This summer we’ve been hosting a series of interviews with contributors to the anthology, Invisible, edited by Jim C. Hines. Hines was inspired to put the anthology together when he saw the heated response that Alex Dally MacFarlane received when she posted an essay on Tor.com calling for “an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories”. Thanks to Alex for this fascinating interview about non-binary gender and fiction!
1. Jim C. Hines said that your essay, “Post-Binary Gender In SF: Introduction”, and the responses the essay got, inspired him to invite people to share their own experiences with representation on his blog. Since then, you have written several other pieces for Tor.com about non-binary gender. Have you noticed any difference in the tone of the comments? Do you feel like some people are starting to understand your message better?
Most of my subsequent posts have been post-binary reviews of particular books, which haven’t drawn many comments. My non-review posts have received more. They’re… mixed. I’ve had some incredibly valuable comments, whether from specialists (eg: linguist Rose Lemberg commenting about “closed cases” and other issues on my post about adapting to non-binary pronouns) or fans/writers who are interested in the subject. I know the column has reached other non-binary SF fans and I know some binary-gendered SF fans are finding it interesting and informative, because they’ve told me. I care a lot more about that than the opinions of certain bigots and other people who won’t change (and who, yes, still leave comments on my posts, some of which the Tor.com moderators have needed to remove).
2. What does non-binary gender mean to you? Are there any websites you recommend for people who want to learn more or get support?
Well, I’m non-binary (my gender is best described as “it’s complicated”). I’ve found the best website is Twitter: the sheer quantity of marginalised people talking about their lives, experiences and all sorts of subjects is incredible. There’s a lot to be learnt by listening to people’s lived experiences, particularly lots of people, because everyone experiences their gender differently and it’s important to understand that there’s no one way to be non-binary. (But remember: these are people, not textbooks and not quiz machines.)
3. Are there any books that you think do an excellent job of not defaulting to binary gender?
Hmm! No. Not that I’ve read.
There are books that I’ve enjoyed, but… I like Maureen F. McHugh’s Mission Child a lot, but the protagonist is the only non-binary person in a story that spans multiple cultures and locations. The world’s default is definitely binary. I found Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man fascinating — one of its cultures defaults to five genders — but it reinforces the five genders in exactly the same harmful ways that we reinforce our two, so it does and it doesn’t fulfil your question’s criteria. Potentially there’s Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, but it uses a binary pronoun to refer to people across cultures that mostly seem to recognise two genders (and it seems the Raadch recognises two but doesn’t care to differentiate in language, which is different to a non-binary default). I’ve had much better luck finding short stories that don’t default to binary, some of which are discussed in the next answer…
4. You edited an anthology called “Aliens: Recent Encounters”. Does writing about aliens seem to make authors more comfortable with presenting a variety of gender identifications, body types, and skin tones? How is writing about aliens potentially freeing, and how is it problematic?
I think it’s absurd to write aliens with the same sex and gender set-up as humans (which itself is a simplifying statement: humans do not have binary sex or binary gender, nor do all human cultures construct gender in the same ways), unless the aliens are of the panspermia, closely-related-to-us variety. I welcome science fiction where the aliens are different to us in this regard. The only problem is that writers almost always write the humans as binary in sex and gender: this is sometimes set up as a specific contrast. How strange, that more than two genders exist! etc.
I have enjoyed some stories with non-binary aliens and binary humans, but it’s where this contrast is not very pronounced, such as Catherynne M. Valente’s “Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy”, where the aliens are multi-gendered (but this is not subject to remark). Then there’s Nancy Kress’ “My Mother, Dancing”, where humans encounter alien life for the first time — humans who all use a non-binary pronoun, hirs. Ditching the humans entirely is Eleanor Arnason’s “Knapsack Poems”, an interesting story, though the three sexes of her aliens are unfortunately gender essentialist by contemporary Western cultural norms. All three stories are reprinted in Aliens: Recent Encounters.
Meanwhile Ken Liu’s “The Shape of Thought” has humans hundreds of years in the future stymied by the non-binary pronouns used for the aliens they live with: zie/zir are compared to a pebbles obstructing the smooth flow of language. I am rarely so swiftly Othered!
I would like to see stories about aliens and gender, but not where the aliens’ non-binary gender system(s) contrasts a false binary in the humans. Multiple gender systems and aliens/humans who stand outside their cultural norms would be a bonus! Gender isn’t binary; it also isn’t tidy.
5. What draws you to science fiction and fantasy?
I’m drawn to fiction I enjoy in all genres, whether realist or non-realist. I tend to prefer the latter, though, because I like outer space and surreal cities and so on, which all occur more often in non-realist fiction. From a post-binary perspective, I like the potential of science fiction and fantasy to thoroughly deconstruct the binary — or scrap it entirely. I wish they’d actually do it more! Non-binary gender system(s) as a norm is still so rare.