Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF Roundtable: Languages of Gender

Writing about gender is inextricably tied to the language of the writing. In this column, I have considered post-binary SF in English (in original or in translation)—but English is not the only language of SF, nor is every writer publishing in English a native speaker. This is important. For this roundtable, I invited three writers to talk about gender in SF and writing across languages, in what I hope is the first of many broader conversations about post-binary gender.

Rose Lemberg is an immigrant, sociolinguist, and writer. Rose’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues. Rose edits Stone Telling, a magazine of boundary-crossing speculative poetry, with Shweta Narayan.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a finalist for the Campbell Award. She writes strange cities and military SF; her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Year’s Best collections.

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish author, a psycholinguist and a popular-science journalist. E writes both speculative fiction and poetry, and eir works have been published in a variety of venues like Apex, Strange Horizons, Stone Telling and GigaNotoSaurus, among others.

Writing beyond binary gender in English poses challenges, in writing and reception, because of the need to work beyond the pronouns and word choices widely seen as “standard” in the dominant forms of the language. What have your experiences been of this?

Benjanun Sriduangkaew: I recall Yukimi Ogawa tweeting that in Japanese it’s possible to speak or write at length without using any pronouns at all, but doing the same in English would—likely—be considerably more difficult. There’s a linguistic focus, in English, to attribute actions to agents; usually gendered ones. So much so objects have genders! It puzzles me to no end to see ships referred to as ‘she’—something I slightly tangle with in my story “Autodidact.”

I personally embrace ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, and have applied it to non-binary characters in my own work. This appears to be a grammatical issue with some readers! I think some of us have run up against this issue of resistance before, in social media discussions and elsewhere? I do admit it may be somewhat confusing when the character in question is both non-binary and multi-bodied (a real possibility in genre), but I like to think that usually contextual cues will still make it clear enough what ‘they’ denotes. 

Other parts of language can be trickier—I blogged about this last year, on the dominant language in my SF setting defaulting to gender-neutral nouns and doing away entirely with gendered titles (no ma’am, sir, or mister): child rather than girl or daughter, parent rather than mother. There’s usually no difficulty until I run into the issue of soldier characters addressing superior officers—I’ve for now chosen to have them use full titles rather than something like ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’, but it may sound a little cumbersome. Then there are words like ‘marksmanship’—‘markswoman’ is fine, ‘markswomanship’ starts to get a little strange, and in either case there’s no way to be gender-neutral and still have the same word or something that means the same thing (‘sniper’ being something else entirely). Very tricky.

Rose Lemberg: For me personally, English has been liberating. In my other languages, gender distinctions are much more massively embedded. In Russian, all nouns distinguish grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, and neutral); in addition, adjectives, pronouns of many kinds, and verbs in the past tense also mark for gender, which is in agreement with the noun. So a woman would say ya poshla v kino ‘I went.FEM to the movies’ whereas a man would say ya poshel v kino. One could say bolshaya koshka lezhala na okne ‘Big.FEM cat.FEM lay.FEM on the window’ versus bolshoj kot lezhal na okne ‘big.MASC cat.MASC lay.MASC on the window’. The neutral grammatical gender is reserved to objects and non-agents, and marking a person with the neutral gender is generally speaking considered denigrating.

In Hebrew, two grammatical genders are distinguished (masculine and feminine), with nouns, adjectives, and verbs (with some exceptions) agreeing with the noun.

This creates a huge difficulty for anyone who wishes to avoid binary gender marking when writing in my languages, as these choices are much more pervasive than in English. As a subset of this, one way to avoid gender marking of the narrator in English is to use the first person; neither Russian nor Hebrew allow for that option.

English afforded me opportunities to avoid binary gender marking, or to play with it in various ways. However, this has also caused me headache while writing about SFFnal cultures which use languages other than English. In my secondary world, Birdverse, I know that some languages use binary gender markings in the grammar. Other languages have more complex systems that allow for marking of up to four grammatical genders; yet others do not mark for gender. Some cultures in Birdverse recognize non-binary genders in various configurations; others rely on the binary; yet others do not view gender as culturally important, and use gender-neutral language. While writing about this variety, I find English easier to work with than my native languages—but in some cases I feel it lets me off the hook easily by allowing me to gloss over some of these grammatical issues that would have been unavoidable if I were writing in Russian or in Hebrew.

Bogi Takács: To me, English is more difficult than my native Hungarian in this respect, as Hungarian has absolutely no grammatical gender, and only an animate-inanimate distinction on pronouns (beyond singular-plural). But it’s still a lot easier than Hebrew, a language I also speak.

It’s also possible to make do without pronouns in Hungarian, similar to Yukimi’s Japanese example that Bee mentioned. Sometimes, translators can really struggle with this. I remember reading a Japanese light novel series, Kino no tabi (Kino’s Journey) by Keiichi Sigsawa, in both German and English. (Minor spoilers will follow.) Kino’s gender is left ambiguous until the final chapter of the first novel; in Japanese, this is possible. The English version rearranges the chapters, while the German version keeps the original order, but switches Kino’s pronouns at one point; neither is really accurate.

I do think English still leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. People have disagreed over whether my flash-story-poem-thing “The Oracle of DARPA” had one speaker or two speakers—someone even tried to convince me about three!—let alone what their genders were. I think that’s good so.

I personally like Spivak pronouns (e/em/eir/emself) as a neutral set, but I also use singular ‘they’. I tend to lean toward Spivak, because singular ‘they’ can sometimes lead to ambiguities—but I disagree with people who use this as an argument against singular ‘they’. There are many stories where singular ‘they’ works just fine, and in my experience it’s also convenient in real life. And of course, plural ‘they’ is also a valid option; I follow people’s own preferences across the board. When I’m writing, I keep in mind how my characters would like to refer to themselves. Since I mostly write quite short pieces, I have yet to write anything where one character might choose Spivak, another singular ‘they’, and yet another maybe zie/hir (etc.), but I can certainly conceive of this.

There is one point that confuses me more, though. While in English, there is a wide variety of non-binary pronouns to choose from, none of them seem to have the exact kind of underspecified nature like personal pronouns in Hungarian have. When one uses singular ‘they’, it can mean that the speaker does not wish to specify the third party’s gender, but it can also mean that the third party’s preferred pronoun is ‘they’ itself! The same goes for Spivak, zie/hir, etc.

Rose: I also wanted to add an example from my writing: in a recent Birdverse story currently on submission, “Grandmother-nai-Leilit’s Cloth of Winds,” the protagonist comes from a binary-enforcing culture with a binary grammatical system in the language (much like in Hebrew). When she is confronted with non-binary pronouns in a different language and culture, and with the possibilities this affords to members of her own family who might fall outside the binary, she feels very conflicted, since these options are only available as long as they do not speak their native language.

Benjanun: Interesting! I’ve done something similar with the added complication that a character’s native language falls on the binary default while the language of the empire she serves—and which conquered her world long ago—is the one where gender neutrality and ungendered words are the default (and the character is herself non-binary). It becomes an issue of contested loyalty, and in her situation that’s a fraught battlefield. 

You’ve talked about English offering different options to other languages for expressing post-binary gender. Do you know of ways that writers in these languages (or others) have worked with this subject? (I know, for instance, that the original Japanese publication of Sayuri Ueda’s The Cage of Zeus avoided pronouns for the non-binary characters.)

Benjanun: I was recently directed to this poem by Yona Wallach that’s specifically about gendered language in Hebrew. Other than that I don’t have much insight to offer as in my language pronouns are not very gendered, and so it doesn’t come up as a linguistic issue.

Rose: I have thought a lot about how, despite professed Soviet ideals of gender equality, Soviet-age SFF seems to have major issues with gender representation both in terms of who wrote science fiction, and what kind of protagonists were featured in classic novels and short stories. I am speaking here solely about binary gender. There are no prominent SFF female writers from the Soviet period, nor was I able to trace enough minor writers to do a write-up (I might be misinformed, in which case I beg to be corrected). Among major SFF writers of the Soviet era, the only one who consistently featured female protagonists with agency in books for adult readers was Efremov. There is also Kir Bulychev—a Soviet SF YA and MG author with a huge influence—who had a very well-portrayed young female protagonist who recurred through many books. While brothers Strugatsky wrote many brilliant novels, women’s roles were, as a rule, minor and stereotyped.

The only attempt at anything non-binary that I am aware of comes from their work: in a 1965 SF novel Snail on the Slope there are Amazon-like podrugi ‘female friends’—women who live in lakes, reproduce asexually through a kind of parthenogenesis and are violently anti-male. These women and their culture are negatively portrayed, and ultimately are in opposition to the main character, the scientist Kandid. Snail on the Slope is a very interesting, political novel that was banned for many years by the Soviet state, but in terms of gender representation it is not an example I can speak of with enthusiasm. It is interesting to me that post-binary societal setups are still presented through a binary lens (women, rather than third-gender people), and this goes well with what I know.

I am not aware of any discussion of non-binary or post-binary gender in post-Soviet SFF, but I am also not as well-versed in post-Soviet SFF as I am in Soviet-era SFF (if you know of any examples, please please please let me know!). Queer struggle in post-Soviet spaces is of great interest to me, and I routinely read Russian-language articles on queer and trans issues. While there is now some conversation about binary trans people, discussions of non-binary gender in popular media are very rare, and are all too often met with bafflement. When translating from other languages, e.g. articles about third-gender recognition in other countries, journalists tend to exclude gender identities beyond the binary and focus solely on assignment—‘genderqueer’ is excluded, but ‘intersex’ translated and explained, always with a binary pronoun. I have not seen any non-binary pronoun options yet. 

In Hebrew, non-binary gender options are explored in the Talmud, but there is yet again a tendency to view such configurations through a binary lens. In my review of Bogi’s recent novelette “Three Partitions,” which explores such an issue, I write how appearance of a binary assignment is crucial in both societal attitude and pronoun choice for post-binary protagonists. I was not sure which language the community spoke, but Bogi confirmed Hebrew for them. The usage of binary pronouns and morphology in Hebrew is consistent with Bogi’s portrayal, sad though it is.

I feel that it is easier to explore these concepts in languages that have the grammatical and lexical flexibility to introduce them.

Bogi: There are no gendered personal pronouns in Hungarian, and grammatical gender does not exist either, so I cannot really cite any interesting linguistic details. There are a few SF works in Hungarian having to do with non-binary gender, like Gyula Fekete’s Triszex (‘Trisex’), from 1974, about aliens with a complicated gender system. This novella is written in the form of a nonfiction essay about radio communications received from the aliens’ home planet. I’ll be honest and say I found it a very aggravating read, both when it comes to style and substance, but it is of considerable historical interest. (I am planning on writing a scholarly article about this in the near future.)

I don’t know of any work that features non-binary-gendered humans. That doesn’t necessarily mean much, since I’ve stopped closely following Hungarian SF in the past few years, and I am especially unfamiliar with current short SF in Hungarian.

There is a wonderful resource, a large database of SF short stories published in Hungarian (both Hungarian and foreign works), searchable by topic and maintained by the History of Science Fiction Society of Hungary (MASFITT, Magyar Scifitörténeti Társaság). This database does have “Sexual life, gender roles, childbirth” as one of its topic categories (3.1.7.), but none of the—very few—Hungarian stories listed in this category seem to have anything to do with non-binary gender as far as I can tell.

When writing and reading the future in science fiction, I find it difficult not to think about gender and language. How will languages change in the decades and centuries to come? How will we better express our gender systems—or, reaching far into the future, the gender systems of sentient life we might meet? Your work suggests you have similar questions. I’d be interested to hear your questions and/or answers.

Benjanun: I was very fond of how Yoon Ha Lee’s “Wine” uses the descriptors “girlform” and “womanform” for a trans character—it’s a superbly elegant way to do it. Kameron Hurley’s story from Strange Horizons in 2004 “Genderbending at the Madhattered” does something interesting as well, imposing a social divide between the “perpetually gendered” and the gender-fluid in a dystopia. 

As far as non-human sentient life goes I’ve never written or thought about them—my space opera never includes aliens. Somehow the idea of non-human sentient life is too close to fantasy for me to see it in my science fiction. I also find it most pertinent to write about different genders within the human frame since I don’t want to suggest that to be other than male or female is to be non-human, and to me people are interesting enough without needing to give them extra heads or tentacles or the like. 

So what I do tends to be an exploration of different systems of gender, varying according to cultures. Some legally recognize more genders, others less. Some are rigid, others not. I’m especially careful not to position certain cultures as superior over others and to touch on the possibility that a society which is free about gender may still be terribly backward about other types of markers.

The language we use in narrative is relevant as well, I think, beyond pronouns. One of the things that I really loved about Ancillary Justice is that Ann Leckie doesn’t spend a lot of time on describing her characters’ bodies—we don’t have much of an inkling on what Breq, Skaaiat, Awn or Anaander look like. We’re occasionally told one is ’handsome’ but there’s no indicator as to where they are round or where they are narrow, so to speak! I take a similar approach; a character might be tall and pale, but I don’t talk about hips or chests. In one forthcoming story, “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” (Solaris Rising 3), the main character finds an unconscious body and doesn’t assume the gender until that person is online and broadcasting their public profile. She doesn’t decide that because this person’s physique is this way or that, they must be a woman or a man—physical characteristics are completely detached from gender identity. I also don’t think it’s gainful to “guess” whether a character described non-specifically is “really” male or female.

Rose: I don’t know. Too many variables. Globalization and language hegemony of English are a huge factor here; so many languages are already changing under the influence of English; there is language attrition and death as a result of colonialist processes. English affords me personally a greater flexibility to express my genderqueerness, but do I want English to continue influencing or even replacing other world languages? Binary gender is morphologically encoded in my languages, and while it’s not that hard to add pronouns, it’s hard to change morphology. Those are painful and convoluted issues to which I have no answer.

Bogi: I don’t think these changes are for me to predict. I personally would like to see more openness and more addressing people the way they’d prefer to be addressed, and I think the world is slowly moving in that direction, but this does not seem like an easy change.

There’s already plenty of choice in English to express non-binary gender; the problem is not with that as far as I can see, but rather with people’s attitudes, and a lack of respect toward others’ self-identification. So from my own perspective, I am happy to use already existing forms and concepts in future settings, but presenting them as something that’s not unusual at all and something that does not face resistance or pushback from society.


Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian. Her science fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Clarkesworld, Interfictions Online, 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).

14 Comments

Subscribe to this thread