Novels of indeterminate gender?
January 9, 2015 1:45 PM   Subscribe

What are some novels in which the genders of some or all of the central characters is not revealed to the reader?

In this comment, xingcat says that (metafilter's own) John Scalzi's novel Lock In doesn't give the gender of the main character. I know that Harry Mathews' Tlooth gives most characters gender-neutral names and keeps their genders secret for most of the novel, and Anne Garréta's Sphinx doesn't reveal its main characters' genders. What others pull this off?

Garréta's is particularly impressive because she's writing in French, which means there are many more merely grammatical opportunities to reveal gender than in a language like English, but I'm primarily interested in examples that I could actually read (in English or, at a stretch, German).
posted by kenko to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Set This House In Order: A Romance of Souls by Matt Ruff deals specifically with gender identity and multiple personality disorder. The main character's anatomy is eventually disclosed, but for the majority of the book it's basically irrelevant.
posted by carsonb at 1:49 PM on January 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I love love love Far North by Marcel Theroux, and the gender of the protagonist is ambiguous for most of the book. Maybe some more astute readers figured it out earlier, but I knew nothing about the book going in and I was unsure until the end.
posted by magdalemon at 1:50 PM on January 9, 2015

Ancillary Justice.
posted by backwards guitar at 1:54 PM on January 9, 2015 [10 favorites]

Written on the Body.
posted by jaguar at 1:56 PM on January 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Cloudatlas, if i remember correctly.
posted by 15L06 at 2:01 PM on January 9, 2015

Sarah Caudwell's mysteries are great.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:03 PM on January 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

I cannot give you a specific title, but I heard a fascinating interview with an Iranian woman who translated an Iranian novel into English. It centers on the relationship between the narrator and his teacher.

Farsi does not have gendered pronouns. The narrator assumed that the teacher was a woman, because all of her teachers had been women, and that was how she translated into English. When she sent the first draft to the original novelist, he commented that overall the translation was good but that she had gotten the sex of the teacher wrong. The protagonist was a man, and in Iran men are taught by men, and women are taught by women. So the teacher was a man. It as an obvious thing, really, but it hadn't occurred to the translator at all. She had no experience with men being teachers.

I believe she made the correction so that the English version was ultimately published with a male teacher. It would be fascinating to see both versions, though. (I might be able to track down more info on this if there is interest. I heard the interview on WBUR in Boston, and I believe the interview took place at Boston University.)
posted by alms at 2:06 PM on January 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

I knew TV Tropes would come through for me. I've actually seen this a lot in anime. Kino in Kino's Journey is a character whose assigned gender at birth is ultimately shown via flashback, but they are referred to with gender neutral pronouns for the remainder of the series.
posted by tchemgrrl at 2:17 PM on January 9, 2015

Wow, I didn't realize Written on the Body doesn't reveal the narrator's gender. I had always assumed the narrator was female.

There is a French novel, whose name I cannot recall, with a romance between two characters, neither gender being revealed. I haven't read it (don't think my French is good enough), but the article I read about it mentioned that several reviewers of the book were quite sure their interpretation of the genders was correct -- but some read it as a gay male romance, some as lesbian, and some as hetero- but both directions there. Frustratingly I can't recall anymore about it!

However while googling to find it, I found these:
The Mercy Room
article with a few suggestions
posted by nat at 3:01 PM on January 9, 2015

Response by poster: nat, I suspect you're thinking of Sphinx. (Which I just learned has been translated into English!)
posted by kenko at 3:02 PM on January 9, 2015

Yes, kenko, that's it. And I think i found where I read about it- Pronoun Envy.
posted by nat at 3:08 PM on January 9, 2015

There's a Tor roundtable on this which has a bunch of ideas. Otherwise, yes, Ancillary Justice, Lock In, Written on the Body (which I confused, briefly, with Gut Symmetries), Sarah Caudwell.
posted by jeather at 3:32 PM on January 9, 2015

Dangerous Space, by Kelley Eskridge (although it's more of a novella). Some of her short stories also use this technique.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:42 PM on January 9, 2015

The gender of The Towers of Trebizond (1956) seems to be intentionally obscure, and the gender of the narrator's lover is unclear until near the very end.
posted by nonane at 4:45 PM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wait really? I had always assumed that the narrator of The Towers of Trebizond was female.
posted by kenko at 4:51 PM on January 9, 2015

I found this review fairly convincing on the subject (and I see I left out a "the narrator of" at the beginning of the previous comment).
posted by nonane at 5:01 PM on January 9, 2015

Connie Willis's Uncharted Territory.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 5:02 PM on January 9, 2015

Apologies for not answering the question exactly, but The Left Hand of Darkness is worth reading.
posted by ovvl at 6:57 PM on January 9, 2015

the YA novel Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brenzenoff -- you never discover the gender of the narrator (Kid) or of his/her love interest (Scout).
posted by changeling at 7:37 PM on January 9, 2015

I am in the middle of Greg Egan's Diaspora which so far I think has not revealed the gender of any of the AI characters, who can be male, female, neither, both, any combination or changing over time. (They're real people! Just in software - as opposed to the human characters who do have the genders). He uses the pronouns ve, ver and vis for all of the AI people, whatever they happen to be presenting as at the time.

Come to think of it, the characters of the AI ships in Iain Banks' Culture books also don't have gender, though that's possibly not as interesting as I think they are all just referred to as 'it'.
posted by symphonicknot at 6:25 AM on January 10, 2015

The Choose Your Own Adventure series of books are intentionally gender and race neutral for the most part, though the illustrations tend towards depicting male protagonists.
posted by carsonb at 7:04 AM on January 10, 2015

An oldie but goodie is The Cook and the Carpenter, by the Carpenter. The context in the Google Books link undoes ambiguity, but I'll never forget how blown my mind was when I read it in 1973.
posted by Jesse the K at 8:26 AM on January 10, 2015

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler. There is a reveal at the end, though.
posted by mippy at 6:13 AM on January 13, 2015

Just as a follow up to the comment about Written on the Body. Most of Jeanette Winterson's novels feature characters whose gender is initially if not perpetually ambiguous: I'm thinking of Picasso from Art and Lies, for instance. I think Gut Symmetries may also feature this kind of gender-bending to play with the love triangle narrative.

But no one has mentioned BMO from Adventure Time! Probably because BMO is not originally from a novel, but by this point I think BMO's made it into a bunch of comic books and stuff!
posted by ABlanca at 3:26 PM on February 1, 2015

So late to the party, but there's a peripheral character (not a main character, but the lack of gender reveal plays into the story) introduced in Louise Penny's A Rule Against Murder. It's part of a series of books, and this non-gender-revealed character makes occasional appearances in later books in the series as well (definitely in The Long Way Home but possibly also in intervening books).
posted by hansbrough at 1:48 PM on March 20, 2015

Just found this thread via this thread on sex and gender in novels on the blue.

In the YA novel Between You and Me, the gender of the main character's best friend & crush is never revealed.
posted by carrioncomfort at 11:05 AM on May 20, 2015

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