A short story set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

From: Jamal MacCaffral, Triaan'i Udom Senior School, Daan'a, Kanzanea, Ziemia

To: Ambassador Kuboul Rabaransa Losaet Ingeta Ngoh dam J'salf, c/o GCU Pretentious Twaddle

Dear Ingeta,

I have been studying everything I can find on the Culture. I am now regarded by my friends, and even some of my teachers, as something of an expert, although I am sure that is not really fair. I think I can say that I am very enthusiastic, although I am certain there is still much to learn and even more that I am simply misunderstanding.

As you will probably have guessed by now, I have yet another question for you. This one is not about facts and data, not about history or philosophy or even technology - although I have a million other questions in all of those subjects and more - but about emotions, feelings, all the internal buzz and complexity of passions which seem to have enveloped me recently.

The information about the Culture I have access to is curiously reticent about gender. I know that Marain does not have gendered pronouns, and at first I thought that Culture people did not have sex at all! I now know this is not true, but Culture can actually change sex easily. Is this really true?

As I suspect you already know, I am male. I confess I did a quite a lot of extra research and discovered that you are currently (currently? Is that right?) female. Is this correct? And were you always female?

So my real question, at bottom and simply put, is: what is it like to be a girl? And, how can I really, really find out?

I apologise in advance if my questions are too personal to be answered.

Yours sincerely,

Jamal MacCaffral (Aged 16)

From: Ambassador Kuboul Rabaransa Losaet Ingeta Ngoh dam J'salf

To: Jamal MacCaffral, Triaan'i Udom Senior School, Daan'a, Kanzanea, Ziemia

Dear Jamal,

I see you have been growing up rather quickly recently.

I am, as your research revealed, currently female. I was also born female, and I gave birth to my beautiful daughter Emilla a century or more ago. She is doing good works in Contact herself now, although she is on the opposite side of the galaxy from here. But I was not always female: I spent twenty or so very interesting years as a man and fathered a child. Mother and daughter doing very well, I hear.

As I am sure you already know, gender in the Culture is not particularly important. Well, yes, Culturniks very much enjoy sex, but one's gender does not, in any material way, affect one's own enjoyment of sexual relations, or indeed the gender of the person (or persons) one enjoys it with.

Indeed gender is ultimately unimportant since, if one wishes, one can become entirely genderless, or change from male to female, or vice versa. Oh, the process is not instant: it requires concentrated effort and takes several months to complete. But it is painless, and ultimately perfect: one becomes entirely and completely a person of the gender one wishes, with the ability (for the female form) to become pregnant and give birth.

The ability to change gender has been innate since a very early stage of the Culture's existence. The reason for this is that it ensures our society treats men and women equally. If one gender were treated better, more people would change. According to the modelling carried out by the Mind of the good ship Pretentious Twaddle, gender change ability is not something your society is likely to achieve in much less than sixty years, give or take.

So, in the meantime, avoid the crude and invasive surgery your current medicine supports. Rather, to understand women, just talk to them. Listen carefully to what they have to say, ask questions gently, try to put yourself in their shoes. It will, I strongly suspect, make you a richer, more rounded person, even if you are still male.

Sincerely yours,

Kuboul Rabaransa Losaet Ingeta Ngoh dam J'salf
Culture Ambassador to planet Ziemia

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