Last week I was interviewed with Tori Truslow at a meeting of the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), where we discussed many topics, including post-binary gender. Towards the end, an audience member asked (and I paraphrase): “How can non-binary gender be written with pronouns that aren’t clunky?” A month or two ago, I was in a conversation about non-binary pronouns on Twitter, when an author talked about the prosody of pronouns and the danger of jolting readers out of the text.
I want to talk about this.
The problem is, of course, unfamiliarity. In English, we’re used to two gender pronouns. We’re used to two genders, until we learn better. Non-binary gender and pronouns are unfamiliar to many people. The problem is culture(s)-wide, not individual—but only individuals can change a culture-wide problem.
We—you—need to learn better.
You need to learn not to be jolted out of the text by singular “they” as a personal pronoun (and its usage in sentences: “they are”/“they is,” etc). You need to learn familiarity with Spivak pronouns. You need to accept that there are more English-language pronouns than “she” and “he,” whether or not you’ve encountered them before. There are a lot. Wikipedia provides a useful introduction.
Non-binary gender exists—it is not new, it is not confined to people in one cultural or linguistic group. Non-binary pronouns are in use by real people. The future, whether it incorporates non-binary gender(s) or goes beyond the binary—and it will do one, or both, of these things, in reflection of the reality of non-binary gender—will see shifts in language. It is absurd for science fiction not to reflect this. It is especially absurd in a genre used to language invented for the story.
I don’t intend to draw a direct equivalence between race and non-binary/post-binary gender in SFF, but I do think it’s useful to consider Junot Diáz’s excellent statement, that:
“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”
Science fiction and fantasy are full of words invented for the story—whether conlangs, words for technological advancements that don’t currently exist, words for magic—and these are accepted by almost all readers as long as context or an explanation makes their meaning clear. Readers expect a certain amount of unfamiliar language. Put non-binary pronouns in, pronouns that are real and used by real people, and suddenly it’s clunky.
I know, I know: not everyone likes all of the invented words in SFF. Tech-related vocabulary has a tendency to swiftly fall out of date. Not every conlanger has a sound grasp of linguistics.
You might not like the Elvish, but Spanish is a real language spoken by real people. They’re not the same.
You might not like the “iBrains” and “ExcitoTech” and badly-devised alien conlang, but singular “they” and Spivak pronouns and even invented-for-the-story pronouns express gender(s) that exist in reality. They’re not the same.
SFF is about invention and change, yes, but it is rooted in the real: in people. It ought to reflect that better. Conlangs are fun, but not if readers reject real languages. ExcitoTech is fun, but not if readers reject the words used to describe people of real genders. Having fun at the expense—the exclusion—of real people is not actually fun. Here’s a radical idea: we can have ExcitoTech AND non-binary pronouns. All we have to do is learn to read “invented” pronouns as the real words they are.
If non-binary pronouns don’t “flow” in the prose, that’s a problem with the readers, not the writer—with cultures where non-binary pronouns are not yet normalised.
The readers—we—you—need to get used to non-binary pronouns, because it’s the only way to the future.
Getting Used To Non-Binary Pronouns: A Starter Kit
In the interest of normalising the usage of non-binary pronouns in SFF, I’d like to point readers to several examples of writing that uses non-binary pronouns: a starter kit, if you will. This is not a definitive list, just 4 examples of writing with 4 different pronouns that I had to hand.
1) Melissa Scott, Shadow Man (1995)
“The Old Dame—Lolya Masani, ðe owns the company—doesn’t approve,” Reiss said. “Partly it’s ðe doesn’t want us getting in bad with either Customs or IDCA—there’s some stuff, semi-recreational, that we export that’s strictly controlled in the Concord, and Customs could make life very hard for us if they wanted—and partly ðe doesn’t like the idea.” He grinned suddenly. “ðe’s got this tape ðe gives to every newcomer, where ðe lays down the law to them. No new drugs unless ðe clears them, and absolutely no trade. ðe’ll fire anyone who sells a permit or a residency. And ðe’s done it, too.”
2) Nancy Kress, “My Mother, Dancing” in Asimov’s Science Fiction (2000) (reprinted in Aliens: Recent Encounters)
“But... oh! Listen. Did they just say—”
Hirs turned slowly toward the holocube.
Harrah said at the same moment, through hirs tears, “They stopped dancing.”
Cal said, “Repeat that,” remembered hirself, and moved into the transmission field, replacing Harrah. “Repeat that, please, Seeding 140. Repeat your last transmission.”
3) Benjanun Sriduangkaew, “Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade” in Clarkesworld Magazine (2013)
“Why am I required? It is no trouble to flatten Tiansong.”
Isren has knelt so they are level; they have a trick of arranging their bearing and their limbs so that the difference in height doesn’t intimidate. “A bloodless solution is sought.”
“There are other Tiansong personnel in active service.”
When Isren smiles there’s something of the flirt in the bend of their mouth. “None so brilliant as you. Xinjia of Pale Cascade is a labyrinthine opponent. She has brought awareness of the public sync to her world and had the opportunity to spread the idea before we imposed embargo. She boasts… disconnect. In essence she’s become an infection.”
“Has she achieved it? Disconnect?”
4) Seth Dickinson, “Sekhmet Hunts the Dying Gnosis: A Computation” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (2014)
And Sekhmet wants to tell Coeus that this myth of algorithms ze offered to her was the best and closest to the truth, for it is a wonder to her to be named so well by something so small.
“We failed,” Coeus whispers. “The singularity stumbled before takeoff. We cannot find an end to your hunt, a way to set you at peace. The failure may run deep, into the very algorithms... we cannot calculate the way forward. I came to plead—”
“Set offers sterile fruit,” rumbles Sekhmet. “He failed you. I am the way. I compute the future of all life and matter and time.”
“We had found a way between you,” Coeus insists, struggling as if by formality in her grip, aware, perhaps, of what awaits. Always aware. “If only the algorithms could be reconciled. If only the hunt could end.”
Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian. Her science fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Clarkesworld, Interfictions Online, Gigantic Worlds, Solaris Rising 3 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2014. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (forthcoming in late 2014).