I recently got into a debate with someone over the legitimacy of the word 'gynoid.' Although the debate ended swiftly when the other party asserted that the mere action of being listed in a dictionary does not make a word a 'real' part of language, I did, in the course of things, find myself irked that I was not personally familiar with the original book that introduced the word 'gynoid' in the first place. I spend a lot of time ruminating on how human gender translates into the artificial realm, so this was surely a rather grave oversight.
Well, no longer. Allow me to relate my impressions of Divine Endurance
, its philosophy, and how its values have weathered in the 33 years since its publication.
First, the goods:
A glistening finger tapped Cho on the shoulder: 'There is no doubt about it. This is a metagenetic android.'
'No I'm not!' said Cho. And the whole room was startled to hear her speak.
'I'm sorry. Gynoid, I meant of course. That's all I wanted to know, anyway. We were pretty sure, but we thought we'd like to confirm it. It's very satisfying. A very satisfying turn of events.'
Second: I have the benefit of not only my own hindsight, but also the author's. At the end of the Kindle edition of Divine Endurance
, there is a transcript of a convention talk Gwyneth Jones gave in 1997 that puts much of the book in context and reveals a great deal about its setting. (For example, the Peninsula is actually Malaysia, and not, as I'd assumed, India. Ho hum.) The key philosophical theme Jones advances in this speech echoes that of Thea von Harbou (and Fritz Lang) in Metropolis
I suggest that there is truth in this fairytale and a lesson in this romance. If all we want to do is reproduce, conquer more territory and die, Chance and Necessity are the only gods we need. If we want a technology that works from the inside, that cares for the living world instead of destroying it, then we need a third value. We need to bring to our relationship with the machine the tenderness that is built into our human nature, and without which there would be no mind. We need to fall in love.
So what kind of book is Divine Endurance
? Stripping away the science fiction part, it's a multi-genre romance between a naïve young girl (for whom everything is a fairytale) and a grizzled, jaded resistance fighter (for whom everything is film noire
.) Around that, it is a book founded on aggressively inverting conventions, which is a common pattern in critically successful sf by female authors (and it is for this reason that Jones is often compared to Ursula K. Le Guin.) The setting combines a long-lost-post-apocalyptic past, a secretive cabal of women strongly reminiscent of the Bene Gesserit
, an impoverished land with distinctly non-European customs, and elements of mysticism—although it is suggested that everything ostensibly mystical in Divine Endurance
has a knowable (but unknown or even forgotten) basis in science. We also see some explicitly feminist and queer theory elements: colonialism on the part of a technology-embracing culture (with messy, corruption-laden consequences), and both gender expression and sexuality of non-heteronormative varieties. Indeed, consistent with the pattern of inverting Western norms, homosexuality is the mode on the Peninsula, and men are mostly subjugated (and usually chemically castrated in infancy).
Some of Jones's perspectives contrast sharply with positions that the gender theorists of today, with all their intersectional concerns, might advance. In her talk, she acknowledges that sf authors often fall back on 'getting the girl' ("reproductive success") as either a motivation or reward, and although she points out an egregious example of this format being played out in a tonedeaf manner that verges on erotica, and identifies it as a cause of why some authors have been accused of misogyny, she doesn't indict the theme ("All sorts of superficial variations are possible, but I don't think there's any way to take the reproductive success agenda out of sf.") In concert with this perspective, it appears in her story in the form of Cho, who is at her core programmed to fulfil the desires of an owner. That owner (the resistance fighter, Derveet) happens to be female, but the author's talk asserts the genders of the characters are less important; indeed, early drafts featured a predominantly patriarchal culture. To Jones, traditional binary gender roles are taken as a fact of life, but embracing one, the other, or neither is a choice you can still make, albeit after society has placed its expectations on you.
Why am I relating all this? Well, aside from being interesting for its own sake, it is significant in the political present. It is no bold statement to say that many moderates in the West with conservative backgrounds have retracted their supportiveness of diversity in recent years in response to a perception (whether valid or not) that social justice has become radicalized to the point of toxicity. So, when the notion of a specific term for a female robot, 'gynoid,' appears, it may be regarded as special pleading and evoke a negative reaction. But if we dig into the history of the term, we find that its inventor isn't speaking from the perspective of modern, problem-oriented social justice. She offers a solution to the ills of inequality typical of the 70s and 80s, in the form of the application of love—e.g. to prevent exploitation of the disadvantaged, we must prioritize empathy when deploying new technologies—which is a much more positive message than the blunt instruments of guilt and moral authority employed by, say, a poster advocating for consent in sexual encounters. So we are all feminists, one might say: it is merely that we cannot all agree on the correct form of feminism.
So. The word.
(When Divine Endurance came out, no male critic could bring himself to use the term gynoid. They insisted on calling her a female android. It used to make me mad.)
In English, 'man,' 'he,' 'him,' 'his,' etc. have an historical legacy of being somewhat neuter-ish words. Like the masculine pronouns in French, particularly the third person plural 'ils,' the gender perception of this vocabulary was diluted and accepted as a suitable catch-all for literally more than a thousand years. Native English speakers are often aware of this, and it factors into our instinctual response when the explanation, that android
comes from ἀνήρ
, 'man,' is inevitably provided. But Greek is not English, nor is it French, and ἀνήρ
is not the same as English's "man." Android
was an adjective meaning 'of a man,' possibly derived from the Greek ἀνδρώδες
, which meant 'manly.' Distinctly, it appeals to the masculine archetype in ways that English's "man" simply doesn't.
Its feminine counterpart is gynaecoid
, a term still used within gynaecology. This is derived from γυναικ-, the root of γυνή ("woman"), a word cognate with English's "queen." γυναικ- is still used in modern Greek in the form of γυναίκα, which means "woman" or "wife." Ancient Greek also contains the word γύννις, a possible slur for an effeminate male. Gynaecoid
is occasionally shortened to gynoid
in the medical profession, and there are many other new English coinages that are formed using gyno-
, although some of the older concepts also exist in both forms (e.g. gynophobia, gynaecophobia.)
With that in mind, I personally think that it is reasonable to put 'gynoid' and 'android' on an equal footing, at least as long as we put 'man' and 'woman' on equal footing. And if we decide not to, then we'll definitely need some new neuter word like 'person,' not merely a preference for one over the other. My favourites are 'synthetic,' and 'robot;' other possibilities include: 'anthropoid,' 'humanoid,' 'actroid,' (somewhat questionably) 'cyborg,' and of course 'skinjob.'