Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Poetry’s Potential for Voice

What I love most about poetry is its potential for voice: when I’m reading my favourite poetry, it feels like I’m being spoken to. The brevity of most poetry brings that voice to precision, “a way to whittle down to this direct voice, to make it the only thing—to amplify it by way of having nothing else around it.” (Quoting myself.)

This isn’t the only way to read poetry—there is no ‘one’ way. Amal El-Mohtar wrote about how to read poetry on this site last year, stressing the many possible approaches. An English Literature degree is one. Another, prisoners in Lebanon listening to her grandfather’s spoken poetry to survive. Poetry is many-faceted, many voices speaking in many ways. It can intersect with speculative fiction—I really recommend a conversation between Lavie Tidhar and Shimon Adaf in Strange Horizons on this subject. I know a lot of people are wary of poetry, but it’s this easy: if you read a poem and find something—a turn of phrase, an idea, a voice that hooks on your ear—you’ve gained something from it. Poetry isn’t for everyone, of course, but it’s varied and more vast than many people know.

It’s a place for post-binary voices to speak—science-fictionally, directly, in other ways.

“The Handcrafted Motions of Flight” by Bogi Takács, published in Stone Telling, is one such poem. A person is tasked by scientists and/or politicians to recall alternate lives in the future:

E is the one closest to me
and e is the one who arouses their interest,
with eir memories of weapons and raw power.

They are bothered by the pronouns.
The smallest details can mean the world to me—
that landscape in the future, in a causal past
of smooth beige edges and silence.

For this person, recalling these lives is eye-opening and personally important. For the scientists/politicians, it is exciting, as “E was—is—I am a warrior”:

They ask me if I am a clone (why?)
or if I am inhuman, like a robot
built for a singular military purpose—
not as far as I can tell.
I can sense disappointment
in the voices that urge me to go on.

This is not only a reaction to the alternate self’s military connection, but to a tendency to see lack of gender or binary gender as nonhuman—a trait machines or aliens have (which makes a lot of sense!) but never humans. I recently read a story where the humans arrive at an alien world and struggle to comprehend the aliens’ non-binary “artificial” pronouns and gender. Hundreds of years in the future!

This tendency is, unfortunately, un-questioned in another poem: “Ex Machina” by Natalia Theodoridou, published in Strange Horizons. The machine is un-gendered (fitting, in my opinion: why do we sometimes gender machines?) and given Spivak pronouns, but as for people:

And the Word says:
4:1 All the world’s a stage.
4:2 [Men] and [Women] are mere players.

The options given are limited to two.

It’s arguable that the machine is presenting eir own limited perspective on people; but e created people, earlier in the poem, so it’s a difficult reading that e doesn’t know about real gender variance. E is said to write the plays that the people perform, which are alleged to be “the truth.” Perhaps e is nonetheless an unreliable narrator? ‘Perhaps’ is not enough to counter the gut-punch of the only human options being “Men” and “Women.”

I will repeat it as often as it takes: human gender is more complex than this.

The poem by Bogi Takács searches near-futures and sees changes, possibilities, such as the wider use of Spivak pronouns and the acceptance this implies. Another poem that looks into the near-future is “Terrunform” by Tori Truslow, published in Stone Telling. In it, Mars is terraformed, not re-made but made anew, and so are the terraformers:

…I rebuild you, and you rebuild me
in these nights that unfix us, these skies
that rewire us

Because:

It wasn’t new Earth we wanted, but to be
double-mooned, double-dreamed, multiformed in
mix-matched parts; to put our bodies on
each day

A future of permissible fluidity, of change from the old ways of Earth, a future in which “we twist / in the thinner grip of this gravity.” It’s what science fiction is meant to be, isn’t it? Futures unspooling.

These futures, in the potency of poetry, are powerful.

Stars, seas and snakes swim through Shweta Narayan’s “Sheshnaag”, published in Goblin Fruit. The divine serpent Sheshnaag is frustrated:

… No, listen
you see only what you paint. my sisterbrothers
are river children, women with beards, today, snakes
with hair in foam-tipped waves, men
with breasts, eyes lined
in blue-shifted kohl, today.
I’m neither, lung-bare in your sky
tonight

A poem of a divine serpent and the history of turning non-gender and non-binary into binary is very relevant to science fiction. Erasure of gender complexity in the past and the present underpins every comment on my introduction post about chromosomes!! or whatever half-baked bad biology was being spouted—and it underpins science fiction that never looks beyond binary-gendered humans. Speaking about the past and the present can speak to the future.

Of poetic voice, Shweta Narayan says in an interview in Strange Horizons:

“One major question is always how accessible I’m being, can be, and should be in a piece. With the stories I struggle to be understandable to as many people as I can manage while staying true to the specifics of the setting. With the poems I feel able to be more oblique. And that’s freeing, it ironically allows me to be more directly honest, because I’m not trying so hard to write and translate simultaneously.”

This is, of course, only one poet’s approach, just as my perspective on poetic voice’s power is only mine—but it is this kind of potential for direct poetic speech that excites me about poetry’s contribution to post-binary SF. The speaker in the poem can be honest, direct, in this powerfully precise form. They can speak, as in these poems, of post-binary possibilities and experiences.

I’d like to finish this post with some further recommendations. I obviously hope that you’ll read the poems I’ve discussed above, which are all free to read online, and the nonfiction pieces I’ve mentioned. Other recommendations are as follows:

  • I particularly love Hel Gurney’s poem “Hair”, published in Stone Telling (and in Here, We Cross), about gender and the presentation of hair. Another powerful poem about gender and hair is Jaymee Goh’s “Brother”, published in Stone Telling.

Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian. Her science fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Clarkesworld, The Other Half of the Sky, Gigantic Worlds, Solaris Rising 3 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2014. 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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