Feminist Science Fiction Fans discussion

Discussion > gender-neutral characters and pronouns

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message 1: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments Do you think they're an important part of imagining a future "free of sexism, homophobia and prejudice" (I'm quoting the group's description)?

Imagining that (some) people might leave gender at some point in the future makes sense to me.
But some readers object to the mere mention of gender-neutral posthumans in SF. Does that make sense to you?

I for instance noticed objections to the presence of a gender-neutral character in Reynolds's latest doorstop (in case the name doesn't ring a bell, he's one of the rare writers who are both serious about SF and commercially successful). There's no drama and no exposition. The character just happens to be neither male or female. And it doesn't affect the story.
So readers who weren't reading a book about gender simply had to deal with it without a tutorial... some confusion apparently ensued. And some judged it gratuitous. Like, writers apparently need a good reason to feature gender-neutral characters at all!

One sticking point in English lit is of course the pronouns.
In SF, I would expect writers who aren't trying to be patricularly groundbreaking to use ve/ver/vis/verself (originally introduced by Keri Hulme). Which is what Reynolds did.
Yet there evidently are people who haven't been exposed to these pronouns (or who have forgotten about them) and struggle to figure it out even though it's hardly rocket science.

I think that readers who are used to figure out fantasy information technology, physics, alien biology and whatnot without having everything explained to them ought to be able to be able to wrap their mind around the relatively simple concept of people who don't care for gender.
And if readers can stand all manner of neologisms from android to telepath, they should be able to deal with a handful of appropriate pronouns.


So... any opinions?
What am I missing?

message 2: by Taylor (last edited Nov 21, 2013 01:21PM) (new)

Taylor (seffietay) I am a big fan of gender neutral characters in Sci-fi (and writing in general), but have come across only few so far. Estraven in Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness is one, being part of a genderless society of individuals that transition to either male or female during the mating period (kemmer). Though, throughout the book Le Guin's pronouns were male which caused me to read the characters as male even though they were genderless. In the scene where Estraven becomes female to mate with Genly it read as a bit of a shock because I hadn't thought of Estraven as being a woman. It was certainly an adjustment. Le Guin has actually addressed her use of 'he' 'him' pronouns in Left Hand (and pronouns in general), and her afterward can be read here: http://theliterarylink.com/afterword....

Another good example is Woman on the Edge of Time, where in Mattapoisett (alternative utopia) they are genderless and refer to each other as 'Person' or 'Per', which I thought was a good use of pronouns.

I think for a lot of people new pronouns are difficult to adjust to because he/she him/her are so ingrained in our speech. I've read many books on gender that refer to people by different pronouns ze/zir, per, etc, and admittedly it's a bit of a stumbling block as you adjust to reading them and what they mean. As for people being upset about non-gendered characters; I think they just need to be more educated about gender. To accuse an author of using a gimmick in developing a genderless/gender neutral character is silly! Just because the reader may not be familiar with gender neutral individuals doesn't mean it's gimmicky. That kind of makes me grumpy. I'm not sure what the best way to resolve this would be.

message 3: by Taylor (new)

Taylor (seffietay) Also an interesting approach to a 'third gender' are the Ooloi in Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood series. The pronoun she uses for them is "it", which is my least favorite of all alternative pronouns. To me it implies that they are more of a 'thing' rather than a person.

message 4: by Alexa (new)

Alexa (AlexaNC) | 270 comments I think it is an obligation for science fiction writers to explore issues like that. That seems to me the most basic aspect of science fiction - exploration of all sorts of possible futures. And introducing little quirks like that without exposition is one of the best ways to do it. Please save me from heavy-handed explanations - gradual unfolding is true artistry. And how can sci-fi have gratuitous ideas? That's the whole point! So I think you have every right to rant!

I had never seen that Le Guin link; it was really interesting and funny too! I can so see the temptation to go back and rewrite - and the need to tell oneself, "Hands off!" I have always loved the way Le Guin and Piercy played with gender; I haven't come across Hulme before - looks really intriguing!

message 5: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments I realize my mention of Hulme might be tagged [citation needed] so let's raise this above the level of anonymous rumour-mongering:
This paper hints at where many of the modern authors who use gender-neutral characters are coming from in case you're unfamiliar with the subculture. It also references topical SF which hasn't been mentionned in the group so far: "Science fiction author Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series has a hermaphrodite character from a postgender society that has intentionally genetically engineered itself so that all its members are hermaphrodites. The protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides' best-selling 2002 novel Middlesex (2002) is chromosomally male but appears to have a vagina, and is raised as a girl until becoming male as an adolescent."

UKL could afford to ponder the aesthetical merits of pronouns because her book was about this stuff. And of course she has higher aesthetical standards than many SF writers.
But to recycle a distinction I introduced in the other thread, if a story casually mentions gender-neutral characters readers will simply miss that if the author uses something like "he" or "they". In that case, unambiguously gender-neutral pronouns serve as a substitute for exposition.

About stumbling blocks, maybe I should have made the context of my rant clearer but this is a paragraph out of the first chapter of the first book of the series in question:
"He placed the bull back at the head of its family and returned to the bed, accepting Jumai’s call with a single voked command. The bind established. Geoffrey’s preference was always for inbound ching, remaining in his local sensorium, and Jumai would have expected that. He placed her figment by the door, allowing her a moment to adjust to her surroundings."
These words aren't explained and neither are the underlying technologies or practices. I think that if one can adjust to "voked" or "ching" and pick up the meaning of such neologisms from their context, pronouns ought to be a piece of cake.

While Butler's choice of pronouns is relevant to the topic and you didn't imply that, for the sake of clarity I don't think aliens with three-sexed reproduction should be conflated with speculation abount transcending genders built upon two-sexed reproductive biology.
More generally, I think Butler stands aside from the speculative core of science-fiction. What she writes is basically sociological horror. It's compelling but it's far from posthumanist.

message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

My problem with gender-neutral/non-binary characters in science fiction is that it's always done in a scifi-y way. I get that 30 years ago the existence of non-binary identities was not well known, but now there are quite a few real people who identify as agender/bigender/genderqueer/etc. and they're never taken into account. (The same can be said for gender-switching characters in relation to binary trans* folk.)

It always feels like there's this underlying motif of "Woah, isn't this weird and cool? Not like reality at all." And in a lot of cases, ignoring the real lived experience of non-binary people leads to non-binary characters being portrayed as stereotyped or offensive.

Realistically, if non-binary identities ever are going to become commonplace, it's going to be through further mainstreaming of present day trans* identities, and if a writer ignores that, they're portrayal of gender is going to come across at best heavy-handed and at worst bigoted.

message 7: by Taylor (new)

Taylor (seffietay) Outis, it's true that in Sci-Fi readers are introduced to a variety of new concepts and words so it should be easier to adapt to different pronouns. It's unfortunate that people still struggle so much with it. I also agree with Liz, when non-binary characters are introduced in sci-fi writing it can have an element of "non-binary people is such a wacky concept!" which can be more damaging than beneficial.
Don't you think the introduction of non-binary beings, human or not, could help readers become more aware of gender on a human scale?

message 8: by Alexa (new)

Alexa (AlexaNC) | 270 comments Outis wrote: "I realize my mention of Hulme might be tagged [citation needed] so let's raise this above the level of anonymous rumour-mongering:
This paper hints at..."

Given that paragraph you quoted, I definitely think anyone complaining about a few unexpected pronouns is quite odd. There has always been a strong subset of decidedly sexist views within a corner of the science fiction genre - is it possible that's whats going on?

message 9: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments I doubt that's the main problem. I wouldn't expect extremely sexist men to be interested in this sort of book (this being #2 in a series, the content can hardly be a total surprise). And extremely sexist women would I assume prefer to read female authors.
Some people are simply confused.
I looked for quotable reactions and I found this on Amazon:
"this book has an appalling failure in the fact that a major character is of no determinate sex! He/she is constantly referred to as "Ver, vis ve vhe" sometime a combination of more than one of these in the same sentence!! (...) Since this character has not been visually described (...) there is no way of knowing whether it is male or female. This has infuriated me enough to write my first review"
I don't know if this commenter was only affecting ignorance in order to be politically incorrect but another commenter who comes off as somewhat more sophisticated nevertheless stated: "the most irritating thing of all is the completely pointless (and unfortunately frequent) use of the invented gender-neutral personal pronouns "ve", "ver" and "vis", which inexplicably only occurs with one particular character."
On the face of it, it has simply not occured to some people that one might prefer not to be enrolled in either gender, if only implicitely because of a language's limitations. Or that a more enlightened society might provide such an option.
But what really puzzles me is that this sort of book is full of stuff that's never occured to them. It's kind of the point. So why are some people so selective about what they're willing to work a bit at understanding?
For some readers, this is a teachable moment. Others would no doubt defend linguistic tradition to the hilt and I guess the latter are indeed likely to be particularly sexist.

I'd say sexist views afflict more than a corner of the genre by the way. But that's not particular to SF. On average, however you define it sexism is going to be more prevalent outside of SF.
What may be peculiar about the SF scene in some countries such as the USA is that it brought together people with such sharply-contrasting political backgrounds. Dissonance ensued.

message 10: by Alexa (new)

Alexa (AlexaNC) | 270 comments Sorry, had to disappear for intense family gathering. Your quotes beautifully illustrate how some of us (many of us?) have blinders on when it comes to certain issues. The obliviousness of those two quotes is quite funny. I guess when it comes to certain issues some of us need to be spoon-fed. Still it is surprising that a sci-fi reader would of necessity have to be open to novel scientific points, but not be open to novel human arrangements!

Yes, you're right, it has indeed historically been more than a corner - I was just being rather diffident. "Dissonance ensued." Great way of putting it!

message 11: by Alexa (new)

Alexa (AlexaNC) | 270 comments Another book that deals with this subject is Ancillary Justice. Here the issue is posed as a question of both language and culture. The protagonist comes from a culture where gender appears to be truly irrelevant, and therefore has no skill in "sexing" new acquaintances. The default pronoun is "she" which creates an interesting frisson whenever new characters are encountered.

message 12: by Alexa (new)

Alexa (AlexaNC) | 270 comments Well, I just found out that there are apparently several languages that don't have gender pronouns: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_n...


message 13: by Olivia (new)

Olivia Lawless (OliviaLawlessBooks) | 4 comments This subject fascinates me, in part because it's an example of something in scifi playing out in the real world.

A friend of mine identifies as Genderqueer, which basically means they identify as neither strictly male nor strictly female, but rather a somewhat fluid combination of the two. This sounds a bit like what you guys are talking about.

My friend (he prefers to be referred to using male pronouns) once shared a list of some of the pronouns genderqueer people are using. I found the link to the table here, if anyone's interested: http://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress...

message 14: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments This may be more a case of something in the real world playing out in SF.
The author mentionned in your link for instance wrote about a historical homosexual and has been involved in real world activism. It's of course not merely the logical outcome of speculations about humanity's future that brought SF authors to write all manner of queer characters.

But yeah, since it's easier (and safer) to use unfamiliar pronouns in writing than to get people to use them in daily life, the pronouns may see more use in fiction for the time being.

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