by Louis Evans
In this essay, Louis Evans discusses his thoughts on sex, gender, and aging, and describes how they underpin his latest story for Analog,“Kept Man,” which appears in in our [March/April issue], on sale now!
In third grade, I weighed one hundred and thirty five pounds.
I remember this number precisely. I remember this number because I was proud of it. At the time, I believed I was the largest kid in my grade. At the time, I understood that to be a signal honor. Who doesn’t want to be the tallest kid in their class? Why should the most massive be any less exciting?
At least, that’s what I thought at the time.
Society, it turned out, had other ideas.
At about the same time, a book entitled The Biology of Star Trek was published by Harper Perennial Books. It fell into my hands a few years later; I read it with great interest. In it I learned about telomeres; sequences of genes that fall at the end of chromosomes. These functional bits of genetic code protect the end of gene sequences from both decay and ill-advised “repair” attempts by other enzymes.
But every time the DNA is copied, the telomeres get a little shorter. Eventually, DNA cannot divide anymore. Cell senescence is in this sense an inevitable consequence of our DNA.
(Well—maybe. You will not be surprised to learn that the state of the art in research in 2023 is more complicated than the story I picked up from an all-ages general interest science publication from the late 90s. But that’s the story I heard, about genes and about death.)
There was some further discussion in the book about telomere manipulation as an anti-aging treatment. (In the glorious future of Star Trek, ordinary humans live quite a bit longer than they do in our world; Dr. McCoy has a cameo in The Next Generation at the ripe old age of 137, and this is not considered particularly remarkable.) The text considered this research avenue promising, but risky. Telomerase, the enzyme responsible for telomere lengthening, is a major target for cancer research—since a tumor must also slip the bonds of time and unlock the secret of unlimited regeneration. Sealed boxes labeled “immortality” may contain unwholesome contents.
Like a lot of young people interested in science, I read a number of books written by Richard Feynman: Surely You’re Joking, Six Easy Pieces, What Do You Care What Other People Think? In an early sign that I would grow up into a sci-fi author rather than a practicing physicist, I found I bounced off of the famous Lectures; but the memoirs stayed with me.
Feynman’s first wife Arline died very young: twenty-five years old. She had tuberculosis. Unsurprisingly, Feynman describes his experience of her death in both memoirs. In Surely You’re Joking he describes going for a walk outside the hospital after she died, surprised to find that he didn’t, in that moment, feel terribly upset.
In the next paragraph he is back at the lab.
In What Do You Care, published a few years later, as Feynman struggled with the cancer that would take his own life, he tells a similar story about his curious walk in the sun. (In this account, Arline is not yet dead; but she is dying.) And instead of walking in the sunlight and then returning to Los Alamos, Feynman continues his story. He’s not that upset; he writes:
It’s hard to explain. If a Martian (who, we’ll imagine, never dies except by accident) came to earth and saw this peculiar race of creatures—these humans who live about seventy or eighty years, knowing that death is going to come—it would look to him like a terrible problem of psychology to live under those circumstances, knowing that life is only temporary. Well, we humans somehow figure out how to live despite this problem: we laugh, we joke, we live.
The only difference for me and Arlene was; instead of fifty years, it was five years. It was only a quantitative difference—the psychological problem was just the same. The only way it would have become any different is if we had said to ourselves, “But those other people have it better, because they might live fifty years.” But that’s crazy. Why make yourself miserable saying things like, “Why do we have such bad luck? What has God done to us? What have we done to deserve this?”—all of which, if you understand reality and take it completely into your heart, are irrelevant and unsolvable. They are just things nobody can know. Your situation is just an accident of life.
“Your situation is just an accident of life.”
Perhaps more precisely, it is the intersection of many such accidents.
Sex—in the sense of genetically recombinant reproduction—evolved a couple of billion years ago. The core practical innovation seems to have been the development of gametes, cells containing half of the genetic material for an offspring, which then combine between two parents to produce a new cell.
Sex, it is believed, was originally isogamous—that is, occurring between two gametes of identical morphology—and it is still isogamous in most unicellular eukaryotes today, along with a couple of multicellular fan favorites like algae and baker’s yeast. Later on, anisogamy—sexual reproduction via pairs of morphologically distinct gametes—became broadly popular. These days, a wide range of multicellular species can reproduce via anisogamous sex. Most animals spend most of their lifecycle as diploid organisms, only producing haploid cells as single cell gametes. Humans are among such animal species.
That’s how it happened on Earth. An accident of life, and a series of accidents.
On Ciuras, the planet where my story “Kept Man” takes place, the accidents of life break down a little bit differently.
Ciuras also evolved genetically recombinant reproduction. But the arrangement of genetic material in Ciuran life is somewhat more redundant; animal cells are typically capable of tetraploidy. Among Ciuran eukaryotes, gametes—i.e., cells specialized for the transmission of genetic material—are typically diploid. This may have contributed to the fact that on Ciuras, animal gametes generally do not remain monocellular; instead, they develop into multicellular organisms as well. Among a number of animal species, including the only native sapient species, the viviparous Ciurans, there are two phenotypical “sexes”—a tetraploid sex and a diploid sex. The tetraploid sex can produce motile gametes—which develop into organisms of the diploid sex—as well as non-motile gametes, which can be fertilized by the motile gametes.
For the convenience of the reader, the tetraploid sex has been glossed as “female” and the diploid sex as “male”. This is perhaps what a contemporary human biologist might have suspected upon meeting the Ciurans. In a phenotypically and reproductively dimorphic viviparous species, it would be tempting to parse the two morphs as “sexes”, and furthermore to label the gestational morph “female” and the other morph “male”. But of course at the level of microbiology, the Ciuran “sexes” resemble the alternation of generations between gametophytes and sporophytes in plants and algae more than they resemble any animal sex.
There’s another difference between life on Ciuras and on Earth. On Earth, many organisms experience senescence, or biological aging. Multicellular exceptions, such as the warm-water jellyfish turritopsis dohrnii, are relatively rare. On Ciuras, a process of cell repair and regeneration known as “telokinesis” became widespread contemporaneously with sexual reproduction. However, it requires tetraploidy to function. Thus, the typical Ciuran tetraploid organism is biologically immortal; the typical diploid organism is not.
This has led to diverging evolutionary pressures on the morphs of the Ciurans (like many of their planets’ other animals). The tetraploid morph (“females”) is indefinitely cellularly and reproductively viable; therefore its phenome is selected for stable longevity. On the other hand the diploid morph (“males”) is inherently limited in lifespan; this has led to selection on the phenome which operates under a principle we might crudely characterize as “YOLO”.
The tallest documented human, Robert Pershing Wadlow, had pituitary hypertrophy. When he died—8’11” tall and 22 years old—there was no sign that his growth was slowing. But physiologically, this size could not be supported. This was an unusual developmental trajectory for a human; it would be utterly unremarkable for a Ciuran diploid.
In summary, many species of Ciuran animal life, including the native sapient species, are dimorphic into two “sexes”: tetraploid hermaphrodites (“females”), and diploid motile gametes (“males”). Tetraploid individuals can produce gametes of both types; diploid gametes can fertilize non-motile gametes. Tetraploid individuals are biologically immortal; diploid individuals are best described as a slow-motion meat explosion.
So much for the sexual biology of Ciuras.
But the social facts of gender rise above the biology of sex as a castle rising from the slope of a mountain, reshaping the horizon.
Arline Greenbaum married Richard Feynman in 1942. She died in 1945; he died in 1988. It was a wedding between two Earthlings. On Ciuras, any relationship between a “female” and a “male” is like that between an Earthling and one of Feynman’s Martians. Death comes between them.
Bei, the protagonist of “Kept Man”, is born on Ciuras. He is born a diploid organism, a “male”: his days are numbered, his fate is to expand until he expires. But he is also born into a specific society: a place, a time, a theory of sex and gender.
Bei’s social world is politically complex and technologically sophisticated. In this world, the relationships between immortal “females” are understood as the basis of society. After all, another woman is a social constant. A man is an ephemeral phenomenon.
In Bei’s society, there is a whole cultural apparatus justifying this approach. I have endeavored to give you an outsider’s uninflected account of Ciuran biology. A textbook that Bei would use might easily refer to “inferior” diploid cells; it would most likely characterize the male sex as “a message sent between women”. Societies tell all sorts of stories about biology.
Bei’s society has roles for men. Many of those roles are arduous or violent, relying on Ciuran men’s (much) greater size and strength; or involve great risk of life and limb, as Ciuran men are understood to live with one huge foot already in the grave.
There is a logic that Bei’s society would articulate about these roles; and that logic is a truth wrapped around a lie. Bei’s society would say that the physical differences between its sexes justify or necessitate their social roles. The real answer is: Bei’s society has made choices. It has made choices about what kind of people there are; and what their lives are worth. It has told itself the lie that those choices are facts about the world.
Perhaps you live in a society that tells itself similar lies.
Bei’s society has many roles for men, and some of them are not arduous or violent or risky; some of these roles are instead as pampered, coddled, confined objects of aesthetic, sexual, and romantic interest. We meet Bei in such a role, and it is this expectation—not just the “sex” of “male”, or the gender of “man”, but the specific situation of being an aristocrat’s son—that sets the parameters of his entire life.
Some of Bei’s society’s theories about tetraploids and diploids resemble various human societies’ theories about women and men; sometimes vice versa. Some of Bei’s society’s theories about its sexes support no ready analogy with any particular human construction of gender.
The easy (though specious) analogy our notional human biologist drew between gestational Ciuran tetraploids and gestational human oogenitors may have (pretended) to climb the mountain of sex. Against the socially-constructed citadel of gender it is completely useless.
And of course, Bei’s society is not the only society of Ciuras.
I speak, of course, not of the various territories outside of the control of the state system of Empress Feraine, of her theories of sex and gender, of her laws and her magistrates, of her officers and her armies that enforce her will upon the entire world Bei knows.
At the peak of the mountain of sex we find the citadel of gender. Many Analog readers may well understand how it is to be a man who cares about the wrong things, too much; or the right things in the wrong ways.
Choma, the would-be revolutionary who captures Bei, has his own theories about the construction of society. He attributes those theories to a prelapsarian state of nature; in fact they represent a radicalization of the gender systems constructed to support the Empress Feraine’s armies. Like many would-be reactionaries, the golden age he pretends to recreate almost certainly did not exist in any form that he imagines it. Nevertheless; he opens a window onto a radically different though no kinder nor freer construction of society. If Choma could remake Ciuras in his own image the biology textbooks would talk about the potent diploid cell and the stunted tetraploid; they would tell half-familiar and half-foreign tales about the sowing of seed and the raising of sons. This, too, would be wildly misleading.
But revolutions are hard work and societies will protect themselves with great force; and Choma is quite thoroughly destroyed.
In third grade I weighed one hundred and thirty five pounds. But I didn’t stop growing.
In adulthood I stand somewhere over six feet tall. I’ve weighed from two hundred and forty and three hundred and ten pounds; these days I’m somewhere in between.
In one sense this is not particularly big. I am no Robert Wadlow. You probably know people taller than me, or heavier than me, or both.
But I will tell you: for me, it’s big enough to notice.
It is a soft litany of spaces where I don’t fit, not quite, of seats I squeeze into or chairs that fall out below me; of airplanes and electric bikes with weight limits set unalterably below my bulk. (Perhaps I should have chanced the bike; I’m glad I didn’t risk the plane.)
Height and weight are our most famous dimensions but the truth is I am big all over: my head bumps low lintels and my shoulders scrape doorways. In the city and the subway I am always sliding in sideways. Making myself small.
I’m tall and I’m big and I’m strong, too—count the broken windows and cracked door frames—and among the anisogamous species we know as humanity, among the human society and its stories we call modern civilization, I am parsed as male. All that means other things, other bulks I must carry gently. A sense of threat that other men have written into our shared physicality; a possibility of menace that I am constantly, quietly, trying to write back out.
At the peak of the mountain of sex we find the citadel of gender. Many Analog readers may well understand how it is to be a man who cares about the wrong things, too much; or the right things in the wrong ways. Built like a linebacker but the captain of the math team. Society builds a great many rooms in gender’s fortress, and I suspect that very few of these rooms fit their inhabitants comfortably. And, as Bei learns throughout “Kept Man,” it is very difficult to be comfortable in even the most sumptuous cell.
Nothing of my story is unusual. You probably know people taller than me, or heavier, or both; you may well be yourself. You may differ from the norms—from the Gaussian’s pointed μ and society’s yet sharper lines—along a different vector, or an entire matrix of them, quite more sharply than me. Many of my loved ones do.
Bei lives in a world that is not meant for him, and when he discovers this the world tells him with a thousand voices that he is broken, rather than admit that it is itself unkind. As Bei’s author, here I must confess the sin of autobiography.
On Ciuras, Bei passes through two worlds of gender: an entrenched tetraploidarchic aristocracy, and a reactionary diploidarchy in revolt. Neither of these theories of gender is particularly satisfying or humane. Neither will permit him to live. Neither was a kind world for me to place Bei in.
Perhaps you too have found a world whose construction of gender, whose theories about sex and about bodies, are an unkind fit.
We all of us deserve better, and perhaps we can build it.
“Your situation is just an accident of life,” says Richard Feynman. And then he goes on, talking about his wife Arline: “We had a hell of a good time together.”
And so at last Bei, through great good fortune, finds his daughter, and his grandson, and a shot at happiness. Ciuras’s sexual revolution will have to wait, though perhaps those visionaries will someday see in him a precursor.
And for us?
Well, the best wisdom is known already. Live well. Love openly. Question certainties. Invest in telomerase research and in sturdy chairs.
Find whatever home in sex and gender that suits you best, and build it if you can, together with others if at all possible. Be free.
 Given as “Arlene” in What Do You Care, including the quote below, but “Arline” seems more broadly preferred.
 Possible metaphorical resonances between this laboratory and the concept of death are left as an exercise for the reader.
 But not all! Honeybees, for example, are haplodiploid, with queens having twice as many chromosomes as drones. Buzz buzz.
 Sidebar re: “diploid” and “haploid”—it’s pretty confusing that we use “diploid” (i.e., 2-ploid) to refer to cells with 2 sets of chromosomes, and “haploid” (i.e., ½-ploid) to refer to cells with 1 set of chromosomes, right? Apparently biologists are also confused; there seems to be a live debate on whether “haploidy” properly refers to monoploidy (i.e., 1-ploid), the condition of having one set of chromosomes, or if it refers to the condition of having the number of chromosomes found in a gamete, half of the number found in a cell of a mature organism. So, if you were as confused in high school biology about this as I was, there’s apparently good reason.
 May have; it’s hard to say for sure! Evolutionary biology is messy, even when you make it up.
 Also, the non-motile gametes of the tetraploid sex can be used in a reproductive mode which we might think of as parthenogenetic, whereby a tetraploid individual can produce a clone offspring. This appears nowhere in the story and for reasons not discussed within the text is violently politically suppressed. The social construction of reproductive biology is extremely messy, even when you make it up.
 The reader is invited to imagine the author laughing maniacally as he types the word “convenience”.
 Yes. You live on a planet with biologically immortal jellyfish. It was news to me, too.
 A word I made up.
 After a ride on the Staten Island Ferry! Three cheers for NYC mass transit.
 Necessary visual reference: John Brosio’s painting Two Earthlings.
 At this point I will drop the ongoing use of quotes to distinguish between the Ciuran parasexes and the familiar Earth sexes (although I gotta tell you, researching this post has made Earth’s sexes begin to seem pretty damn unfamiliar!).
 This poor person is doubly imaginary: I made them up to have a bad take about something else I made up. Forgive your creator, oh phantom, as I banish you to oblivion.
 And there are of course such territories beyond her control, though the story does not visit them; if someone tells you that they are an unquestioned planetary autarch you can be pretty confident that you are talking to a liar—though it may perhaps be unwise to say it to their face.
 Many of the common soldiers of Feraine’s army are brothers; a certain class of women exist within the empire whose primary profession is to bear soldier sons. Because of this they typically produce far more sons, far closer together, than other women; and for reasons of cohort unity these sons are often sent into battle together, either literally or notionally; it is not surprising that Choma, a disaffected veteran, has developed a theory of gender in which the bond between brothers is the root of civilization and women are confined to roles ranging from indifference to malice. None of this appears within the text.
 If I am going to repeatedly quote Richard Feynman in a blog meditating on sci-fi sexes and imagined genders, I should mention that I am aware of his theories about women and men, and the ways he put them into practice; I differ sharply from his theories and I do not defend his practices. But I am an Earthling, and a married one; I expect that one day both my spouse and myself will die; and I appreciate his writing on that subject.