Non-Binary SF/F and Message Fiction (or, “I don’t know what that is or why non-binary SF/F fits”)


(Note:  comments will be monitored on this post due to the nature of the debate surrounding this topic.  I hope I won’t have to remove anything, but I have a low tolerance for rude behavior right now.  If you can’t make your point without being a jackass, even if that point agrees with my own, then take it elsewhere.)

You might have seen the response to Alex MacFarlane’s post, “Post-Binary Gender in SF:  Introduction.”  If not, you can read the words of Jim C. Hines and Justin Landon, who both have things to say of their own.  I’m not going to address content of the primary response to MacFarlane (well, not the whole of it, anyway) or offer a line-by-line critique a la Hines.  Rather, I want to talk about a specific issue within this debate:  message fiction.  I would also be remiss to neglect to mention my post entitled “Gender Essentialism, Genre, and Me,” which is amusingly relevant to the larger discussion being had in the community right now.

First, though I’m going to try to tease out the definition of message fiction in general by the end of this post, I should note that I’m not altogether clear on what certain individuals mean when they revile message fiction, except insofar as the politics are concerned.  Of the many references some in this debate have made to “the message”, none of them properly defines the term and most engage with a strawman version of MacFarlan’es argument.  MacFarlane’s column concerns the tendency to marginalize works which feature non-binary genders by exceptionalizing them.  Her primary example is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, which she says has been held up as the pinnacle of post-binary SF, while other equally important works have fallen away, such that we are constantly “re-discovering” them:

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.

MacFarlane, in other words, is interested in this narrative, not quotas or checklists — the narrative which says “these texts about non-binary genders are not normal precisely because they are unusual.”  The problem with this narrative is in its ability to provide a rationale for ignorance, not on some political territory where these works must be ignored because they violate some central tenet of an “ism” — though this is true to an extent — but rather on the simple basis of cultural amnesia.  If we are not talking about works of a particular form, we are submitting to the possibility that those works will be forgotten, and along with them, the value they produce for the communities to which they might belong.  It is for this reason, I think, that she begins the post with the following:  “I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories” (emphasis mine).  The word “default” is not insignificant in the context of the entire post.[1]  The post isn’t calling for fiction to deliberately include non-binary genders for the sake of doing so (i.e., for an agenda); rather, it calls for SF/F to remove the default assumptions about gender in order to open up wider possibilities for inclusion (who does the including isn’t exactly relevant, since nobody has to do anything here).  I think this is a far too lofty goal, and deeply hyperbolic, but it seems like some have missed that careful nuance for one reason or another.  The idea that all SF/F must, by necessity, court the content of MacFarlane’s argument isn’t a notion supported by the argument itself. 

In all of this, the question for me becomes:  do the works MacFarlane wishes to discuss in this series deserve to be remembered?  Personally, I think they do for various reasons, though the most relevant here, I think, is the fact that these works, even in their most obscure forms, are an example of SF/F’s remarkable imaginative, extrapolative, and critical potential.  And that potential is not isolated to “stuffy” works; rather, it is found in a whole sea of exceptional and memorable texts from before the codification of the genres to the present.  This is what SF/F does best!  Most of the time, it’s a lot of fun (in my entirely subjective opinion).

All of this brings me back to the point about “message fiction.”  The entirety of discussion about this topic concerns a term which has no defined criteria by which we can discern message fiction from just fiction.  The only criteria, as far as I can tell, is that message fiction isn’t fun, but since “fun” is entirely subjective, it’s impossible to apply that in any significant way.  Some who attack message fiction provide an explanation for one of message fiction’s functions, which is to subvert the natural drive of a narrative by bogging down the whole with an agenda, but the best explanation on offer boils down to “here are some works which have messages.”  Even upon a deeper search into certain individuals’ posts revealed little useful material for understanding, at the very least, how they define the term.  There are numerous claims about liberals taking over Worldcon, making it impossible for conservative message stories (or books by conservatives, by extension) to appear on the ballots[3] and people avoiding SF because of messages.  At what point does fiction with political issues in them become “preachy” or “message-y”?  No idea.  The argument is never made; we’re simply supposed to accept it as accurate on the basis of someone’s word, which you’ll notice is quite difficult when so much of the discussion centers around political affiliations (liberals this, liberals that).  The claims are weirdly paranoid, like the Illuminati itself has taken over SF and only these folks have figured it out.  If you replaced every iteration of “liberal” with “human-skin-wearing lizard people,” it would surely bring its own kind of entertainment.  Perhaps this is what one means by “the message”?[4]  At best, the term has a nebulous casing, with possible good and bad examples of “message fiction,” but no clear sense for how they connect or disconnect from one another.

In the end, I was left with a question:  what is message fiction and why is non-binary SF/F naturally lumped within its borders?  Strangely, the post that (sort of) helped me most had nothing to do with the original conversation behind all of this or any specific discussion in SF/F:  Mike Duran’s 2011 post entitled “The Problem with ‘Message-Driven’ Fiction.”[6]  Duran’s post concerns Christian publishing and the divided camps within it:  those who subscribe to nuance and subtlety and those who believe Christian literature should be driven by a specific message.  What it comes down to is agenda or intent.  Duran argues that many Christian writers believe fiction’s purpose is to send along a specifically Christian message (presumably it’s a more fundamentalist message, but it’s not strictly relevant to Duran, and neither is it for me in this instance).  In the process of supporting this argument, he wonders, as do I, when writing a theme, idea, concept, and so on becomes an actual problem (i.e., a message in the form of fiction rather than a fiction with a message):

When an author’s “message” subjugates the story, co-opts characters for the purpose of delivering that message, and uses the novel as a platform for that message, at that point something’s out of whack.

Duran provides a specific example to support his claim:  the Christian view of hope.  Granted, it’s a softball choice, since “hope” is hardly the sort of thing to spark debates, but if you translate “hope” to any other value that is associated with Christianity (good or bad), you can get the idea.  In Duran’s view, Christian fiction in its rigid, monolithic form focuses on the message at the expense of the narrative, such that the fiction itself is tangential to the message:  if you pull the story and world away, the message would remain intact.  But like others, he doesn’t provide all of the necessary criteria to concretize the concept. As I’ve already said, it, at best, comes down to intent:  message fiction serves a purpose that is clearly defined by the creator and which is meant to foist individual values through a fictional medium to the public; in so doing, the narrative ceases to matter, except to conclude or complete the image of the message.  In the case of Christian fiction, this seems to serve two clear purposes:  1) to represent the narrow interests of a specific religious affiliation, and 2) to reinforce values for those who already agree with the message, which Duran notes may explain why many Christian authors don’t see an issue with jamming messages into the work to fulfill the dictates of an agenda.

Though I think this post helped me grasp the mechanisms of message fiction, Duran’s post still leaves a lot of unanswered questions.  For one, his post concerns Christian fiction, which has its own thematic milieu and agendas, many of which do not translate into other arenas; how might these same ideas apply to other formats?  Duran is, at least, careful not to say that all messages are inherently bad, just that focusing primarily on message is detrimental overall because it limits perspective (for the writer and the reader).  But, again, the criteria remain fuzzy.  And by this point, all I’ve got is intent and “not fun.”  Neither of those are particularly useful.[7][8]

Regardless, I’d like to take a moment to talk about one of the key questions I raised in the title:  why does non-binary SF/F automatically fall into the domain of message fiction?  As far as I can tell, the rationale is political.  Because those who typically discuss non-traditional genders are overwhelmingly liberal, the desire to include such things in SF/F can only be read as “a message.”  But since “message fiction” is neither concrete nor particularly useful for assessing anything, especially since one cannot escape messages and produce “pure fiction,” the political demarcation seems absurdly partisan.  These things are liberal ideas; therefore, their inclusion is bad.  What seems apparent to me is the way “message fiction” is used within certain communities:  as a method for dismissing fiction on the basis of its content, but with the added bonus of making a political statement.  It’s an attempt at the apolitical or non-political which is itself political.

There is also the more disturbing matter, which goes to the heart of MacFarlane’s post:  for reasons I don’t quite understand, inclusion in and of itself is not necessarily “message fiction,” but calling for that inclusion is.  Some have essentially argued this point without a hint of irony; it seems suspect that the overwhelming response from one side of this debate (one which I won’t attribute to a universal political subject) is along these lines.  It’s fine if an author puts some transgender characters in a book all on their own, but to challenge the fact that such characters are almost never seen and to argue that this should be rectified is suddenly a problem.  Since MacFarlane’s post is a challenge to the default (i.e., these are the two genders deserving of representation), it should go without saying that the intent is not to arbitrarily insert characters as challenges (i.e., to make a point on this issue), but rather to open the gates so inclusion is no longer seen as an issue.  It’s about normalizing what isn’t perceive as normal, even though it is.[9]  Part of the project demands giving attention to works which have already done this.  But the other part of that project means opening the discussion to the issue of gender at large to rectify what is the marginalization by the dominant cultural narrative of binaries.  The fact that male/female is perceived as the default is the real problem.  And if that isn’t the message so many writers are sending the people who read their work when they refuse to represent non-binary genders or treat those genders poorly, then neither is the desire for inclusion.

On a final note, I’d also like to point to a recent post by S.L. Huang, who argues against the politicizing of existence:

People with non-binary genders aren’t an agenda. They exist. They’re reality. Same with people of nonwhite races and non-Western ethnicities and queer orientations. I don’t consider my existence to be part of some “liberal agenda”—in fact, my personal political ideology might be considered quite conservative in many respects, but my existence is neither conservative nor liberal.  And neither is anyone else’s. (emphasis theirs)

And on that note, I leave it to the Internet.


[1]:  It’s possible this argument is nuanced further in the comments somewhere, but I am concerned primarily with the rhetoric of MacFarlane’s original post.

[2]:  Very little of the arguments against MacFarlane seem to have anything to do with the
content of her; the point seems to be to construct an annoying strawman (in
both senses here) so one can easily topple it, but in doing so, they miss the actual argument.  The phrase “man screaming at the clouds” has been
thrown around already.  In this case, I don’t think the image is

[3]:  Global warming, racism, sexism, etc. has also been defined as definitely liberal concerns, which I find offensive not because I’m a conservative, but because this binary seems utterly facile.  Presumably, one can find conservatives who agree with some of the above these issues, or are such people merely RHINOs (I suppose CHINO would make more sense, but WTF is a CHINO anyway)?

[4]:  I’d also like to note that some have routinely claimed that message fiction is the direct result of lower sales in SF/F.  I can’t find the statistical evidence for the conclusion, as anecdotes (readers say X, for example) seems to be the foundation of the claim.  It’s a matter of causality vs. correlation.  There might be a correlation, assuming one can define message fiction in any stable sense, but proving a causal link requires considerably more rigor.

[5]:  One of commenters in this debate (who is also an author) has written a post trying to elucidate the “problem,” but since this individual finds it appropriate to joke about the mass extermination of people based on political affiliation (har har har), I’m just going to ignore them from here on out.  And before anyone says “well, liberals do that to,” you can take a giant Fuck Off pill.  I don’t care if some liberals do the same thing.  One person’s bad behavior is not a valid reason to do the same thing yourself.  Anyone who does this is a jackass.

[6]:  Duran has the benefit of having written a post specifically about the issue at hand, which means I don’t have to piece together references from multiple blog posts and hundreds of comments.

[7]:  At this point, I hope it’s clear that I’m not looking for subjective standards of review.  If there is such a thing as “message fiction,” the criteria should be specific and clear enough that just about anyone can assess whether a work of fiction falls within the category.  Objectivity vs. subjectivity.

[8]:  I have to tell my students to ignore intent when it comes literary works, since it is often difficult to find out what people actually meant to do when they wrote something.  Even if the intent is clear, the work itself may not provide an accurate reflection of that intent.  Short of extremely obvious examples (Oliver Bolokitten’s “A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation, in the Year of Our Lord 18–,” perhaps), it’s just not a feasible criterion.

(Bolokitten was the pseudonym for Jerome B. Holgate; he wrote the story as a screed against abolitionists and then self-published it.  It’s a hilarious work, to be honest, but only because we live in 2014.  I suspect it was horrendously offensive in its day…to some.)

[9]:  There’s nothing inherently abnormal about the various genders, though I’ll admit that I’m not an expert in the field.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

4 thoughts on “Non-Binary SF/F and Message Fiction (or, “I don’t know what that is or why non-binary SF/F fits”)

  1. I took Duran's definition of Message Fiction not to be "intent", but "subversion" of the narrative by whatever the "message" is. A good example of this is "Brideshead Revisited", wherein the main characters are embroiled in the usual kind of passion-driven affair with the requisite moral affliction this brings: to divorce or not to divorce, be honest with everyone or continue to waffle and lie. The reader is drawn in and cheers for the lovers to find a way to be with each other, and the story eventually hits a point where the truth is revealed to everyone, lives are shattered, but the natural conclusion of finally coming out the other end and being with the one they actually love is obvious.

    However, Waugh instead in the final pages quickly gives his characters pangs of Catholic conscience, and regardless that everyone involved is already devastated and lives ruined suddenly the protagonist, with no explanation or motivation, decides that divorce is simply "wrong" in the eyes of God and morally suspect and can't go through with it. The book was written for a Catholic audience, and the message subverting the natural narrative is obvious and obtrusive to anyone not looking for, as Duran states, those looking for reinforcement of their current beliefs.

    So it isn't intent: if an author can place the message into the narrative in a way that's organic and does not subvert the logical progression of the narrative provided, then regardless of intent or the obvious presence of a message, it would not be "message fiction" as defined by Duran. I think it would only be this when the message literally subverts/supplants the organic narrative, which often happens when the writer, believing in their message, doesn't understand that for non-believers there needs to be an understandable cause and effect in the narrative, rather than depending upon a conviction that the effect simply MUST happen because it's "right" or "moral".

    • I don't agree that intent isn't relevant or that it's not a component of Duran's definition. Duran's article is specific to a sub-community who themselves believe the message is essential to "good" Christian fiction, which means, yes, they intend to insert into or drive their narratives by a (Christian) message.

      But this may come down to how we are defining "message." I assume when people make this charge, it is a political or ideological one, though you are probably right that any kind of message (maybe that you need to eat your veggies :P) could subvert the illusory organic nature of a narrative. I just don't think that's what folks mean when they cry about "the message." They mean "it's about this political issue, a position about which the author has clearly taken in this piece." I'm putting words in their mouth, though, because *they never articulate it clearly.* Ironically, what you've written here is the most cogent explanation for message fiction I've seen yet.

      Anyway. So the way this term is used seems isolated to political or ideological concerns rather than, say, everyday sort of "message" concerns. Even then, I think the way you suggest that subversion is the problem, not the message itself, is useful, as it offers a better metric for articulating that grey area between "messages which are natural to all fiction" and "messages which are not."

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. I am so sorry to comment anonymously and so late on this topic, but I felt I wanted to comment on this post. I am a person with an intersex condition. I read McFarlane's post and got shouted down when I tried to post there.

    My issue with McFarlane's post is how ignorant it is. It's not that I don't think McFarlane is an intelligent person. I'm certain she is, but she needed to do some more research before making her post. To me, it seemed like she was approaching the topic from a very Western way of thinking and from a privileged position of being someone who has fewer issues with her own gender.

    She talked about Hijra, kathoeys, and Xanith people. Those people have rather confining social rolls and often are treated as less than human. The assignment of a third gender is in many ways a method to move these people outside of societal norms–a way to be part of society, but not really part of society. I don't feel there are any good examples of a group of people outside of the standard binary gender that would be something society at large would want to emulate.

    I have issues with saying queer or intersex people are some sort of third-gender. A gay man can be masculine. A transgendered person knows what gender they are suppose to be and are in the process of become that gender. Intersex people are also in the process of discovering their gender, or at least defending their gender.

    So far, science has yet to find a person who truly is a hermaphrodite. People born with both sets of genitals only have one set that work due to how the human hormonal system works. And these people identify with the set that works (there might be exceptions, but I haven't found any so far).

    The idea that gender is only a social construct has been around for a long time. Philosophers love it. So far, science has not proven the concept to be true. Raising boys as girls has been disastrous. For example, read up on David Reimer's life. Sadly, many psychologists and sociologists still proclaim David Reimer's case a success even though he killed himself over what was done to him.

    The consensus in the scientific community has been recently that gender is formed by a combination of biology, environment, and culture. As I see it, we still have a long ways to go to understand masculinity and femininity. Adding a third or fourth or more genders seems to be jumping ahead based on partial information.

    As someone who could potentially get thrown into the caste of third-gendered people, I have concerns. MacFarlane seems to be calling for a new norm, but doesn't really explain what that new norm will be like. With the increase of representation of third-gendered people, that will bring a lot of new cultural norms, stereotypes, and expectations. I don't know if I want to be saddled with all of that.

    My parents thought it was okay to just ignore my intersex issues. I can say that was not okay. But I am grateful they didn't shout it out to the world. The people who do find out I have an intersex condition often have a surprising number of expectations that then get imposed on me whether I want those expectations or not. (No I did not date both men and women. Yes, I did think I could get married and did so. No, I am not interested in some sort of weird three-way. No, I cannot conceive and bear children on my own. In fact, I can't bear children or really conceive children.)

    When a person tells me that being part of some third gender should feel freeing, I usually think that person must be struggling with his or her own gender (which I think we all do at some level) and would now like to impose his or her struggle on me. No, thank you.

    So those are my thoughts that I wanted to post somewhere. You've made some good points, so I hope you don't feel like I am trolling you. You may disagree if you feel you must.

    • Hey. Sorry I didn't post this sooner. I usually sit on comments for a very short while, and then drop them manually. This one sat because I got busy with work and forgot about it.

      In any case, I wanted to let this comment float out there, even though I don't really have anything to say at the moment. Thanks!

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