Written by Elsie Chan
for Prof. Neil Hartlen
In “Options” by John Varley, the author explores the story of a family whose mother, Cleo, is thinking of undergoing sex reassignment. The surgery is reversible, thanks to its universe’s highly advanced technology in cloning and surgical operations. In “X: A Fabulous Child’s Story,” written by Lois Gould, the short story considers what would happen to a child if they were to be raised without any enforced gender norms. The reader follows X, the main protagonist, as they grow up in a heavily-gendered world and go through the different steps of childhood. Both stories’ theme is that people should not have to limit themselves according to society’s rules on gender expression and gender identity. The stories use setting, unusual diction, and motif to prove their point. Between the two stories, John Varley’s proves to be more effective in conveying the theme to the reader.
In “Options,” the author uses a particular setting to prove that people should not have to conform to society’s rules on gender identity and expression. The story is set in a futuristic world where humans are no longer living on Earth and are now residing in one of the moons of the solar system. The protagonist is a woman named Cleo, a mother of three and wife of Jules. The novum, or new feature, of this universe is the possibility of reversible surgeries including sex changes and breast reductions: “All our processes are reversible. Changing the size or shape of breast is our most common body operation” (420). The story explores the changes that occur to the family of five when suddenly Cleo decides to undergo sex reassignment without the support of her husband. Varley successfully makes the story relatable and multifaceted to the reader. Even though the thought of living on a different planet and having reversible surgeries is foreign to us, the way he explores the subject realistically makes the reader understand the theme better: for example, the fights between Jules and Cleo mirror the fights couples have in our world. Since the setting of the story is so much more relatable and real, it conveys the theme better than “X: A Fabulous Child’s Story.” In Lois Gould’s text, she discusses the story of the Joneses trying to raise their child X. The child’s name is decided “so that nobody could tell whether it was a boy or a girl” (345). The novum of the story is that there could be a way for parents to raise a child without following society’s rules on gender. There is a group of scientists monitoring the experiment and indicating in their Official Instruction Manual for when the parents need additional help. Despite the fact that the story is set in a more familiar setting and does not include humans living in outer space, the story is less effective in conveying the message that people should not have to conform to society’s norms on gender. The story follows the childhood of X and only explores limited aspects of life. It does not show what will happen to X’s life when the child grows up and has to face the reality of the world. The reader only sees part of X’s life, and the Instruction Manual seems almost too childish and excessively simplistic to be believable. Between the two stories, Varley’s is better at conveying the theme with the use of the setting.
People should be able to express themselves as they wish. In “Options,” Varley uses unusual diction to express his theme. In the beginning, Cleo uses feminine pronouns and refers to herself as a woman, but when she decides to undergo the sex assignment surgery, she becomes a man. Leo tells Jules, his husband, to call him with his new name because “Cleo is a woman’s name” (429). In the same way, trans people use a chosen name instead of the name they were assigned at birth. People who intentionally decide their own names define themselves by their own terms as their authentic selves without having to please others. Varley’s particular diction makes the reader realize how important it is for a person to define themselves without the validation of someone else. However, Gould is more effective at getting her theme across using diction in her story. The particular words that she uses effectively emphasize what she is trying to say. By repeating and capitalizing the X in her words such as “Xperiment,” “Xperts,” “Xamined,” Xamination,” and “Xample,” the author is able to highlight that X does not belong in the binary system of only female and male (345, 351, 353). It forces the reader to have in mind and to understand that there is an option apart from the two genders that we are taught, that there is a way out of this—to completely opt out from what those rules are telling us to do. Though Varley’s story is ultimately more effective, Gould’s story nevertheless conveys the theme better with diction because it lets the reader think about how strong social norms are on people’s gender identity and gender expression.
Both stories argue that people should not have to confine themselves according to gender norms by using motif. Varley uses the motif of sex reassignment to make his point understood. The subject of sex change is discussed throughout the story, starting from the article Cleo reads in the bus—“Men and women would be able to see what it was like from the other side of the barrier that divides humanity”—to the fights that she has with Jules—“I’ll tell you, Cleo, in the back of my mind I keep thinking this business is a little sick”—and to the end when Cleo becomes Nile—“I’m changing all that. My name is Nile. N-i-l-e. I won’t answer to anything else” (414, 417, 436). Constantly referring to sex change in the story makes the reader understand how accessible and easy it is for one to undergo this procedure and to become a different gender from the one they were born with. Nile’s exploration of gender is “an expansion. It’s not a new viewpoint. It’s like filling something up, moving out into unused spaces… It’s like a completion” (434). Cleo is no longer constricted in being only female or male exclusively; she has tried and lived as both genders and she no longer feels bound to society’s rules on gender identity. The motif of change is much more convincing than the one in Gould’s story. In “X: A Fabulous Child’s Story,” the writer uses the motif of a child whose gender is declared X. Throughout the entire story, the author uses the letter X to indicate the neutrality of their gender. Gould chooses to repeat X’s name instead of using gendered pronouns: “X won the spelling bee. X also won the relay race. And X almost won the baking contest” (350). By repeating the word X, it makes the reader understand the importance of having a gender-neutral pronoun meant for people who do not feel comfortable using the binary system that we currently have. The possessive pronoun Gould employs is the third person neuter pronoun, “its,” which is ungendered but unfortunately generally used for the inanimate objects. The motif of using the letter X makes the reader realize how dehumanizing this is. The only way to avoid being sorted into the strict binary system of the world is to use the third option that is not only hurtful but also disrespectful to human beings. Even though the motif of the story is conveyed effectively, it only focuses on one aspect of life, while Varley’s story is more multifaceted. Gould’s motif only focuses on gender pronouns while Varley’s encompasses life in broader terms including family life, relationship issues with a significant other, and effects on one’s own children. Varley’s motif is better at conveying the theme.
John Varley’s “Options” and Lois Gould’s “X: A Fabulous Child’s Story” are both trying to say that people should not have to limit themselves to the rules of gender expression and gender identity. The two stories use setting, unusual diction, and motif to convey their common theme. Varley’s story is more effective at doing so because the setting is more relatable and the motif of sex change is better explored. Gould’s unusual diction is better explained than Varley’s, but “Options” is nevertheless the better story between the two because it is able to better connect with the reader. Gender rules are only social constructs, but given how deeply ingrained they are in our minds, it can be understood how hard it is to remove them from our mentality.
Gould, Lois. “X: A Fabulous Child’ Story.” Feminist Philosophy and Science Fiction. Ed. Judith A. Little. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007. 345-353. Print.
Varley, John. “Options.” The John Varley Reader. New York: Ace Books, 2004. 121-145. Print.
About the Author: Elsie Chan graduated from Dawson College in the Languages program in Fall 2015. She now goes to Mcgill University, unsure if her choice of majoring in Linguistics was a good decision. Despite all the uncertainty, she still tries to get by in life by following Shia Labeouf’s motto: “Just do it.”