Queer Science-Fiction Conundrums #1: Single-Sex Worlds, Reproduction, and the Binary

This is the first post, essay one if you will, in my blog series titled “Science Fiction Conundrums,” where I, a queer Science Fiction author, will examine issues that are perhaps unique to my preferred genre… though I am quite certain some of these explorations will be applicable to other genres, queer in context/ sub-context or not.

First off, let’s discuss the difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to the biological and genetic factors we are born with/ the hand we are dealt at birth. It’s chromosomes, hormones, and internal/ external organs or the lack thereof. Gender is much more complicated. According to WHO (the World Health Organization) gender, “refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.” But, as we all know, (or should know) there are many more genders than male/female. Gender deals with psychology and sociology. It’s societal norms and expectations and all the variants therein.

Note to readers: If you plan on disproving my discussion of gender and sex in the comments by mansplaining or lobbing your religion at me, please hit the back button and go away before you even begin. I approve all comments before they post, so your rant will probably be trashed. Besides, you and I both have better things to do.

First, a bit about my own unique perspective on sex and gender: I’m a bi/pan queer woman, which means sex and/or gender are not what attract me to another human. Intelligence, empathy, and kindness, however… I am also a mother of three children and married to a woman, but, no, that does not make me a lesbian. I was also married to a man for over a decade. Identities like mine often cause a backlash even within the queer author community, but I’m not certain if it’s a patriarchy issue (since most of the Queer Science Fiction sites and author groups I frequent are dominated by MM authors and male readers) or a misunderstanding concerning gender and sex and their interweaving.

It’s a subject to explore in a later post in this series.

Today, I want to take a closer look at Sci-Fi worlds where there is only one biological sex present, concentrating on the problem which arises when the author describes these single-sex species in male/female (binary) terms.

He/ she. Her/him. His/ hers. Most Earth species have two biological sexes, (I’m overlooking single cell organism and other, often described as gender-bending, species here) but, as we know (or should know) nothing is really so simple or as black-and-white. (red-and-green, purple-and-pink…pick your color combination) In Humans, it’s relatively simple. Two things must come together, an egg and a sperm to create a child. (okay, yes, I know that technology is changing this) However, and this is a big however, if you have a world containing only one biological sex then there is absolutely no logical reason to use binary terms such as male or female (or their pronoun versions) to define your characters. I don’t care if other species in their world require binary/ two biological sexes for reproduction, if your character’s species does not, and you’re writing from their viewpoint, it’s absolute BS to use binary world, male/female terms, and here’s why…

  • Biological sex will not be a defining concept within the species.

  • Biologically-based sexual-reference terms will not have developed inside the species, because there is no reason for them to exist in the first place

  • Biologically-based sexual-reference terms will not be necessary for the species to convey ideas unless it involves talk about or with binary species, and then it would probably feel awkward to them. (rather like many of you who define themselves strictly by binary terms are probably feeling about now)

This is not a difficult concept but finding a fictional world, even in Sci-Fi, where it’s attempted isn’t exactly easy to find, and it is harder still to find one where it’s accomplished with any level of palpable success. Below is a small list of works others have claimed are single-sex worlds at their core, but they fail the test. They’re not truly single-sex worlds in any way, and they adhere cling to binary ideas for dear life.

Y The Last Man series (Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra) [in serial form, book form, and graphic novel form] women reproduce via cloning after a plague kills all Earth males of every species—save for two (this series is sometimes described as a Dystopian). Single gender isn’t really present here because there are technically still men out there, and the men, for lack of a better term, have only recently been killed off.

Virgin Planet (Pol Anderson) – a starship full of virgin women become stranded on a planet and find a means of asexual reproduction which effectively creates clones. Men aren’t there so, over time, they become mythological beings… until one actually shows up. Hmm, this doesn’t quite fit the bill either. These are humans who define themselves in binary terms, one sex majority or not.

The Female Man (Joanna Rush) – four women meet and find their own ways to deal with their separate worlds – one world contains no males and procreation is accomplished through ova merging. Hmm, nope. This novel is close, but the binary still exists within three of the worlds.

The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin) – details a species that is gender-neutral until it comes time for reproduction— then they become male and female. A king gives birth. This is a simple rehashing to explain things, but the lead character, Ai, is referred to in masculine terms (he/him). One body containing both sexes and no one knows which will appear each kemmer (the species’ heat/breeding cycle) Single-sex world? Nope, but LeGuin does a masterful job at handling the gender-neutral aspect and all the societal repercussions.

This is not to say that there isn’t a novel out there containing a successful single-sex world that uses binary terms and pronouns, and there are numerous novels with secondary characters from single-sex worlds, (I hope to be beta reading one in the near future) but such characters frequently live among humanity and are examined from a human perspective, which wants to define everything, including aliens in binary terms.

Perhaps we are clinging to what we know a little too hard, but maybe my standards are too high when it comes to single-sex worlds… even my first series fails the single-sex world test.

The test? It’s simple. A truly single-sex world will adhere to the rules I listed above. But here’s a quick and dirty version for easy use: does the single-sex species in the work use human-based binary (he/she type) terms to define itself in any way? Yes? Then it is not a truly single-sex world. No? You might have one, but read closer, the binary might well be hidden in the context.

When I wrote the Taelach Sisters series, I wasn’t trying to create a single-sex world. The series concentrated on the humanity’s influence on another species, the Autlach. Their interbreeding creates a third species, the Taelach, an all-female species who depends on the Autlach for their production. (not by interbreeding with them, but the means if far too complicated to present here) At its core, the Taelach Sisters series represents the Taelach as more of a genetic anomaly, as a mutation that continues to occur over several millennia, eventually allowing them to become their own, distinct, single-sex species. Again, I never sought out to create a female only world. Indeed, many of the characters are men… great guys who are Autlach cousins and brothers to Taelachs. That said, I, too, used binary terms to define my Taelachs. They use feminine pronouns because they rose from Autlach and Humans, both binary-adhering species.

If I had the opportunity to redo the series, I might chance those pronouns, but I might not. Doing so would change much of the premise, resistance to an extreme religious patriarchy, and the Taelachs struggle to remove patriarchal ideas and gender terms from their world. They never quite succeed at this, especially in the fourth novel in the series, but that is in part due to my idea that their success would be construed as a Utopia, something I don’t believe exists.

I could continue examining the concept of single-sex worlds, but I am choosing to end my post up with this thought: single-sex worlds are not only difficult to write about, but they might be all but impossible for us, as humans, to truly understand, whether we consider ourselves binary or nonbinary on an individual level, not because we, as individuals, can’t understand it, but because we, as a species, are resistant to the new, to change, and to the differences amongst even ourselves.


Originally posted on 8/21/17 and last updated 8/21/17.

5 thoughts on “Queer Science-Fiction Conundrums #1: Single-Sex Worlds, Reproduction, and the Binary

  1. This is a fascinating read. I haven’t read the books on that list, but maybe I should.

    We as humans struggle to understand beyond the binary in any sense. Intersex people exist, but they are usually (for a number of reasons) still categorized into “male” or “female,” both in name and often via invasive medical procedures. Most people deny the existence of gender non-binary folks in similar fashion. It’s simply difficult to imagine anything other than on/off, he/she, male/female.

    I’ve read a number of smaller, less well-known works with aliens or other beings that have no gender, shift gender at will, or take on a gender only during reproduction. They haven’t been all bad. I’m usually more irritated that they reinforce human binaries by being the “cool alien species that doesn’t do gender”–while all the humans stick rigidly to male/female. Sometimes this works for me and I enjoy it, and other times not so much. I can’t really say why. There is one thing that automatically puts me off: A single-gender or non-gendered species that simply recreates male/female binary (or male/female/other) in exactly the same way humans have always done, especially if it ends up reinforcing patriarchy. I don’t really know how to say that better, but I’m aware that this is the limitation of my own (very human) thinking.

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    • I’m fine with single-sex worlds, if they are believable. But simply applying the biology of a second sex onto the body of other and calling it single sex doesn’t fly. Intersex? By all means make a world that way, but make it work, take off those labels because they, again, don’t apply in that circumstance.

      I have critiqued a couple of single-sex world stories in the past and they both failed my test. One had no means whatsoever of reproduction and called one group of nonhumans simply Asexuals (yes, the species name was Asexual… I had to ask) without any further explanation. I, as a human, had no means of association. I had no familiar concept to help me understand the world. I was left asking, like a two-year-old, but “where do babies come from?” The second– er, kidnapping women of another species so they can carry and produce your species male-only children through a forced breeding program. No. Just, no. And it was written from the perceptive of a male of the kidnapper species. Double that no and add a WTF.

      What I truly want is to read a single-sex species piece of Sci-Fi that is relatable, that I can follow, and where the single-sex species doesn’t identify itself based in binary terms. But I’m not certain that’s possible.

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      • Oh, the forced breeding thing. I never like those at all. A lot of single-sex and fated mate and similar rely on non-consent in many ways, and I don’t enjoy reading that. For personal reasons, I find it upsetting. I mean, it’s not great in a social justice kind of way either, but I can understand that some people do enjoy it. I just happen not to. I’m never sure if those fated mates/forced breeding stories are just supposed to be the authors’ and readers’ kink or if they’re supposed to be some kind of social commentary.

        If you ever find (or write, lol) one of those single-sex species books that fits the bill, let me know.

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  2. A very interesting blog, where you raise many excellent points.

    I want to add one more book, the one which really required me to think, challenging my perspective of gender. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, by Samuel R. Delaney.

    The main character is what we’d think of as a man. She referred to herself as she. She thought of herself as a woman. What’s more, she got involved with what we’d also think of as a man.

    It was a true perspective bender, which took me a while to get used to, but a fascinating read.

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