So Scalzi has been ranting on Twitter about this proposal for a new F&SF award — it’s more fallout from the Hugo mess, and this person proposes more gatekeeping, requiring membership in a “web of trust” in order to vote for a new award. I’m not impressed with the idea — it seems to imply more a web of distrust, where someone in charge gets to decide who is the True Fan. But Scalzi is all over that part.
I don't need a fucking "Web of Trust" to be a science fiction and fantasy fan. I don't need a fucking gatekeeper. I'm a fan because I am.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) September 12, 2015
Reading the thread in question, though, I came across a comment that surprised me.
It’s when the story is used to push the one particular viewpoint that I have an issue with it. See, for example, the protagonist in Lock In, whose gender is left unspecified throughout the entire book. Scalzi’s been praised for doing so, but to me, it leaves me unable to form a mental image of the character, and I have a much harder time reading a work if I can’t picture the characters involved. This is not the only reason I won’t buy it (Fuzzy Nation was the last Scalzi I intend to ever spend money on), but it’s a very large hump for me to get over.
What does that mean?
This is a fictional character. They don’t exist. This is true of every fictional character there has ever been: the author cannot possibly specify every single biological detail about the individual. Do they have an appendectomy scar or or a small scar they got at age 3 on one eyebrow? Do they have a large pore on their left cheek? Is there a mole above one kidney? Do they have an irrational distaste for spiders? Did they have a happy relationship with their mother? Do they know calculus? Can they cook? Unless it is relevant to the story, authors tend not to burden readers with extraneous detail — you have to imagine it.
For that matter, this is true of real live people, too. Unless you live with them for 20 years, there are always surprises. Are you unable to form a mental image of a character if you don’t know their position on abortion, or whether they are thrifty or wasteful?
You might argue that sex is rather obvious and important, but in the life of the mind and your relationships with the characters in a story, one thing we can be utterly certain about: you won’t be having sex with any of them, ever. They don’t exist in the physical world. And think about all the people you know: I have no idea of the sexual orientation of most of the people I’ve met. I manage to enjoy their company anyway.
This person seems to have the most superficial appreciation of what he’s reading. He won’t bother unless he can visualize breasts, or the absence thereof, in the characters.
That was one of the cool things I enjoyed in reading Ann Leckie’s books — after an initial confusion because I had no idea what the sex of the characters was, I found it liberating that I did not have the preconceptions of gender to distract from the characters. The primary feature of this person’s personality was honor and honesty, and that would be true no matter what their sex.
I’d like to see more of that, actually. It’s the least you’d expect of a good writer, that their imaginary characters ought to have attributes that transcend the merely physical.