There were either twelve sexes or none.

It's a sentence I still remember, from a book or a short story, and I'm guessing it was published before the turn of the century (i.e. 1900's). The main character is explaining to the reader what he knows so far about a species he is observing and I believe is even living amongst.

That's all I've got. I know it's thin, but I think it is so distinctive, and I have a hunch what I was reading was probably so well known, that someone will likely recognize it quickly.

  • 4
    TV Tropes mentions Jack Vance's Dirdir in which "A male will be born with one of twelve different sex organs, females one of fourteen. Each type matches one or more of the others." and also some Star Trek novels featuring the Sulamid which "have twelve sexes, and all of them claim to be male, especially the ones that bear the children". Apparently Heinlein's Have Space Suit—Will Travel also features Vegans with twelve sexes. Could any of those be what you're looking for?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 18:26
  • 2
    Nah, seems it's not Have Space Suit - Will Travel. I just searched the text, and the only mention of twelve sexes appears to be "If Noah launched his ark on Vega Five, the animals would come in by twelves. That makes things complicated. But a "mother thing" is one who takes care of others. I am not sure that all mother things were the same gender; it may have been a matter of temperament." Also, searching the exact wording of this sentence has given me nothing - I've been trying slight variants. How sure are you of the number 12?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 18:37
  • 2
    So they have 9.6 sexes? :-P
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 18:40
  • 3
    ha! I'm 100% certain that it's twelve, but there's a 20% chance that I'm never-the-less wrong about it, despite being certain.
    – uhoh
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 18:43
  • 4
    Forget about how many sexes the Vegans have, I'm more interested in their diet.
    – Adamant
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 19:46

1 Answer 1


Assuming you got the number wrong, it's Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze:

“The Hydrans,” he said, “have either five sexes or none, I'm not sure which. That's a measure of how well I got to know them while I was there. However they do it, I think people have more fun. Why are you standing over there, Marta?”

The context is that Muller (the main character) has just returned to earth after five months on Hydra, and he addresses this line to his lover Marta as she undresses.

Since you seemed adamant about the exact phrasing, but "twelve sexes or none" turned up no results on a web search, I tried successively lower numbers: searching the exact phrases "eleven sexes or none", "ten sexes or none", and so on, until I found the right one.

  • 13
    This is it! It's the first SF book I'd ever read. It made a big impression on me, but it was a half-century ago so I'm not surprised I've got the number wrong. This is what the cover looked like then: i.sstatic.net/PKQP3.jpg 75 cents!
    – uhoh
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 18:50
  • 2
    @uhoh I checked the full text and just edited to add a little more context - and also how I found this :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 18:52
  • 3
    Good thinking! Now I remember this. I was pretty young at the time, so I was far more intrigued by how the multiple sexes would work biologically than I was with whatever he and Marta were doing.
    – uhoh
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 18:55
  • 23
    Five! The answer is always five whenever the original poster misremembers the number. scifi.stackexchange.com/a/105743/4918
    – b_jonas
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 23:06
  • 6
    @uhoh There is a particular microbe that has seven sexes, some common, some uncommon. All can breed with any other, except the same sex.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 3:46

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