Saturday, February 15, 2014


As part of an experiment, I've begun serializing two of my novels (The Dew of Flesh and The Indifferent Children of the Earth) on Wattpad. If you haven't read them, you can find the first parts over there, already available.

Of course, you can also download both books for free under the 'Books' tab, but feel free to stop by Wattpad, or here, and leave a comment if you like.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Post-Binary Gender and the Ethics of Fiction

After reading Alex Dally MacFarlane's recent post on about post-binary gender fiction, as well as the secondary posts by Larry Correia and Jim Hines, I thought I might add a few additional thoughts. For the most part, I thought both Larry Correia and Jim Hines addressed ancillary issues to MacFarlane's post, and I'd like to suggest a few considerations that I believe more to the heart of the matter.

The origins of this post came from my attempts to answer the following question for myself: Why do I feel troubled by elements of MacFarlane's post while, at the same time, sharing her concern about the limited range of representation for gendered and sexual identities?

Before I sketch out a few of my concerns, allow me to say that much of my writing focuses on characters of non-normative sexual or gendered identities. The first book of my series The Sophistries of June is available for free under the Books page above, if you'd like to see an example. I enjoy reading and writing about characters who are not part of what MacFarlane calls a binary gender construct.

My concerns with MacFarlane's post resolve into a few different areas:

First, I believe the large-scale claims underlying her post, which concern the lack of representation of post-binary gender within Western culture, are either misrepresentative or misinformed. An appeal for a larger presence for post-binary gender that predicates itself on a supposed absence of that type of writing ignores a long history of Western cultures (an important plural) that have thought carefully about a range of possible gendered and sexual identities over thousands of years. In that sense, MacFarlane's identification of post-gender binaries as "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" is based on a straw-man. To a the same extent, post- as a prefix is a disingenuous, or at least anachronistic, label for the ideas under discussion.

Even the most cursory account of gender studies across European history would provide valuable examples of Western cultural artifacts that envision what MacFarlane labels post-binary gender. We can begin as far back as Plato's Symposium, where Aristophanes offers a vision of dual-gendered souls. Greek and Roman sexual and gendered roles, although fixed in some ways, also show a remarkable fluidity (for example, Sporus, 'wife' of Emperor Nero [Nero provides a wealth of examples, in fact], beyond Greek male-male relationships, etc.). Medieval and early modern Christian mystics and theologians offer a long tradition of representations of Christ as duel/bi-gendered. The romance genre (by which I mean romance as a historical literary form) has tropes of characters who blur gendered, sexual, and orientation boundaries. Historical personages show a similar trend. To name only two more, out of many possible examples: the Spanish man/woman Catalina de Erauso; and Queen Elizabeth I, who based her remarkable reign on the fluidity of her gendered identity.

Rather than continue with examples, I will simply say that to claim that a hegemonic entity known as 'Western culture' has excluded or failed to acknowledge anything approaching post-binary gender is incorrect and historically problematic. Furthermore, MacFarlane's own post, which begins by expressing a desire for "an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories," is troubled by the apparent wealth of post-binary gender fiction that exists:

"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."

In such a light, it becomes clearer that MacFarlane's post aims, as the opening line states, not necessarily for an increase in the representation of alternative sexual and gendered subject positions, but rather for an end to the 'default' of binary gender. This, in many ways, is linked to my second objection to the post. MacFarlane writes about an implicit desire for texts that "radicalise every reader." She also expresses her desire "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."

Rather than a desire for what we might term inclusiveness or representation, MacFarlane's desire seems to be to supplant what she terms a "default narrative" with what, one can only assume, will become the new default narrative. MacFarlane identifies the problems of the old "default narrative" as, in essence, the following: "SF that presents a rigid, unquestioned gender binary is false and absurd."

Here, the rhetoric seems to outgrow the strength of MacFarlane's argument. While I will readily agree to the desire for a wider range of representation of alternative gendered and sexual identities, is it true that any fiction that presents only one approach to gender is "false and absurd"? I'm uncertain how this statement could be correct. The only way I can imagine this statement being true is if we accept, as a guiding principle for aesthetic creation, a specific set of representative priorities as the only ethical and true form of any aesthetic object.

This, then, is my second objection to MacFarlane's post. How can we look at any piece of fiction, let alone SF, and believe that such a piece of fiction must inevitably represent a fullness of a range of subject-positions (which range from gendered, sexual, racial, political, ethnic, etc., and of which MacFarlane privileges gender) in order to be considered true? The corollary to this question is: What does it mean for a piece of fiction to be true? The answer here seems to be that it is fully representative of the diversity of available identities, but it is unclear how this connects to truth.

My final concern about MacFarlane's piece is located in the implicit ethical charge given to representation as a form of social and ethnocentric disruption. MacFarlane states:

"Conversations about gender in SF have been taking place for a long time. I want to join in. 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."

Her post concludes with the following: "I hope you’ll join me in making the default increasingly unstable." Throughout the post, this message of destabilization, of the upset of what MacFarlane describes as a "default narrative" is prioritized as an implicitly ethical project that manifests in increased visibility for post-binary gender.

I absolutely agree in the power of fiction for the disruption of preconceived ideas and prejudices. History has shown the value of literature in destabilizing social and political expectations and conventions. At the same time, though, I am hesitant to embrace a view of literature in which this ethnodeviancy is the only (or even the primary) function of fiction. Writers battled for centuries for a world in which the dominant ethical systems were not the immediate arbiters of aesthetic production. Their legacy to us is a world in which the aesthetic is not always and perpetually chained to power structures and dominant ideologies. MacFarlane's post, though, suggests that what are undoubtedly important ethical practices (such as tolerance and inclusion) have an irrevocable claim on fiction writing, presumably overriding the aesthetic as the primary aim of fiction.

In the end, as strongly as I agree with MacFarlane's admirable (and well-expressed) desire for a broader representation of a range of sexual and gendered identities, I am too troubled by how these political and ethical demands compromise the aesthetics of fiction to be completely comfortable with her post. I do hope, though, that her post continues to be a spur for an improved discussion of the representation of gender and sexuality in fiction.