Jan 21 2014 11:00am

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Introduction

The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula K Le Guin Tim White

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).

Luis Milan
2. LuisMilan
Will this discussion include alien species, such as the Pierson's Puppeteers (tri-gendered) or will it be mostly about humans?
Steve Berman
3. Steve Berman
Wonderful. Have you read Shadow Man by Melissa Scott. If not, Lethe Press would be happy to send you a copy. It has multiple genders and was an award winning book.
Beth Meacham
4. bam
And of course you are looking at Delany?
Steph Sinclair
5. stephsinclair
Really looking forward to this column.
Steve Berman
6. Sylvain Duguay
Oh! This is exciting!
I'm currently reading BritMandelo's (commenting above) collection Beyond Binary and I'm looking forward to exchange on more exciting texts and ideas.
I recently finished reading Jordan's 14-volume Wheel of Time and I was really angered by the traditional steretotypical gender representation. Only in the last book, written by Sanderson, is there a tiny aknowledgement of different sexualities (2 very very very very secondary characters are said to prefer men to women).
Erasure of gender and sexual minorities' realities is a type of violence which needs to be corrected.
Steve Berman
7. Todd33
Lilth's Brood, aka Xenogenesis Trilogy, by Octavia E. Butler. Suggested reading.
Alex Dally MacFarlane
8. Alex.Dally.MacFarlane
@ LuisMilan

I'll be focusing primarily on humans. I do think it's absurd when the default for aliens is binary male and female gender, and that this default is related to the perceived human default, so I'll be talking about it I'm sure -- but I am also uncomfortable with the tendency of some authors to make aliens non-binary while humans are 100% binary. Non-binary gender as existing only among aliens (especially if the humans are baffled and confused by it) is deeply problematic. Focusing on aliens at the expense of humans is something I want to avoid.
Paul Keelan
9. noblehunter
Are you going to do Fantasy as well? The default of binary gender is as prevalent there as in SF and equally problematic. Imposing modern ideas of gender and identity on 'historical' cultures is as erroneous as imposing them on the future.

@Sylvain Duguay

RJ makes allusions to female same-sex relationships and desire much earlier than the final trilogy. He eventually gets around to spelling it out, too. Nobody makes a big deal of it, so it's easy to miss.
Stefan Raets
10. Stefan
Melissa Scott's "Shadow Man" is the obvious title that comes to mind. I'm looking forward to these posts!
Steve Berman
11. RiverVox
I thought immediately of Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis series and the ooloi. Having read Le Guin in high school, that was the next level for me but I realize now that it was the 80's! What strikes me about gender in those books is that it's totally focused on reproduction. This is true with other works as well, as sci-fi writers think about anthropology and biology as they build their alternate worlds. Reproduction is only one tiny aspect of human sexuality and has little to do with gender identity so why is it so important in our speculative fictions? As for current beyond binary gender writing, I recommend Elizabeth Bear's work.
Steve Berman
12. mkd127
I wonder how much of a lack of focus on nonbinary gender patterns might be due to a preference for gender fluidity or ignoring the idea of gender differences altogether. Some of John Scalzi's characters come to mind- if you described them without using gender pronouns, a listener wouldn't necessarily be able to put them in a gender box. To me this seems like a reasonable near future prediction, as well as a world-view I'd be happy to live in. Of course, I love a good story that reimagines gender altogether, but I feel like in general we're moving toward more of a boxless viewpoint, rather than more or differently defined boxes.

I'm looking forward to your series!
Haralambi Markov
13. HaralambiMarkov
I'm really interested to see what texts will come to light as I want to read more outside the binary, but have no idea where to start as I'm more of a cultural outsider, living in Eastern Europe. It always sat badly with me that only The Left Hand of Darkness discussed the possibility of a different gender.
Steve Berman
14. Arista
Your article series is very relevant. i think that besides any prejudices and lack of interest on the part of some authors and publishers, there must be a great deal of fear of the books being rejected by the public because of non-binary genders being shown. i'd like to suggest the books by Marion Zimmer Bradley as examples of all kinds of genders being shown in great sci-fi stories. She's a polemic author and i'm not sure you like her but her books helped me open my mind in my teens and learn to respect everyone for who they are.
Chuk Goodin
15. Chuk
Would something like Varley's Eight Worlds stories count? People could switch genders very easily -- I think they mostly stuck to one or the other though (except maybe the Barbies).
Steve Berman
17. activehearts
Really looking forward to your articles and recs.
Thanks for this column!
Steve Berman
18. Dalillama
Not sure if this is what you're after, but Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga includes a third gender of functional hermaphrodites. Alan Dean Foster's Sagramanda involves Hijra.
Steve Berman
19. Alex Haist
Oh, I am looking forward to hearing about more books with non-binary gender (with humans, hooray!)! Books often answer "how might that work?" for me, so having the stories is important.
Alex Dally MacFarlane
20. Alex.Dally.MacFarlane
@ Dalillama

Fairly soon I'm going to be looking at a book that has a non-binary gender with hermaphroditic genitals. Advance spoilers: it's really problematic when that's the only way people can envisage a third or non-binary gender.

Gender and genitals are not inextricably linked, especially where non-binary gender is concerned.

@ mkd127

The whole idea of "Let's abolish gender entirely!" is interesting but not without problems, and definitely something I'll be discussing in future posts.
Jenny Reid
22. jenreidreads
I'm currently reading 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, and it's treatment of gender is the most radical I've ever read (in a good/interesting way, I think). Very interested to learn more with this column!
Michelle Morgan
23. goblinbox
"I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories."

What a MASSIVE statement. Are you every sci-fi reader, ever? Who are you to even suggest such a thing? A lot of people like their science fiction stories the way they are, thank you. Some characters' stories can be told just fine without a bunch of awkward language about gender fluidity.

Your immersion in and fascination with gender is your own. A lot of people can acknowledge it without requiring the existing structure to die in a fire. Many readers would be utterly alienated if a structure they'd been using all their lives as a shortcut to understanding a character was to go away because some kid insisted it was PC.

I would say that everyone already has a functional, inherent understanding of gender fluidity. Y'all act like these concepts are shockingly new and fresh and like you just invented them. Please. Most readers of sci-fi are the sorts of people who pay attention to things and regularly question their assumptions about reality. Many of them are pretty fluid in a lot of ways and quite capable of self-reflection. A woman doing dishes may be aware of the assumptions her image presents; the same woman installing and configuring a border router would be, too. People are not, as you appear to assume, stupid assholes just because your apparent anguish about gender fluidity is not their own.

Furthermore, when discussing aliens and stories: sometimes the aliens are male/female because there's no reason to overly complicate the story by making them otherwise. But hey, sometimes there is. It depends on the story.

"I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories" is as absurd as "I want an end to the default of story in science fiction stories." You can't have all stories require FTL, you can't have all stories not require FTL; you can't have all stories be about morality, you can't have all stories not be about morality.

And you can't have all stories include an unnecessary gender complication if the stories don't need it... Well, not unless your stated goal is a screen, and your real goal is just to kill science fiction altogether.

The emphasis of your statement, though, is well enough. Yes, absolutely, do read science fiction and use it as a way to delve into gender issues! Science fiction is amazing at fostering such dialogs! Do have conversations!

But don't expect everyone to. The genre is broad and deep because its readers aren't cookie cutter people. They don't all like -- or need -- to read, consider, think about, or explore the same things. You want diversity? Then foster diversity.
Bridget McGovern
24. BMcGovern
Stepping in as moderator here with a reminder that we do our best to keep conversations civil and respectful. Here's a link to the moderation policy--feel free to disagree with our bloggers or other commenters, but there's no need to take an angry or aggressive tone, or to make your criticisms personal. Thanks in advance to everyone for keeping this policy in mind, moving forward.
Gerald Warfield
25. geraldwarfield123
A major problem that can plague a writer using non-binary gender identification is pronouns. For a recent story published in the December issue of NewMyths ezine my beta readers liked none of the pronouns I tried for hermaphroditic characters. To a person, they said the odd terms stopped them, threw them out of the story. I finally gave up and in the interest of the narrative just made them male and female. It would be a major contribution to establish norms for pronouns that could be used with all the varieties of non-binary gender characters
Michael Walton
26. tygervolant
IMO, it's unfair to assume that ideas about binary gender are entirely the fault of patriarchal western culture (eastern culture has its own issues with patriarchy, as I recall). The real root of that bias is biology -- too wit, that humans are by default either male or female. Our species does not produce any viable third options where reproductive biology is concerned. An SF novel that explored that fact would, I think, be an excellent part of the proposed discussion. Oh, wait, that would be Committment Hour.

I do agree that the assumption of binary gender for aliens is invalid, though. An alien species might well consist entirely of hermaphrodites, or have three sexes (i.e. sperm donor, egg donor, and gestator), or reproduce by some other equally odd (to us) means. A race of sapient machines would simply build their replacements, and thus would have no frame of reference for understanding our obsession with an inefficient biological process with uncertain results.

And goblinbox, for all the confrontational language, is dead on the money here; save exploration of gender issues for stories in which it is appropriate. That sort of thing works in The Left Hand of Darkness because it's vital to that story, but it is rightly absent from "All Summer in a Day."
Liz Bourke
27. hawkwing-lb
I look forward to this column with the utmost of interest.
Steve Berman
28. CanuckMom
Daniel Heath Justice's The Way of Thorn and Thunder trilogy touches on these themes and is beautifully written. Highly recommend!
Michael Walton
30. tygervolant
@29: Not so fast, rafiq. There are only two sexes, and that statement is not true of all terrestrial life (all snails are hermaphrodites, frex). Gender is a bit more amorphous. Sex = biology, gender = psychology.
Paul Keelan
31. noblehunter
@30 and that there are two sexes depends on what you mean by sex.
Irene Gallo
32. Irene
Hi Guys, Stepping in while our regular moderators get home safe from the snow. I unpublished @29 for name calling and being overly antagonistic.
Steve Berman
33. StaceySarasvati
Wait what? There are only two genders? (I really hate it when people conflate the terms sex and gender as it makes arguing confusing). Ok no. If we are referring to biological sex, there is no binary. There are people born intersex who possess sexual characteristics (primary and secondary) of both male and female. Should we just continue to erase these people from history and modern life? Not even touching the issue of transgenderism, that statement is completely false. Whether or not they can reproduce is beside the point, they exist and are born and fall in love and have sex and contribute to society. And in terms of *gender*, again, gender exists on a spectrum, not a binary. Even those of us who identify as cis perform our gender to varying degrees, ranging from "stereotypically masculine or feminine" to "screw the expectations society has of me based on my sex/gender alignment".

Looking forward to reading your column Alex.
Steve Berman
34. BDG
@30 I'd put gender more so into sociology to be honest, psychology plays a part obviously but our idea of how a gender should act is based solely on cultural norms and is reinforced socially.

While I don't think every novel should focus on gender as a topic I do think SF should take far more nuiance approach to depicting the reality of gender. Throughout time many different cultures had different rules about gender and more than two genders (often to work around the 'traditional' binary when it could not be satisfied or to deal with homosexuality) so it seems kind of silly and backwards to have the very narrow Western (which is now being broadcast worldwide because of cultural imperialism and captialism yay!) view of sex=gender (even though sex within itself is not completely binary).
Steve Berman
35. pootle
My introduction to gender roles in SF was from the middle part of "The End of Eternity". It had two male and a female alien and Asimov made one of the male aliens the homebody and child-rearer.
Steve Berman
36. Gnashchick
I realize you're focusing on SF, but are you aware that there are cultures right here on Earth that recognize more than one gender? Navajo recognize four genders. Asdzaan - feminine female, Hastiin- masculine male, Nadleehi-feminine male and Dilbaa-masculine female
Thomas Thatcher
37. StrongDreams
@34 I'd put gender more so into sociology to be honest, psychology plays a part obviously but our idea of how a gender should act is based solely on cultural norms and is reinforced socially.

Codswallop. At least some degree of gender behavior and identity is inborn, probably derived from fetal exposure in utero to various hormonal cues. (As proven, for example, by biological boys who are socialized as boys but nevertheless identify themselves as female or gay or something in between.)
Thomas Thatcher
38. StrongDreams
I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.

This is, I suspect, an intentional overstatement meant to provoke discussion. There is certainly plenty of room in the field for stories that explore human gender fluidity as a focus (like the OP, I'm not really interested in constructed alien races), and for stories in which gender fluidity is taken for granted as part of the background. But "ending" all stories that default to binary human genders is a rather unfortunate phrasing.
Steve Berman
39. Rose Lemberg
I hope one day to see an article about nonbinary gender in which commenters do not debate whether we exist, and/or explain why we do not exist, and/or assume that we have no idea about how our gender(s) have been cross-culturally conceptualized, and/or only allow us to exist "when the story requires it".

One day. But not today.
Jenny Kristine
40. jennygadget
I just want to chime in to say that I, too, am really looking forward to this!

"What I do want to do is demonstrate how big that conversation truly is."

yay! Smart literary commentary that introduces me to new, interesting works to read is the best kind.
Sam Kelly
41. Eithin
This is going to be awesome! - and with luck, won't get drowned under the flood of people getting offended that we're interested in ourselves, because they aren't.
Alex Dally MacFarlane
42. Alex.Dally.MacFarlane
"This is, I suspect, an intentional overstatement meant to provoke discussion."

It's really not.

I am fascinated by the idea that wanting an end to binary defaults (that's defaults, not binary gender identities) is provocative and anger-inducing -- to the extent that a comment has had to be deleted for name-calling, which I assume means slurs or something similarly aggressive -- not a reasonable request.

Thank you for the support, Brit, Rose and others. I hope you enjoy the column.

I'm just gonna toss a lit match onto the ideas of biological/sociological essentialism on my way out.
Fade Manley
43. fadeaccompli
But "ending" all stories that default to binary human genders is a rather unfortunate phrasing.

Why so? I think it's an excellent phrasing. Take a look at what was actually said. (Hint: it's not that no story should ever use binary human genders.) Specifically:

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

There is a current assumed default; it should not be so.

Some stories have gender binaries. It's okay. The world is enormously complicated, and all stories will simplify to some extent in order to focus on what they're trying to do. But a story shouldn't default to it, any more than a story should default to being about Kansas City. It's a choice.

Nothing wrong with stories set in Kansas City. But people who write stories set in Kansas City should do so because they have a story that's best told in Kansas City, and have chosen to set their story in Kansas City. Not because they assume all stories take place in Kansas City, and that there needs to be some sort of Special Reason for a story to take place in Boise or Beijing or Quito instead.

If you live in Quito, seeing people fret over the destruction of science fiction because people might stop setting all stories in Kansas City (unless, of course, they have a very special reason to set it in a different place) is kinda funny. Sometimes it's more strange funny than ha-ha funny, but funny all the same.
Liz Bourke
45. hawkwing-lb
StrongDreams @44:

I'm not Alex, but I agree that it's a fascinating phenomenon. It seems to me to be akin to the anger that results when, say, one suggests that the videogame world should stop treatening white and male as default: challenging defaults seem to make people who benefit from those defaults defensive.

It's as if the statement We'd like some toys to play with that suit us is equivalent to And now you can't ever again have any toys that suit you.

A gross simplication, especially in this case, of course. But treating the former statement as though it were the latter one is a fascinating social phenomenon.

It doesn't contribute much to the discourse, I don't think, to suggest that in being fascinated by defensive reactions from people who are not actually seriously threatened, Alex Dally McFarlane is somehow inexperienced or naive in the ways of the internet.
Steve Berman
46. jenphalian
What a great series! Very much looking forward to it.

I recently read Iain M. Banks' Player of Games, which has a couple of interesting non-binary-gender things in it. Things that I'd love to see discussed! :) At any rate, I'll definitely be watching this series and probably using it as a reading list.
Tili S.
47. venndiagram
Bravo. Really excited to read this series. Thank you for doing this.
Steve Berman
48. curgoth
Looking forward to this. I want my spec fic to be at least as diverse as the world around me. Future fiction should be an expansion, not a contraction.
50. Ithilanor
I'm really looking forward to this series! It sounds fascinating. It also gives me another good reason to get around to reading The Left Hand of Darkness, Samuel Delany's Triton, and other good books. I'm interested to see if you've got anything to say about the recent Ancillary Justice.

@35: Wrong story, you're thinking of The Gods Themselves. One of my favorite Asimov books.

@46: While Player of Games brings up the concept, it doesn't seem like Banks does much with it. While I love the Culture books, exploring gender issues has never seemed like their strong suit.
Michael Johnston
51. JohnstonMR
I think a lot of the angst from people who object to more representation comes from two places. The first is the idea that more representation in fiction will lead to more people doing whatever is being represented more. To this I can say that I grew up in a time when it was very difficult to find any positive portrayals of gay or bi men, and yet I am bi anyway, so keeping it out of the view of people won't change anything except maybe there will be less guilt and self-hatred to work through. Secondly, ok, even if the idea that representation increases occurrence were true... so what?

The second place is simply mishearing what is said. Some people hear "Hey, more representation of this would be a good thing" as a small portion of the population saying "WE SHOULD BE IN ALL THE STORIES ALL THE TIME!" It's stupid, but perception is everything.

A duology that has fluid gender that hasn't been mentioned here is Tanith Lee's Don't Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine, which have been reprinted as a single title, Biting the Sun.
N. Swain
52. Jabberwocky
This sounds really interesting-- I'm eager to read the next post.
Steve Berman
53. Leah Bobet
Just another "very much looking forward to reading" here!
Daniel Ellis
54. Embleer
This sounds great. Very much looking forward to reading this column!
Steve Berman
55. a1ay
While Player of Games brings up the concept, it doesn't seem like Banks does much with it

Really?? It's a hell of a lot more present in the plot than it is in "The Left Hand of Darkness". It's discussed at length, several times: how does having three sexes affect society? Language? How does it work biologically? How does the law discriminate between males, apices and females?
Steve Berman
56. BDG
@37 some reason your confusing gender with biological sex? Men and women who are trans feel there body should biologically be different not the the way the interact with society. Indeed they probably act differently if society had a more fluid understanding of gender. Also sexual orientation has next to nothing to do with how ones identifies their gender. Gay men still define themselves as men. As I said there's obviously a psychological component but social norms are by and large what define how a gender should act as proven that pretty much every culture has there own definition of 'manhood' and 'womanhood'.
Gerd K
57. Kah-thurak
The interesting thing about this topic is how overrepresentated it is compared to most other social or political problems while still claiming to be underrepresentated. Espeacially on this site gender/equality issues are practically the only social / political topic that is discussed at all. Has there been even one post about surveillance issues or climate change in the last year? Both would be natural topics for a SFF oriented site, but they, and undoubtly others, are ignored. Why is that?

On the "wanting the bipoliarity to end" thing: Everybody can want whatever they wish, obviously (I allways favoured the endless supply of cakes Willem mentions in the Kingkiller Chronicles), but the important thing is that nobody gets to dicate what other people write.
Michael Walton
58. tygervolant
@36: Thanks for that! Showing a rl culture's take on this issue is a great addition to this discussion.

Kah-thurak said: "the important thing is that nobody gets to dicate what other people write."

Well said... and that works both ways.
Steve Berman
59. naupathia
Haven't read too many of the above comments so I apologize if I repeat anything.

I applaud the ideal don't get me wrong, but there is a reason there is a saying "Write what you know" and it's various mutations. Even if I wanted to write a story about a non-binary gendered race/place, I wouldn't even know how to begin (and make it believable/convincing). Most humans ARE binary gendered. And most writers aren't out to to write some incredibly new society that they have to spend an entire book explaining - I don't think I need to go into detail about why tropes exist and how they help writing by providing familiar starting points, etc etc.

LeGuin's genious was that she COULD convincingly write such detailed and alien worlds. It was also part of the purpose of her books. I don't think it's at all "shameful" or anything like that when more of these works don't exist - again, most people aren't multi-gendered or whatever you call it, they don't care to be, and books like that may be interesting but it's probably not the reason they read a book.

And I'm not at all discriminating against people who identify themselves that way. I'm just trying to point out that it doesn't make sense to want a majority of the books to appeal to the minority. If multi-gendered people want more multi-gendered books, then I think they're gonna have to do the writing.
Sally Brackett
60. sallybrackett
Stopping by to say that I am also very excited for this series! Thank you, Alex. This is a very necessary set of posts. Thank you for writing them!
Steve Berman
61. SpaceBoots
Also very excited to read this series! I am desperate for some variety in SciFi and am constantly looking for my next Left Hand of Darkness.
Michael Walton
62. tygervolant
naupathia spoke: And I'm not at all discriminating against people who identify themselves that way. I'm just trying to point out that it doesn't make sense to want a majority of the books to appeal to the minority. If multi-gendered people want more multi-gendered books, then I think they're gonna have to do the writing.

Just so! That applies to any diversity issue. Most of the strong female protagonists I've seen in SF have been written by women (big shocker), and I've long since given up on getting more characters of color in SF until there are more authors of color writing them. Don't get me started on the scarcity of people of color at the decision-making levels of the publishing industry.
Jenny Kristine
63. jennygadget
I'm just trying to point out that it doesn't make sense to want a majority of the books to appeal to the minority.
Since when do books about "minorities" only appeal to people in those groups?

I don't know about anyone else, but I read fiction (and non-fiction) not just to read about people like myself (although that's fun too) but also to learn about people that aren't like me, to explore possibilities. My complaints about what is considered "mainstream" includes the overall homogeneousness of the characters, not only the ways in which they aren't like me.

After all, the vast majority of them are white, like me, and I'm not particularly happy about that either.
Fade Manley
64. fadeaccompli
I'm just trying to point out that it doesn't make sense to want a majority of the books to appeal to the minority. If multi-gendered people want more multi-gendered books, then I think they're gonna have to do the writing.

This is so very true! Just as we never got any books with elves in them until we added some elf writers to the field, and there was a deep paucity of farmboy-to-royalty stories until our illustrious royal families--well, just the ones who'd been lost heirs for a while--demanded more books that spoke to their personal experiences, it's always the case that there's no market for or source of books about anyone until people of exactly that type want to write and read them.

Me, I'm longing for the day when we meet aliens, so that we can finally get some stories about alien species into our science fiction. And as soon as NASA writes back with my acceptance into their program... well, then I'll be able to get this story set in space written at last!
Michael Walton
66. tygervolant
@fade: At last, proof that you can transmit sarcasm through electronic media!

You are correct in that one doesn't have to be a member of a minority to write convincingly about minorities. But authors who are members of minority groups can offer something that no one else can -- an insider's perspective. No white writer understands the experience of being black the way I do, nor do I (a straight male) fully understand the experience of being female, or gay, or transgendered, or whatever. And I persist in believing that there is value in the insider's perspective that can be found nowhere else.

jennygadget wrote: I read fiction (and non-fiction) not just to read about people like myself (although that's fun too) but also to learn about people that aren't like me, to explore possibilities.

As do I, so I can't help but applaud your open-mindedness (and that of anyone else to whom the above applies). I would just like for more of the possibilities to be expressed by people who have actually lived them. I admit that this is a personal preference, though; your mileage may vary.
Paul Keelan
67. noblehunter
@ tygervolant, I worry that emphasizing the value of the insider's perspective discourages the outsider from making an attempt. Just because an insider could do it better doesn't mean an outsider can't do it well enough. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

I got the best look inside a straight* guy's head in a book written by women.

*At least the character would identify as straight if he had that option.
Michael Walton
68. tygervolant
@noblehunter: Your concern is a valid one; the value of the insider's perspective does nothing to diminish the value of the outsider's perspective. Frex, the first SF novel I ever read, The Einstein Intersection, contains an interesting example of a young man navigating the web of straight relationships -- and it was written by a gay man.

I would disagree, though, that an insider would do it better, and I certainly didn't mean to imply that. An insider would do it differently, and in that difference would be some ideas that would never occur to an outsider. Therein lay the value of the insider's perspective.
Fade Manley
69. fadeaccompli
I will agree that when it comes to what exists in the real world, insider perspectives are ideal. But insider perspectives can't be the only options. (Imagine every single book being filled with nothing but clones of the author.) It runs into chicken and egg issues, at that: I never thought I could write about bisexuality in fiction until I saw other people already doing it, even though I'm bisexual myself. Even flawed, incomplete representations are better than none, because it lets people know that's an option. God knows I cringe now and some of the ham-handed approach to non-straight sexuality in the Pern books... but when I first encountered that, it was such a wild relief to see other people acknowledging the existence of something beyond heterosexuality!

In general, I end up frustrated when it's implied that the only people interested in a perspective are those who already share it. I think we give readers too little credit sometimes. Just about everyone in the English-speaking world reads stories about straight white cis able-bodied neurotypical middle-class men; that's evidence right there that the vast majority of the readership can handle perspectives outside their own. And even among people who do fit into that particular literary default, I think that most of them can handle some variation too. Certainly all the straight white etc. men that I know have claimed to enjoy books about people who are at least slightly different!
Steve Berman
70. Morgan C
Morgan Holmes: "much of the existing work on cultural systems that incorporate a 'third sex' portray simplistic visions in which societies with more than two sex/gender categories are cast as superior to those that divide the world into just two. I argue that to understand whether a system is more or less oppressive than another we have to understand how it treats its various members, not only its 'thirds'."
Paul Keelan
71. noblehunter
@tygervolant, yes, differently, not better. Thank you.
Steve Berman
72. Gerry__Quinn
From a biological perspective, there seem to be two obvious options: one gender, like amoebae, which is energetically efficient - and two genders, like as lot of species, which allows the exploration of genetic recombination. It seems not improbable that this is how it would go on most planets. Perhaps highly technological races would divorce reproduction from biology entirely, and eventually do away with gender.

It has been argued that in SF one should imagine a hypothetical society, and then look at it from the point of view of someone who wouldn't fit in. But if the hypothesis is gender, literary fiction might be better suited to this. A gendered society is not exactly a speculative concept.

Certainly there is plenty of room for the exploration of imaginative concepts related to gender in SF, and in point of fact many such explorations have been done. But it would be rather perverse to argue that SF should be *mostly* about that.
Steve Berman
73. noellejoyeuse
@72 Gerry, please tell me more about how I'm an "imaginative concept" and how it should be hard for me to find SF stories about people like me. (Also, "gender" doesn't mean what you think it does. You're looking for "sex".)
Sam Kelly
74. Eithin
If only we had a literature that yearned for the Other, that valorized exploration and learning, that was addicted to new experiences and thoughts, that actively loved getting inside the heads of strangers and bringing people together. That would be the perfect platform for discussions like this.
Steve Berman
75. Stoicism
The rant about an end to binary gender as a default comes across a bit weird and ignorant simply because there's no shortage of material addressing gender variation in sci-fi.

It is, of course, a very interesting topic and one worth talking about, which is largely why sci-fi has produced so many stories that examine nonconventional genders, sexes and sexualities.

Some works that spring to mind immediately are several of Greg Egan's stories, including Distress and Diaspora, which deal with varied gender identities, as well as Adam Roberts' Stone.
Bridget McGovern
76. BMcGovern
Stoicism @75: Just a note about moderation--I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to as "the rant" (the post? other comments? the conversation surrounding the topic in general?) but the goal here is to maintain a civil and constructive conversation, so dismissing other people's opinions as "weird, ignorant ranting" is problematic. Feel free to disagree with the post and with opinions discussed in the comments, but please be respectful. Again, here's a link to our moderation policy, for further clarification.
Steve Berman
77. Audra (Unabridged Chick)
Delighted to see this column, series, and topic -- really excited by what
MacFarlane has laid out so far.
Sabrina Porterfield
78. artspin
Thank you for this! I am really looking forward to the series.
Joe G
79. joeinformatico
Well, this should be a fascinating investigation. Looking forward to it. Will you be touching on stories involving virtual reality, consciousness transfer, replica bodies, and other technologies that allow a character to willfilly reassign their gender or even biological sex on a whim? The last book I remember reading to use this was Walter Jon Williams' Implied Spaces, although it wasn't enormously relevant to the story other than setting detail ("You can be an orc! Or a fish! Or a different race! Or sex!"). But I know there are more out there.

P.S. Re: trolling--I must always shake my head ruefully at a commenter who challenges an argument they disagree with with "You can't overgeneralize your opinion to everyone else!" and then proceeeds to overgeneralize their own opinion to everyone else. Not that I haven't been guilty of it myself from time to time.
Steve Berman
80. lund
For a bit of context, 1968 is almost twenty years before I was born, and I’m hardly a child....
Get off my lawn

For me personally, I think that SF literature has made me open for questions of normality and what the other means. "left hand of the darkness" is a classicer, and if classicer should have any meaning, they should be rare.

I am not sure, that I understand completely, with what you mean withbinary gender. I suspect that it's technical word for a sub group of gender study interested people. And other people of both gender, will probably load it with different meanings than yours sub group. But if you mean well written characters, from a wide group of different culture/gender people?
Then yes of course
Sally Brackett
82. sallybrackett
@lund - Binary gender means two categories of gender, as opposed to many or a spectrum. Often there is a default assumption that there are only two categories of gender (male and female) which is not the case! Gender is more of a spectrum (though that probably isn't an accurate description either) and there is a wide variety of gender identities. One might be agender and feel no particular gender identity, bigender and feel a connection to two at once (though those two are not necessarily male and female), neutrois, netral, genderqueer, pangender, and any number of other genders.
Chris Meadows
83. Robotech_Master
I'd like to suggest you might want to devote a column or two looking at the Internet fiction out there that dips into the question of sex and gender. Some of this is written by people who are fantasizing about what it would be like to be able to change sex themselves, of course, but some—including some stuff I've co-written—is written more from a curiosity point of view. What would it be like to live in a world where people could change their sex effectively as easily as getting a tattoo? (Well, more or less. In our setting there's a three-year cooldown on changing back just so that people it happens to have to live with it for a while.) What if they could have their sex changed for them involuntarily or by accident?

I'm not perfect, of course, and I'm pretty sure there's some "male gaze" stuff in there. (It was written as fantasy, after all, even if my fantasizing was about other aspects besides the changing gender part.) But on the whole, I wanted to imagine a society where sex was no longer a dividing line and relationships could more easily be based on other things.

It's fun to write, is still going on, and as with many shared-universe settings, people who want to write in it are welcome.
Steve Berman
84. Ori Pomerantz
Another example of aliens changing genders is "Slow Train to Arcturus" (http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/1416555854/1416555854.htm):

"Selna was much closer to sexual changeover than he was, and was therefore bigger and had more body, and more liver, available to deal with the trance-drugs. It was a reason to be wary with him. Moods were even less stable than sexuality, at this stage. Selna would only get worse until he became fully female, and settled down."
Michael Walton
86. tygervolant
#84's post brings up a point -- how to define non-binary? Variable sexes with male-female polarity are better examples of gender fluidity than of non-binary gender. OTOH, the male-neuter-female spectrum seen in The Einstein Intersection and Commitment Hour is clearly not binary. John Maddox Robert's Cingulum series goes even further with its continuum of hermaphrodites (female dominant, full herm, male dominant) in addition to males and females. I'm thinking that continued useful discussion requires some consensus on what non-binary means.
Chris Meadows
87. Robotech_Master
And then there's another Internet writing universe that's been going on for some time, with stories of varying quality (not to mention varying degrees of content-rating), about "chakats," hermaphrodite feline centaurs. (Some of its authors regularly self-publish collections of it through Amazon.)

You could dismiss all this as just random junk people throw up on the Internet, but another point of view is that it represents kind of a rebellion against the lack of the stuff being available in mainstream published SF: if people can't read the kind of stories they want to read, they write them themselves.
Steve Berman
88. perlhaqr
To that end, I’ll be running this column

Wouldn't it make more sense to, y'know, write some SF that meets the goal you're trying to achieve? To write stories that people want to read that embody the shift you're seeking? Isn't the longstanding advice "show, don't tell"?
Steve Berman
91. PubliusDB
If science fiction were only about worlds that never were and never will be, I think that there could be something here. However, science fiction is not, at it's root, engaging when it's devoid of the most important part of fiction: inspection of what it means to be human. It's one thing to examine what it's like to be a non-binary person--especially in a world of binary characters--but it's another thing altogether to jetison inspection of what it's like to be the other 99.96 of us. Ignore what makes men and women different, as well as what makes us similar, at your peril.

And good luck selling it. There's a reason no one has successfully done it since Le Guin.
Steve Berman
92. Elliott Mason
Does anyone know how I might subscribe to, say, all new top-posts by this columnist (or any logical subset of Tor.com top posts, really) in rss? I've tried repeatedly in the past, and the 'click on their name gets you mostly their comments' thing is interesting but not useful if what I want is primarily new top-posts.

Tor.com as a whole moves too fast and contains too small a ratio of "I must read this" posts for me to be able to keep up with it as a site, but I'd love to pull some of it into my rss aggregator to follow so I know when there are new things to my liking I can click through to.
Kara Rae Garland
93. strangefire
The book that immediately came to my mind was The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier because one of the main characters is a girl who wants to study to be a mage. She dresses as a boy and is accepted as male by her mentors and classmates. Of course, the mages know she is female, but they don't say anything about her cross-dressing. Not really escaping the gender binary, but skirting the line towards genderqueerdom maybe?

I'm looking forward to more pieces on this topic as it is near & dear to me.
Steve Berman
94. bt109
I don't see why proper representation of varying gender issues requires ending the default of binary gender in SF. If the default is not binary gender, what's the default? Is there a default? Someone help me out here, I'm not trying to troll: how does proper, respectful representation of variant and variable genders require ending the binary default? Why can't we have binary as the default while having a strong healthy minority representation?
Melissa Spray
96. meowwl
If we're also talking fantasy, I'd recommend Laurie J. Marks' Children of the Triad trilogy, published in the late 80s-early 90s. It starts with "Delan the Mislaid', then "The Moonbane Mage", and ends with "Ara's Field". One entire race of this series is hermaphroditic. I always wished there were more books, prequels and sequels, because it felt like there was more to the story!
Steve Berman
97. JCarlHenderson
One problem: Science Fiction and Fantasy has already been dealing with non-binary gender for nearly half a century. Do you plan a crusade for expanding the genre beyond rockets and rayguns next?
Steve Berman
100. X d
Or writers could focus on story and write a good book. I don't need sex in my SF to make it good. But then I guess because they didn't talk about this in Star Wars that makes it crap. Oh and Star Trek on squeaks by because they talk about this in one espouse of TGN. Give me story iver political agenda any day.
Steve Berman
101. Shadowhawk
James Alan Gardener wrote a book a number of years ago entitled Commitment Hour. In that book, the younger years of every person is spent alternating between male and female genders every year, until the age of majority when they are forced to choose which gender they will be for the remainder of life. It's a really amazing book, and might work well with what you are doing here.
T Neill
102. Anarra
@56. BDG "Also sexual orientation has next to nothing to do with how ones identifies their gender. Gay men still define themselves as men.”

I was going to ask a similar question based on some of the comments. Is this proposed series of articles focusing on *gender* or *sexual preference*? Because as BDG wrote, there’s a difference between, for example, the genetic hermaphrodites in Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and Dr Ethan Urquhart in her _Ethan of Athos_ who is not transgendered in any way but he is gay.

From the OP, it sounds to me as if Alex MacFarlane is more interested in exploring gender fluidity than sexual preference. Which I look forward to a lot.

@100. X d Or writers could focus on story and write a good book. I don't need sex in my SF to make it good. But then I guess because they didn't talk about this in Star Wars that makes it crap. Oh and Star Trek on squeaks by because they talk about this in one espouse of TGN. Give me story iver political agenda any day”

Writing about gender fluidity has as much to do with sex in SF as writing bout binary gender has to do with sex in SF. The writer has no more or less need to write about the bedroom in a story with gender fluid people as in a story with binary gendered people. Gender does not equal sexual activity.
Steve Berman
103. Gerry__Quinn
Binary gender:

0 = female
1 = male

00 = lesbian
01 = straight female
10 = straight male
11 = gay male

000 = ...
Eventually, everyone will be classified according to the binary system!
Jenny Kristine
104. jennygadget
If the default is not binary gender, what's the default? Is there a default?
None. and No.
how does proper, respectful representation of variant and variable genders require ending the binary default? Why can't we have binary as the default while having a strong healthy minority representation?
I'm not entirely sure how you are using "default" here. It does not mean "statistical majority" it means "assumed norm." It's really not a good idea to assume things about people, and doing so harms actual individuals and communities. It's not possible to have a "healthy minority representation" when one assumes a default, because the assumption itself is unhealthy. It prioritizes the "default" over everyone else, and furthers the lie that people who don't belong to the default are not the main characters in their own lives, so to speak.

And that's before we get into how often defaults are used to hide the fact that the default is not always the statistical majority in the first place.
Steve Berman
105. Xd
@102 Anarra No it's not. Your writing in most genras are for the story. Not agenda. Not to destroy a genra because of the new fad. If it is in the story and works, great! That is fine and dandy. If it fits the plot, or does not take away from the plot, awesome. But every SF book, story, show, movie does not need binary gender in it to make it good. As in Star Wars. Battlestar Galatica. So it is not important. A good story is.
Steve Berman
106. genrebending
I'm a little behind on my RSS feed reading, and just saw this. I'm quite excited about this column. I was just thinking about researching some sci-fi with non-binary gender, so this is great timing.
Steve Berman
107. Fake Person
I am really looking forward to this series. Thank you!
Steve Berman
108. Topher
I realize I've read most of the stories mentioned as a "hope you cover these", but didn't seem the one that came immediately to mind for me - the Wraethu from Storm Constantine. Though, perhaps that is what Alex hinted at....

(As a side-note would love the ability to get an RSS feed of everything in a particular column, or by a particular author)
Mark Mandel
109. thnidu
Trying to post this comment from my smartphone, I kept getting
500 : View not found
Let's hope it works from the laptop.

As I understand the post, and after reading the discussion here, the proposal is not really applicable to any single piece of writing. Are you* going to say "This story has only traditionally-gendered men and women and uses traditional pronouns, and it doesn't address issues of gender in any way, so it fails the test"? What then if the author replies (or could reply), "I'm not addressing gender issues here because that's not what this story's about and I didn't want to complicate it unnecessarily. To see how I deal with gender issues, see my stories X, Y, & Z, and BTW see also my stories ? & ?, in which several of the characters are non-binary with no more plot relevance than hair color or the number of letters in their names"?

No, ISTM that the status of the field in this regard can only be assessed in surveys of a number of stories, and can only be affected by individual authors considering the issue each time they write (I do not say "incorporating it in everything they write"), and editors making it known that this will regularly be a factor in their decisions.

* generic "you", not addressed to anyone in particular
Chris Meadows
112. Robotech_Master
As a reminder, the words "sex" and "gender" are often erroneously used interchangeably. "Sex" refers to the biological nature of our bodies, while "gender" refers to the societal roles we take on because of them.

Here's a fun look at what kind of genders the Transformers robots might realistically have (and they're not male and female).
Steve Berman
115. David L. Burkhead
Steve Berman
116. Robert Altoona

Where can I buy your published works?
Chris Meadows
118. Robotech_Master
@Robert: You can find a listing of Ms. MacFarlane's published works via Goodreads (they appear to be mainly short stories appearing in anthologies), and it's just a couple clicks through from there to find each book on Amazon or wherever.
Steve Berman
119. The Phantom
"I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories."

I'm sorry, but this is a theme done to death in Science fiction and fantasy as well since forever. Fantasy particularly is filled with heroines taking on male roles in magic or in battle, overturning the assumed cultural roles laid out for them by beating the boys at their own game. Even Tolkein did this in The Lord of the Rings with Eoin of Rohan.

In scifi there are many stories with men turning into women, women turning into men, women assuming men's roles etc. The entire Steampunk genre could be said to be in part a rebellion against the Victorian ideals of gender and class.

Surely you can come up with something more interesting.
Steve Berman
120. bt109
I'm not entirely sure how you are using "default" here. It does not mean "statistical majority" it means "assumed norm."
Good. We're using it the same way.
It's really not a good idea to assume things about people, and doing so harms actual individuals and communities.
It depends on what you are assuming, and how open you are to changing that assumption. If I assume that everyone is either male or female, and I'm shocked and doubtful when someone says otherwise, that's bad. But it's equally bad to withhold assumption in every case until I have collected all the evidence. If I meet Phil and Kelli, who approach as a couple and dress and act according to cisgender roles for male and female, respectively, can I not assume their gender based on these traditional means of communicating it? Can I not use a gendered pronoun to refer to Phil until he/she has personally confirmed his/her gender?
It's not possible to have a "healthy minority representation" when one assumes a default, because the assumption itself is unhealthy. It prioritizes the "default" over everyone else, and furthers the lie that people who don't belong to the default are not the main characters in their own lives, so to speak.
Now that's a leap. Default does not have to mean priority, nor does it have to mean centration. If you want a battlefield, THAT's what I'd recommend: keep the default, but lose the centration. That's why I recommended a healthy minority representation. If the majority of the books stick to the default, but a healthy minority give alternatives, that sounds like fodder for a good conversation.

But to say that the majority of SF books have to challenge the default sounds a lot like my meeting with Phil and Kelli where I can't use gendered pronouns. And that would destroy the genre.
Steve Berman
121. nick flandrey
Funny that the author thinks there isn't much SF that addresses this issue (if it's an issue.)

Scroll thru the comments, just about every other one is "oh I'm looking forward to this" and the next is a suggestion of a story or author who has already written good stories involving gender. Most of the authors mentioned are household names in SF, if you've been reading for more than a decade.

There are LOTS of stories that have non-binary gender. Many of them were written in the 20 years between Ursula's story and the author's birth. Even more of them were written during the author's first 10 years of life. Just because you are "hardly a child" doesn't mean you are familiar with the wide range of existing work. That you have 10 years of adult reading is hardly a qualification to throw over an entire existing genre.

I'll add a few more authors to the suggested list.

Pat Cadigan
Wilhelmina Baird
Melissa Scott

In short, there is already a large body of work within SF that explores the issue of gender. To postulate otherwise only exposes the shallowness of one's own experience.

Steve Berman
122. TheDeviantE
I haven't read all the comments, so someone else might have already suggested, but a book I seriously recommend for some interesting gender stuff (with a binary trans character) is Blue Magic, the sequel to Indigo Springs. An argument could be made for it being sci fi or fantasy. Truly loved the two of them.
Steve Berman
123. JJC
I have to admit I cringe when I see someone talking about this topic. I agree with the comment that there are many other issues that deserve representation in fiction.

For me, I am a person with an intersex condition, so not exactly a non-binary gendered person by any means, but I use it to relate. While I enjoyed the Left Hand of Darkness, that book along with others like it contributed to a lot of hardship in my life. I was told that being intersex is normal and I shouldn't think of anything being wrong with me. That is only partially correct. An person with an intersex condition is not an abnormal person. But that said, having an intersex condition can cause some parts of a body to go wrong and that requires medical attention.

Unfortunately, medical providers being taught that an intersex condition is normal, meant that I had a really hard time finding medical providers that could help me. Most just wanted to give me pills to treat symptoms when what I needed was surgery, actually it was a series of surgeries, to correct what had gone wrong in my body's development. But I still get told to often by supposed professionals that my condition is normal and that I shouldn't have needed the surgeries. I don't want to go back to the pain I was in before the surgeries.

I have concerns that the normalization of third and forth genders is just an excuses to not have to deal with the issues that people with gender issues have to face. And some of the issues we have to face are hurtful, but I wouldn't want that pain to be diminished by normalizing it.

I know not every person with an intersex condition agrees with me. Many feel the world needs to change to make a place for them where I think those of us with intersex conditions need to change to find our unique place in the world. To me, an intersex conditions makes for a unique individual with a unique journey to travel. I've talked to LGBQ people on both sides of the issue as well--some feel they can change to fit in a straight world where others feel the world needs to change to be less straight.

So I feel this is an issue that deserves discussion, but I have concerns that there is movement that defaults to normalizing the unique which diminishes the beauty of these individuals.
Steve Berman
124. Jim Hines
I've had several people point out that some comments were deleted. Is there an explanation as to why some of those comments got booted? I get that some were a clear violation of the Tor.com comment policy, but others are claiming that they were perfectly reasonable, and were deleted just for disagreeing.

Obviously, without having seen any of them, I have no way of knowing one way or the other. Is that something one of the Tor.com moderators could weigh in on?
Bridget McGovern
125. BMcGovern
Hello, Jim—of course we think that if people want to participate in a discussion of this topic in a civil, respectful way, then they should be free to do so, regardless of where they stand on the issue. My fellow moderators and I have been unpublishing comments that come across to us as if they are personally attacking the blogger or other commenters (or, in a few cases, the moderators), or that link to content that we consider to be inflammatory and/or hateful. In various cases, comments have been unpublished because they were simply trollish, insulting, and didn't even attempt to engage with the original post.

People who have had their comments unpublished are welcome to try posting again in a less inflammatory or aggressive manner, if they are in earnest about joining the discussion. We are trying to create and maintain a safe space in which all opinions are welcome, and I think our Moderation Policy is pretty clear on what the boundaries of this specific site are. I do think we may be more careful about weeding out aggressive comments and abusive language than other places on the internet might be—so the level of conversation may differ from what you might experience on other sites or forums, where anything goes—but there's nothing unfair about asking people to be civil. There are obviously comments published in this thread that question or disagree with the post—the ones that have been unpublished simply were not in keeping with our community standards (which, for the record, are here, although they've also been posted several times throughout the comment thread).
Steve Berman
126. Jim Hines
Thanks for the quick response!
Steve Berman
127. rick ryles
I was the individual who posted the link to a certain unmentionable author. I have reviewed your posting policy, which does not cover links, and it certainly does not get across that the content of any link must comply with Tor commenting guidelines. Being that a certain wildly successful author has responded to an article on Tor, a business that employs authors I'm told, shouldn't any non inflammatory comment including a link be taken in good faith?

It seems that many people are accusing Tor of overzealous moderation over this. Something that Tor itself states in its commenting policy as something to be avoided. Perhaps you can use this for internal review to reassess the commenting rules and moderation?
Bridget McGovern
128. BMcGovern
@127: As we see it, writing an article that attacks and belittles one of our bloggers and uses prejudiced and phobic language to mock our readers is the right of anyone who wants to respond in such a way, but I see no reason to link to it on this site when we consider the content to be abusive. We can certainly look into adding a line to that effect in our moderation policy.
Steve Berman
129. GenderNotaSpectrum
Taking the science out of science fiction. And you wonder why the genre is in the gutter.
Steve Berman
130. Lenora_Rose
JJC: I'm really sorry to hear that this is your experience, and I am glad the surgery did eventually take place.

(You don't specify whether the complications were physical or psychological, nor do you specify the surgery. And I respect your right to priovacy on these matters. Therefore some of the generalities I speak of below may not be relevant to your specific situation).

Fulfilling the idea that intersex is natural and okay for those who choose to stay that way should not be relevant to *your* health. It should definitely be a priority to heal the pain.

It seems to me that the concept of gender as a non-binary and that gender transition is a viable choice feels to me like it *should* help. (Not saying it does. But it should. IN a perfect and consistent and logical world. )

If a male-assigned-at-birth person can choose to declare herself actually female and get gender reassignment surgery, it seems to me to follow that a person born intersex can later be able to declare themselves a man or a woman and get the same surgery. Especially if it also helps additional physical complications which sometimes accompany.
Steve Berman
131. Grit
I am looking forward to this column as well. This post reminds me of Anita Sarkeesian who started a kickstarter to fund her project about Female Gender Tropes in video games. Just the kickstarter alone caused so much ruckus and hatred, it was simply disgusting and proved her point that online discussion of sexism and misogyny quickly results in a disproportinate display of sexism and misogyny. I read Larry Correia's article regarding your post here and Anita's statement holds quite true (in context of course) when you get to the comments. It is sad really that even today in our modern day and age certain groups feel so extremely threatened by people like you. You'd think that someone was pointing a gun to their head. It is ridiculous.
Steven Halter
132. stevenhalter
Speculative fiction should encourage speculation. What if? How? Why? Asking questions, probing at boundaries, examining the multiplicity of mysteries that make up the world are all things that our literature should embrace.
Don't be afraid. It's OK to like or not like something, but don't be afraid of it. After all, Fear is the mind-killer. Think about what that little litany means. Everyone is different. Learn about differences, explore the world and feel free to let everyone explore their world also. As you are exploring, it doesn't hurt at all to be friendly and civil.
Kenneth Sutton
133. kenneth
I encourage those who want to use the gender/sex distinction to encourage its use gently and with explanations, rather than by an absolutist statement that "gender means this and sex means that and you're wrong if you use them interchangeably" (as in @112). The disctinction is useful, in my opinion, but it is relatively recent as well as not being universally adapted. The wikipedia article provides a good place to start.

If there's some other introduction to the idea that is better, then by all means use it to educate.

But please, stop claiming that it is an error to use sex and gender interchangeably. Sex and gender are used interchangeably in ordinary speech. I believe the best way to change that is to educate rather than to scold.
Steve Berman
135. Marissa PS
I'm surprised there's no mention of Heinlein too. Well okay, I'm not surprised. This is Tor.
Katharine Duckett
137. Katharine
@Marissa PS: Comment deleted, as that link isn't relevant to the discussion at hand. Please focus on the content of the article and be respectful when commenting. Thanks.
Steve Berman
138. Kurenai
Alex, I heard about this introductory post through Foz Meadows' most recent blog post. (On the chance you haven't seen it yet:
http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/an-a-to-z-of-non-binary-genders/) I got the shivers and my heartrate immediately went up, both because I am so happy to see someone acknowlegding that people like me exist, and because I was so nervous to read the comments. (And thank you, Tor, for making that experience as not painful as it probably can be. Your strong policy on commenting and moderation is really, really appreciated.)

I am looking forward to this blog series more than I can easily express. I have been a fan of fantasy and SF since I was able to understand what a story is. But I have so rarely seen depictions of anyone whose gender is like mine (particularly when we're talking humans rather than aliens or fantastical species). I honestly think that the lack of trans* and non-binary people in the media I've consumed all my life is a big part of the reason why it took me until my early 30s to finally believe that I am allowed to be genderqueer. I've been aware of the term, and identified with it, since I was 20 or 21. But it's taken me a decade to feel like I'm allowed to start changing my gender expression and telling people that I do not identify as either male or female, and that there are people out there who will actually listen to and believe me when I say so. (I've had a very similar experience, incidentally, around identifying as asexual. I didn't know that was a viable orientation until I was 27, and finding out it existed has helped me understand and accept myself in a way I never could before.) I look forward to sharing this series as widely as I can, to help people understand me and other trans* people better. It really means so much to me to know that this is a thing that will happen, and a resource I can return to when I'm craving fiction that recognizes the binary isn't the be-all and end-all of gender.

To address a confusion some people seem to be running into: when we talk about non-binary gender, it doesn't usually mean someone who identifies as male or female, but doesn't act stereotypically masculine and feminine. "Non-binary" is generally used to refer to those who a) do not identify as either male or female (regardless of their biological sex), b) identify as both male and female (regardless of their biological sex), or c) identify their gender in any other way than strictly male or female (once again, regardless of their biological sex). I've found this site to be a helpful (though by no means exhaustive) primer on the idea -- I know it's very new to many people:

@ Kenneth in 133: I agree with you that it's generally best to come at these issues from a point of educating. But I disagree with you that we should not ask people to stop using "gender" and "sex" as synonyms. Unless those of us who feel our biological sex and gender do not match up stick our necks out and ask people to stop using the terms interchangeably, I honestly can't see how anyone will ever stop thinking in terms of "biological male = gendered male" and "biological female = gendered female". And if we and our allys don't ask, who will?
Kenneth Sutton
139. kenneth
@138 Kurenai I did not mean to suggest that people not be asked to change. I did say that I don't think it's "wrong" to use them interchangeably, because the practice is not yet widespread enough, or sufficiently understood, to expect everyone to make the distinction. It's really a rather elegant and useful distinction, but also very subtle if one has never thought about how many ways sex, gender, and sexuality can be combined and recombined. I think that educating rather than scolding is a better way to get people to change, and I've seen scolding in rather a lot of online discussions of the topic.
Paul Keelan
140. noblehunter
@139, I think the scolding tends to be in reaction to people who loudly insist that it's wrong to make a distinction between the two terms.
Kenneth Sutton
141. kenneth
@140 I hadn't thought of that, but I'll pay more attention. It does seem likely.
Michael Walton
142. tygervolant
@140: I understand your frustration at the confusion between terms, but I rather think that scolding would tend to make people defensive.

@138: Your post illustrates what I was saying about the insider's perspective; you clearly have insights into this issue that someone like me would never think of independently. I would love to see fiction on this subject written by someone with your viewpoint.
Steve Berman
143. J S Kuiken
This column is not only an exciting idea, but a necessary one in the contemporary SFF landscape, and the contemporary landscape of literature. I look forward to reading your subsequent columns!

I know you are a busy person, so I will understand if you don't respond to this. But I'm curious if doing away with gender binary-ism entirely does not, in some small way, avoid the challenges of confronting the problems of that binary.

Of course, by doing away with some of it, it does challenge the binary by imagining a world in which it does not exist. But in doing so, it also has the potential to imagine away some of the consequences of a binary gender system: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and many many other things.

I am a trans person, and trans writer, and part of what I feel compelled to write about is the issues of transphobia within Western culture. The consequences of transphobia are something worth addressing and even calling out in fiction, and so are the consequences of a binary gender system on how it hurts intersex folks, and even binary identified folks. So I'm curious if a post-binary gender literature in SFF necessarily has to be so-post binary that transphobia and certain consequences of binary gender would be non-existant? Or are there, to your mind, graduations to this, ie, "post-binary" SF(F) could easily be on a scale of "a future earth with less transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and the possibilities of more than two genders" all the way to "a universe in which these categories have never existed"?

I really don't want to presume, especially since you are writing a column and we get to read more on this topic. So probably you do think of it as being on a scale, rather than an either/or thing, per se, but I was just curious what you thought about these things.

And to be clear: I would LOVE to read about a world or universe in which binary gender and the consequences of that did not exist. But many of us SFF readers live in the present, and we lack the literature that could give us tools to deal with that present and the realities of a (very) binary world. Which is why I think it is important that we do deal with binary gender and its reality, even in a speculative framework, and even to challenge the ideas which support a binary gender system.
Steve Berman
144. gordsellar
@Stoicism (#75):

Greg Egan came to mind for me too. Distress, especially, with its characters who opt to be sexless (I forget the term used in the novel).

Diaspora, I suppose: they're all AIs, so sexuality's pretty divorced from biology.

But there's stuff about sexuality and embodiment and gender and social norms (and lots of funny stuff about the social norms and about the frailty of meaty bodies) in so much of Egan's work, including some of short stories.

I was particularly struck by some of the stuff in Schild's Ladder, actually: consent apparently gets hardwired into human bodies somewhere along the way, though I can't recall if he addresses whether this has wiped out all sexual violence or not. Human sex organs basically reconfigure, at will and running of chemically-transmitted signals, to match one's partner(s?) genitalia: people basically develop matching sets of sex organs that are as unique as their relationship. (So, like: it's not male-female, it's just two individuals who interface with, I guess you could say, a case-by-case spontaneously "proprietary" interface.)

(Note: I haven't gotten to the Orthogonal books yet, which apparently has all kinds of interesting stuff about the intersection of biology, gender, and power, albeit about nonhumans struggling with their own biology, sex, and culture.)
Steve Berman
145. jere7my
Some people seem to be reading this fairly modest proposal as more radical than I think it is. If I can attempt an analogy without putting words in Alex's mouth:

Once upon a time, "white" was the default in science fiction. (Some might say it still is, but that's a different discussion.) Despite the fact that the world at the time was filled with people of color, when people imagined the future the default assumption was that the characters would be white. Not everyone, and not every work, but that was the default assumption, and if you did something else people would likely say you were doing something different or daring or radical. Nyota Uhura was a big deal.

If someone had posted, on the hand-mimeographed blogs of the day, "I want an end to the default of white people in science fiction stories," would any of us, today, find anything the least bit objectionable there? I hazard that "white folks should be the default for science fiction" sounds outmoded and offensive to everyone here. It's not a suggestion that nobody should ever write about white people, or even that there shouldn't be lots of stories about white people; just that, given the existence of people of color in the world of yesterday, it's pretty foolish to imagine that they'd be so darn hard to find in the worlds of tomorrow.

Today, the world is filled with vocal and visible intersex, genderfluid, trans, agender, genderqueer, and pangender people. It's pretty foolish to imagine that they'll be hard to find in the worlds of tomorrow—and yet they are. When we do find them, the author is often marked as doing something different or daring or radical, because the default state of the future, in contrast to the actual state of the present, is dual-gender.

Suggesting that we should rethink that default is not radical or mean or weird. It's not a call to reject every cisboy-meets-cisgirl story anyone writes in the future, or burn every book that fails to include an intersex person. It is—and again, I hope I'm not putting words in Alex's mouth—just a call to look at the world around us and question why today's actual, observable, awesome reality is not reflected in our predicted tomorrows.
Michael Walton
146. tygervolant
@145: Well said, sir!

And if you ever decide to write a column about ending the "white" default in SFF, you've got at least one reader. :)
Steve Berman
147. Rick Ryles
@145 and @146
I take it the two of you have never read Heinlein, or Gibson, or Card? You know, nearly unrivaled pinnacles of the genre, who have had POC leads, POC ruled worlds, or many POC supporting character? If I am to understand it these individuals who are often imitated, who have set the default, only had white characters in their books with POC characters, right?

Well said, are you sure?
Steve Berman
148. livingtree2013
Yes, Rick, it was well said. The question is, was it well read? #145 quite clearly said "Once upon a time...", the translation of this is "it has changed since that time." I wonder if maybe you stopped reading as soon as you got to that sentence.

However, the point made by #146 and #145 is that in much of SF writing, alien cultures might be POC but for our home planet, it is still largely a white default, just the same as it is a straight default. Could be simply out of relatability to the intended reading audience, much in the same way that Jesus is depicted as whatever skin color the local folks are.

Probably the same reason why SF is so gender-normative.

Same reason why real estate developers always decorate in the blandest color scheme possible, and why music producers and media outlets always produce generic fodder - mass appeal is founded on relatability and accessibility.

By no means am I saying I think that is good, just that it is a fairly rational conclusion to come to when attempting to reach as large an audience as possible.

However, with SF the intention is usually larger than that. SF writers often have a subordinate purpose than merely indulging a fantasy, they often mean to present possibilities, to expand our notions of what is "normal"... thus, being gender- or race-normative is counter to that goal.

And for those commenters who are struggling with the premise of this article, Alex said one word that clears up what you're misunderstanding - "default". The default position is what keeps our creativity dampened. The message is less of a socio-political one than a psycho-social one. I doubt that any of us really want to be limited to what we already know as normal. Why would you read Sci-Fi if thats what you want? Default is status quo. Bo-ring!
Steve Berman
149. Rick Ryles
I cannot help but notice you skipped every question I asked but the last one. Forgive me if I assume you did not read the bulk of my post, which you have accused me of doing.
Steve Berman
150. jere7my
Rick@147, I would have thought that my reference to Uhura would have made it clear that the "once upon a time" I was referring to predated Gibson and Card, at least. When I said "not everyone, and not every work," Heinlein was one of the people on my mind.

But I meant what I said in my parenthetical—the discussion of white as the default in current science fiction is another discussion entirely, and one that is off-topic here. That's why I framed my comment as I did.
Morgan Dambergs
151. kurenai
@142: Yeah, I think there is a lot to be said for insider perspective, especially when it comes to writing about a topic that many people are unfamiliar with. Like you were discussing above, it's not a better viewpoint, but it will almost certainly contain insights that someone writing from an outside perspective wouldn't have. I'm an aspiring author, and I hope that maybe someday I can add a handful of stories to the world that include non-binary people. On the other hand, I also plan to include characters in those stories who are members of marginalized groups I do not at all belong to, so I would feel like a hypocrite if I didn't encourage cisgender authors to write trans* characters too! I think that's deeply important, if people like me are ever to be recognized as normative in our societies, rather than as odd and other. The more people who include us in their stories, the more normalized our identities become. (Still, though, I admit that I get a particular thrill when I find out that an author I like who writes trans* characters well is so good at that because they are trans* too. :)
Steve Berman
152. George Purcell
The call for a end to the gender binary in SF is directly opposite to the entire spirit of science fiction--that is, to speculate upon potential or alternative futures and in doing so enable us to understand our own time in a way we might not have considered. Certainly there is a space in which fiction that investigates how the current fractalization of sexual identity might impact the future. There is equally a space in which it plays no significant role in the story being told or even stories about how that trend of fractalization is reversed or ended through the development of new technologies or the evolution of different social structures. There is absolutely no reason to expect or presume that an author be bound by the particular vision a segment of the population has for the future.
Morgan Dambergs
153. kurenai
@152: The thing is, that's not what's being asked for. All that's really being asked for is that authors think about whether there's a good, story-serving reason for their characters to be cisgender, and if there is not, consider making that character trans*. To stop assuming that your characters are cisgender unless stated otherwise. I find it confusing that some people are so very averse to that idea.

"The call for a end to the gender binary in SF is directly opposite to
the entire spirit of science fiction--that is, to speculate upon
potential or alternative futures and in doing so enable us to understand
our own time in a way we might not have considered."

But how does your reverse call for upholding the gender binary do that better? To me, it seems like the less speculative and imaginative option. Given how many people I've encountered who've never heard the word "genderqueer" before, I have trouble comprehending how a call to be more inclusive of people like me can be considered limiting of the genre. If anything, I think it would expand and open minds, and thus help many people "understand own time in a way in a way might not have considered", simply by making them aware that non-binary people exist at all.
Steve Berman
154. Oligonicella
Write your story the way you want it written because someone, sometime, for some reason you didn't intend and wasn't really part of the story development in the first place, will accuse you of some bias that they project onto your work in some way. Every time. Ignore them, it's your story.
Morgan Dambergs
155. kurenai
@154: ...so you don't think someone could ever have a legitimate reason for pointing out bias in an author's work? Yikes. I think I'll stick with taking criticism on a case-by-case basis and deciding for myself when I think it's useful, thanks. Chances are, if someone says they have been hurt or felt marginalized by something I've written, I am going to highly value that feedback and use it to try to do better. In my experience, continuing to do things the same way regardless of feedback usually leads to worse writing, not better.
Steve Berman
156. jere7my
George@152, imagine it's 1950 and I just said the following:

"The call for a end to the overwhelming prevalence of whites in SF is directly opposite to the entire spirit of science fiction--that is, to speculate upon potential or alternative futures and in doing so enable us to understand our own time in a way we might not have considered. Certainly there is a space in which fiction that investigates how the current spectrum of races might impact the future. There is equally a space in which it plays no significant role in the story being told or even stories about how the existence of non-white races is reversed or ended through the development of new technologies or the evolution of different social structures. There is absolutely no reason to expect or presume that an author be bound by the particular vision a segment of the population has for the future."

I'd actually agree there's room for speculative fiction in which the concept of race has been abolished, or in which certain races have been all but eliminated (KSR's The Years of Rice and Salt, for instance), but 1) the default human state should not be white, and 2) 1950s-me comes across as kind of intolerant, doesn't he?
Steve Berman
157. Oligonicella
@156 I did not say that, you projected an extreme. I implied that even if you *do* let it modify your writing, someone else will take offense. It's a no win situation. Satisfy yourself in writing, not others.
Steve Berman
158. jere7my

Is your name George?
Morgan Dambergs
159. kurenai
@156: Personally, I refuse to let the fact that I will never be perfect stop me from trying to better myself and hurt others less. The fact that one might accidentally offend someone, and will never please everyone, isn't a good reason to avoid being more inclusive in one's writing. Ultimately, that just contributes to further erasure, and that helps no one.

@157: Ooh, very well put!
Steve Berman
160. vivid
i, for one, wish people would stop talking about the representation of people like me in media as an "agenda" and that people like me can't be represented in stories unless there's a "good reason" because it "complicates" things just because the default is binary gender.


- a young agender sci fi fan
Steve Berman
161. Gerry__Quinn
I don't quite understand how people can refer to themselves or others as "genderqueer" and still rail at the concept of default gender. The one depends on the other.
Steve Berman
162. vivid
@Gerry_Quinn: the fact that i dislike the default doesn't mean that i'm going to pretend that it is nonexistent and doesn't affect me and the way i see myself. it's something i want to change, but it's also something that's there. maybe in a world where binary wasn't the default i wouldn't have to call myself nonbinary. but that world doesn't exist.

just like people of colour can "rail at" white as the default while also referring to themselves as a person of colour, or queer people can be against heteronormativity but refer to themselves as queer.
Steve Berman
163. jere7my
Gerry@161: The same way someone can rail against the two-party system in the US and still describe themselves as supporting a "third-party candidate." Without the two-party system, there would be no concept of a "third-party candidate"; that doesn't mean the term is of no use to someone who would prefer, say, a parliamentary system with a bunch of smaller parties.
Steve Berman
164. Musereader
I want to point out that the James Tiptree jr Award is an award for books dealing with this topic since 1991 and there have been at least 3 anthologies produced by the award, the nomination lists for it would be a good place to mine for examples to go in this column. I agree with many comments saying it is already out there, but everything we can do to encourage more attention to this fiction so that authors are not limited by thier assumptions amd give these things more consideration is good.
Nicole LeBoeuf-Little
165. NicoleJLeBoeuf
I'm enjoying the book recommendation subthread here and taking notes. Thank you all! Has anyone mentioned Emma Bull's Bone Dance yet?

Also, if Tor.com had a +1 button, I would be pressing it so hard on vivid's post @160.
Michael Walton
166. tygervolant
"the fact that i dislike the default doesn't mean that i'm going to pretend that it is nonexistent and doesn't affect me and the way i see myself. it's something i want to change, but it's also something that's there."

Quite so. And acknowledging that the default is there is the first step toward changing it -- you can't get the elephant out of the living room until you admit that there is an elephant. Challenging the assumptions that lead to marginalization of the different is what this column is ultimately about, and we won't accomplish that without confronting those assumptions.
Robert Hood
167. RevBob
@166 Very true. Seems to me like this opening post really boils down to saying something like...

"Hey, you know how all the SF stories used to be about straight white men having adventures out there in space? Well, we've made progress towards removing all but one of those assumptions from the SF field. How about we work on removing that last assumption now?"

Okay, that's not a perfect statement; we're still pretty much assuming human protagonists by default. All the same, we've accepted non-whites doing not-necessarily-adventurous things on Earth while exhibiting different sexual preferences, and none of that has Destroyed Science Fiction. So now it's time to look at the concept of gender identification, which has several facets just in what we can observe on Earth.

Let's face it - nature is messy and downright hates strict dualism. Why not embrace that wide spectrum and use it as story material, rather than pretending it doesn't exist?
Alana Abbott
168. alanajoli
I'm not sure it exactly fits what you're looking for, but I hope you'll consider covering J. M. Frey's excellent 2011 novel Triptych. It does involve alien ideas about gender, but applied to humanity. I was dubious about it for about three pages, and then it hooked me so hard I couldn't put it down. Do give it a look if it's not already on your list!
Steve Berman
169. kirstenH
I believe you have mistakenly posted your request to end binary gender roles as the default on the "science fiction" forum. we here in Science Fiction have been writing a multitude of gender depsictions, roles, and even biological sex functions... for decades.
we do tend to default to the BIOLOGY of male and female, simply because the majority of our readers are familiar with it... but even that isnt alsways the case.

you must have intended to post this on the "romance" forum.... no... they dont use it anymore there very much either....
perhaps the YA forum?
Bridget McGovern
170. BMcGovern
@kirstenH: I understand that you're taking issue with the claim that the default still needs to be addressed in science fiction, but moving forward we moderators would appreciate it if you could voice your criticisms in a less combatative and dismissive manner, in keeping with our moderation policy. I'd also point out that we don't have separate discussion forums here on Tor.com, but that may be beside the point.
Clark Myers
171. ClarkEMyers
Would Arslan and Rainbow Man each by M.J. Engh be appropriate for mention?
Steve Berman
172. Kihe Blackeagle
As an author, and a reader, I reserve the right to write what I know, read what I enjoy, and not bow down to any arbitrary imposition of rules as to what I must OR cannot include in a tale being spun, or "must" be present in a tale to preserve credibility. If as an author I am creating a future of relatively whole cloth, I might for example have a cast-off line about non-reproductive pairings as having been abandoned in the past due to one thing or another, or I could as easily show by example that mated yet non-reproductive pairs exist for reasons other than procreation. HOWEVER it is purely up to the needs of the current story as to whether or not I will give space / attention to a non-binary sexualization of any character or aspect of the culture.

For the record, I have been described as a flaming heterosexual male. I revel in the description - I genuinely like and care for women as being different than myself. I've even been told that I write believable female characters. I've also been told and know from experience that I have practically no "gaydar" to speak of. Thus far, my non-hetero attempts at character creation have "lacked credibility" or otherwise been found regrettable.

SO it is my choice to write what works for ME and my style, just as it is MY choice to enjoy the works of those who are better able to present characters of different orientations, these "non-binaries". I'll keep pecking away at the other viewpoints and deeply-rooted orientations as time, interest, and the needs of my stories require. (Funny how seldom they require in-depth examination of viewpoints I have no particular empathy for.)
Morgan Dambergs
173. kurenai
@Kihe Blackeagle: Please note that people like me are not "non-binaries". We are people with non-binary gender identities. Please don't reduce us to a noun, as though that one aspect of our selves is all that matters, and all you need to know to write off everything else about us. It's hurtful.

Second, writing a trans* character is fundamentally not that different from writing any other characters. Because we are just people. We're people who have our identities erased on a regular basis, and that can make our lives more difficult. But at the end of the day, I go home and have supper with my partner, chill on the couch and watch TV, play with my cat, and a myriad things that any binary-gendered person might be caught doing too. To begin to write trans* characters (or even a character who is simply gay) effectively, all you have to do is take a normal character just like any of your others and have them mention something like, "By the way, I don't identify as male or female and I prefer to be called 'they'," or "By the way, I happen to be attracted to people of the same sex, not the opposite." (My wording is clunky, but you get the idea. It doesn't have to be big reveal, or a lynchpin of the story, or even the character. In fact, the charater's queer identity is probably most believable if it's one of many qualities that make them a complete person. Just like in real life.)

From there, it's just a matter of remembering, oh yeah, so-and-so is gay, so I should make sure if I write him being attracted to someone that they're also a man; or, so-and-so is non-binary, so I should remember that characters who know them call them "they". That's all it has to take to get started. Because we're just human beings, not that different than you. You don't have to study us in the wild

If you're able to move past your knee-jerk rejection of GSRM (gender, sexual and romantic minorities) as not being worth your time as a writer, you'll probably also find that reading up about our personal, individual experiences online can help inform any queer characters you write. As a writer, I've found that reading first-hand accounts by people from backgrounds different than my own is invaluable research for writing characters who come from those backgrounds. For example, I am extremely good at writing heterosexual and binary-gendered characters, despite being asexual and genderqueer, because I've read many real and fictional accounts of those kinds of identities in my life. You see?

Also, please note that no one is telling you that you must include
non-binary people in your story. We are simply asking that you consider why you default to writing binary-identified characters, and think about whether there is a necessary, story-serving reason for your characters to identify as binary male or female (and especially, as cisgender male or female). If there is not, consider making those characters trans*. That's all. No rules. No "musts". Just "please think". That's all.
Kihe Blackeagle
174. KiheBlackeagle

Alright already, I'm thinking! I'm thinking!

And, please please PLEASE believe me that I understand about story-serving characteristics (one of my own published credits was co-writing a "person of size", where size was core to the story and the character's responses to what happened / happened next).

I also have a main character established for a (probable) novel series whose physical characteristics weren't especially needed or approximated for the first 200k-words of story he appears in, and whose sexual orientation was not really a story element until somewhere around the 150k mark. (Yup, he's not only hetero-male, there are good reasons both in the story AND within "his" universe[s]for him to be so.)

Will there be reasons in revising this hero prior to general publication for him to display either component of his constitutional make-up sooner? Probably, but I'll worry about that when it comes time to write that part of his back-filled scenes.

Does he have non-hetero / non-binary-spectrum individuals he interacts with? Certainly. For the most part, those attitudes and elements aren't core to the story -- and including much beyond casual mention of their difference would be a distraction from the intended and currently desired core story. SO... I'll make as little or as much mention as the tale to be told needs. And I won't be especially put off if there needs to be more made of the matter for the overall needs of the whole story.

No GRSM knee-jerk here. Have very fine friends across a number of non-mainstream communities and non-binary backgrounds. I'll trust them to tell me whether or not I manage to make anything outside my immediate experience and orientations believable -- but I will also rely on said experience to guide my decisions, because I have already experimented with the concepts in the comfort and privacy of my own office, home, and mind.

The tenor or the original article I took as guidance to my earlier response. That, and the early responses both here and (I will admit) off-site. And the general tenor to that point was more on the order of "rules" and relatively hard-nose expectations. That led me to some of my phrasing along the way.
Michael Walton
175. tygervolant
While I'm all for challenging assumptions in the portrayal of gender identity in SF, I get what KiheBlackeagle is saying here. I myself have never tried to write a gay or trans character simply because I don't trust myself yet to do it in a manner that wouldn't be offensive. My intentions are good, but I still believe that my ignorance of that experience would lead to unfortunate implications (I still run into that problem when I write female characters, and I've spent much more time around women than I have around gays -- and I only know one trans person).

So, yes, let's challenge the assumptions by all means. But if a particular author isn't ready for or interested in going there, who are we to require it? That would be just as bad as forbidding an author from exploring those themes.
Morgan Dambergs
176. kurenai
@KiheBlackeagle: If your response was to the tone of the article, I feel the need to mention that, for me, as an genderqueer person, having someone like Alex stand up and state vehemently that the *default* needs to change -- i.e., that people need to think before assuming their protagonists are cisgender rather than trans*, not that you MUST write non-binary characters -- has more importance to me than I can easily find words for. Most people I meet in my day-to-day life have no idea that non-binary identities exist. I go through life being misgendered as female literally daily, and it causes me significant gender dysphoria. But so far, it's too difficult to try to explain to everyone who calls me "she" that I'm not female but not male either; and with strangers, I have to always be aware that it might not even be safe. So I'm stuck being seen as something I'm not. Having greater exposure of trans* and non-binary characters in books could potentially go a long way towards changing that. So it's hard for me to stand by and listen to someone defend the status quo just because they happen to be part of that status quo and find it more comfortable. Especially since we're really not asking that much.

Before you post on a thread that's about trying to bolster the exposure of and inclusion of a marginalized group in SF&F, please consider that saying things like "Funny how seldom they require in-depth examination of viewpoints I have no particular empathy for" is very difficult for the people who actually belong to that marginalized group to reconcile with "but I have non-binary friends, therefore I am an ally!" (To me, I'm sorry, but that just sounds like a rehash of the old "But I have a gay friend, so I can't possibly have be homophobic in any way!" argument. Maybe not you're intentionally and consciously prejudiced -- but you're definitely showing your privilege here. You can choose not to write about people like me. I didn't know people like me existed until I was 21, so I didn't have any choice for the first 13 or so years of my life. Again, more exposure for trans* identities could do a lot to change that for the next generation, and that is very important to me.

Also, while you say you're not having a knee-jerk reaction, I find it hard to read that final line about empathy any other way. May I ask, what were you trying to say with that? Because it does come across to me like a writing off of me and everyone like me, and saying that you have no empathy for our desire to be included in stories as more than freaks, aliens or background characters (who are often little more than stereotypes). Even if that wasn't how you meant it, there are very probably people who are going to come on here and read that and agree with you ("Yeah, this IS bull and their viewpoint IS stupid! I'm not going to bother examining this any further either."), and if/when that does happen, it's going to make life for people like me even harder. Ultimately, this has the potential to effect my actual, real life, not just my life as a storyteller. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but from what you've said, I don't think this conversation has nearly that much power and meaning for you. So I would really appreciate it if you could think before you write something like that on a thread like this, especially if you do consider yourself an trans* ally.

Ultimately, it is completely up to you whether you include non-binary characters in positions of prominence in your stories or not. No one can control what you choose to write. But writing a comment that discounts the idea of changing the cisgender default assumption in SF&F because you didn't like tone of the original blog post? Sorry, but my life being what it is, that's really hard for me to stomach. It's hard enough arguing with the people who want to erase non-binary identities as non-existent 'cause biology! and all that bull. That last thing we need is an ally writing in to agree that yes, their own comfort as a cis person is, in fact, more important that our identities being normalized for the rest of the world.

@tygervolant: Again, no one is talking about requirements. Just asking people to reconsider their assumptions about what gender is, and therefore what genders their characters can be. As I mentioned in my reply to KiheBlackeagle above, I had no choice for most of my life when it came to writing binary-gendered characters, because I didn't know until my early 20s that there was any other option than male or female in real life, much less in fiction. I don't think it's such a stretch to ask you guys to do a little reading to find out what our lives are like so you can write people like us in ways that aren't offensive. I understand the fear of getting it wrong. But if your intentions are good, I honestly feel that it is more problematic to not even try.
Katharine Duckett
180. Katharine
@179 Comment deleted. Please tone down the rhetoric, and adhere to our moderation policy. Thank you.
Steve Berman
181. Kiloseven
May I suggest THEIR MAJESTY'S BUCKETEERS by L. Neil Smith, for a heavily-armed Libertarian perspective on a race with trinary gender?
Steve Berman
182. Malcolm Hume
Give me a break. 'Western'? By this you mean, 'Global'? Only in the horrible west with our backward gender ideas based on, well, you know, parts, do people have the freedom to bend gender in fiction and in life. Everywhere else, you get arrested.
Steve Berman
183. grendelkhan
Speaking of Greg Egan, I'd also suggest "Oceanic"; the inhabitants have a binary concept of gender, but the underlying physical substrate is quite different.
Jeremy Szal
186. RavenReaper
@23 goblinbox

Yep, couldn’t agree more. Just because the OP wants an end to this plague that we call “binary genders” in science fiction, it doesn’t mean we all suddenly suddenly have to follow the same lead. I’m perfectly happy picking up a novel and reading about a cis-gendered female or male (shocking, I know). Maybe I want a story that doesn’t focus on gender and sexuality (because I’m seriously not interested). Maybe I want a classic story, or just something that…ya know…doesn’t focus on this topic. If your preference is otherwise: that’s truly well and fine.

But please: don’t tell me what I can and cannot be reading just because you feel that it’s wrong. And what, pray tell, is wrong about cis-gendered characters? No one speaks for an entire fanbase, and that includes me, everything in this thread, and the OP. So saying that you want an end to binary genders, you’re attempting to speak for the millions of people who read SF, which is something that you cannot do. Maybe I'm weird, but I don't need sex, sexuality and themes of gender to make a book good. I just want a good book, end of story.

And plus, not every story needs to tackle these themes. You want diversity? Then let’s have many stories that discuss many themes, uses many tropes, and hold a variety of topics, locations, planets, technologies, what have you. I'm all for it. Read what you want. But you’re saying that you just want one of these topics, which I have a very big problem with. So much for diversity.
Sorry, not happening.

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