Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Introduction

I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.

What do I mean by “post-binary gender”? It’s a term that has already been used to mean multiple things, so I will set out my definition:

Post-binary gender in SF is the acknowledgement that gender is more complex than the Western cultural norm of two genders (female and male): that there are more genders than two, that gender can be fluid, that gender exists in many forms.

People who do not fit comfortably into the gender binary exist in our present, have existed in our past, and will exist in our futures. So too do people who are binary-gendered but are often ignored, such as trans* people who identify as binary-gendered. I am not interested in discussions about the existence of these gender identities: we might as well discuss the existence of women or men. Gender complexity exists. SF that presents a rigid, unquestioned gender binary is false and absurd.

I intend to use this column to examine post-binary SF texts, both positively and critically, as well as for discussions of points surrounding this subject.

And I intend to use this column to go beyond Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

Kameron Hurley wrote several years ago about the frustration of The Left Hand of Darkness being the go-to book for mind-blowing gender in SF, despite being written in 1968. Nothing written in the decades since has got the same traction in mainstream SF discourse—and texts have been written. For a bit of context, 1968 is almost twenty years before I was born, and I’m hardly a child.

One of the reasons Hurley considers for this situation (raised by someone on a mailing list she belonged to) is that:

“…perhaps Le Guin’s book was so popular because it wasn’t actually as radical as we might think. It was very safe. The hetero male protagonist doesn’t have sex with any of the planet’s inhabitants, no matter their current gender. We go off on a boys’ own adventure story, on a planet entirely populated by people referred to as ‘he,’ no matter their gender. Le Guin is a natural storyteller, and she concentrates on the story. It’s not overly didactic. It’s engaging and entertaining.”

The Left Hand of Darkness certainly has been radical, as Hurley says, in its time, in the subsequent years and in the present. I have spoken to several people who found The Left Hand of Darkness immensely important: it provided their first glimpse of the possibility of non-binary gender. The impact that it has had on people’s realisations about their own gender is not something I want to diminish, nor anyone else’s growth in understanding.

However, I do think it can be very palatable for people who haven’t done a lot of thinking about gender. It is, as Hurley says earlier in her post, the kind of story that eases the reader in gently before dropping the gender bombs, and those bombs are not discomfiting for all readers. Of course they’re not. How can one text be expected to radicalise every reader?

I don’t want to cast The Left Hand of Darkness aside. It’s an important part of this conversation. What I do want to do is demonstrate how big that conversation truly is. Other texts have been published besides The Left Hand of Darkness, many of them oft-overlooked—many of them out of print. Some of them are profoundly problematic, but still provide interesting questions. Some of them are incredible and deserve to be considered classics of the genre. Some of them are being published right now, in 2014.

Amal El-Mohtar wrote a piece about the process of finding—having to find—a pioneering woman writer, Naomi Mitchison, and followed it up with a post where she said:

“It breaks my heart that we are always rediscovering great women, excavating them from the relentless soil of homogenizing histories, seeing them forever as exceptions to a rule of sediment and placing them in museums, remarkable more for their gender than for their work.”

It seems to me that there’s a similar process for post-binary texts: they exist, but each reader must discover them anew amid a narrative that says they are unusual, they are rare, they sit outside the standard set of stories. This, at least, has been my experience. I want to dismantle the sediment—to not only talk about post-binary texts and bring them to attention of more readers, but to do away with the default narrative.

That process of (re)discovery is probably inescapable. A bookshop, a library or a friend’s/family member’s bookshelves can’t contain every book ever published, so new readers will always have to actively seek out stories beyond the first ones they encounter. What if, El-Mohtar wonders, the first books often included Naomi Mitchison? What if the first books often included multiple post-binary texts as well?

Conversations about gender in SF have been taking place for a long time. I want to join in. I want more readers to be aware of texts old and new, and seek them out, and talk about them. I want more writers to stop defaulting to binary gender in their SF—I want to never again read entire anthologies of SF stories or large-cast novels where every character is binary-gendered. I want this conversation to be louder.

To that end, I’ll be running this column: posting every two weeks, with discussions of books and short stories, as well as interviews and roundtables with other writers and readers of post-binary SF, because I strongly believe it’s important to hear multiple voices. I’m particularly interested in science fiction at the moment, but I expect I’ll cross genres as I run the column.

I hope you’ll join me in making the default increasingly unstable.


Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian living along the Thames estuary. Her science fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Clarkesworld, The Other Half of the Sky, Stone Telling and Gigantic Worlds. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (forthcoming in late 2014).

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