10 Books That Play With Gender, Because We Could All Use A Break From Binary Thinking

Because the English language can make gender-neutrality difficult to express, it can be incredibly challenging to find books with non-binary characters. In French, where even the verbs are gendered, the task is even harder — yet one author has managed to pull it off. Anne Garréta's Sphinx is a genderless erotic novel, recently translated into English from the original French, detailing the relationship of two characters whose genders are never revealed.

Genderless writing has obvious benefits. The inclusion of non-binary characters in literature gives non-binary readers the representation they lack in media across the board. It can also broaden audience experiences by allowing them to "read" characters as male, female, or somewhere in-between.

The feminist science fiction tradition was born with the rise of second wave feminism. For that tradition — which includes such prominent writers as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, and Joanna Russ — playing with gender was political, and it largely remains so today. Feminist sci-fi authors wanted to explore societies in which gender roles were reversed, or non-existent, and their novels force readers to re-examine the ways in which their own cultures treat sex and gender.

Not many writers have found a way to write gender-neutral characters and novels, but this is a selection of the few who have. The 10 stories I've chosen here include both genderless characters and those whose gender has been intentionally obscured. Thanks to the feminist sci-fi tradition, you'll find that many of these tales fall well within the confines of that school, but efforts have been made to include works from other genres as well.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the most famous examples of a book with genderless characters. In Ursula K. Le Guin's science fiction masterpiece, the Gethenians are an androgynous, intersex race who only adopt a sex during kemmer: a two-day mating period. Thus, the king is pregnant, and outsider Genly Ai is really, really confused. 

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Dangerous Space by Kelley Eskridge

Three of the stories in this collection — "And Salome Danced," "Eye of the Storm," and "Dangerous Space" — feature Mars: a creative individual whose gender is never revealed. In "And Salome Danced," Mars is holding auditions for a play when Jo comes along. Jo auditions first as a man, and then as a woman, for two roles in the production. Mars may be gender-neutral, but Jo is a different creation altogether.

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The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp

This fun children's book features the rambunctious Tyke Tiler, a friendly 12-year-old whose gender remains a mystery until the end of the novel. The reveal of Tyke's gender — or perhaps sex — forces readers to reconsider their assumptions about children's activities and proscribed gender attributes.

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Bone Dance by Emma Bull

Told from a first-person perspective, Emma Bull's Bone Dance keeps its protagonist's gender a secret for half the book, and the reveal is certainly not what you'll expect. No matter their gender, you're sure to find spunky, post-apocalyptic trader Sparrow delightfully endearing.

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Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is a wonderful writer, but Written on the Body shows her mastery of wordplay. Like Bone Dance, this novel is written in the first person, which means it might take you a while to notice that Winterson includes no clues as to her protagonist's gender.

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Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell

Thus Was Adonis Murdered is the first title in a four-book series about detective Hilary Tamar. Nowhere in any of the books is Tamar's gender revealed, leaving readers to envision the protagonist however they like. Some view the detective as male and others as female, but everyone agrees these clever, humorous titles are worth the read.

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief is narrated by Death, whom author Markus Zusak purposefully left gender-neutral, allowing readers to view the character as they wished. The implication, however, is that the reader is Death, and that the narration you're reading is your own account of the book's events. It's a clever ploy, and one that — combined with an engaging story and fantastic writing — has garnered Zusak well-deserved accolades.

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"All You Zombies — " by Robert A. Heinlein

I'm no real fan of Robert A. Heinlein, but "All You Zombies — " is a great, twisty, gimmicky piece of writing. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the protagonist is intersex and lives as a man after a series of operations, but things are not what they seem. It's important to point out, however, that Heinlein ties the protagonist's orientation to his gender: when he lives as a woman, he is attracted to men, and vice versa. The author's misunderstanding of the ways in which sexual identity and orientation interact may detract from some readers' experiences.

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Lock In by John Scalzi

This novel from John Scalzi, set 25 years after Haden's syndrome — a disease that permanently and completely paralyzes one percent of those who contract it — spreads across the globe, and follows FBI Agent Chris Shane, sent to investigate a murder at the Watergate Hotel. Shane is a Haden's patient whose gender is kept secret throughout the novel, which — like several others on this list — is written in the first person.

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Jacob's Ladder Series by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear's Jacob's Ladder series follows the last vestiges of a dying world as they try to survive intrigue and war. The cast features Perceval, a female-identifying asexual in a relationship with a lesbian angel; Head, a genderless product of bioengineering; and Mallory, a non-binary necromancer who takes on sexual partners of all genders. Bear's novels are very much the product of the feminist science fiction tradition; make sure you don't overlook them.

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Image: kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop)/Flickr

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