change their assumptions so that assuming the human race comes only in two sexes would no longer be the standard, default assumption. We should suffer a moment of surprise and worried shock if ever again we read a story where the human characters fall neatly either into male and female categories.

Whether this assumption matches reality or not has been ruled beyond discussion.

One assumes the motive for such social reform is benevolent, based on the idea that those among us who are neither male nor female cannot feel sympathy with any characters outside our own sex. Or, worse, perhaps the assumption here is that one ought not feel sympathy for sexes or races outside one’s own, but have only partisan loyalty to one’s own identity-group.

If so, it is not benevolent at all in its outcome, no matter the intent, for it is the philosophy of xenophobia. It is the attempt to make it normal to judge all other men solely by their unintentional outward accidents, and to ignore that inward soul and character which makes us all equal. It is the attempt to undo centuries of progress in the areas of civic equality and Christian charity in one blow, and turn us all back into squabbling tribes severed by mutual hatred.

Whether such an idea catches fire, we shall see. But I wanted to contribute my bucket of water to the attempt:

Dear postmodern reformers, you are ninety-four years out of date.

In the seminal work of wonder known to mortals as VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay, an author in every way more imaginative than any writer (myself included) writing today, effortlessly disposed of this issue, and in a fashion not even Ursula K LeGuin’s striking and imaginative LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS could match.

The comparison is, of course, slightly unfair, as LeGuin was writing science fiction (elevating the standard set for the genre as she did so) whereas David Lindsay was writing theological or theosophical speculation, a visionary delirium not bound by normal conventions of genre, story-telling, or any mundane rules or tropes.

It is worth quoting at length. This is from Chapter 16, ‘Leehallfae’. The earthman Maskull has been carried by an impossible vessel across the abyss of space to the giant planet Tormance, sole companion of the binary star Arcturus, either to bring new fire to man like Prometheus, or to die, or both. Abandoned by his companions, and having suffered many strange mutations both of body and outlook, and having committed appalling murders, he travels alone across the wild lands seeking a glimpse of the second sun, Alppain, whose weird colors form a spectrum unknown on Earth and indescribable, but whose light banishes all illusions:

A voice called out to him from behind, and, turning around, he saw a human figure hastening toward him from some distance down the ravine. It looked more like a man than a woman. He was rather tall, but nimble, and was clothed in a dark, frocklike garment that reached from the neck to below the knees. Around his head was rolled a turban. Maskull waited for him, and when he was nearer went a little way to meet him.

Then he experienced another surprise, for this person, although clearly a human being, was neither man nor woman, nor anything between the two, but was unmistakably of a third positive sex, which was remarkable to behold and difficult to understand. In order to translate into words the sexual impression produced in Maskull’s mind by the stranger’s physical aspect, it is necessary to coin a new pronoun, for none in earthly use would be applicable. Instead of “he,” “she,” or “it,” therefore “ae” will be used.

He found himself incapable of grasping at first why the bodily peculiarities of this being should strike him as springing from sex, and not from race, and yet there was no doubt about the fact itself. Body, face, and eyes were absolutely neither male nor female, but something quite different. Just as one can distinguish a man from a woman at the first glance by some indefinable difference of expression and atmospheres altogether apart from the contour of the figure, so the stranger was separated in appearance from both. As with men and women, the whole person expressed a latent sensuality, which gave body and face alike their peculiar character…. Maskull decided that it was love – but what love – love for whom? it was neither the shame-carrying passion of a male, nor the deep-rooted instinct of a female to obey her destiny. It was as real and irresistible as these, but quite different. As he continued staring into those strange, archaic eyes, he had an intuitive feeling that aer lover was no other than Shaping himself. it came to him that the design of this love was not the continuance of the race but the immortality on earth of the individual. No children were produced by the act; the lover aerself was the eternal child. Further, ae sought like a man, but received like a woman. All these things were dimly and confusedly expressed by this extraordinary being, who seemed to have dropped out of another age, when creation was different.

Of all the weird personalities Maskull had so far met in Tormance, this one struck him as. infinitely the most foreign – that is, the farthest removed from him in spiritual structure. If they were to live together for a hundred years, they could never be companions.

Maskull pulled himself out of his trancelike meditations and, viewing the newcomer in greater detail, tried with his understanding to account for the marvellous things told him by his intuitions. Ae possessed broad shoulders and big bones, and was without female breasts, and so far ae resembled a man. But the bones were so flat and angular that aer flesh presented something of the character of a crystal, having plane surfaces in place of curves. The body looked as if it had not been ground down by the sea of ages into smooth and rounded regularity but had sprung together in angles and facets as the result of a single, sudden idea. The face too was broken and irregular. With his racial prejudices, Maskull found little beauty in it, yet beauty there was, though neither of a masculine nor of a feminine type, for it had the three essentials of beauty: character, intelligence, and repose. The skin was copper-coloured and strangely luminous, as if lighted from within. The face was beardless, but the hair of the head was as long as a woman’s, and, dressed in a single plait, fell down behind as far as the ankles. Ae possessed only two eyes. That part of the turban which went across the forehead protruded so far in front that it evidently concealed some organ.

Maskull found it impossible to compute aer age. The frame appeared active, vigorous, and healthy, the skin was clear and glowing; the eyes were powerful and alert – ae might well be in early youth. Nevertheless, the longer Maskull gazed, the more an impression of unbelievable ancientness came upon him – aer real youth seemed as far away as the view observed through a reversed telescope.

At last he addressed the stranger, though it was just as if he were conversing with a dream. “To what sex do you belong?” he asked.

The, voice in which the reply came was neither manly nor womanly, but was oddly suggestive of a mystical forest horn, heard from a great distance.

“Nowadays there are men and women, but in the olden times the world was peopled by ‘phaens.’ I think I am the only survivor of all those beings who were then passing through Faceny’s mind.”


“Who is now miscalled Shaping or Crystalman. The superficial names invented by a race of superficial creatures.”

“What’s your own name?”



“Leehallfae. And yours is Maskull. I read in your mind that you have just come through some wonderful adventures. You seem to possess extraordinary luck. If it lasts long enough, perhaps I can make use of it.”

“Do you think that my luck exists for your benefit? … But never mind that now. It is your sex that interests me. How do you satisfy your desires?”

Leehallfae pointed to the concealed organ on aer brow. “With that I gather life from the streams that flow in all the hundred Matterplay valleys. The streams spring direct from Faceny. My whole life has been spent trying to find Faceny himself. I’ve hunted so long that if I were to state the number of years you would believe I lied.”

Maskull looked at the phaen slowly. “In Ifdawn I met someone else from Matterplay – a young man called Digrung. I absorbed him.”

“You can’t be telling me this out of vanity.”

“It was a fearful crime. What will come of it?

Leehallfae gave a curious, wrinkled smile. “In Matterplay he will stir inside you, for he smells the air. Already you have his eyes…. I knew him…. Take care of yourself, or something more startling may happen. Keep out of the water.”

“This seems. to me a terrible valley, in which anything may happen.”

“Don’t torment yourself about Digrung. The valleys belong by right to the phaens – the men here are interlopers. It is a good work to remove them.”

Maskull continued thoughtful. “I say no more, but I see I will have to be cautious.”

Not long after, the two engage in an attempt to find the hidden country of Threal, which is said to be somewhere at the source of the stream of living water in Matterplay from which new forms of plant and animal life springs into being with ceaseless and vulgar rapidity. Their dialog continues:

Faceny is of this nature. He faces Nothingness in all directions. He has no back and no sides, but is all face; and this face is his shape. It must necessarily be so, for nothing else can exist between him and Nothingness. His face is all eyes, for he eternally contemplates Nothingness. He draws his inspirations from it; in no other way could he feel himself. For the same reason, phaens and even men love to be in empty places and vast solitudes, for each one is a little Faceny.”

“That rings true,” said Maskull.

“Thoughts flow perpetually from Faceny’s face backward. Since his face is on all sides, however, they flow into his interior. A draught of thought thus continuously flows from Nothingness to the inside of Faceny, which is the world. The thoughts become shapes, and people the world. This outer world, therefore, which is lying all around us, is not outside at all, as it happens, but inside. The visible universe is like a gigantic stomach, and the real outside of the world we shall never see.”

Maskull pondered deeply for a while.

“Leehallfae, I fail to see what you personally have to hope for, since you are nothing more than a discarded, dying thought.”

“Have you never loved a woman?” asked the phaen, regarding him fixedly.

“Perhaps I have.”

“When you loved, did you have no high moments?”

“That’s asking the same question in other words.”

“In those moments you were approaching Faceny. If you could have drawn nearer still, would you not have done so?”

“I would, regardless of the consequences.”

“Even if you personally had nothing to hope for?”

“But I would have that to hope for.”

Leehallfae walked on in silence.

“A man is the half of Life,” ae broke out suddenly. “A woman is the other half of life, but a phaen is the whole of life. Moreover, when life becomes split into halves, something else has dropped out of it – something that belongs only to the whole. Between your love and mine there is no comparison. If even your sluggish blood is drawn to Faceny, without stopping to ask what will come of it, how do you suppose it is with me?”

“I don’t question the genuineness of your passion,” replied Maskull, “but it’s a pity you can’t see your way to carry it forward into the next world.”

Leehallfae gave a distorted grin, expressing heaven knows what emotion. “Men think what they like, but phaens are so made that they can see the world only as it really is.”

That ended the conversation.

My comment: I trust my point is not too subtle, or lost in the midst of this strange quote taken from the middle of one of the strangest and bitterest books in science fiction, or, indeed, in any literature.

My point is that the author here is using the concept of a third positive sex forcefully and boldly, but more importantly, the author is using the concept of a new sex in a fashion that is literal, typological, tropological, and anagogical. He is using the concept in a masterful way.

What Leehallfae represents is beyond the scope of this short comment, but ae steps forth from the page as aer own person, fully human yet nothing like us, possessed of passions we earthly humans formed in but two sexes can almost understand, and yet, as with all real things, the real meaning of aer life slips from us. Yet there ae stands, but casting a solid and angular shadow across the landscape of the imagination. I defy anyone to point at another character like aer. Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe of planet Gethen is far closer to us in spirit.

The author here is using sex not to make a political point, but to tell a story deeper and stranger and more vivid than any ordinary story. If the shallow and noisy postmoderns dare to tread in the footsteps of Mr Lindsay, I wish them good luck.

If they wish merely to scoff and scorn their own audience, I wish them silent. They are not our masters (and I, for one, am the disciple of another, whose burdens are lighter).