Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Mission Child by Maureen F. McHugh

I want to begin the discussion of texts with a recommendation. At several conventions last year, I pointed to Mission Child by Maureen F. McHugh (Avon, 1998; Orbit, 1999) as the only good science fiction book about non-binary gender I had found. It remains my favourite.

The narrative focus of Mission Child is one person’s life: a very real life, one of reaction to major events and trying to find a path to survival and satisfaction. Janna lives on a world long ago settled and then forgotten by Earth, until recently. The return of people from Earth causes problems for the various inhabitants of the world. For Janna’s people, reindeer herders in the planet’s arctic region, it causes an influx of weapons that leads to violence, war and displacement. The hardships Janna faces—while surrounded by conflict, while fleeing it across a brutal winter landscape, while living in a refugee camp, while living as an immigrant in a city—are told very matter-of-factly, which gives the book a very personal intensity. The narrative is of a person experiencing events, without the grand over-arching direction of fiction.

This means that, true to many people’s lives, Janna does not arrive at a realisation about gender in a single moment.

At first, not being a woman is accidental: starved and wearing men’s clothes, Janna is identified by other people as a young man: “My mind was empty. I realized now while she was talking that she had meant me when she said ‘he’ to her husband, but now I didn’t know if I should correct her or not.” (pp96-97) On arrival at the refugee camp, Janna then gives the name Jan—a male name—and hides the signs that would reveal what is referred to as “my disguise” (p99). This is partly for survival as person without kin and partly to set Janna’s traumatic experiences in the past and partly because the identity comes to sit more comfortably on Jan than being a woman: “I felt strange to be talking about being a woman. I realized that I didn’t feel very much like a woman. I didn’t think it would be very smart to say that to him.” (p130)

Jan continues to prefer passing as a man when moving to a city to find work, until a medical examination, at which Jan fears being fired for lying—but finds a far more open attitude to gender. A doctor kindly and patiently presents the very confused Jan with the three choices of remaining as-is, taking hormones via an implant, or having surgery. Although the doctor speaks in terms of only male or female gender identities, he accepts without any fuss Jan’s disagreement with his suggested interpretation of Jan’s identity. He gives Jan space to explore and understand individual gender—a casual acceptance that is immensely refreshing.

This leads, years later, to Jan’s dissatisfaction with both gender identities: “Why were there only two choices, man and woman? ‘I am not man or woman,’ I said, ‘just Jan.’” (p356)

What I most like about Mission Child is that its intensely personal focus means that it doesn’t feel like a grand statement about non-binary gender. Jan’s gender is personal, a developing experience throughout the book, amid many other experiences. Jan’s whole life feels very real.

The book has weaknesses. It’s notable that Jan seems to be the only non-binary person in Mission Child, whose ambiguously-perceived gender is often met with questions and confusion (although this leads to acceptance, not violence). Given how many places and cultures Jan’s life leads to, this is a little strange. There’s also a surprising amount of sexism, specifically around gender roles and sex, which feels out of place for how far in the future this must be. These issues suggest a book a little too rooted in its author’s contemporary reality.

But, for me, its strengths make it stand out.

What Mission Child says about individual experience and the problems of inhabiting new planets is missing from a lot of science fiction works. What it says about one person’s experience of gender is quietly powerful and vital. It is just one point in the large constellation of gender experiences: a perfect place for a book to be.

It saddens me immensely that Mission Child has fallen out of print. I hope to see it in print again one day, but in the meantime it’s available from various second-hand sellers and I heartily recommend finding a copy.

Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian living along the Thames estuary. Her science fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, The Other Half of the Sky and Stone Telling. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (forthcoming in late 2014).


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