The Future Is Fluid: Thoughts on Treating Gender in Speculative Fiction from Author Benjamin Rosenbaum
“We live in this world [in which] we can’t even see how gendered everything is, that we perceive everything through this lens. So, what I wanted to do was to take a society that had a similar, enforced gender binary with strict roles and have them be ones that we don’t believe in, but they believe in, because that creates this gap where we can see how both absurd and menacing [they can be].”
In the following clips from a special episode of Mohanraj and Rosenbaum Are Human, speculative author Benjamin Rosenbaum relinquishes his usual host duties to take the guest seat and discuss some fascinating aspects of his ambitious first novel, The Unraveling. Touching on his inspiration for the book’s innovative treatment of gender roles, as well as his ongoing considerations regarding transgender and nonbinary representation in speculative fiction, Rosenbaum offers some helpful thoughts on writing for the full breadth of human experience. Don’t miss the rest of the full podcast episode, available with notes here!
(1) Consider the historic phrase, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Using this as a template, discuss the results of substituting other binary terms for the word ‘man.’ For example, “One small step for tall, one giant leap for tall-kind.” How does this substitution affect your awareness of or reaction to this kind of language? Discuss different impressions with the people around you, if any.
(2) As speculative writers, consider the steps toward depicting a gender-less society or social group. Would this be a difficult task? Do you believe that anything important would be lost in regard to characterization, plot, or thematic elements in a gender neutral story? In contrast, how would leaving out the construct of gender add to a story?
(3) In the second clip, the participants consider the complex matter of transgender and non-binary representation in speculative contexts. What are some ways that you think authors of all kinds can present positive images of transgender or non-binary characters? How about authors of speculative narratives in particular?
(4) In the third clip, Rosenbaum discusses his choice to create a dystopian vision of a gendered society, rather than a utopian one. What do you think are the strengths of each treatment? In other words, what does a utopia allow an author to say or demonstrate about a particular issue? What does a dystopian perspective permit?
(1) In the first clip, Rosenbaum describes his treatment of gender in The Unraveling. Consider his thoughts that gender is, to put it simply, made-up, as well as his decision to replace male/female with another arbitrary categorization assigned at birth. Then take some time to brainstorm a list of three additional replacements for the conventional gender binary.
- Think about the potential benefits and drawbacks of each. How would each set of terms influence our future?
(2) Consider the final video clip, and your answers to the last discussion question. If working alone, write two scenes (about half a page or so) that treat the same contemporary social issue in a speculative context — one as a utopia, and one as a dystopia. If working with a partner, write opposite treatments and compare results. How do they compare tonally, structurally, and thematically?
(3) To expand on the previous exercise, outline a longer treatment that contextualizes the creation of your utopian or dystopian vision with a bit of exposition. How did society arrive at this state of existence? When you’re done, consider what your narrative suggests about your topic in the contemporary cultural landscape. How does it relate to your experience?
- Benjamin Rosenbaum — Excerpt from ‘The Unraveling’ (2021)
- Benjamin Rosenbaum — ‘Bereft, I Come to a Nameless World’ (2020)
- Benjamin Rosenbaum — ‘All These Guardians of Order and Clarity, None of Them Can Abide a Free Witch’ (2020)
- Alina Boyden — “Five SFF Novels with Trans Women Protagonists” (2021)
- Ross Johnson — “11 Works of Trans-Positive Science Fiction and Fantasy” (2018)
Benjamin Rosenbaum is a widely-published author of speculative fiction and co-host of the SLF podcast Mohanraj and Rosenbaum Are Human, whose work has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. He is the author of the short story collection The Ant King and Other Stories, and the Ennie-nominated Jewish historical fantasy tabletop roleplaying game Dream Apart. The Unraveling is his first novel, published in 2021 by Erewhon Books. Keep up with him and explore more of his work at his website and on Twitter!
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