M is for Message Fiction: The Post-Binary Gender Fray

download (1)A few days ago, Alex D. MacFarlane posted an article on Tor.com about the past and future of post-binary gender in science fiction. It was smart and good and so, predictably, the trolls of the internet crawled out from under their bridges to offer their perspectives.

There’s already been a ton of debate about it all (some of it’s been honestly heartwarming and great). I’m late. So, I will not be directly responding to Larry Correia or the legion of dickish basement-dwellers who (apparently) buy his books, because it’s usually ineffective to respond directly to pond scum. It just keeps squooshing around, pond-scummily, no matter how much you scream at it.

I also won’t bother pointing out all the things that are obvious to anyone who didn’t major in accounting and being a selfish prick—like the fact that non-dualistic gender systems and identities have existed in the past and do exist today (for the disbelieving, have an alphabet); or that Alex MacFarlane never promoted the use of these nefarious “checklists” for book-writing; or that blocking blog comments is not an abridgment of your constitutional right to spew vileness whenever and wherever you want; or that (brace yourselves) Alex is not always a dude’s name; or that The Left Hand of Darkness is an example of post-binary gender fiction and if you think it didn’t have a message you’re either dumber than a bucket of hammers or lying; or that a single blog post doesn’t have the power to DESTROY THE GENRE FOREVER. Although I sincerely wish it did, because science fiction could do with a healthy dose of destruction.

But I do want to take a hard look at this little phrase that keeps popping up in Correia’s posts and in the steaming cesspit of the comments section: “message fiction.” Message Fiction is apparently any writing that heartlessly sacrifices the fun of the story to the insatiable beasts of Messages, Politics, and other Dangerous Ideas. Message Fiction is lame, PC, unsellable shit which sure, yeah, sometimes wins very prestigious awards but only because the committees are composed of gooey-eyed liberals.

An ABC for Baby Patriots, 1899.

An ABC for Baby Patriots, 1899.

Except no. Here’s the ugly, terrifying truth: All fiction is “message” fiction. It’s just that you don’t notice the message so much when it aligns seamlessly with your cultural defaults. Larry Correia’s own fiction is, I’m sure, message fiction, in that it promotes a certain set of values and ideologies—which apparently involves “big breasted white women jumping on manly penises.” Twilight is message fiction, if you’re into the messages of female passivity, sexy hundred-year-olds hitting on teenagers, and the high reflective value of vampires. ABC books have fucking messages. It’s what we humans do: Make up beautiful and complicated and shallow and crazy stories about ourselves. We send messages.

So, in the end, this is about the kinds of messages we want to send. And how science fiction might be the perfect—even the only—vehicle that grants us something like literary freedom. That’s supposed to be the grand promise of science fiction, right? That it can do these things that realism can’t, or won’t—that it can ask “what-if” and give us answers we couldn’t have guessed, and show glimpses of futures and alternate realities that help us escape our own cultural narratives. If science fiction isn’t that—if it’s just about living out the status quo with vampires and lasers as fun window dressing—then, shit, I’m out.

But I guess I’m still holding out for the good stuff. The Delanys, LeGuins, and Butlers (and Ann Leckies). The ones with Messages.

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7 comments

  1. “…like the fact that non-dualistic gender systems and identities have existed in the past and do exist today ” They are not the norm and are a miniscule part of the dualistic gender system. They are anomalies, whether in the human, plant, or lower species worlds.

    :… Alex MacFarlane never promoted the use of these nefarious “checklists” for book-writing…” She most emphatically did, twice. She stated very strongly that she wanted to get rid of the dualistic system.

    “… that The Left Hand of Darkness is an example of post-binary gender fiction and if you think it didn’t have a message you’re either dumber than a bucket of hammers or lying…” Ursula K.le Guin said it herself that she was interested and there was no message.

    You should think before you write.

    1. “She stated very strongly that she wanted to get rid of the dualistic system.” I do hope you’ll pardon my confusion, but where did she state this? The closest I could find was this far milder statement: “I want more writers to stop defaulting to binary gender in their SF”.

      “Ursula K.le Guin said it herself… there was no message.” Again, do you have a citation for this? Perhaps you have in mind her article “Is Gender Necessary?” Some cursory googling turns up an interview in which she discusses the most recent, revised version of the article:

      “Nothing has been changed in the text, but notes and comments have been added, where I disagree violently with some of the things I myself have said there. I have become a much stronger feminist and my thinking is considerably clearer since I wrote the book, which was itself part of my becoming a feminist.”
      http://www.angelfire.com/ny/gaybooks/lefthandofdarkness.html

    2. And it is a well known fact that science fiction and fantasy only ever represent the absolute norms. That is why main characters are always poor or working class and display no anomalous abilities.

      Also, I will second sanguine_outlook. Please do explain your reasoning.

  2. ….holy crap, that ABC illustration. In terms of getting the point across, it’s one of those thousand-word-equivalent pictures.

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