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Alex Dally MacFarlane

Post-Binary Gender in SF: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The reality of gender as a tension between socio-cultural constructs and personal identity is rarely as apparent in fiction as it is in The Mirror Empire. In Kameron Hurley’s epic fantasy, the three plot-central countries each have a different gender system: five genders in Dhai, three genders in Saiduan, two genders in Dorinah.

In their differing strengths and flaws—in their multiplicity—they open up the possibility of a rich conversation about gender.

[There is a difficult balance to tread between explanation, elision and normalisation of gender.]

Post-Binary Gender in SF: What Gender is an Alien? What Gender is a Human?

I’ve been asked a few times, in general or in reference to specific books: what do I think of the depiction of non-binary gender systems in aliens? Though I’ve mentioned it in passing at least once, I realised I’ve never given the question—and its answer—a post of its own.

Alien life—is it out there? what will it look like? what will meeting it be like?—lies at the heart of not only science fiction but the popular imagination, whether in farmer-abducting flying saucers or the real possibility of microbial life in our solar system. I find it fascinating. I edited Aliens: Recent Encounters out of that fascination. In fiction, alien life is a very revealing subject-matter: what is the author capable of imagining beyond the confines of human (and wider Earth) biology and cultures?

[The problem is that the “confines” of human cultures are too tightly written.]

Post-Binary Gender in SF: “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by K.N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin” by Raphael Carter

Short fiction is—and has been for decades—a place for writers to experiment, express themselves, push the boundaries of genre and contemporary ideas. Not too dissimilar to novels, then. Gender has not fared poorly in this field, with short fiction examining the idea of the binary and what could lie beyond it.

At the forefront of consciously boundary-pushing work is the 1998 short story and Tiptree Award winner “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by K.N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin” by Raphael Carter (published in Starlight 2, ed. Patrick Nielsen Hayden; reprinted in The James Tiptree Award Anthology 2, ed. Fowler et al), a fictional academic article about a phenomenon observed in a small number of individuals: the apparent inability to correctly perceive gender. Instead, their inability is to discern concepts as non-specific as “male” and “female.”Gideon Smith amazon buy link

[In this moment, the default falls away.]

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

This book is beautiful. I could sink into its words.

“I cannot think of the double curve lithe and flowing with movement as a bony ridge, I think of it as the musical instrument that bears the same root. Clavis. Key. Clavichord. The first stringed instrument with a keyboard. Your clavicle is both keyboard and key. If I push my fingers into the recesses behind the bone I find you like a soft shell crab. I find the openings between the springs of muscle where I can press myself into the chords of your neck. The bone runs in perfect scale from sternum to scapula. It feels lathe-turned. Why should a bone be balletic?”

Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body returns to a question raised in a previous post: what does it mean to leave a character’s gender unknown?

[The narrator could be either gender. The question is: could the narrator be neither?]

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

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

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

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

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany

First published in 1984, Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand is one of the older science fiction novels to present a gender system different to those on Earth—although it’s more accurate to call it a pronoun system. Gender is unchanged. The system is explained early on:

“…‘she’ is the pronoun for all sentient individuals of whatever species who have achieved the legal status of ‘woman’. The ancient, dimorphic form ‘he’, once used exclusively for the genderal indication of males (cf. the archaic term man, pl. men), for more than a hundred-twenty years now, has been reserved for the general sexual object of ‘she’, during the period of excitation, regardless of the gender of the woman speaking or the gender of the woman referred to.”

Which is to say: everyone is referred to by female pronouns—unless the speaker wants to have sex with the person they are referring to, in which case the pronoun shifts to ‘he’. It is in the specific association between sex and male pronouns, however, that I started to suspect the book’s concerns: it isn’t really a book about gender at all!

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Series: Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Ice Song by Kirsten Imani Kasai

There are ways in which reading Ice Song by Kirsten Imani Kasai made me think of The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt: the book’s deep rooting of gender in the binary, and the frustration I felt at its inability to see beyond that. The Blazing World is, however, a thought-provoking book inhabiting the tense space between contemporary binary gender sexism and the possibility of greater gender complexity.

Ice Song is not.

[It really, really is not.]

Series: Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: ExcitoTech and Non-Binary Pronouns

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.

[We—you—need to learn better.]

Series: Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF Roundtable: Languages of Gender

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

[When writing and reading the future in science fiction, I find it difficult not to think about gender and language. How will languages change in the decades and centuries to come?]

Series: Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I recently read The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, a science fiction novel published in 1666, re-issued in a Penguin edition edited by Kate Lilley. Lilley’s introduction describes Cavendish as a striking figure in her time, a woman who sought publication and fame in her own name, who “represented herself as figuratively hermaphrodite” in combining masculine and feminine elements of dress, who was first thought to not be the true author of her works and later expressed frustration at not receiving the acclaim for her work that she wanted. Harriet Burden describes her as “a beardless astonishment, a confusion of roles”: a fitting inspiration for her final work, titled The Blazing World, which gives its title to the entire novel about her.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt is about art, women and men, and what happens when those supposedly separate genders are not so separate.

[It’s a troubling book. It troubles.]

Series: Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Writing Without Revealing Gender

This week I’d like to consider (and offer up for discussion) a narrative device that I’ve read in several stories and heard in discussions about writing gender beyond the binary: not using any pronouns for a character. Not revealing their gender.

Usually this is achieved by a story being written in first person, from the character’s perspective. Other characters won’t use pronouns or other gender markers when referring to them. No one in the story will question their gender, but no one will state it.

[I like and dislike this.]

Series: Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Shadow Man by Melissa Scott

In the future of Shadow Man (Tor: 1995, currently Lethe Press), a drug taken to survive FTL travel has increased intersex births and led to the widespread recognition of five body types among the Concord worlds: five sexes, called fem, herm, man, mem and woman. Each has a different set of pronouns. On the world Hara, cut off from the other worlds shortly after settlement and recently reunited with the Concord worlds, the old two-gender system remains in place despite the variety in body type. Pressure for social change on Hara is inevitable.

It’s an interesting set-up for a story. Shadow Man focuses on two people: Warreven, a Hara herm living as a man who works as a legal representative for people involved or indicted in “trade” (sex work); and Tatian, a Concord man who represents the business interests of a pharmaceutical company. Their paths cross as one of Tatian’s employees intends to testify in a case that Warreven hopes will call the gender law of Hara into question.

[It’s especially interesting, to me, to read a book where five is the default instead of two.]

Series: Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Poetry’s Potential for Voice

What I love most about poetry is its potential for voice: when I’m reading my favourite poetry, it feels like I’m being spoken to. The brevity of most poetry brings that voice to precision, “a way to whittle down to this direct voice, to make it the only thing—to amplify it by way of having nothing else around it.” (Quoting myself.)

This isn’t the only way to read poetry—there is no ‘one’ way. Amal El-Mohtar wrote about how to read poetry on this site last year, stressing the many possible approaches. An English Literature degree is one. Another, prisoners in Lebanon listening to her grandfather’s spoken poetry to survive. Poetry is many-faceted, many voices speaking in many ways. It can intersect with speculative fiction—I really recommend a conversation between Lavie Tidhar and Shimon Adaf in Strange Horizons on this subject. I know a lot of people are wary of poetry, but it’s this easy: if you read a poem and find something—a turn of phrase, an idea, a voice that hooks on your ear—you’ve gained something from it. Poetry isn’t for everyone, of course, but it’s varied and more vast than many people know.

[It’s a place for post-binary voices to speak in other ways.]

Series: Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: The Cage of Zeus by Sayuri Ueda

The Cage of Zeus by Sayuri Ueda gives us a not-too-distant future of human exploration and habitation of our solar system, where an experimental project in the Jupiter System has engineered the Rounds: humans with ‘both’ sex organs whose gender is neither male nor female.

The reasoning for this is given early:

“To resolve the issues raised by gender differences… We’re incapable of eliminating the conflicts stemming from the differences in the sexes. And that’s only natural. Our physiology is different. So are our hormonal cycles. There’s no way to understand the other completely… But now as we’ve left the tiny confines of the solar system and are attempting to embark on a journey into the dark expanse, we can’t afford to quibble over such trifling matters. Which is why we should dispense with the problems that can be resolved by reinventing the body. A society where we are all equals, where only individual differences exist.”

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Series: Post-Binary Gender in SF

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I enjoyed Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit: 2013) a lot. It’s such fun. A spaceship AI with human bodies that it uses to sing! Fragmentation of many-bodied entities! A culture with a non-gendered norm!

That last is both a strength and a place where it stumbles.

Ancillary Justice is not about gender, which is a strength: it normalises non-gendered people and doesn’t present a narrative in which they are exceptional, strange or a source of curiosity. It also means this post doesn’t spoil the plot in the slightest.

[The book opens on the planet Nilt, where gender is binary.]

Series: Post-Binary Gender in SF

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