Lizards and Robots and Aliens, Oh My! Non-binary Coded Characters in Sci-Fi
When I heard that She-Ra and the Princesses would have a non-binary character played by non-binary actor Jacob Tobia in their next season, I was beyond excited. As a non-binary person, representation in the media is so rare that any time I get anything, it’s cause for celebration. So, when I started the second season, I was fully prepared to ADORE their character. I didn’t.
While I’m starving for more non-binary representation, especially non-binary representation in science fiction or fantasy, Double Trouble left me feeling more upset than represented. After all the hype, all the op-eds on queer run websites, I’d noticed something. Almost all the non-binary representation in science fiction is of non-human characters. Double Trouble isn’t a human being, they’re a lizard/elf. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, almost all non-binary representation in science fiction or fantasy involves the non-binary character being an alien, a robot, or otherwise inhuman. Once I noticed non-binary and trans coded characters were portrayed as alien or other in She-Ra, I started seeing all over the queer science fiction I was reading.
The first time I ever saw a character in any sort of science fiction use they/them pronouns, non-binary representation was not intended by the author. Lock In by John Scalzi is a sci-fi murder mystery novel set in a future not too far from our own. In this timeline, a pandemic sweeps humanity (yikes) which left a large percentage of the population completely paralyzed. To combat this, robotic bodies called threeps (after C-3PO from Star Wars) are created to allow the paralyzed individuals to project their minds into robotic bodies. Chris Shane, a rookie detective and threep user is set to work on murder a case with a seasoned agent. The twist? Chris Shane is never referred to with gendered pronouns. John Scalzi, intentionally avoided gendered pronouns when writing this book. He didn’t intend to create a non-binary protagonist. Instead, he wanted to see if readers were more likely to assume the book had a male protagonist vs a female protagonist. They are also a human being who experiences the world in a genderless robotic body. As if the only way to deviate from the norm is to become non-human. It’s a good novel and worth reading, but it was also the beginning of me reading science fiction novels with characters that live beyond or between the gender binary. Regardless of the author’s intent, I gravitated towards Chris as a protagonist. I felt seen. I also recognize that Chris lives in a world where the only way they can live without gendered expectations is by living without a human body. That is not my reality.
One of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read, a book that is VERY near and dear to my heart is The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a story of a rag-tag crew of humans and aliens of Wayfarer, a spacecraft designed to punch a hole through space to allow faster travel. The Wayfarer crew becomes a strange, queer found family and I love them all very much. I’m a sucker for any sort of found family narrative with queer elements. That being said, this book falls HARD into the trope of gender-divergent or genderfluid characters being portrayed as aliens. For example, the ship’s doctor and chef accurately named Dr. Chef is alien from a species called the Grum who change their sex and gender throughout their lives. Dr. Chef started his life as a female of his species, as all Grum do. After having children, he transitioned to male, which all Grum do. He will eventually end his life somewhere between male and female, as all Grum do. Dr. Chef’s character shows a gender fluidity that’s entirely unseen in his human, binary counterparts. I love Dr. Chef as a character, and I think that portraying gender fluidity through characters like him is fine. It becomes a problem when the only representation that could be interpreted as trans is exclusive to alien characters.
The further I look down lists of non-binary characters in science fiction and fantasy or the odd TV show, the more frustrated I get. There’s Janet from The Good Place (robot), BMO from Adventure Time (robot), and Pollution from the Good Omens TV series (celestial/non-human). Non-binary characters who are entirely human exist outside of science fiction and fantasy, but there are so few in prominent books or TV series when it comes to genre fiction. If you’re non-binary and you love and feel represented by these characters, that’s amazing. You are allowed to see yourself in them. You are allowed to relate to them. That is 100% okay. It’s also okay to want more from the things you read and watch.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t amazing and human non-binary characters in science fiction. Elliot from On a Sunbeam is great and Shep’s inclusion in Steven Universe Future made me tear up. I purposefully excluded Stevonnie from this list. Not because they’re not a great character or properly non-binary, but they only exist sometimes. I’m sure there are other great characters I haven’t encountered on my reading journey yet. My hope is to see more human non-binary characters in genre fiction one day.
-Margaret Moore is a Youth Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.