In the previous post, we looked at how the three-gender system in A Psalm for the Wild-Built didn’t stand up to scrutiny. It included non-binary people on the surface level, but the lack of deeper worldbuilding meant it brought along all the cisnormative baggage of our current Western binary gender system.
Today I’d like to follow on from that by looking at how Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee uses gender cues to create a non-cisnormative three-gender system.
Phoenix Extravagant takes place in a fantasy version of Japanese-occupied Korea. It follows Gyen Jebi (they/them), an artist who finds themself reluctantly tangled up in the politics of occupation and resistance.
Gender is not a focus of Phoenix Extravagant and the gender worldbuilding is a background detail. Yet it’s clear that the author put care and thought into building the book’s three-gender system, and the way he presents it to the reader is elegant and simple. Let’s unpack why it works so well.
Today’s post is all about the gender worldbuilding in A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a solarpunk novella set on a moon called Panga. The protagonist, Sibling Dex (they/them), is a tea monk who travels around remote villages with their wagon, brewing special tea blends and lending a sympathetic ear to people and their everyday troubles.
The world in the book is presented as a utopia, at least from an ecological and anti-capitalist viewpoint. Humankind has moved away from its previously destructive behaviours and has learned to live in harmony with nature. Society is peaceful and centred around compassion and kindness. Everyone lives in comfort and safety.
You could therefore be forgiven for assuming that the gender system in the novel is also utopian. The book’s inclusion of non-binary characters (especially a non-binary protagonist) is fantastic to see. But the wider worldbuilding—or lack thereof—around gender is far from idyllic, and brings along a lot of harmful baggage. That’s what we’ll be unpacking in this post.