If You Want Something Done Properly …

6 Feb

… Do it yourself.

There has been an interesting storm in a teacup recently over an article, posted on TOR’s webpage, calling for ‘an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.’ I’m not sure I understand just what the author actually has in mind; as I see it, there are only two genders in human society – male and female. A homosexual man is still male, he’s merely a male who is interested in other males, while a lesbian is a female who is interested in other females. Physically, homosexuals of whatever sex are still members of that sex.

Now, there are quite a few books that have alien races which happen to have more than two genders. The Player of Games (Iain M. Banks) features an alien race which has three separate genders, rather than two. Or does the author of the article wish to include humans with a third gender or switching between genders? There’s quite a bit of science-fiction that includes both of those possibilities. (A character swapping sex is an important plot point in Excession, another novel by Banks.)

Or does the author wish someone to write (more) science-fiction that includes transgender characters and a plot that revolves around them being transgender?

There are, generally speaking, two separate ways to approach sexuality in a novel. You can have it as an aside, something that is part of a character’s nature, or you can focus on it specifically. If the latter, you have to be very careful to keep it from swallowing up the plot … unless, of course, your objective is to write porn of one kind or another, whereupon you might be forgiven for allowing sex to become the plot.

An example of the former might be Oscar Monroe, from Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth novels. Oscar is gay and it’s ok … because his homosexuality doesn’t swallow up the plot and transform a science-fiction series into a mass of text that hammers home the message, over and over again, that being gay is ok, and perfectly natural, and absolutely wonderful, and …

Hell, no one likes to be nagged. And … well, most message-bearing books tend to nag.

Anyway, I’ve got a challenge for the author who started this debate. Why don’t you write a book that takes up your challenge of putting an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories?

It’s not easy to write a character who happens to be a different gender from yourself. I’ve written female characters and reactions have ranged from ‘getting in touch with your feminine side’ to ‘this jerk has clearly never met a woman.’ (My wife was very surprised to hear that <grin>.) I would find writing a transgender character to be very difficult, particularly one living in a world where the shift from gender to gender was imperfect.

But maybe the author could do better. Why not try?

8 Responses to “If You Want Something Done Properly …”

  1. G Cheal February 7, 2014 at 5:55 am #

    If this article concerns sexuality rather than gender then I don’t see the point. It is not relevant to a story. There are few books I read which even mention sex in them so for all I know the characters might be gay or not. I remember reading one particular book which mentioned the main character being homosexual and it didn’t change the plot etc

  2. Tim February 7, 2014 at 7:21 am #

    Or maybe the author of the article should just shut up and stop whining. I like your advice, though: you want to see it, write it yourself.

  3. Austin February 7, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    Been reading Larry Correia’s blog, huh? Anyway, totally agree with you. I’ve read a whole lot of SciFi with characters of all sorts of sexual preferences. But they tend to fall into that first category, an aside. The only one where that really isn’t the case is Weber’s Safehold series. And while Nimue/Merlin changes gender for plot based reasons there is almost no talk of sex aside from one pretty funny scene in the first book.

    • chrishanger February 7, 2014 at 4:42 pm #

      Oddly, that’s one of the points that annoyed the hell out of me. It’s bad enough that Merlin is damn near indestructible, but the whole idea of him becoming a male just handwaves a chance for some real drama. What if she’d remained female? Chris Date: Fri, 7 Feb 2014 15:26:57 +0000 To: christopher_g_nuttall@hotmail.com

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard February 7, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

        Well Chris, Nimue/Merlin may be “near indestructible” but IMO there’s plenty of drama already. People still die that Nimue/Merlin wished he could have saved. Now if Nimue had played Archangel (either as a man or as a woman) then there would have been a “lack of drama”. [Wink]

      • Austin February 8, 2014 at 4:40 pm #

        I actually really enjoy the series. I’m actually rereading it right now. Though there is some speculation that the only reason they decided to turn Nimue into Merlin is to get the series published by Tor.

        I’m also with Paul in the drama department. There’s already a ton, and lots of emotional angst, and the books are already long enough it doesn’t really need more.

  4. Bruno Lombardi February 9, 2014 at 3:30 am #

    “Anyway, I’ve got a challenge for the author who started this debate. Why don’t you write a book that takes up your challenge of putting an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories?”

    She has. Lots of times. http://www.alexdallymacfarlane.com/2013/12/2013/

  5. Bruno Lombardi February 9, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    “I’m not sure I understand just what the author actually has in mind; as I see it, there are only two genders in human society – male and female.”

    Actually the number of societies that have existed on Earth that have three, four, five (or more!) genders easily numbers in the hundreds. Note that few, if any, of these societies with multiple genders see these genders as just ‘a person who likes having sex with a person who has the same bits as themselves’; they’re seen as a completely different gender. Handy-dandy map here: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/two-spirits/map.html

    The point is that if this kind of diversity exists here on this little insignificant little rock of ours in the present, then why not have variations of this exist in future societies or in alien cultures or whatever in speculative fiction? Isn’t the whole point of speculative fiction basically “There are always more stories out there, and more characters, and more possibilities to explore.”?

    Now if she said that she wants every story, from now until the end of time, have nothing but non-binary gender characters, then you have a point. But that’s not what she said in her article.

    People read for story, not for checklists or quotas or lectures. I see nothing in MacFarlane’s article to suggest she believes any differently. Calling for authors to be more thoughtful about their craft doesn’t mean you’re telling authors to abandon story for MESSAGE.

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