Friday, January 31, 2014

The default

So: Alex Dally Macfarlane wrote a post on in which she suggested that science fiction maybe might stop defaulting to a gender binary. (Go read that essay first if you haven't; it's pretty good, and the first in a series.) Presumably she looked at the world around her, saw that lots of people aren't happy checking the "male" or "female" tickyboxes anymore, and began wondering why she couldn't look around, say, the Enterprise and see the same kind of variety. Predictably, I guess, various people, including a successful writer of testosterone-soaked formula urban fantasy, replied, "OO ARG WHY ARE YOU KILLING SCIENCE FICTION?!?" (I know he is successful because he makes a point of telling us in his response.) Jim C. Hines then interlinearly lampooned Brick Hardmeat's response, and Mr. Rockgroin re-lampooned him, and then I got dizzy and had to sit down for a while.

My one small, unremarked contribution to the conversation, which I left in the comments on, was to suggest that maybe the "OO ARG!" apeshitters, like Mr. Hardcheese and the fellow on Tor's Facebook page who called Macfarlane an "idiotic woman who thinks everyone should put more 'genders' in their SF or else," don't actually understand what Macfarlane meant when she used the word "default":

Some people seem to be reading this fairly modest proposal as more radical than I think it is. If I can attempt an analogy without putting words in Alex's mouth:

Once upon a time, "white" was the default in science fiction. (Some might say it still is, but that's a different discussion.) Despite the fact that the world at the time was filled with people of color, when people imagined the future the default assumption was that the characters would be white. Not everyone, and not every work, but that was the default assumption, and if you did something else people would likely say you were doing something different or daring or radical. Nyota Uhura was a big deal.

If someone had posted, on the hand-mimeographed blogs of the day, "I want an end to the default of white people in science fiction stories," would any of us, today, find anything the least bit objectionable there? I hazard that "white folks should be the default for science fiction" sounds outmoded and offensive to everyone here. It's not a suggestion that nobody should ever write about white people, or even that there shouldn't be lots of stories about white people; just that, given the existence of people of color in the world of yesterday, it's pretty foolish to imagine that they'd be so darn hard to find in the worlds of tomorrow.

Today, the world is filled with vocal and visible intersex, genderfluid, trans, agender, genderqueer, and pangender people. It's pretty foolish to imagine that they'll be hard to find in the worlds of tomorrow—and yet they are. When we do find them, the author is often marked as doing something different or daring or radical, because the default state of the future, in contrast to the actual state of the present, is dual-gender.

Suggesting that we should rethink that default is not radical or mean or weird. It's not a call to reject every cisboy-meets-cisgirl story anyone writes in the future, or burn every book that fails to include an intersex person. It is—and again, I hope I'm not putting words in Alex's mouth—just a call to look at the world around us and question why today's actual, observable, awesome reality is not reflected in our predicted tomorrows.

That was all I wanted to say, but I figured I'd say it here as well.