This was sent to me on Facebook the other day. I made some comments there, but then I got to thinking about it and decided this thing was such a good example of how modern sci-fi publishing has its head stuck up its ass that it really deserved its own blog post. My response is really directed toward the aspiring writers in the crowd who want to make a living as writers, but really it works for anybody who likes to read, or who is just tired of angsty emo bullshit.
First off, just here is the original blog post. http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/01/post-binary-gender-in-sf-introduction?utm_source=exacttarget&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_term=tordotcom&utm_content=-na_continuereading_blogpost&utm_campaign=tordotcombookcoverage
Okay, aspiring author types, you will see lots of things like this, and part of you may think you need to incorporate these helpful suggestions into your work. After all, this is on Tor.com so it must be legit. Just don’t. When you write with the goal of checking off boxes, it is usually crap. This article is great advice for writers who want to win awards but never actually be read by anyone.
Now do yourself a favor and read the comments… I’ll wait… Yeah… You know how when my Sad Puppies posts talk about the “typical WorldCon voter”? Those comments are a good snapshot of one subtype right there.
I also know from that Facebook thread that a lot of people tried to comment and disagree for various reasons, but their posts were deleted. (and some of them even swore that they were polite!). But like most modern lefty crusades, disagreement, in fact, anything less than cheerleading, is “intolerance” and won’t be tolerated. Meanwhile, my FB thread had lots of comments and an actual intelligent discussion of the pros and cons from both sides (and even transsexual communists who actually like to enjoy their fiction thought this Tor.com post was silly), so remember that the next time a snooty troll calls my fans a “right wing echo chamber.”
If you can’t stomach the comments long enough to hear what a typical WorldCon voter sounds like, let me paraphrase: “Fantastic! I’m so sick of people actually enjoying books that are fun! Let’s shove more message fiction down their throats! My cause comes before their enjoyment! Diversity! Gay polar bears are being murdered by greedy corporations! Only smart people who think correct thoughts like I do should read books and I won’t be happy until my genre dies a horrible death! Yay!” (and if there is beeping noise in the background, that’s because they’re backing up their mobility scooter).
So let’s break this pile of Gender Studies 101 mush down into its component bits and see just why some sci-fi writers won’t be happy until their genre dies completely. Like my usual Fisking, the original article is in italics and my comments are in bold.
Post-Binary Gender in SF: Introduction
I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.
I want lots of things too, doesn’t mean I can have them. Right out the gate that’s a pretty bold statement. And by bold, I mean ridiculous.
What is this “default of binary gender” he wants to end? It is that crazy old fashioned idea that most (as in the vast majority) of mammals, including humans, can be grouped into male and female based upon whether they’ve got XX or XY chromosomes. Sure, that’s medically true something like 99.999% of the time, which would sort of make it the default.
Oh, and “default” means that is your assumed baseline.
So that whole thing where people are male or female except for some tiny exceptions and that is kind of the assumption until proven otherwise is standard, so this guy wants to end that. (I’m assuming Alex is a dude, but then again, that is just me displaying my cismale gendernomrative fascism)
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.
Wait… male and female are Western Cultural Norms? Uh… No. That is a biological norm for all the higher life forms on Earth so that species can replicate themselves (keep in mind, this is SCIENCE fiction he wants to change). I like how Western Culture is the root of all that’s evil though, even though male and female are cultural norms in pretty much every human society there has ever been.
Also, nitpick. Gender was a grammar term for how you referred to the different sexes. Being male or female is your Sex. Or at least, that’s what the word meant until colleges invented the Gender Studies major for those students who found Liberal Arts way too academically grueling.
Now, before we continue I need to establish something about my personal writing philosophy. Science Fiction is SPECULATIVE FICTION. That means we can make up all sorts of crazy stuff and we can twist existing reality to do interesting new things in order to tell the story we want to tell. I’m not against having a story where there are sexes other than male and female or neuters or schmes or hirs or WTF ever or that they flip back and forth or shit… robot sex. Hell, I don’t know. Write whatever tells your story.
But the important thing there is STORY. Not the cause of the day. STORY.
Because readers buy STORIES they enjoy and when readers buy our stuff, authors GET PAID.
Robert Heinlein had stories where technology allowed switching sex. Great. That’s actually a pretty normal sci-fi trope where in the future, there’s some tech that allows people to change shape/sex, whatever, and we’ve got grandmasters of sci-fi who have pulled off humans evolving into psychic space dolphins or beings of pure energy. If that fits into the story you want to tell and you want to explore that, awesome for you. I’ve read plenty of stories where that was part of that universe. If your space whales that live inside the sun have three sexes, awesome (that one was my novella push on Sad Puppies 1).
But this post wasn’t about, hey write whatever mind expanding sci-fi ideas you want, nope, it want to end the norm in order to push a message. Post like this are all the same. You can swap the message around, and whatever the particular norm is, or whatever the particular message is, when you put your pet-peeve message before story, odds are you are going to bore the shit out of your reader.
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.
Will exist in the future? Probably. Should they be the default for your story? No way. Ignored? Hardly. Is that denying reality? Okay, so I write a book, and let’s say that it has 20 characters in it. What is the acceptable percentage of them that should be transgender? How many boxes must I check in order to salve a blogger’s liberal angst? Let’s see… Only like 1 in 50,000 people have sex changes performed. So at 20 characters a book… If I have one character who has had a sex change show up every 2,500 books I write, I’d be statistically accurate.
Oh, but now you’re going to tell me that gay people make up anywhere from 1-4% of the population. Fantastic. Except gay people are still the same sex they were born with. Gay dudes are still men and gay chicks are still women. This blogger didn’t say he wanted an end to default sexual orientation, he wants an end to default binary sex. If you think sci-fi doesn’t have people who don’t swing both ways, you’ve not read much sci-fi.
Now, if I’m writing a sci-fi story set in Space Berkley or the Tenderloin District of the Future, then I’d probably have plenty of Hirs and Shmisters or whatever. Whatever fits the story, but until then how about not trying to enforce Equal Opportunity against our imaginary people?
(and if you really want to get crazy in the speculative fiction department, what with all this BS with made up pronouns to get rid of Him and Her, what the hell are romance languages supposed to do? Latino. Latina. Latinu? Latinsexyrobot?)
Here’s the problem. From a nuts and bolts story telling perspective, your readers are going to assume that everything in your book is similar to the world they currently live in, until demonstrated otherwise. Unless you say that in the future everybody has been genetically modified to have 3 legs, they are going to assume that all your human characters have two legs. If you are going to demonstrate that something is different, then there needs to be a reason for it. So if you say all humans have 3 legs, but it doesn’t play into the story at all, then why bother? And every time you change something to be different from the expected, there had better be a reason for it or you will quickly just annoy your reader.
Reading sci-fi like that grows tiresome. It is like listening to an inexperienced little kid saying “Look, I can do THIS! And now I can do THIS! Isn’t that the neatest thing EVAR!?” And your response is “Yeah, yeah, that’s special…” when you’re really bored as shit and don’t care how tall their Lego tower is the 50th time.
If your story is about exploring sexual identity, awesome. Write that story. But only a fool is going to come along and tell you that you need to end the default of all your characters having ten fingers, because there are people in the world born with twelve and how could you be so insensitive to those who have lost fingers? Because awareness.
So if humans having 5 or 6 sexes in the future is part of your story, write it. If it isn’t part of the story, why would you waste words on it? Oh, that’s right, because MESSAGE.
ProTip: Focusing on message rather than story is a wonderful way for writers to continue working at Starbucks for the rest of their lives.
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.
Yes. Topic of the Day X exists! You know what else exists? Child abuse. So I’d better make sure I put that in every book I write. Because readers love that. If I’m telling a story about rocket ships, readers love it when your characters pause to have a discussion about animal cruelty, pollution, the dangers of over prescribing psychotropic drugs, or how we need to be sensitive to people with peanut allergies too. Readers are totally into being preached at about author’s favorite causes.
Have you ever gone into Barnes and Noble, went to the clerk at the info desk, and said “Hey, I really want to purchase with my money a science fiction novel which will increase my AWARENESS of troubling social issues.”? No? This is my shocked face.
Not that you can’t get a cause into your story, as long as you do it with skill. But the minute you destroy the default just to destroy the default, congratulations, you just annoyed the shit out of the reader. You want to slip in a message and not annoy your customers, that takes skill, so until you have developed your skills, don’t beat people over the head with your personal hang ups.
How about if my story isn’t in any way, shape, or form concerned with sexual identity (or whatever some reviewer’s personal hang up is today) I don’t waste words writing about it, and readers who want to can just assume that those people exist in the universe but they don’t happen to have speaking parts in this particular novel, if they care enough to think about it at all, which they probably won’t.
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.
Read that a long time ago among the thousands of books I read as a kid. Vaguely remember it. Thought it was good, if I recall correctly.
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—
Maybe that’s because Le Guin told a story that happened to have this blogger’s pet topic in it, that was still a story readers found interesting, as opposed to crafting a message fic manifesto, that readers found boring and forgettable?
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.
HARDLY! Well, there you go. I know when I’m looking for professional advice about how to succeed as a professional writer, I’m going to listen to somebody in their mid-twenties.
Hey, you’d better listen up. I’m betting this blogger went to COLLEGE!
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.”
Holy shit… Wait… You mean this story has stuck around because “she concentrates on the story”? Engaging and entertaining? Blasphemy!
Yet, people like this don’t get why message fic books win piles of awards, yet totally fail in the market. See, the problem the modern literati twaddle peddlers run into isn’t that readers are insensitive rubes who don’t understand the plight of whatever their liberal cause of the day is, it is because they want to enjoy what they read. Their entertainment time and money is limited. Why spend it being preached at?
The next few paragraphs are very interesting, because they give you a glimpse into the mind of the modern literati.
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.
Fascinating. To the literati, books are all about dropping truth bombs. (as long as the truth agrees with their predetermined notions, obviously) This one is about sex, but you could swap that out for the evils of capitalism, or whatever bullshit they’re hung up on today. And of course, since publishing is an insular little industry based in the Manhattan echo chamber of proper goodthink, all the message fic that gets pumped out is stuff that just annoys the regular reading public.
You want a truth bomb? Readers hate being preached at. Period. Even when you agree with the message, if it is ham fisted and shoved in your face, it turns you off. Message fic for message fic’s sake makes for tedious reading. Yet, as this stuff has become more and more prevalent, sci-fi has become increasingly dull, and readership has shrank.
Of course, the literati won’t be happy until everything is boring ass message fic and nobody reads sci-fi anymore, because then they’ll be super special snowflakes.
“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.”
Ah, pseudo-intellectual university humanities department speak… How I have missed you.
Yes. Because you shouldn’t elevate a book because you thought it was good and you want to share it with others, you should elevate a book because the sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, or personal philosophy of the author checks a box on the liberal angst/white guilt checklist.
The typical WorldCon voter, when presented with 5 nominees for a category, and their clique’s personal favorite writer isn’t on there, and not having actually read any of the works, will go through the authors and rank them according to the order that best assuages their hang ups. Oooh, a paraplegic transsexual lesbian minority abortion doctor with AIDS who writes for Mother Jones? You’d need a wheelbarrow to carry all the Hugos.
Quality? Popularity? Staying power? Influence? Isn’t that what makes something a classic? Not to the modern literati. We have to elevate works by people according to what they checked on their EEOC form. Meanwhile, hatey-McHatertons like me read books and like them, even when we don’t know anything about the author. I didn’t know what sex Lois Bujold or Wen Spencer where the first time I read one of their books, but I knew the writing was good. I couldn’t tell you what writers are gay or like to cross dress either, but I can tell you who I enjoy reading.
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.
Because nothing is going to make an author successful like copying things that were unpopular before.
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?
Wait… So the purpose of reading is to get people to accept non-binary gender? Well, huh… All this time I’ve been under the impression people primarily read for enjoyment. So that’s what I’ve been doing wrong!
The English professor says: “For young people and new readers, wouldn’t it be nice if we shoved IMPORTANT WORKS about Special Topic X down their throats rather than something they might enjoy? Now I wonder why most Americans don’t read for fun anymore after we beat them over the head through their entire education and forced them to read tedious classics until reading was seen as a chore… Odd.”
And for the small and dwindling percentage of us that still actually like to buy and read books, what I’m getting from this blogger is that they’re thinking “Let’s get this mind blowing stuff out there. Yeah, that’ll rock their little bourgeois world!” Okay, dude… They’re SCIENCE FICTION readers. You’re probably not going to stun them with your big shocking ideas. You really want to shock a sci-fi reader with your book nowadays? Actually entertain them.
As an interesting side note, the Guardian just did a report that revealed how much published authors really make. For most of us, it isn’t that much. I think the average was like 30k. The majority of published writers still have their day jobs. Only the top 1% made six figures.
I am the 1%.
So aspiring authors, if you want to actually make a living doing this, you can either listen to me and put story first, or you can listen to the grad student and focus on the pet message of the day.
Regular readers will know that I always say writers should have GET PAID in their mission statement, the reason I do that is because most of us DON’T.
Conversations about gender in SF have been taking place for a long time. I want to join in.
Judging by how they’ve been “grooming” the comments there, when they say conversations they mean shut up and listen while they lecture you about something.
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.
Read that paragraph again and think about it… Think about it really hard. Nuts and bolts. Every single SF book, he wants to default to something other than what your audience thinks is normal. I want more people to seek out not just great books, or mind bending books, but books. Period.
Speaking of great sci-fi, wouldn’t Firefly have been so much better if Captain Mal had been a pre-op transsexual? And just think of the hilarious banter they could have about Jayne not being a girl’s name… never mind, because in the future that is insensitive.
Of course, good writers will just write their characters so that they’re interesting and compelling, rather than to check a box to make a special interest group happy. If I’m writing a story and it would make the story better to have some character be something other than the default, then I can put that in. If it doesn’t have a point, then it is a distraction to the reader.
Except even then, a Hatey McHaterton like me will still probably do it wrong. There was a bad guy in Swords of Exodus named Diego. This guy was an enforcer for an international crime syndicate. He participated in underground knife fighting arenas against Yakuza and Russian Mafia members for fun. Diego could match Lorenzo in a fight. He was also a gay cross dresser who made a very convincing Celine Dion, so obviously, I got a review that talked about how I hate gay people… Even though in a book where almost all of the characters, including the protagonists, are some degree of bad guy, obviously this character is a demonstration of my homophobic hatey hate mongering.
Then there’s Big Eddie, but really, you can’t think of Eddie that way. His sexual orientation was Hurt People. If you were to give him a psych evaluation to see what his “gender identity” was, he’d check all the boxes, then burn the test and stab the psychologist.
As far as a character’s proclivities, for all you know my books are filled with pre-op transsexuals, only I’m not going to stop and talk about them and what they do off screen. In fact, the only time I talk about a character’s feelings on any topic in a book are when that helps flesh out that character in a manner that helps tell the story I want to tell.
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,
Oh good. Because this topic really needs to be beaten home. I hear that there are actually some consumers out there who still actually read sci-fi, and we will never rest until this genre becomes so incredibly boring that we drive everyone away!
because I strongly believe it’s important to hear multiple voices.
Just not the ones that disagree in the blog comments.
I’m particularly interested in science fiction at the moment, but I expect I’ll cross genres as I run the column.
Yeah. I can’t wait until he gets to urban fantasy. Yay.
I hope you’ll join me in making the default increasingly unstable.
Wow. Yeah. I’ll show you, Dad! You can’t tell me what do! Down with your cismale gendernormative fascism!
EDIT: This saga continues when Social Justice Warrior and crusading sensitive white man Jim Hines swoops in to save the day: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/5687/
And for one shining moment, I become more hated by the SFWA crowd than Orson Scott Card. Achievement unlocked. 🙂