In John Scalzi’s Head On, Gender is Non-Specific

You can listen to the Head On Audible book, and its gender-nonspecific protagonist, with one of two narrators: Wil Wheaton or Amber Benson.

John Scalzi just released Head On, the standalone follow-up to Lock In. The science fiction crime novel is set in a world that has been forever changed by something called the Haden’s syndrome, a pandemic that left one percent of the surviving population locked inside of their own bodies. These people, known as Hadens, interact with the world using android bodies known as Threeps. (For more on the world, check out Scalzi’s brilliant novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome.)

Head On‘s protagonist, FBI agent Chris Shane, is a Haden. When we catch up with Chris in Head On, the detective and their partner Agent Leslie Vann are tasked with investigatating the Haden-related murder of a Hilketa player. Hilketa is a violent, football-like sport in which Threeps try to rip the head off of one of the opposing team’s players. It also involves swords and hammers.

As with Lock In, Scalzi does not specify Chris’ gender in the telling of the story. We talked to the author about the decision.

“[The choice] came from when I was first imagining the world, and I was thinking about who the protagonist would be and who they would be and what they would be like,” Scalzi told Den of Geek during a phone interview. “It came to me that, in this particular case, I would not have to choose between male or female because the main character was going to present to the world, basically, through a Threep, through a machine. The machine doesn’t have to be gendered one way or the other.”

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Scalzi said that he does not know how Chris identifies, either. For him, that part of their character is irrelevant to the story.

“If a Threep comes up to you, unless by design, it shows that the person driving it is male or female, or whatever, you’re just not going to know,” explained Scalzi. “You’re going to approach them in a different way than you would if you 100% knew what their gender was. Knowing that, as a fact of the world, I just decided the main character, I’m not going to find out what their gender is, which is not to say Chris might not have a gender. Chris may be a he, Chris may be she, Chris may decide that gender doesn’t apply, or could be gender fluid and somewhere on the spectrum. The point is that I, as the writer, don’t know because I haven’t asked Chris and Chris hasn’t volunteered that particular information to me.”

Scalzi said that it was important to him that the lack of gender specification not be in the reader’s face, but rather a subtle part of the story. However, this kind of ambiguity can be harder to translate when it comes to the audiobook form. Scalzi and the team at Audible found a clever way to preserve some of the gender ambiguity. As with Lock In, listeners can choose to listen to Head On from two different narrators: Wil Wheaton or Amber Benson.

“For the first book, the only person who knew prior to the book coming out that Chris was not gendered were the folks at Audible because I specifically told Steve over at Audible that this one should probably have two narrators,” said Scalzi. “He was literally the only person who knew. When we sent it out for reviewers, we didn’t tell the reviewers. When we published it, we didn’t say anything about it. We let people find it for themselves. Once they did find it for themselves, then there was a whole lot of discussion about what we did and what it meant, and all that sort of stuff.”

As Head On is written as a standalone novel set in the same world as Lock In, Scalzi expects that some readers will come to the story with the same ignorance about the non-gendered protagonist as did with Lock In.

“Even though we’re talking about it now, there will still be people who come to it not knowing that Chris isn’t gendered,” said Scalzi. “They will come in with their own default setting of who Chris is. I think that’s fascinating.”

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Scalzi said that both Wheaton and Benson bring their own unique delivery to Head On.

“Both Will and Amber are fabulous narrators,” said Scalzi. “If [the listener] listened to Will and then decided to listen to Amber, or vice versa, that there’s enough distinction in the delivery that it makes it worthwhile to hear basically the same story twice told through a different perspective.”

For comparison, Den of Geek has exclusive clips from both Wheaton and Benson’s audiobook narrations of Head On.

How does Scalzi in particular respond to the different narrations?

“One of the things, and this is a highly personal thing with relation to Will, Will and I are about the same age,” said Scalzi. “He’s a couple years younger. We both grew up in the same area. We both grew up in southern California and we both know each other. If you ever listen to the two of us in conversation … you realize that our cadence and the way that we express ourselves is extraordinarily similar.”

For Scalzi, listening to Benson’s narration teaches him much more about his world and this character.

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“For me, in many ways, Will is very close to what’s actually in my head,” said Scalzi. “Now, that said, it’s not to say that what’s in my head is always the best or most interesting choice. That’s one of the reasons that I love Amber. Amber is equally trained and precision an actor as Will is but her choices are different. Her perspective on who Chris is and who the other characters in that world are is sufficiently different from what I have in my own head that when I listen to her, I feel like she’s revealing parts of my own universe that I hadn’t seen before. That is, for me, what some of the best audio narration can do. The actor, or the narrator, just adds something else that you weren’t anticipating.”

Both  Lock In and Head On are now available to purchase in audio form with your choice of narrator. Head On is also available to purchase in hardcover form. Stay tuned for more insight from our interview with author John Scalzi.