September 2nd, 2019

broken immersion

I've read a number of Elizabeth Bear's books in the past, and liked them, particularly the Iskryne series, of which she was co-author. So I decided to take a look at Ancestral Night. Unfortunately, I very quickly ran into things that damaged my immersion in her story.

The first, and lesser, was a passage where her narrator explains that her upbringing left her with an aversion to chemical adjustment of her mental state, as a result of which she doesn't want to alter her neurotransmitters to enable herself to sleep. Instead, she says, she can caffeinate. Now, caffeine is precisely a substance that chemically alters one's mental state, and the fact that she uses the word "caffeinate" shows that she thinks of it in chemical terms, not just as a pleasant social ritual. So why doesn't she count it as the kind of thing she's averse to, and avoid it? That felt like the early twenty-first century's irrational pharmacological categories being relied on in a future civilization that putatively has a different and scientifically based approach to brain and mentality, in which such a distinction ought not even to be remembered.

A bit later, the narrator explains that most ships have female personae and presumably names, and attributes this to "gender essentialism," by that exact name. That raised several questions: Is there any reason to suppose that ships will still be called "she" even a century from now, let alone in a future multispecies galactic civilization? If they are, is there any reason to suppose that it will be a matter of controversy in the way such issues now are, or that, if it is, rejection of the feminine will necessarily be seen as the progressive view rather than the retrograde one? Will people still be fighting over the usage of our current pronouns, rather than having evolved an entirely different set? And worst, will the academic jargon term "gender essentialism" be what the rejected position is called, or will there be some more pungent vernacular term?

Having been twice jarred out of narrative immersion in the space of a single chapter, I'm not going to go on with this. I want the experience of imaginatively inhabiting a complex, puzzling future world, not that of being constantly shoved back into my own decade. I can't recommend this book to anyone who's sensitive to anachronism.