Post-Binary Gender in SF: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312, set in the titular year, imagines our solar system inhabited by humans who have started to genetically engineer themselves: taller, smaller, animal-like—and with greater variance of genitals and reproductive systems. They are dealing with the ripples of Earth’s political instability, factions on Venus, unusual behaviour from the qubes—quantum computers—and, in response to that, are considering the best form of political organisation in the 24th Century.

2312’s treatment of politics is often ham-fisted, Western, soaked in notions of “aid” and dismisses Africa (the continent in its vast entirety) as beyond help. Its treatment of gender is, however, more interesting.

“distinctions can be pretty fine, with some claiming that gynandromorphs do not look entirely like androgyns, nor like hermaphrodites, nor eunuchs, and certainly not like bisexuals—that androgyns and wombmen are quite different—and so on. Some people like to tell that part of their story; others never mention it at all. Some dress across gender and otherwise mix semiotic gender signals to express how they are feeling in that moment. Outrageous macho and fem behaviors, either matched with phenotype and semiotic indicators or not, create performance art ranging from the kitschy to the beautiful”

There are a lot of options. Pronoun use varies. Non-binary pronouns haven’t come into widespread use, but several people are un-pronouned by the text. Most people continue to use “he” and “she,” including most of the main characters, but are not necessarily cis women or cis men. Discrimination on the basis of gender does not seem to occur; the book wonders: “as there are now people three metres tall, and others less than a metre tall, gender may no longer be the greatest divide…”

I’m glad to see a near-future full of gender variance. I wish it was rooted in real gender experiences!

The word “bisexual” illustrates this problem. In real life, the word refers to sexual attraction to all genders. In 2312, it refers to a “gender” of people with a penis and a vagina, which leads to one of the more bizarre paragraphs I—as a bisexual person—have ever read:

“Last time I was on a sexliner, this group of bisexuals ran out to the pool, about twenty of them, all with the biggest tits and cocks you ever saw, and all of them with erections, and they got in a circle one behind the next and plunged into the one in front of them and away they went. It was like when you see insects clumping together on a summer day, keep fucking till they fall to the ground.”

Unfortunately, once any baffled laughter fades, it’s a profoundly dehumanising description of people having sex.

More disturbing than this description in isolation is that Kim Stanley Robinson isn’t the only author to write about people with ‘both’ genitals having sex in animal-like circles. In Sayuri Ueda’s The Cage of Zeus, a man talks about the Rounds (genetically engineered people with a penis and a vagina) having mass-sex like sea hares or snails:

“When the sea hares mate, they form this long link. One puts its male organ in the female organ of the sea hare in front of it, while its own female organ is entered by the male organ of the sea hare from behind. Scientists call that a ‘mating chain.’ Snails mate in a similar way … Same goes for the Rounds.”

Perhaps it’s the hermaphroditic version of ‘But what do lesbians do?’—a fascination that goes beyond natural curiosity to the Othering of genital variance. In The Cage of Zeus, Harding hates the Rounds and is possibly lying or exaggerating. The person talking in 2312 seems to be telling the truth.

It is an outlying passage in 2312, which mostly treats the genital and gender variance as a normal fact of the future. There is none of the anti-Rounds violence of The Cage of Zeus.

Its use of “bisexual” points, however, to a further problem: a future in which people are genetically engineered to have ’both’ sets of genitals and reproductive systems in various configurations that, though acknowledging the existence of pre-engineering intersex people—both books do—distracts from real genital (and gender) variance in favour of genetically engineered variants. Look, it’s the near-future! We have gynandromorphs and wombmen! Check it out!

It’s convenient how readily these new genders fit into the cis, binary-viewed boxes of today.

In 2312 the distinctions are “fine,” but people note them throughout the book—all based on binary ideas of physiology:

“The youth’s waist-to-hips ratio was sort of girlish, the shoulder-to-waist-to-ground lengths sort of boyish. Possibly a gynandromorph.”

According to the book’s non-narrative excerpts from unknown texts, such as the one at the beginning of this post, a lot has changed—but in the narrative, a lot less has. Gender and body are treated as closely connected throughout. Swan’s vagina is the larger genital, and Swan is a “she”; Wahram’s penis is the larger genital, and Wahram is a “he.” Genitals—when described or referred to—are either ‘both’ or ‘one’, not the realities of non-engineered intersex people. We are told that “he” and “she” are often avoided, but almost all characters use those pronouns. We are told that people change their pronouns in different contexts, but no characters do this (unless the one instance of Genette using “he” instead of no pronouns is this, rather than the authorial/editorial slip-up I suspect it to be).

This is very 2012. All it’s missing is non-binary people and non-engineered intersex people in the narrative—real gender and genital variance.

I really liked that in 2312 there is variance from the cis norms as a fact of life rather than a plot point, that there is no hostility in the narrative to this variance (it is perhaps implied that people on Earth see it as a strange spacer proclivity), that people can change their bodies during their lifetimes, that one major character is un-pronouned by the narrative. 2312 feels like an attempt to achieve the “post-binary” of this column’s name, more so than almost all other works I’ve read so far—but it falls short. I expect the gender systems of the future to change, not necessarily in ways I expect. 2312 remains rooted in the flawed Western gender system of 2012, not the possible future of 2312.


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).

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