Science fiction has long thought outside the box when it comes to gender. David Lindsay’s 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus imagines an ambiguously-gendered alien life form with the pronouns “ae” and “aer.” Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 book The Left Hand of Darkness describes a planet of people who periodically change sex. Isaac Asimov, meanwhile, portrays a race of aliens with three genders in his 1972 novel The Gods Themselves, and, on top of that, establishes that his primary alien character has the body of one gender and the mind of another.
While this has been occurring in fiction, transgender and non-binary people in the real world have themselves questioned conventions when it comes to gender identity. Their ideas are sometimes reflected in SF/F, particularly in the work of authors who are themselves trans or NB. This can be seen as a two-way process: authors of speculative fiction help to inspire questions about identity amongst readers, and those questions go on to influence speculative fiction of the future. And in the process, it is inevitable that some people will lose track of what is going on. Look no further than the recent controversy over the SF/F review site Rocket Stack Rank.
Run by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, with Hullender penning the site’s reviews, Rocket Stack Rank covers a wide range of short-form fantasy and science fiction. The site was a finalist for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Fanzine. At the time of writing this, it was one of seven third-party recommendation sites linked to by the official Hugo Awards website. Hullender’s work at Rocket Stack Rank also got him a position on the panel for the Locus Recommended Reading List, an annual publication that highlights quality work in fantasy and science fiction.
With such prominence comes responsibility, and Hullender’s detractors argue that he has misused his status. Their main accusation is that Hullender’s reviews of SF/F that involve transgender and non-binary themes are insensitive to members of those communities. Looking through his reviews, it is hard to deny that Hullender has a track record of demonstrating impatience or simply missing the point when it comes to stories involving non-binary gender.
Reviewing “World of the Three,” Shweta Narayan’s story of gender-swapping automata, Hullender stated that “the extensive use of ‘singular they’ makes the story particularly unpleasant for me. I never get comfortable with it, so it pops me out of the story every time I have to remember ‘they’ means (in this case) ‘it.’” He gave the story two out of five stars, but advised the reader to “add one star if you can tolerate heavy use of ‘singular they.’” (Note that Naryan is non-binary and uses the singular “they” as their pronoun).
On “The Worldless” by Indrapramit Das, Hullender objected to “the author’s attempt to make the language sound futuristic.” He cited multiple examples of this, amongst them “consistently using ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’”
“The neutral pronoun really messes this story up,” said Hullender while reviewing “Deep Waters Call Out to What is Deeper Still” by Sarah Frost. “It’s like trying to read something with someone tapping on your head every few seconds. It’s not at all clear what the point of it is, since Pascal behaves in all other ways like a male, and we never learn why Pascal uses a neutral pronoun.”
After reading “The Pigeon Summer” by non-binary author Brit Mandelo, a ghost story in which the main character has the pronouns “si” and “hir,” Hullender complained that “the nonstandard pronouns made this story much harder to read than it ought to be, since they kept pulling me out of the story.” He gave the story three stars, summarizing it as “strong, but hard to read.”
Twelve authors, amongst them Keffy R.M. Kehrli, drafted a response to Hullender that was posted on Kehrli’s website. Entitled “An Open Letter With Respect to Reviews Published on Rocket Stack Rank,” the post makes its objections to Hullender’s reviews clear.
The reviewer, who is not trans and/or non-binary, makes judgments about the validity of pronouns and identities, and decides which author “makes good use of [transness]” and which authors do not. This is problematic and hurtful. This is a way of saying “you do not belong.” A way of saying “stories about you don’t belong.” When reviews specifically cite pronouns of characters as justifications for rating a story down, a line is crossed. A line where not only writers but readers may find their identity questioned, belittled, and willfully misunderstood. A line that RSR crosses often and with seeming impunity.
The letter concludes by criticizing the SF/F institutions that have endorsed Rocket Stack Rank:
We have been working to draw attention to this ongoing problem for almost as long as Rocket Stack Rank has operated – at first indirectly. But the amount of problematic reviews continues to grow just as RSR’s stature in the field continues to increase. The exclusionary reviews and their growing influence in the sphere of awards cast a long shadow in the field. It is worrying to see important institutions within SFF endorsing and promoting RSR over the objections and concerns of writers, readers, and other reviewers (including writers, readers and reviewers of color and trans writers, readers and reviewers).
We hope that our concern is acknowledged and that current promotion of problematic reviewing habits cease to be rewarded in SFF publishing.
This dispute recalls one that broke out in 2014. Author Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote a blog post calling for an end to binary genders as a default in SF settings. This prompted a long and deeply sarcastic response from right-wing novelist Larry Correia, which, in turn, received a lengthy take-down from Jim C. Hines. But the Rocket Stack Rank controversy is not a matter of progressives against conservatives, as Greg Hullender is a self-identified liberal and a gay man with a history of involvement in LGBT activism.
Perhaps a better comparison point is RaceFail, a cluster of overlapping controversies that occurred in 2009, when various SF/F authors–primarily white liberals–were accused by progressive fans and critics of unchecked privilege and inconsiderate portrayals of race. In fact, the open letter makes a secondary complaint about how Hullender approaches matters of race and culture in his reviews. “RSR reviews of stories from authors of color and/or non-Western authors frequently use dismissive and outright offensive language, such as calling some of these stories ‘exotic’ and similar.” For the most part, however, the present controversy focuses on Hullender’s treatment of transgender and non-binary themes.
It is impossible to deny that Hullender’s reviews of SF/F dealing with non-binary gender have often been flawed. But how much can this be attributed to prejudice, and how much is simply the result of Hullender being out of touch?
A telling example of Hullender’s mindset is his review of JY Yang’s novella The Black Tides of Heaven. Yang, who is non-binary, draws a distinction between gender and sex: their story works on the basis that a person with a penis can be “she,” a person with a vagina can be “he,” and a person of any genital orientation can be “they.” This is a significant part of Yang’s worldbuilding, as The Black Tides of Heaven takes place in a society where children are treated as non-binary at birth, but expected to choose a gender when they come of age. Hullender failed to grasp this when reading the story, as his review makes clear:
Much of the gender system goes unexplained and remains confusing. If children are neuter does that mean no penises and no vaginas at all? What does it mean that Yongcheow never took the treatments? Does he not have a penis? How does reproduction work in this world when Mother seems never to have been involved with a man and Akeha and Yongcheow discuss children but see no need for a woman?
In the comments section, he provides these additional thoughts:
The problem is with using “they” for a specific person not to indicate unknown gender but rather to indicate a new, third gender. This is the usage I can’t seem to get used to, and I’m not alone. It just clashes too strongly with the other uses of “they.” It doesn’t help that authors who do this have a bad habit of providing little or no physical description of the person involved. I end up visualizing the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
Hullender has not so much rejected Yang’s approach to gender as missed it altogether. Instead, he interprets the non-binary characters as fantasy beings and faults the story for not establishing their biological make-up. He seems unable to distinguish between stories portraying imaginary creatures that exist beyond human gender (such as the automata in “World of the Three”) and stories about human characters who view gender in much the same way as the contemporary transgender and non-binary communities (as in The Black Tides of Heaven).
To Rocket Stack Rank, giving a character gender-neutral pronouns is like giving the King of the Elves a hard-to-pronounce name or asking the reader to memorize the layout of a particularly complex spaceship. To them it is a worldbuilding flaw that inconveniences anyone in the readership who simply wants to crack on and enjoy the story.
So, this is how Greg Hullender has approached non-binary themes in SF/F. His opinion of the non-binary community in the real world, however, is rather different, if skewed by his lack of familiarity with that community until recent years. Hullender views his lapses as the result of a generation gap within the LGBT movement and admits that his engagement with the non-binary community remains a work-in-progress. “I started seeing the term ‘non-binary’ in stories back in late 2015,” he told us, “and I met a non-binary person at the Seattle Gay Pride Parade that June who explained some things to me. I spent some time last year reading posts on Reddit’s /r/nonbinary /r/lgbt and /r/ainbow to try to get a better understanding. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m still trying to learn more.”
He also acknowledges the error he made in reviewing JY Yang’s fiction. “We actually met JY Yang in person at WorldCon 75, but we didn’t realize then that they identified as non-binary. We had a very pleasant chat and even had our pictures taken together. I certainly wrote nothing with any intention of hurting them.” Had he written his review of The Black Tides of Heaven now, he would have approached things differently. “First, we know now that the non-binary community as standardized on ‘they’ for the non-binary identity, so I wouldn’t talk about that. Second, the worst thing in that review was the parts where I tried to ‘explain’ trans people to cis people. These would still be wrong even if the author were not non-binary.”
Hullender, by his own admission, made some major errors in how his reviews approached non-binary themes in science fiction. He clearly misread some of the stories he covered. At the same time, however, some of his detractors have also misread him. Take this statement from the open letter, for example:
Greg Hullender also uses his identity as a gay man and former activist to police and pass judgment on the kinds of sex characters can have in stories […] These judgments often go hand in hand with other issues – such as an anti-trans and an anti-NB stance – in his reviews. Thus, reviewing JY Yang’s Tor.com novellas, Hullender equated sex with a nonbinary person with paedophilia.
This refers to the following passage in Hullender’s review of The Red Threads of Fortune, the sequel to The Black Tides of Heaven:
In the previous novella, we learned that children don’t choose a gender until they’re ready to, and before that they’re physically not mature. They take magic potions to become mature adults of their chosen gender. All of their pronouns (even “I” and “me” in their language) are either marked for the chosen gender or else are gender-neutral. Accordingly, having sex with a person who uses “they” is like having sex with a child. I saw this coming and watched it with horror.
Hullender is referring to a scene where Rider, a character with a neutral pronoun–which, in the fantasy world of the story, is usually reserved for children–has sex with a woman named Mokoya. So, yes, Hullender has compared sex with a non-binary person to sex with a child, but crucially, he has done so in the context of a story where non-binary gender is typically associated with childhood.
That said, he has clearly misread the story. By the time the sex scene takes place, the narrative has already established that Rider is a throwback to an earlier era of Yang’s fantasy world, when adults also used non-binary pronouns. There is nothing paedophilic about their sex with Mokoya. But even so, Hullender’s mistake arises from failing to understand an aspect of the story’s worldbuilding, and it is unfair to treat his review as an attack on non-binary people in the real world.
Greg Hullender responded by writing an apology-cum-rebuttal in collaboration with Eric Wong and altering the offensive reviews. Despite this, he has paid a high price for his faux pas. Locus decided that he was unfit to recommend stories to readers and removed him from its reading list jury, making the following announcement on Twitter.
Thank you to those who brought their concerns about RSR to our attention. Greg Hullender will not be involved in the Locus Recommended Reading List. We support our wonderfully complex and diverse SF community, and hope for continued positive dialogue on these issues.
The reference to positive dialogue seems out-of-place. The Rocket Stack Rumpus marks a breakdown in communications all around, from a reviewer missing the point of the stories he was covering, to authors misreading his reviews in turn. Meanwhile, the issue of Rocket Stack Rank’s provincial approach to stories set against non-Western cultural backdrops–as flagged up by Rose Lemberg in this Twitter thread–ended up being lost alongside Hullender’s misunderstanding of non-binary SF, which is perhaps a secondary issue.
There may well be positive dialogue to come out of the controversy, but at the present moment, there is little of it to be seen.