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April 18, 2007

What Sex is Sam Berlant?

I'm getting an increasing number of e-mails about this particular topic, so I thought I'd address it here, now, and open it up to discussion:

In The Android's Dream, there's a fairly important character named Archie McClellan, who is a computer technician. During the course of the book, we meet Archie's significant other, Sam Berlant, who also turns out to be a fairly significant character, although for slightly different reasons. Archie and Sam have a long-standing relationship, based on love, affection and hot sex. Archie is male. Sam's sex, however, is not specified. Look through the book, and you'll notice that Sam lacks singular pronouns: It's always "Sam said" or "Sam replied" or such; when there is pronoun use, it's "they" as it refers to Sam and one other person (usually Archie).

Most people, it seems, haven't noticed that Sam is a character of unspecified gender, which is something that I actually take as a compliment. It means that I pulled off not specifying a character's gender through an entire book in a manner that does not call attention to itself. As it happens, that was one of my goals: once I decided to not to specify what Sam's gender was, I also decided to try to do it in an unobtrusive way that didn't get in the way of the story. By and large I seem to have gotten away with it; I suspect people read the story and sort of assigned to Sam whatever gender they were comfortable with or thought was appropriate and then just kept going. Nevertheless there seems to be a number of people who noticed the lack of pronouns, and either wondered what I was up to, or were irked because there was this character of indeterminate gender running around, and not only did they not know whether Sam was male or female, they also didn't know whether Archie was gay or straight.

So which is it? Is Sam a he or is Sam a she?

I'll tell you the truth: I don't know.

Swear to God, I'm not lying. Here's why: When I was writing, I got to the place where Sam showed up, waiting for Archie, and I started writing the two of them, and after I was done writing them I noticed that I hadn't actually used a pronoun with Sam yet. And then I had two thoughts: "Hmmm, that's interesting, I wonder what sex Sam is," and then I thought "Hey, I wonder if I can pull off not saying what sex Sam is all the way through the book." I mean, since I had already not applied a pronoun to Sam, and it seemed to work so far. So that's what I did, and from that point forward I consciously avoided thinking about Sam in a gendered way. Oh, I know what Sam looks like, but let's just say androgynous is the best descriptor here. But I haven't got Sam naked to look at the private bits that would (presumably) give away gender one way or another. I don't know what gender Sam is. I, as the author, never asked.

Now you might think this is foolish, that an author doesn't know the gender of one of his creations, but, come now. Fact is, there are lots of things I don't know about my characters, because those things are relevant to my understanding of the character or to the story at hand. What is John Perry's favorite flavor of ice cream? Got me. What does Jane Sagan think about Ancient Sparta? I can guess, but I don't know. Is Harry Creek generally conservative or generally liberal, as we understand those terms today? I haven't the first clue. Does Archie know First Aid? Possibly, but we never find out. What sex is Sam? Don't know; it never really came up. It wasn't actually important in the context of the story; what was important was that Sam and Archie loved each other. As it happens, this tells you about me -- namely, that I think the fact two people love each other is more important than whether they are of the same or opposing sexes -- but it doesn't tell you about Sam. You don't know, because I don't know.

Anyway, it's not an either/or thing. There are actually three options here, for Sam's gender and Archie's orientation:

1. Sam is a man, and Archie's gay (or some flavor of bisexual);

2. Sam's a woman, and Archie's straight (or some flavor of bisexual);

3. Sam is intersex, and Archie doesn't actually give a crap what anyone thinks of his sexuality or his relationship with Sam.

I have to say that of the three, Sam being intersex makes the most sense to me. After all, I have gay or bisexual characters in all of my novels (except, oddly, Agent to the Stars), and I clearly haven't had a problem noting that they are so; I'm not historically coy about gay or lesbian characters in my work. And, to the extent that Sam as an adult chooses to live as neither male or female specifically (as I personally think Sam would, given what I know of the character), it wouldn't make sense to make reference to "he" or "she" since neither would apply. I'm not saying Sam is intersex -- again, I kept the issue of Sam's gender out of my head entirely -- but I have to say that of the three options it's the one that appeals to me the most.

Bear in mind that in not assigning Sam a gender, I wasn't trying to make a big statement about writing or sexuality or how so much of who we perceive someone as being is tied up in their gender -- although, as it happens, not giving Sam a gender seems to have made at least some folks think about each of these issues a bit, and I'm not unhappy about that. If having Sam of indeterminate gender gives people an opening to discuss these issues, great. Glad to help the conversation. But as I said, my intent was to have Sam's lack of stated gender not actually be an issue; in other words, I didn't want people to notice. For one thing, that would mean I have some writing skill. For another thing, it could mean that Sam's lack of stated gender actually didn't matter, or doesn't matter, and that people just accepted Sam, whoever he/she/neither of the above was, and kept on going because they wanted to find out what happened next. Personally, I see that as the optimal response.

Anyway, the answer to "What Sex is Sam Berlant?" is: Dunno. Personally I would suggest reading the book with Sam as male, and then with Sam as female, and then with Sam as intersex, and see which version works best for you.

And then, when you've settled the question of "What Sex is Sam Berlant?" to your personal satisfaction, you can ask yourself another question about The Android's Dream:

What color is its hero, Harry Creek?

Posted by john at April 18, 2007 12:06 PM

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Joe Rybicki | April 18, 2007 12:15 PM

Being one of those who noticed and mentioned it (and used it as the basis for my evil review of your future-book!), I should point out that I didn't find it all that obvious -- it's just something that I, in my own particular reading style, happened to notice fairly early and then kept an eye out for through the rest of the book. It was a little distracting, but that's my fault, not yours.

You really did do a fantastic job pulling it off with subtlety. In the vast majority of cases an experiment like this would make it seem like the writer was trying desperately to draw attention to how clever s/he is. You should definitely be proud of yourself for making it happen.

Andrew L | April 18, 2007 12:18 PM

Heh. I fell for it, since I assumed Sam was male. (And I must have hallucinated the passage where Sam was referred to as "he", because until I read this I could have sworn there was one.)

I really ought to know better, since "Sam" is one of those nice androgynous names that authors invariably use to pull that sort of trick. The example that springs to mind for some reason is Gerald Durrell's Rosie Is My Relative, which also has a (temporarily) gender-ambiguous Sam.

Adam Lipkin | April 18, 2007 12:18 PM

Count me as one of those who completely failed to notice the lack of pronouns associated with Sam. I assumed that Sam was a "he," and just moved on, as the existence of his relationship with Archie, not the nature of it, was what was relevant to me as a reader. Props for pulling it off smoothly enough that I was never forced to pause in my reading.

Mark T | April 18, 2007 12:25 PM

I noticed the lack of pronouns fairly early as I recall, around the first time Sam is introduced as a character. It sort of baffled me at first, then continued to do so throughout the book, to the point where I was paying VERY close attention to not only bits with Sam, but the book in general. My fiancee read it and I asked her about it and she said that she never noticed. It didn't bother me as much as baffle me, very clever.

Luke | April 18, 2007 12:26 PM

I thought you said in the whatever that there was a prominent homosexual character in TAD. When the opportunity arose to identify that character, I took it. Sam was, to me, a guy.

Steve Buchheit | April 18, 2007 12:27 PM

Have to say I noticed it during the one meeting with Archie, and then started to marvel at how you danced around the lack of pronouns and discriptors that would give a clue as to sex, and so went with it knowing that it was a "writer's thing."

Joe | April 18, 2007 12:28 PM

I struggled with this for a while in TAD, decided he was male and that it didn't actually matter, and then I remember running into a passage where Sam was referred to as "he". Now I am less sure, but I thought there was a "he".

Bryan | April 18, 2007 12:30 PM

Very interesting. I have to agree with several of the other comments that I understood Sam to be male and I never thought about it after that.

Mark Terry | April 18, 2007 12:40 PM

"Anyway, the answer to "What Sex is Sam Berlant?" is: Dunno. Personally I would suggest reading the book with Sam as male, and then with Sam as female, and then with Sam as intersex, and see which version works best for you..."

And you should probably add: And by the way, by far the best way to do this is to go to the bookstore and order THREE copies of the book, label each one as MALE, FEMALE or INTERSEX, and read them separately. Really!

Jenny Rae Rappaport | April 18, 2007 12:41 PM

I always thought Sam was female--although I do agree that the character came across as androgynous to me. I couldn't care less about what color Harry Creek is; I just want him and Robin to eventually hook up. (Do you hear that, Mr. I'm-Writing-A-Sequel? Give me more romance! =)

Diatryma | April 18, 2007 12:43 PM

I noticed, but only because the second or third time Sam showed up, I thought, "Wait, I thought Sam was a girl... well, she can still be a girl, but... no, I must have missed the pronoun. Weird autocorrect. Wait. What?"
Beyond my tangled reaction to changing my mind midbook (and it wasn't even really made up), it's a fun bit of writing and made me think. Good job.

John H | April 18, 2007 12:44 PM

My assumption was Sam was a male, and thought it was cool enough that you could write the novel without having Archie's sexual orientation matter. Now I see that it was even cooler than that since you didn't even bother to worry what his orientation is in the first place.


Angie | April 18, 2007 12:45 PM

I noticed, but I'm a little more keen on that since Vonda McIntyre pulled it off for four books with Starfarers and I -never noticed-. Now, granted, the character in question was an off-screen characater who had died before the books started, but the character was part of a four-person family unit and I found it really interesting that I had assumed through the whole series that it was a woman, because I assumed the foursome was two men and two women, even though all of the three remaining characters were clearly bisexual.

That made me really think about my own assumptions, and is why I noticed it in TAD.

But I do think you pulled it off well.

Norwegian Woodsman | April 18, 2007 12:47 PM

I, for one, didn't think twice about labeling Sam as a girl. Huge amounts of kudos to you, John, for fooling me so thoroughly - it amuses me to no end.

However, the gender question, alongside you new, colorful one, are very irritating. I'm sure I'll be reading words and passages at least twice to discover their answers.

Jon Marcus | April 18, 2007 12:53 PM

"What color is its hero, Harry Creek?"

I always assumed that Harry was was pale chartreuse. Am I wrong?

More seriously, to the extent I thought about it, I filed Archie as gay and Sam as...kinda androgynous either/or. (I didn't really know the term "intersex" until I followed the link above.) Looking back now I can't really say how I came to those conclusions. It just seemed to fit...

The lack of pronouns didn't really slap me in the face (Sam's a pretty minor character), but it was noticable.

Jess | April 18, 2007 01:01 PM

Who is the gay character in "Ghost Brigades"? Or is the the ghost brigade members who are sort of pansexaul. Of course this is the second book I've read where you had some kind of orgy, alien or otherwise. (The first orgy was in "Agent to the Stars" So scalzi you sly dog, I know what gets you going.

MamaDeb | April 18, 2007 01:02 PM

I noticed - I even mentioned this to my husband. I think it's because I read, decades ago, a Vonda McIntyre story, one of the sections of Dreamsnake, where one of the characters, named "Meredeth", was also written that way.

Also, I'm a "slash" fan, so if I see a male character with an ambiguously named lover, I'm going to look for clues about gender rather than assume one or the other.

I pictured Sam as male, but liked that the gender was really irrelevent.

Eric | April 18, 2007 01:02 PM

I assumed that Sam was male, and didn't notice the lack of pronouns. Spiffy!

RitaInHood | April 18, 2007 01:03 PM

I'm with the group who assumed Sam was a guy, probably due to nonverbal cues (interesting how the author pulled that off in a book, no?)

Matthew Appleton | April 18, 2007 01:05 PM

I'm completely with John H. -- I too assumed Sam was male and that Sam's and Archie's sexual orientation was such a non-issue that it didn't deserve mentioning.

Damn, as a book reviewer who read the book twice I cannot believe that Sam's undisclosed gender got past me.

Kate | April 18, 2007 01:11 PM

I didn't notice it the first time you introduced Sam. Around the third time, I finally realized the lack of pronouns and went searching backwards to see if I missed something.

Annoyed at first, I then remembered what you said at Boskone.

You are inherently lazy.

So I let it go, only to find out through this post that you actually made an effort to write Sam with lack of a sex.

Frankly, for all those people (myself included) who did notice, it doesn't detract from your writing skills. We wouldn't be reading anything you write if you sucked. ;)

As far as assigning a gender to Sam. Why do you need to? Considering the book's main character, it seems a bit frivolous to be worried about if Sam's got a baginko or a peeper.


John | April 18, 2007 01:11 PM

I didn't notice at all.

I thought Sam was a dude. Not sure why, maybe because, when not given any indication as to gender, I assume my default, that being, "like me". Male.

And speaking of being "like me" I assumed that Harry was Caucasian, like me. Nothing racial here at all, just that once again, since race was not indicated, I return to default. Plus I generally identify with protagonists. John Perry looks like me, except with green skin. At least until I read TLC.

Rich | April 18, 2007 01:17 PM

The sex of Sam was not something i am going either way on, when i read the book, it went into the back of my mind, but I assumed you, like most authors, had a reason for doing it and just kept reading. I have still not come to a conclusion about Sam's sex, mostly becuase i don't care. I don't see how it effects the novel one way or the other, so i will let slide back into the filth that is my subconscious.

Jackie M. | April 18, 2007 01:18 PM

Dear Mr. Scalzi,

You just sold me a book.

(except now that I know about it, I won't be able to find out what I would have assumed not knowing about it. Dammit.)

John Scalzi | April 18, 2007 01:21 PM

Jackie M:

Don't worry. It has other selling points, I assure you.

Jackie M. | April 18, 2007 01:22 PM

So you say!

Mary Robinette Kowal | April 18, 2007 01:23 PM

Weird. I totally thought Sam was a woman. I remember being pleased that a woman was in a high-ranking position and smarter than the boys. Dang.

Dot | April 18, 2007 01:24 PM

I'm glad you didn't specify Sam's gender here. It was kind of a fun side game when I was reading TAD. I would go back to scenes with Sam in it and read it twice just to make sure some clue wasn't slipped in. It distracted me a little, but certainly did not detract from the book. I picture Sam as androgynous, borrowing the image template I build in my mind while reading about Ms. Bujold's character, Bel Thorne. All in all, Sam's little "mystery" made the character more interesting.

LC9er | April 18, 2007 01:25 PM

I had noticed as well. I wasn't curious to figure out Sam's gender so much as "What's with all the 'Sam this' and 'Sam that'". Then I wanted to know if Sam was just allergic to pronouns.

Patrick in the Philippines | April 18, 2007 01:29 PM

This topic brings to mind names that can be used and have been used by both males and females.

Some examples: Robin, Sam, Evelyn, Leslie, Pat

Fedge | April 18, 2007 01:31 PM

I didn't even notice that Sam's gender was never mentioned.

Andrew | April 18, 2007 01:47 PM

Dot - I should point out that Bel Thorne isn't androgynous at all, in my memory. Bel clearly has both male and female secondary sex characteristics, not neither, which is what I associate with androgynous.

Diatryma | April 18, 2007 01:49 PM

Patrick, all those names skew female for me except Pat, which can be female or transparently either or both. Chris is male, Jamie is usually female (I have cousins with these names, which might be part of it) and other nicknames-- Bobby, Nicky, Billy-- can go either way.
Is it my own the-character-is-like-me that I default to female? Yeah, Sam is a girl's name. But *why*?

Pablo Defendini | April 18, 2007 01:50 PM

Nice, John. I read Sam as a guy, but never thought to look for the 'pronoun game'.

Harry, oddly enough, I read as having some kind of native american ancestry. Probably due to his last name. So I'd say a light brown. . .

Cassie | April 18, 2007 01:55 PM

I did notice the lack of pronouns. I figured that Sam was male.

But I tell you, John, every scene with Sam popped me right out of the book because of the ambiguity. It was a major distraction. I've reread OMW and will reread TGB before getting TLC, but I won't bother rereading TAD.

Sally Lou Liz | April 18, 2007 01:55 PM

I loved the fact that you didn't disclose Sam's sex. It did drive me mildly crazy at first. In fact, it sent me back to go over an earlier chapter to see if I had missed anything. Other than enjoying said chapter again, nope, hadn't missed anything. I thought it was a neat idea, and promptly decided Sam was male. Why? Because Sam "felt" male to me. No other reason. Since I use a lot of imagination while reading, that was simply one more detail I added for myself. Thanks!!

Bill Estep | April 18, 2007 01:58 PM

Well-done Mr. Scalzi. I never noticed. I assumed from the start that Sam was a guy. I’m not sure why exactly, probably some combination of reading Whatever, the odds that Sam is a guys name vs. gals, and something about the way Archie related to the other characters. I could relate to Archie in some ways; the loner more at ease with computers then people. I liked that he had someone in his life that seemed capable of keeping Archie on his feet. (I am not implying in anyway that Sam wouldn’t be this person if female.) Then of course, you killed him…in a most unpleasant and disturbing way. The killing wasn’t the problem, or even the means, it was the perspective. I found it very disturbing that the deaths frequently occurred from the perspective of the victim.

Joseph | April 18, 2007 01:59 PM

"What color is its hero, Harry Creek?"


RooK | April 18, 2007 01:59 PM

The beauty of a good story is that it lives and breathes in the minds of its audience, such that they fill in the details seamlessly themselves. Which, I believe, means that TAD was a good story for me - the gender of Sam and the ethnicity of Harry were unnoticeably assigned my default description (they look like people I know who are similar in other ways).

Mike A. | April 18, 2007 02:00 PM

I assumed Sam was female, though I could have sworn Sam was referred to as "he" at one point and I got confused for a minute. But I really just chalked up my confusion to the fact that I was on an airplane and the guys behind me were talking very loudly and distractingly about their fishing trips.

Thinking about it now, I'm afraid I got confused because Sam was referred to namelessly as an occupation and I assumed that members of that occupation were male. How un-PC of me.

Or was it un-PC of me to assume Sam was a woman in the first place and not even consider the possibility she was a he?

Chris Gerrib | April 18, 2007 02:11 PM

Well, you snookered me. I read Sam as male. I'm a guy so maybe that's why. I therefore assumed Archie was gay.

Frankly, the characters sexual orientation wasn't a problem.

Chris Gerrib | April 18, 2007 02:19 PM

What color is Harry Creek? Don't know. I suppose if you pressed me I'd say dark-skinned, based on the name being vaguely American Indian. Also not important to me. Then, I am a member of the Issac Asimov School of Character Description. In that school, you'll get, if you're lucky, a "fat" or an "old" and you'll like it.

Actually, Stephen King in his book "On Writing" covers this in some depth. He never describes Carrie (in the novel of the same name) specifically.

jason | April 18, 2007 02:23 PM

Interesting - I read Sam as male and Archie as homosexual in a quiet, non-demonstrative sort of way. Never noticed the pronoun situation at all, for which I'm rather disappointed. I'm usually a more attentive reader than that.

As for Harry's color, well, we'll have to see who gets cast in the movie. (I read somewhere that Dan O'Bannon's script for Alien did not specify gender or color for any of its characters; everyone is referred to only by last name. Ripley didn't become "Ellen Ripley" until Aliens.)

Andrew Cory | April 18, 2007 02:26 PM

I had assumed that Sam was male, and that it didn't matter. I had also assumed that Creek was male, and that it did matter...

As far as Creek's ethnicity? I have a hard time picturing characters to begin with, so I didn't put any particular skin color on the guy. I just went with "American" and left it at that...

james.angove | April 18, 2007 02:46 PM

At the risk of being the only asshole, I noticed and found it incredibly annoying and obtrusive. You were so obviously not mentioning the gender in order to not mention the gender that I kept feeling like Peter Falk in the movie of _The Princess Bride_: Yes, you're very smart. Shut up.

theophylact | April 18, 2007 02:46 PM

I wonder if you're familiar with a quartet of extremely amusing English murder mysteries by Sarah Caudwell, beginning with Thus Was Adonis Murdered. The detective/narrator has the sexually ambiguous name of Hilary Tamar and the title of Professor. Both tricks save a lot of revealing pronouns, and Caudwell carries the stunt off perfectly. But it sure makes it hard to make a "Mystery!" miniseries out of them...

Rachel | April 18, 2007 02:50 PM

I have no idea what gender I thought Sam was, because I've forgotten the book sufficiently that I don't remember *who* Sam was. :(

I'm damn sure, however, that I fell for thinking Harry was white.

Tor | April 18, 2007 02:57 PM

Actually, I may be the first vote for intersex. Not that it was my first assumption - which was that Sam was male, but I remember at some point I changed my mind and decided Sam was female.

I don't remember what prompted it, but I saw Sam clearly as male at the beginning, and then switched Sam to female, and just moved on.

I don't know what that means.

marciepooh1976 | April 18, 2007 03:21 PM

I haven't read TAD, yet, and now will have to wait long enough that I'll have forgtten this post, so I won't be thinking about the whole time. Thanks, John.;)

If you want to read about my family's ambiguous name problems, I wrote down a couple of stories here: http://marciepooh.blogspot.com/2007/04/is-it-boy-or-girl.html

Nathan | April 18, 2007 03:27 PM

I, too assumed Sam was a man.

And I know for certain that Harry Creek is a dark skinned Native American.

bonnie-ann black | April 18, 2007 03:29 PM

i wrote a novella a few years back where the sex of the main character is never referred to. it was told in the first person, and i was nearly finished with it when i realized that "Connie" never referred to gender -- and no one else in the story did either. i mean, how many of us think about our gender or describe it to other people? no one says, "I (a female/male/other) did such and such today." like john, i finished the story, decided i liked it that way and never tried to clear the matter up. i mean, this drove several people i gave it to insane, and others didn't notice, and most came to some conclusion of their own as to Connie's gender in their own way through their own prejudices. it did get a couple of rejections from various venues. one rejection noted, with some disapproval, that although (in their opinion) the plotline was interesting, the fact that the character's sexual orientation was unclear at best was confusing. another rejection said that they *liked* the non-emphasis on the gender, but the rest of the story didn't (in their opinion) work. go know.

Martyn Taylor | April 18, 2007 03:43 PM

So your stories sometimes don't tell you everything. Whew, I'm glad to read that. More than once I've been writing from my outline and found myself writing something completely different - up to a major character dropping dead. Its always better than the outline. We can only do what the story tells us.

As for ambigious names. My baby brother is 6feet 4ins, 200 and something pounds and nobody would ever mistake him for a woman. Our father named him Lindsay. I'm the only one I know who didn't think that Lindsay Buckingham was Stevie Nicks.

Eddie Clark | April 18, 2007 03:43 PM

I have to say I noticed after the first or second mention, then obsessivly pronoun-checked for the rest of the book. I couldn't tell, but I think I defaulted to male in my mind. Not that it matters to the plot or Archie's character, because I don't think it does, but because growing up gay and reading SF/Fantasy, you look for every gay character you can find. Things have improved recently, but up until the last little while (props to Bear, Sarah Monette etc) there really were hardly any (aside from villains and isolated books like Swordspoint, basically Anne McCaffrey) - and it is nice to read characters you can identify with in that way.

I'd find it interesting to see how gender/orientation of readers lined up with what gender people saw Sam as.

Martyn Taylor | April 18, 2007 03:44 PM

So your stories sometimes don't tell you everything. Whew, I'm glad to read that. More than once I've been writing from my outline and found myself writing something completely different - up to a major character dropping dead. Its always better than the outline. We can only do what the story tells us.

As for ambigious names. My baby brother is 6feet 4ins, 200 and something pounds and nobody would ever mistake him for a woman. Our father named him Lindsay. I'm the only one I know who didn't think that Lindsay Buckingham was Stevie Nicks.

Anonymous | April 18, 2007 04:14 PM

I just assumed that Sam was male and Archie was gay, like me. For some reason I always thought of Harry as Cherokee. For a while I thought of Robin as having a white complexion tinged with blue, but decided that would have been too obvious so I must be wrong.

Dr. Phil | April 18, 2007 04:19 PM

On Monday 1 October 1990 I decided it was time to get more serious about writing fiction (as opposed to writing a dissertation in Applied Physics) and I bought one of those newfangled mouse-thingies, because I'd heard they were useful in editing, and a copy of Microsoft Word 4.0, because I figured it'd be robust enough to write a novel.

Came home, installed said mouse and said program and started writing. Just stream of consciousness, first person. Main character needed a name, so I decided on Sam. It was many pages later that I discovered, when Sam got out of space suit, that (a) Sam was female, (b) Sam was black and (c) Sam had a dual-major in Dance and Engineering from Selene University on the Moon. Huh. I have to say, I am none of those things, so you can imagine my surprise.

But these things happen. (grin)

Dr. Phil

Joe Hass | April 18, 2007 04:26 PM

This item brings to mind the story of the filming of the movie The Big Sleep. During the filming, a character dies in a manner that is unclear if it's murder or suicide. Howard Hawks (the director) and the screenwriters sent a telegram to Raymond Chandler, the author of the book, asking him to settle the matter. Chandler's reply (in so many words): "I don't know, either!"

ship | April 18, 2007 04:49 PM

ahhh, scazli, you're evil!!! it never occured to me to think about what color creek is!!! this is going to drive me crazy now...

David S. | April 18, 2007 04:53 PM

"I would suggest reading the book with Sam as male, and then with Sam as female, and then with Sam as intersex, and see which version works best for you."

Probably best if the reader buys three copies of the book and writes "male", "female" and "intersex" on them first though, eh? That way they'll avoid any risk of confusion and you'll avoid any risk of poverty. Everyone wins!

JH | April 18, 2007 04:53 PM

This reminds me — you seem to do about the same thing with your aliens in terms of appearance, at least after Old Man's War and Agent to the Stars.

I think I know more or less what the Rraey (thanks to the Sagan Diary illustration), Consu and some of the other OMW races look like. But the Obin? Gen. Gau? The Orrisians? Not much idea, aside from the few details given. I'd be curious to know what you think your alien creations look like, because my brain tends to plug in Wookiees and Tau and other fictional aliens in the slots real descriptions would go.

I also read Sam as male, though I couldn't say exactly way. Name prejudice, I guess.

Patrick | April 18, 2007 05:35 PM

Oh my god, I wondered about Sam all the way through the book, and thought I'd missed the pronoun. So I decided it didn't matter, so that I wouldn't be one of "those" people who has to care about the gender of a person in order to picture that person, but Sam kept creeping back in, looking one way if it was a man and another if it was a woman. (Oddly, the woman looked like Shelly Long to me, always saying "Sam!" in the way Diane did on "Cheers," but then she'd be referring to herself, and it got really complicated in my brain.)

Erin | April 18, 2007 05:35 PM

I noticed. Initially thought that Sam was male, decided it didn't matter.

As for Harry Creek--the only thing I'm certain of is that he can't pass as Japanese.

Sarah Elkins | April 18, 2007 08:35 PM

I assumed Sam was a competent woman from the get-go; never noticed.

Conversely, I assumed a Connie Willis character was male for the first 2/3 of the book, until we finally hear the character's first name. "How can his name be Sarah?" I asked myself, puzzled.

theophylact mentioned Sarah Caudwell's Professor Tamar books, which I have also enjoyed, but the indeterminate gender language games in them were much more noticeable to me.

V's Herbie | April 18, 2007 10:40 PM

I noticed the lack of pronouns and rather enjoyed the experience. I'm not a writer but I read enough to notice writing devices that are working on me even as they are working.
I thought the lack of specificty served to highlight the relationship between Archie and Sam. It brought to the front that it was the caring that was important, not the gender of the people involved.

::golf clap for a job well done::

Karl Cook | April 18, 2007 11:08 PM

The way I read (twice!) the interaction between Archie and Sam was that Archie was a wimpy geek that Sam had wrapped around *her* finger. I recall the distinct thought "Cool! Power Female character! Nice one, Scalzi!"

Now I find that you didn't purposely lead my mind in that direction, I colored that into the character with a bit (ok, a lot!) of non-direction from the author.

You're a clever, clever man, Scalzi. ...and lucky too! ...and did I mention clever?

Now when is Amazon supposed to ship my pre-ordered copy of TLC again?

Lisa | April 18, 2007 11:12 PM

I decided that Sam was male simply because the trick of using male names that can double as female names is cliché.

John Scalzi | April 18, 2007 11:14 PM

It's not a male name in my mind. The first "Sam" I ever knew of was the one in Bewitched.

Keith | April 19, 2007 01:09 AM

Never noticed the lack of pronouns, and assumed Sam was male. And I should have been more open to the possibility that "Sam" was female, because one of my standard boring cocktail-party rants is about Bewitched as gay allegory, and the use of the ambiguously gendered "Sam" is a key part of it.

gedalia | April 19, 2007 03:16 AM

it's sounds interesting and i hope I'll be able to read it. however, this can't happen in Hebrew. (which mean that if the book will be translated to Hebrew the translator will have to choose a gender)

Lisa | April 19, 2007 08:28 AM

I was never much of a Bewitched fan -- maybe it just wasn't on TV when I could watch it. Ambiguous-sex and male names used for female characters is something I've been noticing in fiction since I was a little girl and read my first Nancy Drew book, which featured Nancy's best (female) friend "George."

ajay | April 19, 2007 09:46 AM

I've met men, but no women, called "Sam", so I just assumed Sam was male. I'd do the same thing with a character called "Cameron" - despite Ms Diaz - for the same reason.

The colour thing reminds me of Johnny Rico, who, we find out on the last page, is Filipino. I sort of assumed after that that everyone in the entire Mobile Infantry is Filipino. Makes sense. All the Filipinos I've known have been smart, tough, and under 5'6"; all valuable properties in space warfare.

Billy Hollis | April 19, 2007 10:04 AM

Reminds me a bit of what Heinlein did for the character of Eunice in I Will Fear No Evil. He said wanted to make her race ambiguous, and kept two pictures on his desk to remind him. Once was a beautiful black woman, the other a beautiful blonde white woman. And sure enough, I assigned a race to Eunice just as I assigned a sex to Sam, even though there's no definitive description from the author on either score.

theWallflower | April 19, 2007 01:22 PM

First confession: have not read TAD, just the sample chapter. I hope that doesn't exclude me from a little criticism on this entry.
Something seems wrong. You say that you don't know what gender he/she/it is because that fact never presents itself in the story. However, I don't think that's entirely true. The fact is more that you _chose_ not to know what gender he/she/it is. You made a conscious decision not to disclose his/her/its gender, which precluded you needing to decide his/her/its gender. So saying that you don't know is somewhat misleading. It's not the same "I don't know" as in "I don't know what flavor ice cream John Perry likes" because we never see John Perry eat ice cream. But Archie sees Sam, hears Sam, observes Sam's mannerisms, and smells Sam. Archie knows what sex Sam is. The reader doesn't, which is why you can get away with it. But to say you don't know because it wasn't important in the context of the story seems disingenuous to me.
You also seem to contradict yourself in that you first say that you weren't making a statement by not declaring his/her/its gender, right after you say "this tells you about me - namely, that I think the fact two people love each other is more important..." That's a statement to me.
This also contradicts your earlier quote that you are inherently lazy, as I believe it is more challenging finding ways not to write something than to write something.
I hope this isn't seen as a flame or trolling. Please tell me if it is, I've tried to back up my declarations.

John Scalzi | April 19, 2007 01:29 PM


"But to say you don't know because it wasn't important in the context of the story seems disingenuous to me."

Well, you can think that if you want. I don't mind. It's not the way I feel, however, and I'm the actual writer in this case.

Emily H. | April 20, 2007 07:43 AM

This is kind of interesting to me in light of how much derision slash writers get for writing their men too "girly." As if men and women were so different that you can draw clear lines like that. The praise you've been getting for how you pulled it off in TAD seems to belie that... although obviously there's a difference between a major viewpoint character and a minor character.

Christopher Hawley | April 21, 2007 07:15 AM

After re-reading TAD, I found one bit of text which might suggest the "he" to which others alluded in previous comments:

p. 112:

Sam took Archie's hand and directed him down a second set of stairs and into a small, brightly lit, and sterile room with what looked like a dentist's chair in the middle. Waiting in the room was another man: Francis Hamn, the local bishop, whose day job was as "manager" of the fitness center two stories up.

The key word (for me) was "another". The
preceding context features no males of import,
so by fuzzy reasoning the phrase "another man"
(rather than "a man") led this reader to
infer that the personae in focus, viz. Sam and
Archie, were respectively male and male.

Sarah Elkins | April 23, 2007 03:26 PM

Contrary to what theWallflower suggests, not everyone does unambiguous gender presentation (whether in body, clothes, voice or mannerisms). Some people are really bugged by this. Some are not. I've seen people who could have been male or female (or in-between, or something else), though maybe more so among younger folks (teens/20s).

I have no trouble imagining a writer imagining a character who doesn't seem particularly male or female.

Mr. Scalzi, I'm glad I got to say hi at Penguicon and tell you how much I enjoyed this book.

Becky | April 24, 2007 04:33 AM

I noticed! When "Sam" was first mentioned, the first thing I thought to myself was "Sam, as in Samuel; or Sam, as in Samantha...?" and I found myself looking for clues throughout the rest of the book. In the end I decided she was Samantha...just based on dialog and actions. Funny how we have to assign gender roles even in our own minds.

james | April 27, 2007 03:12 PM

I noticed about Sam's lack of arbitrarily assigned gender, and didn't see it as germane to the story. I'm glad not to disappoint you in letting the story tell itself to me. As far as what color is Harry Creek, that question never occurred to me either. He's competent and caring, honest and loyal, and what else should matter in a human being?
Thanks for writing great stories. I now buy them on preorder, you've survived my filters.

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