MIND MELD: LGBT Themes in Fantasy and SF – Recommendations
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June is LGBT Pride Month, so we thought a Mind Meld on LGBT themes in Fantasy and SF would be perfect, and asked some authors to send some recommendations our way!
Here’s what they said…
I like reading about worlds in which society takes no stand against same-sex or even multiple partners, where the gender of a character’s sexual desire is not a central emotional issue. There aren’t many, but there are a few, including Elizabeth Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor, and, of course, most of Melissa Scott’s books, both those written alone and those written with her partner Lisa Barnett. Ellen Kushner has explored the ways society (and the lovers themselves) can make lovers of any gender suffer in her Riverside series: Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword, and The Fall of the Kings. And finally, I want to mention the little-known Elemental Logic novels of Laurie J. Marks: Fire Logic, Earth Logic, and Water Logic, which take place in a society where the family units consist of multiple husbands and wives and their children. There are conflicts aplenty–mostly having to do with the military culture that has been occupying them for decades. Beautiful world-building, fascinating, thorny, very human characters.
Growing up, I was really interested in books that looked outside the gender binary, challenging gender roles. Examples of this were the Alanna books (The Song of the Lioness quartet) by Tamora Pierce, which had a girl disguising herself as a boy to become a knight. She’s heterosexual, but I still enjoyed the idea that a girl could be a hero just as much as a boy, and that notion stayed with me. Girls disguised as boys are still fairly common in SFF literature (like Leviathan and its sequels by Scott Westerfeld), but it’s not quite GLBT, as usually the romance is between a boy and a girl. I think Alec and Seregil from the Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling were my first introduction to openly gay characters in fantasy, and I love that it was organic and that the world had no institutionalized homophobia. That really struck me: you can imagine and create a world where no one cares who you love, so long as you love.
I also enjoyed the Tamir triad by her, which sort of touched on trans issues (a daughter is turned into a son by dark magic to protect her from a mad king. But no one tells her and he’s raised as Tobin in a remote keep). I kept reading for years but thought there weren’t that many books in SFF that touched on GLBT issues. There were some out there, but I’d really have to go hunting for them. Most of the examples I came across were older books, published in the 60s, such as The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin, which was one of the first speculative fiction books I read that really examined the notion of gender being fluid, and became a huge inspiration for me.
In the more recent (and welcome) surge of books with more GLBT characters, I know of the following, though I have not read them all yet. The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan and The Alchemist of Souls (and sequels) by Anne Lyle in fantasy. Thought GLBT characters are becoming more common in YA, it seems to be usually more in contemporary/realistic YA than SFF. Some examples in SFF are: anything by Malinda Lo, Hero by Perry Moore, The Culling by Stephen Don Santos and basically this whole Goodreads list. Ones that are upcoming in the next year that I’m really excited about are Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis and Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi.
As time passes, barriers and old prejudices are slowly eroding. 50 years ago it was illegal for people of different races to marry, and that seems ridiculous now. In 50 more years, I think the idea that gay and lesbian people weren’t able to marry will also strike people as ridiculous. SFF has so many ways to look through the lens at the present and provide a wealth of futures that feature diversity. Gender and sexuality is so fascinating to explore and lends itself well to speculative fiction, where the sky isn’t the limit–the universe is.
I’ve been gay for…well, my entire life. When I was growing up there weren’t many options for me to see my community represented in popular culture, so I became accustomed to reading books through a “queer lens.” In super-unacademic terms, that’s being hyper-aware of any (often veiled) LGBT themes, connotations, characters, relationships, etc. The best way to find a satisfying read was to research a gay author and delve into his body of work.
Hans Christian Andersen was one of the first writers I obsessed over. His Wikipedia page doesn’t plaster “HOMOSEXUAL” in the opening paragraph, but if you look around the web you’ll find there’s a lot of chatter about his being in the closet. When I re-read his stories I see metaphors for that struggle (being a gay Christian in 1850 wasn’t easy). “The Little Mermaid” is not just a tale of a mermaid yearning to be human; it’s a story of impossible, unreciprocated love; the same kind of love Andersen felt for a dear friend named Edvard. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and really transports me to his mind.
Oscar Wilde is another classic author to look into. Even though society muffled many of his attempts, he snuck in a ton of innuendo and queer themes. Like Andersen, he has a beautiful collection of fairy tales that reflect his experience as a gay man. There’s also an uncensored edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is lifted from the original typeset before his publishers removed all of the “objectionable” (i.e. gay) material.
Nowadays, Internet searches about an author’s original intentions and rainbow-colored lenses aren’t necessary because writers and readers are coming out the closet. New fiction is less morose, moving LGBT characters to positive, protagonist roles. One of my favorite contemporary fantasy authors is Gregory Maguire. His books, particularly Son of a Witch, prove that Oz is quite a diverse place. Perry Moore’s Hero, about a high school guy discovering he’s gay AND a superhero at the same time, is a really fun read.
If you’ve already read those or are tired of sifting through annoying Amazon lists for something new, gay, and different, I recommend investigating a publishing house specializing in LGBT work. I guarantee one of their books will pique your interest. For instance, when I sold my book to Bold Strokes Books, I was looking at their catalogue and thinking “OH MY GOD I WANT TO READ EVERYTHING.” They just had so many books…everything from aliens, to werewolves, to dystopian societies, to swords and sorcery. And perhaps while you’re there you’ll stumble across a certain book about a vigilante gargoyle, written by a certain author who wrote the words you’re currently reading. And then maybe you’ll be ready for the next book in the series about a guy trying to save himself from the 1980’s AIDS crisis by turning into a vampire. No queer lens necessary.
Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads still reigns as one of my favourite queer SF books for it’s blend of mythology, magic and historic fiction (and the sex scenes are human and hot). The novel is told through the voices of three very different female protagonists–but the most compelling voice is undoubtedly of Mer, a lesbian plantation slave and healer in the Caribbean. Mer has a complex relationship with sexuality, spirituality and liberation. I always wished Hopkinson would have written a sequel book all about Mer.
What I’ve noticed as both a writer and fan is that LGBTQ visibility in science fiction and fantasy has been pretty cyclical. Writers like Samuel Delany and Joanna Russ blazed a trail for a generation of queer-identified writers and works that took off in the 1980s and 1990s. Books and stories by writers like Melissa Scott, Elizabeth Lynn, Gael Baudino, Laurie Marks, Nicola Griffith, Richard Bowes, Geoff Ryman, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Chaz Brenchley and others were published by the big publishing houses and were readily available to a growing readership. Then things shifted and from the mid-1990s onward, most LGBTQ-themed science fiction and fantasy was published by small and medium-sized presses, with a few exceptions.
I haven’t really seen big changes in that recently, though certainly LGBTQ romance readers have more available options thanks to the giant growth in ebooks and indie-publishing. It feels to me as if science fiction and fantasy as a genre hasn’t really caught up to romance yet and that the distribution channels for queer sfnal books aren’t in place. But I think the possibilities exist and that all of genre publishing is pretty fluid right now, so I expect that will change in the near future.
None of which actually answers the original question, of course, but I think it’s worth mentioning for context. And it keeps me off the slippery slope of picking favorites from amongst the books of my friends and colleagues. But I shall now commence to slide.
Some all-time favorites include, but are not limited to:
- Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott
- “Aye and Gomorrah” by Samuel Delany
- Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack
- The Cage by S.M. Stirling and Shirley Meier
- Anything that Joanna Russ ever touched
What makes a book or story an all-time favorite? Honestly, it’s a combination of what I like to read and hope that I write: believable LGBT and/or Q characters who are primary, complex and memorable long after I close the book. Trouble and Her Friends is a cyberpunk novel about lesbian hackers, their community and early virtual reality. I like most of Scott’s work, but this is my perennial favorite for both characters and theme. “Aye and Gomorrah” is about fetishes and sexuality and is a story that I would give an internal organ to have written. It is simultaneously not queer-specific and one of the queerest works mentioned here. Temporary Agency is multilayered and fabulous, with characters that I love; it stands up well to rereading. The Cage is a lively sword and sorcery epic with bi female protagonists who eventually create a polyamorous household: long out of print, but worth tracking down. Russ needs no explanation – read all the things.
More recent favorites include, but are not limited to:
- Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale
- “In the Night Street Baths” by Chaz Brenchley
- Silver Kiss by Naomi Jay
- Steam Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft
- Promises, Promises by LJ Baker
- Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey
Wicked Gentlemen is a pair of linked novellas that together comprise a terrific steampunk gay romance with excellent world building. “In the Night Street Baths” is an atmospheric tale about two eunuchs wandering through a decaying city. It is, hands down, one of the most beautifully written stories in the genre. Silver Kiss is a lesbian werewolf mystery, with well-drawn characters and an interesting depiction of coming out in a werewolf society. Plus, there is a werewolf drag queen, who is awesome. Steam-Powered is an excellent collection that includes stories by Amar El-Mohtar, N.K. Jemison, Shweta Narayan, Shira Lipkin and others. Promises, Promises is one of the most hilarious send-ups of quest fantasies that I have ever read; it is both laugh out loud funny and a spot-on critique. Santa Olivia: boxing, coming out, first love, genetically created werewolves and a dystopian critique of U.S. border policies. What’s not to love?
The thing about having favorite books and stories is that you always acquire new ones, or at least I do. My to-be read shelf is full of works that I’m looking forward to reading and exploring and I’m always looking forward to adding new favorites.
Oh dear, this is a topic I could write about for a very long time. I suspect the nice folks at SF Signal would not want me to do that. So I am going to try to keep myself in check my restricting myself primarily to Trans issues. Hopefully not many other people in this Mind Meld will touch on those. Of course it does mean that I am going to miss out on mentioning some very fine L, G & B writers. I should mention a few: Nicola Griffith, Kelley Eskridge, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Malinda Lo, Geoff Ryman, Hal Duncan, Patrick Ness, Cat Valente. Oh, I have forgotten so many. I’m sorry.
Anyway, enough of that, on with the awesome. I shall start with Angela Carter because, well, she is Angela Carter, and that should be enough. I am listing her here for The Passion of New Eve, which I love. The two trans people in the book are not exactly good examples of the breed. One is a misogynist dick who is forcibly transitioned, the other a sad transvestite with a Garbo fixation. But Carter has a great understanding of gender. This book was written at the time when even smart people like Joanna Russ had bought in the RadFem ideology that trans women are, and always will be, male, and therefore oppressors. Carter understood that once someone becomes female-bodied, and has to operate as a woman in the world, male privilege very quickly starts to vanish. Gender is, to a large extent, a social construct, and society does not stop constricting it when you are born, when you reach puberty, or at any other time in your life.
Next on my list is another amazing writer, Samuel R. Delany. Triton is also a book that features an unsympathetic trans character. Bron, the central character, decides near the end of the book to transition to female because he has convinced himself that men are an oppressed species and that his life will be massively improved if he joins the gender that has all the power in the world. Naturally he is bitterly disappointed. But Delany is not writing about being trans, he’s writing about being whiny and selfish. Bron is an arsehole in many other ways as well. And to prove the point Delany does what every writer dealing with sensitive minority issues should: he puts in a second character belonging to that minority who is likeable, successful and very well adjusted. It is a text book example of how to have a bad character who is a member of a minority group and not make it seem like you are attacking that group.
Both of those books were written when trans issues were very rare in the mainstream media. By the 1990s trans people were starting to get a higher profile and writers were beginning to explore their issues in more detail. Melissa Scott’s Shadowman describes a future human society with five genders on a spectrum from fully female to fully male. The gender science on which the book was based is now understood to be very simplistic, but Scott’s construction of her world is an excellent piece of imagination. Besides, how many books can you name in which the majority of the characters are genderqueer or intersex?
Back on Earth, Alicia Goranson had a lot of fun with actual QUILTBAG folks in Supervillainz. The book tells the story of a group of ordinary, everyday queer folk from the Boston area who get accidentally mistaken for a group of super villains. Well, actually they get framed by bunch of evil neo-con types who are trying to set themselves up as a super hero group and need someone to claim to be fighting. Our heroes have to save Boston, and so they will if they can ever overcome more important issues such as who is sleeping with who, and where each of them is on the gender and sexuality spectrums.
Lyda Morehouse’s AngeLINK series first came out early in the 21st Century and provides the only books I know of to feature a trans archangel. Uriel doesn’t get much action in the books, but I loved the fact that zie was there, and the fact that all of the angels tended to refer to God randomly as either “Father” or “Mother”. Indeed, I liked the books so much that when Lyda was looking to put them out as e-books last year I jumped at the opportunity. Archangel Protocol and Fallen Host are already available, and I need to get working on the other two.
I have a special place in my heart for Ian McDonald. In Sacrifice of Fools he painted a very negative picture of trans people as sad and deluded folk who hang out in seedy clubs pretending to be something they are not. I complained about this fairly loudly when I reviewed it. I have no idea whether Ian read that review, but I do know that when he wrote River of Gods he had acquired a much better understanding of the realities of trans lives. His “nute” character, Tal, goes through all of the agonies (both medical and social) of transition during the book, and is treated very sympathetically by the author, if not by other characters.
Then Ian wrote Brasyl. The central character, Edson, likes to dress as a woman to go clubbing, plays “super hero and sidekick” games with his older gay lover, and spends much of the book pining for a beautiful Japanese girl. McDonald manages this so skillfully that most of the reviews of the book don’t mention this at all. It is no more worth remarking on than if he’d had red hair or a passion for sushi.
Back with the fun stuff, I am very fond of Sandra McDonald’s Diana Comet stories. Diana is a daring, adventurous and sometimes even swashbuckling heroine. She’s also a trans woman. And why not? The collection, Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, is well worth seeking out.
Another recent book to feature a non-binary character is The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood. I’ll happily admit that one of the reasons I love this book is that it is set in Melbourne, where I lived for two years. Also it features a bizarre alliance of QUILTBAG people, sex workers and petrolheads, all of whom make common cause against religious fundamentalists. But it is listed here for the central character, Sal, who is a very ordinary non-binary person, beautifully portrayed. Although it was published in Australia, it is now available worldwide as an ebook.
By far the stand-out book of 2012 was Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl. It has already turned up on many award short lists, and was joint-winner of the Tiptree. It really is an amazing piece of writing (especially the chapter where Imp is off her meds). I’d find an excuse to include it in any list of favorite books, but it gets in here because it happens to include a fabulous portrayal of a trans woman. Parts of it were so true that it hurt.
I’d like to end by looking ahead a little. Roz Kaveney’s Rhapsody of Blood series is only one volume old this far. The first volume, Rituals, was a lot of fun, but the trans characters don’t turn up until near the end. Roz tells me that they’ll play a much bigger role later in the series, and of course I trust her to do a fine job, but you can’t actually read the books yet. The same holds true for the novel that Pat Cadigan is creating from her Hugo-nominated novelette, “The Girl Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”. While that is ostensibly about post-human body modification, Pat has built a lot of it out of the present-day experiences of trans people. I love the story, and am eagerly awaiting the novel.
There has indeed been a broadening of SFF to include more characters of varied sexualities, to the point where it’s hard to pick only one or two (or five, or ten) favorite works. So I’ll start with a handful of the excellent queer-themed anthologies that are out there — Lethe Press has done two “best of” series, Wilde Tales and Heiresses of Russ, as well as Brit Mandelo’s Beyond Binary. Every author in them is well worth following.
That said, here are three more personal favorites. Catherine Lundoff’s Silver Moon is a lesbian werewolf story and so much more. It begins with what could be a joke — women at menopause become shapechangers — and in Lundoff’s hands becomes something far more complicated. Geonn Cannon’s Railroad Spine is a fascinating take on a steampunk dystopia, a world in which information is tightly controlled, and a person can only learn what he or she needs to know to do the job at hand. It has a lesbian couple at its core, but his depiction of sex and sexuality is far more complicated and fluid, and is as convincing as his extraordinary society. And it has airships that actually make sense! Jo Graham’s The Emperor’s Agent (which I read in galleys; the book comes out in July) is the latest in her Numinous World series, and takes her reincarnated protagonist to Napoleon’s Europe. Elza is a courtesan, a spy, and a medium; she is also Charles van Aylde, having taken on her dead brother’s identity as well as her own. Set in the camps of the Grande Armée as it waits to invade Britain, the story moves from love and sex to spying and magic. Graham is pitch-perfect in the period, and Elza is fascinating, dangerous, and very much not “straight.”
Gay male – for me, the troika of authors that consistently produce the most inventive work would have to be Hal Duncan, Alex Jeffers, and Lee Thomas (of these three, Jeffers has yet to win an award, which is a terrible oversight). These three writers use a variety of techniques, whether wit or dread, to engage readers. My evidence would be stories such as “The Behold of the Eye,” “Tattooed Love Boys” and the acclaimed novel, The German. I think every gay reader should have their short story collections on the bookshelf.
Lesbian – Oddly, my favorite lesbian authors write gay male fiction (Ellen Kushner and Melissa Scott). I am not sure why this is the case. Dayna Ingram does write lesbian-themed speculative fiction; her novella “Eat Your Heart Out” was a clever romp that earned its starred review from Publishers Weekly. I bought her novelette story about the undead invading the Seneca Falls Convention for the upcoming anthology Zombies: Shambling Through History. I hope she writes more.
Bisexual – two individuals who have become more prolific and talented of late are Brit Mandelo and Ed Kurtz. Brit is still so young that I am thrilled that she has not even reached her potential as editor (Lammy finalist) and storyteller (Nebula finalist). Ed has proven his skill with both short horror fiction and longer thrillers. Neither is tame.
Transgendered – Alas, this is a category that is underrepresented. An editor or reader may well have no idea that an author is transgender unless a bio offers such information. I am trying to think of one that I truly admire who writes speculative fiction but the only one I can think of is Billy Martin (Poppy Z. Brite before transitioning), and Billy, to my knowledge, does art not fiction.
I am really moved and impressed with how effortlessly GLBT characters have slipped into the everyday discourse of speculative fiction. But I am not surprised: I’m always telling my non-SF friends (or rather, those who have not yet Found the Right One to turn them) that SF/F is and always has been the place to find new ways of looking at the world, new ways of imagining a future or an alternative for all us human beings.
I’d like to focus on the “Bi” aspect of the question first – after all, someone once summarized my novel SWORDSPOINT as “a bunch of crazy bisexuals killing each other!” (Fair enough.)
As a founding member of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, I do feel it is my bounden duty to cross the genre Evil Market lines and remind everyone that David Mitchell’s CLOUD ATLAS contains a hefty wallop of science fiction – including one of my favorite epicene amoral bisexuals of all time, Robert Frobisher. But my all-time-now-and-forever favorite “Published Mainstream but it is really Highest Grade Fantasy” novel is THE VINTNER’S LUCK, by Elizabeth Knox. An ambitious French peasant with a vineyard. The 19th century village Manic Pixie Dreamgirl he marries. The intelligent and curious Countess who becomes his neighbor. And an angel with a male pronoun who visits him every year. . . You do the math – or let this most excellent author do it for you – here, and in her equally genre-busting novels BLACK OXEN (Latin American Magic Realism meets Narnia) and DAYLIGHT (vampires, but not the ones you know about), both of which contain wonderful casual bisexuality.
Ysabeau Wilce’s FLORA fantasy trilogy, beginning with FLORA SEGUNDA (winner of the 2008 Norton Award), plays with justabout everything, including gender. Set in an imagined world that owes a whole lot more to 19th century America (especially San Francisco and the Sonoran Desert) than to medieval Europe or turn-of-the-century Oxford, and offering manly men in skirts and girls in military uniform (and stays), it’s just a pleasure to read. While most of the main characters are too young to do more than flirt and agonize, some of their parents are in some pretty unorthodox pairings – er, triplings. Her related stories for adults, such as “The Lineaments of Gratified Desire,” featuring characters like the rakish bad boy Hardhands, bring it more to the fore. (A collection is forthcoming, but I’m sworn to secrecy!)
There are some remarkable GLBT authors in our field these days, whose own lives and sexuality inform their work; I’d be remiss in not mentioning Christopher Barzak, and be a fool to miss Rick Bowes, storyteller extraordinaire, whose own richly-lived life as a resident of New York’s Greenwich Village from before Stonewall to its celeb-ridden present weave their way into his terrific opus of mainly interlinked short fiction, particularly MINIONS OF THE MOON and the forthcoming DUST DEVIL ON A QUIET STREET (Lethe Press). Bowes’ entertaining Twitter posts are also worth following ( @rickbowes), such as: “Today while proofreading my novel “Dust Devil on a Quiet Street” it struck me how much nicer the rent boys are now than when I was young.” and “If at my age I’m surprised by ANYTHING it means I haven’t been paying attention for the last 70 years.”
Finally, Terri Windling’s ground-breaking Bordertown series premiered in the 1980s, and in my opinion set the stage for all the genuinely urban fantasy that came after, influencing authors from Holly Black to Cory Doctorow. The early stories were very progressive for their time, and more than one person has credited Els Kushner (my cousin)’s story “Changeling” (from THE ESSENTIAL BORDERTOWN, 1998), with being their first lesbian coming out read in the genre. Holly and I recently revived the series, and WELCOME TO BORDERTOWN (2011, Random House) features some very strong GLBT material from authors Catherynne M. Valente, Nalo Hopkinson, Christopher Barzak and Tim Pratt. We’ve come a long way . . . and we’ve got a ways to go. I am so glad to be with you all on the journey!
Filed under: Mind Meld
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