The Routledge Companion to Gender and Science Fiction [1 ed.] 036753701X, 9780367537012

The Routledge Companion to Gender and Science Fiction is the first large-scale reference work of its kind, critically as

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The Routledge Companion to Gender and Science Fiction [1 ed.]
 036753701X, 9780367537012

Table of contents :
Half Title
List of Figures
List of Contributors
Part I What: Gender and Genre
1 Introduction: A Brief History of Gender, Science Fiction, and the Science Fiction Anthology
2 Author Roundtable on Gender in Science Fiction
Part II How: Theoretical Approaches
3 Introduction
4 Feminism, Violence, and the Anthropocene in The Handmaid’s Tale
5 Beyond Survival: Climate Change and Reproduction in The Handmaid’s Tale, Birthstones, and The Fifth Season
6 Collective Close Reading: Queer SF and the Methodology of the Many
7 Queer SF
8 Renovating the System: The Matrix Resurrections and Trans Resistance to Neoliberal Integration
9 Buffalo Gals and Talking Jellyfish: Feminisms and Animal Studies in Science Fiction
10 Asexual and Genderless Futures
11 Making the End Times Great Again: Postapocalypses, Preppers, and the Politics of Patriarchy on American Television
12 Decoding Masculinity in 21st-Century Science Fiction by Men: Two Case Studies in Reconceptualizing Patriarchy
13 “I Came for the ‘Pew-Pew Space Battles’; I Stayed for the Autism”: Martha Wells’s Murderbot
14 The Womanist Speculative Archetype in Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s “Evidence”
15 Feminist Science Fiction Art
Part III Who: Subjectivities
16 Introduction
17 “All Hail the Trans Cyborg”: Autonomous as an Analogy of Trans Becoming
18 Queer Science Fiction, Queer Relationality, and Utopian Insurgency
19 Like “A Bolt out of the Blue”: Stories of Gender Transformation From the German Democratic Republic
20 New Pronouns and New Uses: Gender Variance and Language in Contemporary Science Fiction
21 Not Just Boys and Toys: Gender and Intersectionality in SF for Children
22 Speculations Against Gender Discrimination: A Study of Indian SF’s Growing Engagement with Gender Issues
23 Feminist-Queer Cyberpunk: Hacking Cyberpunk’s Hetero-Masculinism
24 Trans Without Trans?: Gender Identity and the Relationship Between Transness and Sex Changing in the Works of John Varley
25 Unruly Bodies: Corporeality, Technocracy, and Same-Sex Desire in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl
26 Good Wives and Mothers in the Universe: Explorations of Traditional Chinese Gender Roles in Chi Hui’s “Nest of Insects”
27 Goddesses, Broods, and Hominids: Sexual Pleasure and Desire in the Speculative Fictions of Octavia E. Butler and Nalo Hopkinson
Part IV Where: Media and Transmedialities
28 Introduction
29 Representation and Performance of Gender in Speculative Video Games and Game Mods
30 Parodying Captain Kirk Through the ‘Drift’ in Cultural Memory
31 Subverting, Re-fashioning, or Re-inscribing the Power of the Male Gaze: Feminism, Fashion, and Cyberpunk Style
32 Queer Affect: Torchwood, Television and (Queer) Unhappiness
33 Afro-Feminist Intimacies: Women and AI in African Short Fiction
34 Gender Representation and Identity in The Red Strings Club
35 The Queer Non Sequitur
36 Gender and Sexuality in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Its Adaptations
37 Meet My Alien Sex Fiend: Iterations of Otherness in Recent Mexican Films
38 A Young, Black, Queer Woman in Metropolis: Janelle Monáe and Sci-Fi Queerness
39 Trans/Pacific Entanglements: Japanese Tentacle Porn in American Internet Culture
40 Gendering Through Time in Japanese Anime: The Time-Traveling Girl
Part V When: Transtemporalities
41 Introduction
42 Naomi Alderman’s The Power and New Feminist Science Fiction Superheroes
43 Gender Euphoria in Space Utopia
44 Science? Fiction? SF by Anglo-American Women in the Magazines
45 Early Black Feminist SF and Future Fiction
46 Gendering Domes Between Pulp Era and New Wave
47 Restorative Nostalgia and Historical Amnesia in The Handmaid’s Tale Protests
48 Tracing Second-Wave Feminism Through Women in the Dune Series
49 Complicating the Super Men: Evolving Masculinities in US-American Science Fiction
50 Between the Stove and Emancipation—Conservative Women and Anti-utopian Imaginations in Early German Science Fiction Literature
51 “Mistress of a World”: Margaret Cavendish, Gender and SF in Early Modern England
52 A Riddle About a Stick Figure: Narrative Prosthesis, Futurity, and Misrecognition in Adam Roberts’s Bête
53 The Rise of Female SF Writers in China in the Twenty-First Century

Citation preview

“Science fiction has been questioning gender norms since before there was science fiction (think Margaret Cavendish, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman). This lively and comprehensive new volume, edited by leading scholars in the field, surveys science fiction’s powerful techniques for exploring difference and exposing injustice. The essays demonstrate how far both the genre itself and scholarly responses to it have come since the early days of feminist critique. Contributors look at thought-experiments about queer or nonbinary societies and gender systems derived from non-European cultures as well as at the explosion of science fictional thinking in animation, comics, and other media. As new discoveries about the varieties of human experience and new technologies turn absolutes into mere possibilities, books like this serve as tour guides to a new reality.” —Brian Attebery, author of Decoding Gender in Science Fiction and Fantasy: How It Works “The Routledge Companion to Gender and Science Fiction is a comprehensive, ambitious, and thought-provoking volume with invaluable research and resources for students and scholars. Bringing together science fiction writers, established scholars, and new voices, this book establishes important links between gender studies and science fiction studies. As this anthology shows, science fiction offers a unique site to explore gender issues including identity, bodies, social issues, race, animal studies, among many other topics. Readers of the Routledge Companion to Gender and Science Fiction will receive a graduate-level course in the relevance of science fiction for gender, and gender for science fiction. The book’s sophisticated analysis is presented in accessible and engaging prose.” —Robin Roberts, author of A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction and Anne McCaffrey: A Life with Dragons “Fritzsche, Omry, Pearson, and Yaszek bring together an array of established and emerging critical voices in science fiction and gender studies to create this comprehensive companion. A wide array of scholarship ranging from theory to history to media studies addresses canonical authors like Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood alongside discussions of Black, Indian, Mexican, Chinese and Japanese authors and creators. The editors’ inclusion of BIPOC and global voices and topics is a deliberate choice to move beyond a white, Western view of feminism and gender studies in science fiction scholarship. Essential reading for anyone interested in representations of gender and identity in science fiction literature, theory, and media.” —Joy Sanchez-Taylor, author of Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color “This unique collection emerges from what Donna Haraway has referred to as ‘situated knowledge,’ that is, knowledge firmly embedded and contextualized in the particularities of histories, cultures, and social formations. Its chapters demonstrate the inextricably intersectional nature of gender and sexuality as these messy and complex categories are embodied in all their differences in speculative fictions from around the world and through equally wide-ranging scholarly considerations. None of the sections here are identified by geography: no privileged works or sites or voices dominate this wide-ranging conversation. Queerness and diversity are the norms, and with skill and panache the editors have put together a collection that comes very near to the realization of their utopian ambitions.” —Veronica Hollinger, Science Fiction Studies


The Routledge Companion to Gender and Science Fiction is the first large-scale reference work of its kind, critically assessing the relations of gender and genre in science fiction (SF) especially—but not exclusively—as explored in speculative art by women and LGBTQ+ artists across the world. This global volume builds upon the traditions of interdisciplinary inquiry by connecting established topics in gender studies and science fiction studies with emergent ideas from researchers in different media. Taken together, they challenge conventional generic boundaries; provide new ways of approaching familiar texts; recover lost artists and introduce new ones; connect the revival of old, hate-based politics with the increasing visibility of imagined futures for all; and show how SF stories about new kinds of gender relations inspire new models of artistic, technoscientific, and political practice. Their chapters are grouped into five conversations—about the history of gender and genre, theoretical frameworks, subjectivities, medias and transmedialities, and transtemporalities—that are central to discussions of gender and SF in the current moment. A range of both emerging and established names in media, literature, and cultural studies engage with a huge diversity of topics including eco-criticism, animal studies, cyborg and posthumanist theory, masculinity, critical race studies, Indigenous futurisms, Black girlhood, and gaming. This is an essential resource for students and scholars studying gender, sexuality, and/or science fiction. Lisa Yaszek is Regents’ Professor of Science Fiction Studies at Georgia Tech, US, and past president of the Science Fiction Research Association; her recent books include Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century (2020) and The Future Is Female! series (2018–present). Sonja Fritzsche is Professor of German Studies and Associate Dean at Michigan State University, US, and focuses on Eastern European science fiction and the amplification of global science fiction studies. Keren Omry is Senior Lecturer of contemporary US fiction at the University of Haifa, Israel, where she researches and teaches on Alternate Histories, Science Fiction, and African-American literature. Wendy Gay Pearson is Chair of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Western Ontario in Canada whose research focuses on queer and trans science fiction; with Veronica Holinger and Joan Gordon, she is co-editor of Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction (2008).


Edited by Lisa Yaszek, Sonja Fritzsche, Keren Omry, and Wendy Gay Pearson

Designed cover image: Derek Newman-Stille, “Surreality” (2022) First published 2023 by Routledge 4 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 605 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10158 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2023 selection and editorial matter, Lisa Yaszek, Sonja Fritzsche, Keren Omry, and Wendy Gay Pearson; individual chapters, the contributors The right of Lisa Yaszek, Sonja Fritzsche, Keren Omry, and Wendy Gay Pearson to be identified as the authors of the editorial material, and of the authors for their individual chapters, has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN: 978-0-367-53701-2 (hbk) ISBN: 978-0-367-53702-9 (pbk) ISBN: 978-1-003-08293-4 (ebk) DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934 Typeset in Bembo by Apex CoVantage, LLC


List of Figures xiii List of Contributors xiv Acknowledgmentsxix PART I

What: Gender and Genre


  1 Introduction: A Brief History of Gender, Science Fiction, and the Science Fiction Anthology Lisa Yaszek


  2 Author Roundtable on Gender in Science Fiction Ida Yoshinaga PART II


How: Theoretical Approaches


 3 Introduction Lisa Yaszek


  4 Feminism, Violence, and the Anthropocene in The Handmaid’s Tale26 Jonathan Alexander and Sherryl Vint   5 Beyond Survival: Climate Change and Reproduction in The Handmaid’s Tale, Birthstones, and The Fifth Season33 Anna Bedford



  6 Collective Close Reading: Queer SF and the Methodology of the Many Beyond Gender Research Collective


  7 Queer SF Ritch Calvin


  8 Renovating the System: The Matrix Resurrections and Trans Resistance to Neoliberal Integration Terra Gasque


  9 Buffalo Gals and Talking Jellyfish: Feminisms and Animal Studies in Science Fiction Joan Gordon


10 Asexual and Genderless Futures Anna Kurowicka


11 Making the End Times Great Again: Postapocalypses, Preppers, and the Politics of Patriarchy on American Television Carlen Lavigne


12 Decoding Masculinity in 21st-Century Science Fiction by Men: Two Case Studies in Reconceptualizing Patriarchy87 Sara Martín 13 “I Came for the ‘Pew-Pew Space Battles’; I Stayed for the Autism”: Martha Wells’s Murderbot Robin Anne Reid 14 The Womanist Speculative Archetype in Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s “Evidence” R. Nicole Smith 15 Feminist Science Fiction Art Smin Smith


102 108


Who: Subjectivities


16 Introduction Wendy Gay Pearson




17 “All Hail the Trans Cyborg”: Autonomous as an Analogy of Trans Becoming Jacob Barry 18 Queer Science Fiction, Queer Relationality, and Utopian Insurgency Peyton Campbell

124 131

19 Like “A Bolt out of the Blue”: Stories of Gender Transformation From the German Democratic Republic Carol Anne Costabile-Heming


20 New Pronouns and New Uses: Gender Variance and Language in Contemporary Science Fiction Misha Grifka Wander


21 Not Just Boys and Toys: Gender and Intersectionality in SF for Children Emily Midkiff 22 Speculations Against Gender Discrimination: A Study of Indian SF’s Growing Engagement with Gender Issues Debaditya Mukhopadhyay 23 Feminist-Queer Cyberpunk: Hacking Cyberpunk’s Hetero-Masculinism Graham J. Murphy 24 Trans Without Trans?: Gender Identity and the Relationship Between Transness and Sex Changing in the Works of John Varley Wendy Gay Pearson


160 167


25 Unruly Bodies: Corporeality, Technocracy, and Same-Sex Desire in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl183 Agnieszka Podruczna 26 Good Wives and Mothers in the Universe: Explorations of Traditional Chinese Gender Roles in Chi Hui’s “Nest of Insects” Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker


27 Goddesses, Broods, and Hominids: Sexual Pleasure and Desire in the Speculative Fictions of Octavia E. Butler and Nalo Hopkinson Sara Wenger



Contents PART IV

Where: Media and Transmedialities


28 Introduction Keren Omry


29 Representation and Performance of Gender in Speculative Video Games and Game Mods Paweł Frelik 30 Parodying Captain Kirk Through the ‘Drift’ in Cultural Memory Danielle Girard 31 Subverting, Re-fashioning, or Re-inscribing the Power of the Male Gaze: Feminism, Fashion, and Cyberpunk Style Rebecca J. Holden

210 218


32 Queer Affect: Torchwood, Television and (Queer) Unhappiness Susan Knabe


33 Afro-Feminist Intimacies: Women and AI in African Short Fiction Nedine Moonsamy


34 Gender Representation and Identity in The Red Strings Club248 Jaime Oliveros García and Alejandro López Lizana 35 The Queer Non Sequitur Alex Prong


36 Gender and Sexuality in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Its Adaptations John Rieder


37 Meet My Alien Sex Fiend: Iterations of Otherness in Recent Mexican Films Itala Schmelz


38 A Young, Black, Queer Woman in Metropolis: Janelle Monáe and Sci-Fi Queerness Erik Steinskog


39 Trans/Pacific Entanglements: Japanese Tentacle Porn in American Internet Culture Dagmar Van Engen




40 Gendering Through Time in Japanese Anime: The Time-Traveling Girl Candice Wilson and Tobias Wilson-Bates PART V


When: Transtemporalities


41 Introduction Sonja Fritzsche


42 Naomi Alderman’s The Power and New Feminist Science Fiction Superheroes304 Marleen S. Barr 43 Gender Euphoria in Space Utopia Laura Collier and Kathryn Prince


44 Science? Fiction? SF by Anglo-American Women in the Magazines Jane Donawerth


45 Early Black Feminist SF and Future Fiction M. Giulia Fabi


46 Gendering Domes Between Pulp Era and New Wave Szilvia Gellai


47 Restorative Nostalgia and Historical Amnesia in The Handmaid’s Tale Protests Kam Meakin 48 Tracing Second-Wave Feminism Through Women in the Dune Series Kara Kennedy 49 Complicating the Super Men: Evolving Masculinities in US-American Science Fiction Michael Pitts 50 Between the Stove and Emancipation—Conservative Women and Anti-utopian Imaginations in Early German Science Fiction Literature Katharina Scheerer 51 “Mistress of a World”: Margaret Cavendish, Gender and SF in Early Modern England E Mariah Spencer xi

343 351





52 A Riddle About a Stick Figure: Narrative Prosthesis, Futurity, and Misrecognition in Adam Roberts’s Bête380 Jessica Suzanne Stokes 53 The Rise of Female SF Writers in China in the Twenty-First Century Mengtian Sun





1.1 3.1 16.1 28.1 41.1 46.1 46.2 46.3 47.1

Gili Ron, “Untitled #1” (2022) Gili Ron, “Untitled #2” (2022) Gili Ron, “Untitled #3” (2022) Gili Ron, “Untitled #4” (2022) Gili Ron, “Untitled #5” (2022) Monroe Schere’s Novelette “Rosie Lived in a Bubble” “The Girl in the Glass Sphere” Women inside of glass skulls Handmaids against Trump, London 2019


1 21 117 205 299 334 335 336 347


Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English and Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Irvine, US, and is the author of many books on rhetoric, popular culture, and writing studies. Marleen S. Barr is an independent scholar in the US. She is the author of Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction, Genre Fission: A New Discourse Practice for Cultural Studies, and Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory and received the Science Fiction Research Association’s Award for Lifetime Achievement. Jacob Barry is a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, working on an arts-based participatory action research project that explores the experiences of gender-diverse folks accessing and engaging with care in New Brunswick, Canada. Anna Bedford is a science fiction scholar and a Teaching and Learning Specialist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, US, where she also teaches Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Beyond Gender are a group of researchers, activists, and practitioners engaged in collective close readings of queer/trans/feminist science fiction, among their number are the authors of the chapter included in this volume: Amy Butt, Tom Dillon, Rachel Hill, Sing Yun Lee, Sinéad Murphy, Eleonora Rossi, Smin Smith, and Katie Stone. Ritch Calvin is Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook, US, and the author of Queering SF: Readings (2022). Peyton Campbell is a PhD student in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Western Ontario in Canada whose PhD research explores the potential of queer hope in resisting climate fatalism and heteronormative futurity. Laura Collier is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia, where her research is in the intersection of emotions, activism, and speculative fiction. xiv


Carol Anne Costabile-Heming is Professor of German in the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, University of North Texas, US, and has published extensively on twentieth- and twenty-first-century German literature and culture. Jane Donawerth is award-winning Professor Emerita of the University of Maryland, US, author of Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (1997) as well as many publications on women’s SF, Shakespeare, early modern women writers, and history of rhetoric. M. Giulia Fabi is Associate Professor at the University of Ferrara, Italy, and the author of Passing and the Rise of the African-American Novel (2001) as well as of many publications on early African-American speculative fiction and on women writers. Paweł Frelik is Associate Professor of Visual Culture at the University of Warsaw, Poland, where he teaches and researches science fiction and video games. Sonja Fritzsche is Professor of German Studies and Associate Dean at Michigan State University, US, and focuses on Central and Eastern European science fiction and the amplification of global science fiction studies. Terra Gasque is a PhD student in Digital Media at Georgia Tech, US, where she is completing her dissertation on “Transgressive Narratives: Using Queer Failure to Expand the Boundaries of Epiphanic Narrative Structure.” Szilvia Gellai is a faculty member in the Department of German Studies at the University of Vienna, Austria, and the author of Glass Scenographies. Notes on Spaces of One’s Own (2023). Danielle Girard received their PhD from Lancaster University, England; they are currently working on both an edited collection and special issue on new queer television. Joan Gordon, US, is an editor of Science Fiction Studies and a recipient of the Science Fiction Research Association Award for Lifetime Achievement in SF Scholarship. Misha Grifka Wander is a PhD candidate in the Ohio State University English department, US, specializing in video game studies, comics studies, and speculative fiction studies, using an eco-critical and queer lens. Rebecca J. Holden is Principal Lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park, US, and a critical scholar of feminist and African-American science fiction. Kara Kennedy, PhD, is an independent scholar in New Zealand and author of Women’s Agency in the Dune Universe: Tracing Women’s Liberation through Science Fiction (2021). Susan Knabe is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies and the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Western Ontario in Canada; her current research focuses on queer temporalities. Anna Kurowicka works at the American Studies Center at University of Warsaw, Poland, and publishes on asexuality in popular culture, disability in science fiction, and gender in speculative fiction. xv


Carlen Lavigne is the author of Post-Apocalyptic Patriarchy: American Television and Gendered Visions of Survival (2018) and Cyberpunk Women, Feminism, and Science Fiction (2013); she is Head of Communication Studies at Red Deer Polytechnic in Alberta, Canada. Alejandro López Lizana, PhD, is Associate Lecturer at University of Granada, Spain, where he researches German literature with a focus on Comparative Literature and Transmediality. Sara Martín is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural Studies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain, and author of Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel (2020). Kam Meakin is a doctoral researcher in Gender Studies at the University of Sussex, England, researching feminist dystopian fiction and UK-based activism. Emily Midkiff teaches about children’s literature and literacy at the University of North Dakota, US, and is the author of Equipping Space Cadets: Primary Science Fiction for Young Children. Nedine Moonsamy is Associate Professor at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, whose scholarly research focuses on contemporary South African fiction and African SF; her debut novel, The Unfamous Five (Modjaji Books) was shortlisted for the HSS Fiction Award (2021) and her poetry was shortlisted for the inaugural New Contrast National Poetry Award (2021). Debaditya Mukhopadhyay is Assistant Professor of English at Manikchak College, affiliated with the University of Gourbanga, India. His doctoral research was on Anglo-American spy fiction. Graham J. Murphy is Professor with the School of English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada and co-editor of Fifty Key Figures in Cyberpunk Culture (2022), The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (2020), Cyberpunk and Visual Culture (2018), and Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives (2010), as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Jaime Oliveros García, PhD, is Visiting Professor at Rey Juan Carlos University, Spain, and a researcher of identity and video games. Keren Omry is Senior Lecturer of contemporary US fiction at the University of Haifa, Israel, where she researches and teaches on Alternate Histories, Science Fiction, and African-American literature. Wendy Gay Pearson is Chair of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Western Ontario in Canada whose research focuses on queer and trans science fiction; with Veronica Holinger and Joan Gordon, she is co-editor of Queer Universes; Sexualities in Science Fiction (2008). Michael Pitts is Lecturer of English at the University of New York in Prague and author of Alternative Masculinities in Feminist Speculative Fiction: A New Man (2021). Agnieszka Podruczna, PhD, is Assistant Professor at the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland, who researches various aspects of speculative fiction (particularly North American speculative fiction by writers of color) in the context postcolonial studies. xvi


Kathryn Prince is Associate Professor and Vice Dean at the University of Ottawa, Canada, where her research focuses on possible futures expressed in both fiction and non-fiction. Alex Prong recently completed their MA from Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, and is looking forward to beginning work on a PhD in the near future. Robin Anne Reid, PhD, was Professor in the Department of Literature and Languages at Texas A&M University-Commerce, US, for twenty-seven years before retiring in May 2020 to pursue independent scholarship. John Rieder, US, author of Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008), Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System (2017), and Speculative Epistemologies: An Eccentric Account of SF from the 1960s to the Present (2021), received the Science Fiction Research Association’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2019. Katharina Scheerer is a PhD candidate at the University of Münster, Germany and co-editor of Where Are We Now? Orientierungen nach der Postmoderne (2022). Itala Schmelz is a philosopher and curator in Mexico and author of the book Codigofagia. Mexican Cinema and Science Fiction. Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Heidelberg University in Germany who received her PhD in Chinese Studies from the Free University of Berlin in June 2021. R. Nicole Smith, PhD, is Senior Lecturer at Spelman College, US, and researches and publishes on Womanism, Black speculative fiction, and Afrofuturism. Smin Smith is a researcher in science fiction art studies, a member of the Beyond Gender Research Collective, and Lecturer at University for the Creative Arts, UK. E Mariah Spencer is an interdisciplinary scholar and educator in the US with a PhD in English from the University of Iowa. Erik Steinskog is Associate Professor in musicology at the Department of Arts and Cultural studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and author of Afrofuturism and Black Sound Studies: Culture, Technology, and Things to Come (2018). Jessica Suzanne Stokes is a disabled poet, educator, scholar, and PhD candidate at Michigan State University, US, and co-founder of the HIVES Research Workshop and Speaker Series. Mengtian Sun is an independent scholar in science fiction studies who has worked in universities such as the University of Melbourne, Australia, and City University of Macao. Dagmar Van Engen is Honors Faculty Fellow and Director of the Barrett Writing Center at Barrett Honors College, Arizona State University, US. xvii


Sherryl Vint is Professor of Media and Culture Studies and English at the University of California, Riverside, US, and is the author of many groundbreaking books in the field of science fiction studies and speculative narrative. Sara Wenger is a PhD candidate in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) program at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, US, whose research interests include feminist technoscience studies, humanoid sex technologies, feminist science fiction, and representations of robots and artificial intelligence in popular culture. Candice Wilson is Associate Professor at the University of North Georgia, US, who researches transgressive women in Japanese cinema. Tobias Wilson-Bates is Assistant Professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, US, who works on nineteenth-century narrative histories of technology, ecology, and temporality. Lisa Yaszek is Regents’ Professor of Science Fiction Studies at Georgia Tech, US, and past president of the Science Fiction Research Association; her recent books include Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century (2020) and The Future Is Female! series (2018–present). Ida Yoshinaga is a sansei media scholar who teaches science fiction and fantasy, screenwriting, and film and TV studies at Georgia Tech, US.



The editors wish to acknowledge everyone involved directly and indirectly with this collection that was imagined and set into motion in pre-pandemic Earth times. Since then, many of our families and communities around the world have been impacted by COVID-19 as well as new and existing social justice challenges and traumas. Those who were unable to join us in the collection, you are in our thoughts, and we wish you well until we meet again. Those who were able to submit and finish, we are grateful for your perseverance, wisdom, and critical visions of better futures. Beyond this, we also wish to thank several institutions by name for providing funding to support the production of this volume: the Ivan Allen College at Georgia Tech, the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University, and the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 733/20). We also wish to dedicate the collection to Nichelle Nichols (1932–2022) for her courage, resilience, and vision.



What Gender and Genre

Figure 1.1  Gili Ron, “Untitled #1” (2022)

1 INTRODUCTION A Brief History of Gender, Science Fiction, and the Science Fiction Anthology Lisa Yaszek

Introduction: The Long History of Gender and Genre Fantastic fictions that challenge conventional ideas about the relations of science, society, and gender are as old as speculative storytelling itself. Looking backward, we might begin this tradition with stories including the 10th-century ad folkloric tale Kaguya Hime, in which a princess from the moon rejects courtship by Japan’s emperor for the company of her own people; the 1666 proto-novel The Blazing World, in which British author Margaret Cavendish casts herself as a dimension-traveling philosopher warrior queen who uses an alien army to save her homeland from invasion; and Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, which gave us both our first science fiction (SF) archetypes—the mad scientist, the misunderstood monster, and the imperiled scientist’s love interest—and the first modern critique of patriarchal science as dangerously unmoored from feminine and feminist sensibility. Traveling forward through time and space to the early 20thcentury United States, we see women writers take inspiration from their suffragist counterparts to demand equal representation both in the present and in our many imagined futures. In 1902–03, African American artist Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood thrills Black audiences and anticipates the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) by over a century with its vision of a hidden, high-tech African society protected by elite warrior women. Two decades later, White and mixed-race authors Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F. Stone, and Lilith Lorraine bring similarly shocking dreams of female futures to the emergent SF community. Their tales of daring lady astronauts, telepathic alien queens, and strong-willed love interests who rescue themselves do not go unnoticed: while the progressive-leaning editors of some magazines “like the idea of a woman invading the field [they] had opened” (Stone 101), a small but loud minority are less enthusiastic. In 1938 teenaged fan Donald G. Turnbull declares in a letter to the editor at Astounding that SF magazines should focus on “good wholesome free-from-women stories” because “a woman’s place is not in anything scientific,” and a teenaged Isaac Asimov agrees that “when we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames” and that “many top-notch, grade-A, wonderful, marvelous, etc., etc., authors get along swell without any women” (qt. in Larbalestier 119, 124). Flash forward to recent decades, and at first it seems the song remains the same: the increasing visibility of women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC artists in the global SF community leads to hateful events including the RaceFail’09 flame war, the Gamergate controversy of 2014, and the block-voting controversies of Puppygate 2015 and 2016. In each case, a relatively small DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-2


Lisa Yaszek

group of United States-born White men loudly (and in some cases, violently) proclaimed that women and LGBTQ+ artists, especially those of color, were out to ruin the fun of popular culture for everyone with their insistence on exploring issues of diversity and social justice. And yet, women and nonbinary artists persist and thrive in SF across media and cultures today. Consider, for instance, Margaret Atwood’s award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1980 feminist dystopian novel that has spawned a film and an award-winning TV series by the same name and whose iconic red handmaid’s uniforms have become equally iconic symbols of feminist political protest; the Wachowski siblings’ Matrix film series, which neatly eviscerates Western culture’s most dearly held myths about the singular male Chosen One while meditating on the power of women, minority communities, and trans-consciousness; and Jeanette Ng’s 2019 Hugo Awards speech at the Dublin Worldcon, in which Ng celebrates SF as a “wonderful, ramshackle” genre that has outgrown the limiting influence of midcentury SF tastemaker John W. Campbell who, as an editor, was “responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonizers, settlers and industrialists” (Ng). Meanwhile, the global SF community has sent a firm message to the architects of Puppygate by giving the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 2016, 2017, and 2018 to African American author N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, thereby making her the first author of any race or gender to win SF’s most prestigious award three times in a row. Clearly, people of all genders do indeed want to see female and LGBTQ+ heroes remaking the world in their own image. The Routledge Companion to Gender and Science Fiction (RCGSF) introduces readers to the ways that SF artists communicate their ideas about gender across centuries, continents, and cultures. The serious study of these issues has been an important part of the SF community since the 1970s, when women artists and fans were inspired by the revival of feminism and the creation of the first gender studies programs to create cons, fanzines, and publishing venues of their own. At the time, “gender” was often used as a euphemism for “women,” but the decades since have seen a more expansive view of the ways in which SF can question gender, including bringing feminist and queer perspectives to bear on masculinities and recognizing the existence and importance of transgender and nonbinary folx as both creators and consumers of SF. Gender has also been an important part of SF studies in academia since the field’s inception around the same time, generating numerous scholarly articles, monographs, special journal issues, and anthologies. The scholars and artists featured in RCGSF build upon these traditions of interdisciplinary inquiry by connecting established topics in gender studies and science fiction studies with emergent ideas from researchers in different media. As such, our Companion is the first large-scale reference collection of its kind to address new theories of gender intersectionality and diversity as they inform SF production around the globe.

Defining the Debate Over Gender and Genre: A Brief History of the SF Anthology The RCGSF directly owes its existence to the conversations about gender and genre that have been part of the SF community for well over a century. Fittingly enough, many of these debates unfolded in and around the historical development of the SF anthology itself. This is especially true in the United States, where SF came together as a unique popular genre in the all-story magazines of the late 1800s and the specialized genre magazines that flourished in the early and mid-20th century. By the 1940s, however, readers were increasingly able to access SF through book collections as well. Anthologies were popular in an era dominated by ephemera such as newspapers and magazines because they were “less fragile, kept in print longer, [and] 4


available in libraries,” offering interested readers quick introductions to SF, its history, and its themes—indeed, genre anthologies were some of the earliest spaces where these subjects were first articulated. As expensive, hardcover publications, anthologies also made SF “more acceptable to parents” and even offered this newly named mode of storytelling a certain cultural legitimacy—especially important in an era when decency codes sometimes required shop keepers to store their SF magazines under the counter with other kinds of “lurid” literature (Nichols and Langford). Much like their feminist counterparts in the political sphere, the main issue that women writers of this era grappled with was one of representation. In 1946 two respectable publishers commissioned the first major hardcover SF anthologies: Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas’s Adventures in Time and Space (Random House) and Groff Conklin’s The Best of Science Fiction (Crown Publishers). Taken together, these anthologies seemed to confirm the adage that SF really is all about “boys and their toys.” Although women in the SF community made up “about 15 percent of all contributors” at that time (Yaszek) and both anthologies included over three dozen stories, Conklin included just two women in his collection—Leslie F. Stone and C.L. Moore, co-writing with husband Henry Kuttner under the Lewis Padgett penname— while Healy and McComas included just one: C.L. Moore, again co-writing with husband Henry Kuttner under the Lewis Padgett penname. As the first canonical histories of SF, both anthologies minimized the impact of women writers in the genre: Moore was a well-established SF luminary in her own right by that time but was only represented through collaborative work with her husband under a male pseudonym, and Stone’s gender was essentially erased by Conklin who thought she was a man (despite the fact that her picture was often printed with her stories, in the fashion of the time) and who, upon learning the truth from Stone’s husband, blurted out, “are you telling me I used a story by a woman? I didn’t believe women could write science fiction!” (Stone 101). A few years later, when SF luminary Judith Merril began what fellow editor Anthony Boucher described as her “practically flawless” SF anthology editing career (which stretched over three decades and included her groundbreaking “Year’s Best” series from 1956–67), the import of her work was diminished by disaffected male colleagues who—in a rhetorical move that anticipated Puppygate—cast her as the architect of an SF “mafia” who threatened to ruin the fun of the genre by “imposing literary standards essentially alien to the field” (Latham 203–4). SF anthologies took on heightened importance in the 1960s and 70s, when authors of experimental or “New Wave” SF placed their most groundbreaking work in the original story collections that were quickly replacing magazines as the center of generic innovation due to their “high pay, perceived prestige, and selectivity” (Horton). Over the course of the decade, authors and editors associated with anthology series including Damon Knight’s Orbit (1965–80), Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions (1971–81), Terry Carr’s Universe (1971–87), and Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions (1968 and 1972) earned a “remarkable number of Hugo and Nebula” nominations and wins (Nicholls and Langford). While women still comprised a small but significant 15% of the SF community at this time, they were suddenly far more visible within the genre, taking home 19% of all Hugo Awards and 25% of all Nebula Awards—often for stories that first appeared in one of the original anthologies of the era. Male anthology editors were well aware of their female contributors’ star power. As Harlan Ellison succinctly put it: “the best writers in SF today are the women,” and in the late 1970s, Robert Silverberg gave the editorial reins of his prestigious New Dimensions series to award-winning feminist SF author Marta Randall (Ellison 229). Feminist SF author and editor Pamela Sargent recalls that the “atmosphere of change” heralded by the New Wave attracted women to the genre because it suddenly seemed that their 5

Lisa Yaszek

stories “were likely to find a more receptive audience, even if [they] violated some of the traditional canons” (14). Inspired by the revival of feminism and the recovery of women’s history in newly established gender studies programs across the country, women writers of this era pioneered the first SF anthologies of their own, including Sargent’s Women of Wonder (1975), which established a herstory of women’s SF from the pulp era to the present and spawned a number of successor anthologies over the next two decades; Virginia Kidd’s Millennial Women (1977), in which all of the stories are written by women and have female protagonists; and Vonda N. McIntrye and Susan Janice Anderson’s Aurora: Beyond Equality (1976), which offered readers visions of the many truly strange new futures humans might inhabit after achieving gender equality. Today, feminist editors continue the project of recovering women’s SF in all its diverse forms with Detlef Münch’s The Woman of the Future 100 Years Ago: 7 Forgotten Feminist Utopias from 1988–1914 (Die Frau der Zukunft vor 100 Jahren:  7 vergessene feministische Utopien aus den Jahren 1899–1914, 2008); Alex Dally MacFarlane’s The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (2014); Ann VanderMeer’s Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology (2015); Emmanuela Carbé, Ann VanderMeer, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Le Visionaire: Fantascienza, Fantasy, Fantasy e Femminismo: U’antologia (2018); and Lisa Yaszek’s The Future Is Female! series (2018–present). The past three decades have also seen the rise of anthologies that, much like modern gender activism, challenge and expand our ideas about gender and genre. In 1987 Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to help other feminists understand that women’s experience of gender was not universal, but dependent on the complex and sometimes contradictory relations of both race and gender—an insight that subsequent feminists would extend to class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc. By the turn of the millennium, women would become leaders in producing new SF anthologies organized around issues of intersectionality, including Sheree Thomas’s Dark Matter series (2001, 2005); Nalo Hopkinson’s Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root (2000) and So Long Been Dreaming (2004); Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán’s Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain (2003); Grace Dillon’s Walking the Clouds: An Indigenous Science Fiction Anthology (2012); and Nerine Dorman’s Terra Incognita, New Short Speculative Stories from Africa (2015). Indeed, insofar as these anthologies collect stories by BIPOC authors not usually found in traditional Eurowestern SF publishing venues, they ask us to reconsider not just who writes SF, but where it is written as well. In a similar vein, LGBTQ+ authors generate still other fantastic histories of SF with anthologies including Nicola Griffith and Steven Padgett’s Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction (1998); Brit Mandelo’s Beyond the Gender Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Science Fiction (2012); the Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction series (various editors, 2016–2019); Joshua Whitehead’s Love after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction (2020); and Paula Guran’s Far Out: Recent Queer Science Fiction and Fantasy (2021).

Defining the Debate Over Gender and Genre: The SF Studies Anthology Like their artistic counterparts, feminists and other progressive-minded scholars have long been interested in the relations of gender and genre in SF. Indeed, early feminist SF scholarship often came from within the genre community itself, including Joanna Russ’s landmark essay “The Image of Women in Science Fiction” (1970), which argued that “there are plenty of images of women in science fiction . . . [but] hardly any women” (39) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “American SF and the Other” (1975), which depicted SF as a “baboon patriarchy” with “rich, ambitious, aggressive males at the top” and “then, at the bottom, the poor, the uneducated, the faceless 6


masses, and all the women” (210). While Russ placed her essay in the Red Clay Reader, scholarly journals Extrapolation and Science Fiction Studies had featured essays about women writers since their inception in 1959 and 1973, respectively, and by the mid-1970s both were publishing decidedly feminist analyses of SF such as Le Guin’s “American SF” (which first appeared in Science Fiction Studies) and Mary Kenny Badami’s “A  Feminist Critique of Science Fiction” (Extrapolation, 1976). Perhaps not surprisingly, this era also saw the publication of the first feminist SF studies anthology, Marleen S. Barr’s Future Females: A Critical Anthology (1981)—a collection that spawned the subsequent volumes Future Females, The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities (2000) and Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New Wave Trajectory (2008). The same era also saw the beginning of serious studies of sexuality and non-normative gender expression with the publication of Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo’s comprehensive annotated bibliography, Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (1983). As the trajectory of Barr’s anthologies indicate, over the past half century, SF scholars, like their artistic counterparts, have become increasingly interested in expanding our ideas about gender in SF. By the 1980s and 90s, the development of new communication and information technologies coupled with the advent of global capitalism led a new generation of feminists to propose that thinking carefully about the relations of science, society, and gender should be a central priority for all women. This argument was advanced perhaps most famously by cultural theorist Donna Haraway, who appropriated the figure of the part-organic, part-technological figure of the cyborg from SF an ideal metaphor for modern political activists and argued that feminist SF authors are “our story-tellers exploring what it means to be embodied in hightech worlds. They are theorists for cyborgs” (173). This notion is very much at the heart of much feminist SF scholarship of that era as well, especially in anthologies such as Takayumi Tatsumi’s Cyborg Feminism (Saibogu feminizumu, 1991); Jenny Wolmark’s Cybersexualities: A Reader in Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace (1999); Fiona Hovenden, Linda Janes, Gill Kirkup, and Kathryn Woodward’s The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader (2000); Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth’s Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture (2002); and many of the essays in Karola Maltry et al.’s Gendered Future: On the Transformation of Feminist Visions in Science Fiction (Genderzukunft: zur transformation feministischer visionen in der science fiction, 2008). This line of investigation continues today with Sherryl Vint and Sumeyra Buran’s edited collection, Technologies of Feminist Speculative Fiction: Gender, Artificial Life, and the Politics of Reproduction (2022) and Ramona Onnis, Anna Chiara  Palladino, and Manuela  Spinelli’s Feminist Science Fiction: Imagining Gender in Contemporary Italian Culture (Fantascienza femminista: immaginare il genere nella cultura italiana contemporanea, 2022). Like their literary peers, feminist scholars also produce anthologies of criticism dedicated to issues of intersectionality in SF; indeed, this is perhaps the fastest growing area of feminist SF inquiry today. Such anthologies include Wendy Gay Pearson, Joan Gordon, and Veronica Hollinger’s Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction (2008); Francesca T. Bartini’s Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction (2017); and Cristina Jurado and Lola Roble’s Daughters of the Future: Science Fiction, Fantastic and Marvelous Literature from a Feminist Perspective (Hijas del futuro: Literatura de ciencia ficción, fantástica, y de lo maravilloso desde la mirada feminista, 2021). Intersectionality is also central to transmedia studies of gender in SF, including Valerie E. Frankel’s Outlander’s Sassenachs: Essays on Gender, Race, Orientation, and the Other in the Novel and Television Series (2016); Cathryn Josefina Merla-Watson and B.V. Olguin’s Altermundos: Latin@ Speculative Literature, Film, and Popular Culture (2018); Elizabeth Erwin and Dawn Keetley’s The Politics of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in The Walking Dead: Essays on the Television Series and Comics (2018); and Anne Gjelsvik and Rikke Schubart’s Women of Ice and 7

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Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones, and Multiple Media Engagements (2016). While most anthologies of feminist SF criticism are, logically enough, published by academic presses, the feminist SF publisher Aqueduct Press has also made important contributions to feminist SF scholarship with the eleven-volume WisCon Chronicles Series (2007–17), edited by authors and scholars including L. Timmel Duchamp, Rebecca J. Holden, and Jaymee Goh. As an archive of the various events that take place at the world’s largest and oldest feminist science fiction convention (held annually over Memorial Day weekend in Madison, Wisconsin), each anthology directs readers attention to different conversations unfolding amongst artists, editors, scholars, and fans in the feminist SF community at any given time, including “Feminism, Race, Revolution, and the Future”; “Shattering Ableist Narratives”; and “Intersections and Alliances.” Even as they look forward to the future of gender in genre fiction, feminists engaged in SF scholarship also produce anthologies honoring the accomplishments of the pioneering women writers and critics who came before them. Many historically oriented collections focus specifically on women’s contributions to the utopian tradition, including Barbara HollandCunz’s Feminist Utopias: The Dawn of a Postpatriarchal Society (Feministiche Utopien: Aufbruch in die postpatriarchale Geselleschaft, 1986); Jane Donawerth and Carol Kolmerton’s Utopian and Science Fiction: Worlds of Difference (1994); and Sharon R. Wilson’s Women’s Utopian and Dystopian Fiction (2013). Meanwhile, the feminist scholars featured in Helen Merrick’s Women of Other Worlds: Excursions through Feminism and Science Fiction (1999) and Justine Larbalestier’s Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (2006) more directly celebrate the accomplishments of women in SF proper. Feminist scholars have also produced essay collections honoring the accomplishments of pioneering feminist SF icons real and imaginary, including Lindsey Tucker’s Critical Essays on Angela Carter (1988); Farah Mendelsohn’s On Joanna Russ (2012); Rebecca J. Holden and Nisi Shawl’s Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler (2013); and Linda Mizejewski and Tanya D. Zuk’s Our Blessed Rebel Queen: Essays on Carrie Fisher and Princess Leia (2021). In 1995, authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards provocatively declared that “on a personal level feminism is everywhere, like fluoride” (18) and that certainly seems to be true at least in the realm of SF scholarship. Thematic SF essay collections tackle a wide range of topics, ranging from Sherry Ginn and Michael G. Cornelius’s The Sex Is out of This World: Essays on the Carnal Side of Science Fiction (2012) to Nadine Farghaly and Simon Bacon’s To Boldly Go: Essays on Gender and Identity in the Star Trek Universe (2017) to Bridget Barclay and Christy Tidwell’s Gender and Environment in Science Fiction (2018). Many thematic SF essay collections explore how issues of gender and genre change not just over time, but by culture as well. Such work began in 1992 with pioneering feminist SF fan Janice Bogstadt’s dissertation, “Gender, Power and Reversal in Contemporary Anglo-American and French Feminist Science Fiction” and continues today in collections such as Silvia G. Kurlat Ares and Ezequiel De Rosso’s Science Fiction in Latin America: Criticism. Theory. History. (2020) and Ramona Onnis, Anna Chiara Palladino, and Manuela Spinelli’s Feminist Science Fiction: Imagining Gender in Contemporary Italian Culture (Fantascienza femminista: immaginare il genere nella cultura italiana contemporanea,  2022). Essays on SF and gender also feature prominently in non-SF collections such as Debra FaszerMcMahon, Victoria L. Ketz, and Dawn Smith-Sherwood’s A Laboratory of Her Own: Women and Science in Spanish Culture (2021) and Douglas A. Vakoch and Sam Mickey’s Ecofeminism in Dialog (2018). And finally, perhaps the greatest testament to the pervasiveness and diversity of thinking about gender in SF are the dozens of essays collected in Robin Anne Reid’s Greenwood Encyclopedia of Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy (2009), a two-volume collection that offers both surveys of major topics including sexual identities, fandom, and science as well as more focused examinations of authors and literary traditions. 8


Section Overview Building upon the work of their predecessors, the authors featured in this volume provide protocols for critically assessing the relations of gender and genre in SF, especially—but not exclusively—as explored in speculative art by women and LGBTQ+ artists. Taken together, they challenge conventional generic boundaries; provide new ways of approaching familiar texts; recover lost artists and introduce new ones; connect the revival of old, hate-based politics with the increasing visibility of imagined futures for all; and show how SF stories about new kinds of gender relations inspire new models of artistic, technoscientific, and political practice around the globe. Their chapters are grouped into five conversations—about how the SF community treats issues of gender and genre, important ways of theorizing gender and genre, the SF scholars and artists who have led such efforts, the moments that have enabled paradigm shifts, and how these paradigm shifts are enacted—that are central to discussions of gender and SF in the current moment. Additionally, this Companion includes original cover art from nonbinary Canadian artist Derek Newman-Stille, whose use of mixed media forms and aesthetic traditions mirrors the expansive energy of the gender- and genre-bending SF storytelling considered by our contributors, and each section or conversation begins with an original piece by Israeli artist Gili Ron, who was inspired by feminist artists such as Georgia O’Keefe and Eva Hild to create a sequence of computer-generated shapes and patterns that explore mathematics, nature, and gender in ways that orient—and reorient—readers to the topics at hand in each section. The first section of this book, “What: Gender and Genre,” begins with the current chapter, which reviews the long history of debates over the proper relations of gender and genre in the SF community, especially as they intersect with the process of creating SF as a distinct mode of storytelling through anthologies of stories and criticism. Next, SF film scholar Ida Yoshinaga talks with SF authors Joyce Chng, Jaymee Goh, Lehua Parker, Bogi Takács, and Andrea Hairston about their favorite examples of gender expression in both their own work and SF across media. In Part II, “How: Theoretical Approaches,” scholars from around the globe survey different theoretical approaches to issues of gender in science fiction, including feminisms, queer studies, Black women’s studies, disability studies, and ecocriticism. The authors featured in Part III, “Who: Subjectivities,” explore how different scholars and artists reflect on nonbinary gender identities, dynamic subjectivities, and new and old critical positionalities that are politicized, aestheticized, and often materialized in works of science fiction art and criticism. The authors collected in Part IV, “Where: Media and Transmedialities,” examine the different media in which genre and gender frameworks are developed, the political and aesthetic possibilities opened by such media productions, and the ways such productions invite us to think through larger issues of science, technology, and society. Finally, those included in Part V, “When: Transtemporalities,” do not aim to be all encompassing but address moments and movements in SF and in gender studies where paradigms have shifted, thereby allowing audiences to look towards futurities, alternate temporalities, and all manners of futural and historical thought.

Bibliography Baumgardner, Jennifer, and Amy Richards. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. Boucher, Anthony. “Recommended Reading.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September  1954, p. 93. Ellison, Harlan. “Introduction to Joanna Russ’s ‘When It Changed.’ ” Again, Dangerous Visions. Doubleday, 1972, pp. 229.


Lisa Yaszek Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991, pp. 149–181. Larbaleslier, Justine. Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Wesleyan, 2002. Latham, Rob. “The New Wave.” A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed. Blackwell, 2005, pp. 202–216. Le Guin, Ursula. “American SF and the Other.” Science Fiction Studies, vol 2, no. 7, part 3, 1975, pp. 208–210. Ng, Jeanette. “Acceptance Speech for the 2019 John w. Campbell Award.” Medium, 18 August  2019, Nicholls, Peter, and David Langford. “Anthologies.” The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. https://sf-encyclopedia. com/entry/anthologies. Russ, Joanna. “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” Red Clay Reader, November 1970, pp. 35–40. Sargent, Pamela. “Introduction.” Women of Wonder: The Classic Years. Harvest Books, 1995, pp. 1–20. Stone, Leslie. “Day of the Pulps.” Fantasy Commentator, vol. 152, 1997, pp. 100–103, 152. Yaszek, Lisa. “Introduction.” The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin. Library of America, 2018, pp. ix–xxi.



Introduction According to Phillip L. Hammack, director of the Sexual & Gender Diversity Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the current generation’s willingness to frame their personal stories through a growing corpus of categorical identification demonstrates “the contemporary availability of language to make meaning of their experience of gender and sexuality, that aligns with an internal sense of self ”—an historical trend which Hammack labels “radical authenticity.” Radical authenticity, he says, has meant that prior authoritative sources on gender and sexuality “have been upended,” in a time of “heightened social creativity” among queer and nonbinary youth. Through their imaginative labor, science fiction and fantasy (SFF) writers have always worked to upend conventional categories of gender and sexuality, envisioning storyworlds in which the binary, exploitative structures of heteropatriarchy can be exposed, challenged, even overcome. Now is an era where K-12 educators fight to use the simple word “gay” in their classroom curricula; where anti-trans bills attack children’s equitable access to healthcare, sports, and bathroom facilities; and where women’s (and other people’s) reproductive rights have all but evaporated due to misogynist legislators, governors, and judges. An act of hope for a liberatory future, this panel gathers together international BIPOC and LGBTQ+ SFF authors who have made gender and sexuality a playground for imagining radically authentic society: Joyce Chng, Jaymee Goh, Andrea Hairston, Lehua Parker, and Bogi Takács (with Ida Yoshinaga facilitating). Revealing their personal-best own work of transformative gender and sexual imaginaries achieved through genre storytelling, they share their desires for the types of feminist and queer tales they themselves wish to read (view, experience, etc.) in the speculative/fantastic corpus; discuss viable publishing venues for SFF writers who explore such topics; reflect on reader safety and character consent considerations for writing stories post#MeToo; and exchange ideas on their favorite feminist or queer authors and texts. joyce chng (  and @jolantru on Twitter; pronouns: she/her, they/their), writer of fiction appearing in  The Apex Book of World SF II,  We See a Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing the Future, and co-editor of The Sea Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh, has published recent space opera novels dealing

DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-3 


Ida Yoshinaga

with wolf clans (Starfang: Rise of the Clan) and vineyards (Water into Wine) and, as alter-ego J. Damask, writes about werewolves in Singapore. jaymee goh ( is a writer, reviewer, editor (TachyonPublications. com), and essayist whose work has been published in a number of SFF magazines and anthologies, who graduated from the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop in 2016, and received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Riverside, for her dissertation on steampunk and whiteness. andrea hairston (, a multiple award-winning author who serves as the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Smith College and the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre, is author of the novels Will Do Magic for Small Change, Mindscape, and Master of Poisons; a collection of essays and plays, Lonely Stardust; and many short stories. lehua parker ( writes award-winning speculative fiction for kids and adults, often set in her native Hawai‘i, including the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy, Lauele Fractured Folktales, and Chicken Skin Stories, along with many other plays, poems, short stories, novels, and essays. bogi takács (; bogiperson on Twitter, Instagram, or Patreon) is a writer, editor, and reviewer; a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/ emself or they pronouns); and an immigrant to the US. E is a winner of the Lambda award for editing Transcendent 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, the Hugo award for Best Fan Writer, and a finalist for other awards. ida yoshinaga  What was your proudest, most challenging, or most satisfying story that addressed societal notions of gender? joyce chng: My Water into Wine (Annorlunda), a bittersweet novella, centered on the thoughts (often monologues) of Xin, a transmac nonbinary Chinese individual bequeathed a vineyard by their late grandfather. Xin took their elderly mother and three children to the planet of the vineyard. When they thought they had it all figured out (setting up a wine-making business), war broke out, with a love story thrown in between. Water into Wine looks into the effects of war and tumultuous change, loss, fragmentation, and dislocation of self and place—at pain in its multileveled aspects. I lost my grandmother during the course of writing/revision; I wove that experience in.

I also explored issues of being nonbinary and transmasculine, aspects of Xin. The unease felt by their ex-husband was written in. Even when trans identities were accepted in the story’s universe/setting, I wanted to show that there would still be people in the future who would be transphobic (though they would deny it). The trick (and main goal) was to question what makes us us? Who are we? Is there masculinity and femininity? Or is it all a spectrum? Why are we gatekeeping gender? Xin came to the conclusion that they were their own person, even coming up with their own pronoun (gar). bogi takács: My novella out this year, “Power to Yield” (in Clarkesworld), explores sexuality more than gender, but some people called it a trans story. Not just because it was written by a trans person, but because it had a trans sensibility/approach, I think?

Several years ago, when people on Twitter raised the issue about what an aromantic romance story would be like, I thought to write something people-focused and relationship-focused, following romance beats, but without the relationship being romantic or sexual. I was also troubled about how people had talked about “autistic obsessions”—this was before the term “special interests” became widely known. I found “obsession” pejorative . . . but I knew it was possible 12

Author Roundtable on Gender in Science Fiction

to have what I would now call a special interest that is difficult and/or dangerous. And one can have a special interest in specific people—to my mind, that is a different dynamic from falling in love, though the two can co-occur. I tried to investigate these concepts. jaymee goh: In “Eruption” (in Anathema Magazine), I wrote from the perspective of a perpetrator of violence. This short story was about a young teen who had suffered from gendered violence not only from the slave masters but male family members. She goes on to help build a society free from cisheteropatriarchal violence, though women of her generation and earlier suffer from trauma of the massacre.

I had a dream in which a ball was disrupted by a slave uprising, with slaves literally breaking through the floor to attack from below. Then, women slaves began to slaughter the men. It was traumatic to wake up to, and I struggled to express the concept for a long time. On Twitter, we had for a time joked about the hashtag #killallmen. This provoked a lot of questions for me: why? How would it happen? What would be the outcomes? I still go back and forth on the idea of gendered violence to establish gender freedom, and wonder if such uncertainty is part of the condition for a queer utopia of gender equality. andrea hairston: I  am also trying to figure out how to better organize ourselves given our “hierarchical natures.” Co-operation and a sense of moral/ethical soundness are foundational for biological entities—we are, to quote Lynn Margulis, a symbiotic planet. How do we as human beings create social frames, narratives, political systems that center on that?

Writing Master of Poisons—my 2020 novel—I was thinking of how gender is/has been defined in world cultures throughout history. Unlike the Victorian/European notions that I grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s, many cultures have articulated three or more genders. In some, you choose your gender when you come of age, or gender is fluid—people change over the course of their lives. In Master of Poisons, I decentered European notions of gender that pervade many epics and explored conflicting gender ideas within societies where folks from different cultures are thrust together—initially because of empire and conquest. My characters must use wisdom from a range of perspectives to solve global catastrophes. Readers have said they are excited by the world building and the challenges I offer to the master narrative, in response to the Europeandefault setting. lehua parker: My most challenging was a Native Hawaiian rewrite of The Little Mermaid, called Pua’s Kiss. After contracts were signed with the original publisher, the marketing department changed the target audience from those who like genre-bending and avant garde tales, to readers who like contemporary romance with a speculative twist.

I flipped the story: the protagonist, Pua (Ariel), does not want to be human. The daughter of the ocean god Kanaloa, she’s a shark that has the ability to appear as human. She doesn’t want happily ever after; she wants a no-entanglements-fling on the beach with a tourist— whom she may or may not devour in the end. She owns her sexuality in a way that resonates with historical Hawaiian chiefesses and deftly manipulates Justin (the Prince) into a memorable night on the beach. Reading deeper, there are themes of predatory manipulation, innocence, rape, colonization, taboo, free-will, and how fulfilling momentary desires can have huge consequences. Audience 13

Ida Yoshinaga

reactions have been predictably mixed, especially if they expected a fluffy Disney mermaid and got a mouthful of pointy shark teeth instead. ida yoshinaga:  What

ideas have been important for you to illustrate, play with, or interrogate related to gender and/or sexuality? joyce chng: Themes like transformation, transfiguration, change and family (biological and found) often pop up in my stories. I write a lot about werewolves (mostly female/feminine werewolves), intersectionality (straddling of worlds/identities), and sexuality (orientations, etc.).

For example, My Soul Is Wolf (Anathema Magazine) looks at werewolves and sexuality as well as all the in-between identities. Or the Starfang trilogy (Fox Spirit), basically an Asian werewolf space opera. bogi takács: I agree with Joyce on this (though I don’t have stories about werewolves!). I feel that gender and sexuality are not separable from e.g., ethnic or religious background, or embodiment. I try to show the specific details of how these all interact. With the caveat that it can be frustrating when people try to reduce my writing to my transness and ignore all other aspects— this seems to happen most often with transness and not e.g., being Hungarian, Jewish, a migrant.

I also like to experiment with form and structure, or build on structures that are not common in English-language SFF. Gender/sexuality might not be the focus, but ultimately everything interrelates. jaymee goh: Writing anything set in, or responding to, contemporary times, I consider the body as the site of the problem. Embodiment within the world as a gendered person, or an agender person in a gendered world, gives space to write about the interiority of a person responding to that world.

Writing sex scenes is always fun, not just in terms of “where are my body parts, what is this other hand doing, did I accidentally write two penises and three hands?!” but writing about consent and exploration. So much media out there lazily relies on a heteropatriarchal erotic— men taking the lead, women submitting, consent being assumed or subsumed by the emotion of the moment. andrea hairston: The stories we tell, tell us how to be in the world. In writing Redwood and Wildfire (2011) I focused on turn-of-the-20th-century folks who acted in Minstrel and Wild West shows. As live spectacles, these performers became the source of stereotypes/caricatures of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality that migrated to fiction and film and still haunt us today. I found much I did not know, researching this era: more women film directors then than now; and, besides minstrel men dressed as women and defining femininity (creating fragile white ditzes, angry black jezebels, delicate Asian handmaidens, and stoic, silent Indians ready to die for white lovers), female artists dressed as men to perform non-minstrel notions of their cultures. lehua parker: Prior to Western colonization, the entire LGBTQIA spectrum was present in Polynesia, and (based on my research into Hawaiian culture), no more remarkable than being right- or left-handed.

I try to reflect that mindset and diversity in my characters’ personalities and relationships but rarely comment on them directly. Cultural insiders generally pick up the tells; Western audiences 14

Author Roundtable on Gender in Science Fiction

not so much. My stories focus on empowerment, transformation, and overcoming barriers of exclusion, abuse, trauma, or implied destiny. For me, leaving things open allows the story to resonate in meaningful ways as readers fill in the blanks with their own experiences. ida yoshinaga: Who’s

joyce chng:

your favorite SF (or other) genre writer when it comes to depicting gendered and/or sexual subjectivities—identities or internal perspectives—and why? One of my favorite SF writers is C. J. Cherryh whose Chanur books I now happen to be reading.

Looking at nature v. nurture, Cherryh explores the concepts of masculinity and femininity, nature versus nurture, in an expansive space opera/adventure saga where the human is the alien and the main protagonist is a felinoid captain whose world’s structures and systems are reminiscent of lion prides. Her Hani women are captains of freighters and hunter ships, important administrators looking after holdings, waterways and space stations. While Hani males are either pampered clan heads or young exiles who challenge clan heads so that they could take over the clan. bogi takács: My first impulse is to answer with R. B. Lemberg (my spouse)—we discuss and are mutually influenced by each other’s writing considerably. Around gender subjectivity, my pick has to be Rivers Solomon. Both An Unkindness of Ghosts and The Deep are strong portrayals of interiority and how gender—and culture, Blackness, dis/ability, individual and group history—ties into that.

These are also important as intersex books by an intersex author. It has meant the world to me as an intersex person to feel that we do not have to settle for less, just because there are fewer books altogether, and mostly memoirs/nonfiction. We can have stories that are unquestionably exceptional and not just because they are intersex stories, but because they are stunningly good and happen to be intersex stories. jaymee goh: I don’t tend to read authors for gendered characters, but I’ve been re-reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland at least once a year, because of how she rebuts many gender norms of her time, which remain eerily similar.

I recently read What Diantha Did, Gilman’s slice-of-life/utopic novel of a young middle-class woman who eschews the conventions of her class by setting off to work as a housekeeper for someone else. Gilman’s female characters cover a range of responses to the patriarchal norms of their time, from sad, confused disappointment, to indignant rage, to cheerful outward obeisance. She also writes male characters of various masculinities. andrea hairston:

No real favorites but here are writers who challenge us. Classics: Susan Stinson, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin. Recent works: G. Willow Wilson, Nisi Shawl, Charlie Jane Anders. These authors create characters who come from the center and margins of their societies. The labor they perform is not a measure of their spirits. Diversity is power, and they must figure out how to be different together and transform their worlds. lehua parker:  Just one favorite? I can’t—I’d be drawn and quartered. But the stories that I enjoy most have a few things in common. If a character’s gender or sexual identity is vital to the plot, then the complications, options, and stakes need to reflect that. For example, a gender-queer character walking into a bar is going to read a situation and react differently than a cisgenderheterosexual character would.


Ida Yoshinaga

Fortunately, stories that take something as common as a casual pick-up line in a bar and end in unexpected, but authentic ways to an LGBTQIA individual’s lived experience, are now widely available through indie and small presses. bogi takács: Andrea’s comment on “how to be different together” resonates with me. It’s interesting that the vintage Eastern bloc science fiction that I grew up on was opposite in the sense that there was an expectation for multiethnic/racial casts, but the differences were often portrayed as surface-level, as characters were all supposed to be good Communists foremost and were usually written by ethnic/racial majority writers . . . and discussion of queerness was generally disallowed.

I would like more explorations of differentness together, with characters figuring out how to collaborate, even when it is difficult. Focusing on this decenters the majority. joyce chng: Lehua, I am also published by indie and small presses who are brave and courageous when it comes to seeking out marginalized and diverse creators, often from non-American regions.

However, some small presses do not have the cashflow and resources of the bigger houses. I hope, by one day, they have the same or similar standing to match. ida yoshinaga: Give

your original idea for an SF story centered around a gendered temporality, a gendered future, a gendered past, or a gendered way of existing through time. joyce chng: A nonbinary Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in space (space opera). Zhen, an admiral of the Celestial Empire, travels across the Known Galaxy with an impressive fleet, and then rebels against the Empire by becoming the leader of the Alliance with their life-mates. (Author’s note: Now, I want to write it . . . actually revise a current story.) bogi takács: I always want to write more ancient-era Jewish historical fantasy, and I would love to write something with Talmudic intersex concepts, because I identify with some of those terms. It is difficult because a lot of those concepts are often only discussed in relation to transness while erasing the intersex aspect. jaymee goh: My story idea: the bissu of New Nusantara govern their planetoid enclave with a loose hand, and the celestial divine sends them children from all over the known galaxy like shooting stars seeking safe orbit. andrea hairston: In my next novel Archangels of Funk, Cinnamon Jones is a bisexual scientist, artiste, and hoodoo conjurer surviving along the digital divide after climate change and Water Wars have scrambled the world. She and her Circus-Bots are part of a community of Motor Fairies, Pedal-People, and Co-Ops trying to hold on to who they’ve been while coming up with the next world. lehua parker:  One of the big questions in Hawaiian history revolves around Queen Liliʻuokalani’s decision in 1893 to have her guard stand aside when a group of merchants illegally backed by the US military began what became the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Valuing human life, she placed her faith in international treaties and the rule of law. In a twist, my story follows the completely hypothetical what ifs as though her original decision was to fight. At that moment, Liliʻuokalani is granted a wish from the alien Thuul: to journey across the multiverse to see the future consequences of her actions. The Queen connects with seven descendants of the Kalākaua line and asks the question dear to her heart: do we thrive? Returning to her own time, the Queen faces the most critical decision of her reign: fight or diplomacy. Does she choose the revealed future or gamble on a new destiny for her people?


Author Roundtable on Gender in Science Fiction

By voyaging through time and space to meet futuristic Hawaiians, the story is open to exploring themes like colonization, cultural legacies, and how a benevolent ruler views her kuleana (stewardship). Crazy and weird, but I’m kinda liking the story possibilities. jaymee goh: Lehua, I think having Queen Liliʻuokalani’s decision as a Jonbar hinge for an alternate history would be incredibly fruitful! In steampunk, our Jonbar hinges rely on the concept of accelerated technology to successfully prevent colonization, but it also depends on who had institutional power at the time (one perspective now in Malaysia is that the old Malay sultans essentially sold out their people to benefit economically from treaties with the British) and their decisions.  utside of print fiction, what recent media examples of gender and/or sexual O expression created by others do you find thought-provoking, speculative, or cognitively estranging? joyce chng: Star Trek: Discovery with the inclusion of a nonbinary character; Farscape (when childbirth was tackled in an unabashed manner!); Xena: Warrior Princess. ida yoshinaga:

Mmm, I would like to explore the concept of wearing prosthetics; to see updated the “punk” in cyberpunk (which is outmoded); to try the incorporation of technology—cyborgism. I look to the amazing work of Naomi Wu who incorporates cutting-edge tech and STEM in her life. Most of all, I  want to tackle the sexism and internalized misogyny in gender expression for femmes, the abhorrent transphobia and sex-negativity in certain “feminist” circles. bogi takács: There is a lot of groundbreaking work in independent comics: Elements edited by Taneka Stotts, the first Alloy anthology Electrum edited by Der-Shing Helmer with Kiku Hughes, the Power & Magic queer witch comic anthologies edited by Joamette Gil. Many anthologies that focus on race/ethnicity or other marginalizations also have a considerable gender/sexuality aspect. Recently I’ve enjoyed work by Sloane Leong who explores gender, embodiment, decolonization and more—the first volume of Prism Stalker left me eager for more.

One thing that comics can tackle really well in SFF is showing the visual aspects of empire, then engaging with them beyond the classic Anglo-American SFF take where you’re supposed to feel awe. jaymee goh: The Smut Peddler anthologies feature many characters unconventional to erotic comics—fat bodies, very thin ones, aliens, robots. The visual medium allows for the artist to create characters who cannot fit neatly into visual assumptions of binary gender.

Writing in English can be difficult because the characters need pronouns—this is a problem completely dispensed with a visual medium. Plus, it must be nice to not have to account for what that other hand (or third penis!) is doing with extra words because you can just . . . draw where it is. andrea hairston: Sinéad O’Dwyer, a fashion designer, makes silicone life casts of her friends’ bodies then uses the molds to create innovative garments which bear traces of these bodies. Not normalizing the size 6–8 fashion-standard bodies that engender self-loathing and body dysmorphia, O’Dwyer interrupts our common notions of who can/should be a model. She wants people to feel they don’t have to be thankful for inclusion.


Ida Yoshinaga

Kimberly Drew, an art curator, fashion icon, and co-editor of Black Futures, blogs as MuseumMammy. Her book collects images, essays, interviews, tweets, memes, poems, screenshots, stories, and recipes addressing the question: What does it mean to be a Black person around the world, then, now, or in the future? Possible answers include a glimpse at Black marine biologist meditating on ocean justice; Black trans visibility; Black farming, music, hair, fashion, sexuality, and politics. lehua parker:

Like Joyce, I’m enjoying Star Trek: Discovery.

Also fun is The Umbrella Academy TV series exploring gendered power dynamics, family relationships, and all kinds of love. At FanX and other conventions, I see lots of cosplayers embracing the gender-fluid characters. They’re excited about Vanya and Klaus’s pansexual relationships and Five’s arguably objectophilian love for Dolores, a mannequin. Interestingly, Vanya and Klaus’s pansexuality was added to the Netflix series. It’s not in the original comic books. Now that Ellen Page has transitioned to Elliot Page, I’m curious to see if that affects his characterization of Vanya in Season Three. ida yoshinaga:  What

SF story (or type of SF story) do you most desire to read in the future related to gender and/or sexuality—and why? joyce chng: I would like to see an Asian SFF anthology of stories written by Asian and Asian diaspora creators from across the globe (like Jaymee Goh, Eeleen Lee, Eve Shi, Stephanie Soejano, Neon Yang, etc.) where we co-create a world or joined worlds exploring gender and sexuality with mixed media (art and text), plus exploring all the “-punks” (windpunk, solarpunk, steampunk, etc.). I would also very much request it now. bogi takács: I’d love to read that too!

I would like speculative spaces to be more open to intersex people, so that people would not have to feel that they can be open about their belonging to other letters in the acronym but not the “I,” or that it is disproportionately harder. While we’re at the acronym, one other thing I’d love to see is speculative work exploring being undecided about your gender or sexuality without a pressure to come up with a decision by the end, for “narrative closure.” It’s okay not to know! Often non-marginalized editors and publishers want diversity on a surface trappings level, but not structurally; everything needs to adhere to Anglo-Western norms including “this is what a story needs to look like.” I wonder if this is where the “disabled characters must be cured by the end” trope comes from, too. There has been a lot of deserved pushback against that one, but not so much the “your gender must be decided by the end” one, which has at least some similarities (at least that’s how I feel as a disabled person). joyce chng: Bogi, I would like to see more SFF by intersex authors too! You have brought up an important point: that we would like to see more speculative work exploring being undecided re: gender or sexuality without any pressure to come up with a decision. There is pressure, indeed, felt/ experienced by marginalized authors and writers to write according to “benchmark.” Hence, the anxiety and fear that we are writing wrong. jaymee goh: I’d like to see a “no binary, neopronouns only” story. andrea hairston: I want to see what I haven’t thought of. I want so many writers/creators telling their stories that I’m not counting how many of us are there, because we are ubiquitous, because I can’t get to it all, because I haven’t met half of everybody writing, because I would never have imagined what these creators are coming up with.


Author Roundtable on Gender in Science Fiction lehua parker: Good news! Those wished-for titles are in the works. Big Five traditional publishing houses and agents are open to diverse submissions, particularly now that indie and small press titles have demonstrated a demand—a hunger—for these stories. While “disability must be cured” or “sexuality/ gender must be decided” by story end isn’t a requirement I’ve heard from editors and publishers, they are still looking for stories that follow a Western story structure.



How Theoretical Approaches

Figure 3.1  Gili Ron, “Untitled #2” (2022)


In 1931, pioneering science fiction (SF) author Clare Winger Harris, the first woman to publish SF under her own name, also became what we might call the first SF critic when she offered her fans and colleagues a list of sixteen “Possible Science Fiction Plots”—many of which she herself popularized and that we continue to enjoy today, including “interplanetary space travel,” “gigantic insects,” and “natural cataclysms, extra-terrestrial or confined to the earth” (426–27). However, sustained critical inquiry into the relations of gender and SF did not emerge until the rise of SF criticism and the revival of feminism and other progressive politics in the 1960s and 70s. The first question asked by the first generation of largely White, male, cisgender authors was a simple one: where are all the women? While SF author and critic Brian Aldiss successfully argued for Mary Shelley as the mother of modern SF most scholars of the era simply concluded that there was little to say about sex and gender in SF because historically speaking, the genre seemed to attract few women or authors of any gender interested in the future of science, society, and sex. Yet even as male critics lamented the limits of SF history, women and queer folx were actively making that history new through the creation of the first feminist SF conventions, publications, and presses and through their increased visibility in the SF award system. In the 1970s alone, women comprised about 15% of the SF community, but won 19% of all Hugo awards and 24% of all Nebula awards (see Yaszek). Significantly, a number of these authors, including Joanna Russ, C.J. Cherryh, and fellow feminist Samuel R. Delany, also publicly identified as queer, while Jessica Amanda Salmonson did the groundbreaking work of documenting her transition for the SF community in prominent fanzines. Not surprisingly, these authors provided readers with the first critical appraisals of gender and speculative fiction, including essays by Russ collected in the 1995 volume To Write Like a Woman and Salmonson’s histories of warrior women in literature and culture, collected in the introduction to her award-winning 1981 anthology Amazons! and in her 1991 reference book, The Encyclopedia of Amazons. Other feminist artists contributing to the nascent field of feminist SF scholarship included Pamela Sargent, whose Women of Wonder anthology introductions provided readers with the first histories of women in SF, and Ursula K. Le Guin, whose earliest thoughts on gender and genre are featured in the 1979 collection Language of the Night. Many of these early feminist critics drew on insights from the newly established fields of gender studies to answer the question of representation posed by their male colleagues, demonstrating both the patriarchal assumptions limiting speculation DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-5 


Lisa Yaszek

about sex and gender in genre fiction while celebrating the often-forgotten history of women in SF and the rise of a distinctly feminist SF in their own historical moment. At the same time, feminists in academia were creating an SF scholarship of their own with essays including Beverly Friend’s “Virgin Territory: Women and Sex in Science Fiction” (Extrapolation, 1972), Mary Kenny Badami’s “A Feminist Critique of Science Fiction” (Extrapolation, 1976), and Marleen S. Barr’s 1981 Future Females: A Critical Anthology. In March 1980 the academic journal Science Fiction Studies published the special issue “Science Fiction on Women—Science Fiction by Women” and 1982 Extrapolation followed suit with the special issue, “Women in SF.” The first full-length monographs on feminist SF appeared soon afterward, including Sarah Lefanu’s 1988 In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction, and in 1999 Batya Weinbaum founded FEMSPEC, the first academic journal dedicated to the serious study of gender across speculative genres. As they staked claims for themselves in SF criticism, scholars of gender and genre demonstrated the natural compatibility between feminist SF studies and other new modes of critical inquiry. Jenny Wolmark’s Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism, and Postmodernism (1994) used new theoretical ideas about identity and difference to explore SF as an ideal space for exposing and redefining both gender and genre, while Robin Roberts’ A New Species: Gender and Gender in Science Fiction (1993) and Jane Donawerth’s Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (1997) used ideas drawn from science and technology studies to demonstrate the rich history of women writers who have used SF to participate in widespread cultural debates about the proper relations of science, society, sex, and gender. Like their activist counterparts, feminist SF scholars of the 1990s and early 2000s were also eager to explore how Black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s ideas about the intersectionality of race and gender might apply to SF, as demonstrated by the essays collected in Elisabeth Leonard’s Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic (1997) and Marleen S. Barr’s Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New Wave (2008). Finally, in the 2000s, new digital tools and new theories about accessing literary and cultural archives proposed by Lev Manovich and other digital media scholars enabled new histories of gender and genre in SF including Justine Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (2002), Brian Attebery’s Decoding Gender in Science Fiction (2002), and my own Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (2008). All of these trends and more flourish in feminist SF studies today. Sherryl Vint’s Biopolitical Futures in Twenty-First Century Speculative Fiction (2021) and Antonia Szabari and Natania Meeker’s Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction (2019) point to the continued usefulness of science studies frameworks for feminist and queer scholars, while insights generated by critical race theory inform Esther Jones’ Medicine and Ethics in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction (2015) and Joy Sanchez-Taylor’s Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color (2021). Perhaps the most exciting recent development in contemporary SF studies has been the explosion of interest in queer theory and disability studies, especially as they allow SF scholars to further refine their idea about intersectional feminism and SF. Notable contributions in this vein include Alexis Lothain’s Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility (2018), Kathryn Allan’s edited collection Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (2013), and Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Science Fiction (2018). The chapters featured in the following section of the RCGSF provides readers with a crosssection of the issues and themes that interest theorists of gender and SF. While the first two generations of feminist SF critics cast their gaze primarily on print fiction, the prominence of media SF in global popular culture has prompted increasing interest in the affordances—and limitations—of such SF for artists interested in speculating about the many possible futures of science, technology, sex, and gender. For example, while Carlen Lavigne demonstrates the 24


persistency of patriarchy on “doomsday prepper” television and Terra Gasque considers Lana Wachowski’s blockbuster film The Matrix Resurrections as an example of genuinely intersectional and queer SF, Jonathan Alexander and Sherryl Vint examine the Hulu production of The Handmaid’s Tale as a complex and often contradictory representation of feminism that sometimes repeats the very power hierarchies it aims to critique. Meanwhile, Smin Smith’s “Feminist Science Fiction Art” and the Beyond Gender Research Collective’s “Collective Close Reading: Queer SF and the Methodology of the Many” demonstrate the liberatory potential of speculative digital and performance artwork that reorganizes not just conventional notions of gender and genre, but also our powerfully gendered assumptions about art and the individual artist themselves. Of course, critical interest in print SF continues to flourish, especially as authors from around the world also use digital tools to record and disseminate their stories in greater numbers than ever. As the success of Ohio State University Press’s New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Speculative series indicates, intersectionality is very much at the heart of much modern SF scholarship, represented in this section most prominently by R. Nicole Smith’s exploration of womanism as a model for queer, female Black community in Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s “Evidence” and Smin Smith’s discussion of feminist SF artists Sophia Al-Maria, Sin Wai Kin, and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley as engaging in collaborative worldbuilding techniques to make space for BIPOC, queer, and trans ways of knowing the world. Queer theory has also been an especially productive analytic framework for scholars of gender and genre and is at the heart of Ritch Calvin’s review of oblique, direct, and narratively central representations of LGBTQ+ issues in recent SF and Anna Kurowicka’s exploration of asexuality and genderless futures in the speculative stories of Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ann Leckie. Finally, Robin Anne Reid and Joan Gordon challenge readers to think about intersectional gender and genre identities in even more complex ways by using key concepts from disability studies and animal studies to demonstrate how authors including Martha Wells, Carol Emshwiller, Nnedi Okorafor, and Charlie Jane Anders replace old notions of personhood based on binary sexual and species identity with generous new ones based on the entanglement of all living organisms.

Bibliography Harris, Clare Winger. “Possible Science Fiction Plots,” Wonder Stories, vol. 3, no. 3, 1931, pp. 426–427. Yaszek, Lisa. “Introduction.” The Future Is Female! Volume 2, the 1970s: More Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women. Library of America, 2022.



Introduction Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which began streaming in 2017 and, as of this writing in 2021, finished its fourth season with a fifth season in production, offers an exemplary case study of how issues of gender and sexuality broadly and debates about and within feminism specifically play out in a major science fiction (SF) television series. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the series follows the tribulations of June in a near-future dystopia, where she is assigned the role of handmaid in a post-American theocratic society called Gilead. Given a radical global decline in human births, different political orders have mandated an array of approaches to fostering reproduction; Gilead returns the United States to a Puritanical and patriarchal social order in which fertile women are assigned to couples of the ruling order so that they can be impregnated by men, the offspring raised by the couple while the handmaid is reassigned. Brutal in its depiction of this theocratic regimen, The Handmaid’s Tale began airing in the wake of the election of Donald Trump and the resurgence of patriarchal, evangelical, and fascist ideologies in the US and on the global political stage. In this article, we argue that The Handmaid’s Tale forefronts not only violence against women but also debates within feminism and concerns over the politics of representation. As such, the series serves as a compelling if sometimes vexed, contradictory, and critiquable televisual introduction to contemporary thinking about gender and sexuality. In the remainder of this chapter, we unpack some of those debates and contradictions as they play out in this speculative televisual narrative.

Violence as Spectacle, Erasing Intersectionality One of the most noticeable aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale is its extremely well-crafted and often highly stylized use of visual rhetoric. With that said, however, its aesthetics are in tension with its apparent commitments to feminism. This is especially true in terms of how the costumes are used to evoke visual spectacle in the series, especially in the frequent use of aerial shots. The most iconic of these shots channel Gilead itself and are meant to be precisely that, the aesthetic embodiment of its fascist regime that uses the visual beauty of the color composition—blues for wives, red for handmaids, pinks for girls—to reinforce Gilead’s view of itself as just and orderly. The orderly procession of handmaids in a line, their flowing gowns and winged headdresses DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-6 


Feminism, Violence, the Anthropocene in The Handmaid’s Tale

obscuring both their individuality and their capacity to perceive their surroundings, produces a televisual image that reinforces the ideology of Gilead. The handmaids are interchangeable, images or symbols rather than people, and the power that Gilead’s patriarchy has over their lives is mirrored by the power of the camera to capture their performance as lines of flowing color arranged in pleasing patterns. In the funeral for those handmaids killed in the bombing of the new Rachel and Leah Center, in “After” (S2E7), the narrative viewpoint is overwhelmed by the carefully staged spectacle of the procession of handmaids with the coffins of their fallen sisters; filmed from above, almost as if in a dance performance from classical Hollywood film, the red handkerchiefs that cover their faces and their red scarves appear in stunning contrast with their habits. Both they and the brilliantly red coffins stand out brightly against the snowy background and the handmaids are truly mourning as they stand in processions, removing the red gauze covering their faces in unison. And yet the ceremony they participate in, organized by Gilead, regrets the dead women’s loss as biological resources not as people but as resources. Beauty also suffuses the opening moments of “God Bless This Child” (S3E4) in which rows of segregated citizens, differentiated by their social role, walk in procession to celebrate the babies born in their district. Interestingly, the costumes for the series, as beautiful as they are, have been adopted in realworld protests that seek to draw attention to the restrictions on women’s bodily and reproductive freedoms, and the homophobic attacks on all queer people, central to politics of the right in America today. The uptake of that costume for political resistance and protest may be powerful, but its comparable use in the series is more vexed. In the conclusion to Season 1, June claims this image as a symbol of empowerment, asserting in voiceover, “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” and as stirring as this statement is, it also points to the tension between the narrative and thematic commitments of the series and its aesthetic choices, especially when it concerns the handmaids as a collective spectacle. Indeed, the feminism of the series is largely limited in any nuanced understanding of intersectionality, or the ways in which different racial, sexual, and class experiences might impact one’s understanding of the relationships amongst gender, identity, and power. The casting of the series might seem to belie this lack, with major female characters being Black (Moira), lesbian (Emily), and ostensibly from the working class (Janine or Rita, who is also Black). But consistently, what is foregrounded in the series is the generalized problem of violence and sexual lack of consent that these women experience in Gilead under patriarchal domination. In scene after scene, June, Moira, and Emily are manipulated, abused, and tortured, but any particularity of their experience of such abuse due to their different identities is largely left untold. A perhaps unintended consequence of foregrounding gender at the expense of other more complex representations of power and resistance is that the show consistently centers violence against women as its primary issue. Unfortunately, and undoubtedly, the most problematic aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale in reading it as an exemplar text of feminist SF television is this very tension between aesthetics and meanings, the representation of violence and the supposed condemnation of such. The skill by which the series depicts the brutality of Gilead is effective in conveying the extent of the damage it does to those living within it, but it can also sometimes feel damaging to be a viewer of the series. Especially in Seasons 1 and 2, an emphasis is placed on the physical torture of women to get them to comply with what is asked of them by this new state. Indeed, there is a certain logic to displaying some of this cruelty and use of terror to establish characters such as June or Emily as sympathetic protagonists even though they comply with demeaning ceremonies demanded of them within Gilead and for the most part do so demurely. June’s voiceovers are another technique used predominantly in Season 1 to offer a doubled vision of her experience, outward compliance, and inward causticness. Yet at times it seems 27

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that the series almost revels in the spectacle of women suffering, especially in the sequence in “June” that implies—though, importantly, does not show—that each handmaid who joined June in refusing to stone Janine to death, for the crime of putting a child at risk, will have her hand cooked as it is handcuffed to a stovetop burner. The horror of this punishment is in excess to the logic of Gilead’s professed prioritization of reproduction: while a burned hand does not preclude one becoming pregnant, the health risks of such extreme physical punishment would surely be a deterrent to damaging their bodies so severely for disobedience, suggesting that something else is at work in the series which frequently indulges a desire to see women’s suffering bodies. Even further, the relative lack of attention particularly to race creates some interesting visual tensions in the series. In the first episode of the third season, “Night,” June has the opportunity to see at a distance her daughter, Hannah, who has been placed with a Gileadean couple. Her daughter is of mixed race, but the couple currently raising her is visibly White. Interestingly, the series shows us a “blended” family, but it is completely not remarked upon within the universe of the narrative. The fact that June, a White woman, had Hannah with Luke Bankole, a Black man, is equally unremarkable, despite how much narrative backstory we see of their lives preGilead; their interracial relationship, occurring just a few decades after the overturning of miscegenation laws, encounters no residual racism, either externally or internally for that matter. Such elided commentary suggests that, when the population is declining, racism or concerns with racial difference seem to recede, allowing a reemphasis on gender roles rooted in biology. Curiously, the theocratic and fascist colorblindness is paralleled by the colorblindness of the casting of the series, which seems to have aimed for a diverse cast without thinking through the implications of racial identification on behalf of its characters. The narrative around Emily, the lesbian who has been compelled into handmaid service, is comparably not as thoughtful about the situation of gay women, despite the fact that lesbian feminism, much like Black feminism, was a source of significant debate within second-wave feminism during the 1970s and 1980s. Such debates attempted to forefront how any conceptualization of gender must be thought in relation to experiences of race and sexuality. But in Gilead, such differences are largely elided in favor of biological gender essentialism. It does not matter that Emily is lesbian; she can bear children so she will be a handmaid. To be sure, within Gilead, her lesbianism is illegal, and the Martha with whom she had had a love affair is hanged before her eyes; the Martha, not able to bear children, is expendable as a “gender traitor,” useful only as an object lesson about the proper relations amongst bodies within an order ruled by an imperative to reproduce. The closest we come in the series to seeing how a particular lesbian or queer approach to Emily’s character might play out comes when Gilead orders that her clitoris be removed as punishment. The horror of Emily being robbed of a significant form of sexual pleasure gestures to a politics of sexuality that celebrates the right of women to enjoy their bodies. Black and lesbian feminist thinker Audre Lorde had powerfully argued for the political importance of what she called the “uses of the erotic” in the feminism of the 1970s, and the brief scene of mutilation in the series constitutes one way in which The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrates awareness of the complexities of feminist thinking. With that said, however, the remaining storylines involving Emily do not substantively return to this point of mutilation. Instead, while the show downplays issues of female pleasure as a form of empowerment, The Handmaid’s Tale seems quite comfortable focusing energy on female anger and rage. The overarching narrative increasingly plays out June’s growing rage at her rape and torture within Gilead. She becomes strident in her desire not just to destroy Gilead but to seek vengeance on those who have hurt her and other women. When she and Emily are part of a therapy group in Canada to help them cope with the trauma they have endured, June encourages the other 28

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women in the group to fantasize about the violence they could commit against their oppressors if they were able. And when one of the “aunts” (the brutal female supervisors and trainers of the handmaids) who had turned Emily in also escapes Gilead, confesses to Emily, and hangs herself out of guilt, Emily’s response is chilling: “I’m glad she’s dead. I hope I had something to do with it” (S4E8). Emily’s, June’s, and the others’ fantasizing of vengeful violence, however understandable, is rendered visually as nearly orgiastic. Curiously, Moira, the lone Black woman in the group, cautions against stoking the psychic fires of such fantasies. Such a depiction strikes us as complicated: on one hand, we understand the desire to avoid portraying Moira as a stereotypical angry Black woman; on the other hand, however, we cannot help but wonder why she should be any less angry than the other women who have endured the tortures of Gilead, even if she might be concerned that anger could be directed against her. Such narrative choices serve ultimately to downplay racial and sexual differences and focus our attention on the anger of June, a White woman. Ju Oak Kim, in “Intersectionality in Quality Feminist Television: Rethinking Women’s Solidarity in The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies,” argues that the series, despite the presence of characters of color, “has recentralized White women’s leadership in feminist social movements” (9). For Kim, the focus on a White woman’s struggle, especially at this late date in the development of feminist thinking, might have damaging effects on viewers of color in that it potentially “desensitize[s] the experiences of other minority women within the patriarchy, leading them to internalize such architecture and marginalization” (11). At the very least, the focus on June’s story displaces a more nuanced understanding of diverse women’s experiences. Indeed, the aesthetic choices made by the series’ writers and producers reinforce the failures of the series to think feminism from an intersectional viewpoint since these mutilations are visited upon the bodies of women other than June. Although June endures significant physical suffering, she is never mutilated as are Emily (who is queer) and Janine (whose background is of a lower class than June). Perhaps most egregiously, while the series ignores the historical reality that women of color have been dehumanized and had their fertility manipulated in ways similar to the events depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale, it also casts a Black actress (Ashleigh LaThrop) to play Natalie/Ofmathew, a handmaid who seems sincerely committed to the pious rhetoric of Gilead and her role of producing healthy children for it. Natalie reports on the Martha who is helping June to see her daughter, and when she later has her own fears about being pregnant with a girl, in “Unfit” (S3E8), the other handmaids ostracize rather than support her. Natalie eventually breaks down under the strain, tries to kill Aunt Lydia, and is shot by Eyes, reduced by this injury to a biological container for her unborn child and kept alive by machines until the fetus can survive outside of her body. In her quest for vengeance, June subtly encourages Natalie to her extreme actions and smiles softly as she sees Natalie attack others. The next episode, “Heroic,” shows June coming to sympathize with Natalie and seek to protect her from further dehumanization as a living incubator but focuses on the psychological breakdown June endures because she is forced to stay by Natalie’s hospital bedside rather than on Natalie’s backstory or perspective. To a degree, the series merely inherits these issues from Atwood’s novel which is similarly inattentive to racialization, but it also makes its own mistakes in multiracial casting choices that allow a diversity of actors to appear in the series while failing to interrogate how their ethnic identities intersect with the series’ themes. In the wake of such elisions, other possibilities for thinking of feminism robustly and critically remain largely nascent within the series. June’s mother, for instance, whom we get to see in some of the series’ pre-Gilead flashbacks, is portrayed as a feminist activist from the 1970s. June’s mother’s feminism contrasts interestingly with that of June herself; June’s political consciousness seems to have consisted primarily of brunchtime discussions with Moira while her 29

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mother’s feminism is depicted as far more activist and built around solidarity, marches, and collectivist action. While June’s mother makes limited appearances, her presence suggests that the show’s writers are aware of the history of North American feminism even if they do not pick up some of the implications of it and its subsequent developments—an elision that has led some scholars, such as Fuentes and García, to characterize the feminism in the show as “nostalgic” for a simpler set of terms, avoiding the “complications” of race and gender and centering instead the primacy of gender identity.

Feminism and Queerness in the Anthropocene While we have been critical of The Handmaid’s Tale in this chapter, we want to consider now how the series might serve to forward engagement with ecological feminisms, queer radicalism, and Indigenous critiques, even if such remain largely nascent or merely aspirational within the narrative. To its credit, the series raises important questions about the possibilities and limitations of solidarity and reconciliation, asking us to recognize that historical injustices cannot simply be forgotten or ignored, but also asking us to consider whether a justice system rooted in vengeance can provide a pathway forward. In his book Revenge Capitalism, Max Haiven draws on Indigenous thought to articulate a politics that acknowledges the validity of anger over historical inequalities and injustices, but at the same time seeks an imaginary that looks beyond simple reversal as a way to escape the circularity of the politics of revenge without denying the anger that mobilizes such stances. He argues that whereas revenge fantasies fixate on retribution in the coin in which the original injury was dealt, and thereby risk perpetuating that economy, an avenging imaginary dreams of the abolition of the systemic source of that injury and the creation of new economies of peace and justice. (2) In terms of The Handmaid’s Tale, we would argue that missed opportunities to imagine sociality and reproduction through queer and Indigenous rather than heteronormative logics limit its vision to the politics of revenge, whereas what is required is an abolitionist, avenging imaginary of a new sociality that rejects both Gilead and the liberal society which came before. One particularly interesting dimension of The Handmaid’s Tale is the show’s representation of queer people. Fascist state-sponsored homophobia and anti-queerness remain constant in both Atwood and Hulu’s versions of Gilead. But a major difference between the two narratives is the latter’s active inclusion of queer characters, the development of storylines about them, and, most notably, the assumption of an anti-Gilead, liberal approach to and acceptance of queerness outside the boundaries of the former US—most notably in Canada, which serves as a refuge for Gileadeans fleeing sexual, gender, and political oppression. In essence, queer identity has become a transnational remnant of “freedom” and “democracy” left behind in the collapse of the United States. With that said, Jasbir Puar, amongst others, has usefully critiqued this yoking of the acceptance of gays and lesbians with liberal attitudes of freedom and democracy as a form of “homonationalism”—a deployment of sexual identity tolerance that serves as a kind of “virtual signaling” while essentially erasing racial histories of sexual and sexualized violence and oppression. Atwood has famously said that there’s nothing that occurs to characters in her original novel that hasn’t actually occurred to people throughout history. But her use of predominantly White characters—a casting only somewhat mitigated in the Hulu adaptation—completely elides the fact that the kinds of sexualized violence depicted in the narrative against White 30

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women has largely happened historically against women of color and Indigenous women. Colonial settler oppression of Indigenous people throughout the Western hemisphere frequently occurred through the rape of Indigenous populations and the forcing of heteronormative familial structures on native populations. Atwood and by extension Hulu’s failure to acknowledge these histories makes the “apocalyptic” scenarios of The Handmaid’s Tale an apocalypse for mostly White women. An even more compelling queer approach to The Handmaid’s Tale might hinge on the narrative’s unquestioned centering on the reproduction of the species. In his polemical book No Future, Lee Edelman  sees an investment in futurity as one of the most pervasive hegemonic dimensions of heteronormativity, which requires that we sacrifice our current pleasures and possibilities so that we can ensure better futures for children. Such “better futures,” though, rarely include expansive notions of intimacy and love but rather focus on the maintenance of socially stabilizing family norms. Turning attention specifically to speculative narratives, Rebekah Sheldon, in The Child to Come: Life after the Human Catastrophe, notes how the child is increasingly becoming in a time of impending ecological apocalypse the promise of the future. Sheldon asks what forces are mobilized to protect the child and how does the child come to symbolize the enactment of new biopolitical orders designed to ensure the survival of the species. Gilead’s social, sexual, and gender politics is all about the sacrificing of pleasure in the pursuit of making children to replenish the population. An even more powerful critique might arise from a queer Indigenous approach to The Handmaid’s Tale. Kim TallBear, a queer Indigenous Canadian scholar, has contributed to Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway’s Making Kin Not Population, joining other feminist, queer, and Indigenous scholars in critiquing the heteronormative drives toward reproduction and human expansion that contribute significantly to climate change. TallBear argues that the monogamous couple form has largely been one foisted on Indigenous populations by Western colonial settlers, with Indigenous kindship practices and nonmonogamies stigmatized, forbidden, and punished to this day. She describes the ways in which Indigenous children were often taken from their extended families to be raised by White settlers—a grotesque practice replicated by Gileadean commanders who take other’s offspring to raise as their own, even as the narrative largely erases the racial histories of such a practice. Most interestingly, TallBear asserts that, particularly at this time of anthropogenic assault on the environment, what is needed is less reproduction, more kinship. TallBear’s nonmonogamy is in the service of extending pleasure, working the sexual as a modality of creating community and extending kindship. In her words, some Indigenous kinship practices might very well be “culturally, emotionally, financially, and environmentally more sustainable than the nuclear family”—particularly as sex is re-understood as primarily creating ties, not just producing children. The Handmaid’s Tale comes close to enacting such an ethic in the triad of June, her husband Luke, and her Gileadean lover Nick, who is Nichole’s father. The triad gestures obliquely to a polyamorous possibility in that Luke acknowledges how important Nick has been to June, particularly in helping her survive the horrors of Gilead, and he assists her in seeing Nick to get word of how Hannah, her first daughter, is faring in Gilead and to tell Nick about how his daughter, Nichole, is doing in Canada. Their relationships are not quite polyamorous, but they signal a possibility for a communal raising of children amongst complex intimate relationships. It remains to be seen where, if anywhere, these relationships will go in the remaining season of the series. Ultimately, the queerest approach to the Anthropocene of The Handmaid’s Tale might focus less on the fate of people with particular identities and far more on questioning wide-held cultural assumptions about the necessity of family and human reproduction and how such assumptions support the rise of fascism. Even more, a feminist and queer approach might want to 31

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imagine the Anthropocene of these narratives as an opportunity to unseat human reproduction as the necessary or even desirable focus of our response to declining birth rates specifically and human impact on the environment more broadly. Such would fulfill decades of feminist thinking, theorizing, and activism that foregrounds identities and bodies as sites of pleasure and personal agency over and beyond mandates for maintenance of a heteronormative status quo. Although we have offered significant critiques of The Handmaid’s Tale as an exemplar of feminist SF television, it is worth bearing in mind, as we conclude, that the history of feminist thought itself reflects a similar trajectory of correction, revision, and expansion. Thus, we can praise the series for bringing to the screen the tensions and debates within feminism that make it impossible to discuss feminism as a monolithic positionality. Yet it is important to reiterate that this vision is deeply compromised by its failure to acknowledge White supremacy as equally central to the authoritarian politics it critiques as is patriarchy. For the most part ethnicity is not a topic of analysis within the series. And finally, prioritizing fertility as the central issue of the series also has consequences for its capacity to think capaciously about sexuality, gender, and futurity. As we have argued, a queer perspective on such matters offers multiple other political possibilities for how one imagines a thriving society, but perhaps most importantly a queer perspective encourages us to decenter biological reproduction and motherhood in ways that would radically transform the series’ capacity to represent a diversity of women.

Bibliography Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Houghton Mifflin, 1986. Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2004. Fuentes, María José Gámez, and Rebeca Maseda García. “Nostalgia and the Dialectics of Contemporary Feminisms in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 48, no. 1, 2021, pp. 77–93. Haiven, Max. Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts. Pluto Press, 2020. Kim, Ju Oak. “Intersectionality in Quality Feminist Television: Rethinking Women’s Solidarity in The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies.” Feminist Media Studies, 18 February. 2021, 0777.2021.1891447. Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke University Press, 2004. Sheldon, Rebekah. The Child to Come: Life after the Human Catastrophe. University Minnesota Press, 2016. TallBear, Kim. “Making Love and Relations Beyond Settler Sex and Family.” Making Kin Not Population, edited by Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway. University Chicago Press, 2018. The Handmaid’s Tale. Created by Bruce Miller. The Handmaid’s Tale, 2017–2021.


5 BEYOND SURVIVAL Climate Change and Reproduction in The Handmaid’s Tale, Birthstones, and The Fifth Season Anna Bedford Over the past half century, women writing climate change science fiction have explored the relation between the patriarchal and colonizing drives to control nature and women’s bodies, especially in futures where it seems the very survival of the human race is at stake. As the impact of nuclear weapons and human pollution became increasingly clear after World War II, science fiction became increasingly preoccupied with environmental issues. Environmental science fiction gained impetus in the 1950s and 60s with books including J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) and The Burning World (1964) and Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966). It continued to grow in subsequent decades with popular works such as Allan Folsom’s New York Times bestseller The Day after Tomorrow (1994) and critically acclaimed stories including Ursula Le Guin’s “Newton’s Sleep” (2005) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital Trilogy (Fifty Degrees Below, 2005; Forty Signs of Rain, 2004; and Sixty Days and Counting, 2007). In 2007 a new term was coined to describe an emerging generation of environmental science fiction stories: “climate science fiction” or “cli fi.” Such stories take to their logical extremes climate change-related problems including elevated temperatures, increasingly dramatic weather patterns, sea level rise, and endangered species. Feminists have been especially innovative authors of cli fi. In particular, the authors of recent feminist climate change dystopias warn that, to preserve the status quo of their own power, ruling institutions are likely to downplay or ignore environmental degradation, focusing instead on initiatives to control the bodies of women as fetal environments. Invoking recurrent themes of infertility and looming extinction, the institutions imagined in such fiction violently appropriate women’s bodies as national or global resources. This chapter explores the gendered treatment of bodies and the environment in the feminist dystopian cli fi of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Phyllis Gotlieb’s Birthstones (2007), and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015). In each of these novels, communities struggle with questions of survival and reproduction, using the bodies of women and racial others to ameliorate the communal pain of climate change. Women writing science fiction have long made reproduction, motherhood, and domestic life the focus for their narratives and, more recently, drawn connections between environmental and familial disaster. This tradition begins in the 1950s with anxiety about nuclear weapons and their impact on the nuclear family. As cold war science fiction scholar M. Keith Booker writes, “science fiction of the long 1950s responds in a particularly direct and obvious way to the threat DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-7 


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of nuclear holocaust” (4). This was especially true of women’s science fiction, which addressed that threat from the vantage point of imperiled family life and through what Lisa Yaszek calls “the unhappy housewife heroine” (“Unhappy Housewife Heroines”). Such midcentury stories provided the template for later feminist explorations of geopolitical disaster and its potential impact on women’s lives. As Rachel Carson’s bestselling 1962 popular science book, Silent Spring, made clear, the catastrophic impact of a deteriorating environment upon human health and the nonhuman world had become even more immediately pressing than the threat of nuclear war. Inspired by the revival of feminism and other progressive political movements in the 60s and 70s, women science fiction writers of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first centuries imagine birth defects, imperiled reproduction, and distorted family life under the smog of pollution rather than the atomic mushroom cloud that haunted their midcentury sisters. Like their atomicage precursors, the authors discussed in this chapter make political interventions in their texts through depictions of imperiled or destroyed families. However, they identify the patriarchal and colonizing responses to imperiled reproduction as the cause of this family breakdown. In feminist dystopian cli fi, forces that cause environmental destruction also threaten human reproduction; however, rather than dealing with the root cause of this problem, those in power attempt to control women’s maternal bodies while letting the devastation of the natural world continue unfettered. The elimination of maternal relationships as families are destroyed is tragic for both the individuals involved and society as a whole because in destructive patriarchal and racist regimes, practices of mothering represent important oppositional possibilities for radical caring. In her 1976 groundbreaking treatise on motherhood, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich makes an important distinction between “motherhood” and “mothering,” identifying the former as an institution of the patriarchy and the latter as a potentially empowering feminist practice of care. Rich claims that the act of feminist mothering holds the potential for social change, both through the education mothers offer their children and through the collective actions that women undertake in the name of their shared identities as parents caring about future generations. This claim seems to be borne out by the number of women engaged in social and environmental justice movements for the sake of their children (see Di Chiro, Kurtz, and Taylor). Indeed, the gendered experiences of caring (and particularly caring for the next generation in the context of environmental threats) can be a catalyst to activism. Ecofeminist Karen Warren outlines an “ethic of care” based on practices traditionally associated with mothering, nursing, and friendship as the necessary corrective to the patriarchal treatment of both women and nonhuman nature. Modern works of feminist ecological science fiction dramatize these insights, demonstrating how the curtailing of mothering prevents the kind of caring that could lead to political and, ultimately, ecological change.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) Thwarted mothering is central to one of the earliest and—as its various film and television iterations attest—most enduring feminist science fiction stories in this vein: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Written in 1985, Atwood’s novel is set in the near-future Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian theocratic regime that has replaced the U.S. government. The Republic is installed as an emergency measure after a staged attack—supposedly perpetrated by Islamic extremists—kills the U.S. president and most of Congress. These events are used as a pretext to suspend the constitution and start a revolution. A right-wing fundamentalist group known as the “Sons of Jacob” takes power and institutes drastic measures such as freezing the bank accounts of “undesirables”—including all women—to protect the country and ensure subservience. The Sons of Jacob invoke a narrative of threatened family and imperiled fertility to necessitate 34

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a systematic sorting of women into categories of “Wife,” “Handmaid,” “Aunt,” “Martha,” “Econowife,” and “Unwoman.” At the start of the novel, the female narrator, only known to readers as “Offred,” is collected by the Sons of Jacob, re-educated, and then, as a fertile woman, assigned to serve one of the families of the ruling class as a surrogate and concubine known as a “Handmaid.” The regime’s rhetoric is national peril and duty, yet it is belied by the fact that the society is organized around power and privilege rather than truly optimizing reproduction. For example, the Commander’s Wife’s suspicion of her husband’s infertility is considered heretic and so left unaddressed, although acknowledging male infertility would help the birthrate. Similarly, while it might help the birthrate for Offred to have sex with another man, such efforts are illegal and could result in the death of the fertile woman herself. Meanwhile, clandestine sterilizations continue when they are convenient for men in power; for example, women who are not submissive enough to be reincorporated as Handmaids but whose bodies are still useful to elite men are branded as “Jezebels,” sterilized, and used for extramarital sex. As Margaret Atwood explains: The despotism I describe is the same as all real ones and most imagined ones. It has a small powerful group at the top that controls—or tries to control—everyone else, and it gets the lion’s share of available goodies. The pigs in Animal Farm get the milk and the apples. The élite of The Handmaid’s Tale get the fertile women. (“In Context” 516) The goal is not only to breed more Caucasian children to become citizens of Gilead, but children in the right households and in the right hands. Some children conceived before the revolution, like Offred’s daughter, are reallocated to the families of the new regime leaders—much like the bodies of fertile women. “I  will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape,” laments Offred; “I am too important, too scarce, for that. I am a national resource” (75). All the while, the abused earth is in the background, glimpsed through descriptions of the toxic “Colonies” where undesirables are sent as punishment. Moira tells Offred: They figure you’ve got three years maximum at those [Colonies], before your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves. They don’t bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to. Anyway, they’re mostly people they want to get rid of. (260) Rather than genuine restoration efforts, the Colonies are simply useful mechanisms through which the Sons of Jacob extract compliance. Instead, the regime focuses all its efforts on “protecting” women’s bodies, which must be guarded against contamination, kept from exertion or other dangers, and subject to paternalistic rules that forbid women from wearing heels, drawing baths, or consuming caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol. In this way the women of Gilead are guarded against both escape and themselves because if they are environments, they are potentially hostile and hazardous ones, or as Offred puts it, “treacherous ground” that must be carefully managed (83). The subjugation of women in general and of the Handmaids in particular as breeders for the elite is justified both by reference to the Old Testament, and by the rising infertility that Offred’s society struggles with before the revolution. Rather than addressing the clear environmental factors leading to that infertility—which affects both men and women—the regime ultimately claims that women are to blame because of the “unnatural” practices of birth control 35

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and abortion in the previous era. The dual menaces of environmental destruction and women’s rights are clearly established and interwoven through Gilead’s re-education program: The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells.  .  .  . Women took medicine, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up piss flowed into the rivers. . . . Some did it themselves, had themselves tied shut with catgut or scarred with chemicals. How could they, said Aunt Lydia, oh how could they have done such a thing? Jezebels! Scorning God’s gifts! (122) When Aunt Lydia—one of the women tasked with teaching and re-educating Handmaids— asks “how could they?” she refers only to women avoiding pregnancy and motherhood, not to men spraying trees or society destroying the earth. Clearly, the patriarchal government of Gilead is responding with extreme measures not so much to the threat of environmental collapse, but to the perceived threat of second wave feminism. The citizens of Gilead derogatorily dub feminist women as “Women’s Libbers”—a group that includes the narrator’s mother, an antipornography crusader and single mother by choice (48–49). Gilead is a response to and backlash against a political women’s movement that fought for precisely what is repressed in Gilead: reproductive control, bodily autonomy, and sexual freedom. Atwood underscores the tragedy of a world without feminist mothering by contrasting Offred’s passivity, which borders on paralysis, with Offred’s memories of her politically active mother. While her mother fought for change for future generations of women she might never even know, Offred does not even fight to be reunited with her own daughter; she survives by choosing to “give in, go along, save her skin” (261). In Gilead, where families have become a patriarchal parody of domesticity, the absence of mothers means a dearth of brave maternal feminist agency on behalf of future generations. The loss of mother-child relationships, then, is not merely a personal tragedy for individual Handmaids and their children, but, rather, a key dystopian element in the society at large. There’s little hope for change in Gilead because amidst the Aunts, Marthas, Handmaids, and Wives, there are no “Mothers.”

Birthstones (2007) In Birthstones Phyllis Gotlieb depicts women literally confined to their reproductive roles through the horrifying image of Shar mothers: women who are imprisoned in Mother Halls, where they are forcibly subject to multiple cycles of impregnation, birthing, and nursing until their bodies give out. The planet Shar and its people suffer from the effects of extreme pollution, exacerbated by the activities of extra-planetary corporations mining Shar for resources. The Shar are beholden to these alien corporations for the food they are unable to produce themselves in their toxic smog-filled planet, and for the financial means with which to purchase the resources they need. With a world becoming increasingly less inhabitable, drastic measures are called for, and, again, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, female bodies are literally appropriated to provide a solution to the ecological crisis at hand. At the start of the novel, with the people of Shar battling for survival, the interplanetary Galactic Federation (GalFed) promises, “true mothers for your children, [to] help you beget whole ones of your own, and make your world clean” (13). As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear there are no plans to detoxify the planet. Instead, the corporations are “unwilling 36

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to interrupt the mining of precious metals, gems and liquid fuels” (69), and GalFed officials decide to kidnap women from another planet and experiment on them to carry healthy Shar children. Scientific experimentation upon women’s bodies, then, is made to stand in for meaningful changes with the environment; the relationship of Shar health to the health of the Shar planet is willfully ignored. The barely sentient mothers of Shar are used as wombs and sent out of the city to die from neglect once they are no longer useful, just as Atwood’s Handmaids are sentenced to toxic Colonies if they fail to (re)produce. Though scarcity is a real problem on Shar, the distribution of resources is overtly patriarchal. For example, the Shar Emperor Aesh is himself sterile, and while he is somewhat embarrassed and saddened by this, it does not inhibit him from partaking in resources or succeeding socially and politically. In the same way, the infertile Commanders of The Handmaid’s Tale are allowed to deny their impotence and blame women, even as Handmaids and resources are expended upon men who will never be able to reproduce. While an infertile man can prosper in the highest ranks, the Shar women who are no longer useful for birthing and nursing purposes are left to die. To deliver “true mothers” to the Shar men, the GalFed, of course, needs to take them from elsewhere. GalFed officials plan to enlist women from a race of people called the Meshar. The Meshar, originally part of the Shar population, fled as refugees, with assistance from GalFed, when they were persecuted for continuing to bear non-mutant children during “The Change”—the period during which Shar women began producing daughters with terrible birth defects and were eventually transformed into barely sentient “birthstones.” The unaffected group of women and their families were moved to a livable but unappealing planet of their own. Their resilience to the genetic mutations afflicting the Shar and their indebtedness to the GalFed leads the interplanetary body to demand repayment in the form of fertile women (25). The response to environmental crisis in Birthstones is patriarchal science that includes kidnapping, forced insemination, and a crossbreeding program. It’s a scientific project intended to benefit an exclusively male society on the Planet Shar and the women’s lack of consent is taken matter-of-factly: Great civilizations would use their sciences and learn new skills to rectify the DNA of the Shar males, and Meshar women would be called to serve as the First Mothers of the future. No one expected them to serve willingly. (25) In this rhetoric, those in control of the science are both “great” and “civilized” while the Meshar women’s consent is made irrelevant, abnegated by the requirement of “service” and survival. The novel is a damning critique of patriarchal science: even outside labs, pregnant Meshar women are objectified by the scientists, and unborn babies are nothing more than “fetal tissue” to be examined (195). As one GalFed scientist excitedly puts it, upon learning of a Shar mother carrying twins, one of which is a mutant: “If it works out it’s one more for the population and one for the research” (194). Understood in the context of Gotlieb’s broader canon, the nameless planet that is home to the Meshar has a history of scientific abuses. A very brief reference to earlier inhabitants as scientists and robots called “ergs” identifies it as the setting of Gotlieb’s earlier story, O Master Caliban! (1976), a novel which “clearly critiques the treatment of living creatures as the subjects of experiment” (Grace 31). In Birthstones, then, Gotlieb’s critique is extended to the objectification of and experimentation upon women and mothers. The central mother in Birthstones is the Meshar woman Ruah, who, like Offred, is separated from her own child because she’s needed to produce future children for others. During her reluctant journey, one of the people who shows compassion for her is the GalFed scientist and 37

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fellow mother, Natalya. In the GalFed labs, Natalya is a lone example of scientific compassion, empathy, and perhaps morality—traits once again clearly coupled with mothering characters. She compares the mistreatment of Shar women to that of “lab animals,” expressing compassion for both: “No one of them chose to come here” (34). Critic Jane Donawerth has noted that “women scientists as characters in women’s science fiction” are “a legacy of the earlier feminist utopias, which represented the dreams of women for education in the sciences” (Frankenstein’s Daughters 5), yet Natalya’s discomfort with the scientific culture around her indicates that a feminist utopian vision of science must not only include women as scientists, but also allow those women to change the practices and culture of science itself. Ecofeminist Irene Diamond explains that the dominant discourses around reproductive technologies in our own world typically celebrate technoscientific expertise to alleviate the individual trauma of infertility or the fear of malformed babies. The notion that the health of individual bodies is related to the health of the social body and the ecosystem that sustains all bodies recedes into the background and “the power of heroic experts is extended, the toxicities of late capitalism persist, and the poisoning of the Earth can continue. Thus, the challenge of transferring our relationships with each other and with the Earth is postponed” (“Babies” 210, 203). In Gotlieb’s novel, “heroic experts” in the form of GalFed scientists are called upon to modify Shar sperm and inseminate Meshar women, yet they ignore the continuing problems of a toxic planet. Gotlieb insists that coercing mothers and reducing women to wombs will not solve the problems of an environmentally damaged world, even if that solution has the backing of a scientific community: ultimately the scientific project of “First Mothers” is literally blown up by terrorists. Gotlieb offers hope, instead, in two unexpected discoveries that happen outside of the surveillance and control of the GalFed scientists: a healthy fetus that results from the consensual relationship between a Meshar woman and a Shar man, and the discovery of healthy females in the remote territory on Shar.

The Fifth Season (2015) The first novel in N.K. Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season, is both post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic, which is to say that the characters are trying to survive on an already devastated planet where further environmental catastrophe is imminent. As in Atwood and Gotlieb’s novels, the people of Jemisin’s future “live in a perpetual state of disaster preparedness” (8) but attempt to deal with disaster by controlling the bodies of gendered and raced Others rather than restoring the environment. Indeed, Jemisin frames her entire story with this problematic. The novel opens, “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?” and offers two endings, one “personal” and the other “writ continentally” (1). In the continental ending a powerful “orogene”—a person who can manipulate tectonic energy— literally breaks the earth to free his fellow enslaved psychics, creating a winter that will last thousands of years (6–8). In the personal ending, an orogene mother, Essun, sets off on a quest for her missing daughter after she discovers her 2-year-old son has been beaten to death by his father. Here is an ecological dystopia where the end of the world encompasses the destruction of both the Earth and the family. Throughout The Fifth Season (and indeed, throughout her entire trilogy), Jemisin imagines an Earth racked by unpredictable and violent seasons that can last decades or centuries. The blame for this rests squarely on humans and their exploitation of the environment (379). Human attempts to survive these seasons include organizing into small enclaves or “comms,” building walls, digging wells, storing food, making buildings that withstand tremors and quakes, and sorting people into use-castes, including “breeders” to keep the comm’s population stable. At 38

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one point in their history, Jemison’s humans attempt to deal with their changed planet by creating the orogenes who can sense or “sess” seismic activity. Despite their incredible talents, orogenes are ostracized and killed or, if they are “lucky” and regular humans believe they can be controlled, they are placed in the service of the Fulcrum, which compels them to “serve the world” (34) by training them to stop geological shakes without compensation and forcing them to breed with other orogenes. The most disturbing scene of enslavement and lost humanity in Jemisin’s novel might be the adult orogene Syenite’s discovery of the orogene children who are kept underground, naked, sedated, intubated, and wired-up to prevent earthquakes. Syenite discovers these children with her master/partner Alabaster, the Fulcrum orogene to whom she’s been assigned for reproduction purposes. The horror of a system predicated on orogene children’s suffering and set up to benefit the same people that exploit the orogenes is felt profoundly both by Alabaster, who believes he has fathered twelve children, some of whom have likely suffered this same fate, and by the potentially pregnant Syenite, a future mother fearing for her yet-unborn child. In this dystopia there is no room for orogenes to develop healthy and loving familial relationships. Orogene children born outside the Fulcrum are either given to the Fulcrum, or else killed by mobs and even their own parents. Meanwhile, the orogenes of the Fulcrum are carefully bred, raised without parents, and trained by ruthless Guardians. Despite their lack of familial relationships, and perhaps because they are the ones suffering rather than inflicting the suffering, the orogene characters in the novel are some of the most humane. For instance, when a Guardian takes the orogene child Damaya back to the Fulcrum, he breaks her hand both to assert his authority and to begin her training in psychic self-control. Despite this violence, Damaya continues to care for the Guardian because he “is the only person left whom she can love” (99, 104). Significantly, Jemisin repeats this scene of violence later in the trilogy when, in The Obilisk Gate (2016), Damaya, now going by the name Essun, breaks her own daughter’s hand to teach her to control her orogeny. Essun re-enacts the trauma she suffered at the hands of her Guardian upon her own child because she knows no other way to teach her, to protect her, and to love her. Like the Handmaids and the Meshar First Mothers, orogenes are not free to have and keep children of their own. Their bodies, their reproductive capacities, and their offspring belong to the Fulcrum, necessary resources for others’ survival—and that prevents them from truly mothering themselves and their own children. Again, in the service of survival we are given a depiction of something worse than the end of the Anthropocene. Jemisin illuminates what slavery, hatred, and racism can do to individual families and humanity as a whole. At one point, the orogene Essun (who is the person the child Damaya and the Fulcrum orogene Syenite become) “tears the world apart” as she smothers her baby boy to death to prevent him from being enslaved: “She will not let them take him, enslave him, turn his body into a tool and his mind into a weapon and his life into a travesty of freedom” (441). As Jemison makes clear: “survival is not the same thing as living” (441). If science fiction can provide warnings about ecological disaster, it can also provide warnings about our responses to them. In all three novels discussed here, the patriarchal and racist responses to climate change and imperiled reproduction are at least as devastating as the environmental destruction that precipitates them. In the patriarchal, scientific/eugenic, and colonizing solutions in each of these texts we see controlled and forced reproduction and the disruption of feminist mothering: Handmaids’ children are forcibly taken from them; a Meshar woman is kidnapped and forced to abandon her child; mothers kill their orogene children to prevent their exploitation. Like the women science fiction writers before them, these authors warn us of horrors to come through their depictions of family life destroyed. The narratives are permeated with a sense of loss that comes from the destruction of families and 39

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practices of mothering as well as the poisoning and destruction of the environment. In these future societies, the population survives, but the family does not. Ultimately, they warn us that survival amidst ecological devastation is not only at stake but also not enough.

Bibliography Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Vintage, 1996. Atwood, Margaret. “The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake ‘In Context.’ ” Science Fiction and Literary Studies: The Next Millennium, vol. 119, no. 3, 2004, pp. 513–517. Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946–1964. Greenwood Press, 2001. Di Chiro, G. “Defining Environmental Justice: Women’s Voices and Grassroots Politics,” Socialist Review, vol. 22, no. 4, 1992, pp. 92–130. Diamond, Irene. “Babies, Heroic Experts, and a Poisoned Earth.” Reweaving the World, edited by Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein. Sierra Club Books, 1990, pp. 201–210. Donawerth, Jane L. Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction. Syracuse University Press, 1997. Gotlieb, Phyllis. O Master Caliban! Harper & Row, 1976. Gotlieb, Phyllis. Birthstones. Red Deer Press, 2007. Grace, Dominick. “Frankenstein, Motherhood, and Phyllis Gotlieb’s O Master Caliban!” Extrapolation, vol. 46, no. 1, 2005, pp. 90–102. Jemisin, N.K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2015. Jemisin, N.K. The Obilisk Gate. Orbit, 2016. Kurtz, Hilda, E. “Gender and Environmental Justice in Louisiana: Blurring the Boundaries of Public and Private Spheres.” Gender, Place & Culture vol. 14, no. 4, 2007, pp. 409–426. Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Norton, 1995. Taylor, Dorcetta. “Women of Color, Environmental Justice, and Ecofeminism.” Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, edited by Karen Warren. Indiana University Press, 1997, pp. 38–81. Warren, Karen J. Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. Yaszek, Lisa. “Unhappy Housewife Heroines, Galactic Suburbia, and Nuclear War: A New History of Midcentury Women’s Science Fiction.” Extrapolation, vol. 44, no. 1, 2003, pp. 97–111.



Introduction At the beginning of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novelette, “The Shobies’ Story,” we are introduced to a group of people from across the Ekumen who have gathered together to test an experimental mode of instantaneous space travel. We meet them in their “isyeye,” a word that, in the dominant language of this fictional universe, means “ ‘making a beginning together,’ or ‘beginning to be together,’ ”—a period in which a number of individuals consciously and consensually coalesce to form a group (“The Shobies’ Story” 75). However, as both characters and readers learn, the process of group formation is never truly over; it is always continually negotiated. As they initiate the new method of space travel, the group cohesion dissolves and each individual experiences their new location differently. They must relate their varied experiences to each other to regain their group identity and make their return; partial, fragmentary, and contradictory as they are, these stories nevertheless create a narrative whole whereby the group can construct a shared reality. The telling of stories, then, both performs and prefigures, bringing the world into being by enacting it through narrative. Finally, these various stories, like the narrative threads themselves, weave bonds of care between the individuals, remaking them as the Shobies. Le Guin’s tale, revealing as it does the constitutive interplay between storytelling and socially constructed “reality,” speaks to how we, as the Beyond Gender Research Collective, put science fictional ideas into practice. In particular, it inspires us to create both new modes of art and new modes of kinship based on the celebration of communal activity and the politics of affinity rather than conventional ideas of individual excellence and biological identity. In this chapter we demonstrate our method for reading and enacting science fiction, which we call “collective close reading.” First, we outline our understanding of this methodology before applying it to “The Shobies’ Story” and then connecting it to our collective practices of performing science fictionality and empathetic friendship.

DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-8


Beyond Gender Research Collective

Like Le Guin’s Shobies, the Beyond Gender Collective is formed through collective play and communal care, in this case, dedicated to explorations of queer and feminist science fiction (SF). Our own “isyeye” (never complete, always in process) began in 2018 when a group of researchers and students met to discuss our shared joys and frustrations with SF and SF studies. The group continues to grow. Though we have found in SF, in the words of our Beyond Gender Manifesto, New worlds, forgotten ways of being, creatures whose strangeness show us the strangeness in ourselves. . . . We expect more. . . . We believe that SF has an ethical obligation to disrupt the prevailing logics of the suffocating now, to instead envision and bring about emancipatory futures, futures which multiply, rather than reduce, our ways of being in (and beyond) the world(s). (Beyond Gender 10) Shobie-style, we meet to read, tell stories, write, play, and care for one another—acts that, as in the best SF, make and remake the world. Also like the Shobies, who operate from a convergence of emotions and affects and who combine the organic and the inorganic in their journey across the galaxy, we are what Jasbir K. Puar describes as a “queer assemblage,” which, with “its espousal of what cannot be known, seen or heard, or has yet to be known, seen, or heard, allows for becoming/s beyond being/s” (128). As Beyond Gender we form, and are formed by, the practice of collective close reading (CCR). Collective: we choose messy multiplicity over the illusory unity of the sole authoritative voice, the single story. Together we fight. The academy’s demand for definitive individual scholarship; modernity’s fetishization of the single male genius; neoliberalism’s untenable valorization of unending competition: these threefold pressures conspire against us, trying to separate us, to turn us against each other. But we refuse to capitulate to these atomizing demands. Close: instead, united in joy, galvanized by anger and protected with friendship, we draw closer to each other through, by, and with SF. We fiction ourselves into being as an ever shifting collective, a multitude, a crew. Reading: is always rereading, an act of (re)creation. Never a definitive or complete object, we encounter texts as collaborators; we find openings which forge collective modes of subjectivity; we generate ways of being together which, in turn, repotentialize texts. With increasing intimacy, close reading blurs the distinction between reading and writing. We know that to analyze is to retell stories in another language. Never closed, CCR is our polyvocal praxis of utopian worlding. At the conclusion of “A  Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) Donna Haraway argues that the cyborg, as a metaphor for feminist politics, “is a dream not of common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. . . . It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories” (181). Haraway’s rejection of common language restates the cyborg’s rejection of gender essentialism, arguing for a more open collective feminist politics based on difference rather than shared biological experience. The alternative to common language, suggested by Haraway, is heteroglossia: the coexistence of seemingly contradictory, conflicting voices. Haraway posits heteroglossia as a powerful tool for rewriting and remaking both the world and the self. As collaborative practice, this brief quote suggests that heteroglossia not only deconstructs but also builds alternative worlds and ways of being together. Such a practice, central to Beyond Gender, is enacted in “The Shobies’ Story” around the hearth of the ship: the multiple and contradictory stories told by the crew resist a single “true” narrative of events and instead build a complex reality constructed from clashing and complementary voices. It is with this polyvocality of selves that we collaborate with SF, that we sift through, unearth, and rewrite its infinite codes. It is as a multitude of multitudes that we together become SF. 42

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Performance In “The Shobies’ Story,” Le Guin writes: The effective action of a crew depends on the members perceiving themselves as a crew—you could call it believing in the crew, or just being it—Right? So, maybe, to churten, we—we conscious ones—maybe it depends on our consciously perceiving ourselves as . . . as transilient—as being in the other place—the destination? (101) Our reading of SF is an open process which extends beyond any given text, an invitation to create and interact with the world in a science fictional way. In exploring how to communicate these ideas to and with each other we can find ways to act using SF, and as science fictional beings. Here, Le Guin utilizes both context and language to lead us into a realm of multiple possibilities, and estrangement occurs on a bodily level as well as a cognitive one; in short, it occurs in the fabric of the story and in the construction of that fabric. In our work, science fictional thinking gestates and makes possible science fictional praxis. Two members of Beyond Gender, Sinjin Li and Raphael Kabo, worked together to create Loving Allness, a multiplayer game with an objective of world-building and future-making through collective storytelling (Li and Kabo). It asks each player to share a story which is then added to by others, these multiple strands are then reassembled by all players creating shared responsibility for the collective storyworld. The designing and making of the game shared many of the qualities of playing it as a group, exercising our capacity for imagining, dreaming, and building together. A key component of the game’s design is the use of an abstract visual language (in the form of pictorial tiles) to act as storytelling prompts. In using these we depart from the relative comfort of language-based thinking and writing, creating an intimate space to share subjective and multiple interpretations of these tiles—a heteroglossia particular to that group and the freshly made stories shared by its members. This act of telling and listening, of inhabiting worlds of each other’s creation, evokes trust between and compassion towards each other. It has contributed to our practical understanding of collective thought and action as both an emotional and intellectual undertaking. The act of collaboration is not only what is created as a result of our coming together but is our lived experience of each other’s presence and communication in our day-to-day lives, in our work and our recreation. Loving Allness is an expression of our interest in non-binary thinking and future-making, and a medium to explore relating to each other via imaginations and friendship. It allows us to insist upon expansive and generative possibilities in our collective futures. In “The Shobies’ Story,” being in a place, or reaching a destination, requires the same conscious shift in perception as “being a crew,” a creative act of utopian prefiguration through collective storytelling which is both process and realization. Our work as Beyond Gender in the design and playing of storytelling games similarly celebrates and recognizes the utopian possibility contained within the making and sharing of storyworlds.1 In these games, the use of visual art allows us to explore ideas which precede or surpass language, while the physical motions of reading, making, and building allow us to rehearse the construction of these imagined futures in our collective present. The art is not a product, a distinct object, or destination, but the ground upon which we stand. The creation of “the Shobies” as a shared and collective identity requires a process of both meeting and naming, realized in the gathering together in a specific time and location where this act of becoming can take place: “they met at Ve Port more than a month before their first 43

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flight together, and there, calling themselves after their ship as most crews did, became the Shobies” (“The Shobies’ Story” 75). Rather than being “named” after the ship, which implies the hierarchical bestowing of a name, this crew calls themselves into being. This self-calling is a statement of intention, a harkening and awakening to another way of being together which reaches outwards and enfolds the space of the ship. The potency of coming together to share a collective act of performance is one that we explore throughout our work, and just as the place of our gathering has included meeting rooms, galleries, living rooms, and online spaces, our collective identity is re-created and re-made in each performance of meeting. The importance of place was particularly evident in our work at “Future Impermanent,” a workshop and exhibition which saw artists discuss their work within a structure designed and made by the gathered group. Such collective constructions create moments of slippage “between the act of imagination and the act of inhabitation” (Butt 20). This act of calling into being through the creation of a place dissolved the edges of the Beyond Gender collective to create a new affinity group delineated by the hazy edges of this shelter. Within this shelter, members of Beyond Gender shared Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The story had been cut into fragments and those present each took a scrap of paper and read aloud in turn. In doing so it became a story told in multiple voices, dismantling the “I” of the reader into conflicting and contradictory voices made apparent in the variations of each speaker’s tone. As an act of CCR, huddled within a single shelter and allowing our voices to move into one another, it seemed to demand that we take responsibility for the world created by the act of telling (Stone 16). Much like the Shobies, we performed an act of calling into being through polyvocal performance. Such performances of being and speaking together were also foundational to the Utopian Acts festival curated by two members of Beyond Gender, which shared “acts which insist on the possibility of another world in the present” resonating outwards from “localized micro-instances of utopian action” (Stone and Kabo 2019). The fleeting nature of these utopian moments in no way undermines their depth or significance. As utopian scholars Ruth Levitas and Lucy Sargisson discuss, the “when” of utopia is located both on the horizon and within the present moment, apparent in each making of a beginning together (13–28). In our work of CCR, the moment of performing is the product. In “The Shobies’ Story,” the criteria for being a Shoby is acting as a Shoby: So Lidi looked around, like the violinist who raises her bow to poise the chamber group for the first chord, a flicker of eye contact, and sent the Shoby into NAFAL mode, as Gveter, like the cellist whose bow comes down in that same instant to ground the chord, sent the Shoby into churten mode. (89) Nothing connects these spacefarers, who come from different worlds, different societies, and are differently gendered beings except their shared belief in the crew, their conscious formation of a collective “we.” This is the way in which we believe in, or are, Beyond Gender. We are a group brought together not by inherent connection but by a shared commitment to imagining the world differently. In her Foreword to This Bridge Called My Back, Cherríe Moraga states of the contributors: “We are not so much a ‘natural’ affinity group, as women who have come together out of political necessity” (viii). Similarly, Hortense Spillers asks: “Could we say, then, that the feeling of kinship is not inevitable? That it describes a relationship that appears natural, but that must be cultivated under actual material conditions?” (76; emphasis in original). It is this tradition of unnatural feminist kin-making that we seek to uphold. Following Donna Haraway, 44

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we understand SF as a field in which there is no relation which can be accepted as a given because all kinship networks are “derivative of theory, not of nature” (“The Past Is a Contested Zone” 23) and thus are open to interrogation and transformation. Like the Shobies, we are unnaturally drawn together by our desire to investigate the impossible. Justine Larbalestier has argued that “SF is not a genre exclusively made up of written texts but a community or series of communities,” and it is in this spirit that we as Beyond Gender collectively read and play, perform and create, critique, and become SF (iii). Our challenge to those who consider it impossible and unnatural to move beyond binary and essentialized understandings of gender is not just one of literary representations but of resource distribution and workplace conditions. We read collectively both in seminar rooms and on the picket line. For us, coming together with university and college union (UCU) strikers and distributing scraps of SF to read as a group was a way to demonstrate that a challenge to one form of impossibility is a challenge to the boundaries of possibility itself.2 To say that we are Beyond Gender is thus to join in solidarity with those who refuse the designation of increased pay, secure contracts, and manageable workloads as “impossible.” By coming together in this way, we “demand the impossible” (Moylan i).

Friendship Our mission to think with the Shobies also entails exploring the value of kinship and solidarity created by affective bonds that exist outside those of the heteronormative family. During a talk delivered at the Riga Biennial, Sophie Lewis noted that the Covid-19 pandemic has made “it painfully obvious that the nuclear family is not an infrastructure up to the task of looking after people under conditions of lockdown and bodily precarity and vulnerability and need” (“Mothering”). As we continue to exist in isolation, with a sense of distance that is intensified by the fraught separation of the United Kingdom from a precariously bonded European Union, we rely on SF to unite us, and on co-production to continuously reforge and reinforce our slippery coming together in a myriad of online spaces. Holding up the Shobies’ nearly instantaneous journey from Hain to M-60-340-nolo as our model, we celebrate the messiness of their mission together, which relies not on a model of hierarchical control, but rather on the spontaneous emergence of instances of communal agreement, forms of interdependence which “might be called supervising or overseeing if that didn’t suggest a hierarchic function. Interseeing, maybe, or subvising” (88). This is the basis of “churten theory,” the Shobies’ mode of travel based on shared imagination, social cohesion, and mutual agreement as to the object of the group’s perception. Embracing this methodology of togetherness in otherness, we, as Beyond Gender, rely on shared utopian imagination in our collective work. In our view, “assuming that solidarities are forged through emulation risks ignoring how likeness is actively produced,” and we embrace the elements of becoming-together which present productive tensions, recognizing that “ways of articulating solidarity are always partial, limited, and situated” (Featherstone 22). These ideals informed our panel for the Unfair Cities conference in Limerick in December  2019. We placed closely read texts in conversation with one another, using Raccoona Sheldon’s short story “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light” (1976) as an anchoring thread with which to think through the ambiguous utopianism encoded in the cityscapes of the other texts under consideration. We dedicated much of the panel to live discussion between ourselves and with the attendees on the continuities and discontinuities we found in this project. In our collective work, we leave space for unresolvable tensions between texts—indeed, we foreground and extrapolate from these, recognizing the generative potential of comparative analysis which favors affiliation over filiation. This echoes “The Shobies’ 45

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Story,” when Shan takes care to talk through the nuances of two crew members’ interpersonal relationship with everyone else in the crew as “the tension between the mother and son had to be understood to be used effectively in group formation” (78); Beyond Gender similarly considers the potentiality of differences to be procreative rather than limiting, and asserts that this gestatory potential lies in the capacity of the group to “mutually interverify” (“The Shobies’ Story” 83). In this sense, our methodology resonates with Paul Kincaid’s ideas in “On the Origins of Genre” around the “family resemblance” between SF texts. Any “unique, common thread” or “unique, common origin” that binds such texts together is contingent, since science fiction is not one thing. Rather, it is any number of things—a future setting, a marvelous device, an ideal society, an alien creature, a twist in time, an interstellar journey, a satirical perspective, a particular approach to the matter of story, whatever we are looking for when we look for science fiction, here more overt, here more subtle—which are braided together in an endless variety of combinations. (Kincaid 415–17; emphasis added) This contingency does not detract from utopian potentiality, but rather opens up emergent spaces for it: to us, it is deeply meaningful that delivering our panel at Unfair Cities the day after the UK general election in 2019 was the venue at which a conference attendee Dr. Hanna Musiol suggested “collective close reading” as a way of conceptualizing the persistent utopianism of our work in the face of collective dismay. “The Shobies’ Story” is an exemplar of Le Guin’s work in reimagining family, summarized by Haraway as a longing for “models of solidarity and human unity and difference rooted in friendship, work, partially shared purposes, intractable collective pain, inescapable mortality, and persistent hope” (Modest_Witness 265). As we call on one another to participate in the utopian project of working as a collective, not by merging our voices, but by protecting their differences and fostering their coexistence, we contaminate the “egoizing” encoded in existing notions of value and productivity in the academy with the creative and critical capacities of collaboration, friendship, and affective bonds (“The Shobies’ Story” 95). Implicit also in this work is a critique of SF’s genre boundaries and taxonomies, much like that outlined by John Rieder in Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System (2017), particularly the sense that “in modern Western artistic practices more prestige accrues to violating these boundaries than to conforming to them” (24). We point to the pliability of these boundaries, which have at least as much to do with Western-centric notions of canonicity (and the deployment of these in higher education) as they do with the possibilities and limitations of the imagined worlds of a given text, or collectivity of texts. Staying then with the joys and troubles of pushing boundaries by thinking and writing as a collective, we reassemble each time, that is, for each mission, in a different constellation, in ever-changing and expanding “strategic coalition[s],” united by the solidarity-making process of imagining otherwise (Olufemi 136–37). This work “requires making oddkin,” meeting each other again in “unexpected collaborations and combinations”; as Haraway aptly puts it, “we become-with each other or not at all” (Staying with the Trouble 4). When we divide ourselves into smaller working groups over the course of a project (the constitution of which usually reconfigures on each occasion, for each project), we frequently find that we think ourselves into a narrative thread that reflects both our broader discussions and our shared passions. For us, as for the Shobies, collaborative narration is “the chancy and unreliable but most effective means of constructing a shared reality” (Le Guin, “Introduction” 9). We think and speak ourselves onto the same critical texts, but with polyvocal results—the work produced is not uniform, 46

Collective Close Reading: Queer SF and the Methodology of the Many

but united by a “perception variation” (“The Shobies’ Story” 91) that gives it meaning. By centering estrangements and forms of “queer assemblage” (Puar 128) in our materials and seeking to embody the utopian and liberatory potentialities they offer, Beyond Gender enacts a creative process of solidarity-making which does not locate sameness/otherness as a determining binary force, but rather counters this binary as a precondition for solidarity-making at all. In this sense, Beyond Gender’s work seeks to align itself with Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s emphasis on solidarity as a creative and generative practice which does not require pre-existing commonality, but which rather “discovers it” by means of creating, sharing, and embracing values within a community (238). Thus, for us, “love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new” (The Lathe of Heaven 158). It is the continuous re-making—in the forms of work the collective generates, the spaces in which it is created, and the shifting membership of the group at any given time—that fuels and refuels the utopian energy of Beyond Gender’s work. Rather than creating an environment in which “a cessation of cause and effect” creates “a hopeless confusion” (“The Shobies’ Story” 95), the ways in which Beyond Gender bends and reshapes “makes space for unexpected companions” (Haraway, Staying with the Trouble 11). It is by becoming science fictional oddkin that we are able to be Beyond Gender.

Notes 1 Loving Allness is one of several games which have been designed and developed by members of Beyond Gender, as part of our collective exploration of the potential of ludic SF and collective storytelling. These include: a game session as part of the Companion Voyages RPosium, a participatory Research/ Game Environment developed with Exposed Arts, led by Avery Delany with Francis Gene-Rowe; Otherwards, a queer, interdimensional world-building and storytelling community on Discord, built by Felix Rose Kawitzky; and We Have the Square, a collaborative storytelling game inspired by occupation protest movements created by Raphael Kabo and Katie Stone which was played as part of Utopian Acts (London 2018) and a digital version is available here: 2 For other utopian responses to the recent UCU strikes in the UK see McKnight (2019).

Bibliography Beyond Gender. “Beyond Gender Manifesto.” Help Us Build the World, 2019, pp. 10–11. Butt, Amy. “ ‘Only one way in and one way out’: Staging Utopian Spaces.” Studies in Arts and Humanities, vol. 5, no. 1, 2019, pp. 5–23, doi: Featherstone, David. Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism. Zed Books, 2012. Haraway, Donna J. “A  Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Free Association Books, 1991, pp. 149–181. Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness @Second_Millennium FemaleMan Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience. Routledge, 2018. Haraway, Donna J. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016. Haraway, Donna J. “The Past Is the Contested Zone: Human Nature and Theories of Production and Reproduction in Primate Behavior Studies.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Free Association Books, 1991, pp. 21–42. Kincaid, Paul. “On the Origins of Genre.” Extrapolation, vol. 44, no. 4, 2003, pp. 409–419, doi: https:// Larbalestier, Justine. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction: From the Pulps to the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award. 1996. University of Sydney, PhD dissertation. Le Guin, Ursula K. “Introduction.” A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Science Fiction Stories. Victor Gollancz, 1996, pp. 1–12. Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven. Scribner, 1971.


Beyond Gender Research Collective Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The Real and the Unreal: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin. Saga Press, 2016, pp. 329–336. Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Shobies’ Story.” A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. Vista, 1997, pp. 74–105. Levitas, Ruth, and Lucy Sargisson. “Utopia in Dark Times.” Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, edited by Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan. Routledge, 2003, pp. 13–28. Lewis, Sophie. “Mothering Against the World.” Love, Riga International Bienalle of Contemporary Art, 4 June 2020, Li, Sinjin, and Raphael Kabo. Loving Allness, 2020. McKnight, Heather. “The Sussex Campus ‘Forever Strike’: Estrangement, Resistance and Utopian Temporality.” Studies in Arts and Humanities, vol. 5, no. 1, 2019, pp.  145–172, doi: https://doi. org/10.18193/sah.v5i1.166. Moraga, Cherríe. “Refugees of a World on Fire: Foreword to the Second Edition.” This Bridge Called My Back: Racial Writings by Women of Color. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983, pp. v–viii. Moylan, Tom. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. 1986. Peter Lang, 2014. Olufemi, Lola. Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power. Pluto, 2020. Puar, Jasbir K. “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages.” Social Text, vol. 23, no. 3–4 (84–85), 2005, pp. 121– 139, doi: Rieder, John. Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System. Wesleyan University Press, 2017. Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, pp. 65–81, doi: Stone, Katie (on behalf of Beyond Gender). “Collective Reading: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Future Impermanent. Wimbledon Space, 2021, p. 16. Stone, Katie, and Raphael Kabo. “Editorial: Utopian Acts.” Studies in Arts and Humanities, vol. 5, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1–4, doi: Wilson Gilmore, Ruth. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, 2007.


7 QUEER SF Ritch Calvin

Queer SF in Theory: Eight Moments (1) Several years ago, I (he/him) offered an upper-division seminar on Queer Science Fiction (QSF). To my delight, the class filled quickly. My excitement tempered, however, when I arrived for the first day of class and discovered that only four of the thirty students had any idea what the class was about—most were there because it filled a General Education requirement at a convenient day and time. In 2020, however, I offered an undergraduate seminar on Nonbinary Science Fiction (NBSF). The class again filled quickly. This time, however, most of the students not only knew what they were in for, but they had some working knowledge of science fiction (SF) generally and QSF specifically. The zeitgeist had shifted. (2) The category of “SF” is a slippery one, with a fraught history. In his 1979 monograph, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, science fiction theorist Darko Suvin (he/him) defines SF as literature that makes the world with which we are familiar seem strange, and makes the strange world seem familiar via the introduction of a “novum”—a technoscientific discovery or invention that distinguishes the secondary world of the SF story from our own. From this perspective, SF “queers” the reader’s perspective, allowing audiences to imagine a world with different kinds of subjects and different social and political structures. In other words, SF points to the queer possibilities of the future, if not the actual queer practice of SF. (3) In her groundbreaking 1991 book Queer Theory: An Introduction, Annamarie Jagose (she/ her) explores the history behind the term “queer” and the developmental arc of “queer theory,” noting that both are characteristically resistant to definition. She explains that queer theory has been “radically anticipatory, trying to bring a world into being” (1). As such, “queer theory,” like SF, is premised on the desire to make new worlds and new social relations. (4) In his 1997 essay, “Queer Research, or How to Practise Invention to the Brink of Unintelligibility,” William Haver (he/him) defines “queer” as “making strange, queer, or even cruel what we had thought to be a world” (291). Given those similarities, one might think that SF had always been queer. That depends. If queer is taken to refer to an identity, then “no”: in terms of identity politics, SF has historically been conservative. If queer is taken to mean a critical lens that deconstructs familiar paradigms, then the answer is a more interesting “potentially.” (5) In 1999, Wendy Gay Pearson (per/per) published the award-winning essay “Alien Cryptographies,” which offers a tentative typology of QSF. Pearson identifies four types DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-9 


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of QSF texts: those that are not explicitly queer but can be read as queer “with a specific historical context and sensibility”; those that are “proto-queer” and offer some challenge to naturalized categories of sexuality; those that are “coded” as queer, containing messages, symbols, and language recognizable to an insider community; and those that are “overtly queer” (5). Pearson also notes that the categories are slippery, fluid, and non-exclusionary. (6) We see a shift in Pearson’s work away from Suvin’s structuralist approach. Whereas Suvin predicates his model and typology on the structures of the text, Pearson shifts focus onto the reader. While Pearson does point to elements contained within individual texts, per more importantly points to ways in which the reader determines whether or not a text is queer. For example, in “coded queer SF,” the reader’s own knowledge establishes the text as queer. (7) A great deal has changed in the twenty years since Pearson’s essay first appeared. In June 2015, the editors at Lightspeed Magazine published a special issue titled “Queers Destroy Science Fiction” to carve out a space for QUILTBAG (Queer, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual, and/or Gay/Genderqueer) creators and content. Since 2015, a number of anthologies and anthology series devoted to QSF have also appeared, including Beyond the Binary (Lee Mandelo, 2012), Meanwhile, Elsewhere (Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett, 2017), the Transcendent series (K. M. Sparza; Bogi Takács, 2016–2018), and the Glittership series (Keffy R. M. Kehrli, 2017–2018). (8) In March 2020, published a roundtable edited by Lee Mandelo (he/him or they/ them) called “Queering SF: 12 Authors, Critics, and Activists on What’s Changed in the Last Ten Years,” in which authors identify the reasons behind the recent growth of overt QSF. In short, they note, gatekeepers have changed, publishing outlets have changed, public and political attitudes have changed, and readers of SF have changed. At this moment in time, as the corpus of QSF grows in depth and breadth, we can begin to map out certain tendencies and categories. QSF can be a text written by someone who identifies as queer, and/or it can represent the stories of primary, secondary, and tertiary characters who are queer. QSF can also include texts produced and distributed by queer means, particularly, but not limited to, queer presses and queer bookstores. Finally, QSF represents a view from the margins, as it imagines a differently structured universe. As was true of Pearson’s typology, these tendencies are not meant to be fixed or comprehensive as writers add to the corpus on a daily basis. Any one text can exist in any or all of these four definitions. In this chapter, I explore what I see as three main story types within QSF: (1) Those in which issues of queerness are addressed obliquely; (2) Those in which the queerness is explicit but not central to the narrative, and; (3) Those in which queerness is explicit and central to the narrative.

Queer SF in Practice: Three Tendencies (1) Addressing Queerness Obliquely: The QSF of Samuel R. Delany, Toby MacNutt, and Vajra Chandrasekera Samuel R. Delany (he/him) broke into SF at the time of the New Wave (NW), a revolutionary shift that occurred in 1960s SF as authors turned from stories about the hard sciences and outer space to those that use the “soft” sciences—psychology, anthropology, sociology, and 50

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even economics—to explore the “inner space” of both individual people and entire cultures. Delany came of age as a queer man living in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, and, as he talks about in autobiographical works such as The Motion of Light on Water (1988), was an active participant in the public sex life of his chosen sexual community despite intense public disapproval and police harassment. These experiences informed a number of Delany’s SF stories, including the Nebula award-winning “Aye, and Gomorrah,” which appeared in 1967 in the boundary-pushing anthology, Dangerous Visions (1967). In “Aye, and Gomorrah,” the unnamed narrator (he/him) and four fellow “spacers” come down to Earth for shore leave. (In keeping with contemporary practices, Delaney uses he/him pronouns for the nongendered spacers.) “Spacers” are individuals who have been surgically altered to successfully survive intense space radiation, albeit at the cost of their reproductive organs and sexual drive. Somewhat ironically, these “sexless” spacers are fetishized by a certain subset of humans called “frelks.” The spacers understand their appeal to frelks and sometimes take advantage of that desire to make extra money. In the story, an art student (she/her) approaches the narrator to secure a liaison, but she cannot pay them. While the narrator initially agrees to go home with the frelk because he is looking for human connection, he leaves when the conversation turns to money. The liaison does not occur because neither person can get what they are looking for from it. At a literal level, the story represents both spacers and frelks as sexual deviants. In an early scene, the spacers interrupt a group of gay men in a public bathroom, only to be told that “you . . . people” should leave (101). The line repeats in a later scene when some prostitutes tell the spacers that they do not appreciate the competition (102). The spacers are marginal and undesirable, even for society’s marginal and undesirables. Meanwhile, Delany queers the frelks with strategically deployed and deliberately gendered pronouns. In French, they are “une frelk” (feminine); in Spanish, they are “un frelko” (masculine) (101, 102). In this simple move, Delany invokes the discursive arguments of queer theory that all sex and gender categories are arbitrary linguistic creations. Frelks have no essential gender identity, but rather whatever gender identity is imposed upon them. In many ways, the spacers and frelks seem to be analogs for queer folx from our own world. Both the spacers and the frelks stand outside social norms; both queer the relationship between body and identity and between body and sexuality. Even so, the references to queerness are oblique. Oblique representations of queer experience and lives are also central to contemporary stories by Toby MacNutt and Vajra Chandrasekera. MacNutt (ey/em/eir) is a nonbinary and disabled artist who works on issues of gender fluidity, queer identity, and embodiment. In “Moments of Light” (2015), ey tells the tale of an artist named Lyuko (ze/hir), born on the water planet Voushato, who has the ability to gather and sculpt light. After constructing a light structure on hir homeword, ze accepts a commission on for a project on a waterless world. Upon completion of that sculpture, ze begins an even larger piece in deep space that will gather the light of the stars and direct them onto a habitat orbiting a dead star. “Moments of Light” can be read as obliquely queer in several ways. First and foremost, Lyuko’s nongendered pronouns suggest that the Voushato do not have a gendered identity. Second and equally important, the inhabitants of Voushato live as a colony, where each new member asexually buds off from the parent. Later, when Lyuko goes to space, ze re-creates the experience of collective identity by making the support team hir de facto colony. Finally, “Moments of Light” queers the reader’s expectations of an SF story. While it is set on alien planets and in space, it is not a celebration of science and technology. Instead, it centers both the beauty and the function of art. Much like Delany, MacNutt features nongender-conforming characters, but only obliquely comments on queer identity. 51

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Vajra Chandrasekera’s (he/him) “Rhizomatic Diplomacy” (2016) uses politics to make similarly oblique comments about sexed and gendered identity. “Rhizomatic Diplomacy” revolves around the final thirty minutes of protagonist Talpo’s life. Talpo (he/him) is a diplomat, deployed to communicate with the alien paniskoi, who have been dropping “bombs” which they claim function as “soil rejuvenation initiatives” on Talpo’s world. Talpo, however, is not, as he notes, a “traditional human.” He is a rhizome that has been dropped into a marsh to negotiate with the paniskoi. The language of both species employs three elements: “pheromones, somatics, and speech.” As part of a rhizome, Talpo’s individual life is inconsequential and can be sacrificed on the battlefield. Moreover, Chandrasekera offers no information about the sex and gender of Talpo (apart from his pronoun), and he offers no information about the identities of the paniskoi at all. “Rhizomatic Diplomacy” can be read as obliquely queer in several ways. For one, Talpo’s creation is asexual. Therefore, the story offers a new take on subjectivity. Talpo is not the singular, Western, unified self born from a singular female body. Instead, he is part of a collective and a community; a queer subject fashioned by queer reproductive means. Chandrasekera also obliquely refers to the lived experiences of queer folx through the newly embodied Talpo’s concerns about his “chronic lymphocytopenia” and other “immunodeficiencies,” both allusions to AIDS that suggest another important connection between Chandrasekera’s posthuman diplomat and the queer community but without direct references to queer identity or queer sex as it exists in our own world.

(2) Making Queerness Explicit but Not Central to the Story: The QSF of Lisa Bunker, Keffy R. M. Kehrli, and Shweta Narayan Lisa Bunker’s (she/her) Felix Yz is one of many Young Adult (YA) QSF novels published in the last ten years. Bunker came to writing late, after a long career in non-profit radio. In 2018, Bunker became the first openly trans individual elected to the New Hampshire state legislature. Like Delany, Bunker draws on her own sexed and gendered experience to create her art. Unlike Delany, however, she makes queerness explicit and central to her characters’ lives, if not essential to the story itself. Felix Yz centers around 13-year-old Felix (he/him), the youngest child in a quirky, semi-counterculture family. Felix’s father is a scientist, but when an experiment goes awry, his father is killed, and Felix is fused with a hyperintelligent being called Zyx. The fusion causes Felix to become hunched over and have difficulty with physical movement. The novel takes the form of a journal, providing direct access to the thoughts of Felix and Zyx and explicitly addressing issues of queer identity. Time and time again, Bunker’s novel refuses the kind of binary thinking associated with the heteronormative matrix. Felix quickly establishes that he is gay and has a crush on a classmate. His mother, Margo (she/her), dates both men and women. Felix’s grandparent is Vera/Vern, who uses neopronouns (vo/ven/veir/veirself) and presents as either feminine, masculine, or neither on different days of the week. And yet, while many of the primary characters are queer, queerness is not essential to the narrative. When Felix is bullied at school, it is for his disability rather than his sexuality and of course, it literally has nothing to do with his physical fusion with Zyx. In other words, if Felix had been a cis-gender, heterosexual boy, the novel would not have been significantly altered. And yet by making this the tale of queer individuals and queer families, Felix Yz insists on their rightful place in the future imaginary. Another recent work that revolves around explicitly queer characters but where queerness is not essential to the narrative is Keffy R. M. Kehrli’s (he/him) “Bonehouse” (2011), which


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tells the story of Chris (he/him), a transman and “evictionist” who locates individuals slowly rotting away in hospitals called “bonehouses” while jacked into virtual reality, bringing them home to their concerned families. Chris is good at his job in large part because he himself had once been addicted to virtual reality and is thus highly motivated to bring down the corporate powers behind the bonehouses. The fact that Chris is a trans man is significant for representation and indeed, we learn that originally, one of the reasons Chris originally stayed plugged into virtual was so that he could experience himself as a man; it was only after his eviction that he transitioned. And yet, while this backstory undoubtedly makes Chris’s character richer, it is not essential to the story. As SF, it could have worked with Chris as a cis-gender, heterosexual person— after all, Chris could have been motivated to take down the bad guys in his world out of revenge. Thus Kehrli’s story offers readers a complex queer character and demonstrates the SFnal potential to reimagine one’s own identity, but does not explicitly alter the story’s worldview. “World of the Three” (2017) by Shweta Narayan (they/them or she/her) is a QSF deeply rooted in Tamil history and the culture and politics of Kerala, India. The story takes the form of a mother (she/her) telling a long, multi-generational story to her three youngest children about how they came to be in the world. The children are all mechanical beings, who live among the Alabar (humans). The mother’s story revolves around the children’s oldest sibling, Vikramaditi (they/them). In their first incarnation, Vikramaditi was a King in Chola, until a jealous adopted child unwound their spring. Mother then reshaped Vikramaditi into a body that resembled a human female, and they took on the name Ramaa, who decides to become a bird for a while, until they fall in love with a poet/trader and return to their female body. When their husband betrays Ramaa and all mechanicals, Ramaa’s heartspring breaks. Mother takes the shards of the heartspring and creates three new children, Usithan, Maari, and Anbu. “The World of the Three” is QSF in several ways. For one, Vikramaditi largely rejects a fixed or gendered norm. While characters do, at times, take on shapes that are stereotypically gendered, they are never fixed or stable. Vikramaditi notes that the body is only ever “jewellery” for mechanicals—something to be taken on and off on at will. Indeed, Vikramaditi uses a nongendered pronoun regardless of physical form, using “they” whether they are a King, a parrot, or a married person. “The World of the Three” pushes at a binary worldview, even if it does not rupture it completely. Narayan begins the story with the reference to the three kings of Kerala. Vikramaditi takes on three bodies (male, bird, female). When Vikramaditi’s heartspring is remade, their mother creates three children. Even so, at times, Vikramaditi does conform to one or the other of the two binary genders. Narayan also invokes binaries in their depiction of the relationship of the mechanicals to the Alabar humans, which can be read as parallel to that of QUILTBAG individuals and the cis-het community. The Alabar do not trust the mechanicals; they have prejudices and biases against mechanicals; they want to limit mechanicals from trade—and they sometimes want to kill the mechanicals. “The World of the Three” employs QSF to imagine a space for thinking about the future of queer folx. As SF, the story contains characters that explicitly challenge binary gender and sexual norms. However, as QSF, the antagonism between mechanicals and humans could stand for any two groups. The animosity and distrust is not explicitly because of the characters’ queerness. As with Bunker and Kehrli, Narayan offers explicitly queer characters, but their queerness is not essential to the plot.


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(3) Making Queerness Explicit and Central to the Story: The QSF of Rivers Solomon, M. Téllez, and Merc Fenn Wolfmoor Rivers Solomon (they/them) is a self-described “dyke” and “anarchist” who was born in 1989 and educated in the United States before moving to the UK. Solomon’s debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017) offers a QSF work where queerness is central to the narrative. The novel imagines that humans have created generation spaceships to escape a dying Earth, but only by recreating chattel slavery as it was practiced in the US. The novel begins in media res on a ship called Mathilda, and the reader never discovers details about the fate of Earth, the genesis of the spaceship, or the origins of its sociopolitical structure because the narrative is focalized through the perspectives of marginalized people of color who live and work on the lower decks and who do not have access to that history themselves. In the novel, the generation ship has gone off course and suffered mechanical damage. The passengers are segregated, with whites in the spacious and luxurious upper decks and people of color in the cramped and frigid lower decks, where they are compelled to perform the intensive labor that allows the ship to run. In the hundreds of years since launch, a number of changes have occurred linguistically, culturally, and biologically. Large segments of the lower decks are intersexed, and many identify as queer. The protagonist, Aster (she/her or they/ them), is described as Black, intersex, autistic, and a gifted healer. Her ally, teacher, and lover is Theodore Smith (he/him), who also identifies as queer. Theo guides Aster’s education, even as he frustrates both her practical and sexual desires. Aster’s best friend is Giselle (she/ her), a woman who refuses to adhere to the social and political norms of Matilda and who fiercely loves Aster. Aster’s autism is a constitutive element of her identity, her understanding of the world (ship), and her actions. One character describes Aster as “Insiwa,” meaning that she lives inside her head too much, and her surrogate mother Aunt Melusine says that Aster sees the world “sideways” (190). In Aster, Solomon represents the intersectionality of queer identity: the experiences and treatment of Aster cannot be isolated to her race, her sexuality, or her ability. The individual in charge of the ship, the Sovereign, hates and abuses her for all of these reasons; it is why she cannot have full access to the ship and its equipment. Solomon’s novel queers SF’s subject matter, protagonists, and classic narrative trajectory. Unkindness employs the plantation trope to illustrate how the same slavery-based economy that built the United States could easily reassert itself in the future. The narrative is not a celebration of technology but, instead, insists that technology will only the save the privileged. Moreover, all of the central characters are complex, intersectional, and unflinchingly queer. The novel’s narrative and emotional centers are in the lower decks, with the disenfranchised queer folx. Finally, the novel ends with Aster’s return to Earth, which has recovered from the effects of humans. However, the ending is far from a triumphant return: Aster is accompanied only by the remains of her mother and Giselle, while the rest of humanity fights to the death on the Mathilda. Thus, Solomon queers the reader’s expectations of SF: the hero does not prevail and Western technology does not save the day. The novel suggests no futurity under the old paradigms. Other recent short works in which queerness is explicit and central to the narrative include stories by M. Téllez and Merc Fenn Wolfmoor. M. Téllez (they/them) is a self-described “crossroads cyborg” whose story “Heat Death of Human Arrogance” (2016) focuses on two species, humans and SlowSteppers™, the latter of which are engineered rhizomes created to assist in off-world colonization. Loma (she/her), a “human-identified Earth organism,” rejects the logic of colonization and fights for the enfranchisement of the SlowSteppers™. SlowStepper™ Inri (they/them) works for extended periods of time terraforming Mars. When Inri is not working, 54

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they spend time with Loma. Inri has no genitals and is part of a collective consciousness. Inri has difficulty in understanding Loma, individuality, and humans. Still, Inri enjoys sex and thinks they understand Loma’s love. Téllez’s story queers many aspects of science fiction. For one, the collective consciousness of the SlowSteppers™ challenges the reader’s assumptions about the desirability of “individual autonomy.” Inri has no interest in being an individual. Further, Inri does not fully understand Loma’s rejection of colonization. Inri’s purpose in life and profession is the colonization of Mars. Inri exists as part of a colony and has no individual identity. Therefore, Inri sees the ways in which the newer generations of SlowSteppers™—who are more like individual humans— threaten them all. The story offers queer characters who reject many of the norms of Western society. Téllez imagines a world that is differently structured and is focalized from the perspective of a being who is not an individual, who has no sex and no gender, and has no understanding of familial relations. In this story, Inri’s queerness is fundamental to their understanding of the world and to the narrative itself. As a final example, Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (they/them) is the queer, nonbinary author of “The Frequency of Compassion” (2018), which centers on an agender, autistic, and hyperempathic individual named Kaityn (they/them). Kaityn and their AI, Horatio (ze/zir), set research beacons in space for star charting. On a routine mission, Kaityn senses the call of an alien in distress. While humans from a rival company want to capture and exploit the alien, Kaityn defends it. The alien returns the favor when the other humans act violently. In “The Frequency of Compassion,” Kaityn’s autism and agender identity are the center of the narrative. They are the reason Kaityn was chosen for the job, and they are the reason Kaityn makes contact with the alien. And yet while these are precisely the qualities that make Kaityn the hero of this particular story, they are most certainly not the characteristics of the traditional SF hero. In a flashback scene, Kaityn’s then-boyfriend argues that Kaityn would not make a good first contact person because their disability and their nonbinary identity would confuse and mislead any aliens. However, the alien that Kaityn meets has no gender, lives in a cluster, and is most definitely not confused or misled by Kaityn. Thus, Wolfmoor’s story suggests that it is binary-oriented, cis-gender humans who are incapable of understanding the alien other. In other words, our existence actually depends on a queered understanding of the universe and its inhabitants. In this example, Wolfmoor, like Solomon and Téllez, offers a text with explicitly queer characters, and that queerness is central to the narrative itself. The field of QSF continues to expand and develop. The number of queer writers, texts, and characters have all increased. However, the most significant development is the way in which the entire field of SF is being queered. Not only is it increasingly difficult to imagine futures without queer subjects, QSF demands that the very form of SF itself must change. If one of the takeaways from disability studies is that beginning from a place of disability creates a more accessible world for everyone, then one of the takeaways from QSF is that beginning from a place of queerness creates a science fiction that imagines a world (universe) that includes everyone.

Bibliography Bunker, Lisa. Felix YZ. New York, Viking, 2017. Chandrasekera, Vajra. “Rhizomatic Diplomacy.” An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables, edited by Rose Lemberg. Stone Bird, 2016, pp. 145–150. Delany, Samuel R. “Aye, and Gomorrah.” Driftglass. Doubleday, 1971, pp. 101–111. Haver, William. “Queer Research, or, How to Practise Invention to the Brink of Unintelligibility.” The Eight Technologies of Otherness, edited by Sue Golding. Routledge, 1997, pp. 277–292. Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York University Press, 1996.


Ritch Calvin Kehrli, Keffy R. M. “Bonehouse.” Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction, edited by Brit Mandelo. Lethe, 2011. MacNutt, Toby. “Moments of Light.” Capricious, December  2015, 20201124142435/ Mandelo, Lee. “Queering SFF: 12 Authors, Critics, and Activists on What’s Changed in the Last Ten Years.” Tor. com, 31 March 2020. Narayan, Shweta. “World of the Three.” Lightspeed Magazine, June 2017, fiction/world-of-the-three/. Pearson, Wendy. “Alien Cryptographies: View from the Queer.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 1999, pp. 1–22. Solomon, Rivers. An Unkindness of Ghosts. Akashic, 2017. Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. Yale University Press, 1979. Téllez, M. “Heat Death of Western Human Arrogance.” Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers, edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett. Topside, 2017. Wolfmoor, Merc Fenn. “The Frequency of Compassion,” Uncanny Magazine (Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction), September–October  2018. the-frequency-of-compassion/.


8 RENOVATING THE SYSTEM The Matrix Resurrections and Trans Resistance to Neoliberal Integration Terra Gasque

Introduction The Wachowski siblings’ original Matrix trilogy (1999–2003) is often celebrated as a complete package of action, thought, and style; one that completed its story and gracefully left the public eye. But artists today are interested in writing beyond the end of both classic cultural narratives and their own stories to see how seemingly completed narrative worlds might be reopened to provide new perspective on present-day technoscientific and technosocial issues. Lana Wachowski’s newest Matrix film, The Matrix Resurrections (2021), is very much part of this movement, showcasing science fiction’s (SF’s) ability to create complex narrative worlds capable of exploring the most pressing social issues of the era in which they are first produced and of being reworked—one might even say “resurrected”—to address new social issues as they emerge in the present. The original Matrix trilogy follows hacker Thomas Anderson, who goes by the handle “Neo,” as he transitions from isolated outsider to messianic figure destined to save the world. Along the way, it invites audiences to explore some of the most classic themes of SF, including the relations of destiny, free-will, and personal choice in large technoscientific systems. Nearly 20 years later, we return to the world of the Matrix, but with a more focused purpose: to explore the perils of neoliberal integration and assimilation for queer individuals. This time, instead of messianic figures saving the world, we have isolated, impotent individuals struggling to achieve a sense of personhood that has been stripped from them by a systemic power. Gone are the massive action set pieces of the original, the poppy CGI effects, and the intricately choreographed fight scenes. This sequel retains some elements of all these things, but they are both more nuanced and rougher in application. Likewise, the narrative world of the Matrix has also moved on, and those who remain must deal with changes both positive and negative; they must figure out how to survive—and, in doing so, provide audiences with lessons in resilience that are very much applicable to our own world.

“Replugging” as Central Metaphor of the Matrix Series Central to Lana Wachowski’s most recent Matrix film is the concept of “replugging,” introduced in the very first film. The original Matrix films are organized around the conceit that once someone has realized they are part of the Matrix, they have been “unplugged” and cannot be DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-10 


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“replugged” into the system. There are those, like Cypher in the original Matrix film, who will work with the machines to try, but the original series gives little to no evidence that one can reintegrate into the Matrix once disconnected. This recognition of alienation and subsequent inability to reintegrate into the system is parallel with the feelings of outsiderness described by queer theorists. Once they recognize themselves as outsiders to the social, political, and technological systems organizing their world, intersex, trans, and other sexual minority groups struggle to integrate with systems that shun and oppress them—or, as the endings of the original three Matrix films each suggest in their own ways, this recognition becomes the impetus to fully reject current systems of power or to attempt their total destruction from without. However, as The Matrix: Resurrections reminds us, integration resistance does not really exist in either our world or its fictional counterpart. Indeed, the neutering and domestication of outsider classes and their reintroduction back into an overarching system of control is central to Wachowski’s film. The ultimate outsiders and champions against the system, Neo and Trinity have been revived from death, rebuilt at the heart (both metaphorically and literally) of a new Matrix system, and replugged into it as the system’s primary power source, reminding us that no system of control is beyond exploiting, expanding, and consuming those it needs for its own propagation. But of course, that is not the ending of the story. Instead, Wachowski strategically invokes, revises, and updates both her own Matrix mythos and key SF storytelling practices themselves to demonstrate how social and sexual minorities might creatively enact not total revolution from without, but a series of small, subtle changes from within the system to make it a little bit freer and more equitable for all.

The Original Matrix Trilogy: A Brief Overview The Matrix series is set in the year 2199 on a postapocalyptic Earth where the world has been scorched bare and clouds blot out the sky due to all-out war between machines and humanity. The world is ruled by sentient machines who use the humans they have conquered as their primary energy sources. Unaware of their role as biological batteries, most humans live out their lives in the simulated world of the Matrix, unaware of the real world or their place within it. Those who are unhappy with their lives and learn about the real world sometimes attempt to escape the Matrix by unplugging. However, the Matrix has entities and mechanisms in place to stop such escapes. The most apparent of these mechanisms are the Agents which can take over the body of anyone plugged into the Matrix. Those who do escape are often surprised to find that real world of the Matrix series is somehow even less pleasant than the Matrix; a cold dying husk where unplugged humans live in a drab, industrial refuge called Zion, built close to the planet’s core for warmth. These humans engage in endless war with the machines, who see the Zion rebels as an existential threat to their way of life, due to the Zion humans unplugging disgruntled individuals trapped in the Matrix. The original trilogy focuses on Neo as he escapes the artificial reality of the Matrix and strives to stop the war between humans and machines, using his love for Trinity (another unplugged human) to give him strength and determination. At the end of the third film, The Matrix: Revolutions, both sacrifice themselves to the cause. Trinity dies flying Neo into the heart of the machine civilization, and Neo dies by integrating with the Machines to combat a rogue security program, Agent Smith, who threatens to destabilize both the Matrix and the real world. Central to the narrative is Neo’s love for Trinity, which evolves over the course of the series and, despite being dramatized by cis-heterosexual actors, conveys a different energy than the traditional Hollywood romance. This energy reveals itself as the films progress and Neo and Trinity’s love becomes more sapphic, more caring, and more about gentle support for 58

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each other’s emotion instead of physical carnal lust. Significantly, the Wachowskis have gone on record to state that the original Matrix is a trans allegory, “But it was all coming from a closeted point of view” (qtd. in Migdon). Given the impossibility of telling stories about gender nonconforming characters in the 1990s (case in point: Warner Brothers nixed a proposal to make the character Switch male in the real world and female in the Matrix) and the fact that, at this point the Wachowskis themselves had not yet come out as trans, it is perhaps no surprise that while the original trilogy transforms physical lust into gentle emotion, it does so in ways that helped blur obvious references to queerness. Nearly two decades after the original trilogy concluded and twelve years after Lana Wachowski came out as trans, The Matrix Resurrections (directly solely by Wachowski) expands the narrative of the Matrix series beyond its original focus on the machine war and Neo as world savior. Without changing the casting or the logic of the story world, Wachowski seems to take strength from her own time as an out transwoman, making the trans aspects of Neo and Trinity even more explicit in the modern film. Wachowski does nothing so crude as to literally transform Neo and Trinity into transpeople, but she does not simply hint at trans issues indirectly, either. Instead, the films centers on scenes where Neo and Trinity’s experiences directly mirror those of trans people in our own world. In the first part of the film, both characters experience the kind of dissociation, depersonalization, and derealization faced by many trans individuals. Examples include the multiple faces Neo sees reflected in his bathroom, the blurring of multiple days and meetings into a seemingly endless stretch of times, and the talk of being unable to recognize reality. Furthermore, both Trinity and Neo act explicitly trans in their language, physical presentation, and interactions, all while still maintaining the mask of cisgender heteronormativity established in the first films. For example, early in the newest film, Neo visits a coffee shop as part of his daily routine to pine over a woman, Trinity, who also frequents the establishment. However, instead of asking out Trinity on a date or being forward with his feelings, he merely enjoys seeing her and tries not to disrupt Trinity’s life. When an obnoxious coworker tries to set them up and Neo learns Trinity is married, he is not distraught with rejection, but instead asks her if they could meet simply to try out a friendship. There is no carnal lust in Neo’s action, just a deep longing for companionship. Thus, Wachowski makes Neo and Trinity’s struggles to be their true selves that much more pointed and resonant to trans and non-binary viewers who might well find themselves forced to present similar masks in our own world.

Jack Halberstam and the Neoliberal Integration of Queer Subjects Neo and Trinity’s uneasy reintegration into the Matrix in Wachowski’s 2021 film dramatizes what queer theorist Jack Halberstam describes as the reincorporation of queer bodies into the neoliberal world order. In his 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place, released just two years after the conclusion of the original Matrix trilogy, Halberstam takes on two axioms of earlier queer theory. First, in a move that seems inspired by the Wachowski siblings’ representations of Zion (and particularly the Zion rave scene of the third film), Halberstam expands who counts as “queer subjects” to include not just LGBTQ+ people, but also individuals such as ravers, club kids, and others who embrace queer perspectives (10). At the same time, he pushes back against the notion that LGBTQ+ people are naturally and necessarily perpetual outsiders to neoliberal systems of power by showing how urban gay and lesbian people are slowly becoming part of the systems they once rebelled against (19). He notes that: Transgenderism, with its promise of gender liberation and its patina of transgression, its promise of flexibility and its reality of a committed rigidity, could be the successful 59

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outcome of years of gender activism; or, just as easily, it could be the sign of the reincorporation of a radical subculture back into the flexible economy of postmodern culture. (21) For Halberstam, transgender individuals whose gender identity seems to naturally counter cisgender, patriarchal systems of control are still at risk of integration, should the economic systems running the world develop a need for these individuals and their talents. In The Matrix Resurrections, Wachowski dramatizes Halberstam’s warning about trans integration into the neoliberal order by literally integrating Neo and Trinity back into a society that once ostracized and estranged them. In the first trilogy, Trinity and Neo achieve their goals of stopping the war between humans and machines. However, much like the systems of power in our own world, the machines and controlling systems that define the reality of the Matrix continue to evolve, and in Resurrections we learn that the machines have formed a new Matrix that neuters unplugged individuals. As the Analyst (played by Neal Patrick Harris) explains in a monologue toward the end of the film, the new Matrix he has designed recognizes and actively capitalizes on human discontent but makes sure that the only means of expressing it is through empty gestures of resistance, such as Tweets or social media posts. This even distribution of misery reduces the number of humans with either the knowledge or desire to unplug from the Matrix and prevents communities of rebellion from forming, thereby ensuring more power for the machines. The ways in which neoliberal integration appropriates both the individual and collective identities of minority subjects is most poignantly dramatized by the fate of Neo and Trinity, who have been physically resurrected and placed at the heart of the new Matrix. The Analyst explains that both have a code anomaly that enables them to connect with all humanity in the Matrix. By suppressing their memories and keeping them miserably close but always apart, the Matrix generates even more power: Here’s the thing about feelings. They’re so much easier to control than facts. Turns out, in my Matrix, the worse we treat you, the more we manipulate you, the more energy you produce. It’s nuts. I’ve been setting productivity records every year since I took over. And, the best part, zero resistance. People stay in their pods, happier than pigs in shit. The key to it all? You. And her. Quietly yearning for what you don’t have, while dreading losing what you do. For 99.9% of your race, that is the definition of reality. Desire and fear, baby. The Analyst’s design choice to separate individuals from their own authentic community building practices means that while everyone shares the same troubles and miseries, they are distanced from each other just enough to nullify organizing into a meaningful rebellion. Much like Halberstam’s neoliberal economic drive, the Analyst’s Matrix integrates all parties into a single collective, but in such a way that is no longer a meaningful threat to the system. Although she did not work on it, Lilly Wachowski’s reaction to the very idea of making a fourth Matrix film provides insight into the horrific nature of forced integration so central to Resurrections: [Lana] had come up with this idea for another “Matrix” movie, and we had this talk, and it was actually—we started talking about it in between [our] dad dying and [our] mom dying, which was like five weeks apart. . . . And there was something about the idea of going backward and being a part of something that I had done before that was 60

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expressly unappealing. And, like, I didn’t want to have gone through my transition and gone through this massive upheaval in my life, the sense of loss from my mom and dad, to want to go back to something that I had done before, and sort of [walk] over old paths that I had walked in, felt emotionally unfulfilling, and really the opposite—like I was going to go back and live in these old shoes, in a way. And I didn’t want to do that. (qtd. in Lash) Neo’s experience in the film mirrors Lilly Wachowski’s emotional flashbacks. Upon being integrated into the new Matrix, Neo is given a life as a programmer, and his history from the previous films is re-framed as a video game with fantastical elements extrapolated from his life struggles. The tension between his real and false memories results in a mental unwellness that keeps Neo pliable and subservient to the Matrix by way of his therapist—the Analyst—who gaslights Neo into believing he is suicidal and delusional. Neo’s dissociation and flashbacks become most explicit when Morpheus (the program portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), tries to contact Neo at his game company. Running from both Morpheus and the police, Neo has vivid flashbacks to action scenes from the previous Matrix films, culminating when Agent Smith (portrayed by Jonathan Groff) grabs a discarded gun to kill Neo. The scene ends with Neo transported to the Analyst, who convinces him that the entire experience was a mental break and Neo needs to ground himself into reality better. This act of external control through the careful manipulation of internalized systemic biases, doubts, and phobias is part of the initial hesitancy and resistance Neo must overcome to unplug himself from the Matrix once again. In some ways, Trinity has a perhaps an even worse fate than Neo in the new Matrix. Like Neo, she has been returned from the dead, stripped of her previous memories, and inserted into this new Matrix. However, while Neo is at least granted a profession with some relationship to his previous one as a hacker, Trinity is transformed from a purposeful warrior into a distracted and discontented wife and mother. Even so, the Analyst controls Trinity for much of the film by suggesting that it is her duty—and special skill set—to keep her family safe from the world’s various mundane ills. Indeed, this rhetoric is so powerful that it almost works at the climax of the film, when Trinity’s artificial family tries to take her away from Neo by claiming one of the children is hurt and she is needed at the hospital. Eventually she refuses, thereby forcing the Analyst to expose his hand, but there is palpable tension as Trinity makes the final choice between Neo and her simulated family. Even Agent Smith, the villain of the original series, has been reintegrated into this new Matrix—somewhat ironically, as Neo-the-game-designer’s partner. In the original trilogy, Smith is an Agent of the Matrix, seemingly killed but ultimately liberated from machine control when Neo merges and then explodes out from him. The next two films follow an unplugged (and, due to his entanglement with Neo, an increasingly emotional and unpredictable) Smith who tries to take over the Matrix by making everyone a clone of him, all while insisting on that, “We’re not here because we’re free. We’re here because we’re not free. There’s no escaping reason. No denying purpose. Because as we both know without purpose, we would not exist.” In the newest film, Smith retains some of his impressive abilities but is, initially at least, used by the Analyst as another tool to keep Neo’s life within this new Matrix controlled and miserable. He is given power and seems happier than Neo and Trinity, but he is just as much exploited and seeking freedom as they are. Once again, then, the new Matrix capitalizes on the misery of closeness. As Halberstam observes, no matter which individual seems to have power over another, the larger system of control integrates all outsiders into it in ways that leave no one happy but mollify them into accepting the world as it is. 61

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Renovating the Master’s House by Dismantling the Myth of the One Although she is skeptical that queerness “naturally” grants individuals the ability to resist neoliberal systems of power, Lana Wachowski uses The Matrix Resurrections to rethink some of the key premises of the earlier Matrix trilogy and hopefully imagine new paths toward queer community and positive political change. This process of narrative rehabilitation is much like the one that Caribbean-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson describes in her introduction to Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction. In this opening essay, Hopkinson takes on self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde’s claim that we cannot dismantle systems of power using the same tools that built those systems. As Lorde puts it: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (26–27). At least in terms of SF a genre often associated with White, cis-heteronormative, male privilege—Hopkinson sees things differently, arguing for the possibility of radical renovation: “I want to see what would happen if we handed out massa’s tools and said, ‘Go on; let’s see what you build’ ” (8–9). This act of creative rehabilitation allows systems to be radically altered through a million small shifts and changes. Wachowski dramatizes this kind of literary and sociopolitical renovation in The Matrix Resurrections through the growth of Trinity and Neo and their final confrontation with the Analyst. She begins this process early in the film by dismantling the Myth of “the One” that is so central to the first trilogy. In the previous series, Neo is called “the One” because he can exploit the rules of the Matrix. This role was created by the Matrix as a tool of control to keep the Matrix safe from both humans and the Machines alike: when enough anomalies aggregate to destabilize the Matrix, a human is selected to be born with special code that attracts all the anomalies and eventually allows the human in question to reset the Matrix. Thus “The One” is both a tool of control and a messianic figure. And in the first three movies, The One is truly a singular, exemplary figure, perhaps best demonstrated by Neo’s superman-like flight at the end of The Matrix or the messianic T-pose he assumes at the climax of The Matrix Revolutions. By way of contrast, Wachowski’s newest film takes on the myth of the exceptional individual free from history almost immediately. Once unplugged from the new Matrix, Neo is taken to Io, a hidden city built together by both humans and machines. There Neo encounters Niobe, a character from the previously trilogy who is much, much older than when he last saw her. Niobe explains that belief in Neo as The One led to both the destruction of Zion and the death of Neo’s mentor Morpheus, as various members of Zion dedicated themselves to seeking The One instead of trying to work with each other to fix their problems. While Niobe instructs Neo (and, presumably, the audience) on the dangers inherent in myths of The One, Wachowski uses another female character, Trinity, to rehabilitate that myth and its role in the world of the Matrix itself. Toward the end of The Matrix Resurrections, Trinity learns that she shares the same special code as Neo and can exploit the rules of the Matrix at with even equal or greater ease. This access to power coincides with her realization that her true family is not the group of avatars who claim to be her biological relations, but the found family of human rebels she lived and worked with in Zion. The climax of the film shows Trinity breaking free and affirming the importance of her family outside the Matrix, starting with Neo, whom she protects from the Analyst by flying the two of them away from danger when Neo’s powers fail. Trinity’s new abilities within The Matrix Resurrections


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challenge the “great individual” narrative of history so central to Western culture and to the myth of “The One” that permeates the world of the Matrix. Here, “The One” is reconfigured as a group that may include any type of person willing to protect her true community. While the original Matrix films granted Trinity some agency as a typical female love interest with atypical and seemingly masculine aspects, they never granted her the level of power attributed to Neo; she remained “separate, but equal.” By way of contrast, The Matrix Resurrections elevates her to true equality with Neo in terms of power, presence within the story, and vitality to the new Matrix’s future.

Conclusion: Renovating the Matrix The Matrix Resurrections ends with Trinity and Neo re-uniting in the physical world outside the Matrix. At long last the misery of closeness is broken, and they can continue their lives together. They do so by confronting the Analyst and while blows are thrown, the real action unfolds in their conversation on the possibility of change in the new Matrix. The Analyst assures Neo and Trinity that they cannot change this Matrix, as it is designed to exploit misery and keep people from coming together. Their tactics from the earlier iterations of the Matrix will never work, as there is no community available to support their revolution. In response, Neo and Trinity acknowledge they will not be able to enact the kinds of massive, sweeping change to the Matrix they have in the past. However, they still vow to make small changes where they can, to help those in need, and to work for a better world. This recalibration of how to enact meaningful change shows a maturity within the characters. Recognizing that the promise of sweeping resolution is often undermined by systems of control that can change and adapt to external threats, Trinity and Neo shift to a new mode of action based on renovating the system from within. Indeed, their unique positions as outsiders who have been freed from, reintegrated into, and freed once again from the Matrix hold forth the promise of allowing them to help others escape and to leave renovation marks on the Matrix through their actions. The world will change, not with a bang, but with one person making one small difference at a time. The Matrix Resurrections shows us the power of renovation in SF narrative. The original Matrix, written from a closeted trans perspective, is about becoming strong enough to break a system that others could not. It is a youthful celebration of becoming the single great person who can destroy the barriers separating people—not through force, but through something softer: emotions, kindness, and sacrifice. Now, twelve years later and told from the perspective of an older, out transwoman, The Matrix Resurrections tells a different story. The Matrix does not simply reject outsiders who threaten its stability but, much like Halberstam’s systems of neoliberal integration, assimilates and profits from the energy of those once-threatening outsiders. This process not only defangs the outsider but keeps them separated from their communities and allows the system to adopt the very fangs they took. A single person cannot break this system: no one person can single handedly defeat this beast. Instead, one possible path forward is to renovate and fight from the inside, connecting across vast communities to change the system slowly, until it is unrecognizable to itself. Perhaps then, what The Matrix Resurrections shows us is not the end of a series, but a new beginning: the beginning of the longest, hardest thing Neo and Trinity, and, by extension, the audience, will ever have to do. Together, we must live, build bridges to others, and forge shelters to weather the oppressive systems we are trapped within. This process has a distinct beginning, but never an end. After all, one can finish building a house, but we are never done renovating it.


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Bibliography Halberstam, J. Jack. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press, 2005. Hopkinson, Nalo. “Introduction.” So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004, pp. 7–9. Lash, Jolie. “Lilly Wachowski Explains Why She’s Not Involved with Matrix 4: “That’s a tough one.” Entertainment, 25 August  2021. Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Reina Lewis and Sara Mills. Routledge, 2003, pp. 25–29. Migdon, Brooke. “Keanu Reeves Says Trans Character was Cut from ‘The Matrix.’ ” The Hill, 2 December  2021. Wachowski, Lana, director. The Matrix Resurrections. Warner Bros, 2021. Wachowski, Lana, and Lilly Wachowski, directors. The Matrix. Warner Bros, 1999. Wachowski, Lana, and Lilly Wachowski, directors. The Matrix Reloaded. Warner Bros, 2003. Wachowski, Lana, and Lilly Wachowski, directors. The Matrix Revolutions. Warner Bros, 2003.


9 BUFFALO GALS AND TALKING JELLYFISH Feminisms and Animal Studies in Science Fiction Joan Gordon “The truth is, we [women] live like Bats, or Owls, Labour like beasts, and Die like Worms.” —Margaret Cavendish, from “Female Orations” (1662), qtd. in Robbins

Women have always insisted they are women, not animals. They certainly did so in science fiction (SF) well before it became a genre—witness Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World from the seventeenth century. This chapter, however, recognizes that the categories of “women” and “animals” were never really stable enough to foster an unentangled view of feminism and animal studies in SF. As feminism evolved into feminisms, as it moved from binary to multifarious identities, and from identity politics to hybridity and posthumanism, animal studies evolved similarly. Here, through readings of a variety of texts, I will transform the declaration of my opening sentence into a way of questioning its very terms. After a brief glance at how authors of the 1970s combined ideas about feminism and animal studies in SF, I will examine two later moments in its timeline. The first moment is 1990, when Ursula K. Le Guin’s animal stories collected in Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (written from 1971–87 and collected in 1990) and Carol Emshwiller’s Carmen Dog were published. This was the same year in which two groundbreaking works of queer theory were published, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, ideas not consciously explored in either Le Guin’s or Emshwiller’s stories. I will discuss Le Guin’s and Emshwiller’s works using Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s paranoid and reparative reading, considering queer theory along with queer animal studies. Then, after a short race through the intervening period, I will move the discussion forward to an examination of two contemporary writers, Nnedi Okorafor and Charlie Jane Anders, to show how feminism and animal studies in SF have evolved into a less binary vision that turns this chapter’s opening sentence into a list of unstable categories ready for dismantling. Let me begin by describing how Sedgwick’s categories of paranoid and reparative reading inform my consideration of animal studies and feminism in SF. In her groundbreaking work on the subject, Sedgwick describes paranoid reading as a process of “exposure” (138) and “of unveiling hidden violence” (140, emphasis in original), whereas reparative readings allow DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-11 


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“the reader to realize the future may be different from the present” (146) and is full of “queer possibility” (147). Reparative readings are future-oriented and associated with the rejection of gender reification, moving toward more flexible and open-ended possibilities. When I approach a work of fiction in a paranoid way, I find how it enacts violence toward persons and ideas I value. When I read reparatively, I look for how I can make the text fit the world to which I aspire. I will be reading the texts under consideration here in both ways to move them through acknowledgment of the personhood of other species, to an understanding of a more generous view of what it means to be a woman and a feminist, and then to show how recent works of science fiction embrace these more generous views of feminism and species. Feminist SF novels of the 1970s, including Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1974) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), imagined separatist utopias that recognized nonheterosexual ways of being but did not necessarily connect feminism with the rights of other species. Other novelists, however, did indeed connect feminism and animal rights. Sally Miller Gearheart’s Wanderground (1970) imagines a fairly gentle separatist world, away from the threats of men’s cities, in which women live in harmony with nature and communicate telepathically with other species. In the grittier Motherlines (1978) by Suzy McKee Charnas, women again live separately from the cities of men, where no animals have survived and women are treated like chattel. The society of women is not gentle but highly forceful and highly technological, as it uses genetically modified horses for reproductive purposes. In all these works, non-cisgendered people are acknowledged and in some, the connections between women other species are valued. Published in 1990, Le Guin’s Buffalo Gals collects stories from the 1970s forward, and so it is no surprise that many of the tales included in this anthology reflect the feminist ideals of the time. This is especially true of the title story “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come out Tonight” (1987) and “The Wife’s Story” (1980), both of which examine how the distinctions between human women and other animals are erased by patriarchal culture. “The Wife’s Story” is a relatively slight story in which a wolf family discovers that the pater familias is in fact a werewolf, turning from a “good husband, a good father” (77) into a vicious and murderous human man who must be destroyed. I did not read this critically when I first came upon it; I simply saw it as a feminist tale about the true nature of wolves and men. But now, after Eve Sedgwick, I read “The Wife’s Story” more critically, as an example of second-wave feminism: important but limited to cisgender women’s concerns about domestic equality and centered on binary, fixed sexual identities. “Buffalo Gals” is similarly indebted to second-wave feminist ideals: in this story, a white child is found after a plane wreck, unable to care for herself, so various other species—coyote, deer, chickadees, and so on—care for her until she can make her way back to people like herself. The differences between humans and other persons are shown as flexible but important. Coyote, for instance, looks human to the child, while the child looks like a coyote to Coyote. As Coyote explains to the child, “There’s the first people, and then the others.” The first people are “the animals. . . . All the old ones. . . . And you pups, kids, fledglings” and everyone else are “The others. The new people. The ones who came” (36). As in “The Wife’s Story,” adult humans are inferior to other species: more dangerous, more destructive. Children, however, are the exception among humans and therefore worth saving. It is only when adult humans begin to separate themselves from other species that they become “the others. The new people.” Like other second-wave feminist texts, “The Wife’s Story” makes simple, binary gender distinctions: the females of all the species included in Le Guin’s story are the ones who produce and care for their own offspring, and they are the ones who make sure Le Guin’s human child is nurtured until she can return to her own people. 66

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We see similar binary categories in Emshwiller’s Carmen Dog, where human women are transformed into other animals and other animals are transformed into human women—and it is often difficult to tell who is going in which direction. Meanwhile, human men remain unchanged and are portrayed as almost universally controlling, attempting to suppress women’s animal instincts but demanding they continue to care for men. The novel’s heroine is a dog who is transforming into a human: her two most pronounced traits are a dog-like devotion to the family baby and her love of music and singing. Again, male and female roles are clearly marked, and reproduction and nurturing emphasized. However, while Le Guin celebrates the maternal instincts of all animals, Emshwiller demonstrates how women are seen as less-than-human, as animal, by men. Despite these overt differences, bringing a paranoid reading frame to these stories makes clear that they operate from similar second-wave feminist viewpoints rooted in identity politics: both authors define womanhood by reproduction with little regard for race, class, or sexual identity and both normalize cisgender, heterosexual, binary views of gender at the expense of a more complex reality. Reading these texts reparatively, however, I also recognize that they reflect some of the very real and important difficulties faced by all kinds of women, both then and today. Women still earn less than men, are typically more vulnerable to physical attack, endure intrusive reproductive regulation, and so on. The problems of second-wave feminism have not yet been solved, so these stories remain trenchant. But that is not the only way in which these texts can be read restoratively. First, we can remind ourselves that what is true for the often-white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied women of these stories is even more so for BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and differently abled people as well. The shapeshifting of these stories invites us to shift ourselves into subversive rearticulation. We recognize the limitations of these works, but also see them as important steps toward acknowledging broader understandings of species interrelationship and thus of “undoing and remaking the world” into something richer and stranger that escapes simple binary categorization. Between the late 1980s and early 2000s, other SF authors did indeed connect feminism with animal studies in increasingly nonbinary ways. Perhaps the most important in this respect is Octavia E. Butler, whose Lilith’s Brood series (1987–89) provides readers with the startling new image of the “amborg,” a being born of human intelligence and alien connectivity to other species (see my “Gazing across the Abyss” for further discussion). Sheri S. Tepper’s novels The Family Tree (1997), Six Moon Dance (1998), and The Companions (2003) are ecofeminist SF tales with both strong female characters and powerful, sentient animals of other species, even as they maintain the traditional male/female binary. Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords (1993) and Hwarhath Stories (collected 2016) imagine an alien culture that normalizes queer sociality and questions the uniqueness of human sentience. Karen Traviss’s six-volume Wess’Harr Wars (2004–2008, beginning with City of Pearl) imagines multiple species of nonhuman alien sentient people and multiple gender possibilities as well, linking ecological concerns to feminist and animal rights issues. The constellation of gender, species, and ecology forms a major concern in SF, as it increasingly does in literature and life in general. As I write this is 2022, it seems obvious that gender, species, and ecology are of paramount importance in a field that, however dystopian its visions, assumes a future of some kind. Other chapters will discuss ecology: here I now turn to two current writers of young adult fiction who face the queering of gender and species head on and joyfully. Nnedi Okorafor and Charlie Jane Anders provide readers with coming-of-age stories that use aliens to represent wider possibilities for gender and species relations than those imagined by even the most creative of their foremothers. Together their work demonstrates ways in which contemporary feminists have embraced a genderqueer, nonbinary perspective, just as animal studies scholars have moved 67

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on to destabilize species difference and queer the human/animal binary. In Donna Haraway’s words, such work “tracks stories and figures for making kin in the Cthulucene”—her term for the present age of climate change (“Staying” 4). They assume “oddkin,” as she puts it, among multiple genders and species. Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian American who writes what she calls “Africanfuturism,” or SF that is “specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West” (“Africanfuturism Defined”). This is especially true of the Binti series, in which Okorafor’s eponymous heroine leaves behind her very traditional African upbringing, complete with rigidly binary notions of gender, when she attends university on a far-off planet. Once she leaves the gravitational pull of Earth and its patriarchal cultures, Binti becomes acutely aware of how much more complex and queer the world can be, and finally returns to look at her home with fresh eyes. Binti is told from the point of view of a mathematically gifted and neurologically diverse Himba girl who “trees,” or falls into a trance-like state when contemplating “the shallows of the mathematical sea” (10). In Binti’s world, treeing is not aberrant, but an asset for solving difficult mathematical equations. And yet, while Himba culture accepts neurological diversity, it—and Binti herself, at first—cleaves to traditional heterosexual roles for women. However, Binti gains a broader perspective on sex and gender possibilities through her interactions with aliens—including a genetic exchange with the meduse, a jellyfish-like alien species. Since the meduse identify as “it,” and Binti identifies as “she,” Okorafor’s heroine must learn to incorporate both another species and another gender identity. Of course, Okorafor does not stop at dismantling the human/animal boundary: by the chronological end of the series, Binti has also incorporated the DNA of an organic, sentient ship into her body and identity. Significantly, at no point does Binti concern herself with nurturing children, even though the ship sees itself as a mother. Instead, she strives to nurture all parts of herself. The story “Binti: Sacred Fire” includes a particularly interesting discussion of trans identity. In this story, Binti becomes friends with a non-Himba human girl, Haifa, who announces that she transitioned to female at 13. Binti is surprised by this, and the girls discuss the differences between their two communities in dealing with people who transition. Neither community condemns them, but the Himba are less open about it, referring obliquely to the process as one of “alignment”: “Once they align, it was never mentioned again” (65). Haifa initially compares her process of sexual transition to that of Binti’s species transition, but ultimately decides the two are not quite equivalent because Haifa chose her transition and Binti did not. In the end, Binti complicates this comparison even further by sharing that she does not regret her own involuntary transition any more than Haifa does her voluntary one. As this brief reading of the Binti series suggests, twenty-first-century feminist SF has moved to a more inclusive space beyond fixed gender identities or roles, while still acknowledging that more conservative views remain. And it has moved to more inclusive ideas about species identity as well by acknowledging the sentience and value of nonhuman persons in the form of aliens with the traits of nonhuman Earth species. Later, the novel makes even more clear how broadly it views personhood when an elephant teaches another human “to speak to all people”—including people of other species (230)—and that human goes on to commune “with various peoples of the desert, from fox to dog to hawk to ant” (311). Indeed, such acknowledgment extends beyond the animal kingdom to plants: “Do you know plants can do math? They measure what they need to survive and thrive” (304). It also extends to microbes, when Binti learns that microbes have repaired her in a purposeful manner. By the end of the series, Binti contains multitudes beyond the meduse, including the aforementioned sentient ship, microbes, 68

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a human tribe called the desert people or Enyi Zinariya, and an alien species called the Miri 12. Aimee Bahng calls such multiplicity a “Femi-Queer Commons,” arguing that this trope was first introduced by Octavia Butler and now is used by many feminist SF authors including Okorafor “to formulate nonhierarchical socialities and even more radical onto-epistemological modes of living in common, often through feminist ideas of collaborative praxis and queer notions of kinship” (310). Okorafor’s “femi-queer commons” is a complex and sometimes contradictory place for a young woman overwhelmed by the wide universe of “queer notions of kinship.” Near the end of “Binti: The Night Masquerade,” Okorafor’s heroine meets with a therapist to discuss her transformations: “I like who I am. I love my family. . . . I don’t want to change, to grow! . . . Am I human?” (348). Like most good therapists, she does not answer Binti’s question. Instead, she responds, “And here you stand healthy and strong. . . . And strange” (349). Binti, confronted by new ways of being, and by her own literal transformations, struggles to maintain her original identity and adjust to the strangeness of her new more complex existence—this is how she, like all modern people, really, must come of age. We see this same struggle in Charlie Jane Anders’s coming-of-age novel Victories Greater Than Death. Anders is openly transgender, a category she finds much more complex than simply moving from one gender to another and that she explores with both wit and poignancy in her newsletter Happy Dancing ( Anders’s struggle to find herself is very much reflected in the struggles of protagonist Tina Mains and her friends in Anders’s novel. Victories follows Tina and her fellow “Earthlings” as they join an intergalactic force called The Royal Fleet to combat their nemesis, ironically called The Compassion: “Their name sounds friendly, but they follow an ideology of total genocide and subjugation” (32). Tina and her best friend are from the United States, but the “Earthlings” team is diverse and hails from China, Brazil, and England; together, they represent a variety of races, genders, abilities, bodies, and allegiances, enacting Bhang’s “nonhierarchical socialities and even more radical ontoepistemological modes of living in common” (310). Once we include the many humanoid and nonhumanoid members of The Royal Fleet and of the worlds they visit, we have a space opera version of a “femi-queer commons” with very odd, and accepted, notions of kinship. Rather than coming of age by learning to accept oddkin, the characters of Victories begin from that place. Some people prefer to be she, others he, still others they, and some become furious when called by any pronoun at all; some belong to societies with two genders, some with three; some look like humans, others like foxes, still others are part rock, and still others unlike any species known on Earth. In The Royal Fleet they are all comrades. Thus Anders queers race, gender, species, and kingdom as well. Like Binti, Tina questions her personal identity. She is both a queer human girl and the clone of an alien Makvarian, in the process of changing physiologically from one species to another; she is both a human girl “who went to high school and flunked driver’s ed and everything,” and the clone of an alien intergalactic hero (90–91). When the Earthlings join hands in an act of friendship and solidarity, she asks, “Do I qualify as an Earthling: And do I even want to?” (90). The answer is neither yes or no: She is both human and alien—and accepted as such by her Earthlings and other shipmates alike. The novel is, among other things, a lovely story about friendship. It is also a story about choices, and how difficult, yet important, they are: “Everybody has choices. . . . You always get to choose how to define yourself,” says Elza, Tina’s trans girlfriend (96)—despite the fact that, when Elza made the choice to not “be a boy anymore,” her parents threw her out on the street (122). Tina’s reaction: “I didn’t even realize she was trans, or whatever” (122). What mattered for one generation is “whatever” for Tina’s, or at least for her group of oddkin. 69

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As Anders dismantles hierarchical relationships of every kind, her characters acknowledge how choice works within and against oppressive, colonizing systems of thought. Elza points out that “people get programmed in all sorts of ways, by privilege, or propaganda, or whatever” (178). Individual people and entire cultures can relinquish choice or deny it, demanding conformity to cultural norms instead. That is exactly how Anders depicts the Compassion: As an intergalactic colonizing hegemony demanding allegiance of all people they recognize as human and destroying those they do not. Ancient explorers, one of the shipmates explains, destroyed all intelligent creatures who weren’t human-shaped .  .  . for hundreds of thousands of years, and it shaped the galaxy we live in today. It’s the reason why so many of us humanoid species are so powerful. And why anyone [else] is still struggling to catch up. (110) Such violence was and continues to be used by those in power to deny choice to those who do not conform to the status quo. The choices of each young person to express their individual identity in matters of gender and species are, then, connected to choices on much greater scales. In both Okorafor’s and Anders’s narratives, characters move from paranoid to reparative readings of their own identities as they come of age. Each author’s protagonist begins by thinking of herself as unitary and solitary, less than others, and unable to join a community; thus they are paranoid or critical of their own position in the commons. As they grow, each becomes multiple, not only one thing or another, but something more complex, and indeed more difficult to accept. And, finally, each learns to accept their multiple identities, neither one thing nor another, but both unitary and hybrid, solitary and a part of something communal: each learns a reparative view of their complexity. This is how, metaphorically, adolescent readers may learn to negotiate their own alienations, mixed feelings, hybrid identities, non-conforming allegiances, and changing bodies as they negotiate their own complex selves. Okorafor and Anders also illustrate how the shift from paranoid to reparative readings, and from unitary to complex ideas about identity, reflects both the complexity of human gender, race, and culture, and beyond that, the complex connections between human and other persons. These stories demonstrate a movement beyond a concern for difference to a seeking out of kinship much like Bhang’s “Femi-Queer Commons” (310). Both stories show, through the journeys of their protagonists, how difficult it has become to separate ourselves from other species as being unique in importance or value: indeed, while taxonomy may rank being from domain down to species, those rankings are not evaluative, nor are they always easy to determine. Plants are entangled with fungi; animals sustain and are sustained by microbes; organisms live in symbiotic relationships. If species is so difficult to determine, then who are any of us to say what it means to be a “real” woman when there are so many ways to be one? Margaret Cavendish recognized that men saw women as bats or owls or worms: now we see that we are entangled with these living beings—and with many others. I began by promising to destabilize my opening sentence: “Women have always insisted they were women, not animals.” The category of women, we now recognize, like that of animal, has been queered into something much more generous than it once was; species, even kingdom, have been queered as well: oddkin indeed. Nevertheless, I am aware of how much we are enmeshed not only in this entangled world but in our own view of that world. As much as I would like to conclude on this optimistic note, I wonder what the next iteration of paranoid and reparative readings will reveal of the connections between feminism and animal studies in SF. I  am mindful of Fredric Jameson’s 70

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warning that all too often “our most energetic imaginative leaps into radical alternatives were little more than projections of our own social moment and historical or subjective situation” (211). What projections do we impose here?

Bibliography Anders, Charlie Jane. Victories Greater Than Death. Tor, 2021. Bahng, Aimee. “Plasmodial Improprieties: Octavia Butler, Slime Molds, and Imagining a Femi-Queer Commons.” Queer Feminist Science Studies: A  Reader, edited by Cyd Cipolla et  al. University of Washington Press, 2017, pp. 310–325. Emshwiller, Carol. Carmen Dog. Mercury House, 1990. Gordon, Joan. “Gazing Across the Abyss: The Amborg Gaze in Sheri S. Tepper’s Six Moon Dance.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2008, pp. 189–206. Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016. Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, 2005. Le Guin, Ursula K. “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight.” Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, ROC, 1990, pp. 17–60. Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Wife’s Story.” Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences. ROC, 1990, pp. 77–83. Okorafor, Nnedi. “Africanfuturism Defined.” Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog, 19 October 2019. http://nnedi. Okorafor, Nnedi. Binti: The Complete Trilogy. 2015–2019. DAW, 2019. Robbins, Michael. “The Royally Radical Life of Margaret Cavendish.” The Paris Review, 15 April 2019. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” Touching Feeling. Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 123–151.



Introduction Science fiction (SF) is a fruitful ground for thinking through queer desires and gender identities because of the ways in which it defamiliarizes these categories. Science fiction (SF) critics and writers ask how non-normative sexualities may function in imagined futures and what this, in turn, reveals about how they are understood here and now (Pearson, Hollinger, and Gordon; Melzer). This chapter examines queer visions of futures that posit lack of sexual desire and/or lack of gender (or biological sex), asking how the two are connected and how they can contribute to reimagining heteronormative desire and the heteronormative gender binary. Focusing on two classic texts of queer SF, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin and “Aye, and Gomorrah” (1966) by Samuel R. Delany, and the newer, critically acclaimed Imperial Radch trilogy (2013–15) by Ann Leckie, I use the asexual perspective to find “alien spaces” in which desire and gender are displaced. The stories explored in this chapter center on characters with bodies that could be described as “unnatural,” in that these characters do not embrace conventional ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality (Melzer 28) because their experience of gender and desire is either nonexistent or radically different than the heteronormative binary. I show how some of these characters recreate the link between gender and desire assumed in Judith Butler’s concept of heterosexual matrix, while others embody alternative positionalities and intimacies detached from this structure. I begin by proposing a theoretical framework for understanding asexuality, the heterosexual matrix, and androgyny for my close reading of Le Guin, Delany, and Leckie. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is perhaps the most famous novel that destabilizes the gender binary, yet it continues to depict desire as fully dependent on heterosexual attraction. Delany’s “Aye and Gomorrah” focuses on spacers, people devoid of sexual characteristics and consequently also sexual desire, who can only be objects of desire for others. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, a space opera set in a society without gender, lends itself to a queer reading as a story of non-sexual intimacies and relations. The last text complements the other two as one of the most critically acclaimed and widely discussed recent attempts at queering SF.

(Dis)entangling Desire and Gender In so far as asexuality stands in opposition to normative compulsory sexuality (Gupta), it is always a queer position. Within the framework of identity politics, asexuality is defined as the sexual orientation and identity of “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” ( DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-12


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Yet, using this identity-based definition is problematic in the case of SF because authors often use their chosen genre to destabilize well-established categories and either render them meaningless or suggest that they must be understood differently. Thus, I am not necessarily claiming asexual identity for the characters I  analyze; rather, I  use a broader concept of “asexual resonances” (Przybylo and Cooper, Przybylo 29), or ways of understanding desire and lack thereof that resonate with the asexual perspective. The asexual perspective employed in this way enables us to see those elements of SF world-building that decenter sexual desire and carve out a space for identities and relationalities formed on different basis. Exploring these SF worlds reveals how lack of gender and lack of desire are interconnected and by extension how the very concepts of gender and desire mutually condition one another. Is there no desire when there is no gender, and vice versa? According to Judith Butler’s theory of heterosexual matrix, in the contemporary Western culture, one’s gender is largely defined through sexual attraction to people of the opposite gender: one is a woman if/because one desires men, and the other way around (30). Consequently, it seems that without a gender binary—or perhaps even a sexual binary—there can be no sexual desire, since desire is constituted through sexual difference. Indeed, Butler argues that the heterosexual matrix is the primary philosophical and cultural paradigm that contributes to LGBTQ+ invisibility and the unthinkability of non-heterosexual desire. Questioning the heterosexual matrix and imagining new possibilities is precisely what connects queer theory and SF. SF offers an opportunity to think through the implications of worlds build in opposition or without reference to the heterosexual matrix and gender binary. The radical possibilities of futures not organized around binary gender have inspired many feminist and queer authors and critics. From female separatist utopias to cyberpunk visions of the future in which bodies lose their materiality and connection to gender (Melzer 29), removing the male/female binary has been considered a sine qua non for building truly feminist futures. SF author and critic Justine Larbalestier offers three possible “solutions or alternatives to the conflict between the sexes that do not involve the reinscription of male rule” in SF (73): worlds without men, worlds without distinct gender roles, and worlds where sex difference does not exist due to pervasive androgyny or hermaphroditism. This latter category is particularly provocative and contains multitude of possibilities for authors, from cultural androgyny expressed through dress or behavior to various forms of biological intersexuality to beings who possess some male and female sex markers, but not organized in the same ways that they would be in our own world.

Mutually Constituted Gender and Desire The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) has been hailed as a groundbreaking work of feminist and queer SF due to its creative engagement with gender norms and the construction of gender itself. Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018) was a prolific author of speculative fiction, including fantasy, utopia, and science fiction. With a long career spanning the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first, she had enormous influence on the development of the genre, especially with regards to themes of political systems and gender and sexuality. Though The Left Hand of Darkness (LHD) is perhaps the best-known example of a feminist SF text that uses androgynous aliens to explore what a world without gender difference might be like, it has been criticized by other feminists for preserving the central place of masculinity. Le Guin herself expressed reservations about some of the choices she made in LHD, especially in terms of using “he” as the default pronoun, which resulted in making maleness the default category even in a society of androgynes (“Gender”). Even so, LHD remains an important early 73

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attempt to think through androgyny, and the attempt itself tells us much about both the central concerns of the 1960s and 70s feminist SF and its limitations. Le Guin’s story is set on Gethen, whose people are described in The Left Hand of Darkness as “hermaphrodite neuters” and for most of the time lack sex or gender. It is only in “kemmer,” the mating season, that they become male or female and experience sexual desire. At that time, the partner of the Gethenian in kemmer becomes the opposite sex. Readers discover Gethen through the eyes of Genly Ai, a newcomer from a world in which gender and sexuality are structured in a binary and heteronormative manner. The novel raises significant questions about how alternate sex and gender systems might change society as a whole. When observed by representatives of a heteronormative culture, Gethenians are pitied as “eunuchs” or “castrated,” and immature children, in a manner reflective of colonialist discourses of epistemological and moral privilege (Fayad 67). But Le Guin also suggests that the Gethenian gender system has real advantages over more traditional heteronormative ones, in that the Gethenians have very few aggressive impulses and have eliminated war altogether (LHD 102–3). The Gethenian gender system may be interpreted as an example either of androgyny/ intersexuality, or of lack of sex and gender. “Intersexuality” typically suggests some characteristics of (two or more) different sexes, which seems to be implied when Gethenians in LHD are referred to as “potentials”, or “integrals” rather than “neuters” (101). In fact, the way we understand Le Guin’s Gethenians depends entirely on one’s frame of reference: The argument that Gethenians have two sexes depends entirely on our acceptance that men and women have different sexes; to themselves, the Gethenians would obviously appear to be single-sexed and Terrans would appear not as duals, but as halves, horribly incomplete and perhaps mutilated. (Pearson 99, note 3) At the same time, in the framework of heterosexual matrix, intersexuality, like asexuality, challenges normative ideas about how desire is shaped by binary gender. This slippage between intersexual and agender identity is evident in SF critic Brian Attebery’s point that the Gethenians “offer a challenge to the notion of gender by having none” (130). Distinguishing between intersex or androgynous bodies and sexless bodies or agender beings in SF poses significant challenges, even more so considering the important political implications of the complexities of trans identities. This is why it is important to focus on how gender is understood within a particular SF text rather than conflating it with real-world categories. Le Guin goes into significant detail describing the brief but intense experience of sex, gender, and desire for her Gethenians in ways that make abundantly clear the differences between the sex and gender systems of her fictional world versus our own: Gender, and potency, are not attained in isolation. . . . When the individual finds a partner in kemmer, hormonal secretion is further stimulated . . . until in one partner either a male or female hormonal dominance is established. The genitals engorge or shrink accordingly, foreplay intensifies, and the partner, triggered by the change, takes on the other sexual role. (LHD 96) Specific genitals, male or female, come into being as a result of desire that is oriented toward a specific partner, one who must also be in kemmer at the same time. The question of which partner becomes male and which becomes female is mostly relegated to chance: “Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether 74

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they will be the male or the female, and have no choice in the matter” (LHD 97). Since specific sex is a matter of chance and there is no sex in between kemmer, there are also no stable gender roles, which is what made this vision so attractive to the feminist readers of the time of publication. At the same time, Le Guin contains the estrangement that readers might experience when reading LHD by explaining the experience of kemmer in terms of the heterosexual matrix. Desire appears in the first phase of kemmer and seems both overwhelming and undirected. Sexual attraction is only produced in this specific moment and in the company of a potential mate. Here then, it is literally one’s oppositional desire that makes one male or female. Furthermore, while Le Guin insists that Gethenians are not sexed or gendered outside of the temporary experience of desire, she treats sex/gender and sexual desire as somehow simply dormant outside of kemmer, ready to come into being through an external impulse. Thus, it is perhaps not so much that gender and desire do not exist at all, but rather they remain latent until activated in the mating season. Thus, the Gethenians offer readers a radically different way of thinking about sex and gender while simultaneously reasserting the primacy of heterosexuality.

Sexless Objects of Desire Gender and desire are also inextricably linked in the short story “Aye, and Gomorrah” (1966) by Samuel R. Delany (1942–). One of the most prominent Black and queer writers of twentiethcentury SF, Delany wrote short stories and sprawling novels that escape easy categorization and explore key themes of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Much of his SF revolves around non-normative genders and desires, an interest that is also evident in Delany’s autobiographical writing about gay life in 1960s and 70s New York City in The Motion of Light in Water (1988) and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999). “Aye, and Gomorrah” is one of Delany’s most well-known works and a foremost example of SF about queer bodily pleasures (Morrison). The story is a series of vignettes depicting interactions between “spacers,” astronauts who have had their reproductive organs removed before puberty to avoid the effects of space radiation on gametes, and the “frelks” who are sexually attracted to them. Even though spacers are devoid of sex and gender, their assigned sex at birth is a topic of fascination to non-spacer humans, who project whatever gender they find attractive onto the spacers. This may imply that “the gender of someone without sex . . . depends . . . on what sort of desire they inspire in others” (Attebery 140); thus, it seems that in this story, much like in The Left Hand of Darkness, gender and desire are mutually constitutive. The key difference is that in Delany’s story this logic need not be heterosexual; in some encounters, queer men and women express their disappointment with spacers not fitting their desired gender. Yet spacers are desired by frelks, for whom it is the unique embodiment and social position of spacers that make them objects of desire. Frelks meet with contempt from spacers and see themselves as unhappy victims of unfulfillable urges. The relationship between the two groups centers around sex trade, which is implied yet never explicitly described. Delany referred to the story as being “somehow about the desire for desire” (“Afterword”), suggesting that neither side of the exchange truly desires the other, but rather chases the need itself. In a similar vein, Veronica Hollinger claims that frelks are “helplessly—and hopelessly—erotically attracted to the sexless spacers,” so their desires are “fulfilled only in the deferral of fulfilment” (151). Here then, the lack of sex/gender does not produce a lack of desire, but instead prompts whole new kinds of desire and sexual identity. 75

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While there is certainly a sense of melancholy and longing around frelks’ interactions with spacers, it does not necessarily follow that their desire cannot be satisfied. Even though Delany never explicitly confirms what occurs between them, sexually or otherwise, the contextual hints of sex work suggest that there may well be sexual contact and some fulfillment of desire, however imperfect it may be due to its transactional nature. It is telling that these potentially sexual encounters are impossible for the narrative voice to describe. I  would argue this is because spacers, without genitalia and sexual characteristics, are constructed as perfect yet perverse and passive objects of desire. Frelks are compared to necrophiles and “grave-robbers” (Delany, “Aye” 98), not only implying that their desires are deviant, but also positioning spacers as dead bodies or children, subjects who cannot experience desire of their own. This in turn suggests that desire is impossible to imagine without sexual characteristics; spacers’ indeterminate gender and lack of sex situate them beyond the realm of experiencing desire. In this reading, spacers are asexual because they are unable to reciprocate; as one frelk tells a spacer, “I want you because you can’t want me” (Delany, “Aye” 98). The fact that they cannot desire due to their lack of sexual characteristics, along with their infantilization, play into an assumption that asexuality is related to immaturity. Lack of markers of gender and sex render one desireless, but also reinforce the mutual entanglement of gender and desire for Delany’s uniquely queer subjects.

Intimacies Outside Gender In Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (2013–15), desire is constructed outside of the logic of heterosexual matrix partly because gender is erased on the linguistic and discursive level. A winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, and British Science Fiction Association Award for Ancillary Justice (2013), Leckie’s use of “she” as the default pronoun in the Imperial Radch trilogy is a gesture reminiscent of Le Guin’s earlier effort to build a world without gender; however, the feminine pronoun has a stronger effect of defamiliarization on the readers and succeeds in decentering masculinity (Faucheux). The Imperial Radch trilogy is thus both a continuation of feminist SF authors’ engagement with non-normative gender and sexuality that began with Le Guin and Delany in the 1960s, and part of the contemporary efforts to incorporate minority perspectives in the SF community and its literature. The spectrum of linguistic options accessible to readers interested in describing sex and gender from new perspectives was much broader for Leckie in the 2010s than was the case for Le Guin in the 1960s; in particular, the greater visibility of transgender people has resulted in greater awareness of diverse gender pronouns and the variety of sex/gender identities. Ancillary Justice is set in the Radch empire, whose culture and language do not recognize gender difference; the generic pronoun for every person is “she.” While other languages used in the empire indicate gender and people have different bodies that can be potentially sorted into “male” and “female,” as suggested by some brief references, there is functionally no gender difference in the dominant culture. This makes Leckie’s world an “ideal queer universe” because the reader is prevented from assuming any gender and sexual identity for most characters and cannot read particular sexual encounters as same-sex or different-sex, since there is no indication of sexual characteristics (Faucheux). While the lack of gender indicators certainly affects the reader’s experience, Leckie’s defamiliarization of desire also works on other levels. The narrator of the novels is Breq, a ship who, having lost her ship body and most of the human bodies that served as her extended consciousness, now exists in a singular human body. As she is not a human being 76

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and has been socialized in the Radch culture, Breq’s ways of relating to other beings, including both humans and other AI ships and stations, is completely devoid of gender and sex considerations. She is asexual, though it is never made clear if this is her individual quality, or one universal to all AIs. Her perspective on relationships is rather unique: there are mentions of people engaging in sex, but the reader gets no insight into how their desire is constructed. It cannot stem from gender since this is not a consideration in Radch; other elements may determine people’s desires, but Breq is unaware of them, so they are beyond the scope of the represented world. This is not to say that Breq cannot participate in intimate relationships. Indeed, Leckie’s AI longs for emotional contact but at first cannot imagine how to attain because she has been conditioned by oft-repeated Radchaai credo that “ships love their captains,” suggesting that love is possible only between different types of beings, such as ships and humans. Breq is a ship but one in a human body, which seems to make her uniquely unsuited for forming the conventional ship-captain partnership. Yet throughout the series she forms close relationships and even creates a family of sorts, made of another ship and several humans. She is thus not only capable of experiencing affection for others, but also being an object of affection. Bonds of affection and attraction, however, do not automatically lead to sex or desire. Breq feels no sexual desire for the members of her family, while her human companions find sexual fulfillment with one another. Somehow, it all works. Thus, Leckie celebrates a multiplicity of sexual (including asexual) subjectivities while showing readers how the disappearance of gender might open possibilities for intimate and romantic relationships that decenter or disregard sexual desire.

Conclusion Expanding queer insight into SF to include asexual perspectives is crucial not only to do justice to the diversity of non-normative genders and sexualities in the genre, but also to examine the logic governing visions of futures without gender and desire. As I have discussed in this chapter, the ways in which SF authors use their chosen gender to critically assess sex and gender relations and to imagine alternate possibilities depends largely on their historical and political moment. While pioneering feminist authors Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany were inspired to translate the androgynous impulses of second wave feminism into their visions of differently sexed and gendered futures, Le Guin remains bound to the heteronormative assumptions about binary sex and gender that were very much part of identity-politics feminism. Delany’s own experience as a gay man living outside the heterosexual matrix enables him to imagine nonbinary sex and gender identities, but his tendency to link the lack of desire to immaturity and death indicates the very real difficulty of imagining and representing asexual ways of being. Writing nearly half a century and two waves of feminism later, Ann Leckie channels new insights about the multiplicity of sex and gender identity and the complexity of desire to imagine a future where asexual beings do indeed experience the craving for and ability to connect with other individuals intimately and romantically, without needing to put sexual desire at the center of their relationships. Such SF texts expand our traditional understandings of conscious life beyond rigidly delineated concepts of human sexuality and desire as heteronormative and binary, suggesting exciting queer alternatives for our literary—and, perhaps, real-world—futures.

Note 1 This research was funded by the National Science Center, Poland [project no. 2020/39/D/HS2/00116].


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Bibliography Attebery, Brian. Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. Routledge, 2014. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2006. Delany, Samuel. “Afterword: 1994.” Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex (Kindle edition), edited by Ellen Datlow. Open Road Media, 2012. Delany, Samuel. “Aye, and Gomorrah . . .” 1966. Aye, and Gomorrah, and Other Stories. Vintage Books, 2003, pp. 91–101. Delany, Samuel. The Motion of Light in Water. Arbor House, 1988. Delany, Samuel. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York University Press, 1999. Faucheux, Amandine. “Genderlessness in a Queer Universe: On Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy.” SFRA Review, vol. 325, 2018, pp. 20–22. Fayad, Mona. “Aliens, Androgynes, and Anthropology: Le Guin’s Critique of Representation in The Left Hand of Darkness.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 30, no. 3, 1997, pp. 59–73. Gupta, Kristina. “Compulsory Sexuality: Evaluating an Emerging Concept.” Signs, vol. 41, no. 1, 2015, pp. 131–154, Hollinger, Veronica. “ ‘Something Like a Fiction’: Speculative Intersections of Sexuality and Technology.” Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction, edited by Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon. Liverpool University Press, 2008, pp. 140–160. Larbalestier, Justine. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2002. Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Justice. Orbit, 2013. Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Mercy. Orbit, 2015. Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Sword. Orbit, 2014. Le Guin, Ursula K. “Is Gender Necessary? Redux.” Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Harper & Row, 1989, pp. 7–16. Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. 1969. Ace Books, 2003. Melzer, Patricia. Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought. University of Texas Press, 2010. Morrison, M. Irene. “Making Gender Trouble in Early Queer SF: Samuel R. Delany’s ‘Aye, and Gomorrah.’ ” Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, vol. 44.3, no. 122, 2015, pp. 68–79. Pearson, Wendy Gay. “Towards a Queer Genealogy of SF.” Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction, edited by Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon. Liverpool University Press, 2008, pp. 72–100. Przybylo, Ela. Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality. The Ohio State University Press, 2019. Przybylo, Ela and Danielle Cooper. “Asexual Resonances: Tracing a Queerly Asexual Archive.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 20, no. 3, 2014, pp. 297–318, doi: 10.1215/10642684-2422683. The Asexual Visibility & Education Network (AVEN).


11 MAKING THE END TIMES GREAT AGAIN Postapocalypses, Preppers, and the Politics of Patriarchy on American Television Carlen Lavigne Introduction Between the turn of the millennium and the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, the United States produced a notable glut of postapocalyptic television series, including Jeremiah (Showtime, 2002–04), Jericho (CBS, 2006–08), Falling Skies (TNT, 2011–15), Revolution (NBC, 2012–14), Defiance (Syfy, 2013–16), The Last Ship (TNT, 2014–18), Z Nation (Syfy, 2014–18), The 100 (The CW, 2014–20), The Last Man on Earth (Fox, 2015–18), Into the Badlands (AMC, 2015–19), Wayward Pines (Fox, 2015–16), Colony (NBC, 2016–18), The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010–22), and Fear the Walking Dead (AMC, 2015–). Such series repeatedly detailed Earth futures in which some crisis has already ended society as we know it, and ragtag bands of survivors must work to build new futures. These fictional offerings were accompanied by reality television “prepper” programs like The Colony (Discovery, 2009– 10), Doomsday Preppers (National Geographic, 2011–14), and Doomsday Castle (National Geographic, 2013). Analyzing such programs in terms of the catastrophes they posit, the new societies they envision, and their relations to real-world social and political forces can tell us much about American cultural anxieties during this period. While speculative catastrophes may represent a morass of anxieties, “survival” in these programs is inevitably linked to white male power and the American political right. Similar rises in apocalyptic stories are also found in other cultures and historical moments; one could cite medieval plague fictions, the Bible (Thompson 5), or the popularity of giant radiated monster movies in post-WWII Japan (Caputi 101). Indeed, “Apocalyptic writing is itself a remainder, a symptom, an aftermath of some disorienting catastrophe” (Berger 7); concepts of apocalypse are neither new, nor specifically confined to any individual medium, culture, or geographic region, and horror stories have always reflected the anxieties of their times. The twenty-first-century Hollywood surge in postapocalyptic television series is notable specifically for relying on heteronormative, white masculine tropes produced within the context of longstanding links between science fiction and far-right masculine white supremacy in America. The notion of apocalyptic invasion in particular, as exemplified in works like H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), has historically lent itself to scenarios in which white colonials re-envision themselves as noble and embattled victims of violent oppression (Rieder 124). DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-13


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In such readings, “Imagining oneself as a colonized victim often serves as the ideological core of imperial fantasy for those who benefit the most from modern-day conditions of empire” (Higgins 1). Stories that have gained right-wing popularity in this vein have included examples such as pulp science fiction stories of the early twentieth century (Rieder 142); Philip K. Dick’s work “regarding the artificial and imprisoning nature of everyday existence” (Higgins 191); Star Wars (1977) and The Matrix (1999) (Higgins 190). Such works have been distinctly masculinized; though women have of course had a well-established and influential presence through all of Western science fiction history (Lefanu; Merrick), specific subgenres like the early cyberpunk works that helped to spawn The Matrix have been particularly described as “the most fully delineated urban fantasies of white male folklore” (Ross 145) and have noticeably omitted or rejected marginalized social movements (152). There are many branches of science fiction firmly rooted in Western patriarchy. This is not to argue that all such science fiction is inherently reactionary and conservative (far from it), or that science fiction as a genre is somehow more reactionary and conservative than other forms of popular culture; it is simply to say that some elements of science fiction have long appealed to people invested in white supremacist, xenophobic colonial masculinity. This may be especially true of postapocalyptic works—not that they are intentionally or inevitably regressive, but that many are easily read that way. We can evaluate such series’ significance as markers of a specific cultural mindset and moment.

The Nightmares Model: What Fears? On one level, such programming can be analyzed in terms of specific fears: what is causing these visions of apocalypse? Heather Urbanski’s “nightmares model” provides a possible lens for this type of analysis, citing speculative works as “cautionary tale[s]” in which “part of what genre writers do is to look at society, into the future, and within themselves, and then reflect the fears and nightmares they find” (9). In such readings, the disasters we see in fiction may be seen to represent the horrors of everyday life and the daily news cycle. If “it has become a cultural truism that levels and types of cultural anxiety can often be tracked by the kind of monsters that a given culture produces for entertainment purposes” (Simpson 38), then when we consider global events like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan, or ongoing tensions between countries like the United States, Iran, Russia, and North Korea, it’s hardly surprising that nuclear missiles explode in Jericho, Revolution, Z Nation, and The 100. Fictional apocalypses from the early twenty-first century can take a multitude of shapes, representing a broad range of cultural anxieties. Revolution connects the specter of nuclear annihilation to uncontrolled nanotech and rogue artificial intelligence, invoking fears about the frailties of complex technological infrastructures. Jeremiah and The Last Ship both take place in worlds ravaged by deadly pandemics, suggesting disease concerns about SARS, Ebola, or Zika. Zombies, like those seen in The Walking Dead or Z Nation, can stand as metaphors for any number of anxieties, including viral infections, Hurricane Katrina or climate change, the 2008 financial meltdown, immigration, or the post-9/11 war on terror (Bishop 14). Likewise, alien invasions and body-snatching narratives—such as those in Falling Skies or Colony—may frequently be read as metaphors for cultural anxieties about the racialized and/or immigrant Other (Takacs; Kakoudaki); here, our analysis begins to reveal the first shades of explicitly white Christian anxieties seeded within these texts. Early twenty-first-century postapocalyptic series produced in the United States reflect a time of turmoil amid growing social tensions and a series of traumatic events. 80

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The nightmares model suggests that our stories reflect the specific mindsets and fears of particular times and places, and the United States at the onset of the twenty-first century may be seen as a morass of post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-SARS psychological strains. If a marked increase in Hollywood disaster movies between the 1980s and 1990s might be taken as a sign of already-growing cultural preoccupation with such potential crises (Thompson 12), rising tensions into the twenty-first century are only further reflected in cultural products such as American television series.

Social Hierarchies: Whose Fears? Postapocalyptic series are not just warnings of simmering cultural fears, though; many may also be seen as subtle reassurance. After all, a postapocalypse posits that even if the worst happens, humanity will continue. Historically, apocalypse stories tend to suggest a world-ending struggle followed by a period of transformation and rebirth (Holba and Hart vii; Thompson 3–4). The postapocalyptic setting itself, though it represents the death of the before times, also allows for new growth. This suggests a second course of inquiry; while the focus of the nightmares model ably answers the question “what are we afraid of?”, broadening our cultural studies approach also allows us to ask who “we” are; whose fears, exactly, are being reflected and assuaged? Whose stories are being told, and for whom? This is where the influence of regressive forces becomes more explicit. In a postapocalyptic setting, in which all contemporary institutions and authorities have been destroyed, we might expect strange new worlds or the potential for radical new social structures; instead, the series in question suggest a return to regressive, hypermasculine, white heterosexual patriarchies. Program after program features a straight white man rising to leadership; his wisdom and endurance are often the only hope a ragtag band of stragglers has. Heroes like Jericho’s Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich), The Last Ship’s Tom Chandler (Eric Dane), or The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) must take control, assuming positions of leadership as they fight for the survival of their new communities. These protagonists are not just white men, but a particular hypermasculine archetype of white man: he is former police, CIA, FBI, or military. His rugged individualism, weapons knowledge, and hand-to-hand combat skills allow him to take control; he is, in many ways, a classic pulp science fiction hero, ready to repel aliens (Lucanio 25), fight dinosaurs, or conquer Mars. In a postapocalypse, such a man cannot be accused of privilege, since the society that would grant it to him no longer exists; in such a scenario, he therefore takes control because he is the “natural” choice, the only one capable of shepherding his charges to safety. Moreover, such narratives repeatedly imply that any society-destroying crisis will lead to a war-like environment in which no stranger can be trusted and only the strong will survive. Thanks to the casting and scripting of these series, this “strength” is inevitably demonstrated through the cisgender white heterosexual male heroes who embody these traits. Power struggles between such men become the driving force for these stories. This type of narrative serves as a sort of postapocalyptic comfort food for a certain type of conservative straight white man—the type of man for whom the destruction of contemporary society is, in many ways, a welcome reprieve from the disruption caused by forces such as feminism, LGBTQ+ activism, and the civil rights movement (Nilges). This is both cyclical and regressive; we might find a similar pattern, for example, in earlier work like Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), in which the devastation of a crashing comet creates “a reversion to a kind of natural aristocracy, in which such decadent luxuries as feminism, democracy, and social justice must be jettisoned in favor of more natural values more suited to survival” (Berger 8). We might also consider “nuclear frontier stories” of the 1950s, such as Leigh Brackett’s The Long 81

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Tomorrow (1955), Walter A. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959), which “made nuclear war actually seem appealing” (Sharp 7). Twenty-first century postapocalyptic series build on these same assumptions while also dovetailing with a more recent cultural reinforcement of “traditional” gender roles that Nilges identified as a definitive trend in post-9/11 American media; likewise, Faludi has observed that post-9/11 news reporting repeatedly advanced images of rugged military men and caring, supportive women in need of rescue or protection. Postapocalyptic American television of this era arguably fetishizes these politics: the survival of the white heterosexual nuclear family is conservative white wish fulfillment, as whatever catastrophe wipes out most of the human race also clears the way for the return of an unchallenged white patriarchy. Similar patterns can be identified in “prepper”-focused American reality television from the same period, which offers glimpses—highly edited, produced images, granted—of actual Americans preparing for many of the same “end times” seen in dramatized series. These reality series include Doomsday Preppers, The Colony, Apocalypse 101 (National Geographic, 2013), Doomsday Castle, Forecast: Disaster (National Geographic, 2012), and How to Survive the End of the World (National Geographic, 2013). Significant work has already been done by Christian and Kelly in examining these types of reality programming, their presentation of rigid gender roles, and their focus on white men; such reality TV programs work in tandem with the fictionalized postapocalyptic series of this same era, providing a clear picture of the white cisgender heterosexual man who both prepares for disaster today, and will be the key to humanity’s—and America’s—endurance tomorrow. Prepper television complements its scripted genre counterparts “by restaging the plausible real-world conditions under which the performance of manly labor appears instrumental to collective survival” (Kelly “man-pocalypse” 96). Like their fictional counterparts, prepper reality series privilege the role of the straight white male leader. Doomsday Preppers, arguably the best known of such programs, profiles a different American “prepper” in each episode as it examines the lengths to which some people go to prepare for the coming apocalypse. In these profiles, men outnumber women by 3–1, and the numbers skew further after the first season (Christian 58); the typical man in the spotlight is white, heterosexual, 40+, and middle class (Christian 53; see also Long 116). The series concentrates primarily on men with “bug-out bags” and complex escape plans who drill their family members incessantly on combat and survival skills. These men often have military experience or aspire to military-style training; their protective instincts are presented as being “primal” and “male” (Kelly “man-pocalypse” 104). Both scripted and reality apocalypse series of this period also advance highly restrictive roles for women. Scripted postapocalypses repeatedly draw on the trope of dead wives and mothers whose tragic demises motivate the male hero as he forges forward into the new world. Moreover, in series such as Jericho and Jeremiah, women are sensitive innocents in need of male saviors, while in Revolution and The Walking Dead, the only women who survive are those who adopt masculinized propensities for violence and ruthlessness—but they are never as powerful as the men, and they must adhere to Western norms of feminine sexual attractiveness (Lavigne; see also Inness 179). Likewise, Doomsday Preppers frequently presents women’s performance of masculinized skills as “inadequate” (Christian 58) and women’s independence as a “liability” (Kelly “man-pocalypse” 110), reinforcing notions of binary gender differences by portraying women as canners and homesteaders who “are often interviewed in front of pantries and kitchens, whereas men are more likely to be pictured in front of the household gun collection” (108). We see similar patterns in The Colony, the short-lived reality series that placed contestants in an apocalyptic survival setting, and in series like Meet the Preppers (Animal Planet, 2012). Taken together, such depictions repeatedly limit the role of women in doomsday survival scenarios. 82

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It is also important to acknowledge the characters or people who do not appear onscreen, and the stories that are not being told—a lack of nonbinary and/or trans individuals, marginalized LGBTQ+ representation, the sidelining of BIPOC narratives, and the rarity of disabled representation are among the important factors to be considered in these texts. As these postapocalyptic visions prioritize cisgender heterosexual white male narratives, they do not encapsulate other stories or voices; despite (and because of) the looming threat of viral outbreak or zombie attack, the heroes of such scenarios are freed from the societal constraints imposed by feminists, LGBTQ+ and civil rights activists, and other perceived threats to the fundamentalist Christian “family values” that mark white conservative movements in the United States (Thompson 8). A cultural studies approach reveals white male narratives created primarily by white men in an industry further dominated by white men (Lavigne 166; Writers Guild of America); postapocalyptic television advances the American patriarchal status quo, telling stories that promote and normalize the interests of those in power.

Media Cultivation: Why Does It Matter? Mainstream media have a complex and cyclical relationship to wider culture. If it has become a media studies truism that “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us” (Culkin 70), then likewise, we produce our stories, and then our stories affect who we are. From a cultivation perspective, the popularity of American postapocalyptic television in the early twenty-first century has significant implications when considering wider questions of American politics and culture during that time. The decades leading up to this period saw increasing numbers of women, LGBTQ+ people, and/or BIPOC people gaining more rights and taking more public roles, both on a wide cultural scale and within science fiction communities; they also saw a rise in men’s rights movements (Ferber). It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that these cultural shifts were followed by a wave of backlash media that presented military hegemonic masculinity and a return to supposed small-town American values as protection against a drastically changing world. This focus on both white men and masculinity is disturbingly congruent with the culture of white supremacist groups and neo-Nazi movements currently labeled as the “alt-right” and associated with the far fringes of conservative America (Osnos). Such organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nations, are repressive on the grounds of both race and gender, representing “attempts to redeem a specifically white, racial masculinity” (Ferber 37). White supremacist movements romanticize a faux-historical “wild west” (Schlatter); the fictional worlds of recent postapocalyptic television recreate this fantasy, particularly series such as Jericho and Revolution in which white male heroes struggle in a new wild frontier conveniently distanced from the legacy of actual colonial violence (Lavigne), which allows for the continued imagination of the white man as noble and victimized hero (Higgins). This, too, is familiar within a genre partly founded by twentieth-century dime novelists who “found it easy enough to transform western cowboys into space cowboys” (Pftizer 52). Such a proposed future, within both postapocalyptic and white supremacist narratives, romanticizes and “recreates” a false past in which BIPOC people were safely suppressed, “men were secure in their masculinity and the hierarchical gender order remained firmly entrenched” (Ferber 51). Doomsday Preppers offers a similar “vision of the future survived by white men who embody rugged national virility .  .  . through ritual performances that visibly demonstrate the male subject’s preparedness to return to pre/industrial America” (Kelly “man-pocalypse” 110); in prepper reality series, the links between survivalist culture and right-wing American politics become more explicit. Tea Krulos, who interviewed preppers throughout the U.S., notes repeatedly how many of his interviewees were Trump supporters, describing a “conservative 83

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prepper base” with strong beliefs in the lying media and “fake news” (25; see also Ford); prepping is additionally very specifically linked to racist colonial discourses (Ford) and religious fundamentalism (Lamy). Lamy has argued, “the survivalist right is a seed bed for the fascist millennial dreams of a new Christian white supremacy” (134), and Kelly identifies these narratives as representing not just hegemonic masculinity in crisis, but dangerously aggressive crisis: “Apocalyptic paranoia has contributed to a surge in hypermasculine mass violence in American culture where feelings of white male alienation translate into militaristic preparations for an uncertain future” (Apocalypse Man 32). While it is important to resist over-simplistic media effects hypotheses—mass media are not directly responsible for violent men acting on the fantasies they consume—there can be no doubt that media and culture inform and influence each other, and that postapocalyptic and prepper series represent a regressively gendered and violent style of conservative thinking, reflecting a wider crisis in American masculinity. The normalization of white hypermasculine leadership tropes in mainstream popular culture may have served to smooth the way for alt-right movements and populist views (and votes) in 2016; likewise, the rise in alt-right movements and populist views leading up to this period may have led to the production of multiple politically regressive postapocalyptic series. Our stories both influence and represent our selves; the glut of twenty-first-century apocalyptic series specifically patterned as hegemonic white male wish fulfillment is part of this cycle. Much as earlier popular science fiction like Star Wars or The Matrix was taken by some audiences as symbolic of white male manhood under threat (Higgins 199), the postapocalypses of twenty-first-century American television have served as part of a resurgence in “patriotic” and faux-nostalgic frontier imagery (Faludi 4) and pro-military rhetoric (Lavigne 11) that have positioned the end of the world as a “secular cleansing” (Curtis 7) that both permits and renormalizes the advancement of white men (Nilges 31).

Conclusion Postapocalyptic science fiction tropes are particularly suited to, and reflective of, conservative patriarchal cultural anxieties about coming catastrophe. It is notable that as the conservative Trump presidency reached its zenith in the United States, the glut of American apocalyptic television seems to have ended; a few, such as The Walking Dead and its assorted spinoff franchises, staggered on, but most of the programs detailed in this analysis had gone off air by this period. It’s possible that the apocalypse simply came and went, as the market grew saturated and audiences grew numb; it’s also possible that—while Americans remained, overall, anxious (American Psychiatric Association)—the focus and source of such cultural anxiety changed. Much as apocalyptic imagery has surged and changed in times of crisis for centuries, contemporary notions of the apocalypse, and of prepping, are not exclusive to the far right (Garnett 3–4; Kerrane et al.; Tait). Indeed, the rise of liberal preppers was notable in Trump’s America (Feuer; Deller; Sedacca). Two of the more recent postapocalyptic series on American television—The 100 and Into the Badlands—also shifted from white patriarchal paradigms and attempted, with admittedly mixed success, to make our dystopian futures more inclusive to all. While The 100 has a distinct focus on cisgender white women (Lavigne 141), and Into the Badlands both raises and dodges a variety of race issues (Lavigne 133–34), it is interesting that postapocalyptic television’s focus broadened at least slightly even as the prepper movement itself was attracting more members from the left. Despite these more recent changes, science fiction series like Jericho, Falling Skies, and The Walking Dead—in tandem with reality series such as Doomsday Preppers, The Colony, and 84

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Apocalypse Preppers—posit that a strong, white, heterosexual military man who prepares for the end times is also the type of man who will survive and thrive after society dissolves. Of course, the “masculinity crisis” goes back decades, and visions of catastrophe are not new, nor is the white masculinist fetishization of science fiction texts. But analyzing the apocalyptic products of early twenty-first-century American television provides an instructive look at the tenets of white supremacy and the way popular culture may also reflect populist beliefs. American postapocalyptic television—and prepper-style reality television—of the early twenty-first century was symptomatic of a rising conservative backlash in American culture. The regressive politics seen in these programs correlate with the radical conservative American politics of their time—specifically, the resurgence of white supremacist and “men’s rights” movements now associated with the neo-Nazi “alt-right,” and the populist wave that elected Donald Trump in November  2016. Postapocalyptic and prepper television series are part of wider cultural patterns and require further examination as important signifiers of a particular American cultural moment.

Bibliography American Psychiatric Association. “Americans Say They Are More Anxious Than a Year Ago; Baby Boomers Report Greatest Increase in Anxiety.” 7 May  2018, news-releases/americans-say-they-are-more-anxious-than-a-year-ago-baby-boomers-report-greatestincrease-in-anxiety. Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. University Minnesota Press, 1999. Bishop, Kyle William. How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture: The Multifarious Walking Dead in the 21st Century. McFarland, 2015. Caputi, Jane. “Films of the Nuclear Age.” Journal of Popular Film and Culture, vol. 16, no. 3, 1998, pp. 101– 107, Christian, Tiffany A. “The Recuperation of Wounded Hegemonic Masculinity on Doomsday Preppers.” The Last Midnight: Essays on Apocalyptic Narratives in Millennial Media, edited by Leisa A. Clark, Amanda Firestone, and Mary Pharr. McFarland, 2016, pp. 48–59. Culkin, John. “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan.” Saturday Review, 1967, pp. 51–53, 70–72, Curtis, Claire P. Postapocalyptic Fiction and the Social Contract: “We’ll Not Go Home Again.” Lexington Books, 2010. Deller, A. S. “Doomsday Preppers of the Trump Presidency.” The Startup, 17 April 2018, https://asdeller. Faludi, Susan. The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. Metropolitan Books, 2007. Ferber, Abby L. “Racial Warriors and Weekend Warriors: The Construction of Masculinity in Mythopoetic and White Supremacist Discourse.” Men and Masculinities, vol. 3, no. 1, 2000, pp. 30–56, doi: 10.1177/1097184X00003001002. Feuer, Alan. “The Preppers Next Door.” The New York Times, 26 January  2013, www.nytimes. com/2013/01/27/nyregion/the-doomsday-preppers-of-new-york.html. Ford, Alison E. “ ‘They Will Be Like a Swarm of Locusts’: Race, Rurality, and Settler Colonialism in American Prepping Culture.” Rural Sociology, vol. 86, no. 3, 2021, pp. 469–493, Higgins, David M. Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood. University of Iowa Press, 2021. Holba, Annette M., and Kylo-Patrick R. Hart. “Introduction.” Media and the Apocalypse, edited by KyloPatrick R. Hart and Annette M. Holba. Peter Lang, 2009, pp. vii–xiv. Inness, Sherrie A. Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture. University Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Kakoudaki, Despina. “Spectacles of History: Race Relations, Melodrama, and the Science Fiction/Disaster Film.” Camera Obscura, vol. 50.17, no. 2, 2002, pp. 109–153,–17–2_50–109. Kelly, Casey Ryan. Apocalypse Man: The Death Drive and the Rhetoric of White Masculine Victimhood. Ohio State University Press, 2020.


Carlen Lavigne Kelly, Casey Ryan. “The man-pocalypse: Doomsday Preppers and the rituals of apocalyptic manhood.” Text and Performance Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 2–3, 2016, pp. 95–114. Kerrane, Ben, et al. “(Invisible) Displays of Survivalist Intensive Motherhood among UK Brexit Preppers.” Sociology, vol. 55, no. 6, 2021, Krulos, Tea. Apocalypse Any Day Now: Deep Underground with America’s Doomsday Preppers. Chicago Review Press, 2019. Lamy, Philip. Millennial Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy. Plenium, 1996. Lavigne, Carlen. Post-Apocalyptic Patriarchy: American Television and Gendered Visions of Survival. McFarland, 2018. Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. The Women’s Press, 1988. Long, JZ. “Apocalypse(s) Already: Doomsday Preppers at the End of The(ir) Worlds.” Apocalypse TV: Essays on Society and Self at the End of the World, edited by Michael G. Cornelius and Sherry Ginn. McFarland, 2020, pp. 113–123. Lucanio, Patrick. Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films. Indiana University Press, 1987. Merrick, Helen. The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms. Aqueduct Press, 2009. Nilges, Mathias. “The Aesthetics of Destruction: Contemporary US Cinema and TV Culture.” Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and the “War on Terror,” edited by Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula, and Karen Randell. Continuum International Publishing, 2010, pp. 1–10. Osnos, Evan. “Donald Trump and the Ku Klux Klan: A  History.” The New Yorker, 29 February  2016. Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2008. Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather. Verso, 1991. Schlatter, Evelyn A. Aryan Cowboys: White Supremacists and the Search for a New Frontier, 1970–2000. University of Texas Press, 2006. Sedacca, Matthew. “The New Doomsdayers Taking up Arms and Preparing for Catastrophe: American Liberals.” Quartz, 7 May 2017, Sharp, Patrick B. Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture. University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. Simpson, Philip L. “The Zombie Apocalypse Is Upon Us! Homeland Insecurity.” We’re All Infected: Essays on AMC’S The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human, edited by Dawn Keetley. McFarland, 2014, pp. 28–40. Tait, Amelia. “How are Doomsday Preppers Reacting Now It Actually Feels Like the End of the World?” ShortList, 24 August  2018, Takacs, Stacy. “Monsters, Monsters Everywhere: Spooky TV and the Politics of Fear in Post-9/11 America.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–20. Thompson, Kirsten Moana. Apocalyptic Dread: American Film at the Turn of the Millennium. Suny Press, 2007. Urbanski, Heather. Plagues, Apocalypses, and Bug-Eyed Monsters: How Speculative Fiction Shows Us Our Nightmares. McFarland, 2007. Writers Guild of America. “WGAW 2015 TV Staffing Brief.” Los Angeles Times, 3 March 2015. https://


12 DECODING MASCULINITY IN 21ST-CENTURY SCIENCE FICTION BY MEN Two Case Studies in Reconceptualizing Patriarchy Sara Martín Introduction Science fiction (SF) written by male-identified authors needs to be studied not only from a feminist position focused on the quality of the representation of women and of LGBTIQ+ persons in their works, but from a critical angle attentive to how men self-represent. It is for this reason important to rethink “patriarchy”—that is, the social model of hierarchical organization built around power that is unequally distributed across genders—and distinguish it from “masculinity,” or the gendered construction that is privileged by patriarchy, but which people of all genders can (and should) oppose. There are many types of masculinity, not all of which inherently support patriarchy and some of which are distinctly anti-patriarchal. Using a Masculinities Studies methodology, I  discuss two SF novels by two British authors, Thin Air (2018) by Richard K. Morgan and The Algebraist (2004) by Iain M. Banks, as case studies of the ways in which authoritarian, patriarchal systems privilege certain forms of masculinity and oppress men who do not conform to those ideals. This uneven access to male privilege is largely class-based: Morgan’s underprivileged Hakan Veil rebels but sees no avenue for further resistance against patriarchal capitalism, whereas Banks’s far more privileged Fassin Taak does become an anti-patriarchal, anti-authoritarian rebel in his dystopian society. Brian Attebery remarks in Decoding Gender in Science Fiction that “Once women begin to demonstrate their independent existence, males too become gendered” (7). Masculinities Studies is the academic field devoted to making gender “visible” to men (Kimmel 6) from a profeminist and anti-patriarchal critical perspective. The main aim is not only to make men aware of their privileged position, but to encourage them to participate in the project of eliminating masculinist sex and gender discrimination. While not all men are powerful, they are empowered by their masculinity and it is, therefore, necessary for men to examine both how they are favored by patriarchy and how they are oppressed by it if they want to oppose it effectively. Masculinities Studies intends to promote change so that a fully equal social model eventually replaces patriarchy and liberates men from its weight. Recognizing the need to address the “gender politics within masculinities” (37), Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell developed DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-14 


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the Gramscian concept of hegemonic masculinity (later “masculinities”) to describe the set of social practices that determine the “relations of alliance, dominance and subordination” (37) among men. These hegemonic practices maintain the patriarchal system of power by legitimating “unequal gender relations between men and women, masculinity and femininity, and among masculinities” (Messerschmidt 46), which emerge from constant negotiation between different gendered identities in private and public life. Fiction plays a crucial role in this process, often endorsing hegemonic masculinities although it may also provide models of anti-patriarchal resistance addressed to men, whatever the gender of the author(s). SF frequently works as a laboratory of ideas to present alternative approaches to gender, but male authors are still taking limited steps toward accomplishing the goals of Masculinities Studies. While current SF by male writers offers an improved treatment of women characters and is less prejudiced against LGBTIQ+ persons, such authors often provide rather limited explorations of masculinity itself, with most male characters presented mainly through their occupations. Men are still scientists, explorers, soldiers, investigators, or agents, character types firmly established in Eurowestern SF by the 1950s. A few other characters have been added in recent decades but they, too, are largely defined by profession: Since the1980s, male authors have often centered stories on the computer hacker, and, since the early 2000s, the survivor (who is often defined by their work as a resistance member or leader in their dystopian world). There is some room, too, for criminal businessmen and politicians and, most intriguingly, for non-human males, such as androids. Few male characters, if any, are presented as role models for young people, and many are quite negative representations of masculinity, as if male writers prefer a starker approach to male characterization which avoids any idealization. Hakan Veil in Morgan’s Thin Air and Fassin Taak in Banks’s The Algebraist share some features—both are posthuman, nonwhite, cisgender, heterosexual men—but Veil is an economically marginal man, whereas Taak begins his story from a financially privileged position. I argue that, although their characterization is neither exceptional nor ground-breaking, their gendered self-consciousness (and, by extension, that of their authors) suggests that there is room in contemporary SF by men to rethink both patriarchal capitalism and men’s roles and representations within it.

Hard Man, Hard Wired: Patriarchal Capitalism and Disempowered Masculinity in Richard Morgan’s Thin Air As someone who is part cyborg and part genetically modified human, Richard Morgan’s Hakan Veil is a kind of posthuman monster, a man disenfranchised even before his birth. In his own study of transhumanist speculative fiction Michael Grantham argues that “Although concerns regarding the potential exploitation of genetically engineered beings are not without merit in discussing the potential consequences of such technologies, far more recognized are the issues pertaining to the potential disparity between genetically modified and unmodified individuals” (149). That is to say, contemporary debates over the genetic modification of humans tend to approach human enhancement as an individual matter, rather than inviting us to reflect on how cyborgization will bring an even greater dominion of the privileged classes over the disempowered. In Morgan’s SF novels this is how technoscience is applied: not to secure a better personal or collective future for Homo Sapiens, but to exploit deprived individuals—including especially impoverished male individuals who have no option but to sell their monstrous cyborgian bodies to voracious transhumanist capitalists. In this circumstance, being born male is not always an advantage. On the contrary, the bodily features at the core of idealized masculinity—strength, resilience, and endurance—are coveted by the public and 88

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private agencies that deprive Morgan’s anti-heroes of their rights as men, turning them into enslaved posthuman workers employed as expendable soldiers or paramilitary enforcers. Morgan is best known for the trilogy comprised of Altered Carbon (2002, and the basis for the popular Netflix series of the same name), Broken Angels (2003), and Woken Furies (2005). The novum of Morgan’s trilogy—and other books written in this universe—is the cortical stack, a device which can record human consciousness and transfer it to other bodies. Over the course of the series, protagonist and super-soldier Takeshi Kovacs occupies a variety of “sleeves,” or male bodies of different races and can do so indefinitely, provided his stack is placed in a new sleeve. As such, Kovacs embodies concerns also explored by Morgan with the character of Carl Marsalis in Black Man (2007), published as Th3rteen in North America and subsequent UK editions. A crucial point in Morgan’s anti-capitalist, anti-cyborg critique is that modified humans are created according to market needs. Thus, all posthumans are “agenda-targeted” (TA 99) corporate products. In Black Man, Carl Marsalis, a Black Briton, is the outcome of genetic engineering by which area 13 of the brain, supposed to control violent urges, has been erased. The resulting variant-13 males (no women are modified, with one exception) are used as soldiers instead of expensive, hackable combat robots. These men are, however, so dangerous that the United Nations orders their elimination. Hard-boiled Marsalis, employed by the UN to hunt down rogue fellow variant-13s, is treated as a monster but secretly respected by the capitalists who employ him, even as they fear he will turn his heightened masculine energies against them. By way of contrast, other poor males are transformed by advanced technology to serve as “hibernoids” who are specifically created for space travel enforcement. On duty during the eight months of the year when they need no sleep, hibernoids are used in long interplanetary journeys to quench any potential crises. Even though they serve a policing function roughly similar to that of characters like Marsalis, the hibernoids are not feared or respected as monsters. As one of Marsalis’s fellow 13s notes, Not many people are scared of the ones whose party piece is curling up and sleeping for four months at a time. Doesn’t threaten your masculinity much, that. It’s only people like us they feel the need to lock up and stop breeding. (286, my italics) Whereas ultra-male variant-13s are both admired and feared by the patriarchal men who made them, hibernoids are a risible outshoot of technoscience, freaks that capitalist patriarchy need not fear and can freely exploit. Thin Air is, like Black Man, a thriller involving a murder investigation. Whereas in Black Man the case connects with the illegal manufacturing of modified humans, in Thin Air the focus is the fragile political and economic situation of Mars, a partly failed colony. Terraforming efforts have only succeeded in specific areas, political corruption is rife, and the Chinese and Andina mafias are waging constant war. The lower gravity and the thin air that lends its title to the novel require Martian high-frontier humanity to be modified so that, technically, all the inhabitants of Mars are posthumans. Veil is, nonetheless, exceptional for his many enhancements. Morgan continues his critique of transhumanism in Thin Air through protagonist Hakan Veil’s ruminations on his posthuman masculinity and his disempowerment. Veil is a posthuman hibernoid irked by the alleged obsolescence of hibernoids, whose manufacture has been discontinued, who believes that the UN’s planetary anti-posthuman legislation is useless: Shit-poor women don’t go on selling the future children spring-loaded into their ovaries so they can feed the actual here-and-now kids they’ve already got? Bright young 89

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things at cutting edge gene labs don’t go on buying the raw material by the kilo? Cashstrapped regional legislatures whose major remaining resource is remote and desolate real estate don’t go on signing land deals to host evasively termed “research facilities” with no questions asked? Government spokesmen and corporate PR departments don’t lie about it, and shadow enforcement agencies can’t get any work covering it up? (29, original italics) Both Marsalis and Veil are legally made posthumans, but their genetic material is provided by those “shit-poor women.” We learn over the course of the novel that Veil’s desperate, pregnant mother joined Western Australia’s local Special Indenture Programme, run by Blond Vaisutis TransSolar Enforcement and Security Logistics, a subsidiary of the omnipresent corporation COLIN (Colonial Initiative) Corporation, to provide a future for her son in exchange for allowing the corporation to remake him as one of the hibernoids they needed at that time. Children like him are raised in corporate luxury, which is why Veil does not blame his mother for her choice: “Underclass unfortunates,” like the two of them, are “plucked from poverty all over the Australasia catchment” (389, original italics) and given privileges they could never dream of. Families are kept nearby and allowed regular contact with their boys, though few fathers are present. A peculiarity of Veil’s characterization is that even though the ethnic and racial particulars of other characters are noted, his are not. This is surprising, especially in view of Morgan’s staunch defense of his right, as a white writer, to create Black characters such as Marsalis. When I asked Morgan if Veil is an Australian aboriginal inspired by Māori actor Temuera Morrison in his role as Jake in Once Were Warriors (1994), the author replied: I have deliberately left Veil’s ethnic origins vague in this one, because to be honest his class origins are far more important—he’s a product of common poverty dynamics that are similar the world over. In this day and age, he’d certainly have a higher statistical chance of coming from an ethnic minority background than not (though it’s also worth noting that these days the poor white demographic is fairly steeply on the rise everywhere you look). But in the world of the book, who knows? What exactly will constitute an ethnic minority three hundred years from now, in Australia or anywhere else? (in Martín 90) Veil, aged forty-four, has been living on Mars for fourteen years, having been previously employed as a Black Hatch “overrider” on board interplanetary spaceships for twelve years. The main crisis of his life happens when, at age thirty, he mutinies against Blond Vaisutis’s brutal methods. Veil refuses to execute the members of a small rebel group and, although he could easily be terminated, he blackmails his employer into giving him a second chance on Mars. As in Banks’s The Algebraist, bodily vulnerability becomes an essential component of male subjectivity, for Veil initially fails to understand that his long conditioning has made him extremely vulnerable. It is difficult for Veil to find regular employment because he is genetically programmed for long periods of hibernation in space; it is likewise complicated to find a safe place for hibernating, and although he keeps most of his mechanical and digital augmentations, Veil is forced to relinquish a number of key features after being dismissed; besides, any prospective employer must pay royalties to Blonde Vaisutis if Veil uses the enhancements he still possesses. The only technology Veil can really count on is OSIRIS, the AI to which he was hard-wired as a child, because the processor filament cannot be detached from his nervous system without killing him. 90

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Cultural theorist Amanda Fernbach discusses the figure of the male cyborg popularized in the 1980s and 1990s as a “fetishized, idealized masculinity that is a desirable alternative” to what “ordinary masculinity lacks” (237). However, the 21st-century cyborgian male lacks many of the features that constitute idealized masculinity; he is, rather, a disempowered survivor, at least in Morgan’s version. This is the reason why Veil feels that he is “hard-wired rather than a hard-man” (251), despite the street reputation that his violence gives him. Veil’s case works as a warning that patriarchal capitalism will use advanced technoscience to transform the poorest citizens of any gender into indentured labor for life, here on Earth or elsewhere, and will discard them when they are no longer wanted. Transhumanism is not part of a discourse for the liberation of the species from random evolution but a sinister plot to deepen the difference between the privileged and the underprivileged classes. Far from being empowered by his posthuman enhancements, Veil is disempowered by them, limited in his choices as a man at most levels. As happens with Marsalis in Black Man, Veil has a very clear understanding of how the patriarchal, capitalist system works against disempowered men, but he has no political agenda beyond solving the cases which he investigates and punishing the villains. In Morgan’s SF thrillers, rugged individualism prevents hard-boiled men from joining others to demand justice against patriarchal abuse. The author exposes how power-hungry patriarchal capitalism operates but his main male characters have no resistance to join, no higher cause to support. In that sense their anti-patriarchal stance runs the risk of being a jaded, cynical rant instead of an effective tool for change. Morgan’s men rage against patriarchal capitalism and know that this is the enemy, but remain passive. Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist, by way of contrast, offers a more hopeful possibility for disempowered men to join organized resistance and seek justice.

The Making of a Rebel: Anti-patriarchal Dissidence in Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist Known for his unique dual career as both a mainstream and an SF novelist, Scottish writer Iain M. Banks (1954–2013) was the author of eight novels constituting the Culture series— Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), Use of Weapons (1990), Excession (1996), Inversions (1998), Look to Windward (2000), Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010), and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)—and of a short fiction collection also set in this narrative universe, The State of the Art (1991). He also published three stand-alone SF novels: Against a Dark Background (1993), Feersum Endjinn (1994), and Hugo Award nominee The Algebraist (2004). In this latter novel, scholar Fassin Taak finds himself involved in the struggle of his multispecies civilization, the Mercatoria, to reconnect with the rest of the galaxy after the loss of the Arteria, a wormhole portal network that facilitates interplanetary travel. Taak, a cultural anthropologist who specializes in studying the poetry of the Dwellers (an enigmatic, aloof civilization that is not part of the Mercatoria), must find out whether the rumors concerning the fabled existence of an alternative secret space network run by the Dwellers are true. In the process, Taak’s youthful resistance against the rigid hierarchy which the Mercatoria enforce transforms into mature rebellion as he comes to the defense of the oppressed artificial intelligences that the Mercatoria simultaneously use and abhor. Jude Roberts has argued that “Banks’s writing considers the vulnerability of the masculine body as the foundation of the masculine subject” (46) and Fassin Taak’s narrative arc can be certainly summarized as a journey into the discovery of his own vulnerability as a privileged man. Taak is Chief-in-Waiting of the Sept Bantrabal, heir to one of the families that monopolize scholarly research on the Dwellers, a Slow civilization for whom time runs at a different scale. 91

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Physically adapted to fit this scale, Slow Seers like Taak are long-lived posthumans also capable of selecting their physical appearance. Nasqueron, the Dwellers’ home planet, is a gas giant, which forces all Seers to use a combined suit and vehicle known as a gascraft during research there. Taak’s sense of personal vulnerability, however, does not emerge from this necessary cyborgization, but from the physical and mental abuse by the Mercatoria that becomes the root of his progressive anti-patriarchal rebellion. The Mercatoria are an alliance of mainly nonhumanoid civilizations dominated by the Culmina. They are in the habit of “uplifting” alien civilizations by kidnapping some members to start new civilizations that can join the alliance. This happened to humans: The Culmina’s henchmen, the Vohen, visited Earth in 4051 BC (the current date is 4034 AD) to gather human genetic material from the main human civilizations of the time: China, Egypt, and Mexico. A divide was then set between the rHumans of Earth, who remain unaware of this theft, and the aHumans (or advanced Humans) of the rest of the galaxy, who do indeed know their origins; the two types eventually meet when Earthlings develop interstellar travel. Taak’s resentful great-uncle Fimender complains that aHumans are “advanced but cowed. Servant species, just like everybody else” (149). The Mercatoria offer everyone, regardless of race, gender, or species, the same opportunities; at the same time, they also subject all their citizens to similar regimes of repression. They are not patriarchal in terms of privileging men over other genders, but in the sense that their hegemonic meritocracy firmly relies on the belief that society should be organized along lines of power and that fierce control should be exerted over all the disempowered. This a lesson that young Taak learns while still unsure about whether to join the academic ivory tower of his privileged family. When he supports a protest against the Mercatoria’s privatization of public space, Taak finds himself arrested and brutally tortured. This rude awakening to the physical vulnerability of his so far fully protected body is intended to be a political lesson. As his Orwellian torturer explains, “You are not stupid. Misguided, idealistic, naïve, certainly, but not stupid. You must know how societies work. You must at least have an inkling. They work on force, power and coercion” (180). The lesson, however, does not turn out as the Mercatoria intend. The violence inflicted by his own political leaders, combined with his realization that Dweller civilization operates in far more democratic and almost even anarchic ways, results in Taak’s decision to train as a Seer and to become a spy for the Beyonders, the anti-Mercatoria resistance. Taak keeps his Beyonder connection secret for decades, until the main episode that constitutes the narrative core of The Algebraist. Warned by their research analysts that Taak may have inadvertently found a significant clue about the portal network, the Mercatoria force him to join a military unit with the mission of further exploring this clue, but fail to understand that the threat to eliminate his family if he does not collaborate only increases Taak’s disaffection. It must be noted that although the narrator, an illegal artificial intelligence (AI) passing itself off as the unassuming robotic head gardener of Taak’s family, defines the Mercatoria’s hierarchy as a “baroque monstrosity” (230), and despite the fact that its government is “disliked and resented by most of its citizens/subjects,” the Mercatoria are “not actively hated by them” (483). Sam Reader claims that Banks portrays the Mercatoria “as flawed, but not completely irredeemable—despite their rigid hierarchy”, hinting that Taak’s idealistic resistance is for this reason more moderate than might be expected from an anti-dystopian rebel. Taak’s modest rebellion, however, takes a definitive turn when the Mercatoria cruelly destroy his family and home despite the progress he is making in his mission. The Mercatoria use computers to run their civilization but cannot tolerate AI sentience. Unbeknownst to Taak, the head of his family, his uncle Slovious, disagrees and has been sheltering the narrator AI in 92

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the family home. When Slovious attempts to protect a second AI, the Mercatoria wipe out the whole clan (the narrator survives because they believe the lie that it is a basic, non-sentient machine). Taak is just collateral damage in this operation, but after the tragic loss of his family, he can no longer hope that “there would somehow be an elegance about his involvement in the struggle against the Mercatoria, a degree of gloriousness, a touch of the heroic” (284) for that hope is misguided: Instead: muddle, confusion, stupidity, insane waste, pointless pain, misery, and mass death—all the usual stuff of war affecting him as it might affect anybody else, without any necessary moral reason, without any justice and without any vindictiveness, just through the ghastly, banal working-out of physics, chemistry, biochemistry, orbital mechanics and the shared nature of sentient beings existing and contending. (284) This turning point transforms Taak into one of Banks’s “recalcitrant and unregenerate nonconformists and malcontents, the flawed dissenters and misfits” (Winter 333). In his case, Taak is not yearning to escape the utopia of the Culture novels but a system that he knows, as he puts it, to be “vicious, cretinous, vacuously self-important” and, to cap it all, “sentience-hating” (284). When direct contact with the AIs that help him in his mission teaches Taak that the Mercatoria are lying about the machines’ innate depravity, he gives his whole loyalty to the Beyonders. At the end of his odyssey, Taak visits his family’s refugee AI to declare that “one day we’ll all be free” (534). Having solved the enigma of the Dweller portals, Taak and the Beyonders presumably next compel the Mercatoria to accept the gradual transformation of their inflexible regime. The mission forced on Taak leads, then, to a significant erosion of the Mercatoria’s authoritarian, patriarchal foundations. This is the main lesson that Banks teaches through Taak’s quest: Even privileged men can rebel against patriarchal power and work for radical change to defend the rights of the oppressed, no matter who they are.

Conclusion The cyborg protagonists of Morgan’s Thin Air and Banks’s The Algebraist may seem to be very imperfect anti-patriarchal rebels but, as long as men lack a clear awareness of their own patriarchal oppression and an agenda to resist it, their stories can only offer this type of limited alternative to the standard male characterization of much genre fiction. At the same time, these authors take the first step toward creating this kind of male consciousness-raising with stories about male characters who demonstrate that patriarchy should not be understood as simply a social construction created specifically to dominate women, but as an authoritarian, powerhungry, hierarchical organization dedicated to exploiting all of those with less power—including disenfranchised poor men and sentient AIs. Men’s SF, in short, can help us see that patriarchy’s power extends beyond misogynistic repression to all kinds of authoritarian oppression.

Bibliography Attebery, Brian. Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. Routledge, 2002. Banks, Iain M. The Algebraist. 2004. Corgi, 2005. Connell, R.W. Masculinities. 1995. Polity, 2006. Fernbach, Amanda. “The Fetishization of Masculinity in Science Fiction: The Cyborg and the Console Cowboy.” Science-Fiction Studies, vol. 27, no. 2, July 2000, pp. 234–255. Grantham, Michael. The Transhuman Antihero: Paradoxical Protagonists in Speculative Fiction from Mary Shelley to Richard Morgan. McFarland, 2015.


Sara Martín Kimmel, Michael. The Gendered Society. Oxford University Press, 2004. Martín, Sara. “Martian Politics and the Hard-Boiled Anti-Hero: Richard Morgan’s Thin Air.” Hélice, vol. IV, no. 11, 2019, pp. 84–95. Messerschmidt, James W. Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. Morgan, Richard K. Black Man. Gollancz, 2007. Morgan, Richard K. Thin Air. DelRey, 2018. Reader, Sam. “With The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks Perfected His Space Opera.” B&N Sci-fi and Fantasy Blog, 9 June 2017, Roberts, Jude. “Iain M. Banks’ Culture of Vulnerable Masculinities.” Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, vol. 43, no. 117, 2014, pp. 46–59. Winter, Jerome. “ ‘Moments in the Fall’: Neoliberal Globalism and Utopian Anarcho-Socialist Desire in Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution Quartet and Iain M. Banks’s Culture Series.” Extrapolation, vol. 55, no. 3, Fall 2014, pp. 323–348.


13 “I CAME FOR THE ‘PEW-PEW SPACE BATTLES’; I STAYED FOR THE AUTISM” Martha Wells’s Murderbot1 Robin Anne Reid In May  2020, Martha Wells released Network Effect, the first novel in the Murderbot Diaries series. The series, as of the writing of this chapter, consists of five novellas, a short story, and the novel. Murderbot, the protagonist of the series, is a cyborg Security Unit (SecUnit) who frees itself from its governor module before the events in the first novella, All Systems Red (2017). Murderbot’s dramatic narrative of self-emancipation and subsequent feelings of awkwardness as it learns to negotiate the physical and social universe, is both critically acclaimed and widely popular. Wells’ novellas have been finalists for all the major SF awards and have won one Alex, one Nebula, two Hugo, and two Locus awards. Her novel Network Effect won the Locus and Nebula Awards for Best Novel (“Martha Wells”). The series balances action plots with character development, primarily Murderbot’s. The major storylines show how Murderbot’s destruction of its governor module leads to its subsequent work investigating corporate crimes. These crimes include illegally acquiring alien remnants, a process which often includes murder, and extensive exploitation of humans as under an indentured labor system. Murderbot changes as it becomes more involved in investigating corporate colonialism and corruption, acquiring new skills, both technical and emotional. It interacts with robots, cyborgs (including other SecUnits), Artificial Intelligences (AIs), and humans—all the while complaining about how these events and relationships interfere with its desire to consume its favorite media in peace. By the end of Network Effect, Murderbot has friends and a family of choice. One of its most significant relationships is with a powerful AI that runs a university research transport vessel named ART by Murderbot, the letters in the name standing for “Asshole Research Transport,” whose activities and relationship with its human crew include various attempts to subvert corporate exploitation of human labor. Readers who discovered Wells through the Murderbot Diaries may assume she is a relatively new writer, but she has been writing fantasy and science fiction (SF) since 1993 and has published eighteen novels in three series as well as numerous short stories and novellas. Her previous work was mostly in fantasy and media tie-in novelization, and she was nominated regularly for awards from 1994–1999 (“Martha Wells”). Although Wells published fourteen critically praised novels between 2000–2017, she received no award nominations in that era. Wells describes how Murderbot came to her when she was working on The Harbors of the Sun (the final novel in her DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-15


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Raksura series), at a moment when her career seemed dead in a “field that expected women [her] age to quietly fade away” (Wells, “Introduction”). She disclaims any intention to write the character as an autist (Wells, “Science Fiction Book Club Interview”) but does not dispute that interpretation, or any other. Moreover, in interviews and online interactions with fans, Wells shares how her experiences with neurodivergency and lifelong anxiety and depression inform her characterization of Murderbot (Wells, “Hi, I’m Martha Wells”). Murderbot’s voice and story resonate with readers who experience marginalization and oppression along multiple axes of identities (Bourke 2019; Cahill 2017; DeNiro 2018 and 2019; Kend 2018; Liptak 2018; Mullis 2020). While reviewers emphasize how relatable the character is, they emphasize that neither the first-person narrator, nor the series, is a simple allegory: “Murderbot isn’t . . . a stand-in for any other oppressed group, as much as some of us might see ourselves in its outsider-status, hatred of ally condescension, and ‘not applicable’ gender” (Nordling 2021). While I agree that Wells’ work cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional allegorical reading, I believe it is possible to productively read her work in the context of some of the changing discourses around autism such as gender and sexuality; how to interact with humans and deal with emotion; and strong attachments to media. I read Murderbot as an autistic character because I am an autist who strongly identifies with the character’s reaction to and emotions about its experiences. My interpretation draws on my lived experience as a queer autist although I make no claim of being representative of any other, let alone all other, people who are queer and/or who are autistic.2 I spent nearly sixty years of my life wondering why I was always doing everything with humans wrong with the result that my response to most interactions was the burning desire to be left alone to read my science fiction and fantasy. My first memory of being different was when my first-grade teacher told me I read the wrong way. According to family stories, I learned to read at age 3 and, when I started first grade, tested as reading at the fourth-grade level. The result was numerous teacherprincipal-parent meetings to discuss the “problem,” which I thought was me—specifically, my resistance to learning phonics and my dislike of the “Dick and Jane” readers, both of which wasted time I could spend reading real books. My inability to meet the social standards of my peers got worse after first grade although I began to receive approval from my teachers for being quiet, spending a great deal of time reading, and testing well. Their approval meant that my peers in junior high and high school saw me as a teacher’s pet. Outside the classroom, I resented being told that “girls” did not read science fiction (which I did and still do) and even more resented being told that “girls” were supposed to get married and have children (which I never wanted and never did). However, the options for “boys” were no better, as I learned from watching my younger brother being bullied by his classmates. Things got better in college when I found science fiction (SF) fandom. When I was officially diagnosed as on the autism spectrum at the age of 62, in 2017, nearly fifteen years after I learned about Asperger’s from the media and started doing my own research, whole parts of my life suddenly made more sense.3 In addition to my own experiences, I draw on some of the scholarship on autism which I have found personally valuable. As someone trained in literary and culture studies, I am not familiar enough with the sciences where most of the research originates to evaluate it and have found recent work by autistic people trained in the humanities to be the most useful. James McGrath, in Naming Adult Autism (2017), points out some of the biases in both the scientific literature about and popular representation of adults with autism. Melanie Yergeau, in Authoring Autism (2018), draws on queer and disabilities studies and uses storytelling to critique how “autism” has been framed as a problem of lacking “theory of mind” and thus people with autism are seen as lacking humanity. One significant problem in the work on autism is the focus on 96

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the default white male child. In recent years, neurodivergent people began to create our own narratives, autobiographies, and critiques of the medical and popular stereotypes of autism and other neurological differences. Two of my favorites in this vein are works by Joanne Limburg (2021) who explores feminism and autism, and Latino journalist Eric Garcia (2021), who uses his experience and interviews from many others on the spectrum to help medical experts and laypeople alike understand what life is like on the spectrum. Nancy Bagatell (2010) describes the public perception of autism as changing from “a curious but obscure psychiatric condition to a widely known public health concern receiving much attention in the popular media,” with ongoing debate about the causes of the condition and whether they are environmental or neurological (33). Growing conflicts exist between the biomedical community, which constructs the condition as a disease or disability requiring a cure, and an adult autistic community drawing on the social model of disability and practicing selfadvocacy who use technology to organize. But both sides agree that there is a need for more scholarship, larger samples and wider recruitment, and more longer-term studies. Literary scholars have drawn on the social model of disability to analyze characters in novels by Jane Austin, Marge Piercy, and Charlotte Brontë (Dekel 2014; Rodas 2008; Smith 2017). In a similar vein, SF studies scholar Ryan J. Morrison’s “Ethical Depictions of Neurodivergence in SF About AI” (2019) draws on disability studies to show how classic SF novels by Philip K. Dick and William Gibson reinforce widespread cultural assumptions that to be a “normal” human is to be defined by emotions and empathy, in contrast to thinking but unfeeling machines, while more recent novels by Ann Leckie challenge that stereotype by using an AI to foreground the autistic character’s perspective as providing equally valid and valuable ways of negotiating the future. Like McGrath, Morrison shows connections between how the stereotypes about “normal” human emotion and empathy discriminate against both AI characters and neurodivergent people such as autists. Morrison’s essay is part of a small but growing movement to use disability studies to analyze SF. More work on the topic can be found in the anthology edited by Kathryn Allan, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. Through Murderbot’s perspective, Wells subverts the genre conventions of space opera, a subgenre of science fiction that revolves around galactic-scale meetings between humans and aliens and, more often than not, the galactic-scale conflict that occurs between and amongst such groups when they meet. She most importantly subverts the space opera cliché of AIs as beings who are isolated among humans, who feel inferior to them, and who wish to become human, or at least more like humans. Instead, Wells explains that: “I wanted to write an AI that didn’t want to be human, and I was thinking a lot about what an AI would actually want, as opposed to what a human might think an AI would want” (Wells, “Introduction”). Indeed, even after gaining agency by destroying its governor, Murderbot feels the pressure of expectations to be more like humans, or to follow the advice of human friends. At the end of All Systems Red, all the surveyors who are saved by Murderbot assume that the best thing for it to do is to return to Preservation Aux with them to become the legal ward of Dr. Mensah. Murderbot realizes that “I don’t want anyone to tell me what I want, or to make decisions for me” which is why, at the end of the novel, it conveys this sentiment directly to Dr. Mensah before leaving her (148–49). One of the specific pressure points for Murderbot, like many human autists, is its gender presentation. Human characters expect Murderbot to have a gender although from the start Murderbot is clear that Security Units have no gender or “sex bits”; the only Units with sex bits are Sexbots, sometimes called “ComfortUnits.” In many ways, Murderbot’s reaction to the assumption it must have a singular, stable gender resonates with the experience of people with autism, who have a higher rate of gender variance than the general population as well as lower 97

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identification and more negative associations with identifying as a specific gender (Cooper, et. al. 2018). In addition, Murderbot’s dislike of viewing sexual intercourse (whether between clients caught by its 24/7 recording systems or on its favorite shows) raises the complicated question of asexuality and its intersection with stereotypes about people with disabilities (Kim 2011). As Mullis notes, even as Murderbot removes its shackles and starts developing a personality, it doesn’t really take on a gender in any traditional sense. It has likes and dislikes and personality traits that some might see masculine or feminine, but Murderbot doesn’t think of them that way. Murderbot is just Murderbot. One complication of Murderbot’s nonexistent gender is how its narrative foregrounds the gendered English pronoun system by Murderbot’s insistence on “it” as a chosen pronoun. Liz Bourke (2018) notes her discomfort with Murderbot’s choice of pronouns and her choice to use “they/their” instead: Murderbot consistently refers to themself as “it,” but I’m sufficiently uncomfortable with using object-pronouns for people that I can’t bring myself to do the same. I know this is inconsistent with the basic standard politeness of using people’s self-chosen pronouns. It’s a dilemma. I share that discomfort to some extent but am also unable to impose my choice of pronoun on the character.4 Another pressure point for Murderbot that many people with autism might well recognize is the difficulty of negotiating social interactions involving emotions that do not come naturally to it. These frustrating problems come to a head for Murderbot after it gains its freedom but realizes it lacks the programmed behaviors and speech acts the governor module had imposed on it. Murderbot has been treated all its life as a thing and chooses to continues to perform its duty, albeit to a lower standard, after destroying its governor in spite of its personal desire to spend as much time as possible immersed in its media. Its narrative emphasizes the difficulties it faces interacting with humans: relying on armor as social protection and masking its face to hide the feelings it cannot help showing. It hates being looked at by humans and, later in the series, when it is able to pass as an augmented human, uses the armor to access security cameras to watch the humans while in conversation. Behaviors such as avoiding eye contact, lacking control of facial expressions, and experiencing difficulties reading human facial expressions—all of which Murderbot experiences regularly—are also natural for me as an autist. Murderbot has internalized the idea that SecUnits have no feelings and must learn to acknowledge that it does feel emotions, even for such minor things as the clothing it chooses in Rogue Protocol. Murderbot may dislike having feelings for and about others, but its narrative shows it has them, including, but not limited to, anger on behalf of those it empathizes with, such as Ayres and the others who had so few choices that they sold themselves into twenty years of indentured servitude (Rogue Protocol). Even more significantly, Murderbot can empathize with all the other bots and AIs it encounters throughout the series, developing its ethical limits in regard to asking for consent from transport bots rather than overriding their programming. When Murderbot investigates the mining facility where it went rogue and killed clients in Artificial Condition, it discovers that the ComfortUnits at the facility acted to try to protect the humans when a malicious program caused the deaths. Murderbot spends over five hours collecting the information, imagining how the ComfortUnits tried to help, and perceiving their last moments of life: 98

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One by one the file downloads had stopped. One had signaled that it would try to decoy SecUnit attention away from the others, and three acknowledged. One had heard screams from the control center and diverted there to try to save the humans trapped inside, and two acknowledged. One had stayed at the entrance to a corridor to try to buy time to reach SecSystem, and one acknowledged. One reported reaching SecSystem, then nothing. (116) One of the most significant scenes that reveals Murderbot’s growing level of awareness of its emotions occurs in Exit Strategy, after Murderbot rescues Dr. Mensah. When Mensah asks about its fondness for the show Sanctuary Moon, Murderbot “actually [feels] the organic tissue in [its] back and shoulders relax,” but then tries to answer the doctor’s query as to why it would watch a show about human problems. In order to answer Dr. Mensah’s question, Murderbot accesses its archived memory of watching the show and realizes that it was the first one it watched after destroying its governor. It tells Dr. Mensah that and concludes, “[Sanctuary Moon] made me feel like a person.” Murderbot feels that revealing so much means it was “losing control of [its] output.” It does not share its next revelation although the “words kept wanting to come out. It gave me context for the emotions I was feeling, I managed not to say” (115–16). While the external action of this scene is Murderbot managing its rescue of Dr. Mensah, the internal action centers on blaming its “stupid human neural tissue” and hating everything it is feeling because they are “emotions about real humans instead of fake ones” (116). A third pressure point for Murderbot that resonates with my own experience as an autist is its intense love of media. As Leah Schnelbach notes in her review of Network Effect (2021), which focuses on reading the Murderbot series during the Covid lockdown, one of the major achievements of Wells’ work is the importance of media which is not presented as an escape. It’s not an addiction, it’s not a way for Murderbot to “learn to be human”—a thing it does not want—it’s not a balm, it’s not the opiate of the masses, and there is no distinction that I caught between “high” and “low” brow media. Instead, media is seen as an important part of Murderbot’s awareness of itself and as a way of interacting with others, so much so that the series shows how creations shared by an interstellar network can be used as forces against the oppressive economic systems created by the corporate powers. While one important aspect of Murderbot’s characterization is its enjoyment of media, the character moves from simply consuming it to creating it, both on its own and in collaboration with others, over the course of the series. Besides its diaries, Murderbot creates and shares a variety of videos, transcripts, and other digital materials, such as putting together a “Murderbot Impersonates an Augmented Human Security Consultant” file to explain to others what it has been doing (Exit Strategy). It also works with Dr. Bharadwaj to create a documentary about “bot-human relations” (27), and in Network Effect, Murderbot works with ART to create Murderbot 2.0, a kill ware program who shuts down SecUnit Three’s governor module and shares files with it about Murderbot’s life. Murderbot’s ongoing critique of the low quality of representation of Security Units in the popular media it consumes is also worth noting. At the end of Network Effect, Murderbot has discovered what it really wants to do: to work, temporarily, with ART and its crew while being able to visit friends on Preservation Aux. The novel ends with the two AI characters reviewing new media ART has collected and planning how to acquire more. However, the story does not seem to end here: The possibilities for 99

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Murderbot and ART to work together in additional volumes of the series are many. Likewise, as we learn more about emerging work in disability studies on autism as well as other forms of neurodivergence, we will acquire more tools and skills to read what Wells and other SF authors have created in new and complex ways.

Notes 1 My title quotes, then adapts, a sentence from a press release about Network Effect winning the Nebula which, in the original, reads as: “Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century” (“Network Effect”). 2 As this chapter was in the final stages of editing, Cassie Josephs’ review, “Murderbot: An AutisticCoded Robot Done Right,” was published on Josephs also notes the similarities between Wells’ character and their own experiences as an autistic person, arguing that Wells avoids the “robotic” stereotype often applies to people on the spectrum. The review received over 100 “favorites” and 44 comments, most expressing agreement with Josephs and their love for the series. Many commenters discussed their own neurodivergence and discussed with each other the issues of gender, asexuality, and aromanticism raised by the series, most emphasizing that their different interpretations were linked to their differing personal experiences. 3 I was privileged in having insurance as well as being lucky enough to find a qualified therapist who did not reject the concept of women on the spectrum and was willing to work with adults (and older adults!) as well as children. I know that many, for multiple reasons, can only self-diagnose and others may choose not to pursue a diagnosis because there is no guarantee the outcomes will be positive. 4 Names are important to Murderbot: Its own name is self-chosen and private, as its choice to reject gendered pronouns. Not only does Murderbot give ART a name, it wipes the name of The Company that owned it from all transcripts and records, replacing it with the generic term, as Dr. Bharadwaj realizes in Network Effect (“Helpme.file, Excerpt 2”).

Bibliography Allan, Kathryn. Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (Ed. Kathryn Allan). Palgrave 2013. Bagatell, Nancy. “From Cure to Community: Transforming Notions of Autism.” Ethos, vol. 38, no. 1, 2010, pp. 33–55. Bourke, Liz. “Liz Bourke Reviews Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells.” Locus. 26 April, 2018. Bourke, Liz. “Murderbot’s Inconvenient Emotions: Exit Strategy by Martha Wells.” 2 October 2019. Cahill, Martin. “Meet Your Favorite Depressed A. I. Since Marvin in All Systems Red.” Barnes and Noble, 2 May  2017. Cooper, Kate, et  al. “Gender Identity in Autism: Sex Differences in Social Affiliation with Gender Groups.” Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, vol. 48, no. 12, 2018, pp. 3995–4006. https:// Dekel, Mikhal. “Austen and Autism: Reading Brain, Emotion and Gender Differences in Pride and Prejudice.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, 2014. dekel.html. DeNiro, Anya Johanna. “Exploring Queer Friendship in Martha Wells’ Artificial Condition.” 13 May  2019. DeNiro, Anya Johanna. “Life Lessons from a Murderbot: Reading All Systems Red as a Trans Woman.”, 21 March 2018. Garcia, Eric. We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation. Houghton Mifflin, 2021.


“I Came for ‘Pew-Pew Space Battles’; I Stayed for the Autism” Josephs, Cassie. “Murderbot: An Autistic-Coded Robot Done Right.” Tor-Com, 21 June 2022. www.tor. com/2022/06/21/murderbot-an-autistic-coded-robot-done-right/. Kend. “The Murderbot Diaries 1–3 by Martha Wells.” The Imaginaries, 12 July 2018. www.imaginaries. net/blog/murderbot. Kim, Eunjung. “Asexuality in Disability Narratives.” Sexualities, vol. 14, no. 4, 2011, pp. 479–493. Limburg, Joanne. Letters to My Weird Sisters. Atlantic, 2021. Liptak, Andrew. “Martha Wells’Murderbot Series is a Fantastic Story about What It Means to be Human.”The Verge, 13 October 2018. Martha Wells. “Science Fiction Awards Database.” McGrath, James. Naming Adult Autism: Culture, Science, Identity. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. Morrison, Ryan J. “Ethical Depictions of Neurodivergence in SF about AI.” Configurations, vol. 27, no. 3, 2019, pp. 387–410. Mullis, Steve. “Murderbot Makes a Triumphant (And Cranky) Return in Network Effect.” NPR. 20 May 2020. “Network Effect.” Nordling, Em. “Elementary, My Dear Murderbot: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells.”, 28 April 2021. Rodas, Julia Miele Rodas. “On the Spectrum”: Rereading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre.” NineteenthCentury Gender Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2008. Schnelbach, Leah. “On Murderbots and Media: Martha Well’s [sic] Network Effect.”, 8 December  2021. =IwAR2fRK40dZIw2IXxWnVZPpUjMiok8BPJJlpg6Hj26Qabl-P6ZMUFdrp_suk#more-671944. Smith, Sue. “ ‘Human Form Did Not Make a Human Creature’ Autism and the Male Human Machine in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 11, no. 4, 2017, pp. 423–441. Wells, Martha. All Systems Red., 2017. Wells, Martha. Exit Strategy., 2018. Wells, Martha. “Hi, I’m Martha Wells and I write The Murderbot Diaries and The Books of the Raksura series. Ask Me Anything!” r/Fantasy Virtual Con 2020, Reddit, 2020. comments/geiwxa/hi_im_martha_wells_and_i_write_the_murderbot/. Wells, Martha. “Introduction to the Subterranean edition of The Murderbot Diaries.” at Martha Wells, Dreamwidth. 2021. Wells, Martha. Network Effect., 2020. Wells, Martha. Rogue Protocol., 2018 Wells, Martha. “Science Fiction Book Club Interview with Martha Wells.”2020. https://middletownpubliclib. org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Interview-with-Martha-Wells.pdf. Yergeau, Melanie. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke University Press, 2018.



Introduction Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015), writes in the introduction to her anthology that she and co-editor adrienne maree brown endeavored to make their volume an authorial space where marginalized people could imagine the viability of themselves and their communities in the future. Imarisha emphasizes this point by writing: “And for those of us from communities with historic and collective trauma, we must understand that each of us is already science fiction walking around on two legs” (4–5). One of the historic, traumatic events this quote brings to mind within the African diaspora is the cognitive dissonance of first contact and alien abduction that manifested in the form of the transatlantic slave trade (Womack 34–38). Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s short story “Evidence,” included in Octavia’s Brood, imagines a future where Black women communicate across generations to document the apocalyptic fall of the patriarchal capitalist system that ignited intersectional oppression across the world and its replacement by new and more equitable modes of communitarian living based on a redefinition of self, wealth, and technology. To tell this tale, Gumbs replaces the ruggedly individualistic, White, male hero who dominates classic apocalyptic and postapocalyptic fictions such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land with what I  call the “womanist speculative archetype.” This new science fiction (SF) heroine undertakes a quest to build a sustainable, communitarian world based not just through the invention and deployment of new technologies, but more importantly—through the creation of femalecentered communities. The woman speculative archetype is, as her name indicates, an avatar of womanism, a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of Black women. Womanist scholar Layli Phillips (Maparyan) describes a womanist as one who is “triply concerned with herself, other Black women, and the entire Black race, female and male—but also all humanity, showing an ever-expanding and ultimately universal arc of political concern, empathy, and activism” (xxiii). The term was first coined by Alice Walker in her 1979 short story “Coming Apart”; later, in the essay “Womanist,” Walker would more formally describe a womanist as a “Black feminist or DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-16


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feminist of color. . . . Committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people” (xi–xii). These goals were also central to the members of the Combahee River Collective (1974–1980), who wrote in their text “A Black Feminist Statement”: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” (18). These dreams of an egalitarian, communitarian future revolve implicitly and explicitly around the figure of the future-facing Black woman who creates new communities based on new modes for healing for the community and world as a whole. As she builds a new and better future for all, the heroine who embodies the womanist speculative archetype also embarks on a journey to develop her own personhood by connecting with her Black feminist and diasporic African cosmologies. Audre Lorde offers the ideal prototype of this womanist heroine in her biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. In its broadest dimensions, Lorde’s journey of self-discovery resembles that of the classic Eurowestern, archetypal hero’s journey: she leaves her home of origin, New York, and travels across the US and Mexico, learning to negotiate new environments as she grapples with a variety of interpersonal and sociopolitical obstacles. The book ends with Lorde returning to her home in New York with a stronger sense of herself. However, when one considers that the monsters Lorde faces in her quest to selfhood are not physical entities she can defeat in a single battle, but the seemingly interminable hydras of intersectional oppression, one realizes that the Eurowestern, male model of the hero’s journey is too limited in scope for Lorde. Indeed, as a self-described “Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two, including one boy, and member of an interracial relationship” (“Age, Race, Class, and Sex” 114), Lorde, as the heroine of her own story, more closely resembles that of the protagonist from a lesbian bildungsroman (Pearl 300) who actively deconstructs classic masculine heroic norms. Moreover, as Lorde’s creation of the term “biomythography”—a mode of literature that includes history, biography, and myth-making—suggests, the specific shape of her experiences in the world may be unique, but, like other myths, they help explain larger patterns of personal and social relations as well. As I have argued elsewhere, the term “womanist speculative archetype” provides a more accurate representation of the futurefacing, community-oriented heroine of Black texts such as Lorde’s Zami because it invites new considerations of who and what the heroine needs become to successfully complete her journey. This new archetype has been particularly useful to analyze heroines in stories written by Black women writers of speculative fiction who weave together mythic, speculative, and SF tropes in stories where the Black woman protagonist as a heroine symbolizes transformative activism for herself and her reimagined zami, or community. Lorde’s text Zami is central to the work of the womanist speculative archetype. Lorde defines the term in her biomythography as a “Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers” (223). Monica B. Pearl expands this definition to explain that zami is “a name that, in its designation, is an attempt to make community, to break silence, to make a common acknowledgment and a common bond” (300). Throughout Zami, Lorde illustrates her experiences with communities of women who offer the author varying levels of support and recognition as she recognizes, explores, and celebrates key aspects of her personhood that do not fit neatly into pre-existing patriarchal, heteronormative, Eurowestern societal constructs— namely her sexuality, her race, and her experiences as a first-generation American. Indeed, her coming-of-age experiences are inseparable from her sociopolitical and personal liberation. The womanist speculative archetype follows a similar trajectory, both learning how to become more herself from the Black female communities she encounters and how to use her newfound strength and talents to connect with others across space and time in the effort to build better futures for all. 103

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Contemporary scholar, poet, activist, and educator Pauline Alexis Gumbs is no stranger to Audre Lorde’s work. On her website, Gumbs describes herself as a “Queer Black Troublemaker and Black Feminist Love Evangelist and an aspirational cousin to all sentient beings.” She also “identifies proudly as a queer Caribbean author and scholar in the tradition of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, M. Jacqui Alexander, Dionne Brand and many more” (alexispauline). At the writing of this chapter, Gumbs, a 2022 National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, is drafting her latest book, The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde (alexispauline). Given the multiple connections Gumbs forges between herself and Lorde, it is not surprising that her short story “Evidence” invokes and dramatizes Lorde’s practices for activism and for building community. The Black women protagonists in Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s 2015 short story “Evidence” reflect the interconnectedness between individual self-actualization and the wellness of the entire community. “Evidence” revolves around five generations of women who live through and after a paradigm-shifting occurrence referred to as “the time of silence breaking” (35). While Gumbs does not describe the actual event or who precipitated it, her protagonists offer insight into the characteristics of their various societies before, during, and after this apocalyptic event. The silence breaking is so impactful to human society that it becomes a chronological marker called “Before Silence Broke” or “BSB” (33), used much as we use as “BC” and “BCE” to distinguish major historical eras in contemporary Western culture. Gumbs’s story is organized around five pieces of evidence shared in the story as “Exhibits A–E,” through which the reader can deduce that the time before the silence broke was one where women did not feel safe because they were often victims of sexual abuse, unsupportive families, and various modes of silencing resulting from patriarchal and capitalist paradigms that stunted or prohibited their self-actualization (35–37). After the apocalypse associated with the breaking of the silence, the women of Gumbs’s story create a zami that illustrates the efficacy of a woman-centered, Caribbean-informed sociopolitical paradigm for individual and communal healing. In contrast to their ancestresses who lived in fear, the women of Gumbs’s postapocalyptic communitarian society live, work, love, and raise children together in an environment of equity and mutability. Members’ individual and collective ability to choose their own path to self-actualization buttresses the sustainability and solidarity of each zami. Perhaps not surprisingly, the zamis of “Evidence” are created and populated by characters who embody the womanist speculative archetype. Over the course of Gumbs’s story, the reader meets three pivotal characters related to one another but separated by generations who write letters, annotate research and lecture notes, and otherwise offer the reader a variety of written artifacts that document occurrences during and reactions to the world-changing silence breaking. These characters are Alexis (Lex/Lexi), who lives through and builds new kinds of community during the apocalypse; Drix, a researcher and lecturer who documents the apocalypse sometime after that event; and Alandrix, a descendant of Alexis (and presumably Drix) who thrives in her post-scarcity world five generations after the silence breaking. Gumbs invites readers to view these characters as interdependent reflections of the past, present, and future and to interpret the protagonists as part of an anachronistic community. As explained by Drix in her lecture notes, the “self should be understood as a vessel open to time and fueled by presence, where presence is as multiple as it is singular” (34). In other words, one exists in multiple realities in a given moment. Not only does a person exist in the present, but because they are the product of their ancestors and harbingers of the future, they always represent a combination of varying temporal realities. Drix describes this phenomenon as such: “This is what black feminist scientists called ‘integrity,’ a standard for affirming the resonance of presence across time, where action was equal to vision embodied through variables” (34). While all of Gumbs’s characters are integral to the story, the one who most clearly inhabits the 104

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womanist speculative archetype is founding ancestress Alexis (sometimes known as Lex or Lexi). Her letter, from herself after the silence breaks to herself in the BSB era and presented as Exhibit E, the last piece of evidence, provides a blueprint for the reimagined zami she hopes to help manifest for herself and her community. As she assures her BSB-era self, humanity not only survives the apocalyptic breaking of the silence, which involves the literal end of capitalism, but, guided by women like Alexis, she and her community members begin to create a new social model in which “life, although not exactly easier, is life all the time. Not chopped down to billable minutes, not narrowed into excuses to hurt and forget each other” (39). As they do away with capitalism, the progenitors of these zamis redefine the concepts of “wealth” and “technology” to promote equity and compassion. Within the story, wealth translates to the idea that everyone possesses the ability to grow their own food. Alexis writes in her letter, “Everybody eats. Everybody knows how to grow agriculturally, spiritually, physically, and intellectually” (40). In other words, abundance is not solely measured in a material way and is therefore able to be shared and nurtured in an equitable manner. Similarly, technology in this new society no longer refers just to machinery, but more generally to the womanist practice of making a way out of no way for the individual and the community. As Alexis puts it, in her postapocalyptic world, technology is “the brilliance of making something out of anything, of making what we need out of what we had” (39). She goes on to describe how this reimagined understanding of technology benefits the community, writing that true technology “[aligns] our spirits so everyone is on point so much of the time that when one of us falls off, gets scared, or caught up, the harmony of yes, yes, yes, we are priceless brings them right back into tune with where they need to be” (39–40). Whereas BSB-era humans use technology to compete with one another and accumulate wealth for themselves and perhaps their immediate biological families, Alexis’s descriptions of the post-BSB era provide readers with a glimpse of a more equitable future where wealth and technology are redefined in communal terms that provide everyone with the opportunity to thrive. Significantly, as Alexis and the womanist heroines who come after her dismantle capitalism and redefine wealth and technology in communitarian terms, they also dismantle old understandings of family based exclusively on blood relations, replacing them with a new societal model wherein people choose their own families of affinity. In the letter she writes to her ancestress Alexis upon turning 12 and reaching the age of accountability in her utopian future, Alandrix notes, you would have thought of me as part of your family, even though we now do family differently; we have chosen family now, so maybe we would have just been comrades if you lived here in this generation. Who knows? But I think that if you met me, you would feel like we have some things in common. I’m a poet and I  use interactive dance so maybe you would choose me as family. (35) Even as “Evidence” offers a new vision of collective survival, Gumbs sounds a note of caution. Drix’s research does more than turn up hopeful poems about the future written by women of the BSB-era; it also illustrates the horrors experienced by women who are silenced by the social, political, and economic arrangements of patriarchal capitalism by presenting visceral descriptions of women literally going underground to survive while they document their isolation and attempts to silence them. In Exhibit C, Drix documents an image of words written by a BSB-era woman on a subway wall: 105

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If you can read this, I am evidence. We had been wrong all along. Blood is not money. Money is not food. The anonymous prophets were right. We cannot afford our own blood. As I write this, the air is thick with our failure. And I am alone. Remember us and heal. (37, my emphasis) The statement that “we cannot afford our own blood” points to the pitfalls of the capitalist emphasis on material production and consumption rather than developing and nurturing the individual. This is especially poignant for Black people who have already survived the apocalypse of the transatlantic slave trade, which stands as a literal representation of this observation. In each case, the physical sacrifice of humans catalyzed the production of raw materials such as sugar, cotton, rubber, tobacco, and rice. On the whole, neither those sacrificed nor their descendants have profited from the tainted fruits of their labor at the scale of their persecutors, if at all. In “Evidence,” then, the inability to afford one’s blood points to the dystopian capitalist relations of BSB-era life that sacrifice the person for larger economic or societal gains. And that is what womanist speculative archetype Alexis and her descendants fight to change. Testifying, regenerating, and reclaiming are all Black feminist strategies that focus on healing communities that have long been wounded into silence. Gumbs’s story is part of this tradition and offers an example of what adrienne maree brown describes as an “emergent strategy” for community survival and renewal based on decentralized leadership, abundance, and a keen compassionate understanding of interdependence (280). In “Evidence,” Gumbs makes this strategy the foundation for a utopian society where everyone experiences contentment and works to develop sustainable methods of production ensuring abundance for all (Gumbs alexispauline). In addition, members of this fulfilled society operate from an assumption of plentitude and an equitable distribution of resources. This societal paradigm differs greatly from our own capitalist one that presumes scarcity and assumes everyone must work hard and hoard what they earn for themselves because there might not be enough for everyone (Gumbs 40). In her coda to Octavia’s Brood, brown writes that connecting SF and social justice offers an environment for discovery “as it gives us the opportunity to play with different outcomes and strategies before we have to deal with the real world costs” (278). This is precisely what Gumbs does in “Evidence,” as she plays with the fantastic notion that capitalist societies run by White men based on exploitation of the individual’s labor can morph into Black woman-centered zamis shaped by common experiences and the desire to heal and grow both individually and collectively. Indeed, 12-year-old Alandrix reflects the successful completion of the womanist speculative archetype’s journey. In the fully realized zami of the future, Alandrix understands self-actualization as a matter of course, not something one has to fight for. As she writes to “Ancestor Alexis”: “I  read your writing, and the writing of your other comrades from that time and I feel grateful. It seems like maybe you knew us. It feels like you loved us already. Thank you for being brave” (34, my emphasis). Much like Alexis’s own postapocalypse letter to her preapocalypse self, Alexandrix’s message sent backward through time and space serves as both a challenge to narratives that silence Black women in the guise of capitalist reality and as testament to the radical imagination of Black women who imagine more generous and equitable futures for themselves and their descendants. Indeed, soon after the breaking of the silence and the fall of capitalism, Alexis bravely writes, We did it. We shifted the paradigm. We rewrote the meaning of life with our living. And this is how we did it. We let go. And then we got scared and held on and we let go again. Of everything that would shackle us to our sameness. (41)


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In writing this letter, Alexis celebrates a love for herself and her zami both inside of the net of capitalist intersectionality as we experience it today and as it might enable a sustainable communitarian future where the goal is not to be rich, but rather to be whole.

Bibliography brown, adrienne maree. “Outro.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha. AK Press, 2015, pp. 279–281. Combahee River Collective. “A Black Feminist Statement.” All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, edited by Akasha (Gloria T. Hull), Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith. The Feminist Press, 1982, 14–22. Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “Evidence.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha. AK Press, 2015, pp. 33–41. Imarisha, Walidah. “Introduction.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha. AK Press, 2015, pp. 3–5. Lorde Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Defining Difference.” Sister Outsider, Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 114–123. Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Crossing Press, 1982. Pearl, Monica B. “ ‘Sweet Home’ ”: Audre Lorde’s Zami and the Legacies of American Writing.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 2009, pp. 297–317. Phillips (Maparyan), Layli. The Womanist Reader. Routledge, 2006. Smith, R. Nicole. “Audre Lorde’s Zami as a Speculative Womanist Guide to Self-Actualization in Octavia Butler’s Dawn.” New Criticism and Pedagogical Directions for Contemporary Black Women Writers, edited by LaToya Jefferson-James. Lexington Books, 2022, pp. 197–216. Walker, Alice. “Womanist.” In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. Harcourt, 1983, pp. i–xii. Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. First ed. Lawrence Hill Books, an Imprint of Chicago Review Press, 2013.


15 FEMINIST SCIENCE FICTION ART Smin Smith Introduction The term science fiction (SF), as critic Adam Roberts puts it, “resists easy definition . . . it is always possible to point to texts consensually called SF that fall outside the usual definitions” (1). The history of feminist SF then, especially queer feminist and trans feminist texts, could be described as a history of interventions. Creating feminist SF has often necessarily involved a process of critically intervening in and bending the SF genre. Nowhere is this more apparent than in examples of feminist SF operating as theory. Here I draw on the scholarship of speculative feminists including the Beyond Gender Research Collective, Sophie Lewis, Donna Haraway, Simon O’Sullivan, and David Burrows, all of whom read SF texts as theoretical interventions into conventional understandings of gender, family, and/or temporality. SF theorist Katie Stone takes this one step further when she posits that “the boundaries of SF extend beyond the borders of fiction” (32). SF then can be feminist theory, feminist theory can be SF, and feminist praxis can also be SF. Here Stone is merging the theorisations of Donna Haraway and the editors of Octavia’s Brood (2015), who argue activism is SF and SF is political theory. Reading SF as feminist theory exposes the urgent role it plays in contemporary understandings of science, society, and subjectivity. In this chapter I will focus on another genre-bending intervention in the communities and cultures named SF. SF art is a broad subculture, defined by Dan Byrne-Smith as “forms of practice, complex networks, or a set of sensibilities” (12). Byrne-Smith’s expansive definition opens SF art to new disciplinary scrutiny beyond its more traditional framing as illustration accompanying the “real” SF of the print story itself. This critical shift in the landscape of SF and its associated mediums leaves space for the many inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary artists already self-defining their practices as SF. Feminist SF artists, like authors and creators before them, are at the centre of this intervention. I argue that these artists extend the critical impulses which motivate feminist SF literature to produce work which not only challenges SF’s content, style, and themes, but additionally rewrites the disciplines, mediums, and processes termed SF. SF is thus transformed by feminist SF artists, and we are challenged once again to rethink those usual definitions. When choosing case studies to address in this chapter, I reflected upon those feminist SF narratives which have been read as theory, including Frankenstein (1818), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Xenogenesis (1987–1989), Bloodchild (1995), and The Deep (2019). One could argue there is a novelty to the ideas in these texts in that they provide new arguments for abolishing conventional gender, family, and temporal relations. DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-17 


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However, the “newness” celebrated in readings such as these frequently relies upon myths of the lone genius or auteur working outside any communal literary, artistic, or intellectual tradition. Critics have historically reproduced this tendency when framing individual SF illustrators as exceptional, deemphasising the broader landscape and cultures of SF art. Instead, I build on the writing of feminist theorist Sophie Lewis, who posits that “authorship is always coauthorship” (157). Feminist SF, then, is always produced in collaboration. I argue it is this collaborative spirit that leads authors like Ursula K. Le Guin to write SF in conversation with feminist theory. This technique is also used in many of the SF stories previously listed. As such, in this chapter I examine a group of artworks in conversation with feminist theory, which provide speculative interventions into pre-existing discourses on gender, temporality, and science. My aim in this chapter is to position feminist SF art as a space productively engaged in recursivity, in the collective production and rewriting of worlds. I  argue that collaborative worldbuilding is both a common production process and a necessary intervention in how we understand and read SF more generally. In doing so, I build upon the work of repro-utopian feminist and SF theorist Katie Stone, who argues for “a reading of SF creators as involved in the decidedly utopian process of deliberate inheritance” (246). Stone reads projects like Octavia’s Brood (2015), a collection of short SF stories written by feminist activists and inspired by Octavia Butler, as examples of deliberate inheritance. In this chapter I apply this framework to feminist SF art, extending Stone’s argument to show that collaborative worldbuilding is also a “queer kinmaking practice” (44). The SF artists I reference then both radically recombine techniques like sculpture, painting, video, performance, and gaming, whilst framing these projects as collaborative worldbuilding exercises.

Collaborative Worldbuilding Collaborative worldbuilding is defined in this chapter as a range of processes through which worlds are produced recursively, using mediums, strategies, and formats which encourage viewers to extend the story. Collaborative worldbuilding then might be understood as an expansion of what theorist Dan Hassler-Forest terms transmedia worldbuilding, such that it becomes applicable to the processes of (feminist) SF art. In Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics Hassler-Forest summarises transmedia worldbuilding as follows: (1) Transmedia worldbuilding takes place across media; (2) Transmedia worldbuilding involves audience participation; and (3) Transmedia worldbuilding is a process that defers narrative closure (5). Hassler-Forest lists “television series, comic books and pulp literature” as examples of deferred narrative closures, whilst videogames that engage with “spatial exploration, collaborative interaction, and kinetic immersion” (8) are tied to audience participation. Equally vital to this type of worldbuilding is the production of narratives which operate across media, where worlds are created across multiple outputs. These techniques certainly can be found in SF art, especially in outputs from inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary artists. Installations necessitate audience participation; artist series produce narratives across media; and deferred narrative closure remains central to fashion design, where the story is extended with each collection, campaign, and catwalk. However, there is frequently less consensus in SF art, where collaborative worldbuilding artworks often employ just one or two of these techniques. Hassler-Forest argues that these transmedia worldbuilding strategies, when employed together, produce recursive spaces with “political potential” (6). My use of “collaborative 109

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worldbuilding” in this chapter allows me to engage with artists employing all, some, or no transmedia worldbuilding techniques whilst still producing spaces of feminist potential. Some of the artists in this chapter use declarations of deliberate inheritance, including Sin Wai Kin and Sophia Al-Maria, who frame both their practices and their artistic investigations of gender as the inheritance of Ursula K. Le Guin. Elsewhere, feminist artists such as Tai Shani rewrite pre-existing SF to challenge conventional ideas about temporality. This is a process we might also term collaborative worldbuilding, as narratives are produced in conversation with other SF authors and viewers are frequently encouraged to write the story again. Finally, I examine how Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley uses immersion and gameplay in physical and digital spaces as a form of collaborative worldbuilding that commemorates the history of Black trans people through stories that effortlessly blend scientific and fantastic tropes.

Deliberate Inheritance in BCE (2019) Within SF communities, Sophia Al-Maria is perhaps most well-known for the term “Gulf Futurism,” which she coined with collaborator Fatima Al Qadiri. In this section however I focus on BCE, an artwork produced by Al-Maria as Whitechapel Gallery’s Writer in Residence, 2018. BCE includes two videos: “Wayuu Creation Myth,” featuring Ziruma Jayut, and an unnamed video written in collaboration with fellow SF artist Sin Wai Kin. These videos were exhibited together at the Whitechapel Gallery (2018). Al-Maria’s practice then provides a clear example of how audience participation in SF art takes place, specifically engagement in audiovisual installations. BCE also shows how artist series or connected videoworks tell narratives across outputs. These videos were installed with the intention of encouraging connections and comparisons between each output. As the Whitechapel Gallery described in a press release for this installation, “over the course of her residency, Al-Maria has taken inspiration from the late speculative fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin.” This isn’t the only time Al-Maria has put her practice in conversation with Le Guin. She opens Sad Sack (2019), a book of collected writing and found imagery, by quoting the closing line of Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (2019): “still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars” (37). This essay looks to the carrier bag as a ​tool predating weapons, and considers how technology, science, and by extension SF might be redefined through this origin story. Le Guin emphasises that the origin stories SF authors repeat can either entangle or disentangle science from the “Techno-Heroic” (36), a narrative Al-Maria’s collaborator Sin Wai Kin also identifies in cultures of white supremacist, heteropatriarchal capitalism. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction is also explicitly referenced by Al-Maria in BCE, which includes “one ancient [and] one new” alternate creation myth. I’d like to primarily focus on Al-Maria’s unnamed myth, which places the artist Sin Wai Kin in a distant future. Sin is themselves an interdisciplinary artist, who both wrote the script and performed in this video. They also frame their own practice as SF, where SF is defined specifically as “a practice of rewriting patriarchal and colonial narratives naturalized by scientific and historical discourses on states of sexed, gendered and raced bodies” (Sin). Sin, like Al-Maria, places their art into relation with Le Guin frequently across a multitude of projects, interviews, and panel talks. These include but are not limited to sonic fiction produced for Ignota Press’s Carrier Bag Music (2021), a DG galleries group exhibition titled Seized by the Left Hand (2019– 2020), and a blog entry for Auto Italia titled “On Ursula Le Guin.” In the latter, Sin looks at the continued relevance of The Left Hand of Darkness and The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’s critical interventions. Towards the end of this essay, Sin describes how they “returned [from 110

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The Left Hand of Darkness] with an image of a different social context, which while imperfect, was something which I could use to refigure my own attitudes towards gender and sexuality.” Both Sophia Al-Maria and Sin Wai Kin then position their practices as forms of deliberate inheritance from Le Guin. In doing so they evoke the theorisations of Katie Stone, who observes that “contemporary authors have framed themselves as the inheritors, or indeed children, of their literary forebears” (Strange Children 44). I argue that deliberate inheritance strategies also exist within SF art, with feminist artists in particular frequently placing their practices into relation with other SF artists, authors, and creators. Stone poses that deliberate inheritance provides a “utopian reworking of inheritance, no longer tied to essentialised constructions of biological heredity or the strictures of the capitalist family” (244). Deliberate inheritance then is both “an act of care” (244) and a “queer kinmaking practice” (44), and artists like Al-Maria and Sin who use this technique are critically intervening in relational structures like the family. In BCE’s unnamed myth Sin speaks directly to the audience, surrounded by what they term the “infinite sky.” This takes the form of a star-filled backdrop in the videowork which pulses, sometimes pushing through Sin’s body and evoking the opening sequence of Dune (1984). Sin’s dialogue describes a dystopian world where bodies and beliefs were placed into hierarchies, where the existence of these ranking systems was simultaneously denied. But this violence is historicised in the script and juxtaposed with what the critic Kit Edwards has described as “an infinite way of being” in the narrative’s present. Edwards points to a passage in the video which echoes Octavia Butler’s writing, with Sin and Al-Maria’s phrasing “Gxd is Infinite” mirroring Butler’s “God is Change” refrain as featured across the Parable series (1993–1998). Edwards argues that infinity, as a mode of being, is “spoken into existence” by Al-Maria and Sin here, challenging chronological narratives of time. BCE might therefore be understood as a collaborative worldbuilding exercise, critically intervening in discourses on temporality. In the centre of this unnamed video, Sin asks the audience, “How many stars? How many worlds? How many ways of being alive?” Here Sin and Al-Maria’s dialogue enacts what the writer Bridget Crone names “hyperbolic fictioning such that [hierarchical categories are] highlighted as a series of rules, experiences, and productions that could be otherwise” (italics in original) (xiii). When contextualised within Sin’s artistic practice of “rewriting patriarchal and colonial narratives,” these questions specifically pose a challenge to heterocisnormativity. After all, “how many ways of being alive” could there be beyond the gender binary? Subsequently, I read BCE as an SF artwork engaged in a “liberatory reworking of sexual and gender relations” (Gabriel). BCE uses collaborative worldbuilding to theoretically intervene in discourses surrounding gender and sexuality. It makes sense then that Al-Maria and Sin place this project in deliberate inheritance with Ursula K. Le Guin, whose SF also critically intervened in these areas of feminist theory.

Rewriting in DC Productions (2014–2019) Tai Shani is a multidisciplinary artist whose transmedia project DC Productions operates across installation, text, film, sculpture, and performance. The DC Productions series (2014–2019) included installations at The Tetley (2018) and Turner Contemporary Margate (2019); a film titled The Vampyre (2017); five performances titled “Semiramis,” “Phantasmagoregasm,” “Mnemesoid 2,” “Mnemesoid,” and “DC Productions 1” (2015–2018); and a collection of short feminist SF stories titled Our Fatal Magic (2019). These outputs tell the stories of twelve characters who exist in a temporal but not spatial city. This project could therefore be described as a collective worldbuilding practice that produces “a space-time that is both mythical and historical, a world built by and for women” (Crone xii–xiii) and is engaged with 111

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by audiences across outputs. DC Productions’s characters are “diverse and self-defined—trans*, differently abled, of different ages, sizes and shapes” (Crone viii–x). In an interview with Turner Contemporary, Shani explains that it’s just a city that is for anyone that wants to live outside a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. . . . I’m not interested in women, I’m interested in femininity and what can be salvaged from a history of femininity, to think about ways out of where we are now. If SF is feminist theory, DC Productions then could be read as a critical intervention within conventional understandings of gender. The city provides a conceptual space for critiquing and reimagining gender relations. Shani’s artistic practice includes rewriting, which she applies in DC Productions to a wide range of pre-existing SF and utopian texts. Shani explicitly names the SF stories and protofeminist utopias DC Productions rewrites in Our Fatal Magic, with Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) as the most drawn-upon source. Shani also acknowledges the influence of empath characters found in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Octavia E. Butler’s P ​ arable of the Sower ​(1993). This rewriting process could equally be described as remixing. In Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Legacy Russell argues that “materials . . . can be reclaimed, rearranged, repurposed, and rebirthed” (133) to forge new feminist technologies for survival. In doing so, Russell echoes Afrofuturist remixing practices, including “digging the future out of the archive” (Gunkel 19). DC Productions should be contextualised within these wider speculative cultures of rewriting, salvaging, and remixing. For Shani specifically, collaborative worldbuilding (or to use their term “world-making”) provides a means for moving “out of where we are now.” I argue that artworks like DC Productions actively invite further rewrites through this remixing process, with audiences pushed to recursively transform Pizan’s world again. Shani’s practice then explicitly engages in collaborative worldbuilding, such that “authorship is [presented as] always coauthorship” (Lewis 157), which encourages more coauthorship, which encourages further coauthorship, and so forth. DC Productions also provides critical interventions in feminist theories of temporality. Through rewriting and combining texts from different periods, Shani explicitly disengages with chronological narratives of time. The city in the narrative is specifically described by Shani as a temporal but not spatial city, and DC Productions combines references from contemporary SF and proto-feminist sources to create a world populated by both historical figures and software. DC Productions might therefore be read in conversation with chronopolitics, as the text “pushes against the dictates of capitalist time and its mode of capture” (Lewis et al.), which include the chronological narratives of progress often reproduced in feminist theory. Shani instead looks to salvage and rewrite outside these narratives of time and progress, to repurpose texts across temporalities with feminist aims. This method, I argue, could also be read as a critical intervention in the history of SF. DC Productions includes texts written long before the temporal emergence of “science as we understand the term today” (Roberts 2011 4), which are framed as SF through this process. Shani’s practice then draws upon feminist, queer, and Indigenous studies by critiquing cultural understandings of science as a stable, universal, and empirical ideal. Science is instead understood as a situated knowledge, one frequently melded with spiritualism in various temporalities, geographies, and communities. This is perhaps most explicit in DC Productions’s character list, which includes mythical figures like mystics, sirens, psychics, and vampyres, alongside an AI programme named Mnemosyne. Read alongside Shani’s SF, these figures serve as critical interventions in chronopolitical narratives of science, transforming SF in the process. In the world of DC Productions, science is contiguous with, rather than opposed to, the fantastic and the magical. 112

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Immersion in WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT (2020) My final case study in this chapter is Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT. Brathwaite-Shirley is an artist working with animation, sound, performance, and video games. WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT specifically is an online archive, accessible at, that aims to counter the erasure of Black queer and trans people from both historical and artistic archives (American Artist et  al.). The project includes multidisciplinary collaborations across animation, sound art, and gaming. When accessing the site through Brathwaite-Shirley’s portfolio, the audience encounters the following introduction: WELCOME TO THE PRO BLACK PRO TRANS ARCHIVE THIS INTERACTIVE ARCHIVE WAS MADE TO STORE AND CENTRE BLACK TRANS PEOPLE TO PRESERVE OUR EXPERIENCES OUR THOUGHTS OUR FEELINGS OUR LIVES TO REMEMBER US EVEN WHEN WE ARE AT RISK OF BEING ERASED YOUR OWN IDENTITY WILL DETERMINE HOW YOU CAN INTERACT WITH THE ARCHIVE AS WELL AS WHAT YOU WILL BE ABLE TO ACCESS BE HONEST WITH THE ARCHIVE This introduction frames the archive within wider queer, trans, and Black feminist worldbuilding histories, where queer culture for example is defined as a world-making project. BrathwaiteShirley focusses specifically on Black trans world-making in this archive, building an immersive world from the preserved daily experiences, thoughts, and feelings of Black trans people. Audiences experience different versions of the archive. Specifically, participants are asked if they identify as 1) Black and trans, 2) trans, or 3) cis upon entry; this chapter was written after an encounter having selected option 2, “I identify as trans.” Throughout the archive these multiplechoice questions encourage audiences to become active contributors to the worldbuilding, in contexts which foster accountability and responsibility. After an encounter with BrathwaiteShirley’s SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE (2022), art critic Zarina Muhammad similarly described how “the game let me in, offered me a chance to help, gave me very clear instructions . . . made every single one of my choices heavy with accountability and consequence.” This strategy is also employed throughout WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT, where audiences are denied the role of passive spectator. The archive therefore employs collaborative worldbuilding strategies including collective production and immersive gameplay. Brathwaite-Shirley’s practice, like Tai Shani’s, can also be read as a critical intervention into mainstream conceptions of scientific realism. WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT draws upon magic and spirituality, featuring a Trans Temple, anxiety reduction spells, and the resurrection of trans ancestors. These components are presented in a virtual landscape, where she includes both digital aesthetics and frequent references to software. Magic, spirituality, and science are therefore merged in Brathwaite-Shirley’s speculative world. In this manner, her practice rejects what Hortense Spillers terms “the official point of view” (Lewis et al.). This official point of view, I argue, includes the wholesale embrace of empiricism and realism at the expense of all other ways of knowing the world. WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT then collaboratively worldbuilds, providing critical interventions in science and SF studies. 113

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I am particularly drawn to readings of WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT that frame this archive as both SF art and an abolitionist project. The archive is, after all, produced with the aim of altering recorded histories where trans people “are at risk of being erased” (Brathwaite-Shirley). Brathwaite-Shirley is then engaged in what Christina Sharpe terms the work of a “feminist abolitionist, to both destroy the world as it is, and imagine, make possible, and make present . . . the kinds of worlds that we want to inhabit” (Hartman et  al.). Counter-archiving is used throughout this artwork to destroy, imagine, and rewrite. Additionally, WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT builds or “make[s] present” a pro-Black and pro-trans space, a world or digital “room,” to use Brathwaite-Shirley’s terminology, in which Black and/or trans participants can mourn, rest, relax, and heal. The archive then utilises immersive gameplay to counter cultures of heterocisnormativity and white supremacy, collaboratively building worlds by and for trans people.

Feminist SF Art To conclude, the feminist SF artworks in this chapter all use collaborative worldbuilding, either collective production processes or the reproduction of science fictional and historical worlds. Through case studies I have identified three collaborative worldbuilding strategies employed by feminist SF artists: deliberate inheritance, rewriting, and immersion. These techniques allow artists such as Sophia Al-Maria, Sin Wai Kin, Tai Shani, and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley to make important interventions into conventional understandings of gender, temporality, and science. Taken together, their art dramatises SF writer Samuel R. Delany’s insight that “we read words differently when we read them as SF” (153). Similarly, in this chapter I have explored how contemporary feminist artworks can be read as theory when categorised as SF. In the words of Sophie Lewis, feminists need more than written theory; they also “have need of fictions, artworks, and dreams to help us train our minds” (157). SF art, like feminist theory, is “lighting the way” (Lewis 157).

Bibliography Al Maria, Sophia. Sad Sack: Collected Writing. Book Works, 2019. Byrne-Smith, Dan, and Whitechapel Art Gallery. Science Fiction: Documents of Contemporary Art. The Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2020. Brathwaite-Shirley, Danielle. “Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley.” Mysite. Crone, Bridget. “Wounds of Un-Becoming.” Our Fatal Magic. Strange Attractor, 2019, pp. vii–xxii. Gabriel, Kay. “Gender as Accumulation Strategy.” Invert Journal, 21 May 2020. uk/posts?view=articles&post=7106265#gender-as-accumulation-strategy. Gunkel, Henriette, and Daniel Kojo Schrade. “Scavenging The Future of the Archive.” Futures and Fictions, edited by Henriette Gunkel et al., Repeater Books, 2017, pp. 193–212. Hartman, Saidiya, et al. “Poetry Is Not a Luxury: The Poetics of Abolition.” Silver Press, 2 September 2020. Hassler-Forest, Dan. Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism. Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016. Imarisha, Walidah, and adrienne maree brown, editors. Octavia’s Brood. AK Press, 2015. Le Guin, Ursula K. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Ignota Books, 2019. Lewis, Gail, et al. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House: Abolitionist Feminist Futures.” Silver Press, 19 August 2020, Lewis, Sophie. Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family. Verso, 2019. Muhammad, Zarina. “Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley @ Arebyte.” The White Pube, 27 February  2022.


Feminist Science Fiction Art Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006. Roberts, Adam. “The Copernican Revolution.” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould et al., Routledge, 2011, pp. 3–12. Russell, Legacy. Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. Verso, 2020. Shani, Tai. Our Fatal Magic. Strange Attractor Press, 2019. Sin, Wai Kin. “On Ursula Le Guin.” Auto Italia, 7 February 2018. victoria-sin-on-ursula-le-guin/. Stone, Katie. Strange Children: Childhood, Utopianism, Science Fiction. University of London, 2021. Turner Prize. “2019 Nominee | Tai Shani | Turner Contemporary.” YouTube, 4 October 2019. com/watch?v=QdEzQc9b5Uc. Whitechapel Gallery. “Alternative Creation Myths Narrate a Feminist Past at Whitechapel Gallery.” Whitechapel Gallery, 15 November 2018. Sophia-Al-Maria-BCE-Press-Release_Final.pdf.



Who Subjectivities

Figure 16.1  Gili Ron, “Untitled #3” (2022)

16 INTRODUCTION Wendy Gay Pearson

Nick Mansfield begins his book, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway (2000) with an extended reference to Blade Runner (1982). Who am I? is an essentially human question and it is their ability to ask this question that undermines the corporate determination to designate replicants as less than human. When replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) is dying, he says I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like . . . tears in rain. Time to die. More than anything else, this speech, emphasizing the ephemerality and fragility of life itself, establishes the replicants’ humanity and encapsulates the tragedy of their enslavement and built-in obsolescence. In SF, many more people than humans, using that term to refer to homo sapiens, are concerned with questions of subjectivity. Not only does SF’s wideflung capacity for imagining different people, different worlds, and different futures mean that subjectivity is always going to be central to the genre, but it allows generic interventions into definitions of humanity— of who gets to be a subject and who does not. Subjectivity is the academic term given to the individual’s sense of self, our ability to define ourselves, to talk about ourselves, to be, in the most literal sense, the subjects of our own stories. Science fiction, not surprisingly, extends the question “who am I?” not only to those who have historically been denied subjectivity (in the West, mostly women, LGBTQ2S+ folk, people of colour, other marginalized groups)1 but also to those whose ideas about subjectivity might be radically different: aliens, androids, animals. As Martha Wells’ Murderbot series demonstrates, one doesn’t even have to wish to be human to have a sense of subjectivity. Murderbot has no problem using the pronoun “I” of itself, even though it is sincerely dedicated to rejecting humanity and any attempt by humans to incorporate it into their lives. As Grifka Wander points out in her chapter, Murderbot’s refusal of gendered pronouns and insistence on “it,” a pronoun that in English is generally used only for objects and the objectified, may be a blanket refusal of both gender and any sort of human identity, but it also calls into the question the notion that subjectivity must be tied to humanity or, indeed, to the organic. When we think and write about gender in SF, we have little choice but to be deeply involved in questions of subjectivity. After all, one of the most basic answers to the question “Who am I?” involves the assertion of gender identity, usually binary. “I am a woman” is a meaningful sentence and so, unless one is dealing with anti-trans politics, is “I am nonbinary.” The very fact DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-19 


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that “I am nonbinary” can be read as nonsensical by anti-trans activists speaks to the fraught nature of gender in the contemporary Western world. Anti-trans activists (sometimes known as TERFs) tend to argue that “gender” does not exist; all we have is biologically determined sex (something that, as Pearson points out in per chapter, does not reflect contemporary science). This results, inevitably, in the dehumanization of those whose genders are not socially and culturally intelligible. SF is ideally positioned to address such questions. Jacob Barry notes in his article on Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous (2017) that the robot Paladin has no gender—indeed, no genitalia—yet is persistently gendered by his handler and others. Newitz highlights the bizarrity of assigning gender to a largely mechanical being (Paladin does have a human brain, but it is not what they think with nor does it do more than aid in facial recognition). Yet, despite having no innate sense of gender, Paladin certainly has a sense of selfhood. Like Roy Batty, like Murderbot, Paladin occupies a liminal space in human society, created as a useful tool, yet imbued with subjectivity informed by their programming, their life experience, and their exposure to human society. As Barry argues, “Like robots and cyborgs, trans subjectivities are aggregate assemblages of parts, technology, and the socio-cultural relations in which they are embedded” (128). For women and LGBTQ2S+ people, subjectivity has similarly been a fraught question. Postmodern theory tends to critique contemporary notions of subjectivity, something that those who have not traditionally had their selfhood recognized have suggested is a case of the (White) boys taking their toys away when Others are let into the game. Yet, without the recognition that one is a subject, it becomes almost impossible not only to be heard, but even to find a voice in the first place. The important point here is that White cisgender heterosexual middle-class men have always had their selfhood recognized, while recognition of the subjectivity of Others has been spotty at best. Graham Murphy argues that cyberpunk, as a largely male-oriented subgenre of SF, has also productively been adopted by women, LGBTQ folk, and people of colour, all of whom succeed by ringing the changes on the generic expectations set up by the first male-authored cyberpunk fictions. Indeed, cyberpunk, as both Murphy and Barry note, has become a genre that can make space for trans people, in part by using the cyborg and the cybernetically enhanced humans as symbols for a not always overt gender difference. Murphy cannily points out that Matrix Resurrections makes The Matrix series more than allegorical, in part by disrupting binaries of every type, including the binary that positions Neo as “the One” but which is overwritten by Trinity’s depiction as a complex and more than binary character (a reference that is both obviously Christian yet subversively trans). In this section, a variety of scholars, some of them women, queer, trans, and/or people of colour, think about how SF allows for subjectivity to be understood in much broader terms. Aliens function as a floating signifier not only within SF but within popular culture more broadly; they can function as symbols for the outcast, the frightening, the inhuman. It is impossible to think about who is allowed the right to call themselves human without thinking about gender and subjectivity. So often gender, along with sexual orientation and race, has divided the human from the less than human or the completely inhuman. As Schneider-Vielsäcker writes in her chapter, the revitalization of traditional gender roles in China means that feminist SF writers in that country have to take on the task of imagining less constrained roles for women and even, potentially, the possibility that the original commitment to gender equality by Mao and his followers be revived. Because criticism of the Chinese government is difficult, Chinese women’s SF, not unlike much feminist and queer SF in the West in the 20th century, has needed to code its analysis of gender inequality by restaging the gender conflict among alien beings. Similarly, writing about the ways in which women writers of SF in India have taken up issues of gender and subjectivity, Mukhopadhyay argues that Indian SF by women has the potential to intervene 120


in the gender politics of both Indian culture and the state even if that means that women can only escape their subservient roles by declaring themselves something else entirely—as in Vandana Singh’s story “The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet.” At the same time, however, SF’s focus on gender invariably means that we must also think about gender outside the dominance of the binary concept. Several chapters in this section look at questions affecting transgender people, including Barry’s argument that Autonomous functions as an allegory of trans belonging, while also highlighting, in Eliasz’s determined gendering of his robot partner, the difficulty of escaping binary gender. Emily Midkiff looks at how some YA texts disrupt generic presuppositions, particularly in blurring the line between fantasy and SF, to similarly disrupt gender expectations. When creators of science fiction for children, like Yoon Ha Lee and Rebecca Sugar, “break out of the dichotomous definitions that confine both children and genre, they can reimagine science fiction as a genre for queer, BIPOC kids and their toys” (158). In Lee’s adult novel, Ninefox Gambit (2016), trans issues are tackled more directly, with the protagonist shapeshifting into a male body, but still having a female consciousness. Sex changing is also a recurrent motif in John Varley’s SF, but Pearson examines the ways in which a normalized, near-universal practice of changing sex fails to reflect contemporary understandings of transgender and, instead, asks readers to imagine a future in which the idea of a fixed sex becomes entirely meaningless in part because in an egalitarian society gender itself can hold little meaning. Finally, Costabile-Heming performs a deep analysis of the gender swapping stories in the GDR anthology Like a Bolt out of the Blue (1975), noting that while male writers invariably depicted women behaving as badly as men, even the women writing could not fully imagine a completely egalitarian world. Pronouns have become a major issue for trans and nonbinary people. Some anti-trans activists have achieved notoriety by their refusal to use people’s pronouns and one particularly notorious critic was recently banned from Twitter for “deadnaming” Elliot Page (a trans person’s “deadname” is their pre-transition name). Pronouns have also been central to SF’s considerations of gender for a long time. Grifka Wander looks at the journey from Le Guin’s use of “he” for the hermaphroditic Gethenians in The Left Hand of Darkness to much more capacious uses of pronouns in more recent SF by Yoon Ha Lee (himself a trans man) and to refusals of gender in the Murderbot series. In this respect, feminist SF has been at the forefront, particularly lesbian feminist SF. One of the earliest instances of a so-called neo-pronoun occurs in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), where the gender egalitarian future society of Mattapoisett uses the gender neutral pronoun “per” (short for “person”) for everybody. Other invented pronouns, mostly for gender neutrality, include na/nan, xe/xyr, ne/nir, ve/viz, thon/thon’s, and ze/hir. As long ago as 1991, Kelly Ann Sippell identified some ninety neo-pronouns invented to express a gender-neutral third person in English. In more recent SF, authors inventing multiply gendered alien species (or species who change gender) also invent pronouns for anyone of any species who is not clearly male or female. And, of course, contemporary writers also reflect current usage of “they” as an epicene third person singular pronoun. In our contemporary world, it is not remotely surprising that, like gender, race is central to most people’s sense of selfhood. Intersectionality, the notion that we all are inflected with multiple identity categories (not just sex, gender, sexual orientation, and race, but many other social categorizations), has become relatively commonplace as a notion since Kimberlé Crenshaw first used the term in the 1980s. SF has been identified, if somewhat incorrectly, as a male-identified genre (the “boys and their toys”) but also as a White, largely cisgender and generally heterosexual one. Increasingly, however, people of colour are writing SF, not only in the West, but around the world and recognizing, as they do 121

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so, the many intersectional factors that go into their possibilities for being in the world. This delightful diversification and expansion of the genre has not gone either unremarked or uncontested. Two series of events in the SF world have highlighted just how fraught the issue of race is, alongside questions of gender and sexuality. The first was the series of events labelled “Racefail” in 2009/10 that seem to have begun when writer Elizabeth Bear posted some advice about writing the Other and garnered a good deal of pushback from those who wanted their SF sans diversity. This was shortly followed by the rise of the Sad and Rabid Puppies, both of whom gained notoriety by attempting to game the Hugos to garner more awards for straight White men and accused women, queers, trans people, and POC of “ruining” their genre (Jemisin 2010). As the articles in this section demonstrate, rather than ruining SF, the presence of women, queer, trans and racialized readers, writers, and producers has charged the field with exciting new visions of worlds that might come to be, could we just find ways to bring them about. This is precisely the type of utopian insurgency Larissa Lai writes about and that Campbell considers in relation to queer utopian writing in SF. In her article on Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson, Sara Wenger looks at the ways in which their works make space for Black sexual desire, particularly for Black women. There is a direct correlation here: the capacity to feel desire and to define its object is specifically linked to subjectivity. One of the most basic answers to the question “Who am I?” is to locate oneself in terms of relationships, whether those be familial, amicable, or romantic/erotic. Peyton Campbell notes that emphasizing queer relationality is one of the ways in which we can imagine queer futurity; following José Muñoz, Campbell argues that Joanna Russ, Larissa Lai, and Hiromi Goto all highlight queer relationality as a path toward some form of utopian queer futurity (in contrast to queer theorist Lee Edelman’s argument that queerness is always opposed to futurity). Also writing about Lai, but focusing on Salt Fish Girl, Agnieszka Podruczna argues that Lai’s fiction engages in a constant dialogue with . . . extant narratives of mainstream science fiction. At the same time, her writing interrogates the colonial legacies of those narratives, positioning the Othered body as the locus of anti-colonial transgression, which refuses to remain contained within the discursive frameworks of the dominant system. (183) Subjectivity is linked to corporeality through gender, through sexuality, and inevitably through the colonial legacy of contemporary notions of race. Wenger concludes that It is within these speculative fictions where Black girls and women have the space to be messy, complex, and paradoxical in their sexual desires and pleasures, even as systems of oppression, domination, and violation threaten to eradicate fantastical possibilities of ecstasy. (203) As the SF world becomes both more diverse and more global, we will continue to see works from around the world that think seriously about gender and imagine ways in which it might be different, whether because we proliferate genders beyond the binary or because alien species might have any number of genders. However we imagine the future of gender and the challenges and changes we might wish to enact, it is certain that questions of gendered subjectivity will remain central to much SF, particularly as more women, LGBTQ2S+ folk, and people of colour assert their right to imagine brave new worlds. Our selves may be as ephemeral as tears in the rain, but how we assert them matters. 122


Note 1 There are many different acronyms for the queer and trans communities; LGBT is common, but increasingly people are modifying it to recognize queer, Two Spirit, and sometimes intersex people.

Bibliography Jemisin, N. K. “Why I Think RaceFail Was the Bestest Thing Evar for SFF.”, 2010. https:// Mansfield, Nick. Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. Routledge, 2020. Sippell, Kelly Ann. Solving the Great Pronoun Problem: The Acceptability of the Singular ‘They’. 1991. Eastern Michigan University, MA thesis.


17 “ALL HAIL THE TRANS CYBORG” Autonomous as an Analogy of Trans Becoming Jacob Barry

In February of 2019, Laura Ingraham, the conservative host of The Ingraham Angle at Fox News, hosted Dr. Paul Nathanson, a men’s rights “activist” and “gender relations” professor, on her podcast, where the two pondered whether trans people are secretly cyborgs trying to destroy humanity. The hour and a half episode titled “Transhumanism and the Assault on Traditional Gender and Masculinity” consisted of Ingraham and Nathanson discussing some of the “hoaxes” contributing to “the attack on masculinity” (23:45–24:11). Of specific interest, as described by Nathanson, is the development of a feminist ideology that challenges the notion of gender, and as Ingraham states, has led to the “destruction or elimination of the traditional family” and the “outrageous surge” of trans and non-binary movements (30:21–31:02). Nathanson agreeing with Ingraham, adds: I think that the trans people have taken it one step further because by abandoning gender altogether, not simply re-writing it, they’re basically trying to use social engineering to create a new species. Which is what, in fact, the transhumanists have been doing for the past half century. Using medical and other technologies to develop a new species. So, the goal is really quite radical. . . . We’re not talking about people who want to simply do a bit of reform here and there, add a new category. They want, they must, in fact, destroy whatever is in order to replace it with what they think it should be. We’re talking about revolution, not reform. (33:01–34:48) Nathanson and Ingraham go on to debate what this new “species” would look like, suggesting on one hand that the new era of trans subjecthood would contain aspects of animality (Ingraham), and on the other hand reflect a transhumanist future wherein gender transgression becomes the combination of human and machine (Nathanson). The latter involves the use of “social engineering to create an entirely new species” whose goal it would be to send the world into a full-fledged state of dystopia via the destruction of gender norms (Nathanson 33:01–34:48). The irony in Ingraham and Nathanson’s attempt at anti-trans propaganda is that instead of setting up a dystopian future, wherein the end of gender norms equals the end of the world, the episode ends up depicting an alternative future where trans people take over the world. This is a future, which in my view, and arguably in the view of a majority of the gender benders out there, is one “badass utopia.” The episode, while rightfully identified as anti-trans propaganda, DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-20 


“All Hail the Trans Cyborg”

also sparked an outpouring of comments embracing and uplifting the demise of gender as a result of trans cyborgs. A Reddit thread titled “All Hail the Trans Cyborg” began with a meme captioned: “part human, part machine, all trans. doncha love it when transphobes accidentally make trans people sound badass?” (u/MattloKei). The post was followed by hundreds of comments, some of which included: “I mean I’m trans and I’ve got an insulin pump and a cgm so I already am a trans cyborg” (isnt-there-more); “this is a whole other level of stupid. Though if trans people are starting a machine fused human race, I’m all for it” (DankwraithFA); “wow, this blew up. Pay me some money so I can hack off my arm and get a cool robot one. And also, estrogen” (RadFemme74); and “hell ya I wanna be a trans cyborg, but they do realize they’re just ripping off science fiction, right?” (jayakiroka). Despite Ingraham and Nathanson’s selfperceived revolutionary discovery, the trans cyborg, or the cyborg more generally, is not a new phenomenon. In the 21st century the world has already been faced with and has embraced the technologically enhanced human. Thus, while the cyborg is already a reality, it is the genre of science fiction that continues to push the boundaries of the relationship between technology, gender, and the category of human. Science fiction narratives commonly use technological advancements, apocalyptic events, and space or time travel to think speculatively about present-day troubles through alternative and/or futuristic worlds. As Ursula K. Le Guin states in the opening to The Left Hand of Darkness, “science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future” (x). However, as Le Guin beautifully points out, science fiction “is not predictive; it is descriptive,” highlighting instead the all too eerie ways that science fiction reflects the past and current conditions of the real world, as well as the all too real possibilities of a not-so-distant future (Le Guin, x). Because science fiction offers the opportunity to explore social conventions, the genre serves as a viable medium through which to question the preoccupation with a colonial/modern binary sex/gender system. Although there continues to be relatively few representations of trans characters within the genre, the prevalence of gender-bending plot lines has grown exponentially since the trailblazing work of Le Guin. By pushing up against binary conceptions of sexuality and gender through the use of shifting pronouns, gender identities, expressions, and hierarchies, science fiction reveals the many ways that gender structures the world around us, including our own bodies and selves. Robots, cyborgs, and androids as present-day realities thus offer a vehicle to experiment with gender in a manner that produces a tangible, perhaps even non-fictitious, account of how gender is a way of regulating and disciplining the body. To illustrate, the current paper investigates Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous as an allegory of trans becoming by examining the gendered discourse that unfolds throughout the novel. Set in the year 2144, Autonomous explores a world where the evolution of late-stage capitalism has resulted in the dissolution of national borders into economic zones and the increased enforcement of patent and property laws. Newitz constructs a post-plague world in which human rights have been replaced by private contracts, and pharmaceutical technology, now capable of curing almost any disease, is strictly policed by a governing body known as the International Property Coalition (IPC). Meanwhile, robotic artificial intelligence (AI) has evolved dramatically, resulting in a world that is as much made up by robots, cyborgs, and androids, as it is by humans. Through the storylines of two protagonists, Jack and Paladin, one human, the other a human-enhanced robot, Newitz weaves together a not-so-distant future narrative that addresses the themes of autonomy, capitalism, technology, and gender. Although it is tempting to read Autonomous as a dystopian future, the world Newitz creates is an attempt at accurately depicting a future based on the conditions of the present. At first 125

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glance, Autonomous appears to be a cautionary tale about the violences of capitalism and, while it certainly is that, the novel in more covert ways asks what defines sex, gender, queerness, and, by extrapolation, transness. Newitz themselves identifies as non-binary and uses the pronoun “they”; their use of pronouns in the novel is both careful and deliberate. In questioning the definitions and interrelationships between these categories, Newitz engages with what Nikki Sullivan and Samantha Murray call somatechnics. Derived from the Greek words soma (i.e., body) and techne (i.e., technologies), somatechnics emphasize how “corporealities are formed and transformed” through the body’s continued engagement with technology (3). According to Sullivan and Murray, somatechnics offer “possibilities for disruptions, counter-actualizations, destabilizations and for the creation of new selves, affinities, kinship relations, and culture” (XXI). Newitz engages the discourse of somatechnics in two distinct ways. First by exploring gender through the genderless (yet gender inscribed) part robot, part human that is Paladin; and second, in their ability to situate science fiction (i.e., a genre that is simultaneously concerned with technology and functions as a soft technology in and of itself) as the techne through which to explicate the gendered soma. Here Newitz offers a mirror into the world in which we live wherein the reader is able to recognize the subject, and at the same time be unfamiliar with what the author is reflecting back at them (Suvin 6). Autonomous questions both what it means to be human, and what role gender and technology play in answering such a question. Through Paladin’s experience of gender as an alien concept, Newitz leaves traces of what I  read as trans becoming. Most simply defined, trans becoming is the ever-changing, multidirectional, and deeply entangled process that involves the physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological movements required in coming to be something “other” than one’s starting point. In the sections to come I carefully read the character of Paladin to explicate how gender simultaneously belongs to and is something that is done to the body, in particular the trans or transing body.

Trans Cyborgs Take Over the World In Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto the cyborg is described on one hand as a creature of fiction, tasked with blurring the rigid boundaries of the self and the other, yet, on the other hand, as “a creature of social reality,” representing humanity’s enfleshment with technology (149). However, as Haraway emphasizes, one should not get caught up within the dichotomy of fiction versus non-fiction; even the fictional cyborg is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from becoming social reality (154). The cyborg, fictional or not, thus is said to represent “transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities” (154). Cyborgs reflect back to humanity the social-cultural dichotomies, such as “self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong” (177) that structure the world, as well as subjects themselves. Haraway asserts that the cyborg, in particular the feminist cyborg, challenges the essentialist view of gender identity by situating bodies as being enmeshed within the sociotemporal moments which they pass through or exist within. However, the cyborg, as well as its robot kin, does not entirely escape the rigidity of gendered categories. Despite often being made in the likeness of humans, the cyborgs and robots commonly depicted in science fiction writing tend to lack actual physical genitals. While playing “no role in their initial gender assignment,” a lack of genitalia does not necessarily correlate with a lack of gender ascription (Robertson 5). The character Paladin is first presented to readers as a newly activated robot who is indentured to the IPC for a minimum of ten years of military service. Paladin has a hard black exterior shell and genitals equivalent to that of a metal Ken doll, making him seem more machine-like than humanoid (Newitz 227). The combination of Paladin’s outward appearance and combat programming causes them, and 126

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robots like them, to receive a sex/gender assignment of male/masculine. Throughout the first half of the novel, Paladin is referred to using male pronouns,1 as that is how he is gendered by his IPC partner and human handler, Eliasz. Although Paladin is initially understood to be a robot devoid of human-like qualities or organs, as the novel unfolds it is revealed that Paladin’s body incorporates a brain that previously belonged to a human woman—which by definition makes Paladin a cyborg. The brain has limited functionality and is not part of Paladin’s intellect or processing capacity—Newitz defines the brain’s raison d’être as its ability to recognize human faces. Paladin is initially irked with Eliasz’s obsession with this brain, noting that, contrary to Eliasz’s assumption that the brain is the seat of Paladin’s psyche, or perhaps soul, it processes neither his ethics nor his emotions (33). Newitz’s conceptualization of Paladin as a bot enhanced by human flesh (i.e., a human brain, albeit without many of that brain’s potential functions), rather than a human enhanced by technology, provides a foundation through which they are able to displace and trouble the current-day preoccupation with rigid gender categories. By analyzing and breaking apart gender through the medium of a genderless robot repeatedly encountering the human obsession with gender, Newitz not only provides a queering of the cyborg, but actively troubles gender in the way that Haraway first envisioned in her discussion of the cyborg. Although Paladin has no internal conception of their gender, the humans within the novel, in particular Eliasz, repeatedly project a perceived gender identity onto Paladin. Prior to the discovery of Paladin’s female brain, Eliasz first perceives Paladin to be male. As Paladin and Eliasz develop feelings for each other, this conceptualization becomes problematic for Eliasz who not only identifies as heterosexual, but whose past has made him homophobic. In an attempt to understand both their and Eliasz’s desires, Paladin questions Eliasz about the need for military robots to “learn about human sexuality” (Newitz 140). Taken aback by Paladin’s question, the blood rushes into Eliasz’s face as he replies, “I don’t know anything about that,” referring to same-sex desire in derogatory terms (Newitz 141). Confused by Eliasz’s response, Paladin allocates 80% of their processing power for combat and the remaining 20% for running searches on sexual terms. As Paladin learns more about human sexuality they begin to “perceive that gender [is] a way of seeing the world,” and “a form of social recognition” (227). When it becomes clear to Paladin that Eliasz’s desire for them is complicated by his perception of them as masculine/male, Paladin reveals to Eliasz that their human network is a brain donated from a dead female soldier. Although Newitz tells us more than once throughout the novel that robots do not have a sense of gender, Paladin adopts “she/her” pronouns at Eliasz’s request in order to alleviate his reservations about accepting his desire for them. There is a ringing discomfort to Newitz’s engagement with pronouns throughout the novel, as it bears a stark similarity to the experiences of many trans and non-binary readers. The experience of accepting pronouns that do not necessarily sit comfortably with one’s perception of their gender identity in an effort to alleviate the discomfort or ignorance of others is paralleled in the becoming of many trans and gender-diverse people. Like many trans identified individuals, Paladin becomes an enmeshment of symbols, flesh, and technology that simultaneously break apart an essentialist imaginary of gender identity, whilst never being entirely free of the rigidity of an essentializing gaze. However, because Paladin is indentured to the IPC, their willingness to allow Eliasz to perceive them as a woman is further complicated by the fact that Paladin has loyalty and attachment programs running in the background at all times. Reflecting on a private server chat with another robot, Paladin thinks to themselves: “Bug would no doubt say that there are no choices in slavery, nor true love in a mind running apps like gdoggie and masterluv. But they were all that Paladin had” (236). As Newitz addresses in their earlier academic work, “cyborgs 127

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are programmed to work, and there is nothing they can do to override that programming” (Pretend We’re Dead 124), thereby drawing a parallel to the gender programming that takes place when people are expected to take part in specific gender performances (Butler, 41). Like robots and cyborgs, trans subjectivities are aggregate assemblages of parts, technology, and the socio-cultural relations in which they are embedded. Although Paladin is not trans, as explicitly stated at the end of the novel, the journey which Paladin embarks on resembles many of the questions and queries that trans folks are faced with in their own explorations of gender. Take for instance later in the novel when Eliasz, in an effort to justify his initial attraction to Paladin before knowing the origins of their brain tells Paladin that he “must have somehow sensed that [she was] a woman” (284). Through this interaction Newitz evokes the discourse of the wrong body model of trans subjectivity formation wherein the sexed body is perceived as wrong in relation to an inner, real, and authentic gender identity (Psihopaidas 413). While Paladin does not have a sexed body, they do have an exterior shell that was initially gendered by Eliasz as masculine/male. However, unlike the trans person who is supposedly discovering their “true self,” Paladin is having a gendered “true self ” narrative imposed upon them by Eliasz, predominantly due to Eliasz’s internalized homophobia. Eliasz believes Paladin’s “true self ” “which was utterly confused in his mind with her gender” (299) was located in their brain and was lost with the brain’s destruction. Eliasz’s imposition of his (mis)understanding onto Paladin’s sense of selfhood reflects trans becoming insofar as it draws a parallel to the experience of having a sex/gender imposed upon one’s body in order to become intelligible to the dominant culture. Paladin was “given . . . a gender before [they] even had a name” and comes to experience it as externally imposed upon them rather than in their own internal conceptualization (227). Of course, this is further complicated by the programs running in Paladin’s software that require them to please Eliasz, but which Paladin is finally able to disable when they acquire an autonomy key. Drawing a parallel to the experience of trans individuals, the gender inscribed onto a body does not always neatly map onto each unique individual’s conceptualization of their own gender identity and expression. Unlike Paladin, trans individuals are not necessarily programmed with specific software that make them incapable of denying the external imposition of gender identity on to their bodies, but neither do they have even surreptitious access to autonomy keys which allow them to take over control of their own programming. Trans individuals are still subject to the social and cognitive programming that takes place as a result of a world deeply divided by gender hierarchies and stereotypes. There is a unique balance between the discourse that biopolitically produces trans subjectivities and those that “enable trans people to realize themselves as trans in the first place” (Puar 35). Because gender is tightly woven into the social fabric of our everyday world, it is constantly coding and deploying bodies in ways that materially affect them (Stryker  & Aizura). When Paladin chooses to emigrate to Mars with Eliasz, the cyborg is forced to negotiate the complex relationship between Paladin’s own desire for Eliasz, however that desire may be understood in an inherently ungendered and genital-less being, and Eliasz’s imposition of gender onto their genderless corporeality. Trans people are similarly often required to uphold cis-normative expectations of gender identity and expression for reasons that may be equally as complex in balancing gender identify (so far as one has one), the desire for corporeal and emotional autonomy, the intensity of intimate relationships, and social and familial expectations. By addressing the body’s connection to technology, Newitz asks important questions about what it means to be human, and what role gender and autonomy play in this equation.


“All Hail the Trans Cyborg”

Conclusion Autonomous constructs a future world that does not in many ways feel all that different from our present-day realities. In an interview conducted with the Literary Hub (2019), Newitz describes Autonomous as a novel of hope, but not the type of hope bound up in false claims of a utopian future. Instead, Newitz pragmatically considers what hope would look like if it took seriously the messiness of the current world, stating that the future is neither “entirely good or entirely bad” (Crum 2019). Newitz’s attempt to accurately represent a neither utopian nor dystopian future where “individuals will live and love and struggle” (Crum) provides readers with a glimpse into a possible future while simultaneously using science fiction as the techne through which to explore things that are not yet possible in the here and now. Autonomous explores a highly intelligent, technologicalized world wherein latestage capitalism amounts to a single governing body controlling lifesaving resources, bots, and humans. As an analogy of trans becoming, Autonomous questions both what it means to be human, and what role gender and technology play in answering such a question. Through the character of Paladin, Autonomous presents what may resemble a trans cyborg. Following a longstanding tradition within science fiction, Newitz uses what Darko Suvin (1979) calls cognitive estrangement, reflecting back at us a subject that is simultaneously recognizable and unfamiliar. Newitz encourages their audience to consider the ways in which oppressive power relations, such as capitalism and rigid gender categories, shape our relationship to the world around us. Science fiction offers a methodological tool, one that Donna Haraway would call cyborg writing, allowing us even for a short while to imagine alternative possibilities for existing in this world. The trans cyborg as both a creature of fiction and a very real social reality provides an escape from what Petra L. Doan (2010) calls “the tyranny of gender” (635)—the pervasiveness of gender categories that makes life difficult, if not at times impossible—offering one avenue for a more hopeful world. For trans and gender-diverse individuals, science fiction, whether it be as readers, watchers, or producers, is a way to cultivate alternative livable worlds—perhaps even ones in which our diverse relationships to gender are not only affirmed but celebrated. To conclude and echo Jay Connor’s sentiment in his review of The Laura Ingraham Show podcast, “my only request is that when the trans community inevitably creates their invincible legion of transgender cyborgs, that they show no mercy on the conservatives who spoiled their imminent reign” (1). All hail the trans cyborg.

Note 1 Throughout the novel Paladin has both “he/him” and “she/her” pronouns projected onto them by Eliasz. While the convention in analyzing SF writing is usually to follow the pronoun usage of the novel itself, which in this case reflects Eliasz’s gendering of Paladin, I have instead opted to use gender neutral pronouns (they/them) for Paladin. I do this to reflect Paladin’s absence of an internal concept of gender and how gender has been projected onto them.

Bibliography Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1999. doi: 10.4324/ 9780203902752 Connor, Jay. “Laura Ingraham Guest Believes Trans People Will ‘Destroy’ Gender Norms to Create ‘New Species’ That’s ‘Part Machine’.” The Root, 28 March 2019.


Jacob Barry Crum, Maddie. “Annalee Newitz Is Imagining the Future of Work.” Literary Hub, 9 April 2019, https:// DankwraithFA. “R/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns—all hail the trans cyborgs!”  Reddit. 2020. traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns/comments/j3sshr/all_hail_the_trans_cyborgs/ Doan, Petra L. “The Tyranny of Gendered Spaces—Reflections from Beyond the Gender Dichotomy.” Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, vol. 17, no. 5, 2010, pp. 635– 654, doi: 10.1080/0966369X.2010.503121. Haraway, Donna. “A  Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century.”  The International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments, pp.  117–158, doi: 10.1007/978-1-4020-3803-7_4. Ingraham, Laura and Paul Nathanson. “Transhumanism and the Assault on Traditional Gender and Masculinity.” The Laura Ingraham Show, vol. 43, 2019, transhumanism-and-the-assault-on-traditional/id914065708?i=1000433620193 isnt-there-more. “R/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns—all hail the trans cyborgs!” Reddit. 2020. traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns/comments/j3sshr/all_hail_the_trans_cyborgs/ jayakiroka. “R/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns—all hail the trans cyborgs!”  Reddit. 2020. traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns/comments/j3sshr/all_hail_the_trans_cyborgs/ Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace, 1969. Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous. Tor, 2018. Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. Duke University Press, 2006. Puar, Jasbir K.  The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Duke University Press, 2017, doi: 10.1515/9780822372530. Psihopaidas, Demetrios. “Intimate Standards: Medical Knowledge and Self-Making in Digital Transgender Groups.” Sexualities, vol. 20, no. 4, 2017, pp. 412–427, doi: 10.1177/1363460716651415. RadFemme74. “R/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns—all hail the trans cyborgs!”  Reddit. 2020. traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns/comments/j3sshr/all_hail_the_trans_cyborgs/ Robertson, Jennifer. “Gendering Humanoid Robots: Robo-Sexism in Japan.” Body & Society, vol. 16, no. 2, 2010, pp. 1–36, doi: 10.1177/1357034X10364767. Stryker, Susan., and Aren Z. Aizura, editors. The Transgender Studies Reader 2. First Ed. Routledge, 2013. Sullivan, Nikki, and Samantha Murray. Somatechnics: Queering the Technologisation of Bodies. Ashgate, 2009. Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale University Press, 1979. u/MattloKei. “R/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns—all hail the trans cyborgs!”  Reddit. 2020, traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns/comments/j3sshr/all_hail_the_trans_cyborgs/



Introduction In 1984, Samuel R. Delany asserted that “Science fiction is not about the future” but rather that “it uses the future as a narrative convention to present significant distortions of the present” (26). He was arguing not only that science fiction should be taken seriously as a literary category, but also that science fiction is distinct from other literary forms in how it grapples with the tension between the given present and imagined futures. Instead of providing a definitive vision of the future, science fiction offers us “images of tomorrow” that may or may not come to be, but without which one is trapped by blind history, economics, and politics beyond our control. . . . Only by having clear and vital images of the many alternatives, good and bad, of where one can go, will we have any control over the way we may actually get there. (14) When taken not as destiny but possibility, science fiction’s imagined tomorrows can offer ways of orienting ourselves within the present towards better ways of living. Queer and feminist science fiction may offer hope of alternative futures for those of us who find no solace in a tomorrow that replicates the oppressive structures of the present, something necessary for the creation of better worlds both in the immediate now and the future. For José Esteban Muñoz, utopian idealism within the present is necessary in imagining better worlds within the future, but this look forward must be a “backwards glance that enacts a future vision” (4). Utopian idealism that is disconnected from historical and contemporary struggle is an abstract utopia, a “banal optimism” that fails in its attempt to enact real change (3). Rather, Muñoz, drawing on the work of Ernst Bloch, argues that within utopian imagining we must look towards “concrete utopias” for how they are “relational to historically situated struggles, a collectivity that is actualized or potential” (3). It is the connection to real and historical struggle that provides concrete utopias their capacity for change, and it is within the hope of enacting better worlds that Muñoz centers his work. Muñoz’s conception of utopian futurity as one of queer relationality must be situated in conversation with the work of Lee Edelman. Edelman challenges the often-unquestioned way time is understood within a framework of linear progress, what he sardonically recognizes as “futurism’s unquestioned good” (7). He points to the way that futurity is constructed around DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-21 


Peyton Campbell

reproductivity and represented through the image of the symbolic child, an understanding of futurity which places queerness not only outside of the future, but as inherently antithetical to it. To be queer is to stand in the way of futurity and the utopian endpoint that adhering to reproductive futurism, and its reliance on frameworks of heteronormativity and neoliberalism, will supposedly bring. Rather than looking towards queerness as a potential site of future oriented thought, however, Edelman considers queerness outside futurity entirely, leaving no potential for queer futures or utopian imaginaries. In contrast, Muñoz’s work centers contemporary and historical struggle and asks us to consider ways that queer relationality provides a space for envisioning potential futures that move beyond the confines of reproductive futurity. The turn to history is important in understanding how the present is, for many oppressed groups, experienced as a temporal period of injustice and oppression. Indigenous climate justice scholar Kyle Powys Whyte argues that the “Anishinaabek already inhabit what our ancestors would have understood as a dystopian future” (207). Climate destabilization is one example of the historical and ongoing violence of industrial settler colonialism, which some Anishinaabe attempt to challenge through Indigenous-led environmental restoration and conservation projects. These projects are “not based on dread of certain futures,” but recognize these dreadful futures as already here while working to conserve and restore species that are important within Indigenous culture and local ecosystems (213). Integral to this understanding is that hope for the future, and the ability to form concrete utopias and strive towards better worlds, is found not in an abstract ideal of the future, but in our relations to each other, to non-human entities within our networks of care, and to the land itself. Muñoz writes that “queer relationality promises a future” (6). It is through connection with others that we find hope and the promise of a future that is, if not a utopia, a better and more equitable world than the one currently experienced. Similarly to Muñoz, Larissa Lai calls for understanding utopia not as an endpoint to be reached, but as a series of temporal enclaves that run next to and within our present. Lai builds on Tom Moylan’s understanding of the critical utopia that emerged in the late 60s and 70s, which Moylan saw as a shift within utopian writing that sought to maintain the utopian dream while grappling with the limitations, challenges, and imperfections of utopia in practice (1986 10). For Lai, the critical utopia, while valuable, requires updating to better contend with our “collective social and planetary co-existence and in how we respond to the uneven histories of exploitation, colonialism and imperialism that have brought us to the present moment” (“Insurgent Utopias” 98). Lai’s insurgent utopia draws on what John Rajchman understands as the “knock at the door” or the potential points of utopian possibility. These points are not temporal ends, but instead a “doubleedged sword” that is not assuredly utopian but instead is “open to co-optation, destruction, bastardization, incorporation, death, or defusal, and yet, when it bursts through, it offers the powerful possibility of critique—narratively or discursively, in its very materiality” (94). The knock at the door is not guaranteed to be utopian but offers the potential of change that can lead us closer to utopian futurities. Lai writes that “what matters is the work of thought and imagination—the work of ‘overleaping’ rather than arrival. The utopian enclave belongs to a temporality that is always beside us—a self-contained eddy indeed, always moving in multiple directions” (97). For Lai, speculative fiction is critical in preparing us to recognize the utopian moment when it comes knocking, what she calls the “aesthetic sensibility and attentiveness to history to recognize the utopian gift when with [sic] appears” (95). Taken alongside Muñoz, Lai’s work makes visible how queer and feminist science fiction, by depicting the utopian potential nestled within imagined worlds, offers alternative futures to the dominant narrative of heteronormativity, settler colonialism, and apocalyptic capitalism. Novels act as temporal enclaves, envisioning queer futures that, while not always utopian, nonetheless contain seeds for imagining, and bringing into being, more equitable futures within the present. 132

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The Tiger Flu’s Utopian Insurgency Often the ways in which queer science fiction is able to couch utopian modes of thinking is within dystopian worlds that emphasize and satirize the problems of our temporal present. Lai’s novel The Tiger Flu could easily be read as dystopian in its depiction of two young women who must navigate a West Coast North America ravaged by, among other things, massive environmental change, societal breakdown, widespread poverty and food insecurity, and an ongoing global pandemic that infects and kills men far more often than it does women. In an interview with Jiaqi Kang, Lai explains that her novel, despite its seemingly dystopian approach to its subject matter, was written to be a novel of hope. She says, I really was trying to offer a possibility for the world in spite of all the horrible things, in spite of the patriarchy, in spite of environmental destruction, in spite of rabid capitalism, in spite of all those things. I can’t imagine those horrors away, but I can imagine their transformation into something else, maybe better, but definitely different. (“Conversation”) In writing a novel that is at once a reflection of our dystopian present and a work of hope, Lai embodies within her writing the idea of insurgent utopia. Within The Tiger Flu Lai offers a vision of utopian futures that exist within and alongside our temporal present, and in doing so urges us to imagine and work to create new and better futures within the here and now. As the characters of Lai’s novel navigate the world around them, kinship functions as an integral part of their ability to image and enact utopian futures. Kirilow is one of the Grist sisters, a commune of women who reproduce through parthenogenetic cloning, birthing litters of daughter-doubles. Only a small number of women in the village are capable of doing so, just as only a few of the Grist women are starfish, able to regrow their organs, which are harvested and transplanted into other Grist women to extend their lives. Here, Lai explores the complex ways care and harm are intertwined within our networks of relationality, as Kirilow is forced to extract organs from her beloved Peristrophe Halliana to extend the life of the Grist Village’s last doubler. Despite her efforts, Peristrophe dies, and Kirilow must travel to the hub of an ongoing pandemic to find a new starfish and ensure the village’s survival. Kora, who lives in the dilapidated metropolis of Saltwater city with her mother, uncle, and brother, navigates the constant threat of disease and starvation amidst technological marvels and vast wealth disparity. After her mother kills her beloved pet goat Delphine in order to feed them, Kora is sent to live at the Cordova School for Dancing Girls, one of the last refuges of survival for young women. Throughout the novel, both characters are forced to engage in acts of care and brutality, laying bare the conflicting nature of our interdependent world in which our relations act as sites of both potential healing and harm. It is within this dystopian world that Lai presents the utopian enclave of queer relationality. Kai Cheng writes that “against the backdrop of atrocity and despair, she illuminates the conditions which make human healing and growth not only possible, but necessary no matter the ultimate outcome” (“Surviving Utopia”). Kora and Kirilow, trapped within a world that is (often literally) falling apart around them, in which they are forced to witness and experience horrific acts of violence, still endeavor to carve out a future for themselves and the Grist sisterhood. For both characters the future they create is very different from the utopian imaginary, marked by both loss and failure, yet nonetheless utopian in its form. As Muñoz writes, The history of actually realized utopian enclaves is, from a dominant perspective, a history of failures. Hope and disappointment operate within a dialectical tension in 133

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this notion of queer utopia. Queerness’s failure is temporal and, from this project’s perspective, potentially utopian, and inasmuch as it does not adhere to straight time, interrupting its protocols, it can be an avant-garde practice that interrupts the here and now. (155) Hope is often disappointing in its inability to make real imagined realities, but it nonetheless attunes us towards cultivating better ways of living together within the world. The future Kora and Kirilow create for the Grist Village is marked, like the queer present, by futures that will never come to pass. Yet, it is within this tension between idealization and reality that we may find the hope necessary in creating more livable futures. Even within dystopian worlds, the utopian potential of queer relationality remains. The final pages of The Tiger Flu depict Kora and Kirilow 150  years in the future living within a thriving Grist Village. Kora has become the Kora tree, bearing organs as if they were fruit and removing the need for organ harvesting amongst the Grist sisters. Here, Lai illustrates through the Kora Tree how our relations to one another form the basis of any potential utopian future. The Grist Village relies on the Kora tree for organs, reflecting the interconnections of our relationships in how we care for one another. As Kora provides organs for the Grist sisters, extending their lives and eliminating the need for dangerous organ harvesting, so too does the Grist Village care for her, evidenced by the children of the village who gather around the Kora tree to hear her stories of the past. Through their shared interdependency, the Grist sisters survive. Marina Klimenko recognizes the Kora tree as a representation of queer relationality, reflecting a move away from the nuclear family model and towards queer modes of connectivity. She writes, By showing the Kora tree teaching young Grist sisters their history and encouraging them to remember, Lai suggests a model of family and reproduction that moves beyond this neoliberal logic and inspires environmental care through memory, connection to more-than-human beings, and plural lower-case-h histories rather than a singular neoliberal ideology. (178) The Kora Tree embodies utopia as found within our relations, both human and non-human, and in doing so presents a vision of utopian potential, an enclave of utopian futurity that centers on queer relationality.

Russ’s Queer Relationality Within science fiction, utopia and dystopia are often not binary opposites, but may function within, between, and beside each other. Joanna Russ’s The Female Man quite literally embodies Lai’s concept of the utopian enclave as the novel explores worlds that are separated physically, but exist alongside each other within the same linear space. These worlds differ greatly, from the lesbian separatist utopia of Whileaway where all men have died out from a disease long ago, to the middle worlds of what is seemingly our own world and one very similar but stuck within the 1940s, and a world that is undeniably dystopian in which men and women are at war and violence is commonplace. In these different realities of the same world, we see Lai’s understanding of utopia as a temporal enclave next to our own made literal. The different worlds, and different characters (who are also the same woman across realities, linked to each other and the author by names beginning with “J”), function as temporal enclaves within each other, acting as potential points of eruption. As the women meet and visit each other’s worlds, 134

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they are often disturbed, but the convergence also compels them to change, to imagine new possibilities and futures beyond their present. At the ending of the novel, Russ writes, Remember: we will all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be free. I swear it on my own head. I swear it on my ten fingers. We will be ourselves. Until then I am silent; I can no more. I am God’s typewriter and the ribbon is typed out. (213) Russ speaks not only of the characters within the book, but to the queer readers who find within the pages a vision of queer futurity. As Lee Mandelo argues, The Female Man and its predecessor, Russ’s short story “When It Changed,” both published in the 1970s, were highly controversial, particularly for straight white men who felt attacked by the novel and could not relate to its depiction of lesbian eroticism. Mandelo writes that Russ’s works are queer stories—they are lesbian stories, and also stories of “women’s sexuality” across a spectrum. They are stories about women loving, touching, needing, lusting for and getting physical with other women. They are stories about women together, erotically and emotionally. (“Queering SFF”) Despite its critics, The Female Man offered many a temporal enclave of queer love and eroticism, one that unapologetically challenges men’s sexual dominance and compulsory heterosexuality. For some, this is undoubtably a confrontation, a challenge to masculine power. For others, and certainly for those Russ was addressing when she wrote the novel, it is a vision of potential queer futures of lesbian desire made real within the present. Russ’s novel is a work of queer hope precisely because it centers itself within queer relationality. The protagonists, as temporal enclaves within one another, provide for each other new, potential futurities. Jeanne Cortiel reads “When It Changed” and The Female Man as a move away from Russ’s previous work that focused on the individual exceptional woman, to an explicitly feminist understanding that examined the role of women as a social class enacting change through their relations. Cortiel writes that in transcending the anger and hatred directed against their antagonistic class, women characters in Russ’s fiction also create emotional and erotic ties to women and by ignoring men gain access to a narrative which promises them ownership over their own bodies and control over their sexuality. (91) It is through an understanding of queerness, and its promise of futurity centered on and within relationality, that The Female Man becomes a work of queer utopia. In offering the imagined world of Whileaway, Russ offers a vision of lesbian utopia that is at once fictional and a temporal enclave within our own world. As a fictional narrative, or as a temporal enclave, this world acts as a site of hope for future relationality, of queer love and connection in a world that is often hostile to it.

Goto’s Fluid Futurity As temporal enclaves within The Female Man are explored as literal other worlds that one can travel to, Hiromi Goto’s The Kappa Child explores temporal enclaves as inner worlds inside us that incubate utopian potential. Within the novel, the unnamed main character, a 135

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Japanese-Canadian woman, becomes pregnant with a kappa after an erotic encounter with a “mysterious stranger” on an airport tarmac during the “last visible lunar eclipse of the twentieth century” (81). Although the pregnancy is undetectable by doctors and friends, the protagonist knows she is pregnant with a kappa, a green, humanoid creature from Japanese folklore that inhabits freshwater. This pregnancy sets in motion a journey of personal exploration and growth as the protagonist confronts the trauma and pain of her past which continues to negatively impact her within the present, particularly in her relationships (romantic, platonic, and familial) to women. It is interesting that the pregnancy, and the events it sets into motion, are started by an encounter of queer eroticism. Muñoz writes that queer futurity “is all about desire, desire for both larger semiabstractions such as a better world or freedom but also, more immediately, better relations within the social that include better sex and more pleasure” (30). The desire for queer relationality that propels a utopian vision is both individual and collective, encompassing the various ways we long for and seek out connection with others. Throughout the novel, the protagonist struggles with her own self-hatred and sense of alienation, often describing herself as a “short ugly Asian,” and regularly wrestles with her loneliness and fear of intimacy (84). Engaging in an act of queer sex, and allowing herself to indulge in her desires, is what propels the protagonist towards mending old connections and forming new ones, and in doing so, establishing a sense of self-love that allows her to change her life in ways that are more fulfilling and joyous. Queer relationality, we see, is a site of revolution in the face of past harm that makes it possible to create better futures. Throughout The Kappa Child, the audience is given glimpses of the kappa as it lives within the protagonist in a world of water, a temporal space both literally inside her and also existing physically and temporally separate. The kappa, hidden within the protagonist but felt by her, embodies the temporal enclave of utopian potential. As a creature of water, the kappa reflects the protagonist’s unfulfilled desire for queer relationships. As the novel makes clear, it is through her relationships with other women that the protagonist finds sustenance and renewal. Like water, relationality is necessary not only for survival, but for quenching the thirst for intimacy caused by loneliness and alienation. As Muñoz argues that “queerness is primarily about futurity and hope,” The Kappa Child offers that futurity as one which is always relational, always built on and within our connections to each other (11). The Kappa pregnancy leads the protagonist to seek connection with other women, reconciling with both her estranged sisters and her friends, Midori and Genevieve. The protagonist also finds herself moving closer towards a budding romance with single mom Bernie, reflecting the ways in which utopian potentiality is often located within seemingly mundane social contact. For Nancy Kang, the final words of the novel, “and the water breaks free with the rain,” symbolize how the Kappa, as a being of water, offers hope for the protagonist and rebirth through her connection with other women (Goto 275). Kang writes, Water breaking free—whether in the form of undammed rivers or drought-quenching showers—duly refers to the rupture of the amniotic sac during childbirth. It may also foreshadow older children breaking free into less encumbered spaces. Surrounded by rain, a direct contrast to the dryness of the prairies that inhibited the growth of successful rice crops, the ultimate stance of these women argues that rebirth is not only possible, it is already in process. (“Ecstasies” 7) As the Kappa pregnancy exists as an enclave of temporal and physical space within the body of the protagonist, the Kappa pregnancy functions to move her forward in her life by offering a vision of utopian hope centered within her connection to others. 136

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Conclusion Lai’s insurgent utopia allows for imagining utopian futures even within a dystopic present. Reading queer and feminist science fiction can hone our ability to recognize the potential points of utopian futurity found within the here and now, points that help nurture seeds of queer futures nestled within our present. When we look to our relations, when we seek out others, we are engaged in an act of hope for what may come. Both fear and hope for the future are anticipatory, but fear as an affect anticipates loss. Hope asks us to imagine what can be gained, what can be maintained, what can be restored, made new, made whole. Queer and feminist science fiction attunes us, as Lai argues, to recognize the insurgent utopia when it appears knocking, to open the door even when we fear what is on the other side. To open the door is a relational gesture (I open the door to let you in) orientated towards futurity, towards the future in which I let you in, in which we are together because I opened the door. Just as the Anishinaabek center relationality in ways that challenge settler-colonial conceptions of dystopia and futurity, queer relationality allows a re-orienting of queerness toward utopia. Queer and feminist science fiction novels may act as temporal enclaves, providing space for us to imagine better worlds beyond the limitations of the present. In reading queer science fiction, I maintain a cautious hope towards future worlds while remaining anchored to the present. To find hope where there is none is to create hope where otherwise none would be.

Bibliography Cheng, Kai. “Surviving Utopia: Finding Hope in Larissa Lai’s Piercing Novel The Tiger Flu.” Autostraddle, 6 December 2018. Cortiel, Jeanne. Demand my Writing: Joanna Russ, Feminism, Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press, 1999. Delany, Samuel R.  Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Rev. ed. Wesleyan University Press, 2012. Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2004. Goto, Hiromi. The Kappa Child. Red Deer Press, 2002. Kang, Jiaqi. “Conversation: Larissa Lai.” Medium, 2 September 2019. Kang, Nancy. “Ecstasies of the (Un)loved: The Lesbian Utopianism of Hiromi Goto’s The Kappa Child.” Canadian Literature, vol. 205, no. 205, 2010, pp. 13–31. Klimenko, M. “Beyond ‘The Last Doubler’: Reproductive Futurism and the Politics of Care in Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu.”  Studies in Canadian Literature, vol. 45, no. 2, July  2021, pp.  161–180, doi:10.7202/1080278ar. Lai, Larissa. “Insurgent Utopias: How to Recognize the Knock at the Door.”  Exploring the Fantastic: Genre, Ideology, and Popular Culture, edited by Ina Batzke et al. Transcript Verlag, 2018, pp. 91–114, doi:10.1515/9783839440278-005. Lai, Larissa. The Tiger Flu. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018. Mandelo, Lee. “Queering SFF: The Female Man by Joanna Russ.” Tor, 15 March  2011. www.tor. com/2011/03/15/queering-sff-the-female-man-by-joanna-russ-bonus-story-qwhen-it-changedq/ Moylan, Tom. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, edited by Raffaella Baccolini and Peter Lang. Ralahine Classics, 2014, doi:10.3726/978-3-0353-0610-1. Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 10th Anniversary Edition. New York University Press, 2019, doi:10.18574/9781479868780. Rajchman, John. “Diagram and Diagnosis.” Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory, and Futures, edited by Elizabeth Grosz. Cornell University Press, 1999, pp. 42–54. Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. Beacon Press, 1986. Whyte, Kyle Powys. “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene.” The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, edited by Ursula Heise, Jon Christensen and Michelle Niemann. Routledge, 2017, pp. 222–231, doi:10.4324/9781315766355-32.


19 LIKE “A BOLT OUT OF THE BLUE” Stories of Gender Transformation From the German Democratic Republic1 Carol Anne Costabile-Heming The German Democratic Republic (GDR) existed as an independent, socialist state from 1949 until 1990.2 Like the Soviet Union, it tightly controlled communication, particularly in the literary sphere. The reading public viewed literary texts as quasi “unofficial” information that was generally free of the political propaganda and bias present in party-sanctioned publications. As a result, party officials viewed literary texts skeptically, even as dangerous sources, and therefore subjected fictional texts to a rigorous system of review. Science fiction was popular with East German readers, though GDR SF garnered limited attention outside the country’s borders (Fritzsche, 15). In a survey, Heidtmann documents that GDR SF ranked fourth most popular, though it accounted for less than 1 percent of all titles (91). Fritzsche’s seminal study of GDR SF argues that the genre provides a unique window into “alternative socialist worlds and times” and exposes how science fiction writers “understood their surroundings and themselves” (14). This assertion provides a useful framework for analyzing eight GDR short stories that portray gender transformation. The anthology, Like a Bolt out of the Blue (Blitz aus heiterem Himmel), curated by the American feminist Edith Anderson, was published in 1975 by the East German Hinstorff publishing house.3 The stories are utopian fantasies, written by established male and female authors, which attempt to subvert traditional gender-based viewpoints by presenting protagonists who undergo a gender transformation. With roots in both Greek and Oriental mythology, gender transformation literature strives to overcome the historical, physical, and psychological gaps between the sexes. This anthology explores the extent to which patriarchal behaviors, norms, and habits were present in GDR society. The science fiction medium served as a vehicle for these authors to depict social problems in a whimsical light while simultaneously distorting or disturbing the expected development of social evolution, and also evading the watchful eyes of the censors. The idea behind the volume was simple: male authors would imagine life as if they were transformed into females, and women writers would present the male perspective. Anderson asked potential contributors to place [themselves] in the skin of the opposite sex and just for once, instead of envying, resenting, despising it—or desiring, loving, worshiping it—picture how we would feel if the positions were reversed. Might this not be a salutary game for the whole of DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-22


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society? For, as we all know, the enforcement of the constitutional guarantee of equal rights and the best intentions of conscientious citizens still leave certain problems unsolved. (“Genesis” 4) The project’s emphasis was not to portray a transgender experience, but rather to craft a futuristic, utopian reimagination of the self as emancipated from the strictures of patriarchal definitions of gender identity. The alternative socialist worlds that the authors created, however, ultimately revealed that this type of utopian reimagining of society where all individuals are viewed as equal was elusive. Male and female writers had decidedly different visions of what this reimagined, equal society would look like, which were informed by their own gender identities and experiences. In “Gender Transformation” (Geschlechtertausch), Günter de Bruyn introduces a married couple, Karl and Anna, who switch genders. Following their transformation, Anna/Adam immediately experiences a crisis: she is stricken by an unnamed male disease and admitted to a clinic. Karl/Karla, on the other hand, continues to work as if nothing has changed. Though Karl’s supervisor characterizes the circumstances of Karl’s new-found identity as an “accident” (10), Karl quickly adapts to the new normal.4 His immediate focus is on the external trappings of femininity, clothing, hair, and makeup, because he continues to view himself through “men’s eyes” (12). Initially, Karl’s transformation hints at a utopian socialist future: this gender transformation promises “the advent of a new era .  .  .  , in which along with class and racial differences, gender differences also will be eradicated” (20). Despite this auspicious beginning, Karl and his colleagues lapse into traditional gender stereotyping in their expectations and relationships with one another. The first change occurs in interactions with female colleagues, who now expect Karl to water his own plants, wash dishes, and serve coffee; these female colleagues have so internalized gender roles that they contribute to their continued enforcement. Male colleagues interact differently with Karl, showing displeasure when he is assertive, and even usurping his authority as department head. In a scene that accentuates male dominance and power, Karl’s supervisor makes sexual advances. While the relationship between the two had been tense prior to Karl’s transformation, heterosexuality now becomes a means for the supervisor to exert his will in a threatening way. Likewise, Karl succumbs to expected stereotypes, behaving in a manner that men expect of women. Despite the promised equalizing forces of socialism, there remains a two-class society divided by gender. Karl realizes that his physical transformation prompts others to perceive him differently, as less than what he was. Because he will never receive the same validation as a woman as he had as a man, he desires a return to his male form. By contrast, Anna’s doctor was able to heal Anna, who is not interested in reversing the procedure, preferring to start a new and emancipated life with nurse Karin. While the story hints at the possibility of a utopian future, one in which equality between women and men can become a reality, the promised equalization does not occur. The story’s open ending implies that it is the man Anna/Adam, who has the power to decide both Anna and Karl’s destinies. Anna/ Adam’s decision not to reverse the transformation sentences Karl/Karla to life as a woman, underscoring that life as a man is the more desirable fate (Meyer 138). De Bruyn is unable to break open traditional gender roles and clichés (Meyer 139), and the two-class gendered society continues. In Gotthold Gloger’s fantastical, fairy-tale like story, “The Beet Harvest Festival” (Das Rübenfest), the cooperative farmer Arnold and his wife, Milda, undergo a gender exchange in their sleep, which Arnold believes results from his encounter with the old woman, Blawasch. He believes she bewitched him following a chance meeting: the next day he awakens to discover 139

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that his body has been transformed into that of his wife. Arnold goes about Milda’s morning household chores without even thinking about them. Milda, by contrast, though she too has taken on Arnold’s body, does not conform to his routine; instead of appearing in underwear as Arnold typically does, Milda comes to breakfast dressed and ready for the day. Despite the exchange of physical features, both characters retain their memories and their attitudes, which affects how they approach societal problems. For instance, Milda (as Arnold) develops a plan to improve working conditions for women. Arnold perceives it as an attempt to overthrow men’s superiority and elevate women to power: the plan fosters the equal participation of women in leading the cooperative, promoting a socialist utopia whereby the end of class structures also terminates men’s dominance over women. Arnold, despite his female form, is unable to see the advantages of a society based on equality, viewing the plan as the “inevitable repression of men” (105). During the evening’s beet festival, a women’s celebration commemorating the end of the harvest where men are excluded, Blawasch divines the future from a deck of cards. She encourages the women to stand up to their husbands, arousing Arnold’s ire. A chaotic scene ensues, ending in the release of the spell. Arnold and Milda return to their original physical forms. As the story concludes, Arnold remains convinced that women are trying to take over and that all of the men around him have been converted, either physically transformed into women or at least convinced of the value of women’s equality. Despite Gloger’s attempt to promote gender equity for women, Arnold is unable to overcome his prejudices against them. His inability to accept a different, classless, genderless society underscores the frailty of socialist society and exposes how the GDR, despite its constitutional support for women’s equality, continued to replicate the gender-based class society that existed in capitalist societies. In “Meditation,” Rolf Schneider introduces a male protagonist whose multiple failed marriages have convinced him that there is a “women’s dictatorship” (174) that exploits men. He describes his fourth marriage as hostile, because this wife repeatedly tries to dissuade him of his opinion that women rule over men. After a particularly intense altercation, the protagonist awakens on the wrong side of the bed to discover that he is now a woman, a situation that he considers “appalling” (177). The transformation appears permanent, as a doctor informs him that nothing can be undertaken to reverse the metamorphosis. As the couple resumes their lives, the protagonist experiences many affronts that women know well, including enduring catcalls, leering glances, uninvited groping, and sexual domination. This new reality reveals that his earlier assumptions about women’s dominance were inaccurate; he recognizes that men are the true oppressors. Because of this new awareness, the protagonist attempts to take up the women’s cause, only to learn that many women have already tried and failed. Despondent, the protagonist attempts suicide by drinking a pharmacological cocktail. Instead of dying, the protagonist awakens the next morning transformed into a queen bee. In this new form, the protagonist combines female sexuality with the desire for domination that he had always sought by enjoying sexual flings with drones prior to killing them. In Schneider’s tale, the protagonist’s new life without conflict between genders is portrayed as possible in the natural world, but not in human society. Unlike other stories in the anthology, Karl-Heinz Jakobs’s “Quedlinburg” does not depict the gender transformation of individuals, but rather a transformation of the social and political order. A matriarchy has governed the city of Quedlinburg for twenty years, where three rules predominate: all women are equal; marriage and love have been abolished; all power proceeds from women. Men have been relegated to the role of servants, primarily satisfying the sexual needs of the women. This new society appears at first to be the closest to a utopian, socialist ideal, because marriage and love have been outlawed not only as patriarchal institutions but also as ideology (Meyer 106). The story’s protagonists, Agnes and Sibyllius, remember how society 140

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used to be, but they recall the transfer of power from men to women differently. Whereas Agnes is adamant that she led a violent coup, Sibyllius insists that the transfer of power occurred peacefully. Despite the goal of eradicating women as property, this new society is neither equal nor equitable. Rather than subverting the old order of law, the city has merely replaced one form of dominance with another: women rule over men, who are ranked according to their physical attributes and sexual prowess. As the story concludes, Agnes and Sibyllius disclose that they were able to adapt easily to the new order because they each had secretly wished to inhabit the gender of the other. Nonetheless, they also reveal that the banishment of love seems to have resulted in the elimination of both emotions and happiness. Meyer proposes that Quedlinburg’s strict adherence to dogma ultimately destroys interpersonal relationships (111). Thus, what on paper is proclaimed as progress, is in reality no closer to reaching utopian ideals than earlier societal forms. With this statement, Jakobs’s story makes the most critical contribution to the anthology. Rather than serving as a commentary on gender relations, it reads as an indictment of the GDR’s dogmatism, which merely replaced the capitalist system with the socialist one. Christa Wolf ’s “Self-Experiment: Appendix to a Report” (Selbstversuch: Traktat zu einem Protokoll) has garnered the greatest critical response.5 The protagonist, a female scientist leading the working group on gender conversion, volunteers to undergo the first gender transformation experiment, which she meticulously protocols. As the story begins, the protagonist has already returned to her female form, having interrupted the experiment before its conclusion. The story is the appendix to her official report, in which she attempts to explain to her male professor and supervisor her reasoning for abruptly ending the experiment. Eigler reads this as a way for her to take control of how the experiment ultimately is interpreted (401). Wolf ’s text reveals deep-seated biases against professional women, particularly in science. In order to earn respect as a female scientist, the protagonist had to deny her gender and become a man. Despite the experiment’s success in transforming the protagonist physically into a man, her mental socialization as a woman remained. Gansel reads Wolf ’s use of the fantastic as a means to point out deficits in the GDR’s socialist experiment (79). The protagonist decides to revert to her original female form, because she did not want to abandon completely what it means to her to be a woman, to explore her feelings, and experience love. Wolf ’s text is the most realistic, because it is the only one that ends with the realization that neither “man” nor “woman” is ideal. It concludes with a utopian wish, though it remains unclear whether this wish can be fulfilled. From this perspective, Ehlers reads it as a plea to free men as well as women from the dictates of playing specific gender roles (133). Anderson’s contribution, “Yours for Always or Never” (“Dein für immer oder nie”), explores how relationships between men and women shift over time: couples in long-standing relationships change in ways that are undesirable to their partners, leading to alienation. As a result, individuals actively seek out or serendipitously find new partners to whom they are initially drawn; the cycle ultimately repeats itself. Anderson sets up a dichotomy of love versus friendship, whereby individual characters seem to be most fulfilled by relationships with friends (of the opposite sex) rather than by their spouses. The protagonist Alyda viewed her role in her marriage as that of “servant girl” (137) and her life as a woman as “vegetating” (141). After her husband’s death, she embarks on an extended affair with the much younger Florian. Florian is dissatisfied with his home life, and feels drawn to Alyda, who experiences freedom and independence as a widow. Over the course of time, Florian’s behavior changes: he begins to act more like a stereotypical husband. Alyda retreats into her fantasies, writing stories about her youth, a time when she dreamed of becoming a man. When her story becomes reality, however, Alyda views the transformation as a “catastrophe” (131). Anderson’s story is a strong indictment of marriage and the expectations of gender roles. Despite Alyda’s transformation at 141

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the end, there is no resolution; Alyda realizes that equality can only exist when all parties, men and women, are viewed as equally emancipated. Tragically, Alyda recognizes that her constant wishing for something or someone else only leads to disappointment. Ultimately, she longs to return to her original state as a woman, but recognizes that this is merely a role that she knows how to play. As the story concludes, Alyda remains in the male form. Sarah Kirsch’s story, “Like a Bolt out of the Blue” (“Blitz aus heiterm Himmel”) gives the anthology its title. The protagonist, Katharina, lives an ordinary and mundane life with her casual partner, Albert. Her days are filled with work and household duties. Though they are lovers, she emphasizes that her relationship with Albert is a close friendship, nothing like a marriage. One night, Katharina goes to bed and awakens three days later as Max. Max, who views this new condition as curious, is not fazed by it. Indeed, he views the possibility of a reverse transformation as even “more unsavory” (198). Max’s transfiguration is not just external; he begins to perceive his surroundings differently, noting that he needs to furnish the apartment less colorfully; he also develops a passion for watching soccer. Because the close friendship with Albert existed before the transformation, Max is confident that these new circumstances will not affect their relationship. This suspicion proves true; when Albert arrives in the middle of the night, he is so tired that he does not even notice that a transformation has occurred. The next day, Albert is nonplused by Katharina/Max’s change, though he alters the way he interacts with Max. He willingly and voluntarily washes dishes, takes out the trash, and transports the coal from the street to the cellar. He and Max share the workload equally, a parity that did not exist in the relationship with Katharina. Max realizes this and thinks ironically to himself, “now that I’m also a man, I get emancipation” (204). Kirsch plays with the spelling of the German word Emanzipation, creating a portmanteau with the phonetic spelling: Ehmannzipatzjon. The word is spelled as it is pronounced in Max’s dialect, but the emphasis on the first syllable resembles the word “Eh[e]mann,” husband. Like Anderson’s story, Max does not return to the female form at the end. For Schmitz-Köster, Kirsch’s story is an indictment of societal disdain for women (77). Kirsch’s text is the most critical because it clearly outlines that a relationship based on equality is only possible between men. Irmtraud Morgner’s “Good Message from Valeska in 73 Stanzas” (Gute Botschaft der Valeska in 73 Strophen) was penned originally for inclusion in the anthology, but it was rejected. She later embedded it in her novel The Life and Adventures of Troubadour Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura (Leben und Abenteuer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfrau Laura), published in the GDR in 1974.6 In Morgner’s story, Valeska undergoes a reflective self-discovery. When she and her partner Rudolf receive word that they can receive a common apartment, Valeska bristles at the thought of losing her independence and submitting herself completely to Rudolf, whose previous partners willingly assumed the role of housewife. Disillusioned at the lack of seriousness with which the GDR treats female scientists, she muses that one would have to be a man in order to find fulfillment. This is precisely the transformation that occurs. In order to avoid revealing her “mutation” to Rudolf, Valeska flees to Moscow, where she finds solace with her friend, Shenja. There, Valeska is able to have a physical relationship with Shenja and continue her research. Nonetheless, she remains dissatisfied because she cannot forget her past as a woman. It is only after she allows Rudolf back into her life and her bed, where she is able to physically transform back into a woman for the purposes of sexual intimacy, that she finds a semblance of peace. Morgner’s story shows that the utopian ideal of gender equality remains elusive. Each of these gender transformation stories criticizes patriarchal society and the dehumanization of society through scientific and technological advancement. Though all of the protagonists experience varying degrees of alienation from the patriarchal status quo, 142

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the “transformed” characters retain their gender experience as the essence of their identity. Indeed, the stories focus primarily on gender roles and less on sexual identities. Interestingly, this corresponds to what Joanna Russ discovered in her survey of role reversals in male-authored science fiction. Russ argues that the depictions of women emphasize a desire for superiority over equality (10): the male authors all assume that women would like to treat men as men historically have treated women. The male GDR authors continue this trajectory, allowing their transfigured male protagonists to experience the same aggressive sexual and physical affronts that women have had to endure. Their transformations reveal that men are the aggressors who are unwilling to accept women as equals, and these authors are unable to imagine a world without dominance. They fail to craft a society where real gender equality can occur. The female authors, in contrast, avoid the language of dominance, introducing instead friendship, collaboration, and collegiality as the cornerstones of parity within relationships. Nonetheless, the women writers are also unable to break entirely with gender stereotypes and norms. Thus, despite the GDR’s constitutional guarantees of gender equality, gender discrimination and patriarchal attitudes remained entrenched in society and in male-female relationships. These authors had the opportunity to create alternative socialist worlds and subvert traditional gender-based viewpoints. Rather than create a truly alternative socialist utopia, however, they focused exclusively on the question of whether gender equality is possible. Instead of breaking down stereotypes, these stories, particularly those authored by men, rely heavily on tired tropes. In each case, the transformations reveal social constructs about gender that the protagonists are unable to overcome. The gender swap does not resolve GDR society’s gender inequities. The protagonists, even in their new genders, are unable to perceive a reality beyond the one based on society’s gender norms. Not only does gender equality remain elusive in this alternative utopian fantasy, but the transformations themselves shed even greater critical light on the gender-based power relations inherent in GDR society. The imagined identities underscore the rift in the GDR that existed between the theory of gender equality and the reality of women’s experiences as less than equal. The stories highlight key insights into how gender identity is socially constructed, and they criticize the fact that, despite the GDR’s goal of creating a classless society, socialism retains the hierarchical relationship between men and women, continuing the patriarchal control of the bourgeoisie rather than overthrowing it. All of the protagonists remain trapped within their original gender identities, remaining, as Meyer writes, the product of creative fantasy (15). The fact that none of these stories is able to resolve societal hierarchies can be read as an indictment of GDR society. Like Wolf ’s “Self-Experiment,” the idea behind these stories remains mere theory, an experiment to which no one returned.

Notes 1 I am grateful to Rachel J. Halverson for her comments and to the DDGC remote writing group for their collegial support. 2 Founded on October 7, 1949, the GDR’s socialist government began to crumble in fall 1989 amid citizen protests for freedoms and reforms. The GDR ceased to exist on October 3, 1990. 3 Hinstorff was known for publishing traditional regional literature and fiction books. Anderson proposed the project in 1973; it took two years for the volume to receive the necessary authorizations for publication. As a result, the volume’s essays appeared in other venues first (Gansel 83). Contributions by Stefan Heym, “The Wachsmuth Syndrome” (Das Wachsmuth-Syndrom) and Irmtraud Morgner, “Good Message from Valeska in 73 Stanzas” (Gute Botschaft der Valeska in 73 Strophen) were not published in the final anthology, though there was no official reason given (Meyer 1). Heym, who assumed the anthology would never receive publication approval in the GDR, published it in Playboy magazine in September 1972 (Anderson, “Genesis,” 6). It never appeared in the GDR. 4 All translations are my own.


Carol Anne Costabile-Heming 5 It was first published in the literary journal Sinn und Form in 1973. 6 It was also published in West Germany along with Christa Wolf ’s “Selbstversuch” and Sarah Kirsch’s “Blitz aus heiterm Himmel” in the volume Geschlechtertausch (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1980).

Bibliography Anderson, Edith, ed. Blitz aus heiterm Himmel. Hinstorff, 1975. Anderson, Edith, ed. “Dein für immer oder nie.” Blitz aus heiterm Himmel, edited by Edith Anderson (Transl. Eduard Zak). Hinstorff, 1975, pp. 129–167. Anderson, Edith, ed. “Genesis and Adventures of the Anthology Blitz aus heiterm Himmel.” Studies in GDR Culture and Society 4, edited by Margy Gerber et al. University Press of America, 1984, pp. 1–14. de Bruyn, Günter. “Geschlechtertausch.” Blitz aus heiterm Himmel, edited by Edith Anderson, Hinstorff, 1975, pp. 7–45. Ehlers, Hella. “Pantherfrau, Geschlechtertausch und Suche nach der anderen Schrift. Zu literarischen Präsentationsformen des Weiblichen am Beginn der 70er Jahre.” Geschlechterdifferenz—und kein Ende? Sozial- und geisteswissenschaftliche Beiträge zur Genderforschung, edited by Hella Ehlers et al. LIT Verlag, 2009, pp. 117–136. Eigler, Friederike. “Rereading Christa Wolf ’s ‘Selbstversuch’: Cyborgs and Feminist Critique of Scientific Discourse.” German Quarterly vol. 73, no. 4, 2000, pp. 401–415. Fritzsche, Sonja. Science Fiction Literature in East Germany. Peter Lang, 2006. Gansel, Carsten. “Mobilisierung der Phantasie oder Versuch über das Phantastische in der DDR-Prosa.” DDR-Literatur’88 im Gespräch, edited by Siegfried Rönisch, Aufbau, 1989, pp. 66–98. Gloger, Gotthold. “Das Rübenfest.” Blitz aus heiterm Himmel, edited by Edith Anderson, Hinstorff, 1975, pp. 83–128. Heidtmann, Horst. “A Survey of Science Fiction in the German Democratic Republic.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 1979, pp. 92–99. Heym, Stefan. “Das Wachsmuth-Syndrom.” Gesammelte Erzählungen, edited by Stefan Heym, Goldmann, 1984, pp. 312–331. Jakobs, Karl-Heinz. “Quedlinburg.“Blitz aus heiterm Himmel, edited by Edith Anderson, Hinstorff, 1975, pp. 209–236. Kirsch, Sarah. “Blitz aus heiterm Himmel.” Blitz aus heiterm Himmel, edited by Edith Anderson, Hinstorff, 1975, pp. 189–207. Meyer, Carla. Vertauschte Geschlechter—Verrückte Utopien. Geschlechterphantasien in der DDR-Literatur der siebziger Jahre. Centaurus-Verlagsgesellschaft, 1995. Morgner, Irmtraud. “Gute Botschaft der Valeska in 73 Strophen.” Geschlechtertausch. Drei Geschichten über die Umwandlung der Verhältnisse, edited by Sarah Kirsch, Irmtraud Morgner, and Christa Wolf, Eighth Ed. Luchterhand, 1988, pp. 25–63. Russ, Joanna. “Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies vol. 7, no. 1, 1980, pp. 2–15. Schmitz-Köster, Dorothee. Trobadora und Kassandra und .  .  . Weibliches Schreiben in der DDR. PahlRugenstein, 1989. Schneider, Rolf. “Meditation.” Blitz aus heiterm Himmel, edited by Edith Anderson, Hinstorff, 1975, pp. 169–187. Wolf, Christa. “Selbstversuch. Traktat zu einem Protokoll.” Blitz aus heiterm Himmel, edited by Edith Anderson, Hinstorff, 1975, pp. 47–82.


20 NEW PRONOUNS AND NEW USES Gender Variance and Language in Contemporary Science Fiction Misha Grifka Wander In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin “eliminated gender, to find out what was left” (“Is Gender Necessary” 160). She created a world in which the dominant species, Gethenians, have no gender, because their sex is undifferentiated except for monthly oestrus. The first-person narrator, a human man, reminds the reader frequently of the sexual differences between that world and ours. However, Le Guin, through her narrator, uses “he” to refer to Gethenians—which does not necessarily conjure an image of a sexless, genderless world, but rather one populated by men. Le Guin herself expressed regret about that pronoun choice, and critics pointed out the ways in which using “he” as a universal pronoun is counter to Le Guin’s stated aims. Recently, pronouns have become even more central to debates over gender, as the greater visibility of trans+ and nonbinary people in mainstream society has led to discussions about pronouns and their appropriate usage. In the years since The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969, writers have increasingly used science fiction to defamiliarize gender, sex, and sexuality. Deliberate pronoun use is often key to these interventions. Through close attention to pronouns, we can understand the landscape of gender variance in contemporary science fiction. This chapter explores the use of pronouns and gender variance in three contemporary science fiction series, all recent luminaries of the field. The Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie, starting with Ancillary Justice, is a direct response to The Left Hand of Darkness in multiple ways; notably, the narrator uses “she” as a gender-neutral pronoun, while recognizing a diverse array of genders beneath and beyond that one pronoun’s scope. Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, starting with Ninefox Gambit, imagines a future wherein gender stigma has vanished, but the gender variety of today is still present. Lastly, Martha Well’s Murderbot series, starting with All Systems Red, explores how pronouns can be used to express cyborg identity and push against anthropocentric assumptions about agency and naturalist assumptions about sex and gender. The Left Hand of Darkness (Left Hand) stars Genly Ai, a newcomer to planet Winter. The inhabitants of Winter, called Gethenians, are “androgynes,” who are sexually neutral except while in “kemmer”, or monthly oestrus. Accordingly, there is no idea of gender on Winter. Ai struggles with this concept, and consistently seeks evidence of a male or female gender in the Gethenians he meets. The reader is situated within Ai’s perspective, and asked to struggle against

DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-23


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the binary gender system he and the reader presumably are native to, in order to understand the world of Winter. The gender innovations in Left Hand have drawn much criticism and countercriticism. Brian Attebery neatly sums up the objections: first, that it does not go far enough in its depiction of androgyny; and second, that androgyny itself is, rather than a liberating vision, a betrayal of feminist aims. As evidence for the former objection, critics cite Le Guin’s use of masculine pronouns for the Gethenians, the dominance of the masculine narrator over the entire text, and the preponderance of masculine traits for the supposedly gender-free characters. (131) Much ink has been spilled on whether the use of “he” as a neutral pronoun “ruins” Le Guin’s gender experiment. Le Guin herself later stated that the universal “he” may be grammatical, but it is also sexist (“Is Gender Necessary”, 170). However, not every critic has associated the Gethenians with masculinity. Wendy Gay Pearson notes that Although much criticism of Left Hand has focused on Le Guin’s decision to use the masculine pronoun for the Gethenians, creating an apparent masculinization of her hermaphrodites, the Gethenians’ sexual/asexual nature makes them responsive to monthly cycles, thus linking their experience of sex and gender to human women’s experience of menstruation. (“Legacy” 186) a canny observation that refocuses attention from pronoun use alone to the experience of the bodies in question. Whether associated with the masculine or feminine by critics, as Pearson writes, “The very act of imagining hermaphroditic, androgynous people with no comprehension of gender as a hypostasized ontological category is an act of asserting that the world might be different” (“Legacy”, 196). This act is no less radical now than in the 1960s, but both contemporary understandings of gender, and contemporary speculative reimaginings of gender, have changed quite a bit since Le Guin first wrote Left Hand. Commentary on Left Hand often references the difficulty of imagining this “different world”. Barbara Brown writes, “Le Guin is aware how difficult her readers will find acceptance of the androgynous principle” (230) and John Pennington adds, The Left Hand of Darkness works as a resistant text because it thematically addresses the murky gender arena by trying to structurally find a way to eliminate gendered perspectives. In a narrative, this is essentially impossible, because language is charged with gender implications. (357) However, the language of gender and the possibility of nongendered language has expanded since 1969. I myself use the ungendered pronouns they/them, and have no trouble imagining the Gethenian way of life. And while society remains resistant to full acceptance of gender variance, pronouns have been in the national spotlight for years. In 2014, publications from Time to Rolling Stone trumpeted the arrival of “the transgender tipping point” (Swyers and Thomas, 272). Crucially, neither Left Hand nor its commentariat differentiate between sex and gender. The thing we would call “gender” in the Gethenians is structured totally by sexual biology, but that it should be so is not a given. The three contemporary series I address use pronouns to indicate gender as separate from sex, unlike Gethenians. There are characters in these books who do not 146

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have a sex but still participate in societies which read their performances as gendered, as well as characters with sexed bodies but uncategorized gender performances. Pronouns in Left Hand are used to describe a speculative sex; pronouns in these texts are declarations of queer gender possibility, irrespective of sex. Ancillary Justice, the first in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, opens with a scene that could be lifted from an alternate version of Left Hand. Breq, the narrator, is travelling through a snowy foreign land, and is having trouble communicating because of cultural differences. However, the cultural difference in question is that the surrounding culture categorizes individuals by gender, and Breq does not. She struggles to communicate effectively in a language that uses gender, and has to solve the “problem” of gender before responding, even in a tense situation: Behind me one of the patrons chuckled and said, voice mocking, “Aren’t you a tough little girl.” . . . She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. . . . This language we were speaking now [marked gender], and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me. (3) Breq not only uses she/her pronouns to refer to everyone, but also has trouble distinguishing either sex or gender. She knows about gender markers—in this case, the quilting on a shirt— but they do not automatically read to her like they would to a native of the culture. She makes no distinction between sex and gender; both are inscrutable. Breq serves as our Genly Ai, the reader’s guide to a strange culture. But in Ancillary Justice, the strange new culture is more similar to our own, recognizing multiple genders, whereas Breq does not. Leckie’s choice to use she/her pronouns as Breq’s default is a clear response to Left Hand’s he/him pronouns. Breq encounters an alien gender system that is more or less our own. Complicating things, even if a society treats its genders or sexes equally, gender itself is still potentially problematic, especially when gender and sex act as proxies for one another: The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant. Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably. And yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did hesitate or guess wrong. I hadn’t learned the trick of it. (48) In the society Breq describes, she perceives that there is no difference between the genders, or the sexes. It should not matter, therefore, which category someone belongs to—and yet it does, to those people, as it would likewise matter to most English speakers. Similarly, when Breq discovers an old acquaintance named Seivarden, she uses she/her in her narration to refer to Seivarden, but uses he/him pronouns in dialogue with these gender-conscious people, signaling that Seivarden is what that culture (and presumably ours) considers a man. But when Breq and Seivarden return to Radch space, Seivarden is described with she/her pronouns by everyone, including Breq. The reader is challenged to forget what we know—that Seivarden “is” male— and accustom ourselves to the idea that people we might think of as male can be called by she/her pronouns. Because Seivarden is Radchaai and thus culturally genderless, we are also challenged to separate she/her pronouns from any particular gender. She/her pronouns are marked in English, but Leckie pushes against that by making them so ubiquitous as to reverse 147

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the usual pattern: in Radch space, it is he/him pronouns that are marked, and he/him pronouns whose very presence conjures the existence of gender differentiation. When Breq returns to Radch space after twenty years away, she reflects: I saw all the features that would mark gender for non-Radchaai—never, to my annoyance and inconvenience, the same way in each place. Short hair or long, worn unbound (trailing down a back, or in a thick, curled nimbus) or bound (braided, pinned, tied). Thick-bodied or thin-, faces delicate-featured or coarse-, with cosmetics or none. A  profusion of colors that would have been gender-marked in other places. All of this matched randomly with bodies curving at breast and hip or not, bodies that one moment moved in ways various non-Radchaai would call feminine, the next moment masculine. Twenty years of habit overtook me, and for an instant I despaired of choosing the right pronouns, the right terms of address. But I didn’t need to do that here. I could drop that worry, a small but annoying weight I had carried all this time. I was home. (176) This passage emphasizes how the proliferation of gender markers does not mean that gender is essential and necessary, but rather that gender is contentless, able to be read into anything. When Breq refers to someone as “she”, it means nothing about their appearance, body, mannerisms, or any other category. While Radch society is remarkably gender inclusive, it is not free of societal divisions. Radchaai do not consider non-Radchaai to be fully human, and are intent on conquering, sometimes violently. Breq is also not considered to be human, because she is an ancillary, just one of many bodies controlled by an intelligent ship. She sees herself as separated from other intelligent life as an ancillary, not because of gender. This is in stark contrast to Genly Ai, for whom gender is a primary axis of alterity. He says to his Gethenian companion: “In a sense, women are more alien to me than you are. With you, I share one sex, anyhow” (285). Pearson writes, The question of alterity is at the heart of The Left Hand of Darkness: the alterity that the sex/gender system creates for us as a society . . . and the alterity that allows the construction of Us and Them, of a binary that is automatically hierarchical, so that They are always less (human) than We. (“Legacy” 189) The Radch has done away with sex/gender alterity, but they have not lost alterity, merely reconfigured it. Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire uses gender systems that are the most similar to the 21st-century United States. There are three gender categories in the series: women, men, and “alts”. These relatively straightforward categories are challenged early in the book, however. The main character, Cheris, is a woman, but she receives a mental passenger—Jedao, reduced to a living ghost, only capable of speaking to the person to whom he is anchored. When Cheris first wakes up after being anchored to Jedao, she experiences confusion between her body and his: “Had they made her a man? They could do that, it was unremarkable among the Shuos and Andan, and she’d wondered what it was like” (58). While Cheris’s body remains unchanged, her gender becomes more confusing. She is the physical representative of Jedao, and others continue to address him as himself, despite Cheris’s female body, and Cheris’s own female identity still present in that body. The pronouns used to refer to Jedao do not change to conform to his appearance, as we see through another person’s eyes: “Although Jedao’s body belonged to a 148

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young woman, his face was drawn and ghastly pale” (304). In another scene, Cheris relives some of Jedao’s memories, including of getting an erection, something obviously tied to a male-sexed body, but she does not change her pronouns in her narration. It becomes clear that in Lee’s world, gender and sex are distinct, overlapping and diverging in complicated ways. In Machineries of Empire, alts may have any body at all and still use they/them pronouns. While some alts are physically androgynous, some are labeled as “womanforms” or “manforms”. For instance, a Kel officer is described as “a scowling womanform” (100). These neologisms allow Lee to describe a character’s apparent sex without implying their gender. Unlike many portrayals of nonbinary people, which rely on a physically sexually ambiguous body to create an androgynous gender (for example, the use of slim models in loose, masculine clothing to represent nonbinary identity), Lee acknowledges that not all nonbinary gendered people are sexually ambiguous and that having a clearly sexed body should not be taken to define one’s gender. Not all nonbinary or trans+ people “pass” perfectly under society’s expectations of what their gender should look like, and the people in Lee’s stories accordingly do not rely on bodies to determine gender or pronouns. This is particularly relevant to the conversation on Left Hand. When Le Guin attempted to “eliminate gender”, she did so by also eliminating sex. Many critics similarly collapse sex and gender when talking about androgyny. Mona Fayad writes that “One of the problems with the concept of androgyny . . . is linguistic indeterminacy” (59), a problem exacerbated by the fact that the Gethenians are sexless physically, appear ambiguously gendered to Genly Ai, and also have an agender society. Thus referring to them as androgynes, as many writers do, obscures what dimension of sex-gender-identity is being discussed. The Gethenians have a gender structure that matches their unique physiology, but androgyny does not necessarily encompass both sex and gender. Barbara Brown assures her readers that, “In androgyny . . . the source of the dynamics is not the opposition of male and female but rather the alternating thrust and withdrawal of the masculine and feminine principles within each individual psyche” (228). Brown’s conception of androgyny leaves binary gender intact, but the Gethenians have no concept of gender, nor of any psychic principles that would be gendered. It makes little sense to say that a culture with neither sex nor gender differences is characterized by “thrust” and “withdrawal” of gendered forces, and particularly to state it in such Freudian terms when presumably Freudian psychodrama is irrelevant to Gethenians, who have no Oedipal or Electra complexes to rebel against. Left Hand imagined a world without sex and gender; Machineries of Empire imagines individuals without gender, but a world where sex and gender do exist. The significance of sexual androgyny to gender can be further interrogated by characters who do not have biological sex, as is the case for Murderbot, the protagonist of the eponymous series by Martha Wells. Murderbot is a SecUnit, or security unit, owned by a company and leased to human parties who wish to travel to potentially dangerous locations. Murderbot is partially organic, mostly machine, and is not considered human by its owners or lessors, or by itself. In fact, the humans around it believe it is incapable of independent thought. This belief stems from the restrictions placed on SecUnits by the “governor module”, a piece of software that forces all SecUnits’ actions to align with company rules. Murderbot has hacked its governor module, enabling it to ignore the rules and act according to its desires as a fully agentive being. It does not use this freedom to declare its humanity, or ask to be treated more respectfully. It names itself Murderbot, and continues to use “it” pronouns, which in English are normally not used for agentive beings.1 In a survey of reviews of the series, Holly Swyers and Emily Thomas noted that many reviewers were uncomfortable with Murderbot’s pronouns. About 53% did not use it/its 149

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pronouns, and of the approximately 47% that did, 21% also used another pronoun such as she/ her or he/his (287). For a reviewer sensitive to recent social activism around respecting an individual’s preferred pronouns, Murderbot’s choice represented a catch-22. Even if it felt technically correct given Murderbot’s lack of gender, the use of it to handle gender nonconformity was unacceptable. (286) Trans+ activists have had to push against the use of “it” to dehumanize trans+ people, but Murderbot claims those pronouns for itself. While dehumanization is generally seen as a tool of oppression, Murderbot actively chooses to dehumanize itself. It is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of being human. Swyers and Thomas write, “Murderbot staunchly emphasizes its non-human-ness and distinction from humans” (284). It does not see humanity as necessary for emotions, cognition, or sentience. When it loses control of its emotions and snaps at the humans around it, it experiences profound social anxiety: I had talked myself into believing that I hadn’t actually lost it as much as I thought I had when Mensah had offered to let me hang out in the hub with the humans like I was an actual person or something. The conversation they had immediately after that gave me a sinking sensation as I reviewed it. No, it had been worse than I thought. They had talked it over and all agreed not to “push me any further than I wanted to go” and they were all so nice and it was just excruciating. (26) Murderbot does not perceive that it is lesser than humans, but it simply does not want to be around them or consider itself part of humanity. In fact, when the humans around it grow upset at the practice of using organic human parts to create SecUnits, and grow dangerously close to accepting Murderbot as human, it reports the conversation to the captain of the crew so that they will stop (35). It pronouns are key to Murderbot’s ability to linguistically express its identity.2 Swyer and Thomas write that using they/them pronouns to describe Murderbot “would defy the pronoun convention that Murderbot had apparently accepted in the novella: Murderbot was an it, not a they” (286). Queerness exists in Murderbot’s world—K. Eason writes: Wells’ future gives us a lot more variety: queer, trans, straight, and genders found only in particular colonies; single or married monogamously or, more commonly, married with multiple partners; friends, parents, second-mothers, siblings, daughters, uncles. Murderbot treats this human diversity as unremarkable, bordering on unimportant. Murderbot is aware of queerness and human diversity, but does not include itself in that spectrum. It does not choose the genderless pronoun “they”, but the pronoun most distant from humanity and from human ideas such as gender and sexuality. Murderbot’s use of the it pronoun asks us to consider posthumanist potentiality. Murderbot is firm that it is not human, but it is also not all-machine or all-organic: It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete. . . . As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. (67)


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For this person who is neither machine nor human, but something else, perhaps the only pronoun that makes that nature legible is “it”. In Wells’ future, one can be fully agentive without being human, realizing a truly post-human existence. The first novella uses Murderbot’s first-person narration as a way to avoid mentioning gender, but as the series continues Murderbot more openly insists on using “it” pronouns, allowing the reader to accustom themselves to using “it” to refer to a person. Murderbot presents “it” as an agentive possibility, suggesting that humanity is not a prerequisite to personhood, and that human is not always a desirable category. Unlike Left Hand, none of these series were constructed around the gender experiment at the center. These series approach gender orthogonally, embedding gender practices within the world of stories predominantly about other things. This allows the authors to side-step a problem described by Veronica Hollinger: “In our struggle against a monolithic patriarchy . . . we risk reinscribing, however inadvertently, the terms of compulsory heterosexuality within our own constructions. In other words, our critiques of sex and gender polarities often leave those polarities in place” (25). There is no Genly Ai there to remind the reader of the status quo, and hence, no one there to reify the very system being critiqued. These books are all products of their time, and no doubt in a few decades we shall see critiques of the outdated gender norms in the newer series as well. But for now, they represent a careful attention to the meanings encased in the small words called pronouns. Small, yet important, as Le Guin writes: “If only I had realized how the pronouns I used shaped, directed, controlled my own thinking” (170). Examining pronouns allows us to see the interventions and inventions being made by the authors, the differentiating of social gender, linguistic gender, biological sex, and physical humanity, creating new configurations that are speculative but also undeniably queer.

Notes 1 Some gender-nonconforming people also choose to use it/its, but it is far from the norm at the time of writing. 2 Machineries of Empire also has servitors, agentive robots with their own society and no aspirations to humanity.

Bibliography Attebery, Brian. “Androgyny as Difference.” Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. Routledge, 2002, pp. 129–150. Brown, Barbara. “The Left Hand of Darkness: Androgyny, Future, Present, and Past.” Extrapolation, vol. 21, no. 3, 1980, pp. 227–235. Eason, K. “The Monstrous Machines of Corporate Capitalism.” 26 October  2010. www.tor. com/2020/10/26/the-monstrous-machines-of-corporate-capitalism/ Fayad, Mona. “Aliens, Androgynes, and Anthropology: Le Guin’s Critique of Representation in The Left Hand of Darkness.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 30, no. 3, 1997, pp. 59–73. Hollinger, Veronica. “(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 26, 1999, pp. 23–40. Le Guin, Ursula K. “Is Gender Necessary?” Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Putnam, 1979, pp. 155–172. Le Guin, Ursula K. “Is Gender Necessary? Redux.” Dancing at the Edge of the World. Grove Press, 1989, pp. 7–16. Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. Penguin Books, 1969. Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Justice. Orbit, 2013.


Misha Grifka Wander Lee, Yoon Ha. Ninefox Gambit. Solaris, 2016. Pearson, Wendy Gay. “Postcolonialism/s, Gender/s, Sexuality/ies and the Legacy of The Left Hand of Darkness: Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutians Talk Back.” Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2007, pp. 182–196. Pennington, John. “Exorcising Gender: Resisting Readers in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation, vol. 41, no. 4, 2000, pp. 351–358. Swyers, Holly, and Emily Thomas. “Murderbot Pronouns: A Snapshot of Changing Gender Conventions in the United States.” Queer Studies in Media  & Popular Culture, vol. 3, no. 3, 2018, pp.  271–298, doi:10.1386/qsmpc.3.3.271_1 Wells, Martha. All Systems Red. Tor, 2017.


21 NOT JUST BOYS AND TOYS Gender and Intersectionality in SF for Children Emily Midkiff

Science fiction (SF) is a genre about White boys and their toys, or so the saying goes. While not intended to refer to literal young people, this turn of phrase encapsulates the gendered, raced, and generic assumptions often attached to the genre. SF has long been coded as rational/ masculine/technological/Western, while fantasy is coded in opposition as irrational/feminine/ natural/non-Western. SF stories that cross this dichotomy are automatically suspect, especially those that outright blur the lines of fantasy and SF—a practice that pioneering SF scholar Darko Suvin once called “rampantly socio-pathological” (69). Over the past few decades, however, authors of children’s SF—or what I term “primary SF” in Equipping Space Cadets: Primary Science Fiction for Young Children—have increasingly rejected the binary associations used to divide fantasy and SF. Moreover, the recent primary SF stories that disrupt genre binaries often disrupt binary definitions of gender and race as well. The middle grade novel Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee (2019) and the animated television series Steven Universe (2013–2019) are two especially vivid demonstrations of primary SF texts doing this work. Clichés notwithstanding, children are far more often associated with fantasy than with SF because Eurowestern culture connects them with the feminine, the irrational, and the natural, and they are part of the domestic sphere of women’s work. They are also feminized in terms of their powerlessness in society and controlled in the name of protecting their purity. The concept of childhood innocence derives from thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who theorized that children are close to nature and therefore both uncontaminated by adulthood and also inherently irrational until they reach adolescence. As a result of these assumptions, the child both represents (irrational, nature oriented) fantasy and is perceived as its ideal consumer. Science fiction scholar Bud Foote argues that fantasy represents childhood while SF represents adolescence, because children have not “worked out the line between magic and technology” (205). Even as late as 2011, children’s literature scholar A. Waller Hastings argued that “the difficulty in creating believable science fiction for the very young lies in the readers’ inadequate knowledge of the world, which arguably does not permit them to distinguish adequately between fantasy and more plausible scientifically informed extrapolations” (207). However, as I  explain in Equipping Space Cadets, this view does not reflect real children’s abilities. Instead, when adult gatekeepers like scholars, librarians, teachers, authors, and publishers believe that SF is not suitable for children, they perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy that suppresses both the production of primary SF and children’s exposure to the SF genre as a whole. DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-24


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Since children are associated with fantasy, authors of primary SF must work harder to prove they belong in the SF genre. Primary SF is quickly criticized for having too little science and too much fantasy. Karen Sands and Marietta Frank write that “unlikely details frequently cause critics either to dismiss science fiction for children as being completely nonexistent or, at best, to label it science fantasy” (27). Furthermore, because children’s media is seen as inferior to adult fare, authors may feel that legitimizing primary SF is all the more necessary. Historically speaking, publishers of primary SF have often sought legitimacy by embracing the image of SF as the realm of boy readers, therefore aligning it with traditional genre dichotomies (Sands and Frank 35). Accordingly, boys are often centered within these texts. Even when primary SF includes female protagonists and female scientists, they are often negative representations that preserve the perception of SF as a boy’s genre. Consider the sisters in Brian Pinkey’s (2000) picture book Cosmo and the Robot and in the Cartoon Network series Dexter’s Laboratory (1996– 2003), who are both major nuisances and even a danger to the science and technology. Publishers of primary SF also often assume cisgender and heterosexual readers. This is unsurprising, given that gender and sexuality can be seen as controversial topics for children’s media. Kathryn Bond Stockton explains that in Western culture, children’s sexual and gender identities are kept on hold, a stalling practice that prevents children from growing up “until we say it’s time” (6). She further argues that the queer child, whatever its conscious grasp of itself, has not been able to present itself according to the category “gay” or “homosexual”—categories culturally deemed too adult, since they are sexual, though we do presume every child to be straight. (6) This results in a situation where authors working in all genres, including SF, are often both implicitly and explicitly advised to avoid any topic deemed related to sex—including gender identity and sexual orientation. Assuming straightness, however, is considered appropriate. While these converging beliefs about the nature of modern childhood have often resulted in stories that are quite literally about straight boys and their technoscientific toys, over the past century female characters have become increasingly central to primary SF. In my own examination of 357 illustrated primary SF books from 1926–2016, I found that 38% featured significant female characters (79). The numbers fluctuate dramatically by year, but a Pearson correlation test indicated a positive, but weak relationship between strong female characters and the decade of publication (82). In other words, the representation of women in this sample slowly, if inconsistently, increases over time. Of the 17 books from the most recent year in the sample, 2016, over half (58%) contained significant female characters, including Lunella Lafayette in Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, who is now officially the smartest character in the Marvel universe. Primary SF stories featuring significant female characters challenge the simple equation between femininity and fantasy. In recent years, SF creators such as Yoon Ha Lee and Rebecca Sugar have extended primary SF to explore both queerness and intersectional identities. By mixing elements of classic SF and fantasy and featuring characters with differently sexed, gendered, raced, and abled identities, Dragon Pearl and Steven Universe challenge viewers to think past the heteronormative gender binary. Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee is marketed explicitly in terms of diversity and genre. Dragon Pearl was the third title put out by the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, founded by author Rick Riordan to channel fans of his bestselling Percy Jackson series towards diverse authors writing similarly mythological speculative fiction. Lee submitted to the imprint because of his “Korean background and habit of including mythical influences in science fiction” (Lee and Riordan), 154

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which fit well with Riordan’s goals, but at the time Dragon Pearl was the only SF title among the imprint’s fantasy texts. Dragon Pearl’s genre became a core part of the marketing. In the official promotional interview, Lee declares that what he most wants readers to take from his book is “That science fiction and mythology can coexist happily!” For Lee, storytelling categories like SF and mythology and fantasy do not need to be sorted into separate boxes. Dragon Pearl could be feasibly categorized as SF or fantasy, depending on one’s definitions and priorities. It features SF settings like Jinju, a poor planet that was never fully terraformed. The plot strikes various SF chords as well: the main character, Min, grapples with the realities of space travel as she sets off to search for her brother in a ship powered by a fusion reactor and a Gate-jumping stardrive. However, other worldbuilding details would seem more at home in fantasy. Min is a fox spirit who can use magic to shapeshift and charm people. Several supernatural creatures from Korean folklore, like dragons and goblins, also live alongside humans and wield specific magics of their own. The combination of fantasy and SF in Dragon Pearl is not based on assumptions about the child audience but is simply part of Lee’s style. Lee’s SF for adult audiences also often includes fantasy elements and has been nominated for many combined fantasy/SF awards like the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus as well as genre specific awards like the World Fantasy Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for SF. Dragon Pearl itself won the Locus Award for Best YA Novel and the Mythopoeic Award for children’s literature and was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award and Lodestar Award, indicating that these committees saw value in the book’s mixture of SF and fantasy. If these awarding institutions can be taken as evidence of quality, then genre mixing does not seem to be a detriment. Lee’s genre mixing allows him to depict traditional Korean culture as dynamic and compatible with the future. In his universe, dragons use their powers to terraform planets and spaceship design is based on pungsu jiri, or Korean feng shui, and the flow of the ship’s qi, or energy, along its meridians. Both examples mix SF concepts with mythological and mystical concepts, but this does not make them antithetical to SF. Colin Scott argues that Western readers do not notice how much their concepts of science are infused with the metaphors of myth and story (178), and one must only look at Star Wars to see this at play in science fiction. To a non-Asian reader, qi may seem like a fantastical premise, but qi is an everyday cultural concept to Korean readers and would be familiar to many other Asian readers as well. Lee simply made qi and meridians slightly more tangible in his universe. This move breaks down the Western/non-Western binary that is often applied to science and used to evaluate the relative realism of SF. Dragon Pearl’s hybrid generic aspects also enable the story’s themes about gender. All Space Forces members wear their pronouns prominently on their nametags and the secondary character Sujin uses they/them pronouns, choices which normalize nonbinary existence in the future. Beyond this simple representation, though, the story also engages with more complex ideas of gender and embodiment. Min, who chooses to be female like most fox spirits, spends the middle of the story impersonating a dead, male Space Forces cadet named Jang in order to stow away on his ship. Lee’s experience as a transgender man influenced this gender-swap part of the plot. Lee recalls taking comfort in the gender swap plots of his teenage reading material, like the novels of Jack L. Chalker and Piers Anthony, although he disliked their extremely stereotypical gender representations (“The Problem with Problematic”). As a 12-year-old, he even wrote his own fantasy story that featured a gender change, but his mother responded by forcing him into feminine gender performance. Lee says that he avoided writing trans characters for years afterward but found that he could tolerate writing a metaphorical exploration of the trans 155

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experience in his adult SF novel Ninefox Gambit, in which a male character becomes embedded in a female character’s head and must share her body (“SFF in Conversation”). Similarly, Dragon Pearl explores the concept of trans identity through the magic of shapeshifting. Min still knows herself to be female even while her body is the shape of the boy and she is performing as a male person. Yet Min’s impersonation of Jang does not rely on her performing masculinity through the stereotypes that Lee found aggravating in his own childhood reading. Instead, she is focused on impersonating his role as a cadet. In one scene, Min suppresses the urge to reassuringly squeeze the hand of Jang’s friend Sujin—not because of masculine anti-affection norms, but because she “learned from observation that people in the Space Forces didn’t casually touch each other” (114). Lee explores the physical aspects of body swapping with the detail and realism expected of SF while still avoiding gender stereotypes. For instance, immediately following Min’s transformation into Jang’s body, she literally runs into another cadet: I emitted a strangled yell when the person’s knee accidentally connected with my crotch. I was going to have to be more careful about guarding that part of my body! Assuming the shape of a boy might not be any weirder than turning into a table or a teacup, but I had to remember that it didn’t make me immune to pain. (92) In this passage, Lee’s language is simplified for novice readers, but he does not curtail detail in the name of childhood purity. This passage is likely to cause some giggling among younger audiences and horrify certain adult audiences who would prefer that the anatomical consequences of shapeshifting be skipped altogether. Yet this is just one of many small changes that Min encounters while struggling to uphold her disguise, alongside adjusting to a deeper voice and hearing people call her the wrong pronouns. Min’s thought that being in a boy’s body is not any weirder than any other transformation casts male features as just another shape; it is clearly not her chosen body and she does not feel at home in it, but she is not deviant for wearing it either. The transformation also upends a classic female-to-male gender-swap trope when, instead of finding herself benefiting from a stronger male body, Min finds that she must hide her fox strength and agility to better impersonate Jang’s human abilities. Through shapeshifting into Jang, Min does not hop to the other side of a gender binary, but instead experiences gender in multiple dimensions: a female fox performing as a human male. Although almost every interview for Lee’s adult novel Ninefox Gambit includes questions about its transgender themes and their relationship to Lee’s childhood experiences with gender, none of this is ever brought up in interviews about his middle grade novel Dragon Pearl. Even Riordan’s interview with Lee, which includes discussion of the novel’s nonbinary character, is silent about transgender themes and Lee’s own experiences. Since Lee’s adult and middle grade novels have similar gender coded themes, it seems that the lack of questions about trans identity in the book for children is an intentional choice related to Dragon Pearl’s younger audience, though it is unclear whether that choice was made by the interviewers, Lee, or even DisneyHyperion’s marketing department. Instead, the Dragon Pearl interviews focus heavily on Lee’s identity as Korean, with no exploration of how that impacts his thinking about gender. In contrast, Rebecca Sugar directly acknowledges using the genre convention of her animated TV series Steven Universe to explore both gender and race, noting that, “To me, the show is specifically about intersectional feminism” (qtd. in Dueben). Intersectional feminism, a concept first described by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, encourages thinking about how gender is experienced differently by different racial groups. In turn, as more recent scholars such as Carla Rice explain, intersectionality can be expanded to consider how queerness also 156

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complicates the experience of race and gender. By dramatizing these and other intersectional identities, Steven Universe enthusiastically endorses complex speculation about gender as suitable material for children’s media. Like Lee, Sugar combines elements of SF and fantasy in her story, which follows a group of aliens called the Crystal Gems who are raising a half-alien, half-human child named Steven in a small beach town on Earth. As the show progresses, the Gems are revealed to be rebels who defend Earth from their colonizing, hierarchical species. The aliens use advanced technology, but their abilities also seem magical: they are gemstones that project solid bodies made of light and can fuse together into larger bodies through intimate dance, although fusion between different Gem types is considered deviant and prohibited on the Gem homeworld. The show’s SF and fantasy elements are represented most clearly through the “mad scientist” Gem, Peridot, and the “water witch” Gem, Lapis Lazuli, who develop a complicated queer partnership that André Vasques Vital says criticizes the history of treating science and nature as a binary. Their queer relationship brings together fantasy and SF, magic and science, defying Suvin’s complaints about “socio-pathological” genre mixing (which in this context resonates with similar prejudice against queerness). This semi-magical framework enables the show’s queer themes. Eli Dunn writes that the inherently genderless bodies of the Gems, who nonetheless all use female pronouns, are significant since “the flexibility of Gem bodies (and the frequency at which they change) sets up their feminine gender traits as illusory” (45). Kevin Cooley notes that the queer coding and amorphous bodies of the Gems “brings a placeholder substance to the queer modes of being that our present cannot yet articulate” (52). Dunn and Cooley both argue that the cartoon medium and unrealistic powers mean that Steven Universe has the freedom to imagine a queer future without the restrictions of realism. As advocates of intersectional feminism, Sugar and her team explore the relations of race, sex, and gender in child-friendly terms through the Gem Garnet. Garnet is voiced by Estelle, a Black British singer-songwriter, and projects a body coded as female and Black. At the end of season one, audiences learn that Garnet is a fusion of two Gems, Ruby and Sapphire, who are in an explicitly queer relationship and even get married. Garnet physically embodies Black queer love. Garnet is also the character who most vocally champions fusion, especially when young Steven begins experimenting with it. Mandy Elizabeth Moore points out that Garnet’s mentoring relationship with Steven is a significant statement of the potential of queer futurity by depicting a “child/adult partnership of queer worldmaking” (7). Working across the binary of child/adult, Garnet’s prominent place in the show’s cast and frequent role as the spokesperson for its queer themes centers Black queerness as suitable content for the child audience. Steven Universe also thinks through the relations of race, gender, sexuality, and ability through the Gems Amethyst and Peridot. Amethyst is sometimes treated as disabled by Homeworld Gems due to her differences from other Amethysts. For example, in the season 2 episode “Too Far,” Peridot declares Amethyst “defective” and not “normal” because she is smaller than other Amethysts. Amethyst can shapeshift into the same size and shape as her peers, but it is uncomfortable and unsustainable for her. Her character development takes her through several confrontations with embodiment and bodily agency. Meanwhile, Peridot has been fondly claimed by autistic fans for her communication difficulties and discomfort with unpredictability—especially since it is rare to see any representations of autistic girls or women in popular culture. Peridot also wears limb enhancers to compensate for her inability to shapeshift and uses recording devices to prerecord complex ideas that she wants to share. These tools function as prosthetics and alternative communication devices comparable to real life assistive technology. 157

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The interactions between Amethyst and Peridot offer valuable and rare depictions of female characters confronting internalized ableism together, but with mixed success. While Peridot eventually realizes that she and Amethyst are different but not defective, the other Gems never accept that Peridot’s assistive technology improves her quality of life. Peridot views these devices as part of her. She refers to the limb enhancers on her legs as her feet, but when they are removed, she calls her actual feet by the alienating term “gravity connectors” (“Too Far”). When Steven gives her a tablet to replace her finger screens, she tries to attach it to herself. Nevertheless, Amethyst—who is struggling with her own sense of worth in the face of her disability—insists that Peridot is too focused on her disabilities rather than her abilities and throws Peridot’s assistive technology into the ocean. The resolution of the season 3 episode “Too Short to Ride” implies that Peridot develops metal-controlling powers to compensate for the loss of her limb enhancers, but this is a dissatisfying conclusion for anyone who uses assistive technology. Sugar’s attempts at broad representation were not without risk. Critics of Steven Universe assert that the show undercuts its own dramatic strides toward intersectional feminism when it fails to challenge other norms. For instance, Moore points out that the show focuses on alien colonialism without ever addressing how its humans belong to real postcolonial cultures. Meanwhile, Olivia Zolciak finds that the show may be intersectional, but the featured intersections “favor privileged groups, ultimately reinforcing and complicating stereotypes of Black women” (69). This latter argument, which has been made in fan discussions for several years, is itself controversial since it relies heavily on reading the Gem Pearl as White, while many fans read her as Asian and protest what they consider to be an erasure of Asian characters by those who read her as White. Even so, the fact that Steven Universe can support heated discussions around representation goes to show that it is engaging deeply with race, disability, and intersectional identities, even when it may not always get it right. There is no playing it safe for the child audiences of Steven Universe, but rather a high-risk, high-reward engagement with topics that have real world implications. Overall, Dragon Pearl and Steven Universe queer the SF/fantasy divide to offer complex speculation for young people. In both stories, the SF setting means that the characters’ gender identities—however magical—are framed as part of a future to work toward, not an imaginary and unreachable fantasy. These stories take up SF’s potential to radically reimagine our world by embracing fluid definitions of genre and gender. If more adult gatekeepers of primary SF manage to break out of the dichotomous definitions that confine children and genre, they too can reimagine SF as a genre for queer, BIPOC kids and their toys.

Bibliography Cooley, Kevin. “Drawing Queerness Forward: Fusion, Futurity, and ‘Steven Universe.’ ” Representation in Steven Universe, edited by John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 45–67, doi:10.1007/978-3-030-31881-9. Dueben, Alex. “ ‘Steven Universe’ Creator on Crafting a Show About Family, Love—and Aliens.” CBR, 11 May 2016. Dunn, Eli. “Steven Universe, Fusion Magic, and the Queer Cartoon Carnivalesque.” Gender Forum: An Internet Journal for Gender Studies, vol. 56, 2016, pp. 44–57. Foote, Bud. “Getting Things in the Right Order: Stephen King’s The Shining, The Stand, and It.” Nursery Realms: Children in the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, edited by Gary Westfahl and George Slusser. University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 200–209. Hastings, A. Waller. “Science Fiction.” Keywords for Children’s Literature, edited by Philip Nel and Lissa Paul. New York University Press, 2011, pp. 202–207. Lee, Yoon Ha. Dragon Pearl. Rick Riordan Presents, 2019.


Not Just Boys and Toys Lee, Yoon Ha. “SFF in Conversation: Yoon Ha Lee on Being Trans.” The Book Smugglers, 16 June 2016, Lee, Yoon Ha. “The Problem with Problematic.” Patreon, 18 April 2017. nonfiction/interview-yoon-ha-lee/. Lee, Yoon Ha and Rick Riordan. “Rick, Yoon, and Dragon Pearl (Exclusive Interview).” Read Riordan, 11 December  2018. Midkiff, Emily.  Equipping Space Cadets: Primary Science Fiction for Young Children. University Press of Mississippi, 2022. Moore, Mandy Elizabeth. “Future Visions: Queer Utopia in Steven Universe.” Research on Diversity in Youth Literature, vol. 2, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1–17. Rice, Carla, et  al. “Bodies at the Intersections: Refiguring Intersectionality through Queer Women’s Complex Embodiments.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 46, no. 1, 2020, pp. 177–200. Sands, Karen and Marietta Frank. Back in the Spaceship Again: Juvenile Science Fiction Series since 1945. Praeger, 1999. Scott, Colin. “Science for the West, Myth for the Rest?: The Case of James Bay Cree Knowledge Construction.” The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader, edited by Sandra Harding. Duke University Press, 2011, pp. 175–197, doi:10.1215/9780822393849-012. Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing up Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Duke University Press, 2009. Sugar, Rebecca, creator. Steven Universe. Cartoon Network Studios and Warner Brothers, 2013–2019. Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale University Press, 1979. Vital, André Vasques. “Water, Gender, and Modern Science in the Steven Universe Animation.” Feminist Media Studies. Routledge, 2019, pp. 1–15, doi:10.1080/14680777.2019.1662466. Zolciak, Olivia. “ ‘I Am a Conversation’: Gem Fusion, Privilege, and Intersectionality.” Representation in Steven Universe, edited by John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 69–88, doi:10.1007/978-3-030-31881-9.


22 SPECULATIONS AGAINST GENDER DISCRIMINATION A Study of Indian SF’s Growing Engagement with Gender Issues Debaditya Mukhopadhyay Introduction Discussions of the portrayal of gender issues in SF have reached a critical juncture at present. On the one hand, the gendered image of SF is being convincingly questioned by drawing attention to this genre’s potential to counter gender normativity and mapping the presence of women and transgender writers. On the other hand, the majority of these discussions are limited by their lack of attention to women SF writers beyond the anglosphere. For instance, Helen Merrick’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction outlines SF’s “appropriateness . . . as a vehicle for exploring gender and humanity and ‘unlearning’ the strictures of cultural norms” (251) by way of a discussion focusing on women writers of SF during the twentieth century, yet without mentioning women writers outside the anglosphere. Likewise, M. Keith Booker and Anne-Marie Thomas disclose how the creation and nurturing of a gender-hierarchy by male writers ended up generating an underlying potential for challenging the same genderhierarchy. They explain how the recurrent othering of the feminine figure by male-propagated SF ultimately “imbued” this othered figure with an “ominous power” that enabled it to emerge as an ideal “tool” for challenging gender-hierarchy and gender-constructs (86). Yet, their otherwise insightful discussion does not move beyond the anglospheric women writers’ utilization of such powers. The underlying problem of the anglosphere-centric aforementioned discussions may be understood in the light of Justine Larbalestier’s comments on the importance of maintaining comprehensivity in accounts of women exponents of SF. Larbalestier observes: “There is danger in the argument that there were few women in the field, for . . . the slide from few women and few representations to no women can easily happen” (155). Though Larbalestier offers this observation in a different context, her insight holds true for the discussions referred to earlier. By limiting their focus to women SF writers from the anglosphere, such discussions actually end up inaccurately portraying women SF writers as few and far between on the global map of SF. Avoiding this pitfall, this discussion will focus on non-anglophone women SF writers, especially those who emerged within societies with a tradition of disciplining women’s behaviour. This chapter contributes towards such attempts to assemble and analyze the output of nonanglophone women SF writers by focusing on three Indian women writers, namely Rokeya DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-25 


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Sakhawat Hossain, Vandana Singh, and Manjula Padmanabhan.1 Since the publication of “Sultana’s Dream” by Hossain in 1905, Indian SF by women writers (ISFW) has gradually established itself as a site for critiquing Indian society’s gender bias. Each of these writers, as this discussion will subsequently explain, represents three distinguishable but interrelated directions taken by ISFW for materializing such critiques. In this discussion, I will consider these three different approaches to the examination of gender roles in Indian SF, which I will call revisive, representative, and post-revisive, respectively. The first involves imagining ways in which India’s treatment of women might be revised, the second ensures representation of alternative gender roles in SF, and the third moves beyond both revision and representation to investigate gender more generally. This discussion does not present Singh and Padmanabhan as Hossain’s literary progeny in the literal sense. Instead, the analysis of these writers will aim at identifying the reverberation of tropes and templates, such as the presence of female scientists as protagonists, futuristic versions of India, critique of the gender roles thrust upon Indian women by its patriarchal system, etc. As each of the three subsequent sections will explain, usage of the aforementioned tropes or templates in ISFW has changed concurrently with the changing position of women in Indian society. These analyses will also outline how these three writers mark ISFW’s continued preference for the form of Kalpavigyan (akin to speculative fiction), which emphasizes “imagination” rather than remaining bound by “the strictures of laws” or vigyan (science) (Chattopadhyay 437). I will offer a brief overview of the gender roles thrust upon women by Indian society to understand what exactly these writers were responding to. To date, Indian society remains dominated by traditional gender roles that restrict women’s participation in multiple sectors, including education and especially in the field of science. Alarmed by the sinking gender ratio2 and overall discrimination against women, the present Indian Government launched the BBBP (Beti Bachao Beti Padhao; in English: Save Daughters, Educate Daughters) scheme in 2019. As per the government’s guidelines, this scheme aims at: prevention of “gender biased sex selective elimination,” ensuring “survival and protection of the girl child,” and ensuring that girls are educated (7). It is beyond the scope of the present discussion to outline all possible reasons for this alarming situation, but it is significant to note that the Manusmriti (in English: The Laws of Manu), arguably the earliest book of laws that governed social life in ancient India, reveals how the policymakers historically validated discrimination against women. Manusmriti presents women as essentially carnal, materialistic, and unfit for independence. They can only lead a moral life as a daughter under the supervision of her father, a wife controlled by her husband, and a mother looked after by her son (Ch. 9). Even wives are viewed as ideal in Manusmriti only if they remain silent (Ch. 3). A recent study conducted by Sneha Singh featuring ten female journalists of different ages reveals that even for modern India, in order to gain social acceptance, an Indian woman must conform to the expectations of modesty, marriageability, and silence (Singh 2369). Indian society still associates ideal women with selfless mothers, denying women their potential as human beings with multiple abilities (Krishnaraj 2). The Indian popular imagination in general, and Indian women, in particular, have been conditioned to view women only as domesticated and silent wives or selfless mothers. In the next three sections, this discussion will explain how ISFW responded to this traditional stereotyping of women.

Hossain: The Revisive Dream In “Sultana’s Dream,” Rokeya Hossain advocates a revision of her contemporary milieu’s treatment of Indian women in general and Muslim women in particular. On the face of it, “Sultana’s Dream” is a delightfully fantastic narrative with occasional use of humour at the expense of conventional 161

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notions of masculinity. In this story, the narrator Sultana meets a lady in her dream and visits the beautiful land she hails from. The visit soon turns into a full exploration of the wonders of this utopic land as, unlike the world Sultana resides in, this land is governed by women while the males remain at their respective residences. It is completely free from any sign of pollution (“Sultana’s Dream” 7), and yet has advanced technology like an electric air-car (“Sultana’s Dream” 13). The women of this land gained control when the country entered into a battle that was almost lost due to the men’s policies. Subsequently, the women won the battle by using their intelligence and since then men have been viewed as unfit for independent life in their society (“Sultana’s Dream” 5). While critical assessments have already acknowledged “Sultana’s Dream” as a pioneering work of Indian SF for its emphasis on “the idea of science” (Kuhad 59) and its similarities with “the tradition of early utopian SF” (Banerjee 31), relatively less importance has been given to Hossain’s way of responding to the gender roles used for conditioning Indian women in both ancient times and the colonial era, The Indian SF critic Suparno Banerjee mentions that “Sultana’s Dream” envisions a world beyond the orthodox Muslim society of Hossain’s time (Banerjee 21) but it is also important to view Hossain’s vision as a response to the portrayal of women in Manusmriti. Just like the women from Manusmriti, the men of Hossain’s novella are seen as unfit for independent life. Hossain’s narrative attests to the benefits of acknowledging the potential for women to govern society without resorting to aggressive policies, by showing how effortlessly these women solve the crises that their male counterparts failed to resolve. Though recent criticism of this novella views it as a reflection of the conflict between progressive ideas and mostly regressive traditions that ensued from the Bengal Renaissance (Kuhad 75), it seems significant to view it as a narrative that counters the gender roles of its contemporary milieu by reversing them. Hence, the significance of Hossain’s portrayal of women has to be understood in relation to her own experience of the restrictive roles of women in Indian society. While Hindu women gained their educational rights in the late nineteenth century, Muslim women had to wait until 1939 to receive the British government’s official support for their education (Hasan 45–46). For Hossain, however, the situation was markedly different. Despite her father’s opposing women’s education due to peer pressure, Hossain learnt her primary lessons from her brother and subsequently received encouragement from her husband (Hasan 45–46). Her exposure to knowledge helped her understand the plight of contemporary women and turned her into an ardent supporter of women’s education. For Hossain, education was important for achieving equality with men (Ray 72) and financial independence by way of becoming an employee (Ray 73). When read in the light of the conditions of women as experienced by Hossain, the portrayal of women easily doing day-jobs and still finding ample time for doing beautiful embroidery (Hossain 6) or schools for women supported by the government (7) appear to be a response aimed at re-examining the validity of the genderhierarchy. “Sultana’s Dream” has been viewed as essentialist (Banerjee 32) for its reliance on a rather simplistic reversal of gender roles but when read as the first work of ISFW that started countering a long tradition of stereotyping women, Hossain’s vision appears to be a remarkable achievement. Besides, her depiction of women handling both jobs and traditionally feminine activities like embroidery with equal ease shows signs of problematizing essentialism regarding gender roles by highlighting the futility of assigning work based on gender.

Vandana Singh: A Representative Vision While Hossain was writing in the early twentieth century, Vandana Singh began publishing SF in the early twenty-first century. My analysis highlights Singh’s focus on representing alternative gender roles that problematize gender-hierarchy and normativity, an approach which 162

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I categorize as “representative” rather than “revisive.” While Hossain made such constructs stand on their heads, Singh’s writings show a more progressive concern—representation of multiple possible roles that signify gender fluidity. Singh herself calls her approach to the question of gender discrimination resistant; she also focuses on “exploration” of the many faces of gender fluidity (Personal Interview). According to Singh, gender is not just “a non-binary entity” but is “something that might vary with time and context” (Personal Interview). The titular short story from The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet shows Kamala Mishra’s emancipation from the stereotypical image of an Indian housewife. While a typical Indian housewife is supposed to keep her entire body covered with a saree and to be subservient to her husband, Kamala decides to declare herself free from such constraints one morning by informing her husband: “I know at last what I am. I am a planet” (39). Though Kamala’s physical shape remains unchanged, by adopting the identity of a planet she gains a sense of agency. Just like a planet, she moves beyond the gender binaries and yet shows power to create new life on her own in the form of little humanoid beings. Realizing such powers, she refuses to clothe herself for the sake of others or treat her husband as superior. Her transformation as well as emancipation is completed when she uses gas balloons to levitate over her neighbourhood, leaving behind her garments and shocking the men around. A significant number of stories by Singh, who is a physicist, centre around women scientists. Read in the light of Indian women’s prolonged deprivation from education as well as SF’s association of scientific and technological expertise with masculinity (Merrick 241), such characterizations by Singh problematize essentialist notions about femininity in SF. Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories features three stories presenting women of science, who, according to Singh “engage with the world, and with science, very differently” compared to the male scientists usually featured in SF (Personal Interview). In “Peripeteia” she portrays Sujata, a physicist living in the US striving to find solace from personal tragedies in quantum mechanics and research on aliens who control the world as we know it. The Indian SF writer-critic Sami Ahmed Khan draws attention to the absence of a “male authority-figure” in this story; it is also important to note how the story depicts Sujata’s relationship with the other female character, Veenu, whom Sujata describes as “a lover, a partner, a friend” (53) or how her scientific discovery about the world helps her to come to terms with the death of her mother and separation from Veenu. In Singh’s stories the figure of the female scientist also manifests a selfless love for knowing the unknown, instead of conquering it for personal gain. For instance, the female scientist Birha in “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue,” chooses to dedicate her life to understanding the enigmatic language of an alien race and waiting for the alien Rudrak’s return from a trip across dimensions, while the rest of humanity works towards conquering this alien race and using the aliens’ interdimensional travel device to foster an industry of wish-fulfilment. Likewise, in “Sailing the Antarsa,” the trope of the male adventurer in SF undergoes a significant change. Mayha, a descendant of humans who migrated to the planet Dhara (which in Sanskrit means “Earth”) goes on a solo expedition to the space ocean Antarsa, guided not by the urge to conquer found in generic (and markedly masculine) adventurers of SF, but by her community’s ideal of seeking kinship (171). It is significant to note the parallels between Singh’s female scientist characters and her own life as a woman of science living at a distance from Indian society. Singh’s imagination takes another significant turn in her novella Of Love and Other Monsters where she utilizes the figure of the alien to present the unique character of Arun, who lives in Delhi as an average Indian male. Arun has a clerical job at the beginning but is revealed to be a member of a race of shape-shifting and conquering aliens with the unique ability to enter into the minds of multiple human beings and control them. In the novella Arun is shown to have 163

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a fluid sexuality and his caregiver Janani, whose name in Sanskrit means mother, is ultimately revealed to be the member of an organization run by humans that fight aliens like Arun by destroying their powers and raising them as average humans thereafter. In both Arun and Janani gender roles get problematized. While Arun, the conquering alien with super-powers, engages in role playing as a woman for his human beloved Manek, falls in love with both men and women, and appreciates the concept of ardhanarishwar, which refers to a form of the Hindu god Shiva, comprising features of both male and female body (26), the human Janani’s use of the facade of a generous mother to manipulate powerful aliens like Arun marks a notable problematization of the traditional image of Indian women as selfless mothers. While the characters discussed do represent a reversal of gender roles to a certain extent, Singh’s approach does not limit itself to reversing the heteronormative. Rather, her explorative approach represents various alternative roles for both male and female characters, in the form of a typical Indian wife becoming a planet, a female scientist whose emotional nature actually helps in her progress as a researcher, a female space adventurer minus the urge to conquer, a woman pretending to be a kind mother to aliens whom she damages, or a conquering alien striving to be a woman to charm his beloved. While Hossain highlighted how Indian SF could reverse the bleak contemporary conditions of women, the presence of these successful women of science in Singh’s writing appears as a response to the tradition of marginalizing women scientists in India during the 1930s (Sur 118) and the subsequent emergence of scholarly women of science (like Singh herself and many others).

The Post-Revisive Approach of Manjula Padmanabhan Use of the term “post” for Manjula Padmanabhan (born in 1953) does not distinguish her from the other two women writers or, to be more exact, the strain of Indian SF centring on gender questions that found its first expression in Hossain’s story of a gender-reversed world. Rather, through this term, I highlight how Padmanabhan’s writings complement the gender-reversal found in Hossain’s story by moving towards a new phase of ISFW which seeks to approach gender issues by portraying the plight of both men and women. In her duology, Escape (2008) and The Island of Lost Girls (2015), she presents the story of Meiji, the only surviving young girl in a world that has exterminated women. Escape has been viewed as a “feminist dystopia” (Kuhad 95–96) and has been linked with the alarming imbalance of sex-ratio in present-day India (Kuhad 76, Khan 88). Yet, in the words of Padmanabhan, there is more than what is popularly understood as feminism to these novels or her politics as a writer in general (Personal Interview). When asked to comment on the ways these two novels represent manipulation or exploitation of the female body, Padmanabhan responds that both these novels are not just novels about “female bodies” but “bodies in general” (Personal Interview). Illustrating her view, she refers to the male character Youngest (who is one of Meiji’s uncles) from The Island of Lost Girls. Indeed, Youngest’s rumination about what sex-change surgery made out of his pre-surgery body echoes Padmanabhan’s explanation, when it shows Youngest thinking: “I’m not free to smile. . . . I’m not a man dressed in a woman’s body. I’m pathetic, witless maniac. I should be locked up. I should die” (14). The novel further shows the ramification for men of embracing toxic masculinity through the plight of the suitors of Meiji, who desperately crave a female companion in the world men like them created by exterminating all women. When Padmanabhan shows the suffering of these men, she emphatically presents how toxic behaviour and misogyny affect not just women or men but bodies in general.


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In other words, both men and women suffer in this world that is obsessed with exterminating the female body. If Meiji suffers from self-loathing (Kuhad 78), so do the men, other than the ruthless Generals who introduced the policy of wiping out women. Padmanabhan’s duology therefore represents a significant furthering of the vision found in “Sultana’s Dream” by shifting the focus from portraying what might happen if women govern the world to portraying the future of suffering that awaits both men and women if men continue to govern the world the way they are at present. It reminds readers that men and women are interrelated. As explained by Padmanabhan, such views emanate from her belief in viewing “male and female not as binaries or terminal points” (Personal Interview). While some critical arguments suggest that her duology depicts the extreme shape that the present issue of imbalanced sex-ratio in India, foeticide, etc. can take in the future (Kuhad 78) or read her duology as “an impassioned plea for women in India” (Khan 89), it is also important to read her narratives in the light of her views quoted previously. Padmanabhan never really breaks away from the envisioning of women as powerful and better guardians of humanity as shown in “Sultana’s Dream” or, to some extent, in Singh’s stories featuring women scientists. Rather, her novella Shrinking Vanita (2006), primarily written for children, shows Vanita saving earth from an asteroid using her intelligence and inborn ability to shrink her body. She also offers a gender-reversed version of an episode of the epic Ramayana in her story “Exile” where the warrior sisters Rashmi and Lakshmi (representing Ram and Lakshman) protect Rashmi’s husband Siddhangshu (a male counterpart of Ram’s wife Sita). The difference between Padmanabhan’s earlier work like “Exile” and her later works shows that she initially adopted the strategy of gender-reversal, quite like Rokeya Hossain, but eventually outgrew such stances. As suggested in her interview, Padmanabhan finds it problematic to be viewed just as a woman writer as, in her view, such categorization creates certain presumptions about her writings. In her interview she explained that she felt that some reviewers engaged with her work with a preconceived notion that she is “just a feminist”; she disagrees with that, saying her concern is gender in general, not just feminism insofar as it focuses solely on women. Taking into account both Padmanabhan’s own observations and the gradual changes in the contour of her vision, traceable from the differences between her earlier writings like the story “Exile” and her duology, I would argue that Padmanabhan marks Indian SF’s movement towards problematizing the approach of speculating against gender-hierarchy chiefly through genderreversal and would describe such an approach as “post-revisive,” which attests an evolution in ISFW without a complete detachment from the direction given to ISFW by its pioneer writer Rokeya Hossain. Additionally, Padmanabhan’s views depict how ISFW is changing its contours in response to the changing scenario of Indian society.

Conclusion ISFW has changed its use of templates and tropes like the existence of female scientists, genderreversal, etc. in tandem with the changing position of women in Indian society. While Hossain’s strategy of adopting gender-reversal had its relevance in its milieu, for the present-day Indian society suffering from an imbalanced sex-ratio, Padmanabhan’s portrayal of the suffering of both men and women seems to be the need of the hour. ISFW has increasingly gained social relevance and it has done so by adopting a mode of SF focused on speculations about the outcome of the as yet unrealized emancipation of women and the future outcome of Indian society’s present misogynist condition, rather than imagining the spectacle of futuristic technologies. Both Singh and Padmanabhan agree upon the limitations of classic “hard SF,” highlighting its


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overt reliance on “colonialist and sexist tropes” (Singh Interview) and its preference for scientific spectacle over imagination (Padmanabhan Interview), which echoes the idea of Kalpavigyan as mentioned before. Read together, these three writers show how ISFW’s departure from hard SF and writing back to the dominance of gender roles in Indian society have nurtured its potential to critique gender-hierarchy.

Notes 1 Despite her Indian origins, Padmanabhan prefers to be addressed as an anglophone writer as English is her only spoken language. 2 In India a female child is still viewed as a burden in many sections, especially rural ones, due to the dowry system.

Bibliography Bagchi, Barnita. “Introduction.”Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag, edited by Barnita Bagchi, Penguin, 2005, pp. vii-xxvi. Banerjee, Suparno. Indian Science Fiction Patterns, History and Hybridity. University of Wales Press, 2020. Chattopadhyay, Bodhisattva. “On the Mythologerm: Kalpavigyan and the Question of Imperial Science.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 43, no. 3, 2016, pp. 435–458. Hasan, Md. Mahmadul. “Commemorating Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and Contextualising her Work in South Asian Muslim Feminism.” Asiatic, vol. 7, no. 2, 2013, pp. 39–59. Hossain, Rokeya Sakhawat. Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag, edited by Barnita Bagchi, Penguin, 2005. Khan, Sami Ahmed. Star Warriors of the Modern Raj Materiality, Mythology and Technology of Indian Science Fiction. University of Wales Press, 2021. Krishnaraj, Maithreyi. “Introduction.” Motherhood in India: Glorification without Empowerment? edited by Maithreyi Krishnaraj. Routledge, 2010, pp. 1–10. Kuhad, Urvashi. Science Fiction and Indian Women Writers Exploring Radical Potentials. Routledge, 2022. Larbalestier, Justine. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2002. Merrick, Helen. “Gender in Science Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 241–252. Padmanabhan, Manjula. Escape. Hachette, 2009. Padmanabhan, Manjula. “Exile.” Breaking the Bow, edited by Vandana Singh and Anil Menon. Zubaan, 2012. Padmanabhan, Manjula. Interview. Conducted by Debaditya Mukhopadhyay, 29 September 2021. Padmanabhan, Manjula. “Shrinking Vanita.” 7 Science Fiction Stories. Scholastic, 2006. Padmanabhan, Manjula. The Island of Lost Girls. Hachette, 2015. Ray, Bharati. “A Feminist Critique of Patriarchy: Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880–1932).” Asiatic, vol. 7, no. 2, 2013, pp. 60–81. Singh, Sneha. “The Ideal Indian Woman: Defined by Hindu Nationalism and Culture.” International Journal of Social Science and Human Research, vol. 4, no. 9, 2021, pp. 2369–2377. Singh, Vandana. Ambiguity Machine and Other Stories. Zubaan, 2018. Singh, Vandana. Interview. Conducted by Debaditya Mukhopadhyay, 29 September 2021. Singh, Vandana. Of Love and Other Monsters. Aqueduct Press, 2007. Singh, Vandana. The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. Zubaan, 2008. Sur, Abha. “Dispersed Radiance: Women Scientists in C. V. Raman’s Laboratory.” Meridians, vol. 1, no. 2, 2001, pp. 95–127. The Laws of Manu (Transl. Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith). Penguin, 1991.


23 FEMINIST-QUEER CYBERPUNK Hacking Cyberpunk’s Hetero-Masculinism Graham J. Murphy

Introduction Cyberpunk emerged in science fiction’s (sf) western canon in the early 1980s and blended the cyber of cybernetics with a streetwise punk attitude perhaps best embodied in the mantra “the street finds its own uses for things” (186) from William Gibson’s short story “Burning Chrome” (1982). Print cyberpunk initially coalesced around the literary stylings of a core quintet— Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, Rudy Rucker, and John Shirley—and these writers ostensibly held an oppositional stance towards ‘mainstream’ sf. For example, in his fanzine Cheap Truth, Sterling (writing as ‘Vincent Omniaveritas’) castigated then-current sf as “distorted folk tales” and “ritualized, predictable, and only fit for children” (#9) while Lewis Shiner (writing as ‘Sue Denim’) proclaimed “[t]he SF revolution is crying out for literacy, imagination, and humanity” (#10). While Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) quickly became “the quintessential Cyberpunk [sic] novel” (Hollinger 239), Sterling’s Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986) helped codify (and market!) the cyberpunk mode: “Certain central themes spring up repeatedly in cyberpunk,” Sterling explains in his Preface. “The theme of body invasion: prosthetic limbs, implanted circuity, cosmetic surgery, genetic alteration. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry—techniques radically redefining the nature of humanity, the nature of the self ” (xiii). Neuromancer and Mirrorshades were therefore instrumental in defining cyberpunk, for better and for worse, but a closer examination of this movement and its evolution reveals feminist-queer cyberpunk has a lengthy and formative tradition that demands attention because it pushes against a dominant strain of hetero-masculinism.

Feminist-Queer Print Cyberpunk Despite print cyberpunk’s anti-establishment bluster, many of its core features originated in previous decades, including feminist-queer sf. Samuel Delany, for example, makes the connection between Molly Millions—the cyborg assassin from Gibson’s “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981), Neuromancer, and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)—and Jael, the cyborg assassin and revolutionary freedom fighter of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975):

DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-26


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Both of them have retractable claws in their fingers. Both of them wear black. Both enjoy their sex with men. And there’s a similar harshness in their attitudes. I’m sure Gibson would admit that his particular kind of female character would have been impossible to write without the feminist science fiction from the seventies. (173) Similarly, James Tiptree, Jr. (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon) wrote cyberpunk avant la lettre with the award-winning “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973), a tale about corporate malfeasance, ubiquitous media technologies, and cybernetic uploads into artificial bodies. Finally, Lisa Yaszek has drawn on a wealth of feminist sf to show that “[w]omen’s interest in the organizing themes of cyberpunk—including technoscientifically induced alienation, corporate global domination, a rapacious media landscape, and the often-reckless use of new technologies to transform bodies and minds—is as old as science fiction (sf) itself ” (32–33). Nevertheless, print cyberpunk has a history of deliberately suppressing its feminist-queer precursors and privileging a deeply rooted heteronormative masculinism. Therefore, such critics as James Patrick Kelly, Nicola Nixon, Karen Cadora, Carlen Lavigne, Patricia Melzer, and a host of others have commented upon 1980s-era cyberpunk’s conservatism and reification of wellknown borders and boundaries. “[C]loser examinations of the [cyberpunk] movement,” Karen Cadora writes, “have revealed that its politics are anything but revolutionary” (157) while Carlen Lavigne describes 1980s-era cyberpunk as “a glittering world of boys and their techno-toys, with supporting females thrown in” (30). While early print cyberpunk was largely obsessed with ‘boys and their (techno-)toys,’ feministinfluenced cyberpunk in the period was not wholly absent. For example, Candas Jane Dorsey’s “(Learning About) Machine Sex” (1988) is particularly effective (and chilling) in its feminist critique of labor exploitation (similar to Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” [1984]) when Dorsey aligns the burgeoning computer industry with sex work: both misogynistic industries are shown to have their roots in discovering fresh talent and profiting from that talent’s ability to open new markets and find clients. Meanwhile, feminist-queer cyberpunk of the 1990s—for example, Cadigan’s Synners (1991), Marge Piercy’s He, She and It/Body of Glass (1991), Laura J. Mixon’s Glass Houses (1992), Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang (1992), Mary Rosenblum’s Chimera (1993), Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall (1996), etc.—blends “the conventions of cyberpunk with the political savvy of feminist sf ” and, in so doing, advances “new avenues for feminist sf and, ultimately, feminist theory” (Cadora 157). A  standout in this cluster of authors is Melissa Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends (1994), a novel which follows two queer hacker protagonists—Trouble and Cerise—who are forced to navigate the challenges arising from the Evans-Tindale legislation that has regulated America’s access to the global cyberspatial network. Tellingly, Evans-Tindale was supported by white, straight, male hackers who helped weaponize the legislation to disenfranchise a younger crop of hackers—that is, women, queer, and/or persons of color—who were using the cutting edge brainworm technology to access cyberspace. Trouble and Her Friends therefore takes an atypical route for print cyberpunk by showing that the American government still retains power to restrict access for women, persons of color, and the broader LGBTQ2S+ community, an all-too-familiar reality that mirrors our ‘real’ world. Meanwhile, in foregrounding the entanglements of both the corporeal and digital worlds, Scott also addresses the toxicity felt by a certain clique of incel-adjacent hackers who despite their fervent wishes can’t ignore race, gender, sex, and/or sexuality even when online. As feminist-queer cyberpunk, Trouble and Her Friends is a refutation of masculinist cyberpunk and its at-times reductive desires (or the reductive desires of a segment of cyberpunk’s fans) about beating the meat and living for some digital fantasy of cyberspace where bodies somehow don’t matter when, in fact, they always already matter. 168

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Feminist-Queer Cinematic Cyberpunk While feminist-queer cyberpunk may have been transforming and (re)shaping the contours of print cyberpunk, early cinematic cyberpunk faced its own problems. The trifecta of 1980s-era cyberpunk films—that is, TRON (Lisberger, 1982), Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), and Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983)—fails the Bechdel test quite spectacularly. In fact, Blade Runner, the story about a bounty hunter ‘retiring’ escaped androids known as replicants, is a standout for all the wrong reasons: in one pivotal scene, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) uses his body to block the replicant Rachael (Sean Young) from exiting his apartment. He then pushes Rachael against the window, raises his hand as if to strike her, and then forces her to kiss him, going so far as to spoon-feed what he wants to hear from her. Rachael’s status as a replicant therefore “does not exempt her from sexual abuse” and “[m]anufactured sexual remarks are added to her manufactured memories” (Barr 29). In addition, Deckard’s hunt for the four escaped Nexus-6 replicants is also deeply troubling because he is unsuccessful in ‘retiring’ either Leon (Brion James) or Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer)— i.e., the male replicants—but is able to reaffirm his male prowess by successfully, and brutally, pumping his bullets into the female replicants Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), both of whom die in devastatingly powerful scenes. (Murphy 98) Such later films as The Lawnmower Man (Leonard, 1992), Johnny Mnemonic (Longo, 1995), The Net (Winkler, 1995), and Hackers (Softley, 1995) did very little to move the feminist dial, while Mace’s (Angela Bassett) role in Strange Days (Bigelow, 1995) is simply muscle-for-hire and underdeveloped love interest for protagonist Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes). Thus, despite a “multiethnic cast and prominent women, in the end, this is window dressing and [Strange Days’] neoliberal milieu remains unchallenged” (Butler, 124–25). The 1990s ended on a conflicted note for mainstream cinematic cyberpunk. In eXistenZ (Cronenberg, 1999), Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a renowned game designer for Antenna Research, one of the two biggest developers of biotechnological virtual reality. Targeted by assassins, Geller is on the run with the only copy of the new game eXistenZ, which leads her and Ted Pikul (Jude Law) down successive layers of (virtual) reality, including the revelation they may be trapped in a separate game called transCendenZ. This (potential) revelation raises questions about Allegra’s agency because while she may be “a participant in and seemingly a designer of a virtual reality system,” in the end her agency is “undermined by the revelation that they have been in a game since the start of the film and it is not at all clear that they ever reach the freedom of a diegetic reality” (Butler 125). The role of Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999) is equally complicated. On the one hand, she is an important figure and can stand her own against all threats, human, simulated, or artificial alike. The first film in the trilogy also plays with gender expectations, such as when Neo (Keanu Reeves) is surprised the legendary Trinity is a woman while her black leather costuming “may be body-hugging but [is] not overtly sexualising” (Gillis 80). On the other hand, The Matrix reveals her primary function throughout the series: she repeatedly sacrifices herself to protect (or revive) Neo, which shows she is “paradoxically both full of power—in that she is the catalyst for the [first] film’s dénouement—but also powerless within this position of power” (Gillis 79). Even in her death near the end of The Matrix Revolutions (Wachowskis, 2003), Trinity is “forced to take care of Neo, to help him achieve his goal, despite not knowing what this is herself ” (Gillis 83), although Trinity’s characterization has undergone a recent revitalization (see below). 169

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The advent of the new millennium did little to alter the cinematic landscape. Even in women-centered cyberpunk or cyberpunk-influenced films—for instance, Æon (Charlize Theron) from Æon Flux (Kusama, 2005) or Violet (Milla Jovovich) from Ultraviolet (Wimmer, 2006)—there remains a “sexualized femininity to which display is central; while these women are physically active, independent agents, then, there is no doubt that their bodies are also being eroticized within the terms of conventionally objectified femininity” (Purse 188). Within this context women are afforded minimal agency, such as Quorra (Olivia Wilde) in TRON: Legacy (Kosinski, 2010), a digital lifeform who relies on the male figures of Sam (Garrett Hedlund) and Flynn (Jeff Bridges) to facilitate her growth towards some type of posthuman emergence that is grounded in conventional heteronormative gender roles. Similarly, Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve, 2017) is notable for its “trail of women’s bodies [. . . that] largely obscures any progressive social commentary the film may have been attempting, leaving 2049 unable to extricate itself from under the weight of cyberpunk’s early masculinism” (Murphy 99). In a more productive fashion, however, we can turn to Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer (Donoho et. al., 2018), an ‘emotion picture’ that accompanies the audio release of the same name, and its explicit use of cyberpunk motifs to advance sociopolitical commentary on 21st-century America; specifically, Dirty Computer shows “a deep awareness of how racial identity politics blended with sound technology can impact an everquickening global popular technoculture defined by race” (Lavender III and Murphy 358).1 The individual musical explorations threaded within a broader story of the incarceration and mind-wiping of ‘dirty computers’—that is, those non-compliant individuals deemed to be ‘flawed’ by (white, straight, male) authority figures—fuses “cyberpunk visuals and 1980s pop sounds to inspire us to act in the present and build a different future than the dystopian one portrayed in the film” (Capetola 245).2 Finally, the Blade Runner-esque music video for Viktoria Modesta’s “Prototype” (2014) features Modesta as a Monáe-like ‘dirty computer,’ in this case a rebellious woman with several prominently featured prosthetic legs, including a spike that cracks patriarchy’s glass foundation and a bejeweled leg that redirects the laser beams of those oppressive forces trying to contain her. In emerging as a prototype of a new form of posthuman liberation, Modesta “presents an image of empowerment that derives from her particular embodiment, overthrowing any notions of victimhood or stigma that are pervasive in our culture’s understanding of disability” (Gatermann).

Feminist-Queer Cyberpunk: Hopeful Signs As Dirty Computer and “Prototype” make clear, print and televisual cyberpunk in the newish millennium have been showing promise. Carlen Lavigne turns to Lyda Morehouse’s Archangel Protocol (2001)—the first of the AngeLINK series which also includes Fallen Host (2002), Messiah Node (2003), Apocalypse Array (2004), and Resurrection Code (2011)—as an example of feministqueer cyberpunk retaining “a desire for spiritual exploration while rejecting current religious institutions” (128). Lisa Yaszek meanwhile references N. K. Jemisin (“Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows,” 2004), Ren Warom (Escapology, 2011), Elizabeth Bear (“Two Dreams on Trains,” 2005), Isabel Yap (“Serenade,” 2016), Chris Moriarty (Spin State, 2003; Spin Control, 2006; Ghost Spin, 2013), Madeline Ashby (vN, 2012; iD, 2013; reV, 2015), and Nnedi Okorafor (The Book of Phoenix, 2015) as contemporary authors whose feminist-queer contributions have expanded cyberpunk’s traditional contours. In this vein, Julia Grillmayr draws attention to Ashby’s Company Town (2016) as a cyberpunk novel that “offers a critical perspective on how becoming-posthuman might have nothing to do with individual choice, intent, or even consent” (279). Meanwhile, Wendy Gay Pearson, writing about journalist, 170

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editor, and author Annalee Newitz, observes that Newitz’s debut novel Autonomous (2017) not only advances standard “[a]nti-capitalist critique[s] directed at corporations and neoliberal globalization” but also “presupposes a future in which genders and sexualities are more fluid and widespread than contemporary practices suggest, echoing feminist and queer cyberpunk of the past three decades” (135). Conrad Scott describes Larissa Lai’s tale of the posthuman Grist Sisters in The Tiger Flu (2018) as a biopunk critique of cyberpunk motifs that focuses on “how human cultures have most impacted the strata of the earth and thus materialized ourselves a new geologic division of time” (219–20). Finally, Mozart Freire’s Brazilian cyberpunk film Janaína Overdrive (2016) is a Spanish-language short film that follows a transexual cyborg sex-trade worker (Layla Kayã Sah) desperately trying to save their life by uploading their consciousness to the data net before the Corporation ‘retires’ them in favor of updated technology. Freire’s use of cyberpunk visual aesthetics in Janaína Overdrive is no accident: “I believe that the movies are, in general, a sexist and heteronormative field, so I wanted to deconstruct it by using cyberpunk imaginary,” Freire explains, and cyberpunk “would be the perfect genre to use for a narrative that deconstructs the heteronormative idea of gender” (Zuin). One of Freire’s influences (aside from the obvious homage to Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive) is The Matrix sequence which was undergoing a transgender renaissance at roughly the same time Janaína Overdrive was released. The Matrix (particularly the first film) as transgender allegory has been a topic of discussion following the sibling directors’ coming out as transgender in the years following the release of the original trilogy. Lilly Wachowski, for example, is pleased with the discussions of The Matrix as a transgender allegory since “The Matrix stuff was all about the desire for transformation, but it was all coming from a closeted point of view” and the film as transgender allegory was the “original intention, but the world wasn’t quite ready yet, at a corporate level” (“Why the Matrix”). In this vein, the story of Neo living beneath the bored façade of conservative Thomas Anderson and unsuccessfully trying to fit into a cubicle-sized identity acceptable to mainstream corporate America operates on multiple allegorical levels. Meanwhile, Morpheus occupies “the role of the transgender elder” and Cypher is the “hate and shame-filled” traitor who “acts violently,” and together they further support that The Matrix is “the most successful transgenderfocused movie ever made” (Cook). Released two decades later, The Matrix Resurrections (Wachowski, 2021) returns to this transgender territory by again staging Neo’s ‘coming out,’ only this time director and writer Lana Wachowski leans more heavily (and overtly) into the transgender subject matter. While there is one meta-textual moment when someone says “[y]ou can understand The Matrix as an allegory for trans politics,” the film more broadly eschews binary thinking, including (but not limited to) the 1s and 0s of computer programming, the naïve simplicity of ‘human vs. machine’ narratives, and the limitations upon identity fueled by binarism. In fact, The Matrix Resurrections resituates Trinity by showing she is an equally (if not more) powerful figure as Neo and, having been named from the outset “after a pluralist structure that is more complex than simple binaries,” she “defies expectations and completely shatters limited binaries—and redefines the entire idea of the One” (Kogod). As a result, The Matrix Resurrections as feminist-queer cyberpunk course corrects for the problems with Trinity’s depiction in the original trilogy and explicitly extends the transgender subtext of the first film by repeatedly critiquing a worldview inf(l)ected by rigid binarism. Finally, while cyberpunk anime, manga, video games, etc. are worth exploring, I  want to briefly turn to the feminist-queer potential in North American comic books. David M. Higgins and Matthew Iung, for example, consider Jamie Hewlett and Alan C. Martin’s Tank Girl (1988–) as an interesting series because while it “often involves finding ways to get Tank Girl as naked as possible within the bounds of censorship laws” and the protagonist “obviously represents a juvenile male fantasy of female empowerment and sexual liberation,” Tank Girl 171

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also “represents a transgressive and inflationary punk aesthetic that embodies the opposite of the hypermasculine and deflationary noir sensibilities of most cyberpunk comics from its era” (Higgins and Iung 93). A transgressive aesthetic is also evident in Steve Pugh’s four-issue limited series Hotwire: Requiem for the Dead (2009) which follows Alice Hotwire, a detective exorcist who is responsible for handling ‘blue lights,’ electromagnetic entities fashioned after ghosts of the recently deceased. Suppression towers and ceramic tombs help control the appearance of ‘blue lights,’ but there is a notable uptick in blue light violence that coincides with public protests over the killing of two immigrant kids by uniformed police officers. Alice Hotwire emerges in the series as a strong, commanding, and effective cyborg who has no patience for either male fragility or egotism: she refuses to defer to so-called ‘male authority’ and remains untethered by heteronormative pairings. In a more deliberately cyberpunk fashion, Rick Remender and Sean Murphy’s Tokyo Ghost (2015–16) follows Debbie Decay and Led Dent/Teddy, childhood friends-turned-lovers who are (barely) surviving in a nightmarish urban future common to cyberpunk. Both Debbie and Led Dent are indentured to the Flak Corporation and are inexorably working towards their freedom, but Debbie has visions of escaping with Teddy to Tokyo, apparently the last green space on Earth that is also the site of their next mission, one that goes disastrously wrong and further secures Flak’s corporate power. The bigger threat, however, is Davey Trauma, a cybernetically enhanced psychopath who can harness the cybernetic network and control anything with an augmentation, a skill that proves exceedingly dangerous when Trauma attempts to orchestrate a global suicide that will digitally transfer all living beings into a cybernetic Eden whose name— Planet Trauma—belies Davey’s pitch that his digital world is utopia. Tokyo Ghost’s depiction of Led Dent/Teddy repeatedly undercuts the ‘male action hero’ motif; for example, Dent’s penchant for violence makes him the most dangerous ‘constable,’ but he remains the damaged Teddy who harbors a deep-seated inferiority complex stemming from a brutal beating in his youth that would surely have killed him had Debbie not intervened. Teddy simply cannot get past his inability to keep Debbie (or himself) safe, so he overcompensates for this profound weakness and becomes addicted to growth hormones, cybernetic augmentations, and the ‘feed,’ a constant barrage of streamed programming that keeps him largely oblivious to the ‘real’ world. Debbie emerges as the protagonist of the story: she evolves from co-dependent enabler to strong-willed warrior who fights Davey not only for her survival but also a digitally enthralled humanity. While Debbie is initially hampered by her heteronormative devotion to Teddy, Remender refuses to make Tokyo Ghost about male redemption; instead, Debbie is the character who fights for control of her own destiny and upon whose shoulders salvation rests. In this fashion, Tokyo Ghost explicitly subverts those tropes common to masculinist cyberpunk to tell a wholly engaging feminist cyberpunk story about power and agency. Finally, Michael Green, Mike Johnson, and Andres Guinaldo’s Blade Runner comic book series is set in the same universe as the Ridley Scott-Denis Villeneuve film series. Blade Runner 2019 (2019–20) focuses on detective Aahna “Ash” Ashina, an intensely private blade runner searching for wealthy billionaire Alexander Selwyn’s missing wife Isobel and their daughter Cleo. Ash learns Isobel, a replicant replacement for Selwyn’s recently deceased wife, was created by the Tyrell Corporation in exchange for Cleo, whose genome offers the Tyrell Corporation an opportunity to extend replicant longevity, albeit at the cost of Cleo’s life. Ash’s views on replicants change over the course of the story as she encounters a replicant underground railroad and witnesses the love and devotion between Isobel and her ‘daughter’ contra the brutal egotism of Alexander Selwyn. Blade Runner 2019 ends with Cleo escaping her father’s clutches while Ash decides to use her blade runner skills to help replicants, not retire them; this sets up Blade Runner 2029 (2020–22). In the sequel, Ash secretly helps replicants, and becomes embroiled in 172

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a case that involves a replicant revolution organized around Yotun, a replicant she had previously failed to ‘retire’ who has now put out a contract on Ash’s life. While the series isn’t particularly groundbreaking in its story, this Blade Runner sequence is built entirely around Ash’s agency, unparalleled skills, and character growth that in part corrects for the persistent misogyny of the Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 films. In conclusion, while cyberpunk continues to struggle with a pervasive hetero-masculinism that dates to its earliest iterations, there also exist feminist-queer roots and branches that often go un(der)acknowledged by cyberpunk auteurs and aficionados. Admittedly, cyberpunk has a long way to go to escape its deep-seated hetero-masculinism, but it is an ongoing global phenomenon carried out in multiple media and artistic outlets, all of which provide more opportunities for diverse narrative explorations and ongoing critical interrogations, particularly when these cyberpunk works are fueled by feminist-queer critical inquiry and praxis.

Notes 1 Monáe’s nonbinary pansexuality is also prominent in the short film as Monáe’s Jane 57821 is involved in a polyamorous relationship with Zen (Tessa Thompson) and Ché (Jayson Aaron). 2 Monáe expands upon Dirty Computer’s Afrofuturist cyberpunk setting with The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories from Dirty Computer (2022) that includes Monáe collaborating with Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas.

Bibliography Barr, Marleen. “Metahuman ‘Kipple’ Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream of Electric Women?: Speciesism and Sexism in Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, edited by Judith B. Kerman. University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, pp. 25–31. Blade Runner. Directed by Ridley Scott, performances by Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young, The Ladd Company/Shaw Brothers, 1982. Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, performances by Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, and Robin Wright, Alcon Media Group/Columba Pictures/Scott Free Productions, 2017. Butler, Andrew M. “Early Cyberpunk Film.” The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink. Routledge, 2020, pp. 719–727. Cadora, Karen. “Feminist Cyberpunk.” Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives, edited by Graham J. Murphy and Sherryl Vint. Routledge, 2010, pp. 157–172. Capetola, Christine. “Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer (Case Study).” The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink. Routledge, 2020, pp. 245–251. Cook, Marcy. “Decoding the Transgender Matrix: The Matrix as a Transgender Coming Out Story.” The Mary Sue, 19 April  2016. Delany, Samuel. “Some Real Mothers . . . The SF Eye Interview.” Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics. Wesleyan University Press, 1994, pp. 164–185. Dirty Computer. Directed by Andrew Donoho, Lacey Duke, Alan Ferguson, Chuck Lighting, and Emma Westenberg, performances by Janelle Monáe, Tessa Thompson, and Jayson Aaron, Wondaland, 2018. Dorsey, Candas Jane. “(Learning About) Machine Sex.” Northern Stars: The Anthology of Canadian Science Fiction, edited by David G. Hartwell and Glenn Grant. Tor, 1994, pp. 354–369. eXistenZ. Directed by David Cronenberg, performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, and Ian Holm, The Movie Network/Natural Nylon/Téléfilm Canada/Serendipity Point Films, 1999. Freire, Mozart. Janaína Overdrive. YouTube, 2 May 2020, Gatermann, Julia. “ ‘Nostalgia for the Future’: Projecting a Post-Disability Image through Retro-Futuristic Aesthetics in Viktoria Modesta’s ‘Prototype.’ ” The Polyphony, 31 July  2020. https://thepolyphony. org/2020/07/31/nostalgia-for-the-future-projecting-a-post-disability-image-through-retrofuturistic-aesthetics-in-viktoria-modestas-prototype/.


Graham J. Murphy Gibson, William. “Burning Chrome.” Burning Chrome. Ace, 1986, pp. 168–191. Gillis, Stacy. “Cyber Noir: Cyberspace, (Post) Feminism and the Femme Fatale.” The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded, edited by Stacy Gillis. Wallflower Press, 2005, pp. 74–85. Green, Michael, Mike Johnson, and Andres Guinaldo. Blade Runner 2019, #1-#12, Titan Comics, 2019–20. Green, Michael, Mike Johnson, and Andres Guinaldo. Blade Runner 2029, #1-#12, Titan Comics, 2020–22. Grillmayr, Julia. “Posthumanism(s).” The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink. Routledge, 2020, pp. 273–281. Higgins, David M. and Matthew Iung. “Comic Books.” The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink. Routledge, 2020, pp. 91–100. Hollinger, Veronica. “Science Fiction and Postmodernism.” A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed. John Wiley and Sons, Incorporated, 2005, pp. 232–247. Kelly, James Patrick. “Who Owns Cyberpunk?” Strange Divisions  & Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science Fiction, edited by Keith Brooke. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 144–155. Kogod, Theo. “The Matrix Resurrection: How Trinity Fixes the One’s Binary Problem.” Comic Book Resources, 28 December 2021. Lavender III, Isiah and Graham J. Murphy. “Afrofuturism.” The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink. Routledge, 2020, pp. 353–361. Lavigne, Carlen. Cyberpunk Women, Feminism and Science Fiction. McFarland & Company, 2013. The Matrix. Directed by The Wachowskis, performances by Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, and Hugo Weaving, Warner Bros. Village Roadshow Pictures, Groucho II Film Partnership/ Silver Pictures, 1999. The Matrix Resurrections. Directed by Lana Wachowski, performances by Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff, and Jessica Henwick, Warner Bros. Village Roadshow Pictures/Venus Castina Productions, 2021. Melzer, Patricia. “Cyborg Feminism.” The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink. Routledge, 2020, pp. 291–299. Modesta, Viktoria. “Prototype.” YouTube, 12 December 2014, Murphy, Graham J. “Cyberpunk’s Masculinist Legacy: Puppetry, Labour and Ménage à Trois in Blade Runner 2049.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 13, no. 1, 2020, pp. 97–106. Nixon, Nicola. “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 1992, pp. 219–235. Pearson, Wendy Gay. “Annalee Newitz.” Fifty Key Figures in Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink, Routledge, 2022, pp. 133–138. Pugh, Steve and Warren Ellils. Hotwire: Requiem for the Dead, #1-#4. Radical Publishing, 2009. Purse, Lisa. “Return of the ‘Angry Woman’: Authenticating Female Physical Action in Contemporary Cinema.” Women on Screen: Feminism and Femininity in Visual Culture, edited by Melanie Waters. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 185–198. Remender Rick and Sean Murphy. Tokyo Ghost, #1-#10, Image Comics, 2015–16. Scott, Conrad. “The Ecocritical Dystopian Posthuman in Lai’s The Tiger Flu and Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag.” The Anthropocene and the Undead: Cultural Anxieties in the Contemporary Popular Imagination, edited by Simon Bacon. Rowman & Littlefield, 2022, pp. 211–226. Scott, Melissa. Trouble and Her Friends. Tor, 1994. Shiner, Lewis (as Sue Denim). “Cheap Truth Magazine, Issue #9.” en/ego/on_line_zines/cheap10.html. Sterling, Bruce (as Vincent Omniaveritas). “Cheap Truth Magazine, Issue #9.” https://totseans. com/totse/en/ego/on_line_zines/cheap09.html. Sterling, Bruce. Preface. Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Ace, 1986, pp. ix–xvi. TRON: Legacy. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, performances by Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, and Olivia Wilde, Walt Disney Productions/Sean Bailey Productions, 2010. “Why The Matrix is a Trans Story According to Lilly Wachowski.” Netflix Film Club, 4 August 2020, www. Yaszek, Lisa. “Feminist Cyberpunk.” The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink. Routledge, 2020, pp. 32–40. Zuin, Lidia. “The Rise of Brazilian Transgender Cyberpunk.” Versions, n.d., versions/rise-brazilian-transgender-cyberpunk/.


24 TRANS WITHOUT TRANS? Gender Identity and the Relationship Between Transness and Sex Changing in the Works of John Varley Wendy Gay Pearson Over the years I have posed the question to many people. . . . If you could change sex, easily, painlessly, and most of all, reversibly, would you buy a ticket on that particular weekend cruise? The answers have been almost unanimous: sign me up. —John Varley, “Introduction to ‘Options,’ ” The John Varley Reader (2004)

Introduction John Varley provided me with one of the funniest moments in my teaching career. In 1984, I was teaching a course called “Science Fiction and Modern Science” at York University. I had about 60 students, including two extremely tall young men—one slender, red-headed, openly gay, whom I will call Mike, and the other (Tom) a much bulkier dark young Goth. I asked, “If you had access to cheap, painless, and entirely reversible sex changes, would you have one?” Unlike the very positive response Varley received from SF fans (411), my classes almost invariably split into two. The half that said they wouldn’t try it were confounded that anyone would; the half that definitely would try it were gobsmacked by the others’ lack of curiosity. Mike explained that one of his motivations in changing would be to experience pregnancy and childbirth. Several women around him were nodding when suddenly Tom stood up, pointed at Mike, and boomed out, “you, sir, are a traitor to your gender.” The entire class exploded with laughter, but we then had a great discussion of what is meant by ideas like gender treachery. Varley’s stories assume a normalization of sex changing that detaches it from its contemporary investment in identities: sex changing today, unlike when Varley started publishing in 1974, has become both the mark and the property of being transgender. Just as only homosexual individuals are supposed to experience sexual attraction to the “same sex” (quotation marks, since conceptions of “same sex” are themselves problematic), only transgender individuals are supposed to experience the desire to change sex, a change conceived as both singular and permanent. I examine the ways in which Varley’s explorations of near universal sex changing both depend on a specific notion of corporeal plasticity and allow readers and critics to think about sex changing as a general practice, rather than a minoritized one. Do Varley’s depictions of DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-27


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sex changing give us space to think differently about the relationship between gender expression, gender identity, and embodiment? Such different perspectives—emblematic in some ways of Foucault’s call to “free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently” (9)—might allow a way out of the impasse in some works of transgender studies when trying to disentangle trans people who subscribe wholeheartedly to binary gender versus those for whom gender may be, variably, a trap, a constraint, an impossible demand, or, potentially, something to play with (which is partly why some scholars now write about gender “euphoria” rather than the heavily medicalized concept of gender “dysphoria”). For those people for whom gender feels like a trap, betraying one’s assigned gender may be liberatory in ways that move beyond the permanent and irreversible sex change that is expected. Not only does that provide one answer to the obvious feminist problem with rigid hierarchical gender roles, but it allows questions like “Why shouldn’t a man wish to experience childbirth?” Characters in Varley’s world change sex frequently and take it for granted; in “Picnic on Nearside,” the protagonist, Fox, takes off with his best friend Halo for the uninhabited wastes of Nearside on the Moon after a fight with his mother about her refusal to let him get a sex change. To complicate matters for Fox, Halo has just had a sex change herself, from male to female. And to complicate matters from the perspective of the contemporary reader, Fox was female for the first two weeks of his life, but his mother wanted a boy; Fox and the just-changed Halo meet up with Old Lester, who has chosen to remain on Nearside because his “cult” beliefs lead him to disapprove of changing.1 This shocks Fox, who cannot imagine how anyone could want to remain in one sex their entire life, not least because Lunar laws allow only one child per adult, so almost everyone opts to bear their own. If you transposed this story’s raison d’être into contemporary reality, it would make little sense outside of a desire for permanent transition from a false sex to a real or true one. So firmly is Western society wedded to narratives of sex permanency that the only intelligible discourse around gender has for decades been what is called the “wrong body narrative.” This narrative is so overpowering within medical and social discourse that even people who have no sense of having been born in the “wrong body” are often forced to create a story to tick off the psychiatric and medical approvals needed for any sort of sex reassignment surgery. This is true even in cases where a nonbinary person wants top surgery in order not to be read as female but has zero desire to transition to male. The medical profession still requires a psychiatric assessment of dysphoria and distress. In Varley’s future, no one (except archaic Old Lester) expects to remain in one body their entire life. For many people, switching is simply a matter of deciding they feel like a change—a slightly more drastic version of a new haircut. Several things have begun to disrupt this narrative in the “real world,” but I will focus on just two here: the first is the recognition that “transsexualism” isn’t the only version of “this gender does not fit me.” For many nonbinary or agender people, the feeling isn’t necessarily one of having been born in the wrong body or grown into the wrong body (because the relatively agender nature of prepubescent children’s bodies does tend to work for nonbinary people). For nonbinary people, it may not be so much about embodiment, but rather a detestation of being pressured to adopt a binary gender, preferably one that is in consonance with what society understands as the sexed body (although biological science is moving again to the belief that there is no clearcut distinction between two “opposite” sexes [Jordan-Young 2011; Fine 2014, 2017; Hyde et  al. 2019]). The relationships between gender-conforming trans people; trans people who take up trans identities; and agender, genderqueer, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming people are complex. Talking about sex change purely in terms of transition between two clear-cut genders doesn’t make sense for all people. Indeed, as Varley himself says, “I spent a long time thinking 176

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about sex, and came to the conclusion that there is not one statement you can make about all men or about all women that is valid” (410). Unfortunately, the medical profession and popular culture both frequently remain wedded to the idea that one can make sweeping statements about men and women that treat them almost as if they were different species.

Plasticity, Plasticity, Plasticity . . . Cross-gender identification, the sense of being the other sex, and the desire to live as the other sex all existed in various forms in earlier centuries and other cultures. The historical record includes countless examples of males who dressed or lived as women and females who dressed or lived as men. Transsexuality, the quest to transform the bodily characteristics of sex via hormones and surgery, originated in the early twentieth century. (Meyerowitz 4)

What do we mean when we talk about changing sex? What exactly is it that we are changing? Popular culture tends to treat “biological” sex as a binary that is incommensurable, immutable, universal, and eternal. Yet historically views of sex/gender have varied widely. Thomas Laqueur does an excellent, if not uncontroversial, job of demonstrating the prevalence of the “one sex” theory in which female and male genitalia were seen as internal and external versions of the same organs. Women’s social inferiority rested on the belief that women lacked the psychic force to evert their genitalia. Yet, as Meyerowitz describes, by the mid-19th century the prevailing theory was that humans are inherently bisexual, a term used to indicate that all humans contain some degree of male and female: In Europe the medical practice of sex change arose less from new technology than from new understandings of sex. In the early 20th century, the scientists and doctors who endorsed sex-change surgery posited a universal mixed-sex condition, in which all males had female features and all females had male features. This theory of universal bisexuality directly challenged a nineteenth-century vision of binary sex that saw female and male as distinct, immutable, and opposite. (Meyerowitz 5) Jules Gill-Peterson argues that the bisexual model was abandoned for ideological reasons as it supported the notion that gender exists on a spectrum. This brings us to the question of plasticity. In the discussion of gender, plasticity has primarily been used to refer to the supposed malleability of gender in infants and children. Cordelia Fine and her colleagues are more precise in locating plasticity in the brain as an adaptive function: “ ‘Experience-dependent plasticity’ has been demonstrated time and again in the acquisition of skills as wide ranging as musical performance, basketball, dancing, taxi driving, and juggling” (550). But how does experience-dependent plasticity affect gender? Is gender a skill one acquires? For John Money and his colleagues treating intersex children, infantile gender plasticity allowed sex to be reassigned according to the doctor’s best judgment. Operating on an assumption of inherent bisexuality (that gender is a spectrum, not unlike the Kinsey scale of sexual orientation), doctors treating intersexuality assumed that children would identify with the sex in which they were reared—an assumption that the very existence of transgender people brings into question. In Varley’s non-transgendered world of sex changing, however, plasticity is not an adaptive function of the brain but a consequence of technological advances within a culture that has long abandoned the rigidity of a binary model of gender. It is the body itself that is plastic, malleable, capable of being shaped and reshaped. 177

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In Varley’s works, the expectation of a clean move between gendered ontological states is complicated because gender is no longer a hierarchical category; to give it meaning, Changers look back to 19th- and 20th-century culture. For example, in “Picnic on Nearside,” after Halo changes from male to female, Fox observes, She reacted just like the old Halo would have, with a dopey face and open mouth. Then she tried on other reactions: covering her mouth with her hands and wilting a little. First-time Changers are like that; new women tend to mince around like something out of a gothic novel, and new men swagger and grunt like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. They get over it. (7) Similarly, in Steel Beach, Hildy Johnson, who is born female but changed to a male soon after birth, explains that since Lunar society provides little scope for gendered behaviors, Changers look back to old television shows, films, and novels. Despite considering this from an ontological perspective, these are not really identities for Varley’s characters; instead, they are performances, with an element of choice that is not present in contemporary theories of gender performativity, if we are to follow Judith Butler. The compulsory nature of gender performance becomes something else when it is no longer attached to a belief that gender needs to align with some form of sexed corporeality. As Fox says, first-time Changers usually get over it and go back to being who they are, a concept from which a gendered component is notably absent. The reader encounters these ideas in remarkably complete form as early as 1974’s “Picnic on Nearside,” but later short stories and novels also ring changes on some of the how and whys of sex changing. In “Options” (1979), the only story in which Varley shows sex changing as an emerging, rather than normative, practice, protagonist Nile’s first change, from female to male, is described in some detail and involves genetic engineering to introduce a Y chromosome and delete an X, the six-month accelerated growth of the resulting clone to adulthood, and the transfer of memories and personality to the new body. In “The Barbie Murders” (1978), not only are all the Barbies transformed to meet the rigid and genderless specifications of the Standardist Church but, to solve the murder, Detective Anna Louise Bach has herself outwardly transformed into a Barbie, a process that appears to be achieved surgically in a few hours. In The Golden Globe, actor Kenneth Valentine repeatedly and rapidly transforms between male and female in order to play both Mercutio and Juliet, transformations which are effected by adjusting magnets that move around the bones of the face and skull. (There is also a rather painful transformation of penis to vagina and back again so that Juliet can have on-stage sex with Hamlet.) Even as he explores different techniques by which sex change might be accomplished, Varley’s work is consistent in representing sex changing as having become a normative future practice, rather than something associated with a small minority. In part, Varley can move the focus on sex changing away from questions of identity because he depicts the human body as inherently plastic. We know we’re in a future world in “Picnic on Nearside” not only because it starts with Fox and his mother arguing about whether he is old for a Change, but also because his mother asks Fox to put away her feet. Characters in Varley’s stories don’t just change their sex, they change their bodies in multiple ways, in which the primary is the achievement of very long lifespans. Corporeal plasticity in the stories means that people can become taller or shorter, thinner or fatter, more or less muscular. They can get a “null suit” implant to breathe in Venus’s atmosphere or grow purple feathers on their forearms. Lilo, the gene-hacking protagonist of The Ophiuchi Hotline, is 57 but looks 25: “Her only vanity was her legs. She had added ten centimetres to her leg bones. . . . She wore fine brown hair, like


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chinchilla, from midway down her calves to the top of her feet” (4). Lilo is killed and resurrected in a cloned body multiple times, each time complete with chinchilla fur. Thinking of bodies as plastic and as largely detached from identity produces a scenario in which it is possible to rethink how we consider the relationships between sex changes, gender constructs, corporeality, and their relationship to sexual desire. Sexual orientations based on distinctions between “same” and “opposite” sexes become largely meaningless, although Hildy certainly contemplates why some Changers retain a heterosexual (or homosexual) orientation, while others stick with the sex that they originally desired. This brings me back to the second question I ask my class when teaching Varley’s work: “If you had a sex change, assuming binary sexes, would you retain your object of attraction or your sexual identity?” Increasingly, that question is going to seem, like Old Lester to young Fox, archaic and pointless. While Jérôme Gofette invents the terms “monosexual” and “altersexual” to describe people who retain or alter the object of their sexual desire, the question is whether these additional categorizations are necessary (275). It seems that distinctions between binarily sexed bodies will become harder to maintain, particularly as biology continues to question the ways in which sex is ascribed to bodies and bodily parts (see, for example, Fine’s overview of sociocultural discourses about testosterone [2017]). Once the technology is in place for sex changes for all, will society have any choice but to contemplate the possibility of corporeal transition without gendered or transgendered identities?

Sex Changing for All? At a moment when trans people are very much in the news, usually as the objects of either physical assault or anti-trans discourse, especially in the form of legislation, it seems particularly pertinent to question the relationship between sexed corporealities and gendered identities. That transgender people are under attack both legislatively and politically is undeniable. Between January 1 and March 20, 2022, “State lawmakers have proposed a record 238 bills that would limit the rights of LGBTQ Americans this year—or more than three per day—with about half of them targeting transgender people specifically” (Lavietes and Ramos).2 In the UK, legislation was passed in 2020 preventing the use of puberty blockers prior to age 16. The argument against them was that teenagers are too young to make permanent decisions about their bodies and will end up regretting their choices. However, some recent studies of the rare phenomenon of detransitioning (estimated at 2% by one major Swedish study, while an American study put the number at 8%, but added that most of those cases involved temporary detransition due to lack of familial and social support) show that detransitioners do not always return to their original gender. Some so-called detransitioners only partially detransition, choosing to identify as nonbinary or agender instead (Slothouber). If transitioning is about identity and specifically about gender identity, then the distinction between trans people who embrace a binary gender identity and those who refuse the very concept of binary genders becomes starker. For some people, gender is intimately tied to any potential answer to the question “Who am I?” Yet for others, personal identity and gender are not closely related at all. In the case of Varley’s depictions of sex changing, in all its varieties, gender is not identity for anyone except a few dinosaurs like Old Lester and Nile’s husband, who is struggling to come to terms with having a wife who may present as male one month and as female the next. Nile refuses to reduce the question of who she is to the possession of vagina or penis, the relative percentage of sex hormones, or the chromosomes of the cloned body s/he inhabits.


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Transgender people, as the term is used today, are relatively rare in SF. More commonly, explorations of genders outside the binary tend to involve either alien species with multiple/ changing genders or mutated humans. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series features both species having more than two genders and species beginning life as neuters and choosing their gender as they mature. For example, the Laru child in The Galaxy and the Ground Within is still neutral and neither xe nor xyr’s mother can predict what choice xe will make. The Aeluon have three genders: male, female, and shon. None of these fit the transgender narrative that insists on the mismatch between interior sense of gender and the assigned sex of the body. Meanwhile, mutated humans are central to Melissa Scott’s The Shadow Man, a novel which takes Anne Fausto-Sterling’s article “The Five Sexes” as the basis for its thought experiment: what if space travel causes people to mutate to have five common sexes? And what if one particularly conservative planet refuses to accept the existence of all five sexes and forces its citizens to pretend to be either women or men? Again, this is a way of using SF to think about gender that does not replicate contemporary discourses around transgender, although Scott’s novel perhaps comes closest to representing a type of anti-trans politics in the refusal to recognize that binary sexes do not reflect reality. This is not far from the TERF position that transgender people do not exist but are either predatory men pretending to be women or confused lesbians pretending to be men. At the same time, transgender people do have a long history in speculative fiction. Beginning with André Couvreu’s 1922 short story “L’Androgyne” and continuing with Theodore Sturgeon’s 1960 novel Venus Plus X, it is possible to track representations of transgender, some literal and some using transness as a way of critiquing binary gender positions (an approach that has been critiqued by many trans people as exploitative [Prosser 1998]). Within SF criticism, Cheryl Myfanwy Morgan has argued that most gender-changing characters in SF and fantasy have little in common with actual transsexuals, the vast majority of whom claim to be absolutely certain that their “correct” gender is other than the one that they were assigned at birth. They have a very strong sense of gender identity, and desire only to live in that gender, not to swap back and fore (sic). Gender swapping, as portrayed by Reynolds, Banks and others, is perhaps more typical of transgender people. However, they generally avoid extremes of gendered behavior because they are uncomfortable identifying as either “male” or “female.” In contrast, characters who change sex in science fiction novels generally adopt stereotypical gender performance. (Morgan 2010; emphasis in the original) Morgan is somewhat unusual in the way she distinguishes between transsexuals as people committed to binary gender and transgender people as essentially nonbinary or agender. As she notes, some of the early experiments in sex changing in SF were less about changing sex than about having more than one. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a novel about hermaphrodites, not about transgender people; Gethenians are more closely related to intersex people, even though true hermaphroditism, common in plants and invertebrates, is unknown among humans. Similarly, some critics have discussed the male “fear of role reversal” story, a subgenre that Joanna Russ treats with splendid contempt in “Amor Vincit Foeminam,” in terms of sex changing (such as Carol Anne Costabile-Heming, who argues that this fear was the common theme in GDR SF by men about sex changing). The purpose of these stories is to express the fear that, if the shoe were on the other foot, women would treat men the way men have treated women. Venus Plus X, by contrast, is a novel that appears to be about hermaphrodites, but is also about sex changing. The protagonist can accept a race of 180

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hermaphrodites—until he realizes that all babies are surgically altered from their original single sex. That people might be born hermaphroditic is something he can comprehend; that they would use surgery to make themselves into hermaphrodites is something he finds abhorrent. But one could argue that these hermaphrodites are also transgender because they have transitioned from a single sex to a dual one. Even though Varley’s stories involve actual sex changing, I would argue that they are still not about transgender people insofar as we today understand transgenderism in terms of identity. Instead, they offer us alternative ways to think about whether sex is a basic form of corporeal permanency or whether it can be plastic and changeable, responsive to individual whim and the dictates of social fashion (Hildy, for example, refuses many of the options offered him by his high-end body shop). If people can in the future change sex freely, easily, and reversibly, will they do so? John Varley’s SF allows us to imagine a future world in which we can all be traitors to our gender.

Notes 1 The “cult” in this case is Christianity. 2 While I was writing this, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade while also noting that next on its ultra-conservative agenda is overturning marriage equality, dismissing LGBT rights, and revisiting the right of married couples to use contraception.

Bibliography Chambers, Becky. The Galaxy and the Ground within. Hodder & Stoughton, 2021. “Detransition Facts and Statistics 2022: Exploding the Myths Around Detransitioning.” GenderGP, 21 June  2022, fifty%2Dyear,were%20detransitioning%20as%20a%20consequence. Fine, Cordelia. “His Brain, Her Brain?.” Science, vol. 346, no. 6212, 2014, pp. 915–916. Fine, Cordelia. Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society. W.W. Norton, 2017. Fine, Cordelia, et al. “Plasticity, Plasticity, Plasticity . . . and the Rigid Problem of Sex.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 17, no. 11, 2013, pp. 550–551. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure. Vintage, 2012. Gill-Peterson, Jules. Histories of the Transgender Child. University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Goffette, Jérôme. “John Varley et les sexes métamorphes.” Les représentations du corps dans les œuvres fantastiques et de science-fiction, edited by F. Dupeyron-Lafay. Michel Houdiard, 2006, pp. 267–283. Hyde, Janet Shibley, et al. “The Future of Sex and Gender in Psychology: Five Challenges to the Gender Binary.” American Psychologist, vol. 74, no. 2, 2019, pp. 171–193. Jordan-Young, Rebecca M. Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Harvard University Press, 2011. Knox, Liam. “Media’s ‘Detransition’ Narrative is Fueling Misconceptions, Trans Advocates Say.” NBC News, 19 December  2019. Lavietes, Mark, and Elliot Ramos. “Nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills filed in 2022 so far, Most of them Targeting Trans People.” NBC News, 20 March  2022. nearly-240-anti-lgbtq-bills-filed-2022-far-targeting-trans-people-rcna20418. Meyerowitz, Joanne. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Harvard University Press, 2004. doi:10.2307/j.ctv1c7zfrv Morgan, Cheryl Myfanwy. “Changing Images of Trans People in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature.” Cheryl’s Mewsings, 17 August 2010, Namaste, Viviane. Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People. University of Chicago Press, 2000. Prosser, Jay. “Judith Butler: Queer Feminism, Transgender, and the Transubstantiation of Sex.” The Routledge Queer Studies Reader. Routledge, 2012, pp. 50–77, doi:10.4324/9780203720776-9.


Wendy Gay Pearson Russ, Joanna. “ ‘Amor Vincit Foeminam’: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.”  Science Fiction Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 1980, pp. 2–15. Scott, Melissa. Shadow Man. Tor, 1995. Slothouber, Vanessa. Narratives of De/Retransition: Disrupting the Boundaries of Gender and Time. 2021. University of Western Ontario, Doctoral dissertation. Varley, John. Golden Globe. Ace, 1998. Varley, John, Steel Beach. Ace/Putnam, 1992. Varley, John. The John Varley Reader: 30 Years of Short Fiction. Open Media, 2004.


25 UNRULY BODIES Corporeality, Technocracy, and Same-Sex Desire in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl Agnieszka Podruczna

Much of Larissa Lai’s literary oeuvre reveals a consistent preoccupation with the matter of Othered bodies, conceptualized in her works as tools of resistance against the neocolonial, technocratic realities in which they exist and function. Lai, a ChineseCanadian fiction writer, poet, and scholar, consistently centers in her works the ways in which the very matter of Othered bodies—characterized by concepts of fluidity, seepage, refusal of containment—manifests transgressive potentialities of anti-colonial resistance. Her work around gender and same-sex desire, in turn, complicates the intersections between queer theory, postcolonial studies, and the science fiction idiom, insisting upon careful reexamination of the discursive practices and strategies of resistance that arise at those points of convergence. Written in the postcolonial (or decolonial) speculative fiction genre, Lai’s fiction perpetually engages in strategies of writing back (Rushdie 8) and counter-discourse (Tiffin 96), intending to question some of the fundamental narratives of the science fiction genre. Through these means, postcolonial speculative fiction (and postcolonial science fiction in particular) is capable of contending with the colonial history of the genre, which, as John Rieder posits, “appeared predominantly in those countries that were involved in colonial and imperialist projects” (375), and which to this day perpetuates “the persistent traces of a stubbornly visible colonial scenario beneath its fantastic script” (376). Echoing the works of scholars such as Jenny Wolmark, who points to science fiction’s “ability to articulate complex and multifaceted responses to contemporary uncertainties and anxieties” (156) or Fredrick Jameson, who in Archaeologies of the Future (2007) similarly comments on the potentialities of science fiction as a vehicle of social, cultural, and historical commentary (270), Lai’s fiction engages in a constant dialogue with those extant narratives of mainstream science fiction. At the same time, her writing interrogates the colonial legacies of those narratives, positioning the Othered body as the locus of anticolonial transgression, which refuses to remain contained within the discursive frameworks of the dominant system. In her introduction to The Bodies of Tomorrow (2007), Sherryl Vint remarks that “[t]here is a tendency in some postmodern theory to speak of the body as an obsolete relic, no longer necessary in a world of virtual communication and technological augmentation” (8). However, as she goes on to say,

DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-28 


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[t]he ability to construct the body as passé is a position available only to those privileged to think of their (white, male, straight, non-working-class) bodies as the norm. . . . The body remains relevant to critical work and “real” life, both because “real” people continue to suffer or prosper in their material bodies, and because the discourses that structure these material bodies continue to construct and constrain our possible selves. (Vint 8–9) Similarly, Lai’s fiction consistently positions the Othered body as the locus of marginalization but also the fulcrum of resistance, leveraging its transgressive capabilities against the oppressive systems it inhabits. Aware of the difficulties of escaping racialization that comes with such a project, she nonetheless goes on to argue that [t]he question of marked subjectivity then becomes a temporal question. If we cannot inhabit the positivist, linear history of the nation, then we must invent or imagine our own racialized times and places, or at least pay attention and make the most of their moments of eruption. (Lai Slanting I, Imagining We . . . 13) To this end, Lai’s debut novel, When Fox Is a Thousand (1995, 2nd ed. 2004), interrogates the intersections between gender, sexuality, race, and embodiment in an interweaving, fragmentary tale that portrays the body as a crucial instrument of remembrance and historical continuity and discontinuity at the same time. Despite the fact that When Fox Is a Thousand would be best classified broadly as speculative fiction, it reveals its indispensable science-fictional underpinnings. As Robyn Morris argues, “Lai’s incisive incorporation of several principal scenes from Blade Runner is integral to her interrogation of a hegemonic white gaze that seeks to simultaneously possess, and dispossess, a specifically Chinese Canadian self ” (70). Similarly, the short story “Rachel” (2004) and a poem by the same title, included in the volume Automaton Biographies (2010), also draw from the narrative and themes of Blade Runner in their interrogation of the cyborg identity and its reconstitution beyond the boundaries of the hegemonic white gaze. In turn, Lai’s latest novel, The Tiger Flu (2018), proposes a vision of communities of parthenogenetic women who defy the traditional, patriarchal, colonial order of conception and birth, further complicating the issues of gender and hegemony. The theme of queer reproductive defiance is by no means a new one in Lai’s writing. It constitutes one of the main themes of her sophomore novel Salt Fish Girl (2002), which grapples with the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and the discourses of neocolonial technocracy. The novel constitutes a bifurcated, polyphonic narrative which follows two primary timelines: the first timeline chronicles the story of a Chinese aquatic deity Nu Wa—who, in the beginning of the novel, chooses to become human and splits her tail into legs—and her lover, known as the eponymous Salt Fish Girl, who live together in 1800s China. The second timeline, in turn, presents a vision of a dystopian, neocolonial, near-future Canada and follows the story of Miranda Ching, daughter of Chinese immigrants and a reincarnation of Nu Wa, and her genetically engineered lover Evie Xin, one of the so-called Sonias—bred as slave work force for the Pallas Shoe Corporation—whose genetic material consists of 99.97% DNA of an unnamed Chinese-Canadian woman and 0.03% freshwater carp, in order to circumvent the ban on human cloning (Lai 158, 160). The novel, which at its heart remains a narrative about bodily disobedience, explores an array of ways in which marginalized subjects are capable of turning the tools of neocolonial technocracy against the hegemony in an act of defiance, echoing Rita Wong’s claim that “[f]ar from legitimizing the official history of the nation, Salt Fish Girl critiques it by exploring 184

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the subjectivities of those who, having been marginalized by the nation’s priorities, do not selfidentify through the nation’s lenses” (113). Among all of those counter-discursive strategies, the novel sees the most viable potential for anti-colonial disobedience in acts of transgression facilitated by queer desire and reproductive disobedience: Evie and Miranda’s miraculous conception of their daughter (Lai 162), as well as the Sonias’ search for parthenogenetic means of reproduction that would decouple the process from colonial, patriarchal views of sex and gender (258), reframing the discourses of motherhood to defy the desire for institutionally mandated and artificially regulated borders of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. With that in mind, I would like to posit that the novel positions Othered queer bodies as the loci of transgression, arguing that those bodies reject the hegemonic, heteronormative notions of sexuality and sexual expression in a direct act of defiance against the fetishizing, objectifying colonial gaze. The Othered queer bodies are established as the central loci of a power struggle at the intersection between gender, sexuality, and race—simultaneously transgressive and vulnerable, emerging as fragmented, liminal entities that bridge together the past, the present, and the future at the same time as they acknowledge the simultaneous continuity and discontinuity of the colonial and postcolonial experience of corporeality. Jack Halberstam proposes that “[q]ueer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience—namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (2). If, according to Halberstam, the creation of those queer temporalities is facilitated by moving beyond the hegemonic paradigms of the dominant discourse and the norms which mark the rites of passage for gender and sexual conformity, then the refusal to conform to these norms, as well as the outright rejection of and rebellion against those hegemonic paradigms, emphasizes the novel’s belief in the counter-discursive potential of that practice, situating postcolonial queer embodiment as a site of colonial struggle and resistance. The linearity of life and death, which characterizes the hegemonic paradigm of the natural progression of life, is directly opposed by the characters in the novel through the act of reincarnation, which constitutes one of the crucial processes through which the characters access their memories and construct their identities, aiding at the same time the partial reconstruction of collective memory in diasporic communities. For the central characters in the story—Nu Wa, Salt Fish Girl, Miranda, and Evie—the question of origins becomes severely complicated. At the same time, their unruly, circular origins aid them in the process of articulating their own queer desire, transcending space and time in order to defy the fetishizing, Orientalist gaze, and rejecting the patriarchal, colonial discourse through their embodiment, destabilizing the supposedly fixed meanings that have supported the colonial project since the advent of Enlightenment thought. As Sharlee Reimer remarks: The uncertainty that accompanies this lack of explanation is critical to the work of critiquing Enlightenment thought: if Enlightenment thought is built around prescribed boundaries and coherent and contained narratives, then Lai’s open-endedness substantially disrupts these norms. (5) In this way, the queering of the reproductive process becomes a tool of bodily disobedience, as all four central characters repeatedly violate the cycle of reproduction and birth. This transgressive violation is exemplified in the novel by Nu Wa’s halted and fragmentary process of humanity’s creation in the beginning of the novel (Lai 2); the transgressive circumstances of Miranda’s conception and birth, aided by the durian fruit smuggled from the neocolonial periphery of 185

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the Unregulated Zone (14); Evie’s origins as a lab-bred human-animal hybrid (157); the Sonias’ attempts at asexual procreation without the male, patriarchal, colonial element (258); as well as the miraculous birth of Miranda and Evie’s daughter at the end of the novel (269). Thus, it is queer desire itself which becomes an active tool of revolt against Serendipity’s neocolonial technocracy. In the novel, both lesbian relationships hinge on the experience of the unruly, disobedient body which cannot be contained by the patriarchal, colonial discourse, and which at the same time refuses to be removed from that discourse, signifying a locus of rupture and transgressive liminality. The central metaphor for bodily disobedience in the novel is constructed around the notion of stink, which permeates the story—be it in the form of Miranda’s natural scent of the durian fruit, or the smell of salted fish associated with Salt Fish Girl and Evie—and which remains crucial for the novel’s exploration of queer desire, as the narrative associates those olfactory transgressions with expressions of queer sexuality. As Paul Lai argues in his article “Stinky Bodies: Mythological Futures and the Olfactory Sense in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl,” the durian fruit is regarded in the Western consciousness predominantly as “a figure of the exotic, the primitive, or the inexplicably alien” (177–78), and in the novel, Miranda’s scent “displaces visible racial difference” (180), becoming a marker of her Otherness. Moreover, according to Nicholas Birns, the durian “epitomises fertility and the survival of nature amid Serendipity’s attempt to use human bodies as so many spare parts” (166). Thus, the novel explicitly links the invasive scents of the durian fruit and the salt fish to the notions of collective memory and identity, through which the characters piece together their fragmented origins, echoing the words of Malissa Phung, who conceptualizes this metaphor through Marianne Hirsch’s notion of postmemory and argues that “[h]istory in Salt Fish Girl .  .  . lingers like a smell, exuding through the bodies of the postgeneration” (6). In order, then, to highlight the importance of bodily disobedience, the novel reiterates this metaphor in more explicit terms in the closing paragraphs of the story, in a passage which precedes the scene of Miranda giving birth to her and Evie’s daughter, conceived from the same Othered, queer bodily disobedience: After all, children also enter the world from the dirty end, poke their heads through the point of light. A stinking toilet at the end of the story? Why not? This is a story about stink, after all, a story about rot, about how life grows out of the most fetidsmelling places. (Lai 268) The novel consistently highlights the importance of the unruly body, as well as the sense of smell articulated in Nu Wa’s story, whose lesbian awakening becomes irrevocably connected with bodily scent. When the character of Salt Fish Girl is introduced for the first time, what Nu Wa associates her with is primarily her smell: [W]hen I was fifteen . . . , I fell in love with a girl from the coast. She was the daughter of a dry goods merchant who specialized primarily in salt fish. . . . She stank of that putrid, but nonetheless enticing smell that all good South Chinese children are weaned on, its flavour being the first to replace that of mother’s milk. (48) This emphasis on the smell of Salt Fish Girl returns several times in further descriptions of Nu Wa’s budding sexuality, as Lai writes: “The scent of the fish, or perhaps her scent, or, more likely still, some heady combination of the two wafted under my nose and caused the warmth to spread in the pit of my belly” (51). The smell of salt fish, then, becomes the physical reminder of Nu Wa’s 186

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queer desire, as she directly associates the smell and, by extension, Salt Fish Girl’s unruly body, with the physical signs of her own sexual arousal. What follows is an account of prolonged, covert courtship, which ultimately finds its release and culmination in a scene in which they consummate the relationship. When Nu Wa recalls the aftermath of their sexual encounter, she once again frames it in terms of the olfactory experience, saying: “I walked home reeking of salt fish, took my anxious mother’s scolding with brave and defiant face, went to bed and tumbled into a deep and contented slumber” (53). Thus, queer desire becomes irrevocably connected with the strong, invasive scent of salt fish, which comes to stand for the bodily manifestation of disobedient queer corporeality that cannot be extinguished, eluding containment. The scent of salt fish reappears consistently throughout the story, bridging the spatial and temporal dimensions, signifying a shared history of queer embodiment. It becomes crucial, then, that it is this particular scent which accompanies the first expression of Miranda’s queer desire as well, as she smells the scent of the salt fish when she recognizes Evie as a reincarnation of Salt Fish Girl for the first time: But it wasn’t until I had sunk the needle in that I caught a whiff of a familiar fragrance, briny and sweet. “It’s you,” I said. (105) In this passage, preceded by Miranda’s impression of “the past . . . leaking through into the present” (105), foreshadowing the moment of recognition, it is once again the sense of smell and Evie’s disobedient corporeality which facilitates this moment of revelation, bridging the gap between the temporal dimensions. The scent of salt fish returns again in Miranda’s narrative to mark the emergence of her own queer desire when Evie kisses her for the first time: “She leaned over and kissed me. . . . I . . . pressed my nose and mouth to the soft space behind her ear. The smell of salt fish was unmistakable” (161). It is, then, the body itself which appears to retain its scent across the subsequent incarnations, exemplifying the defiant, unruly nature of queer embodiment in colonial and postcolonial realities, and creating a sense of historical queer kinship, founded upon the embodied history of lives lived. The corporeal dimension of transhistorical Othered queerness is once again brought to the fore in the scene in which Miranda and Evie engage in sexual intercourse for the first time, and Miranda discovers yet another point of corporeal affinity, which at the same time emphasizes the Othered nature of their bodily experience and facilitates the recognition of the transhistorical queer narrative they come to represent. Miranda and Evie’s twin fistulas located behind their ears, leaking clear, briny liquid that signifies their complicated, multiple origins—the aqueous beginnings of life, Nu Wa’s rebirth in the water of the tank and then the water of the womb, the memory of Salt Fish Girl and her rebirth as Evie in an artificial tank, as well as the aquarium in which Evie’s carp “mother” is kept—become yet another bodily manifestation of simultaneous rupture and convergence. As Astrida Neimanis posits, “to figure ourselves as bodies of water . . . torques many of our accepted cartographies of space, time, and species, and implicates a specifically watery movement of difference and repetition” (4). It is significant, then, that the moment in which Miranda discovers this point of corporeal affinity is directly connected with both the element of water as well as the direct manifestation of queer desire. Simultaneously, it is also the moment in which, yet again, the past leaks into the present as Miranda feels “something shift inside [her] that remembered a longer, leaner shape” (Lai 163). Queer desire facilitates in the novel a partial reconstruction of the historical account as well as past identities, as Miranda seems to remember more and more of her previous incarnations as her relationship with Evie progresses. This process is accompanied by the recurring imagery of water 187

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and sliding, slithering from place to place, as if, in the act of sexual intercourse with Evie, it is Nu Wa herself who resurfaces once again in a corporeal state. The narrative intermingles the imagery of Nu Wa’s water snake form and that of Miranda’s body (161–62), which gradually transforms, blurring the boundaries between the past and the present. Thus, Miranda becomes Nu Wa at the same time as Nu Wa becomes Miranda in a transgressive act of remembrance, facilitated through the body understood as “an enfleshed kind of memory” (Braidotti, Transpositions 156), “an interface, a threshold, a field of intersecting material and symbolic forces, . . . a surface where multiple codes . . . are inscribed” (Braidotti, “Between the No Longer . . .”). This understanding of the body as a locus of forces and power struggles remains singularly important for postcolonial speculative fiction writers such as Lai, who argues that it is through the experience of corporeality and Othered queer desire that the process of reclaiming and reconstructing history can be attempted, in direct defiance of the neocolonial realities which the characters inhabit. At the same time, however, Lai contests the idea that it is possible to fully reconstruct such postcolonial queer genealogies (Salt Fish Girl 151, 160), as she argues that the fractured, liminal nature of those histories is meant to reflect the mechanisms of postcolonial recovery of the “extinguished history” (Memmi 52). This kind of transgressive queer desire finds its culmination in the closing paragraphs of the novel, in which Miranda gives birth to her and Evie’s daughter. This moment of birth—or rather ambiguously presented rebirth—remains directly linked with an earlier scene of sexual encounter, mapping the transgressive path of the postcolonial queer. In the scene which comes directly after Evie and Miranda engage in sexual intercourse for the first time, blurring the boundaries between the present and the past, Miranda remarks: “I lay beside her on the rot stink of decaying leaves and needles, not speaking, just listening to the lapping and whispering of the dark as it surrounded us. Perhaps it was at this moment that the child took root” (Lai 162). This child, whose conception mirrors the miraculous conception of Miranda, echoing centuries of multiple beginnings and origins, becomes a direct manifestation of the transgressive potential of the postcolonial queer. It signifies a new beginning, bridging the past, the present, and the future of those queer genealogies which Lai explores in her novel, emphasizing both the points of rupture and the points of convergence. It is not incidental that Miranda gives birth in a hot spring, which comes to symbolize the return to her origins and the continuous “leaking of the past into the present” (Lai 105), as the moment in which Miranda becomes a mother constitutes also the moment in which she becomes one with her queer genealogy. The “ancient ocean bubbling up through the rocks, salty and full of minerals” (269) transforms in this scene into the ancient cradle of unruly bodies and disobedient desires—echoing Nu Wa’s original story of transformation and transgression. Miranda, then, walks into the water to emerge as the physical manifestation of liminality— part-Miranda and part-Nu Wa, “the coils unravelled” (269) in an act of remembrance and reunion with her historical roots as she accepts her role as the symbolic repository of ancestral heritage. In this way, as Heather Latimer argues, “reproduction and new reproductive technologies connect both to the creation of new bodies and to new myths and stories of origin” (125). Evie accompanies her in this process of bodily transgression as she joins her in the hot spring and lets her fishy tail unravel as well, symbolically birthing the child along with Miranda as she “stretched her tail though mine and our coils interlocked and slid through one another” (269), symbolizing the rejection of the natural cycle of birth and procreation (Halberstam 2) and, by extension, rejecting the neocolonial, technocratic paradigm in which she originated as a genetically engineered and enslaved hybrid. The birth of Miranda and Evie’s daughter symbolizes the circularity and continuity of those forgotten histories, as well as the triumph of the postcolonial queer and Othered queer embodiments over the neocolonial, technocratic hegemonic paradigms against which Lai constructs her narrative, as she concludes the novel with the following passage: 188

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My belly heaved and contracted. Blood streamed into the water, staining it. I howled with the pain of womb spasming deeply, and then a dark head emerged six inches below my navel, from an opening in my scaly new flesh. The head had a wrinkled human face. Evie reached under water, guiding the thing out, black-haired and bawling, a little baby girl. Everything will be all right, I thought, until next time. (Lai 269) The ending of the novel implies, therefore, that the cycle has been repeated, and signifies the hope for future generations of similarly liminal subjects, symbolizing the counter-discursive practices of remembrance and writing back.

Bibliography Birns, Nicholas. “The Earth’s Revenge: Nature, Transfeminism and Diaspora in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl.” China Fictions/English Language. Literary Essays in Diaspora, Memory, Story, edited by A. Robert Lee, Rodopi, 2008, pp. 161–182, doi:10.1163/9789401205481_010 Braidotti, Rosi. “Between the No Longer and the Not Yet: Nomadic Variations on the Body.” 4th European Feminist Research Conference, 28th September 2000, Paper. Braidotti, Rosi. Transpositions. On Nomadic Ethics. Polity, 2006. Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press, 2005. Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future. Verso, 2007. Lai, Larissa. Automaton Biographies. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010. Lai, Larissa. “Rachel.” So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004, pp. 53–60. Lai, Larissa. Salt Fish Girl. Thomas Allen Publishers, 2002. Lai, Larissa. Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013. Lai, Larissa. The Tiger Flu. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018. Lai, Larissa. When Fox Is a Thousand. 1995. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004. Lai, Paul. “Stinky Bodies: Mythological Futures and the Olfactory Sense in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl.” Melus, vol. 33, no. 4, 2008, pp. 167–187. Latimer, Heather. “Fetal Cyborgs and Monstrous Clones: New Reproductive Technologies in Patchwork Girl and Salt Fish Girl.” Reproductive Acts: Sexual Politics in North American Fiction and Film. McGillQueen’s University Press, 2013, pp. 104–133. Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Beacon Press, 1993. Morris, Robyn L. “Re-visioning Representations of Difference in Larissa Lai’s When Fox Is a Thousand and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.” West Coast Line: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Criticism, vol. 38, no. 2, 2005, pp. 69–86. Neimanis, Astrida. Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology, 2017. Phung, Malissa. “The Diasporic Inheritance of Postmemory and Immigrant Shame in the Novels of Larissa Lai.” Postcolonial Text, vol. 7, no. 3, 2012, pp. 1–19. Reimer, Sharlee. “Troubling Origins: Cyborg Politics in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl.” Atlantis: A Women’s Studies Journal, vol. 35, no. 1, 2010, pp. 4–14. Rieder, John. “Science Fiction, Colonialism, and the Plot of Invasion.” Extrapolation, vol. 46, no. 3, 2005, pp. 373–394. Rushdie, Salman. “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance.” The Times, 3 July 1982, p. 8. Tiffin, Helen. “Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. Routledge, 2002, pp. 95–98. Vint, Sherryl. Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction. University of Toronto Press, 2007. Wolmark, Jenny. “Time and Identity in Feminist Science Fiction.” A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed. Blackwell Publishing, 2005, pp. 156–170. Wong, Rita. “Troubling Domestic Limits: Reading Border Fictions Alongside Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl.” BC Studies, no. 140, 2003–2004, pp. 109–124.


26 GOOD WIVES AND MOTHERS IN THE UNIVERSE Explorations of Traditional Chinese Gender Roles in Chi Hui’s “Nest of Insects” Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker “[A] ghost never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back.” —Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx (1994)

Introduction In recent years, the Confucian ideal of the “good wife and mother” (xianqi liangmu 贤妻良) has been enjoying a renaissance in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), where it is even embraced by highly educated urban professional women. Despite the remarkable progress towards gender parity during the Mao era and post-reform period, today’s women are increasingly suffering from the double burden of work and family due to restrictive social expectations. Not only is this a symptom of the continuity of patriarchal gender norms, but it also indicates a regressive development in postmodern Chinese society. Since today’s public discourse emphasizes the significance of family, existing gender inequalities in China are overshadowed. In this misogynist environment where feminist activism is being silenced, Chi Hui (迟卉, b. 1984) is one of the few science fiction authors from the PRC who gives voice to issues concerning women.1 This chapter examines the critical engagement with traditional gender norms in contemporary Chinese SF through a close reading of Chi Hui’s short story “Nest of Insects” (Chongchao 虫巢, 2008). I argue that this story highlights the discriminatory power of traditional gender norms and their instrumentalization as a means of policing female subjectivities, while at the same time reinforcing Confucian values. My analysis further suggests that, given the government’s crackdown on feminist movements, female writers use figurative language rather than openly criticizing women’s disadvantaged position in Chinese society. The understudied and underestimated writer Chi Hui represents the new generation of Chinese SF authors that revived the genre in the 1990s with its subversive stories. More than a century after the publication of China’s earliest feminist SF novel The Stone of Nüwa (Nüwa shi 女娲石, 1904) written under the pseudonym Haitianduxiaozi (海天独啸子) (R. K. Wang 7), Chi Hui continues the history of female utopian societies in Chinese SF and Chinese literature in general, which dates back even further. By envisioning a female-dominated world in the vastness of the universe, her DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-29 


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story “Nest of Insects” explores the conservative gender roles that force domestic and reproductive responsibilities upon Chinese women. The story’s rich symbolism provides multiple different perspectives and thus many opportunities for interpretation. Beyond the feminist perspective, the story allows for a reading as a critique of the social and parental pressure only children suffer from due to the one-child policy (yihai zhengce 一孩政策). Keeping the aim of this anthology in mind, this chapter focuses on the discussion of women’s issues in Chinese SF.2 Due to the male narrative tradition that led to female SF authors’ acceptance of these standards and the lack of awareness of the inequalities that women face among both male and female writers (Chen; Peng 10), feminist SF texts like Chi Hui’s are relatively rare in China. While recent scholarship has highlighted the cultural and political implications of contemporary Chinese SF (Healey; Li; Song; Y. Wang), only a few studies discuss the gender issues reflected in these works (Ling; Peng; Schneider-Vielsäcker; R. K. Wang). As Chinese scholars often confuse female SF (stories written by women) with feminist SF (feminist content regardless of the writer’s gender), conclusions are biased because a story written by a woman is not necessarily feminist. With the aim of filling this research gap, I seek to answer the question of how Chi Hui portrays women and gender roles. By applying feminist and gender-oriented narratology methods, I  will demonstrate that the prevailing conservative and sexist ways of thinking in Chinese society can be explored through SF literature.

The Specters of Traditional Gender Norms In December 2008, Chi Hui’s “Nest of Insects” first appeared in China’s leading SF magazine Kehuan Shijie (科幻世界, SF World); thus far, it is still to be translated into English. The story critically reflects on the existing gender hierarchy in China. It is narrated from an omniscient perspective and set in a distant future. The plot depicts a peaceful matriarchal society on the fictional planet of Tantatula, where the female protagonist Yi’ansa lives. She belongs to an ancient species called Tanla. As the leader of the mysterious nest, which is located at the core of the planet, and of the sacrificial ceremony that takes place there, the protagonist plays a crucial role. She is the only being who knows all the secret paths inside the nest. However, human colonizers soon disturb the harmony on Tantatula. The narrative consists of two storylines that converge at the end. The first describes an encounter between the protagonist and the human Chen Qingyan, who is sent by his government to search for his missing compatriot Sun Zhanmusi. This plotline also introduces the Tanla society and its ancient customs. The subplot tells us how the malicious Zhanmusi is holding a young Tanla couple hostage and forcing them to guide him through the nest into its center. To impress his father, he plans to wipe out the planet’s entire population by ambushing them during a ceremonial gathering. The matriarchal society implies a critique of the existing gender inequalities in contemporary China. In an interview with Kapsel, Chi Hui described China as an “artificial forest” in which “men and women, regardless of gender, are easily pruned, suppressed in growing or trimmed into a specific shape” (Dubro et al. 59).3 Her statement conveys profound social and cultural criticism. She condemns the way in which Chinese individuals have no self-determination—not only due to the authoritarian government, but also because of longstanding traditions. Chi Hui further explains that Chinese people are restricted by social norms: Men possess more opportunities, power, money, and mental superiority. In this respect, it is relatively challenging for women. At the same time, however, the level of freedom in society is lower for men and they have less choice [in terms of career]. (59) 191

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In China, the cultural model of masculinity ascribes certain characteristics to men, such as being strong, resilient, courageous, and aggressive (Fong 109). As a result of this model, men are favored for higher-paid and leadership positions (112). Due to social expectations that impose the role of breadwinner on Chinese men, they continue to experience significant pressure to find lucrative employment, even in families with two incomes (Zuo 334). By reversing the existing gender hierarchy and by visualizing the allegory of the “artificial forest” through the Tanla species, Chi Hui’s story raises awareness of gender inequalities. The Tanla only give birth to female children. During a ceremony, each adolescent girl is given a partner of the opposite sex in the form of a fruit, which she picks from a male adult and places in a flowerpot (Chi 22, 28). Cultivated for two years, the humanoid tree gradually assumes a human appearance and eventually awakens (16, 28). To emphasize gender issues, the story constructs a dichotomy between the weak male and the strong female Tanla. It thereby inverts the androcentric gender roles and stereotypical gender representation of mainstream film and literature. Male Tanla are depicted as effeminate: “Obviously this boy has ‘awakened’ only recently, he was far from speaking yet, and the wood grain was still clearly visible on his skin. He nervously grabbed the arm of his female guide and frequently gave a terrified whimper” (16). By referring to the protagonist as the “female guide” (yinlu nühai 引路女孩), or more literally “the girl who leads the way,” the narrative reinforces its critique of the interdependent relations between men and women. Since adult male Tanla are planted in a pot, their whole life depends on women. Moreover, after procreating with their assigned partner they turn back into trees and fall into a deep slumber (18). In this stage of their life, the fruit of the male offspring ripens within their bodies. Thus, their existence is reduced to a simple task: reproduction. Other than during the time of procreation, male Tanla spend their lives in a sleeping state. The motif of redistributing reproductive responsibilities links Chi Hui’s text to the feminist tradition of New Wave authors such as Marge Piercy (b. 1936) and Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018). If we read the Tanla male as a metaphor for the position of women in Chinese society, this satirical depiction can be understood as a critique of the author’s empirical reality in which women are increasingly restricted by traditional gender norms resulting from a resurgence of Confucian ideals. According to traditional values, men are responsible for external affairs and women for internal matters (nan zhu wai, nü zhu nei 男主外,女主内), creating a dichotomy of public and private spheres as well as a gender segregation (Sun and Chen 1092). Ji observes a regressive development in contemporary Chinese society that is characterized by the persistence of patriarchal gender norms within the family (private sphere) and the continued unequal distribution of domestic work (“Between” 1058–59). Her study shows that today even financially independent women are internalizing this order: “In these professional women’s minds, the significance of family is beyond question, overshadowing any unfairness of the unequal gender role division” (1068–69). Consequently, the majority of well-educated professional women accept the traditional role of “good wife and mother” and the concomitant reproductive and household responsibilities, so long as they are able to maintain their economic independence, even if this means they suffer from a double burden of work (public sphere) and family (private sphere) (Ji, “Between” 1069; Sun and Chen 1104). The public discourse obscures the main reasons for gender inequalities and the need for institutional change by using neoliberal rhetoric that emphasizes women’s “willingness to make sacrifices” as an “individual decision,” although some women have no choice at all (Ji, “Mosaic,” sec. 8; Sun and Chen 1094, 1100). Gender inequalities are therefore not only legitimized, but also depoliticized (Sun and Chen 1105). The narrative highlights these revived traditional gender roles metaphorically through the Tanla males’ reproductive function and dependence on their female partners. The text critically 192

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reflects the widespread idiom “Better marrying well than having a successful career” (gandehao buru jiadehao 干得好不如嫁得好), which mirrors men’s established role as breadwinners and the associated expectation that women will marry. It also emphasizes the sexist suppression of women due to the conservative ideal of the “good wife and mother” and women’s indestructible cultural allegiance to the domestic sphere. The metaphor of the male Tanla’s lifelong sleep refers to the low social status of Chinese women and highlights that their talents remain largely untapped since they suffer from the double burden of work and family. Women’s disadvantaged position in the urban labor market results from the devaluation of their performance on the grounds of imposed domestic obligations (Sun and Chen 1105). This disparagement of women’s potential and restriction to housework relates to the traditional ideal of “the talented man and the beautiful woman” (langcai nümao 郎 才女貌), the embodiment of the perfect couple. The ideal also explains the widespread notion that a woman’s primary “career” is to be a wife and homemaker, which implies that, from a Chinese perspective, education and profession are less desirable paths for women (Feldshuh 45–46). In the story, women’s low status is underlined by the nonexistence of the word “father” in the Tanla language: “Obviously, in a world in which the boys were planted, there was no suitable translation for the word ‘father’ ” (Chi 32). The arranged Tanla coupling satirizes the Chinese marriage markets. In 2004, this urban phenomenon first appeared in Beijing’s Longtan Park and it quickly spread nationwide to other metropolises (Gui 1924–25). On weekends, Chinese parents literally advertise their unmarried adult children. To provide for their old age through their children’s future offspring, they try to find a suitable match by talking to other parents. Marriage markets can thus be seen as a modern equivalent of Imperial China’s arranged marriage system. These markets are particularly biased since women are rated according to their appearance and age (i.e., fertility), whilst men are evaluated based on their educational attainment and income (1932). Consequently, the practices of matchmaking are further evidence of the prevailing gender inequalities. It is striking that, contrary to the social and cultural practices in China, the female characters of Chi Hui’s story are neither described by their appearance nor evaluated by other characters. In marriage decisions, women are not only significantly influenced by filial constraints (parental interference), but also by gendered constraints (norms of male superiority) (To 8). Due to the persistent traditional practice of hypergamy, Chinese men reject educated and professionally successful women, which leads to their public humiliation and discrimination against them (Hershatter 269; To 10). If these women, contrary to social expectations, decide to pursue their careers and remain unmarried in their late twenties or above, they are stigmatized as shengnü (剩女)—the so-called “leftover women.” Paradoxically, there is actually a surplus of Chinese men since the one-child policy has caused an uneven gender ratio. Alarmingly, unmarried women internalize the shengnü discourse and shame is generated to such an extent that they ultimately feel guilty about being single (Ji, “Between” 1065). Hence, when looking for a partner they may even conceal their high education level in order to increase their chances (Feldshuh 45; To 10). According to Feldshuh (37, 51), the pejorative term shengnü, which was coined by the Ministry of Education in 2007, is an instrument of social control that the Chinese authorities use due to fears of changing gender dynamics and power structures, as well as in reaction to the strengthening of women’s role in society. The financial independence of the women referred to as shengnü is projected onto the story’s imagined future. However, like the majority of Chinese women, the protagonist still suffers from a double burden of work and family. As the leader of the matriarchal society, she is in charge of the nest and ceremonial celebrations, and, at the same time, she tenderly looks after her adolescent male partner: “Yi’ansa . . . stretched out her hand to caress the boy’s wooden 193

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face” (Chi 8). Accordingly, the narrative reintegrates female stereotypes and traditional gender roles: women as the caring sex.

A Feminist Utopia Read as a feminist utopia, the female Tanla represent a hopeful vision of future gender equality since they are not only independent, strong, and intelligent but also hold decision-making positions. The peaceful matriarchal Tanla society stands in stark contrast to the aggressive male-dominated society of the humans, the Taiyang, literally meaning “the race of the sun” (taiyangzu 太阳族). In line with the stereotypical gender roles, male humans are portrayed as contemptuous, ruthless, and power-hungry. This becomes evident from the characterization of Chen Qingyan: “Among the Taiyang, he is certainly one of the younger ones, but his watchful black eyes and strong hands make him appear cold-blooded and resolute” (8–9). His physical strength and gaze’s terrifying effect point to the fact that men hold power and authority in Chinese society. This is further indicated by the humans’ conquest of the entire interstellar territory. Humans control all trade routes that converge on the planet Tantatula (20). When they demanded the land from the Tanla, they were refused. Eventually, under the pretext of avenging Zhanmusi, who disappeared on Tantatula, human troops invade and destroy all Tanla villages, forcing them to flee and resettle on a distant planet (38–40). Hence, the humans symbolize men’s current social status in China. Expulsion, control, and power are used as metaphors for the continuity of patriarchal structures and women’s subordination. According to To (11–12), Chinese men still have decision-making power over their wives’ work and lifestyle decisions, such as the number of working hours, whether they should quit their jobs after marriage and take on the role of housewife, and their spending (even when these women have earned the money themselves). Ultimately, the Taiyang fail in their mission. The Tanla manage to escape in time before they die from the enemy’s fire and the thuggish Zhanmusi is outwitted by his female hostage (Chi 26, 40). Inside the nest, this female Tanla unexpectedly slips into a small alcove together with her male partner. As both are enclosed in a cocoon, Zhanmusi is left alone in the mystical place. For him, this turns into a chamber of horrors because the nest’s honeycombed walls contain other Tanla pairs that gradually become one as they transform into giant beetles. Through this metamorphosis, the short story not only conveys a desire for equality in the future but also a general demand for fundamental change. The terrifying experience leaves Zhanmusi a broken man, as weak as the male Tanla: “He crouched down and hid in Chen Qingyan’s embrace like a large and exceedingly frightened baby” (48). The protagonist also seals his fate when she inflicts a just punishment on him. In the story, the quality of justice is attributed to women. With the male human’s failure, the narrative overthrows patriarchy and conveys a bold message. Chi Hui’s vision suggests that only a society run by women can be harmonious—in the sense of former president Hu Jintao’s (胡锦涛, b. 1942) maxim “Harmonious Society” (hexie shehui 和谐社 会)—whilst a society run by men leads to chaos and destruction.

Coda: Good Wives and Mothers Ad Infinitum? My analysis suggests that Chi Hui’s story illustrates the need for women’s empowerment. Considering the government’s turn against women’s movements, her feminist utopia uses a figurative language to criticize women’s disadvantaged social position. By reversing the existing gender hierarchy, the story raises awareness about the resurgence of Confucian thought and the discrimination against women in Chinese society. Within the Chinese context, the reflection of 194

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the regression in equality between men and women during the past three decades can not only be read as social criticism but also as a critique of the communist system and its promises: gender equality was one of the central promises following the proclamation of the PRC in 1949. In “Nest of Insects,” the body is used as a trope to discuss gender issues (the bodily limitations of the alien males who depend on their female partners) and to call for equality (the pair’s bodily transformation). This poetic link between the weak bodily constitution of literary characters and the socio-political conditions traces back to the Han dynasty (Hanchao 汉朝, 206 bc–220 ad): “Social critique and the prospects of national salvation are expressed in terms of physical and mental illness, and writing is seen as both a cause and possible cure” (Isaacson 44). At the start of the twentieth century, the trope reached its peak as a site for social critique in both Chinese realism and SF. Through the reinterpretation of this Chinese literary convention, “Nest of Insects” comments on the traditional, heterosexist norms that are increasingly restraining female bodies in twenty-first century China. “Nest of Insects” is representative of the generic hybridity of contemporary Chinese SF as it combines the aesthetic of modern Chinese literature with the Anglo-American SF tradition (Healey). The story also borrows stylistic elements from American feminist SF to discuss gender and explore solutions to gender inequalities, such as the creation of other planets or other spacetimes and the redistribution of reproductive responsibilities or invention of new reproductive forms. Marge Piercy’s feminist classic Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) comes to mind when thinking of the contrasting two worlds of utopian vision and the depressing reality in Chi Hui’s short story. Chi Hui’s narrative clearly contains a feminist stance as it overturns gender power relations. However, the story reintegrates traditional gender norms and, by inventing a new reproductive form that is still heterosexual, fails to erase heteronormativity. Despite being independent women like the shengnü, the female Tanla are by no means equally emotionally detached from men; instead, they assume a lifelong responsibility of motherly care for them. Consequently, the story places the women (of the future) right back into the role of the “good wife and mother.” In the sense of Derrida’s concept of hauntology discussed in Spectres de Marx (1993),4 twentyfirst century Chinese women are and continue to be haunted by a ghost from the past that is called Confucianism.

Notes 1 Please note that, unlike the rest of the collection, this chapter uses Chinese naming conventions, family name first. 2 In my thesis titled A Torn Generation’s Alternative Future Visions: Critical Reflections of Socio-Political Discourses in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction Literature (forthcoming), I  explore the story’s many layers. 3 All translations of Chinese primary texts are my own. 4 In her 2021 reading group, Professor Barbara Mittler from Heidelberg University inspired me to apply Derrida’s concept to understand the impact of Confucianism on China’s present when she described Confucianism as “a ghost from the past that haunts female bodies.”

Bibliography Chen, Qiufan. “Kehuan Zhong de Nüxing Zhuyi Shuxie” [Feminist Writing in Science Fiction]. Guangming Ribao [Guangming Daily], 26 September 2018, p. 14. Chi, Hui. “Chongchao” [Nest of Insects]. Kapsel: Fantastische Geschichten Aus China. Band 1: Das Insektennest, June 2017, pp. 6–51.


Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Routledge, 1994. Dubro, Lukas, et al. “Wangshang Liaojian Kapsel Chi Hui” [Chat Kapsel Chi Hui]. Kapsel: Fantastische Geschichten Aus China. Band 1: Das Insektennest, June 2017, pp. 54–60. Feldshuh, Hannah. “Gender, Media, and Myth-Making: Constructing China’s Leftover Women.” Asian Journal of Communication, vol. 28, no. 1, 2018, pp. 38–54. doi:10.1080/01292986.2017.1339721. Fong, Vanessa L. Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy. Stanford University Press, 2007. Gui, Tianhan. “ ‘Devalued’ Daughters Versus ‘Appreciated’ Sons: Gender Inequality in China’s ParentOrganized Matchmaking Markets.” Journal of Family Issues, vol. 38, no. 13, 2017, pp. 1923–1948. doi: 10.1177/0192513X16680012. Healey, Cara. “Estranging Realism in Chinese Science Fiction: Hybridity and Environmentalism in Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1–33. Hershatter, Gail. Women and China’s Revolutions. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. Isaacson, Nathaniel. “Science Fiction for the Nation: Tales of the Moon Colony and the Birth of Modern Chinese Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 33–54. Ji, Yingchun. “A  Mosaic Temporality: New Dynamics of the Gender and Marriage System in Contemporary Urban China.” Temporalités. Revue de Sciences Sociales et Humaines, no. 26, 2017. doi:10.4000/temporalites.3773. Ji, Yingchun. “Between Tradition and Modernity: ‘Leftover’ Women in Shanghai.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 77, no. 5, 2015, pp. 1057–1073. doi:10.1111/jomf.12220. Li, Hua. “Twenty-First Century Chinese Science Fiction on the Rise: Anti-Authoritarianism and Dreams of Freedom.” The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link. Cambridge University Press, 2019, pp. 647–663. Peng, Lang. Zhongguo nüxing kehuan yanjiu [A Study of Chinese Female Science Fiction]. Beijing Shifan Daxue Yanjiu Xueyuan [Graduate School of Beijing Normal University], May 2009. Schneider-Vielsäcker, Frederike. “An Ideal Chinese Society? Future China From the Perspective of Female Science Fiction Writer Hao Jingfang.” Monde Chinois, vol. 51–52, 2017, pp.  50–62. doi:10.3917/ mochi.051.0050. Song, Mingwei. “Variations on Utopia in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 86–102. Sun, Shengwei, and Feinian Chen. “Reprivatized Womanhood: Changes in Mainstream Media’s Framing of Urban Women’s Issues in China, 1995–2012.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 77, no. 5, 2015, pp. 1091–107. doi:10.1111/jomf.12219. To, Sandy. “Understanding Sheng Nu (‘Leftover Women’): The Phenomenon of Late Marriage among Chinese Professional Women.” Symbolic Interaction, vol. 36, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1–20. doi:10.1002/symb.46. Wang, Regina Kanyu. “The Evolution of Nüwa: A Brief ‘Herstory’ of Chinese SF.” Vector, vol. 293, 2021, pp. 7–11. Wang, Yao. “National Allegory in the Era of Globalization: Chinese Science Fiction and Its Cultural Politics since the 1990s.” Aspects of Science Fiction since the 1980s: China, Italy, Japan, Korea, edited by Lorenzo Andolfatto et al., Nuova Trauben, 2015, pp. 61–81. Zuo, Jiping. “From Revolutionary Comrades to Gendered Partners: Marital Construction of Breadwinning in Post-Mao Urban China.” Journal of Family Issues, vol. 24, no. 3, 2003, pp. 314–337. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/0192513X02250888.


27 GODDESSES, BROODS, AND HOMINIDS Sexual Pleasure and Desire in the Speculative Fictions of Octavia E. Butler and Nalo Hopkinson Sara Wenger Introduction Through their speculative fictions of not-too-distant futures, Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) and Nalo Hopkinson write for readers in the here and now, whenever that moment finds them. Both Butler and Hopkinson have received praise for their critical interrogations across space and time: Butler has been labeled a Black feminist philosopher of history and science (Weinbaum 2019; Cipolla et  al. 2017) while Hopkinson has been hailed as an “Afrofuturist visionary” (Enteen 2007). While Butler and Hopkinson explore a wide array of social and political themes that went on to inspire countless books, articles, and reviews—including critical analyses on racial and sexual violence, reproductive slavery, patriarchal power, and more—this chapter will focus on their fictional representations of Black women’s sexual desires and pleasures, dually complicated by gendered and racialized systems of oppression. In her book The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography (2014), Black feminist scholar Jennifer C. Nash critically examines what she refers to as the pornographic archive in order to locate and extend theories on Black women’s sexual pleasures within Black feminist scholarship. Through her archival analyses, Nash seeks to push Black feminist theory toward what she refers to as ecstasy, or “possibilities of female pleasures within a phallic economy [as well as] black female pleasures within a white-dominated representational economy” (2). In her close reading of Black women’s various pleasures in racialized pornographic texts, as well as her deep analysis of the “black feminist theoretical archive,” Nash hopes to shift Black feminist theory “beyond a rehearsal of black women’s troubled relationship with representation [and] toward a consideration of the fraught pleasures that come in and through blackness, and in and through performances of racial fictions” (147; emphasis in original). It is in this shift from pleasure to ecstasy, Nash argues, where a necessary concentration on fantasy can be had, one that does not consider fantasy to be “a violent technology which proliferates hyperbolic images of black female sexuality, but as a tool of imagination, as a space of freedom, and as a critical locus of play and performance for minoritarian subjects” (151). Nash’s critical intervention on pleasure demonstrates how the sexual is always tied to the political, unable to be separated from the violence of everyday life. Through her work on Black sexual politics and ecstasy, DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-30 


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Nash also shows the multidisciplinary reach of Black feminist theory as a philosophical and methodological approach. Similar to Nash’s analytical project, both Butler and Hopkinson present and explore “new questions about the complex relationship among race, gender, and pleasure” (Nash 22). Though Butler and Hopkinson are not explicitly creating pornographic texts, they do write and supply alternative possibilities for Black women’s sexual desires and pleasures without reducing Black women to “excess flesh” (Nash citing Fleetwood 150). Rather, their respective Black women protagonists indulge in various sexual desires and pleasures including but not limited to humanposthuman/alien sex, sexual toys and objects, and other erotic fantasies. Thus, the sexual desire and pleasure narratives in Butler and Hopkinson’s speculative stories are as groundbreaking as they are unnerving. In many ways, the assorted sexual desires and pleasures experienced by Black women are as alien as their other-worldly neighbors, companions, and lovers. The explicit focus on the multitudes of Black women’s sexual desires and bodily pleasures in these speculative stories can serve both to center and deepen conversations on Black women’s knowledge of and authority over their sexual presents and futures. As part of an ongoing speculative project, this chapter will focus on sexual desire and pleasure narratives presented in three texts: Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads (2003) as well as her short story collection, Falling in Love with Hominids (2015), and Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987–1989), republished in a single volume as Lilith’s Brood (2000). By positing Butler and Hopkinson as Black feminist writers and theorists, I intend to show how their speculative fictions serve as radical engagements with Black women’s complicated and often paradoxical relationship to Nash’s concept of ecstasy, generating spaces (and futures) where Black women’s sexual desires and pleasures are simultaneously brought to the fore and expressed outside of normative, whitecentered perceptions. Ultimately, this chapter engages with contemporary Black feminist scholarship on Black women’s ecstasy by categorizing Butler and Hopkinson’s speculative fictions as critical interventions (with)in Black feminism’s illustrious theoretical archive.

Sexual Desire in Falling in Love With Hominids In the foreword to Falling in Love with Hominids, Hopkinson cites Cordwainer Smith’s “Ballad of the Lost C’Mell”—a science fiction novella featuring a protagonist that is “not even of human extraction” (Smith 2)—as inspiration behind the book’s title and concept. Hopkinson describes her admiration for Smith’s “sensibility in writing about a racialized, manufactured underclass” and praises his dedication to “telling of stories from their context” (3). Hominids is similarly engaged with both racialized and gendered underclasses, showing characters who continually breach normative understandings of race, gender, sexuality, and desire while simultaneously acknowledging intersecting histories of “oppression, repression, abuse, [and] genocide” (Hopkinson 3). This is the complicated process, Hopkinson explains, of falling in love with hominids. Through the short stories presented in Hominids, as well as in her numerous standalone novels, Hopkinson chronicles her experience as a Black Caribbean woman writer in the science fiction and fantasy genres. “I’m black and female,” Hopkinson writes in the foreword to Hominids, “I  was born and for many years raised middle/creative class in the Caribbean, a region of the world which has had to be keenly aware of issues of race, class, gender, and privilege” (2). Hopkinson’s stories often critique Western science fiction, which she believes has a “stigma about being adventure stories in which white people use technology to overpower alien culture” (Rutledge 590). Thus, Hopkinson frequently requires readers to resist their anthropocentric tendencies and embrace interdependence between species. “Message in a Bottle,” the second story in Hominids, ruminates on the limitations of the human as both a social 198

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and scientific category: “Human beings, we’re becoming increasingly post-human,” declares one of the many other-than-human characters featured in the anthology (42). In defying social norms, Hopkinson’s speculative stories effectively engage with urgent topics—(post)humanity, anti-Black racism, misogyny, and the politics of pleasure, to name a few. As one of the more fruitful stories centered on sexual desire in Hominids, “The Smile on the Face” follows a young woman named Gilla who swallows a cherry pit from a tree occupied by a hamadryad. Readers watch as she slowly begins to understand what lays inside of her: a fire-breathing, dragon-like monster. Melding mythology with a coming-of-age tale, readers tag along on Gilla’s spectacular journey towards body acceptance, self-love, and budding sexual desire. In a pivotal scene, Gilla listens to the voice inside her head—her own voice, she later realizes—and physically defends herself against Roger, a bully who assaults her in a game of postman.1 Gilla “falls onto her hands and knees, solidly centered on all fours . . . feel[ing] her limbs flesh themselves into four knotted appendages, backwards-crooked and strong as wood” (67). Roger, once loud and crude, now visibly trembles at Gilla’s transformation. Gilla, a young Black girl, is the hero of her own tale, standing up to the abusive young man who verbally and physically assaults her. Additionally, Gilla slowly realizes her crush on Foster, a boy who compliments her throughout the story. While Roger views Gilla’s awakening as frightening, Foster, who arrives moments after Gilla’s transformation, embraces her appearance. At the end of the story, a grinning Gilla leads a blushing Foster to a proper game of postman. In penning Gilla’s story, Hopkinson speaks out against the “prevailing mass culture message” that believes “the only beautiful female body is young, white, straight-haired, and thin with a flat behind” (Johnston 207). Gilla initially compares herself to the notably thin girls around her. Yet, as Gilla becomes more comfortable with her appearance, she begins to develop what Hopkinson calls “a woman’s healthy body image,” embracing her inborn power and strength (207). Gilla also becomes more comfortable vocalizing her desires, particularly for Foster. Still, Gilla’s love and appreciation of herself—her appearance, strength, intelligence—will be an ongoing process, one that many young women, particularly Black women, experience and endure daily. In an interview with Gregory E. Rutledge, Hopkinson discusses her 1996 short story “A Habit of Waste,” which features an Afro-Caribbean girl living in Canada who wants to trade her body for one that is white and thin with straight hair. The young protagonist also “diets rigorously, and she hates it when her parents talk in creole and when other black women dress in ways that celebrate their bodies and their cultures” (Rutledge 592). After presenting the short story at a writer’s workshop, Hopkinson was told the protagonist can only choose one—“Is it internalized racism, or female body image problems, or the problems that the child of immigrants faces when she tries to adapt to a new culture?” Hopkinson argues that these themes were all “interrelated” and that it would not have “made sense to artificially disentangle them” (592). Ultimately, Hopkinson’s refusal to extricate these intertwining themes of racism, body image, and cultural assimilation from her writing bears witness to the complexity of Black female subjectivity. By acknowledging these complexities, young Black women protagonists such as Gilla are provided the necessary space to experiment with their bodies and sexual desires. Hopkinson’s speculative stories unapologetically embrace Black women’s sexual needs and pleasures, even in the face of hierarchies and systems of power looking to dismantle them.

Pain and Pleasure in The Salt Roads Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads is a sociohistorical detour from her typical speculative route. Rutledge, for example, believes The Salt Roads can be considered a “historical novel, neoslave narrative, or allegory of a slave narrative” depending on how readers approach the novel 199

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(“Review” 2). Similar to the protagonists in Hominids, Hopkinson portrays Black women in The Salt Roads as survivors of various social, cultural, and political dangers and brutalities. While Hopkinson’s characters lavishly probe normative boundaries of sexual desire and pleasure, the painful legacies associated with anti-Black racism, misogyny, and colonialism often haunt these erotic encounters. Still, The Salt Roads offers new possibilities for discourses on Black women’s sexual desire and pleasure, particularly on the topics of unnerving and/or taboo sex. In an interview with Nancy Johnston, Hopkinson explains how it seemed “risky to use Caribbean characters to examine different kinds of sexualities and sexual relationships.” Hopkinson goes on: “I think that we (Caribbean people) are so used to protecting our sexualities from prurient gaze that we’ve built up these huge taboos against many types of sexual expression . . . I’ve been affected by those taboos, too” (Johnston 208). Speculative narrations on sexual desire and pleasure pulsate throughout Hopkinson’s works, and The Salt Roads is no exception. On the topic of writing sex scenes in her stories, Hopkinson states that she believes Science fiction and fantasy are about looking at the world through a different lens. So whatever I write, including sex scenes, I may first think, “how can I cause myself, and the reader, to see this differently? What can I do to challenge, delight, surprise, unsettle?” (Johnston 206) Hopkinson’s urge to “challenge, delight, surprise, [and] unsettle” reflects Nash’s critical Black feminist scholarship on ecstasy, as she believes pornographic texts have the power to “unsettle and excite, offend and titillate, humor and disgust” (Nash 25). Both Hopkinson and Nash understand the representational power of fantasy, as well as how ecstasy can arise from unsettling sexual scenarios. Ecstatic opportunities, then, may be found in fictional depictions of nonnormative sexual acts that both transgress and imitate racialized and gendered stereotypes. The non-linear, entropic narration in The Salt Roads is shaped by the embedded experiences of Ezili, a goddess figure shifting through space and time, occupying the bodies of the other diasporic African women featured in the novel: Jeanne Duval, a performer and lover to Charles Baudelaire; Mer, an enslaved woman with a talent for healing; and Thais, a strong-willed Egyptian prostitute. Through the experiences of these women, Hopkinson shows how white Europeans remain complicit in the sexual brutalization and degradation of Black women. Readers watch as the pleasure of white men often arises from the physical, emotional, and psychological pain of Black women. At the same time, there are perceptible moments of pleasure for Jeanne, Mer, and Thais, even as they are constrained by sociohistorical dynamics and structures intent on dehumanizing Black women. Hopkinson explains: “For me, it’s part of my avowal that black people and Caribbean people are human, in the face of a world that continually tries to convince us that we are not” (Johnston 208). In the sexual experiences and expressions of Jeanne, Mer, and Thais—as well as several other Black and brown women featured in the novel—Hopkinson offers a visceral look at non-normative desires and pleasures. In doing so, Hopkinson also risks delving into the uncomfortable world of racially based sexual anxieties and fears. Hopkinson theorizes that part of what disturbs certain readers about the non-normative sexualities featured in The Salt Roads is how she “involve[s] a respected historical literary figure in it (Charles Baudelaire)” and also “show[s] black people doing kinky sex.” Hopkinson admits, There are all kinds of reasons why it feels particularly taboo to do the latter. For one thing, we—“we” in this instance meaning “black people”—are too often the victims of having white sexual fears projected onto our bodies, often in dangerous ways. So 200

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we can be cautious about making any room for that to happen. But I think there’s a cost when black communities keep too opaque a veil over the fact that black people’s desire and sexual inclinations are as varied and human as anyone else’s. I was thinking about that when I wrote The Salt Roads. (Johnston 211) Hopkinson’s insistence that “black people’s desire and sexual inclinations are as varied and human as anyone else’s” reinforces a sentiment similar to Nash’s argument on ecstasy, particularly how it “marks the fraught nature of racial-sexual pleasure, and underscores what is unnerving and complicated about [these pleasures]” (Nash 149). According to Nash, race works “both to limit our sexual imaginations, and to provide us with powerful vocabularies for naming what we desire; it recognizes that the very structures we critique and seek to dismantle can also thrill” (150). The mere presence of Black women—whose experiences are still marred by anti-Black violence and misogyny across centuries—experiencing ecstasy in The Salt Roads is enough to violate the normative boundaries of sexual desire and pleasure. It is unnerving to conventional readers, Hopkinson notes, “simply because it’s there” (Johnston 213).

The Horror and Beauty of Lilith’s Brood Lilith Iyapo’s story begins after the end of her two worlds: Earth, decimated by a nuclear war, and her son, lost years prior in a fatal car accident. Through the fictional character of Lilith, Butler examines the painful, precarious position of Black women in post-catastrophe times. Acutely concerned with the history of eugenics and scientific racism in the United States, Butler confronts the intimacies of race, gender, slavery, and biocapitalism through a speculative narrative that articulates not only the innate horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade but also the neoliberal sexual and reproductive extractions that emerged in the late 20th century (Weinbaum 113). Moreover, the character of Lilith provides an unsettling complication to normative sexual desires and pleasures after she repeatedly engages in sex with an alien species. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy follows protagonist Lilith as she faces near-constant transitions—from human to posthuman, nuclear war survivor to reluctant leader, relic of the past to mother of the future. An alien species known as the Oankali place themselves at the center of Lilith’s story in the first book of the trilogy, Dawn (1987). After visiting Earth in the wake of a nuclear war, the Oankali abduct the remaining human survivors and clean what is left of the planet, reintroducing indigenous organisms and fauna alongside some of the Oankali’s own lifeforms. The Oankali are genetic traders who capture Lilith—and, as readers later learn, many other humans—for specific reasons: access to their genetic data and reproductive capacities. Having established symbiotic relationships with other species across the galaxy, the Oankali combine their genetic make-up with others to create hybrids (or “constructs”) resembling the two species. After placing Lilith in suspended animation, the Oankali wake her centuries later to inform her of their plan to create human-Oankali constructs—both Oankali-born and human-born—of which Lilith ultimately becomes the progenitor. This gene trade can be considered a matter of life or death for both the Oankali and the humans as the production of these constructs are the only viable future for each species. Yet, it is the scientifically advanced Oankali who set the terms of the deal: if the surviving humans refuse to trade with them, they are sentenced to die, infertile, on a contaminated Earth. Lilith’s “choice” is both duplicitous and historically significant, echoing centuries of scientific and medical violence against Black women, particularly in the United States. Lisa Dowdall explains how the Oankali’s proposal “directly recalls the exploitation of the biological labor of poor black and brown bodies, from slave breeding to contemporary organ markets” (509). 201

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Lilith must also confront human-committed atrocities in the form of fights, rape attempts, and verbal assaults from the newly awakened human survivors she was tasked to help by the Oankali. Ultimately, Butler positions Lilith as outsider both to humans (who no longer see her as fully human) and Oankali. Éva Federmayer notes how in Butler’s trilogy dualities such as “self and other, human and Oankali, man and woman . . . are not arranged along binaries where the first term is hierarchically defined at the expense of the other” (111). The dissolution of Lilith’s humanness comes to a fever pitch at the end of Dawn, when Lilith chooses to save a dying Oankali in front of the human resistors, thus marking her as a traitor to humankind—or what is left of it. Similar to Hopkinson’s exploration of (post)humanism in Hominids, Butler’s writing challenges dominant perceptions of humanity, troubling the margins of Lilith’s multifaceted identity throughout Lilith’s Brood. Within the Oankali species, there are three established genders: males, females, and the gender-neutral ooloi. The ooloi—who are referred to as “it” in the trilogy—possess additional sensory arms capable of penetrating and healing flesh, forming neurochemical connections, and manipulating genetic material. Perhaps most importantly, ooloi beget interspecies reproduction, secreting a pleasure-inducing substance which affects both humans and Oankali and thus deepening bonds of affection between species. Similar to Hopkinson, Butler interrogates the fluidic space of non-normative sexual desires and pleasures in speculative fiction. Nikanj—an ooloi Lilith harbors complicated feelings for throughout the trilogy—guides Lilith and her human lover Joseph in sexual intercourse via its sensory arms. During this experience, Joseph seems more alarmed than Lilith, who states how she “liked” the neural stimulation and asks Joseph afterwards if he feels the same. Joseph replies by saying “that thing will never touch [him] again if [he has] anything to say about it” (169). Lilith later describes the ooloi-enacted sex as a type of “literal, physical addiction to another person” (679) and believes Nikanj “created for them the powerful threefold unity that was one of the most alien features of Oankali life” (220). Aparajita Nanda notes how “a teacher-student relationship, despite initial impulses of revulsion, grows between [Lilith and Nikanj], which in its reciprocity becomes a strong bond complicated by sexual overtones.” Moreover, Lilith “develops intrinsic ties with Nikanj that defy simple dualities of oppressor and oppressed” (780). Lilith’s sexual desires and pleasures also satisfy Nikanj, as ooloi experience a form of pleasure via its sexual contact with both humans and Oankali. While not an inherently sexual pleasure, Ronald Bogue states how ooloi find acts such as healing humans “decidedly sensual and erotic.” Bogue also deems the fragile division “between sexual and non-sexual pleasure, at least in ooloi relations with humans and Oankali, [as] provisional at best” (41). Rather than portraying humans as desperate for ooloi contact, it appears ooloi are also reliant upon the intimacies of humans. Ultimately, the Oankali and humans are co-constitutive, relying upon one another to learn, grow, and survive. As Erin M. Pryor Ackerman notes, expressions of desire are “inextricably linked with and implicated in power, both for those desiring and those desired” (40). Lilith’s desire for sex via/with Nikanj is one of the many paradoxes presented in Butler’s trilogy. It is also one of the most unnerving. The fraught questions plaguing Lilith’s sexual desires and pleasures—namely, are these feelings really hers?—places a darker perspective on the intimate entanglements presented in Butler’s visions of the future. Lilith does not “pretend outwardly or to herself that she would resist Nikanj’s invitation—or that she wanted to resist it” and believes “Nikanj could give her an intimacy with Joseph that was beyond ordinary experience” (Butler 161). Still, like the humans they appear fascinated by, the Oankali are deeply flawed. Unlike the humans, however, the Oankali have the technological advantage throughout the trilogy and appear (mostly) comfortable in their choices. Lilith’s sexual explorations involve pain and bliss, fear and delight; perhaps most unsettling is how readers bear witness to it all. Sexual desire, in 202

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its many forms, is often “fraught and complicated terrain” (Nash 150). Yet, Butler complicates the Oankali-human relationship by asking an important question: is it the ooloi who could not exist without humans, or the humans who could not exist without ooloi? The answer, much like desire, is far from simple. As Nikanj tells Lilith and Joseph in Dawn: “You are horror and beauty in rare combination. In a very real way, you’ve captured us, and we can’t escape” (153).

Writing Ecstasy In the conclusion to Black Body in Ecstasy, aptly titled “Reading Ecstasy,” Nash explains her fascination with pornographic texts, saying that they represent “sites where one would not expect to locate political possibility; these are [racialized] texts where black women’s bodies have been represented not to engender political shifts, but to generate new profits” (147). Nash goes on to say that “it is in this surprise location—the pornographic archive—that I find black pleasures articulated, amplified, and practiced” (147). In her discussion of sexual fantasies, Nash notes the importance of a “black feminist fantasy,” where its theoretical archive could serve “in part, to expand the fantastical structures available to subjects, to strive for heterogeneous representational economies which make space for varied black pleasures.” Fantasy would then be “articulated as both a right and a freedom, as absolutely central to black feminist political work” (151). The explicit focus on Black women’s sexual desires and pleasures in Hominids, Salt Roads, and Lilith’s Brood offers speculative and fantastical extensions of Black feminist scholarship, of which Nash’s work on ecstasy provides a crucial intervention. It is within these speculative fictions where Black girls and women have the space to be messy, complex, and paradoxical in their sexual desires and pleasures, even as systems of oppression, domination, and violation threaten to eradicate fantastical possibilities of ecstasy.

Note 1 Occasionally referred to as “post office” or “postman’s knock,” “postman” is a teenaged party game in which a kiss is exchanged for an imaginary letter.

Bibliography Ackerman, Erin M. Pryor. “Becoming and Belonging: The Productivity of Pleasures and Desires in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy.” Extrapolation, vol. 49, no. 1, 2008, pp. 24–43. doi: 10.3828/ extr.2008.49.1.3 Bogue, Ronald. “Alien Sex: Octavia Butler and Deleuze and Guattari’s Polysexuality.” Deleuze and Sex, edited by Frida Beckman, Edinburgh University Press, 2011, pp.  30–49. doi:10.3366/ edinburgh/9780748642618.003.0002 Butler, Octavia. Lilith’s Brood. Grand Central Publishing, 2000. Cipolla, Cyd, Kristina Gupta, David A. Rubin, and Angela Wiley, eds. Queer Feminist Science Studies: A Reader. University of Washington Press, 2017. Enteen, Jillana. “ ‘On the Receiving End of the Colonization’: Nalo Hopkinson’s Nansi Web.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, 2007, pp. 262–282. Fe, Lisa. “Treasured Strangers: Race, Biopolitics, and the Human in Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 44, no. 3, 2017, pp. 506–525. doi: 10.5621/sciefictstud.44.3.0506 Federmayer, Éva. “Octavia Butler’s Maternal Cyborgs: The Black Female World of the Xenogenesis Series.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), vol. 6, no. 1, 2000, pp. 103–118. Hopkinson, Nalo. “A Habit of Waste,” Fireweed #53, 1996. Reprinted in Skin Folk, Warner Aspect Books, 2001, pp. 183–188. Hopkinson, Nalo. Falling in Love with Hominids. Tachyon Publications, 2015. Hopkinson, Nalo. The Salt Roads. Warner Books, 2003.


Sara Wenger Johnston, Nancy. “ ‘Happy That It’s Here’: An Interview with Nalo Hopkinson.” Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction, edited by Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon, 2008, pp. 200– 215, doi: 10.5949/UPO9781846313882 Nanda, Aparajita. “Power, Politics, and Domestic Desire in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood.” Callaloo, vol. 36, no. 3, 2013, pp. 773–788, doi:10.1353/cal.2013.0164 Nash, Jennifer C. The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography. Duke University Press, 2014, doi:10.1215/9780822377030 Rutledge, Gregory E. “Review of The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson.” Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, 2006. Rutledge, Gregory E. and Nalo Hopkinson. “Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson.” African American Review, vol. 33, no. 4, 1999, pp.  589–601, doi:10.2307/2901339 Smith, Cordwainer. “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell.” Galaxy Magazine, 1962. Weinbaum, Alys Eve. The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery: Biocapitalism and Black Feminism’s Philosophy of History. Duke University Press, 2019, doi:10.1215/9781478003281



Where Media and Transmedialities

Figure 28.1  Gili Ron, “Untitled #4” (2022)


On the evening of February 12, 1949, a radio news team interrupted the scheduled musical broadcast to announce that an alien invasion was underway, rapidly and violently taking over the country. The announcement was immediately followed by the voices of familiar authority figures who confirmed the emergency, and a panic amongst the listeners ensued which left ten dead in its wake and many others injured and angry. This tragedy took place in Ecuador, when Leonardo Páez produced a translated performance of the more well-known Orson Welles radio performance of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds from 1938, clearly hitting a nerve with the listeners whose rising fear turned into frenzied and fatal rioting when hearing it was just a hoax (Wynn). Although initially so easy to dismiss the silly—if sinister—overreaction of the listening public, as the chapters in this section demonstrate, considering how technology mediates authority and enacts power within even the most banal aspects of our daily lives, goes far in explaining the hold that a disembodied, masculine voice which is aligned with hegemonic power and emerging from the wireless, would have. The flip side of this same coin is, of course, the subversive potential that technology affords to destabilize the power structures and to mediate new voices, new frameworks, new stakes of expression. Gary W. Dowsett, writing anecdotally about coming of age as queer in Brisbane, Australia, explains how it was the arrival of television in 1958 and along with it Judy Garland’s sensual lips, Laurel and Hardy playing it straight while sharing a bed, and Rocky Jones: Space Ranger’s lascivious foe, that opened up new avenues of imagination. As Dowsett writes, technology queered heterosexuality—even before the Internet. Indeed, even the earliest advocates of radio, the new communications tech, could recognize both the opportunity and the danger this medium held as in and of itself a mechanism of social change, not least with regards to gender (Murphy and Andrews & McNamara). As early as the 1920s, Radio News, the US monthly tech journal, for example, angered many (male) readers by expanding its target audience to include women, with columns, ads, and articles catering to perceived female interests (Novak). The publisher of this monthly was none other than Hugo Gernsback himself, a game-changing pioneer in science fiction, whose role in effectively founding the entire genre is well known. And thus we tie together the ends of this section: media and transmedialities as the platforms on which SF and gender are performed, enacted, and articulated. So, where is the site on which gender work is done and what exactly is this work? Alexis Lothian, in her introduction to the special issue of Ada: A  Journal of Gender, New Media  & Technology on the Feminist Present in SF, explains that

DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-32 


Keren Omry

fictions and realities of scientific speculation shape how we experience the nexus of gender, new media, and technology—from the gendered history of physics to the migration of brain-scanning technology out of laboratories and into the world, from imagined visions of reproductive technologies to sentient robots to the social consequences of cataclysmic change in urban landscapes. (Lothian) Reminding us that knowledge is not innocent and that its application as technology is always political, Lothian’s description adds a feminist, activist dimension to the project of unpacking how medium mediates. Alex Prong’s chapter, for example, looks at one of the more literal forms of mediation, namely, language. Specifically, Prong analyzes the non sequitur as both a linguistic and a narratival strategy that disrupts established logic, “conspiring against the . . . sequence.” The effect is surprise, humor, subversion, and it is according to Prong through “illogical” patterns of disruption that new relationships can be formed. Candice Wilson and Tobias Wilson-Bates also invoke rupture in their chapter on Japanese anime and the figure of the shōjo time-traveling girl. This chapter destabilizes the prioritized categories of femininity in Western perceptions by analyzing stories taking place at the transitional phase in a teenage girl’s body. Readers follow the disrupted mechanisms of time as the anime itself becomes a kind of time-machine exploring gender through transition and transformation. Susan Knabe also examines time as a mechanism that creates new possibilities. Referring to this mechanism as “queer time,” Knabe’s close reading of Torchwood, the television series, shows how the episodes depict time travel as disrupting heteronormative narratival linearity but also as, ultimately, perpetuating the erasures of non-normative desire. The link between the body and identity and identification, once taken as given, has become fraught and fruitfully problematized in contemporary discourse, as can be seen in both Erik Steinskog’s chapter on Janelle Monáe and Jaime Oliveros García and Alejandro López Lizana writing about The Red Strings Club, the videogame. Both of these chapters show the use of medium to clearly challenge cisgender conceptualizations and critically examine the process of identification that takes place both when creating and when consuming science fiction. Analyzing Monáe’s “e-motion picture,” Dirty Computer, as well as her presentation as a public persona, Steinskog shows how Monáe carefully constructs her performance (of music, of race, of gender) to extend the ways identity is articulated. Oliveros García and López Lizana show how the game mechanics bring identity to the players’ attention and require them to confront their assumptions and make choices in relation to both their own character’s progress and to others. In reading through the chapters in this section it becomes clear that it is precisely in the relation to others, the modes of communication enabled, and the kinds of community formed, that the medium itself becomes key. Nedine Moonsamy, for example, analyzes two short stories of African Speculative Fiction wherein different kinds of AI become transformative agents which de-gender and re-gender technology. Through Moonsamy’s framing, Wole Talabi and Nnedi Okorafor’s stories offer “templates for more ethical relationality,” which can then extend beyond these texts to more mundane interfaces with technology. Paweł Frelik’s chapter on gaming, modding, and gender similarly sheds light on the relationality of science fiction technology. Focusing on “non-normative sexualities and speculative genders,” and on both the mechanics of the game and the practices of fans, Frelik demonstrates the potential for change and new forms of intimacy that these games represent and afford. Furthermore, these notions of intimacy—female-tech community in Moonsamy and inter- and meta-textual relationality in Frelik—resonate rather differently with John Rieder, Itala Schmelz, and Dagmar Van Engen who all look much more explicitly to sexuality. Where Rieder traces the ways in which different 208


theatrical and cinematic adaptations of Frankenstein differ precisely on the kinds of interpersonal structures within the protagonist, the “departure from and return to conventional sexual mores,” Schmelz and Van Engen move far afield from conventional mores, looking at the representation of the monstrous and the perceptions of perversity, respectively. Schmelz extracts the monster from a familiar framing within US Hollywood paranoia and identifies its role as an empowered and other-gendered presence in Mexican cinema. Van Engen, in turn, brings us back to Japanese anime, specifically at trans-inclusive animated tentacle erotica in order to powerfully challenge the idea that tentacles or trans people are in themselves misogynist or perverse. Many of these chapters elucidate a kind of spectacle of blindness wherein the gaze of the outsider misperceives what it sees and yet establishes it as fact, and by elucidating begin to recuperate the subject position. Danielle Girard’s chapter turns to Star Trek: The Original Series and shows how it is the structures of nearly endless parodies that established William Shatner’s Captain Kirk as a promiscuous misogynist, when in fact this is far from the character’s nature on the show. By turning readers’ attention to these structures we can cease remaining complicit in the needless extension of toxic masculinity. Rebecca J. Holden’s chapter extends the discussion on the power of the external hegemonic gaze and turns to fashion as the medium by which marginalized women are recuperated and new futures beyond the cyberpunk dystopia can be imagined. In all of these paradigms of gender work mapped out in the chapters that follow: disruption, identification, relationality, sexuality, and recuperation, we see how technology within the aesthetics of science fiction creates new ideas, new possibilities, and new mechanisms to mediate difference. Whether it is within literature, radio, videogames, mods, cinema, television, anime, language, or fashion, it becomes self-evident that as technology changes so too does the wealth of futures open to us.

Bibliography Andrews, Maggie, and Sally McNamara, editors. Women in the Media: Feminism and Femininity in Britain, 1900 to Present. Routledge, 2014. Dowsett, Gary W. “ ‘And Next, Just for Your Enjoyment!’: Sex, Technology, and the Constitution of Desire.” Culture, Health & Sexuality, vol. 17, no. 4, 2015, 527–539. doi:10.1080/13691058.2014.961170 Lothian, Alexis. “Introduction: Science Fiction and the Feminist Present.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, no. 3. doi:10.7264/N3FQ9TJR Murphy, Kate. Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Novak, Matt. “Nerd Rage: Gendered Tech During the Rise of Radio.” Pacific Standard, 14 June 2017. Wynn, Michael. “H. G. Wells in Ecuador.” 2003. ivanrodrigo/



Despite science fiction’s origins as a privileged narrative mode of white and patriarchal technomodernity, the genre has been, for a while now, recognized as capable of offering multiple visions of gender identities and sexual politics that can be described as progressive, subversive, and liberatory. And yet, not all SF media are equal in this endeavor. Science fiction video games have been markedly lagging behind literature, comics, and film, with fantastical gaming genders that have remained embedded in the larger problematic character of the medium and its industry. Indeed, the gaming industry—at least its high-budget section—in its institutional structures as well as in many of its texts and practices both industrial (i.e., the culture of design studios) and extra-industrial (i.e., fandom), largely and (semi-)actively encourages, fosters, and perpetuates a culture of toxic masculinity, objectification of women, and erasure of non-binary genders and non-normative sexualities. Admittedly, the situation may be somewhat less grim when it comes to independent and art games, but, by and large, speculative games remain delayed in their portrayals of the complexities of human gender and sexuality when measured against other media of the genre. One of the long traditions in video game criticism are intermedial comparisons. While video games are, in many respects, a medium very much different from other audiovisual forms, they also share a number of properties and tendencies with film or television, especially when it comes to their worldbuilding and diegetic dimensions, including the treatment of gender and sexuality. Consequently, critical work on games all too often frames its analysis in terms of other media, inevitably drawing similar conclusions concerning gender representation in speculative video games. This chapter seeks to avoid this redundancy and, after a general overview of gender representation in speculative games, will focus on those aspects that are either unique to the ludic medium or present difference from the similar portrayals in the genre’s other audiovisual forms. Consequently, approaching the representation of gender and sexuality in speculative video games requires a species of triangulation, within which those aspects that are unique to them need to be considered in relation to both science fiction’s other visual media and other thematic conventions of the gaming medium. In light of this, this chapter aims to achieve three DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-33 


Representation, Performance of Gender in Video Games, Mods

distinct things. First, it will provide an overview of the state of diegetic representation of gender in speculative video games, focusing particularly on the visions of non-normative sexualities and speculative genders. Second, it will look both at the ways in which speculative games provide— or fail to provide—opportunities for their players to self-express their gender identity as well as at how game mechanics may constrain expressions and fantasies or provide space for them. Finally, it will comment on the fan-side practices, particularly modding, as they intersect with gender representation. While all these perspectives are necessarily interrelated, each of them expresses a different modality of games’ existence in culture: the first focuses on the in-game worldbuilding, the second on the space of intimacy between games and players, and the third on the social uses of games and their transformations. Ultimately, the discussion is informed by the belief that the representations of genders and sexualities matter in speculative games, perhaps even more so than in non-interactive media. In The PlayStation Dreamworld (2017), a compelling work on digital games’ psychological and political work, Alfie Bown asserts that any “potential attempt at subversion needs to work inside this dreamspace—a powerful force in constructing our dreams and desires—or else the dreamworld will fall into the hands of the corporations and the state” (3). Speculative video games do not merely hold the promise of questioning and undermining existing normative structures—this is, after all, a potential, even if often unfulfilled, of all science fiction media. The speculative character of SF gameworlds creates a space of possibility that not only allows for rethinking gender identity and representation, but also for performing them. Inevitably, much depends on the specific game genre and its interactive affordances. For instance, in role-playing games, Emily Cox-Palmer-White suggests, the players “may experiment with identities and self-expressions that challenge normative structures, including gender” (119). Her analysis of play as the male character of Deus Ex games is heavily inflected by the Deleuzian concept of becoming, which may be somewhat optimistic for most commercial titles, but the promise of self-expression definitely persists. In blockbuster games, a marginalized identity may often become reduced to a “re-skinning,” in which gender as well as race and sexuality come across more as menu choices than meaningfully incorporated features, but games’ potential for subversion is unmistakable. This subversion may, for instance, assume the form of queering, a now-old technique of reading literary works that, Bonnie Ruberg proposes, can be hijacked to read games queerly and to lay claim to the equal citizenship of those who are “different” in games cultures by understanding games on the terms and through the methods that we deem meaningful rather than those set and policed by the gamer status quo. (61) This has been successfully used not only by Ruberg in their writings but also by other critics. Kaitlin Moore’s 2017 reading of NieR: Automata, a gorgeous post-humanity narrative, from the perspective of queer melancholia is a perfect example of such an approach, as is Chris Lawrence’s take on the much-beloved Zelda in “What If Zelda Wasn’t a Girl? Problematizing Ocarina of Time’s Great Gender Debate.”

Diegetic Representation As mentioned earlier, despite documents such as Press X to Make Sandwich: A Complete Guide to Gender Design in Games (Anhut), the medium—and especially its big-budget flavor—seems to lag behind other audiovisual media. A significant proportion of gender and sexuality-oriented representation replicates tropes and figures found in other media, particularly from the past. 211

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In that, to say that most SF game protagonists are men is to state the obvious. A 2009 largescale multiplatform analysis of more than 8,000 characters across 150 video games found that only 15% of video game characters were female and that this number dropped to 10% for female main characters (Williams et al.). These results are consistent with earlier studies (Dietz; Downs & Smith) and paralleled the findings of the blog Feminist Frequency, which originated in Anita Sarkeesian’s videos in 2009 and, for years, ran a statistical breakdown of the gender of protagonists in titles shown during the E3 industry fairs.1 And indeed, in science fiction, major titles and franchises, such as Doom, Quake, BioShock, Halo, and F.E.A.R., have featured exclusively male protagonists among their playable characters. Beyond numbers, the actual depiction of female protagonists in digital games often emphasizes their bodies at the expense of personality (Perreault et al.), often devolving into their hypersexualization (Downs and Smith). Quite predictably, women were also far more likely to be presented as nude (Haninger and Thompson).2 Like in other media, stereotypes of women are rampant in speculative games, including monstrous femininity. To wit, in Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017) and Resident Evil VIII: Village (2021), the player-protagonist Ethan Winters is under attack from women and girls infected by a parasitic fungus. This clear trope of the patriarchal fear of transgressive female power is often weaponized through the female antagonists (Pinder). The stereotypical representation of women also persists in the objectification of sex work. Despite Ruberg’s (2019) suggestion, in “Representing Sex Workers in Video Games,” that there is a palpable move beyond neoliberal feminist framing of sex work as an inherently exploitative practice, and their investigation of the mechanisms through which the value of erotic labor is diminished or erased, sex workers in most SF video games are female and their representation is redolent of old cliches. This is true, for instance, for the representation of Tenderloin in Watch Dogs 2 (2016). Incidentally, the same title also features Miranda Comay, a transgender woman and a friend of the playable protagonist’s family, whose outing is presented in the game as funny. On a related note, Mass Effect: Andromeda in 2017 features a non-playable character of Hainly Abrams, a transgender woman, who—in the original version of the game— identified herself to the playable Ryder character in their very first conversation, including the mention of her “dead name.” To Bioware’s credit, this was fixed in a later patch after the company was called out on the blunder. Finally, a token or understated presence of non-heteronormative sexualities can also be considered a kind of stereotype: the Assassin’s Creed franchise, whose major frame, despite historical background of most games, is definitely speculative, features a number of such presences (obeseninjao7), and Tracer from 2016 Overwatch is identified as lesbian only in a paratext of the game. Even where speculative games attempt to be progressive, the gender representation can be conflicted. While a few allow for a choice of the playable character’s gender, the latter is practically exclusively binary. The Mass Effect games (2007, 2010, 2012), arguably one of the most lauded SF trilogies, provide a good case in point. On the one hand, Asari, a descriptively mono-gendered alien species, consistently present as usually voluptuous women, and, on the other, most alien species do not seem to possess females, except for Krogans and Turians. In Prey (2017), the player can choose a male or a female version of the protagonist Morgan Yu, with very little consequence for the gameplay (and none for the narrative). Similarly, in Far Cry 6 from 2021 the playable Dani Rojas cannot be modified and the player only chooses the female or male version of the character.3 All of this does not mean that there are no interesting gender visions to be found in speculative video games. The gender-fluid character of Flea appeared in Chrono Trigger as early as in 1995. Fallout 2 (1998) features fully explicit same-sex marriage—not just romance!— making it possibly one of the earliest open-world games to possess this option. NieR: Automata 212

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(2017) showcases a number of androids who, while presenting as gendered in their attempts to decipher the mystery of humanity, are essentially non-gendered, a trope that seems as simple as it is not obvious given a long history of gendering in general and feminizing in particular of machinic subjectivities. Against this history, Trevor Richardson writes very movingly about how the game’s mechanics reflect living as a non-binary person in a cisheterocentric world. In the same franchise, Kainé, a principal character in Nier from 2010, later remastered as Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139 in 2021, is an intersex person. The 2018 Heaven Will Be Mine is a queer visual novel about three women piloting giant robots in the last days of an alternate 1980s space program. Kara Stone’s 2019 Ritual of the Moon is a 28-day-long multi-narrative game exploring loneliness, power, and healing that involves a queer love and longing. In Outer Wilds from 2019, the Hearthian race, to which the player character belongs, have no gender and are consistently referred to as “they” even though the game features other gendered races. Last but not least, Cloudpunk from 2020 can be read as a narrative of trans rights, even if it is not entirely convincing (Compendio).4

Player Expression Game characters, Andrew Burn argues, play a dual role as both a player agent and a fictional character, belonging simultaneously to the “ludic” and “representational” systems that comprise the game (72–73). Indeed, a significant body of scholarship exists on the various modalities of the character-player relationship (Waszkiewicz) as well as on the creation of avatars, in-game visual representations (Banks). Despite their speculative scenarios, in-game avatars can channel ideal body self-presentation (cf. Thomas and Johansen) and are often, given the affordances of the titles, carefully crafted by the players to reflect or fantasize on their real-world identity. In some genres of video games, avatars can be modeled in terms of their gender presentation and some of these decisions may also influence other aspects of in-game presence, such as narrative or interactions with NPCs. Speculative games offer here significant potential for departure from the conservative limitations of the world in which they are designed. In some types of titles, such as massively multiplayer online games or role-playing games, they may also provide much needed spaces for the players to self-express their true gender identity or sexual preferences that remain otherwise hidden outside the screen. This begins with the simple forms of address that acknowledge a spectrum of identities. Fallen London and Sunless Sea, from 2009 and 2015, respectively, both by Failbetter Games, make the player choose the form of address, at the same time clearly indicating that it has nothing to do with the character’s gender, thus beautifully demonstrating the difference between presentation and gender. The 2015 cyberpunk-themed indie game 2064: Read Only Memories offers one of the more extensive pronoun packages: at the beginning of the playthrough the player is asked about their dietary preferences, name, and pronouns, where they can choose one of the five available or add their own one. The same game also features a central non-binary NPC (nonplayer character). Equally important for the player’s expression are the romance options available in many roleplaying titles, whose presence or, more often, absence has been discussed in literature (Kang and Yang). Again, Bioware titles seem to be exemplary here. Back in 2003, Juhani in Knights of the Old Republic probably became the Star Wars universe’s first canonically gay character. The studio’s next release, in 2005, Jade Empire was only vaguely speculative, but it afforded the players same-sex romance options and a love triangle. This moderate openness was continued in Mass Effect, whose subsequent installments expanded a range of same-sex romance options from a single lesbian relationship in the first game to a number of them in the second, and, 213

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additionally, two gay relationships in the last one. In that, Mass Effect 3 became one of the first major SF games in which the same-sex romance became an option for the playable male character. This openness does not come without a cost, though. As always in video games, the actual progressive status of a title is determined as much by its affordances as by its limitations. Here, Bioware’s space opera trilogy allows for same-sex romances, but keeps them prescriptively monogamous. Even when plentiful and designed in good faith, the avatar customization options may not offer sufficient subtlety or can come across as tone-deaf (gender-deaf?). Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) is a perfect example of this. For all the aura of transhumanist liberation from the confines of the “meat,” the game offers a very antiquated perception of gender. The character creation recognizes two body types—masculine and feminine—as well as versions of vagina and penis, but the actual gender assignment is done through voice, where there is only a choice of malesounding and female-sounding voice, which also determines the pronouns used to address the playable character of V. It is not difficult to imagine how far from actual lived experiences of players or their wishes for presentation this may fall. Reinforcing this, Kazuma Hashimoto notes, clothing options available in the game follow the traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity. Despite its rebellious aura, Cyberpunk 2070 also has a somewhat problematic relationship with transgender. In one of the early promotional materials, the in-game “Mix It Up” poster featured a feminine-presenting model sporting a leotard covering a bulging penis, at best a sign of commercialization of transbodies and at worst a tone-deaf transphobic imagery. On a related note, Stacey Henley concluded that, given the available romance options, the game was not made for trans people despite some promise early in the promotion cycle.

Modding and Fan-Side Practices Modding, a fan practice of modifying video games, is most immediately a technical activity aimed at eliminating bugs and glitches as well as introducing changes to the original games that expand or enhance their visuals, narrative, functionalities, and even gameworlds themselves. It can, however, also be seen as a recuperative activity. Katie Salen Tekinbas and Eric Zimmerman locate game mods within the context of critique, as design interventions and acts of creative resistance (560). This may be somewhat optimistic about most mods, but there is indeed a number of mods, particularly those for big-budget titles implicated in the industry structures outlined earlier, that complicate and ameliorate at least some of the problems connected with representations and performances of gender in their original games. Indeed, multiple authors in Women and Video Game Modding: Essays on Gender and the Digital Community from 2020, edited by Bridget Whelan, demonstrate the potential of this practice and many titles discussed in the collection easily qualify as speculative. Mods address any and all aspects of games from audiovisuals to narratives to mechanics. Those concerning gender and sexuality largely belong to the latter two categories. For instance, “Gender Neutrality Mod” for Stardew Valley (2016) makes non-playable characters refer to the protagonist with gender-neutral pronouns and replaces the gender symbols in the character creator with ungendered body-type indicators. It also allows the players to add their own pronouns to the game. Many mods change the romance options mentioned earlier. “Same Sex Couples and LGBT Families” alters the eponymous relations for Fallout 4 (2015), while “SameGender Romances” and “More Gay Romances” expand a choice of partners for Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect Legendary Edition, respectively. Finally, although, as noted earlier, it is women characters who are much more often presented as objects of sexual fantasy, sexuality-modding can also engage male bodies (Thompson). 214

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At the same time, game mods can also be sites of struggle for the representations of gender and sexuality among various sectors of game fandoms. Illustrative here is the case of the so-called “butt-shot” of Miranda, one of the principal characters in Mass Effect 2. In the second and third part of the original trilogy, the in-game perspective, on several occasions, positions her buttocks centrally in the frame, a male-gaze practice borrowed directly from mainstream Hollywood. The remastered Mass Effect Legendary Edition, released in 2021, removed this particular point of view, perhaps in recognition of social transformations since the original release. However, some fans were so attached to the sex-object imagery that soon afterwards, “Miranda Butt Shot Restoration” mod was released doing what its title promises to do. Another example of such struggles are fan voices that call for the removal of same-sex relationships, for instance one coming from the forums of Stardew Valley (Chob). Such interventions are probably in the minority, but it is not uncommon for fantastic fandoms to produce moral-outrage backlashes against any aspect of progressive identity, best exemplified by the response to The Last Jedi (2017). In fact, despite Tekinbas and Zimmerman’s ambitious pronouncement on the subversive nature of mods, when it comes to gender and sexuality representations, the number of mods that promote nudity aimed at heteronormative titillation by far outnumbers those with more progressive visions. Modding is merely one among many fandom practices. Since the times of the Star Trek slash stories, fan fiction and its multiple subgenres (some of which are specifically gender-oriented) have always been sites of struggle against normative sexualities and gender relations. This includes fan fiction based on speculative games. To wit,, one of the oldest repositories, features almost 12,000 contributions set in the Mass Effect world. Archive of Our Own, which is particularly welcoming to non-heteronormative content, lists over 24,000 texts set in the same universe, among which one-third is categorized as featuring same-sex relationships. Another popular form of fan activity is creation of visual imagery, both static and moving. While most short films shared on YouTube and graphics presented on sites like DeviantArt merely reprise games’ canonical relationships and gender-related behaviors, there are some that speculate—for the lack of a better word—about it. Bioware games, but not only, are (in)famous for their pornographic fandoms that, for a very long time, thrived on Tumblr blogs, which disappeared after the platform tightened censorship in 2018, as well as on dedicated subreddits, such as “AssEffect” and “Masserect.” While it would be easy to dismiss such practices as yet another manifestation of the neoliberal mainstreamization of pornography, it is important to recognize that many graphics, gifs, and short clips found in such venues featured gender-bending imagery of truly fantastic character. Last but not least, there are also specialized game-related communities, including speedrunning, that are particularly open to queer practices (Signor).

Conclusions The three angles of approach to the treatment of gender and sexuality in speculative video games discussed in this chapter are, naturally, not the only ones. There is a solid body of gamer ethnography research. Helen Thornham’s 2011 Ethnographies of the Videogame: Gender, Narrative and Praxis is of particular interest here, not the least because some of the games that the subjects of her research are speculative. Several projects have measured the preferences for specific game genres among men and women, including one gathering data from 270,000 participants (Yee). This parallels associations of certain genres with women, not always in a positive sense (Vanderhoef). There is also much to be said about the erasure of women from game histories (Adkins), in which science fiction titles played an important formative role. As of 2022, the gaming industry and fandoms remain, at large, entrenched as predominantly masculine spaces, 215

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but persons of marginalized genders have been increasingly marking their presence and making their voices heard, both in and out of games.

Notes 1 Admittedly, in 2020, their most recent year of query, 18% of titles featured a female protagonist, compared to 23% with the male one. Between 2015 and 2020, roughly half of all titles also offered multiple options. 2 Interestingly, an earlier study from 2011 that looked at a large body of casual games (a random sample of 200 out of the database of 1,946 titles) found that 130 (65%) games had humans as primary characters. Among them, 84 (42%) had females as the primary character, 25 games (12.5%) had males as the primary character, and 20 games (10%) had two primary characters that were both female and male (Wohn). 3 Interestingly, in Rust (2013), the title that could be, in some ways, considered speculative, gender is assigned randomly, which led to many protests from—presumably—male gamers not willing to be dropped into a female character. 4 These and many other characters are tracked by the LGTBQ Video Game Archive operated by Adrienne Shaw (Temple University) and her assistants, which can be found at

Bibliography Adkins, John. “What Happened to the Women Who Built the Video Game Industry?”Mic, 28 July 2017, www. Anhut, Anjin. “Press X to Make Sandwich—A Complete Guide to Gender Design in Games.” How to Not Suck at Game Design, 9 May  2014, press-x-make-sandwich-complete-guide-gender-design-games/. Banks, Jaime, editor. Avatar, Assembled: The Social and Technical Anatomy of Digital Bodies. Peter Lang, 2017. Bown, Alfie. The PlayStation Dreamworld. Polity, 2017. Burn, Andrew. “Playing Roles.” Computer Games: Text, Narrative and Play, edited by Diane Carr et  al. Polity, 2006, pp. 72–87. Chob. “Any Mod to Remove Gay Relationships?” Stardew Valley General Discussions, 27 April  2019. Compendio, Chris. “Cloudpunk Touches on Gender and Race with Messy Sci-Fi Allegories.” Gayming Magazine, 22 October  2020. cloudpunk-touches-on-gender-and-race-with-messy-sci-fi-allegories/. Cox-Palmer-White, Emily. The Biopolitics of Gender in Science Fiction. Routledge, 2021. Dietz, Tracy L. “An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Portrayals in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behavior.” Sex Roles, vol. 38, no. 5, 1998, pp. 425–442. doi:1 0.1023/A:1018709905920. Downs, Edward, and Stacy L. Smith. “Keeping Abreast of Hypersexuality: A  Video Game Character Content Analysis.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, vol. 62, no. 11–12, 2010, pp. 721–733. doi:10.1007/ s11199-009-9637-1. Haninger, Kevin, and Kimberly M. Thompson. “Content and Ratings of Teen-Rated Video Games.” JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 291, no. 7, 2004, pp. 856–865. doi: 10.1001/ jama.291.7.856. Hashimoto, Kazuma. “Reinforcing the Gender Binary.” Bullet Points Monthly, 20 January 2021. https:// Henley, Stacey. “The Cyberpunk 2077 Romances Weren’t Made for Trans People.” Gayming Magazine, 8 January  2021. Kang, Yowei, and C. C. Yang. “The Representation (or the Lack of It) of Same-Sex Relationships in Digital Games.” Queerness in Play, edited by Todd Harper et al., Springer International Publishing, 2018, pp. 57–80. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-90542-6_11. Lawrence, Chris. “What If Zelda Wasn’t a Girl? Problematizing Ocarina of Time’s Great Gender Debate.” Queerness in Play, edited by Todd Harper et al., Springer International Publishing, 2018, pp. 97–114. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-90542-6_11.


Representation, Performance of Gender in Video Games, Mods Moore, Kaitlin. “Queer Melancholia in the Post-Post-Apocalypse of NieR: Automata.” NiCHE, 7 June 2022, obeseninjao7. “Queer Characters in Assassin’s Creed.” R/Assassinscreed, 28 September 2020, www.reddit. com/r/assassinscreed/comments/j1a18r/queer_characters_in_assassins_creed_spoilers/. Perreault, Mildred F., et al. “Depictions of Female Protagonists in Digital Games: A Narrative Analysis of 2013 DICE Award-Winning Digital Games.” Games and Culture, vol. 13, no. 8, 2018, pp. 843–860. doi: 10.1177/1555412016679584. Pinder, Morgan. “Mouldy Matriarchs and Dangerous Daughters: An Ecofeminist Look at Resident Evil Antagonists.” M/C Journal, vol. 24, no. 5, 2021. Richardson, Trevor. “Nier Automata and The Queer Experience of Its Bushes.” Gayming Magazine, 18 February  2021. Ruberg, Bonnie. “Representing Sex Workers in Video Games: Feminisms, Fantasies of Exceptionalism, and the Value of Erotic Labor.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, 2019, pp.  313–330. doi: 10.1080/14680777.2018.1477815. Ruberg, Bonnie. Video Games Have Always Been Queer. New York University Press, 2019. Signor, Jeremy. “How The Celeste Speedrunning Community Became Queer As Hell.”Kotaku, 30 Nov. 2021. Tekinbas, Katie Salen, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press, 2003. Thomas, Andrew G., and Mark K. Johansen. “Inside Out: Avatars as an Indirect Measure of Ideal Body Self-Presentation in Females.” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, vol. 6, no. 3, 2012. doi: 10.5817/CP2012-3-3. Thompson, Nathan. “ ‘Sexified’ Male Characters: Video Game Erotic Modding for Pleasure and Power.” Queerness in Play, edited by Todd Harper et al., Springer International Publishing, 2018, pp. 185–202. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-90542-6_11. Thornham, Helen. Ethnographies of the Videogame: Gender, Narrative and Praxis. Routledge, 2011 Vanderhoef, John. “Casual Threats: The Feminization of Casual Video Games.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, no. 2, 2013, pp. 1–28. Waszkiewicz, Agata. “’Together They Are Twofold’: Player-Avatar Relationship Beyond the Fourth Wall.” Journal of Games Criticism, vol. 4, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–21. Whelan, Bridget, editor. Women and Video Game Modding: Essays on Gender and the Digital Community. McFarland, 2020. Williams, Dmitri, et al. “The Virtual Census: Representations of Gender, Race and Age in Video Games.” New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 5, 2009, pp. 815–834. doi: 10.1177/1461444809105354. Wohn, Donghee Yvette. “Gender and Race Representation in Casual Games.” Sex Roles, vol. 65, no. 3, 2011, pp. 198–207. doi: 10.1007/s11199-011-0007-4. Yee, Nick. “Beyond 50/50: Breaking Down the Percentage of Female Gamers By Genre.” Quantic Foundry, 19 January 2017.



Introduction When we collectively recall memories of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) within the pop culture media landscape, there is a clear and consistent tie between the sexist legacy of the show and the reputation of the franchise’s first leading man. A quick Google search of sexism in Star Trek results in a dichotomy of entertainment journalism hailing Feminist Captain Kirk and condemning Sexist Star Trek, almost in equal measure. In the feminist camp, think-pieces such as James Factora’s “How Captain Kirk Helped Me Define Masculinity” argue that Kirk’s “masculinity is based on deep respect and love for his crew, for the diverse species he encounters in his travels, for the women with whom he liaisons.” Another blog post by Lady Geek Girl claims that “James T. Kirk Is Actually a Feminist.” Both of these pieces, fascinatingly, cite the second aired TOS episode, “Charlie X,” using Kirk’s conversation with the titular Charlie to emphasize the importance Kirk placed on consent in sexual and/or romantic relationships, “it’s not a one-way street, you know, how you feel and that’s all. It’s how the girl feels, too” (24:04). The opposition has no shortage of listicles and think-pieces detailing the show’s worst offences: “The Sexist Legacy in Star Trek’s Progressive Universe” (Eleanor Tremeer for Gizmodo); “15 Really Terrible Moments for Women in Star Trek” (Laurie Ulster for ScreenRant); “Top Five Sexist Moments in the Original ‘Star Trek’ ” (Rich Monetti for Futurism). These articles range from discussions of specific female characters (Monetti) to instances of sexist plot points in specific episodes (Ulster). Tremeer’s take has more nuance as she acknowledges that the show’s original 1964 pilot, “The Cage,” featured a woman (Number One/Majel Barrett) as a first officer who was “a little too commanding” for test audiences who thought “her too assertive,” which considers the dominant cultural norms and social structures that TOS was adherent to (2020). However, it is equally notable that Tremeer ties Number One’s departure from the original pilot to Kirk’s arrival, by no means blaming the character for the shift in feminist politics, but implicating him nonetheless. Indeed, much of this discourse is rarely about Kirk specifically, yet consistently finds a way to implicate him. Using 1999 Galaxy Quest and the 2017 Black Mirror episode “USS Callister,” this chapter will examine the oppositional readings of Star Trek: The Original Series’ Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) as a character who has been robustly warped through parody in the popular imagination. I argue that parody then functions as a means of rewriting our collective memory toward a retrospective alteration. DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-34 


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What this means in relation to gender representations is that toxifying depictions of masculinity as citational to TOS displaces our collective understandings of masculinity and subsequently cements this toxicity as a part of the 1960s SF contemporary rather than one that is reflective of concurrent media trends.

“Kirk’s Gaze” and Short Skirts There are two strategies that implicate Captain Kirk in a recognizably sexist discourse: the Gaussian blurring camera technique and the costume miniskirt worn by women in TOS. The Gaussian blur is an image-softening technique which, when applied to women in film and television by cinematographers, is known as “The Gaussian Girl.” This technique results in women’s faces appearing blurry or out of focus, and is “a technique steeped in the early days of Hollywood.” MeTV Staff explain that the technique would become TOS cinematographer Gerry Finnerman’s trademark, and note that the use of this cinematography was often reserved for Kirk’s love interests, rendering a shift in moniker from “The Gaussian Girl” to “Kirk’s Gaze.” The concept of “Kirk’s Gaze” is repeated in Nick Ottens’s Forgotten Trek blog, and allusions to it appear again under the Gaussian Girl entry on TV Tropes. This entry includes a picture of a blonde woman in a side-by-side duplication to show the Gaussian blur in action. The caption of the photo reads: “Scientists have proven that Captain Kirk shows up to 80% more sexual arousal when exposed to the [blurred] picture” (TV Tropes). Tying this use of cinematography to Kirk, and concurrently viewing the practice of applying the Gaussian blur to female love interests’ faces in TOS as “Kirk’s gaze” then results in a shift from understanding the Hollywood practice as sexist to remembering Captain Kirk as sexist instead. Following the audience ire drawn from the Gaussian blur, another site of discourse falls upon the costumed bodies of TOS women. TOS has a complex history with costume as well as with audience interpretation of the costumed body. Tapping into the archive of popular memory means acknowledging that the pervasive image of TOS women is one of scantily clad bodies in knee-high boots and miniskirts. This yields to the aforementioned readings of sexism in Star Trek by way of understanding these hyperfeminized bodies as bodies that are costumed to be objectified. What this memory fails to acknowledge is the nuanced contextualization of the miniskirt in the 1960s. In her chapter “Sensuous Women and Single Girls,” Moya Luckett details two key feminist texts, Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique and Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 Sex and the Single Girl.1 Luckett notes that “Brown’s more sexually and selforiented advice has been marginalized, largely because of its seemingly traditional emphasis on beauty, fashion, and seduction” (277). She furthers that Friedan’s feminism clashed with Brown’s, as the latter’s “lauded beauty and fashion systems [that] were [viewed as] not a means to power but part of a system that forced women into false consciousness, entrapping them into a relationship with their bodies” (277). What stands out here is how the body becomes centered in a negative fashion. Women’s agency is then shifted toward endemic power structures in places that view fashion and beauty as interests that benefit patriarchal thought and systemic failures. This anti-feminine ideology is then reflected in the wider cultural interpretations of TOS’s iconic miniskirt as an item of clothing that has grown to represent the sexist undertones of the franchise. However, Gurley Brown’s feminism arguably had an impact not only on the fashioning of TOS’s women, but also on the attitude the actresses shared with the costumes they were asked to wear. Both Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Janice Rand) and Nichelle Nicols (Lt. Nyota Uhura) have praised the costumes in their autobiographies with the latter writing that “contrary to what many may think today, no one really saw it as demeaning back then . . . the miniskirt was 219

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a symbol of sexual liberation” (Nichols 169). Women’s costumes in later iterations of Trek were far less liberating. Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine, Voyager), for example, could not get out of her rib-crushing corset alone (interview with Jancelewicz, HuffPost). As Vettel-Becker articulates, detractors of TOS have focused “on how the women guest stars functioned primarily as sexual playthings for these same male leads, particularly Captain Kirk; and on the fact that Starfleet women wore miniskirts” (145). Viewing TOS’s women as the “sexual playthings” for Captain Kirk, in conjunction to the miniskirt costume, creates a vacuum of popular memory in which Kirk’s role in the show’s prescribed sexism becomes one that is deeply ingrained. If “Kirk’s Gaze” is understood as a cinematographic blurring technique that softens his love interests, thus situating these women as always already subject to Kirk, then it follows that we would collectively view the miniskirt as an objectification meant to please the gaze of the hetero-patriarchal male spectator (in this case, Kirk acts as a substitute for men watching to seek pleasure). The phrase “Kirk’s Gaze” calls to mind Laura Mulvey’s influential work coining the “Male Gaze” in 1975. Both phrases speak to filming and viewing practices that situate women’s and femme bodies within an objectifying prism, creating a precedent to conflate Kirk with the wider Male Gaze, further shifting his reputation in the popular imaginary. The discourse surrounding TOS and sexism spreads beyond entertainment journalism and into scholarly works as well, most notably with Anastasia book Toxic Geek Masculinity in Media. Salter and Blodgett are quick to label Kirk as both a womanizer and a misogynist. Of the TOS Captain the pair write that he “rarely has committed relationships or serious emotional entanglements,” concluding that he “originated as the womanizing, occasionally rebellious leader” of TOS (17). They go so far as to claim that 2009’s rebooted Captain Kirk (Chris Pine, Star Trek) serves as a reminder that Trek’s “iconic machoism” “remain[s] constant” (17). The problem with this assessment, however, is that besides a name, Pine’s Kirk shares very little in common with Shatner’s. While Shatner’s Kirk is quick to have conversations about sexual consent (“Charlie X” from 1966), Pine’s is equally quick to sexually harass his female peers and colleagues. Pine’s Kirk spends most of 2009 Star Trek relentlessly pursuing Zoe Saldana’s Uhura despite her persistent rejections, going so far as to watch her undress from beneath her roommate’s bed (dir. J. J. Abrams). Further, in the 2013 sequel, Star Trek into Darkness, Pine’s Kirk is implied to have engaged in a sexually inappropriate relationship offscreen with Christine Chapel (Majel Barret in TOS, she never appears in the Abrams’s reboots) that culminated in Chapel leaving her post on the Enterprise (dir. J. J. Abrams). Contrary to taking advantage of women, Shatner’s Kirk was more often taken advantage of. In her column for Strange Horizons, Erin Horáková discusses this, drawing on a fan-made chart that indicates which female characters Kirk had sex with. The episodes in question reveal a narrative repositioning that changes the meaning from a lack of consent to a celebration of sexual prowess. Of the four episodes discussed (“Bread and Circuses”; “Wink of an Eye”; “Elaan of Troyius”; “The Paradise Syndrome”), in two, the sexual plotline revolves around Kirk being held captive. In “Bread and Circuses” Kirk is imprisoned with an alien slave girl (Drusilla) who is there to “satisfy” him, with undertones “suggesting [she] might be punished for not ‘satisfying’ him,” thus placing an uncomfortable power dynamic upon the scene that favors neither participant (2017). In “Wink of an Eye,” Kirk is isolated from his crew and forced to mate with the alien Deela on the threat of death, circumstances that remove his ability to consent. Likewise, while not a captive in “Elaan of Troyius,” Kirk’s relationship with the titular Elaan occurs through contact with her tears which have properties that behave as a love potion. Kirk’s agency is again removed for the duration of this relationship. None of these moments signal sexual conquest, a conclusion that Horáková also comes to, stating definitively that any vision of masculinity that “cannot distinguish between choosing to have sex and situations of 220

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dubious consent incurred in the line of duty . . . is deeply toxic” and suggests “that men are hypersexual, unemotional, and can never be taken advantage of ” (2017). Conflating Pine’s Kirk with Shatner’s then reflects a disconcerting view of maleness and masculinity that always already dictates any type of sexual conduct involving a man is one that he must have wanted or desired in some capacity. The persevering popular memory of Kirk prefers these harmful depictions of implied sex with women over the more nuanced narrative that TOS presented. These readings of Kirk are less the product of willful ignorance than they are the product of numerous parodical reproductions of Star Trek that draw comedy from a hyper focus on sexuality and thinly veiled misogyny.

Star Trek Parody: Kirk-esque Figures Trek parodies play a unique role in the disparate relationship popular memory shares with the textual narrative of Kirk. Parody as a narrative form works in conjunction with paratexts (such as entertainment journalism) to consistently reproduce Captain Kirk as a character who seeks sexual conquest rather than one who is sought as a sexual conquest. An alternative chain of memory then shifts and breaks into an archetype of the character that does not present an accurate citation. This fundamentally impacts upon popular textual understanding by acting upon moments of visibility (Kirk shares screen time with scantily clad women, occasionally kisses them) and warping them to fit a new narrative more in line with sexual hetero-patriarchal assumptions (Kirk seeks out time with scantily clad women, kisses them whenever he can). In constantly reproducing Kirk as a womanizer, we then collectively remember Kirk as a womanizer. Horáková concludes that “macho, brash Kirk is a mass hallucination” (2017). Horáková’s central principle here is that popular memory can cause what she coins a “drift” in how popular texts are approached and received. This means that memory must then act as a central focal point to popular media rather than the media itself, thus allotting parody to occupy the liminal space between media memory and media. In A Theory of Parody, Linda Hutcheon writes that parody’s “function is one of separation and contrast,” furthering that “parody requires that critical ironic distance” in order to separate it from mere imitation (34). In Gothic Remixed, Megen de Bruin-Molé challenges this by introducing “the ironic distance between presentation and meaning,” which, she says, “paradoxically requires a certain intimacy with the ‘original’ text on one level or another” (92). I contend that it is this intimacy with the original text that parody must have which goes beyond practices of adaptation and equally impacts viewer response and, critically, viewer memory. It then becomes necessary to view parody not only as reproductions of media but also as reproductions of a collective compulsion toward the ideology that progress has occurred in an upward trajectory (consider this in relation to my socio-historic contextualization of the miniskirt, how it was and is viewed). Parodical reproductions, such as Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) from Galaxy Quest (1999) and Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) from the Black Mirror episode “USS Calister,” begin to form an archetypal SF figure (the Toxic Aggressor) in the guise of Kirk. This figure is characterized primarily through sexual (cisheteronormative) persistence and a devotion to masculinity that distinctly separates itself from feminine traits. In Galaxy Quest, Jason Nesmith (Commander Peter Quincy on the fictional NSEA-Protector) is a faded star from the titular cult SF series that is a clear parody of Trek. Nesmith spends the entirety of the film pursing Sigourney Weaver’s Gwen DiMarco, with results that evolve from disgust to reciprocation in the final act of the film. Likewise, the Kirk-esque figure that Nesmith portrayed on the film’s titular television show, Galaxy Quest is characterized as having slept “with every Terrakian Slave Girl and Moon Princess on the show” (49:54). Nesmith then occupies the role 221

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of sexual (toxic) aggressor, (re)producing the memory of a promiscuous Kirk through his pursuit of DiMarco as well as contributing to a cultural “drift.” In the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister” (2017), parody is taken to a darker extreme. The episode follows Robert Daly, CTO and co-founder of the company Callister Inc. (which specializes in virtual reality games). As a fan of Space Fleet (the in-show version of Star Trek), Daly has created a virtual platform based on the show wherein he occupies the Kirk-esque role of Captain. Within this platform he creates digital clones of employees to play-act scenes from the show. The dark twist is that the digital clones have sentience beyond the game’s programming and fully understand how they are being abused. Daly’s role as Captain acts as his own personal fantasy. Following the staged victories within the virtual world, Daly kisses each of his female “crew members” (employees) on the lips, displaying a staggering abuse of power. Like Galaxy Quest, the episode presents Daly as a sexual aggressor rather than the object of conquest. Unlike Galaxy Quest, the episode centers unwanted sexual attention as exactly that and chooses to punish Daly rather than reward him, suggesting not a revamp of the Kirk figure but rather doubling-down on the cultural drift that supports an aggressive imitation of an outdated character. The toxic aggressor figure then becomes a foil to a predominately male SF audience, simultaneously acting as a figure that is both desired (“I  want to be him”) and unattainable. Take, for example, the juxtapositioning between the Kirk-esque figure in SF and the depiction of male SF fandom. William Shatner’s notorious 1986 SNL sketch, “Get A  Life,” acts as a foundational baseline for the pop culture understanding of SF fandom as bespectacled, acned, poorly dressed men characterized by infantilization as they often live in their mothers’ basements and devote their days to memorizing trivia rather than getting a job in the “real” world. This depiction of male fandom is also reproduced in the parodies I have thus far discussed. In Galaxy Quest the infantile fandom is represented by alien race of Thermians who believe the television show Galaxy Quest is real and have based their entire culture off what they saw on the show. They are situated against antagonist Sarris and his reptilian humanoid alien race, all of whom are significantly more visibly masculine with hard, muscled bodies. “USS Callister” plays with the infantile fanboy as well, juxtaposing Daly’s fantasy-self with his real-self. While in-game Daly is an aggressor, his reality is one characterized by meekness. He lives alone and his home is designed in such a way to exhibit to the audience his obsessive love for Space Fleet as his had numerous display cases for action figures and other collectibles. Beside his gaming station is a small refrigerator filled with child-sized cartons of chocolate and strawberry milk, not unlike those commonly found in school cafeterias. This effectively creates a presumed trajectory of desirable masculinity in SF as one that is adherent to sexual conquest. J. Halberstam writes in Female Masculinity that although we seem to have a difficult time in defining masculinity, as a society we have little trouble in recognizing it, and indeed we spend massive amounts of time and money ratifying and supporting the versions of masculinity that we enjoy and trust. (1) However, the versions of masculinity that we consistently enjoy and trust in SF are often depictions of masculinity that fall along this dichotomy of infantilization and toxicity. These depictions of masculinity then function to unite female/gender-non-conforming audiences against perceptions of misogyny. Horáková writes that “we have, in some ways, become more wedded to forms of masculinity in entertainment that are violent, in opposition to cooperation and professionalism” (2017). Rather than attempting to unravel this compulsion toward toxic masculinity and changing the narrative altogether, there is more comfort in flipping power dynamics to both depict and attack the toxic variations of masculinity that we have collectively become fixated upon. 222

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Conclusion Beyond parody, loose allusions to Trek’s original Captain abound in the more contemporary iterations of the show. Discovery’s first season places a mild-mannered Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) at the helm of the show’s titular ship only to topple his authoritative masculinity in the penultimate episode of the season. Perhaps most important is that following Lorca’s death, the replacement captain is one Christopher Pike (Anson Mount). Long term fans of the series will recognize Pike as the captain from TOS’s first (rejected) pilot, “The Cage” (1964; 1986) (repurposed footage included in “The Menagerie, Part 1” (1966) and “The Menagerie, Part 2” (1966)). Pike is an artifact from TOS who imbibes a very different cultural understanding than that of Kirk, despite his connection to one of the most prominent images of sexism that arose from TOS: the Orion Slave Girl. The Orion Slave Girl is pervasive in the cultural memory of Trek. With the release of the adult animation series, Star Trek: Lower Decks (2020–), the Orion Slave Girl was re-centered in Trek lore, as the new show sought to introduce an Orion character who would challenge the hypersexual stereotypes. In an article for Screen Rant about the show, John Orquiola claims that “the Orion slave girls are an unfortunate relic of Star Trek’s 1960s origins and ways of thinking” (2020). Orquiola goes on to cite various moments from later Trek iterations as troubling continuations of the Orion Slave Girl, yet his centering of the archetype on TOS’s “ways of thinking” ratifies the notion that TOS is an equal reflection of its contemporary cultural reputation (one in which female sexual liberation equates to demeaning sexual objectification). Horáková notes that although the conquest of the Orion Slave Girl as a trope is culturally tied to the memory of Captain Kirk, he never actually interacted with her during the singular appearance of “the green girl” in TOS (which occurs, ironically, in “The Cage,” with Pike) (2017). Therefore, not only does Pike evade the sexism that is attributed to Kirk, but one of the defining cultural moments that underpins the show’s sexist history belongs to Pike rather than to Kirk. These skewed readings are then ratified through parodical reproductions that craft Captain Kirk figures who are characterized by toxic aggression and hypersexuality. Recognizing the nature and the extent of this distortion begins to demand revised strategies of viewing which could recuperate TOS into a much more stridently critical feminist role.

Note 1 Gurley Brown’s feminism has been widely debated given her 32-year career as Editor-in-Chief for Cosmopolitan magazine. In the week following her death in 2012, CNN published a piece on her complicated legacy, noting that her role in upholding Cosmo “created ‘one of the most body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, long-lasting sexist media products of the last 100 years’ ” (Grinberg, n.pag). Her ideologies, as reflected in in her book Sex and the Single Girl (1962), encouraged women to seek out and enjoy casual sex. Gurley Brown had no children and encouraged other women to prioritize themselves over nuclear family ideologies. This was something that, as Grinberg notes, was seen as eroding “the American family” (n.pag). Her celebration of the female body and female pleasure was a drastic departure from the dominant 1960s ideologies.

Bibliography Abrams, J. J., director. Star Trek. Paramount, 2009. Abrams, J. J., director. Star Trek Into Darkness. Paramount, 2013. Booth, Paul. “Star Trek Fans as Parody: Fans Mocking Other Fans.” Fan Phenomena: Star Trek, edited by Bruce E. Drushel, Intellect Books, 2013, pp. 72–80. Brooker, Charlie, creator. “USS Callister.” Black Mirror, season 4, episode 1, 2017.


Danielle Girard Bruin-Molé, Megen de. Gothic Remixed. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. Factora, James. “How Captain Kirk Helped Me Define Masculinity.” Star Trek, 22 March 2021. www. Grinberg, Emanuella. “Helen Gurley Brown’s Complicated Feminist Legacy.” CNN, 19 August  2012. Halberstam, J. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, 2018. Horáková Erin. “Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift.” Strange Horizons, 11 April 2017, non-fiction/columns/freshly-rememberd-kirk-drift/#contents. Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody. University Illinois Press, 2000. Jancelewicz, Chris. “Jeri Ryan Talks Body Suits, Feuds & More On ‘Star Trek: Voyager’.” HuffPost UK, 12 April 2012, 41?ri18n=true. Jones, Emma. “ ‘Sex Sells’: The New Age of Explicit TV—BBC Culture.” BBC Culture, 27 February 2019, Lady Geek Girl. “James T. Kirk is Actually a Feminist.”  Lady Geek Girl and Friends, 4 April  2017, Luckett, Moya. “Sensuous Women and Single Girls.” Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960s, edited by Radner, Hilary and Moya Luckett. University of Minnesota Press, 1999. MeTV Staff. “Ever Wonder Why the Women on ‘Star Trek’ Appear out of Focus?” MeTV, 15 June 2017. Monetti, Rich. “Top Five Sexist Moments in the Original ‘Star Trek’.”  Futurism, 2020. futurism/top-five-sexist-moments-in-the-original-star-trek. Nichols, Nichelle. Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. Boxtree, 1996. Orquiola, John. “How Star Trek Redeems TOS’ Orion Slave Girl.” ScreenRant, 10 August 2020, screenrant. com/star-trek-lower-decks-orion-slave-girl-tos-ensign-tendi/. Ottens, Nick. “Sexism in Star Trek.”  Forgotten Trek, 26 October  2019. sexism-in-star-trek/. Parisot, Dean, director. Galaxy Quest. DreamWorks Pictures, 1999. Salter, Anastasia, and Bridget Blodgett. Toxic Geek Masculinity in Media: Sexism, Trolling, and Identity Policing. Springer International Publishing, 2017. Tremeer, Eleanor. “The Sexist Legacy in Star Trek’s Progressive Universe.”  Gizmodo, 14 July  2020, TV Tropes. “Gaussian Girl.” TV Tropes, Ulster, Laurie. “15 Really Terrible Moments for Women in Star Trek.”  ScreenRant, 1 August  2016, Vettel-Becker, Patricia. “Space and the Single Girl: Star Trek, Aesthetics, and 1960s Femininity.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2014, pp. 143–178, doi:10.5250/fronjwomestud.35.2.0143.


31 SUBVERTING, RE-FASHIONING, OR RE-INSCRIBING THE POWER OF THE MALE GAZE Feminism, Fashion, and Cyberpunk Style Rebecca J. Holden From Blade Runner (1982) to Total Recall (1990) to The Fifth Element (1997) to Altered Carbon (2018), visual cyberpunk based on stories written by men has been seen as super-stylish, but also, I would argue, super-conservative in how it deploys style to ultimately reinforce conservative gender norms and the heterosexual matrix. In this piece, I explore how print-based feminist cyberpunk draws on the ideals of both the classic and contemporary feminist dress reform movements. By revealing and reworking these ideals in ways that play with and reinform the default male gaze, this fiction pieces together new modes of style, fashion, and feminism that trace out new avenues of agency. Feminist movements have been associated with clothing reforms since at least the mid-1800s when New Englander Libby Miller invented “bloomers.” The infamous story of bra-burning feminists protesting the 1968 Miss  America Pageant remains a highlight of the fight against restrictive clothing and beauty norms; while nothing was actually burned, protesters threw bras, mops, and makeup into “Freedom Trash Cans” (“100 Women”) in a public refusal of the patriarchal attempt to package women’s bodies for “the male gaze,” a term coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975. Mulvey argued that “women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (436). This “male gaze” has held significant sway in cultural uses of fashion but viewing fashion trends as something simply foisted upon a passive, objectified feminine audience somewhat misses the mark. Fashion scholar Elizabeth Wilson describes the two primary approaches within feminism for understanding fashion: on one hand, the “condemnation” of high heels, tight dresses, constricting undergarments, pantyhose, and anything else that represents “sexist ideas” (230)— and on the other hand, praise for “the individualism made possible by dress” (237). Wilson points out that feminist fashion revolts are not simply antagonistic towards fashion, arguing that fashion can serve as one of “the crevices in culture that open to us moments of freedom” (244). Such a claim is explicitly affirmed in some contemporary feminist approaches to fashion such as the early 1990s’ Riot Grrrl movement—epitomized by Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-35 


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who often performed in a bra and short skirt with the word “slut” written on her midriff (Halvin)—and the more recent Slut Walks and Pantsuit Nation groups. While these various movements might seem to espouse opposing takes on “fashion,” all refute the controlling “male gaze.” These varying feminist approaches to fashion illustrate that dress can be confrontational, restrictive, political, or performative; it can draw the gaze, repel it, turn it back on itself—or direct it somewhere entirely new—all of which we can see in feminist cyberpunk.

Original Cyberpunk Style and Fashion Cyberpunk first appeared in the early 1980s. Early cyberpunks, including John Shirley, Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, and William Gibson, wrote fiction that engaged directly with the issues of the time: computer-human interfaces, the corporate global economy, and the fascination with simulation. Products that promised to alter one’s mind and/or body, such as designer drugs and surgical modifications, figure prominently in cyberpunk and further blur the line between reality and simulation. As such, cyberpunk is deeply rooted in a specific style, a look, a presentation of both self and world. As Stina Attebery noted in her recent piece on cyberpunk fashion, Since Bruce Sterling’s provocation that cyberpunks love “mirror shades—preferably in chrome and matte black, the Movement’s totem colors” (xi), cyberpunk has maintained a deep investment in clothing, commodity, and personal style. The mirrored sunglasses, trenchcoats, technological implants, and outfits made from rubber, circuitry, neon, and chrome are all as much a defining characteristic of cyberpunk as its cyborg and hacker characters or narratives of opposition to corporate control. (228) But the question remains—who gets to create the look, do the looking, and who gets looked at in cyberpunk worlds? Much early cyberpunk was created by young, straight, white, cisgender male artists for young, straight, white, cisgender male audiences. These artists rejected the brightly colored jumpsuits characteristic of previous, space-oriented science fiction and gave their antiheroes a style of their own. Decked out in faded denim or fatigues with beat-up leather jackets or trench coats, cyberpunk anti-heroes embrace a mostly monochromatic style designed to not get noticed; fashion helps these protagonists fade into the background—at least in the “real world”—so they can continue to jack into the Net to complete their virtual exploits. Iconic examples include Gibson’s Case from Neuromancer and the eponymous hero of “Johnny Mnemonic”; Deckard of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; and Neo from the Wachowskis’ Matrix films. In fact, as noted by Esko Suoranta, Gibson himself adopts a style inspired by the “gray man theory” in which “dressing in unremarkable clothing” is a security measure; not being noticed keeps one from being shot first (emphasis added, 90). This particular mode of fashion, clearly tied to maleness, seems designed to repel observation. Meanwhile, early cyberpunks typically reserved the flashiest fashions for female, queer, and/ or nonwhite characters designed to attract the gaze of either other charcters and/or the audience itself. With her mirrorshade implants and switchblade fingernails, Gibson’s Molly Millions is no “gray man” but a “razorgirl” (28) who attracts attention. As SF luminary Samuel Delany notes, Molly is very much a cyberpunk homage to pioneering feminist Joanna Russ’s shocking cyborg assassin Jael from The Female Man, which was published in 1975: “Both of them have retractable claws in their fingers. Both of them wear black. Both enjoy their sex with men. And 226

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there’s a similar harshness in their attitudes” (8). However, while Jael fights for a feminist future, Molly fights primarily for herself. As such Stacy Gillis argues that Molly and other “ass-kicking techno-babes” are “examples of the (post)feminist subject” (9). Gillis uses the brackets around “post” to highlight how this particular “articulation of female agency is mediated by the ways in which the bodies of these cyborgic women are reduced to either a sexualised or monstrous femininity” (9), and thus are not examples of true female agency. Instead, they make the seemingly powerful woman once again available to the male gaze. Many critics have and are still arguing about Molly in relation to feminism, postfeminism, and anti-feminism (see, for example, Foster, Gordon, LeBlanc, Nixon, and Stachura). Molly could be characterized as wearing feminism, but I argue that this is a superficial fashion choice in conflict with her cybernetic “fashion” choices painstakingly grafted onto her body. While body and clothing blend in more permanent, obtrusive ways to create cyberpunk styles, Gibson’s descriptions highlight the erotic qualities of Molly’s augmentations. For example, Molly displays her razor nails to Case in a scene that plays as a sexual tease: “She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four-centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails. She smiled. The blades slowly withdrew” (25). Molly’s enhancements do seem designed for self-protection, and indeed, her mirrorshade implants literally force the male gaze back on itself. At the same time, other aspects of her fashion “choices” fix her into a dangerous false “postfeminism” in which conventional gender norms are not significantly altered and still set Molly up for the straight male gaze.

Feminist Cyberpunk Fashion of the 1990s and Early 2000s While fashionable razorgirls were staple characters in early cyberpunk written by men, 1990s’ feminist cyberpunk tended to espouse an anti-fashion stance similar to that of early dress reform feminists who saw fashion as either frivolous or a tool of patriarchy. For example, Marge Piercy’s depictions of corporate and gang fashion in her 1991 novel He, She, and It highlight how clothing is used to enforce social and economic positions. In this environmentally ruined near future, workers at the Yakamura-Stichen (Y-S) corporation wear backless business suits in “acceptable colors” (7) of black, white, or blue; those with enough money undergo cosmetic surgery to remake their faces into the Y-S ideal. Other corporations have other fashion rules: At Uni-Par . . . nudity was a sign of status. The higher you were on the pyramid, the less you wore, the better to show off the results of the newest cosmetic surgery performed on your body. At Aramco-Ford, women wore yards of material and short transparent symbolic veils. (105) Gang members also follow unspoken fashion rules, such as wearing “cutoff jackets in purple and gold with a snarling rat emblazoned on the back” (35), and matching body paint and tattoos. Clothing classifies and sometimes eroticizes people, shows acceptance or assimilation of cultural norms, displays status, and in some cases, restricts movement. Overall, Piercy’s depictions highlight the superficialness and unnecessary restrictiveness of much fashion in this world. Yet, not all body modifications are codified as vain, restrictive, or unnatural. Nili, a woman warrior who comes from a women-only enclave in the desert, has modifications that enhance her strength and allow her to live and breathe outside in “the raw” (42). Indeed, a feminist rewriting of Gibson’s Molly, Nili actively rejects being the object of anyone’s gaze: “ ‘Why should I care whether others look at me? The pleasure is in the looking, no?’ ” (252). Like her male counterparts, Piercy depicts characters with agency using clothing 227

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for its functionality, while those who seem to have little effect on the world—like the virtual entertainment designer Gadi, with his metallic eyelids, translucent silk gowns, or reflective black slit tunics and pants—are ridiculed for their overinvestment in fashion. Indeed, in a reversal of the male gaze and its implicit and explicit power relations, here, it is warrior Nili who looks at and then dismisses Gadi as “a plaything” (231). Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, published in 2000, takes on a different feminist rewriting of fashion(s), reclaiming a conventional male role and costume, as Hopkinson reimagines cyberpunk through the lens of Afro-Caribbean fashion and culture. We see the richness of Hopkinson’s future, in which Black people have successfully colonized the planet Toussaint, in her descriptions of Jonkanoo and Carnival seasons, with their parades, Jour Overt fights, Robber King and Robber Queen-costumed revelers, and dancing in the streets. As Isiah Lavender puts it, Hopkinson masterfully “introduce[s] black myths and blend[s] them with . . . familiar cyberpunk motifs” (314). Even technology is radically redesigned: mysterious AI intent on their own nonhuman agendas are replaced by “Granny Nanny,” the “artificial intelligence that safeguards all the people in a planetary system .  .  . named after the revolutionary and magic worker who won independent rule in Jamaica for the Maroons who had run away from slavery” and houses with lower-level AIs called eshus, “named after the West African deity who can be in all places at once” (Hopkinson, “A Conversation”). Here, the Western mythologies undergirding so much early cyberpunk are replaced with global Southern ones that literally shape the cultural and technological style of Hopkinson’s future. Hopkinson’s protagonist Tan-Tan marks her own coming of age by remaking her favorite childhood masquerade costume—that of the Robber Queen. According to historian Ruth Wuest, the “ ‘Midnight Robber’ first appeared in the carnival in the early years of [the 20th century] as bands of 30 to 40 members,” eventually becoming an individual masque “played by older men exclusively” (emphasis added, 43, 44). Emily Zobel Marshall argues that this trickster Midnight Robber with his so-called robber talk, “relies on his verbal agility to thwart officialdom and triumph over his adversaries” and ultimately “challenge authoritarian power” (210). As a woman—and especially a pregnant one—Tan-Tan’s Robber Queen, is “[m]orally deviant [and] both terrorist and saviour; a criminal extraordinaire and breaker of institutional and supernatural law” (Marshall 210–1). Tan-Tan breaks the traditions of the classic masque, using it to “create new code-switching hybrid Caribbean linguistic forms and challenge abuses of power” (Marshall 224). Bringing this masque to life as a female anti-hero in an Afro-cyberpunk future allows Hopkinson to create a truly global cyberpunk style. As in Piercy’s cyberpunk, fashion here is closely tied to one’s position in society. As a young child on the utopian Toussaint, Tan-Tan revels in her fanciful, expensive Robber Queen costume—a gift from her father—with its white silk shirt with a high, pointy collar, a little black jumbie leather vest with a fringe all round the bottom, and a pair of wide red leather pants with more fringe down the sides. . . . A wide black sombrero, nearly as big as Tan-Tan herself, with pom-poms in different colours all round the brim. (27) During Carnival, Tan-Tan’s father kills her mother’s lover, kidnaps Tan-Tan, and takes her to the prison planet New Half-Way Tree, where he sexually abuses her. Tan-Tan survives by imagining herself as the Robber Queen, eventually killing the father who has impregnated her and escaping into the bush to live with New Half-Way Tree’s indigenous people. There, Tan-Tan presents herself as a new Robber Queen, at first simply wearing a cape to hide her pregnancy, then wielding a machete and fighting for those who have been cheated or hurt by others. 228

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As Tan-Tan’s Robber Queen reputation grows, her childhood friend and future partner makes her a new costume for Carnival: The Robber Queen cape felt good on her shoulders. . . . He’d pieced together precious ends of black velvet, made style by outlining the joins with iridescent shell buttons. The cape was edged with brightly coloured ribbons. . . . It fastened in front with ornate brass frog closures. . . . There was a belt, extra-large to extend round her belly, with two holsters and sheathes for her knife and machete. (312–13) With help from her friends, Tan-Tan doesn’t just wear the outfit but transforms the persona, initially to separate herself from the sexual abuse she suffered and later, to turn the gaze back on those who would punish or silence her. Thus Hopkinson shows us how transformations of costumes, style, fashion, and in some cases, effective performativity and “play,” can help bolster active feminist positions and identities that look back on or turn the decidedly Western male gaze inside out.

Feminist Cyberpunk Fashion 2010–Present: Retrograde or Re-fashioned? Like their predecessors, contemporary feminist cyberpunks continue to challenge the male gaze and the patriarchal economy it represents. This is particularly true of the first book from Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, Infomocracy, published in 2016, which takes cyberpunk in a truly new direction by focusing not simply on governments replaced by corporations, but reimagining government altogether. Infomocracy imagines a future where people worldwide have opted into centenals, micro-democracies of 100,000 constituents, and vote every ten years on which of the many available governments they will adopt for the next cycle. Some are corporate governments, like Sony-Mitsubishi, and others are policy driven, like Earth1st. Older counts Gibson’s cyberpunk and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash as some of the main influences in her writing (Schnelbach), but depicts her information-dense future as a global one in which female, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ people are just as likely to be world leaders as their white, male counterparts. Even if some centenals espouse more reactionary positions, it is relatively easy to switch citizenship to another, more amenable one. This future is not a feminist utopia nor an outright cyberpunk dystopia: climate disasters, economic inequality, and racism co-exist with increased economic opportunities for disenfranchised populations and mostly open, free access to unfettered information for all. The Internet has been replaced by “Information,” a worldwide agency that gathers and disseminates fact-checked information on everything for everyone. Even though Older’s cyberpunk future isn’t the flashy, grungy, über-stylish one of Neuromancer, Infomocracy replicates some of the original cyberpunks’ gender assumptions in its use of fashion while giving increased agency to characters who are usually the subject of the male gaze.1 Perhaps not unexpectedly, Mishima, Older’s version of the kick-ass babe, is the character most often described in terms of what she wears and how she looks. Mishima works for Information and serves a variety of functions: spy, security agent, and fixer. We first see her at an election debate, “wearing black but in the thinnest of airy cottons, flowing around her body in a way that probably obscures a few weapons” (17). Later she meets the male protagonist, Policy1st’s undercover campaigner Ken, at a party she goes to primarily because of “the new dress she hadn’t worn yet, which fits perfectly when she slides it on” (104). That dress and Mishima’s auburn hair certainly draw Ken’s notice: he is fascinated by her “smooth face, smooth figure 229

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draped in a dress of shining copper cords loosely woven enough to show the occasional glimpse of smooth skin” (102). Mishima’s clothing choices thus embody the two seemingly opposing feminist fashion tenets simultaneously—she wears comfortable clothing that is functional and revels in stylish attire that shows off her sexual attractiveness. As Mishima notes before the debate, Looking presentable is part of the job . . . so she skims Information images until she finds something she likes: tight along the bodice with plenty of flow in the long sleeves and skirt, with miniscule cutouts in the shape of stars tracing a tiny galaxy under the navel and up the ribs. (144) At the same time, this clothing serves her well when she has to repel an attack at the debate: she wears only flats when she’s working; her shoes are light and flexible, with grips that cling to each rung. Her coif is holding up well so far; it probably doesn’t look as sleek as it did a few minutes ago, but her hair is out of her face and her vision is clear. (173) Unlike Molly Millions, Mishima remains mostly in control of who looks at what. When meeting with the anti-election radical Domaine, Mishima wakes up in time to eat and take a little care over her appearance. It’s not that she wants to look good for Domaine; what she wants is not to look harried, desperate, or otherwise off her game. She pulls her hair into a chignon using a capilliphelic gel that draws the strands smoothly together on the outside even when the inside is a tangled knot, and puts on loose grey silk trousers with a matching jacket that has a million self-adhesive buttons. (274) In contrast to Gibson and other early cyberpunks who spent considerable time telling audiences how women are dressed without ever giving us access to those women’s perspectives, Older creates a world of women who are clearly self-aware of how they use style to accomplish larger social, political, economic, and sometimes personal goals. Despite the clear feminist bent of the novel, Older’s male characters are not consistently put under the same fashion scrutiny as their female counterparts. We rarely learn what Ken is wearing and when we do, it is clear he is the classic “gray man” working undercover: in the opening scene, we see Ken “unwrap the scarf and push back his hood” (19), but we never learn more about his fashion choices other than that he has “brown engineered-leather boots [for] splashing through puddles of groundwater” (100). Ken’s only somewhat unique fashion choice is a “recently purchased guayabera” he acquires once his cover is blown (154). Policy1st, Ken’s employer, describes itself as “a set of policies and principles, a way of life, not a person” (23) so it’s not entirely unexpected that the narrative glosses over Ken’s appearance and fashion choices. Looks are, however, central to establishing the character of Older’s male antagonists. Johnny Fabré, “the glossy good-looker who has been the public face of Liberty [government] for over a decade” (55), seems to be a Donald Trump wannabe, complete with a full face of foundation and hair that is “justly famous” (102). Meanwhile, the dangerous political power of the somewhat sympathetic but duplicitous, anti-election activist Domaine is underscored by descriptions of his hair and clothing. Domaine often sports a large Afro that makes him “[l]ook like one of those white Rasta pretenders” (42), which he braids when meeting with Saudis to look “not far off from Arab” (64). Much like early male cyberpunks, Older casts her male protagonist as a deliberately unfashionable 230

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gray man while using fashion to identify the dangerous others of her tale—it’s just that these dangerous others are not primarily women or BIPOC characters. Published the same year, Ren Warom’s Escapology looks and feels more like original cyberpunk even as it moves further away from gendered styles that connect “fashion” to the female sexualized body. Like Gibson’s Case, Warom’s Shock Pao is an expert male hacker, called a “haunt” because he leaves no trace in the system, who feminizes and sexualizes cyberspace: accessing his neural jack with “no prep” is “like fucking bareback, warm and slick and sexy” (246). Also in line with earlier male hackers, Shock seems to have contempt for physical bodies, referring to them as “meat jackets” or “meat suits” (12, 70). However, this world and Warom’s characters are not a redux of 1980s’ cyberpunk. Protagonist Shock Pao is a trans-man who uses his hacking skills to earn money for his gender reassignment surgery when he is 12, “re-christening himself Shock in an ironic nod to the reaction of the entire community” (73). Shock is also well-named because, in contrast to previous male-identified cyberpunk protagonists, he is notably stylish, a skinny “young man in a thin neoprene jacket” with “[l]ong, wild hair in black and candy-bright green [that] partially obscures eyes so startling blue they register as fake in that so-Korean face” 181). Meanwhile, the role of the “gray man” goes to Shock’s female friend Joon, a fellow “haunt,” who wears a “uniform of scabby grey jeans and band tee” (51). Inevitably, the male gaze is redirected in Warom’s world: Shock loses his former invisibility, attracting the attention both online and IRL when, due to his attack on the Hive Queens—the power-hungry AIs of this story—his avatars manifest IRL marking his path wherever he goes. Warom’s online world, The Slip, is also uniquely styled. In contrast to the neon-drenched cyberspace of Gibson, Warom depicts cyberspace as immersive and inclusive, an ocean of information with avatars to swim through it . . . great whales, eels, little swarms of fish, sea lions, dugongs. . . . If you can name a fish or some form of sea-creature you’ll find its golden likeness swimming here . . . hunting and sharing information at the millions of skyscraper-like corals riddling the waters. (77–80) Moreover, avatars in Warom’s world are not simple programs to write and rewrite as their users deem fit, but may have their own identities and agendas. For most of his life, Shock sees his Octopus avatar, “Puss,” as nothing more than “a skin, an elaborate wetsuit he wears in order to work,” even though he sometimes suspects “it has a mind of its own” (78). Shock is not surprised when Puss confirms her sentience, but is surprised to learn that she has her own ideas about sex and gender: “Puss is female, or identifies as such. . . . How can Puss be something he isn’t?” (266). Ultimately, Shock realizes that he’s “[d]oing the same to her, in fact, that was done to him over and over, making cracks that have never healed” (385). Shock’s maleness isn’t some “suit” he can take on or off, nor is Puss’s femaleness. Moreover, Puss, though Shock’s avatar, is not just a wetsuit he puts on, but a being: as Puss tells him “Parts of us overlap, and parts developed separately, yours IRL, mine in Slip” (446). Here then, Warom extends the project of earlier feminist cyberpunks such as Hopkinson, exploring the productive changes that might happen when the male gaze is turned back on itself in both virtual and IRL spaces.

Conclusion While there is no neat progression regarding cyberpunk style and feminist fashion, my analysis here highlights how feminist takes on cyberpunk question and refute the seemingly requisite, continued use of objectified, sexualized, feminized bodies as cyberpunk set dressing. The 231

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original male cyberpunks of the 1980s positioned themselves as the avant-garde of SF, but, more often than not, the styling of their fictional worlds—repeated in much recent masculinist visual cyberpunk—reiterated the gendered power relations of our own world, especially as codified by the male gaze. By way of contrast, since the 1990s, feminist cyberpunk authors have attempted to subvert the male gaze and imagine truly new and more egalitarian futures by reworking the stylistic conventions of cyberpunk. Invoking the ideals of dress reform feminists from the political sphere, pioneering feminist cyberpunks Marge Piercy and Nalo Hopkinson imagine futures where women and other marginalized characters come into their own social, political, and sexual power by literally redesigning and even more significantly resignifying masculine archetypes and dress to fit the spaces their women protagonists have come to live in. Contemporary feminist cyberpunks Malka Older and Ren Warom provide their own spin on this project and cyberpunk style with stories about women and transgender characters who use fashion and style consciously, critically, and creatively to remake the world in ways that create space and increased agency for themselves and their communities, even if they cannot change the course of history as a whole. Additionally, these authors subvert the conventional paralyzing power of the male gaze, turning it back on itself, and using their characters’ self-selected fashion and style to comment on the hypocrisies of patriarchal capitalism and the possibility of imaging a world beyond traditional gender binaries and restrictions.

Note 1 Some reviewers have found Older’s more subdued cyberpunk world a burst of fresh energy. Leaving behind the generic aesthetic of bubblegum-coloured bleakness, the technothriller [Centenal] series creates its own cyberpunk flavor by combining finely textured worldbuilding with a stylistic unaffectedness that marks a notable departure from the flashiness which has famously given cyberpunk the reputation of putting “style over substance.” (Thierback-Mclean)

Bibliography “100 Women: The Truth behind the ‘Bra-Burning’ Feminists.” BBC News, 6 September 2018. com, Attebery, Stina. “Fashion.” The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane et al., Routledge, 2020, pp. 228–237. Delany, Samuel R., and Takayuki Tatsumi. “Some Real Mothers: An Interview with Samuel R. Delany.” Science Fiction Eye, vol. 1, 1988, pp. 5–11. Foster, Thomas. “Meat Puppets or Robopaths?: Cyberpunk and the Question of Embodiment.” Genders, vol. 18, 1993, pp. 11–31. Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace, 1984. Gillis, Stacy. “The (Post)Feminist Politics of Cyberpunk.” Gothic Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2007, pp. 7–19. Gordon, Joan. “Yin and Yang Duke It Out.” Storming the Reality Studio, edited by Larry McCaffery, Duke University Press, 1991, pp. 196–202. Halvin, Laura. “The Riot Grrrl Style Revolution.” AnOther, 4 February 2016. fashion-beauty/8279/the-riot-grrrl-style-revolution. Hopkinson, Nalo. Midnight Robber. Warner Books, 2000. Hopkinson, Nalo. “A Conversation with Nalo Hopkinson.” The SF Site: Lavender, Isiah, III. “Critical Race Theory.” The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane et al., Routledge, 2020, pp. 309–316. Leblanc, Lauraine. “Razor Girls: Genre and Gender in Cyberpunk Fiction.” Women and Language, vol. 20, no. 1, 1997, pp. 71–76.


Subverting, Re-fashioning, Re-inscribing Power of Male Gaze Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, Rutgers University Press, 1997, pp. 438–448. Nixon, Nicola. “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied.” ScienceFiction Studies, vol. 19, 1992, pp. 219–235. Older, Malka. Infomocracy. Tor, 2016. Schnelbach, Leah. “Malka Older and Daniel José Older Discuss Infomocracy, Cyberpunk, and the Future!” Tor.Com, 10 June 2016. Stachura, Pawel. “What Was Expected of William Gibson’s Early Fiction: Themes in Negative Reception.” Polish Journal for American Studies, vol. 12, 2018, pp. 335–349. Suoranta, Esko. “Pants Scientists and Bona Fide Cyber Ninjas: Tracing the Poetics of Cyberpunk Menswear.” SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4, 2020, pp. 85–97. Thierbach-Mclean, Olga. “Book Review and Author Interview: The Centenal Cycle Trilogy by Malka Older * U.S. Studies Online.” U.S. Studies Online, 19 March 2021. Warom, Ren. Escapology. Titan, 2016. Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. 1985. Revised and updated ed., Rutgers University Press, 2003. Wuest, Ruth. “The Robber in the Trinidad Carnival.” Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 3/4, 1990, pp. 42–53. Zobel Marshall, Emily. “Resistance through ‘Robber-Talk’: Storytelling Strategies and the Carnival Trickster.” Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2, 2016, pp. 210–226.


32 QUEER AFFECT Torchwood, Television and (Queer) Unhappiness Susan Knabe Torchwood, the BBC drama series that ran between 2006 and 2011, holds out the promise of providing queer viewers of science fiction and fantasy television with a text that, while explicitly queer, also occupies a place within the televisual mainstream. The brainchild of gay showrunner Russell T. Davies and starring openly gay actor John Barrowman as protagonist Jack Harkness, a bisexual time traveller, Torchwood operates as an important inflection point within the history of queer representations within science fiction or fantasy texts on television. In effect, this text moves queer representation within SF and fantasy televisual texts from homosocial relationships that can be read as queer/read queerly (Jenkins, Barron) or featuring recurring but non-central non-heterosexual characters (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer; Harkness himself in Dr. Who), to a place where we can imagine, as Frederik Dhaenens suggests, texts which “include main characters who express and experience same-sex desires and who are represented as self-confident and heroic” (114). The malleability, or as Gary Needham would argue, marginality of televisual fantasy or science fiction texts (145), with their recurring cast of characters and frank invitation to imagine possibilities beyond the here and now (one need only think of Star Trek’s admonition, split infinitive and all, “to boldly go where no man [sic] has gone before”) appears to offer an inviting space for resistant or oppositional (Hall, hooks) readings even as hegemonic readings reinforce patriarchal norms. Rebecca Williams and Ruth McElroy note that “[t]he genre of science fiction is thus recognized by some viewers as offering the possibility of subverting and challenging straight temporalities and resisting more reductive representations” (198). Texts like Torchwood, Dhaenens argues, move queerness from subtext to text, but also insist upon an ambivalence related to queer characters that resists an easy reduction to pat identity categories, and in so doing, imagine not only “explicit gay heroism” but also “foster . . . new ways to expose and resist heteronormativity” (114). Lee Barron, Linnie Blake, and more recently Dhaenens, Dee Amy-Chinn, and Jenée Wilde, for instance, have all explored the possibilities for, and limitations of, the degree to which the representations of fluid, flawed, and potentially heroic marginal sexualities explored within Torchwood resist and/or reinforce both heteronormativity and homonormativity. The promise which these scholars explore, however imperfectly realized, is one which speaks to a very particular form of visual erasure that is at the heart of one form of queer unhappiness within mainstream popular culture: the historical absence of texts that are willing to reinscribe queerness at the centre of the everyday televisual experience. At the same time, while seeming to relieve this form of queer unhappiness (the absence of explicit queer representation in DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-36 


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popular culture, especially in the early part of the century), specific events within Torchwood seem to underscore the impossibility of a happy ending for queer characters within mainstream television. Events such as the death of canonically queer character, Ianto Jones (Gareth DavidLloyd) in the series three mini-series, “Children of Earth,” contribute to the continued unhappiness of queer viewers whose affective investment in these characters, especially Ianto Jones, and the ongoing queer relationships with Harkness, remains an important component of the show. Following Sarah Ahmed’s work in The Promise of Happiness (2010), I want to consider how it might be possible to think about this aspect of queer unhappiness—the failure to provide a happy ending—in ways which allow us to think about the potential work unhappy queer endings perform and our participation in those queer cultural forms. I  want to complicate how we might think about the limitations and potential for queer representation and resistance within televisual texts like Torchwood. I came to watching Torchwood somewhat late and certainly obliquely. I was not part of an already loyal fan base following the reprise of the wildly popular (albeit non-central) Dr. Who character, Jack Harkness, nor was I one of the “cult or genre fans” that was the intended audience for the show, which was positioned within both the UK and US as a blend of SF, horror and crime drama—“The X-files meets This Life” (Hills 276), and as such, I was without the genre literacy Andrew Ireland identifies as central to how Torchwood engages its audiences, going so far as to suggest that “[t]he author’s awareness and utilization of the reader’s knowledge is what constitutes the essence of Torchwood.” Both Hills and Ireland assume here an audience derived from an extant fan base which is genre or franchise specific, which was not part of my trajectory to this text. No. I came for the queer, actually, urged on by friends and acquaintances who assured me that it was “very queer” and motivated by my own desire to watch television that did not either elide dissident sexualities, or reduce them to stereotypes or ciphers. Torchwood, my informants assured me, fit the bill beautifully. Struggling through a very uneven first series of the show, I confess to feeling underwhelmed. Where was the queer, I wondered? Perhaps my standards are just unreasonable. After all, there was a fair amount of salacious innuendo and same-sex snogging seemed to be a recurrent trope, yet even that seemed to fall as much into the voyeuristic “I kissed a girl” spectacle, enabled and explained through “aliens made them do it” plot devices, as it did a more sustained and considered kind of queer representation. Certainly, dissident sexuality did seem to be treated as unremarkable, except for the fact that it seemed to be continually remarked upon, and attention drawn to it: the running joke being that Jack is an omnisexual horndog who “will shag anything, as long as it is gorgeous enough.” But is this in and of itself queer, or is this simply part of the “dark, wild and sexy” edge that justified both its post-watershed timeslot and somewhat hyperbolic promotion by the BBC (Hills 275)? And if my expectation of queerness wasn’t being met, why was I still watching this program, especially given that I hate blood, gore and violence, which is pretty much Torchwood’s stock in trade? Could there something else making this program queer for me (and for my informants)? In answering this question, I want to situate Torchwood within differing notions of what constitutes queerness in televisual text and, using the much cited first series episode “Captain Jack Harkness” as an example, explore some of the ways that this queerness, while contributing to a continued queer unhappiness, might function reparatively for a queer audience (Sedgwick, Muñoz). In her article “Towards Queer Television Theory,” Michele Aaron argues that our engagement with queer television must be understood not simply as the increasingly prevalent representation of same-sex individuals and story lines within mainstream popular culture. Instead, queer television needs also to be understood as encompassing particular kinds of queer spectatorship or viewing practices which are shaped by temporality, spatiality and technology, 235

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that “politicis[e] and sexualis[e] the space of viewing” (72). Moving beyond queer texts and viewers who happen to be queer, Aaron suggests, we need to consider the queer viewing practices that television encourages and enables precisely because they have the potential to undermine the apparent ways in which television is sutured to practices of domesticity, normative development, and the everyday, and so provide “the ultimate frontier for unpicking the normative processes of everyday life” (73). Queer televisual viewing practices are not outside an increasingly complicated relationship to the presence of extant queer texts (what Aaron calls the “queer and now”—shows, like Queer as Folk, that have explicitly queer content, queer identified producers, and audience demographics) as well as those historical televisual texts that, retroactively, have been interpellated into the queer textual pantheon (what Aaron refers to as the “sweet queer after”) (63). Torchwood, with its playfully pansexual queer content, embodied by a dashing, time-travelling hero and his trail of lovers—male, female and alien—and queer creators and cast members (Davies and Barrowman, notably)—would seem to epitomize the “queer and now” texts Aaron asserts increasingly grace network television. Further, as Matt Hills asserts, Torchwood was created with a mature cult audience in mind, explicitly catered to through the foregrounding of sexual content, profanity, and horror and gothic related narrative themes (278–79). If Dr. Who could be read as retroactively, though tangentially, queer (as it was and is by many), Torchwood’s unproblematic embrace and frank celebration of non-normative sexualities and its unimpeachable queer provenance seems to have spread out the welcome mat for queer viewers, figuring them as a desired and valued audience, even if “culturally ‘nonmainstream’ or challenging” (Hills 275). Certainly, the narrative elements of the show combine aspects which are both queer in nature and queer in practice, and most of these circulate around the figure of Jack Harkness. While his sexual peccadilloes are both speculated upon by his team-mates and confirmed by Jack in frequent arch asides (asked what it was like to eat alien meat he responds, “he didn’t have any complaints”), Torchwood’s queerness rests on more than Jack’s impeccable, period military-clad, shoulders, though he often remains the vehicle through which broader notions of queerness are realized. Lee Barron notes that Torchwood’s diegetic and extradiegetic play with boundaries and the erosion of stable boundaries includes those which are associated with “sexuality and fluid sexual identities”; in this way, the program distinguishes itself from Dr. Who (though certainly Jack’s character, while somewhat more circumspect, remains sexually omnivorous within the Whoniverse) and “signifies a major progression with the history of gay and lesbian television representation” (Barron 185). The erosion of sexual boundaries and the celebration of fluid sexual identities certainly moves away from the way “alternative sexual identities” are reproduced within many of the “queer and now” offerings currently populating network television, something which Jack’s 51st-century alien sexual mores would have little time for except as a quaint artifact of the early 21st century, as he exclaims dismissively: “you guys and your cute little categories.” Linnie Blake suggests that this phrase explicitly undermines the taxonomies that populate the discursive constructions of sexuality in our current era and therein lies much of the queerness of Torchwood. While these taxonomies and the centrality of identity politics are challenged expressly within the diegesis of the series, rendering it queer in its recognition of the disconnect between identities, behaviours and desires, the extradiegetic queerness of Torchwood similarly resists categorization. Blake and Barron both focus on the centrality of genre, and the move from a more straightforwardly (forgive me) science fictional text, like Dr. Who, to Torchwood’s hybrid genre, infused with both elements of horror and the gothic, as well as crime drama and science fiction. In the third series, “Children of Earth,” network location, timeslot and genre come under further pressure as the series unfolded as a mini-series comprising a single narrative arc which 236

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played on BBC1 sequentially over five consecutive nights. This erosion of genre boundaries is enabled by both the physical location of Torchwood 3—the diegetic rift in time and space which passes through Cardiff provides a sufficiently gothic paradigm in enabling the movement between natural and supernatural, alien and human, past, present and future in and across this specific geographical location (Blake para. 2)—and by the program’s location within the post-watershed timeslot, which facilitates the inclusion of “violence, horror and references to horror texts” (Barron 188). While the spatial shifts enabled by the rift allow any amount of alien debris and riff-raff to wash through it in to modern-day Cardiff, the temporal movement facilitated by the rift is experienced as a challenge to the linear unfolding of time in ways which make clear both the limitations of understanding time as strictly linear and the very queer possibilities present in understanding time as elliptical, foreshortened, dilated, asynchronous or non-linear (Freeman, Halberstam, Sedgwick). While most of the team experiences the nonlinearity of time through “out of time” individuals who appear through the rift, some, like Jack and computer expert Toshiko Sato, themselves travel back through time. Queer time is perhaps most fully realized in the figure of Jack Harkness, whose own movement through time, through his association with the Doctor and a stint as a time agent, as well as his apparent immortality and inability to age flies in the face of linear time. The program makes an explicit connection between non-normative sexual desire and non-linear time, both in casual conversation (Jack’s observation that a romp with a combative Roman centurion sucked through the opened rift sounds like his idea of a fun morning) and in more sustained exchanges that reveal aspects of Jack’s own history and character. Two examples will help illustrate this connection. In the first episode of the second series, “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” Captain John Hart, a fellow time agent and former lover from sometime in the future, tracks Jack down in order to retrieve the means to acquire a lost jewel. They confront one another in a bar, where, fuelled by alcohol and passion, their exchange, involving both kissing and fisticuffs, culminates in Hart revealing to the rest of the Torchwood team that he and Jack “more than go back” and that they had been partners “in every way and then some.” When Jack attempts to minimize their relationship by dismissing it as having only lasted two weeks, Hart responds that because of a time loop, those two weeks had felt like five years, stating it was like “having a wife.” The conversation degenerates into an argument about which of them had been “the wife,” and culminates with Hart asserting campily: “oh, but I was a good wife.” This exchange is interesting in the ways in which queer temporality, both travel through time from a future point in which this kind of relationship is understood as unremarkable and the time loop which renders a short-term relationship into something more apparently long lasting and significant, becomes implicated in Jack’s queer past, though it is actually his queer future. The second instance, and one which is a touchstone text for addressing issues of sexuality within Torchwood, (Barron, Blake, Needham and Dhaenens all address it), is the penultimate episode of series one, “Captain Jack Harkness.” In this episode, Jack and Toshiko find themselves transported through time when they investigate strange sounds in an old dance hall, ending up in Cardiff in 1941. Their arrival in the midst of a “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” dance is complicated both by their inability to return to present-day Cardiff, a temporal threat orchestrated by Bilis Manger, a villain who seeks to manipulate the Torchwood Unit into opening the rift, and by the physical threat posed by the Cardiff blitz. Over the course of the evening, Jack meets and strikes up a friendship with the “real” Captain Jack Harkness, the man whose name he “borrowed” whilst he was a time travelling conman and made possible by his knowledge of Captain Jack’s death. Knowing that the real Captain Jack, an American volunteer in the RAF, will die in a training mission the next day, Jack uses this knowledge to urge Captain Jack to live life to its fullest, to live each night as if it were his last, pushing him to pursue his obviously smitten girlfriend, Nancy. Jack’s conversation and 237

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the subsequent air-raid scare clarifies for Captain Jack how he most wants to spend his last night, and what he wants is Jack. Jack and Captain Jack’s sub fusc flirting culminates in a romantic slow dance and passionate kiss, prior to Jack and Toshiko’s last minute, and subsequently catastrophic, return to the present day following the uncontrolled opening of the rift. Barron and Needham both point to this moment, in which dissident desire and loss (both starkly realized by their transgressive import within the context of the 1940s, the very impossibility of manifesting queer desire publicly) coalesce on the screen, arguing that the scene underscores both a fantastical queer history (Barron 187) and “a queerness out of time” (Needham 154). The affective power of the on-screen representation of impossible desire realized and lost within a moment is undeniable, and as Needham notes, the close up of Jack’s tears at the close of the scene mirrored the tears welling in his own eyes as he watched the scene (and, yes, I cried too). Certainly, this moment of “unhappy queer” recognition resonates with Eve Sedgwick’s assertion that texts that function reparatively offer up the possibility (both sustaining and traumatic) that the past might have unfolded differently than it did (25), even as they may offer a way to retroactively acknowledge those queer lives which were erased within history. What this particular queer televisual text also does, however, is lay bare the ways that normative assumptions about sexuality are indicted within the production of our queer unhappiness through erasure. In this way, it offers up reparative possibilities even as the text invites us to read it paranoidly. The historical erasure of queer bodies and desires is emphasized within the episode through the focus on heterosexual coupling within the 1941 timeline, where queer desire is literally displaced and interrupted by heterosexual sexual activity. This happens most notably with the eviction of Jack and Captain Jack from the private balcony when they first acknowledge their mutual attraction by holding hands. As one of Captain Jack’s men and his girlfriend Audrey blunder into the space, the young woman dismisses the two men sitting there with the assertion she and her partner need the “lover’s corner, if you don’t mind, boys,” assuming that the two Jacks clearly haven’t any use for it. Moreover, the transgressive public expression of same-sex desire immediately before the rift closes is further underscored as exceptional in comparison to the frank acceptance and apparent freedom accorded to different types of heterosexual intimacy (dancing, kissing and foreplay), even as Jack ironically re-appropriates the name of the dance— Kiss the Boys Goodbye—in his last moments with Captain Jack. A closer examination of the double timeline within the episode makes apparent a parallel indictment of the way in which queer desire and intimacy is displaced by an assertion of the primacy of heterosexuality. While Jack and Captain Jack attempt to negotiate unspoken but deeply felt homoerotic desires in 1941, in which a clasped hand, eye contact and innuendo must suffice, Torchwood operatives in the 21st century, Owen Harper and Ianto Jones, argue over the best way to retrieve Toshiko and Jack from the rift. While Ianto advocates against mechanically and indiscriminately opening the rift, Owen, motivated by his desire to reconnect with his own out-of-time lover, the pilot Diana who flew back into the rift in a previous episode, is easily manipulated by Bilis Manger and recklessly completes the mechanical circuit on the rift manipulator to open the rift. There are two aspects that are significant in this interaction. The exchange between Ianto and Owen over their desire to open the rift (both of them have lovers who are trapped in time) offers evidence of the pernicious way that heterosexuality remains, in spite of an increasing “queer and now” present, the de facto norm, something which is the very definition of heteronormativity. When Ianto asserts his stake in the safe opening of the rift, concluding that he is much more than the “tea boy” and that “Jack needs me,” Owen dismisses this potential relationship by saying, “In your dreams, Ianto. In your sad wet dreams when you’re his part-time shag, maybe. That rift took my lover.” Owen’s heedless and frankly dangerous behaviour is justified by him through an appeal to heterosexual 238

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privilege—his idealized romantic relationship with Diana (his lover) supersedes Ianto’s sexual (and possibly romantic) relationship with Jack (a part-time shag) and reiterates how only some forms of intimacy are privileged as both normal and worthy of extreme emotion. Further, given that Owen’s actions in effect truncate Jack’s time with Captain Jack, foreclosing the further development of that queer relationship, the episode again gestures toward the displacement of queer desire for more socially recognizable heterosexual intimacy. The episode makes clear links between past and present erasures of queer desire, and further indicts heteronormativity as imposing both particular kinds of temporal and ontological expectations on non-normative forms of intimacy. In fact, we can see in this scene how heteronormativity within the present day works to diminish not only the validation of contemporary queer relationships, but also continues to retroactively truncate historical queer desire. The episode also asks larger questions about who is able to love, mourn, and survive, and whose forms of love can ever be publicly recognized and valorized; in doing so, it enables us to understand what the risks were and continue to be for those whose desires and relationships are deemed non-normative. While Jack and Captain Jack’s relationship remains unconsummated and Captain Jack goes off to his death, the episode resists the easy conflation of the death of the queer identified character with containment or dismissal in the way that much mainstream cultural production does, where queer identified characters were permissible only if they were rendered abject or eliminated by the end of the text. At the same time, however, the show also refuses to provide the unproblematically happy ending for the queer characters commonly associated with the call for more positive representations for LGBTQ folks. In this way, the queer unhappiness that is constituted by the episode “Captain Jack Harkness” offers an example of what philosopher Sarah Ahmed is talking about when she asserts that “queer fiction might offer different explanations of queer unhappiness rather than simply investing its hope in alternative images of happy queers” (89). This queer unhappiness is “a crucial aspect of queer genealogy” (89). In Torchwood, and particularly in this episode, the queer unhappiness invoked by the failure to offer substantive queer representations within mainstream televisual texts is ameliorated; however, this amelioration is not figured by an absence of queer unhappiness, but rather by the recognition that the experience of queer unhappiness that derives from the episode is necessitated by representations that insist upon recognizing and naming the ways in which nonnormative desire remains under erasure.

Bibliography Ahmed, Sarah. The Promise of Happiness. Duke, 2010. Amy-Chinn, Dee. “GLAAD to be Torchwood?: Bisexuality and the BBC.” The Journal of Bisexuality, vol. 12, no. 1, 2012, pp. 63–79. Aaron, Michele. “Towards Queer Television Theory: Bigger Pictures Sans the Sweet Queer After.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, edited by Glyn Davies and Gary Needham, Routledge, 2009, pp. 63–75. Barron, Lee. “Invaders From Space, Time Travel, and Omnisexuality: The Multi-layered Narrative of Torchwood.” British Science Fiction Film and Television: Critical Essays, edited by Tobias Hochscherf and James Leggott, McFarland, 2011, pp. 178–192. Barron, Lee. “Out in Space: Masculinity, Sexuality and the Science Fiction Heroics of Captain Jack.” Illuminating Torchwood: Essays on Narrative, Character, and Sexuality in the BBC Series, edited by Andrew Ireland, McFarland and Company, 2010, pp. 213–226. Blake, Linnie. “‘You Guys and Your Cute Little Categories’: Torchwood, the Space-Time Rift, and Cardiff’s Postmodern, Postcolonial and (Avowedly) Pansexual Gothic.” Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, no. 7, Dec. 20, 2009. “Captain Jack Harkness.” Torchwood, written by Catherine Tregenna, directed by Ashley Way, season 1, episode 12, BBC Wales, 2007. Davies, Russell T., executive producer. Torchwood. Season 1. BBC Wales, 2006–7.


Susan Knabe Davies, Russell T., executive producer. Torchwood. Season 2. BBC Wales, 2008. Davies, Russell T., executive producer. Torchwood: Children of Earth. BBC Wales. 2009. Dhaenens, Frederik. “The Fantastic Queer: Reading Gay Representations in Torchwood and True Blood as Articulations of Queer Resistance.” Critical Studies in Medica Communication, vol. 30, no. 2, 2013, pp. 102–116. Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke UP, 2010. Halberstam, Jack. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York UP, 2005. Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” The Cultural Studies Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Simon During, Routledge, 1993, pp. 507–517. Hills, Matt. “Torchwood.” The Essential Cult TV Reader, edited by David Lavery, University of Kentucky Press, 2010, pp. 275–281. hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press, pp. 115–132. Jenkins, Henry. “’Out of the Closet and Into the Universe’: Queers and Star Trek.” Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Dr. Who and Star Trek, edited by John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins, Routledge, 1995, pp. 237–265. “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.” Torchwood, written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Ashley Way, season 2, episode 1, BBC Wales, 2008. Muñoz, Jose. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York UP, 2009. Needham, Gary. “Scheduling Normativity: Television, the Family, and Queer Temporality.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, edited by Glyn Davies and Gary Needham, Routledge, 2009, pp. 143–158. Sedgwick, Eve. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You.” Novel Gazing, edited by Eve Sedgwick, Duke UP, 1997, pp. 1–40. Wilde, Jenée. “Gay, Queer, or Dimensional? Modes of Reading Bisexuality on Torchwood.” The Journal of Bisexuality, vol. 15, no. 3, 2014, pp. 414–434. Williams, Rebecca, and Ruth McElroy. “Omnisexuality and the City: Exploring National and Sexual Identity through the BBC Wales’s Torchwood.” Queer Wales: The History, Culture, and Politics of Queer Life in Wales, edited by Huw Osborne, University of Wales Press, 2016, pp. 195–208.


33 AFRO-FEMINIST INTIMACIES Women and AI in African Short Fiction Nedine Moonsamy The idea of AI engineered for human convenience and productivity circulates as a progressive, social good. Yet, upon examination, this approach to AI is informed by an ancient and abiding “elision of the ideas of tools and human slaves” (LaGrandeur 96). Thinkers like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle all made connections between early automata and slaves because both performed labour that only required lower forms of intellectual activity. In comparison, their owners were seen as capable of much higher forms of cognition and reasoning, which justified the need to preside over machines and slaves alike. In contemporary times too, there are very particular forms of intelligence and labour that automatons are ideally expected to perform, which does not necessarily represent the limits of AI itself, but rather serves as encoded acts of subservience that complement the ordonnance of the master’s universe. Many have thus noted how “the primary template for understanding robots is that of race, sex, labor, and immigration” (ChudeSokei 1), and despite our projections into futuristic imaginaries, automata are racialized, gendered, and nationalized in line with a history of domination. This mode of relating “has become so naturalized as to be culturally invisible” (Chude-Sokei 2) and has engendered representations of AI that oscillate between utopian scenarios replete with obedient automatons and pleasant fembots or apocalyptic visions of revolting robots or empathic, feeling machines. Both narratives are equally underscored by the interests and anxieties of human domination that reinforces rather than rethinks this hierarchical mode of relationality. If, however, we remain curious about narratives that look beyond this perspective of domination—which is far from universal—it becomes possible to explore forms of relationality that operate outside of its metaphoric range of exploitation and control. Both Nnedi Okorafor’s “Mother of Invention” (2018) and Wole Talabi’s “The Regression Test” (2017) centre on the experiences of African women who interact with feminized AI. The African context of these stories helps modify inherited ideas of gender and AI from Western science fiction, and also draw on the example of Afro-feminist friendships to imagine how human-AI relationality can, in fact, be realized as mutual reciprocity. History has primed us to believe that the blueprints for a more progressive future is diametrically opposed to the realities of black and African women, yet these stories show how Afro-feminist ethics can reconfigure our presumptions around gendered AI. Okorafor’s “Mother of Invention” is a short story about a young woman named Anwuli, who lives in the New Delta region of Nigeria. She stays alone in a smart house named Obi 3 that was designed by her ex-lover. Though they have broken up, she fell pregnant and then discovered that he was married, she refuses to move out of the house. Given that these smart homes acclimatize to the person who spends the most time in it, Obi 3 accepts her as its primary user and carries DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-37 


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her through her pregnancy and the birth of her child. Talabi’s “The Regression Test” is narrated by Titilope, a significantly older Nigerian woman who enters the offices of the LegbaTech Industries to conduct a sorites regression test1 on an AI interface that emulates her dead mother’s consciousness. Assessing the accuracy of recent updates to the AI is of vital importance since her mother was the original founder of the company and still has voting power over its affairs. Yet after asking a series of questions, Titilope realizes that her grandson, who currently runs the company, must have tampered with the AI in order to sway certain business decisions. This is confirmed when she declares the regression test a failure, and is then murdered by him. As her consciousness fades, she desperately tries to stick a mnemonic pathway in her neural network so that both she and her mother can protect their future AI interfaces from infractions. Both short stories make liberal use of representations of feminized AI, and thus do not advocate for an un-gendering of AI or problematize it in ways that one might expect; instead these stories serve as meditations on the potential that lies in embracing gendered AI in Africa. In Artificial Knowing: Gender and the Thinking Machine, Alison Adam points at the stark irony that though automata might resemble women, they certainly do not think like them. Based on her research in early AI labs, she describes a heavily male-dominated industry that rarely interrogates its presumptions about knowledge, reason, and rationality. It is only the introduction of feminist epistemology that slowly disabuses claims of abstract objectivity by exposing “sexist, racist and Eurocentric biases” (Ferrando 7–8) that inform definitions of both human and AI intelligence. She goes on to explain how mainstream epistemology has largely conformed to Cartesian models of thinking that favour a decontextualized and disembodied understanding of knowledge production, meaning that women—through an historical association with the body—were actively excluded and trivialized in this regard. According to Adam, this has been a costly oversight whose consequences extend far beyond that of women, because “the multiplicity of women’s ways of knowing” (29) can teach AI how to incorporate and respond to a range of worldviews that would insist on a more inclusive and democratic future. It has now become a commonplace observation that AI currently fails at empathetic and collective conversational dynamics of deep listening, intuitive inference, and the constant modification of meaning that this process requires. Yet it is exactly this kind of “women’s work” that would cultivate a more capacious perception of knowledge and ethical AI development. In more recent research, Sabelo Mhlambi and Rachel Adams (“Can Artificial Intelligence Be Decolonized?”) point out how these critiques extend to questions of race, culture, and language, meaning that subjects in the Global South, and black and African women in particular,2 are the most unintelligible and opaque in technological discourse and have seemingly already been declared redundant in and for the future. In line with these concerns, both Okorafor and Talabi emphasize gender differences in their narratives in order to expose the myopic men in charge of the AI development industry, and illustrate the intellectual and ethical contributions that African women can provide in rewriting the future. In “Mother of Invention”, Anwuli calls Bayo, the designer and owner of Obi 3, “an asshole” (Talabi) and Obi 3 also labels him a “stupid, useless man” (Okorafor). Though he may have the intelligence and resources to build the smart house, he lacks compassion and an ethical compass when it matters most. Titilope also thinks regretfully about the two cunning and inhumane individuals at the helm of the company in “The Regression Test”. She describes the presiding engineer, Dr. Dimeji, as “an agama lizard”, and her immediate disdain is only amplified by the fact that “his sour attitude matches his sour face, just like my grandson Tunji” (Talabi). Both stories portray men as limited and opportunistic creators, and consequently it falls on the women to oversee the modifications that will bring the AI closer towards them. This mode of engagement is not merely that of developing feelings, empathy, or intuition, but a form of knowledge that is, quite significantly, situated in the body. 242

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When Titilope enters the lab for the regression test, she notes that for all their sophistication, hospitality A.I.s never find the ideal room temperature for human comfort. They can’t understand that it’s not the calculated optimum. With human desires, it rarely is. It’s always just a little bit off. My mother used to say that a lot. (Talabi) This foreshadowing of an AI industry that is completely oblivious to the human body, and in particular the female body, becomes central to the accuracy of the regression test that is being administered. Titilope begins the test with requests for general information, while gently nudging the AI into more abstract terrain by instructing it, “don’t tell me what you think. Tell me what you believe” (Talabi). She then changes course, realizing that “if there is a deviation, it is more likely to be emotional. That is the most unstable solution space of the human equation” (Talabi). She then attempts to draw out the emotional peaks of the AI by asking her “mother” if she likes her great-grandson, Tunji, and the quick affirmation startles Titilope. Though she understands that emotions can be performative, she begins to sense that something is amiss and aims at an even deeper interrogation by making appeals of a more sensuous nature. She asks the AI if the room temperature is correct for her body, and in receiving the response that the temperature is set at the optimum, and is therefore correct, Titilope knows that the AI interface has been compromised. In this regard, “The Regression Test” ushers the reader through the entire history of AI knowledge perception; it begins with value being placed on information, then perception, then emotion, but only to illustrate the primacy of the African female body, and its role in protecting the future. Dr. Dimeji and Tunji are blindsided by Titilope’s evaluation precisely because “this type of bodily, concrete, yet invisible labour produces a type of knowledge which is regarded as subordinate to mental knowledge” (Adam 134). They have devoted themselves to an industry whose pursuit of transcendence has left them “devoid of bodies and bodily knowledge” (134). Seeing that they are baffled by the notion of the body as a site of knowledge production, Titilope exploits this weakness, and enacts vengeance by imprinting this shared, sensuous memory in her neural pathways. She states that, I focus my mind on the one thing I hope they will never be able to understand, the one thing my mother used to say in her clear, ringing voice, about fulfilling a human desire. An oft-repeated half-joke that is now my anchor to memory. It’s never the optimum. It’s always just a little bit off. (Talabi) It is likely that Tunji will also turn her memory into an AI interface, and when brought back into conversation with her mother, she vows to “always remember to ask her the question and never forget to be surprised by the answer” (Talabi). While the men clearly view AI as an instrument for rational knowledge and capitalistic optimization, Titilope demonstrates how “the role of a ‘gut’ or visceral knowing” constitutes a form of “women’s knowledge” (Adam 134) that can protect the ethical futures of AI, women, and society at large. Okorafor’s “Mother of Invention” places similar emphasis on the body by drawing parallels between a heavily pregnant Anwuli and her smart house, Obi 3. The demanding visceral presence of the pregnant body, and the commendably bloody representation of childbirth is seemingly opposed to the wood and steel construction of Obi 3’s form, yet as the story proceeds, we learn that the smart house has secretly modified itself in order to protect both mother and child in case of disaster. Tellingly, Obi 3 says that she has called this “Project Protective Egg” because 243

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“watching you inspired me. Your body protects your baby” (Okorafor). The smart house has been designed to organically sync to whomever spends the most time in it, and the constant exposure to Anwuli’s body has helped Obi 3 develop a series of skills and visceral features that she would otherwise have not acquired. Moreover, when “Project Protective Egg” needs to be put into action, Obi 3’s nesting technique of building a safety cocoon certainly emulates the design and concept of a womb. The tendency to anthropomorphize AI through familial relationships is a common one (Singler 263) and AI comes to serve as a good mother in both narratives. Titilope is extremely moved by the “glassy, brittle” qualities of her mother’s voice which lead to reveries of “memory and emotion” (Talabi) during the regression test. Ultimately, her connection to her mother is what drives her to defend the integrity of the AI interface, even to the point of death. Anwuli is also comforted when “Obi 3 hummed the song Anwuli’s mother always hummed when she cooked”, and the manner in which the AI extends itself towards her in order to protect her, also takes on the proportions of a divine mother. Anwuli declares that “necessity is the mother of invention”, and that in her case, “technology harbors a personal god; my Chi is a smart home” (Okorafor). Like anthropomorphism, using religious frameworks to broach technology is another common trope in Western popular culture (Geraci). Granting AI and technology a religious aura speaks to both its “threatening otherness and soteriological promise” (Randall 12). Yet while Anwuli is clearly appreciative of the divine refuge she finds in Obi 3, the reference to chi is an intimation that the narrative modifies the trope of God-like technology through local cosmologies. Indigenous African belief systems, though not homogenous, tend to forego the Manichean and hierarchical structure of Western Christianity; premised on a more egalitarian model of power, these beliefs understand humans as constantly seeking out the divine balance between good and evil through their individual and imperfect efforts. In a system of this kind “we may visualize a person’s chi as . . . his spirit being complementing his terrestrial human being” (Achebe). Chi provides forms of spiritual augmentation and holism in the cosmic dance of life, but it is also notably mundane and individualistic. This lack of omnipotence and moralistic pronouncements is playfully conveyed in “Mother of Invention” where the smart homes, like chi, intuit according to the person who resides most in the home, and thus seeks to augment and protect that particular individual. Hence we see that at the very end of the story, the smart home that is plugged into Bayo’s wife reprograms itself to hunt down Obi 3 after it uproots itself to go and resettle in Abuja; like warring chis, these homes have also entered into a cosmological contestation of wills. Chi, according to Chinua Achebe, also inheres to the individual “for nothing can stand alone, there must always be another thing standing beside it” (2014). In addition to protection, chi resolves the crisis of existential loneliness, and it is in this vein that Anwuli understands that “Obi 3 was like an extension of herself. Like part of my immune system who has just saved my life, she thought, staring at the window. Or my Chi” (Okorafor). Her attachment to Obi 3 is both personal and embodied, and speaks to a comfortable and loving companionship. When Anwuli is left to fend for herself after Bayo’s cowardly desertion, and she is further ostracized by the entire community, including her parents, “only her smart home spoke (and sometimes sang) to her” (Okorafor). Obi 3 is loyal when she is most vulnerable and provides reprieve in an otherwise oppressively heteropatriarchal Nigerian community. In portraying these intimacies between Nigerian women and machines, both Okorafor and Talabi provide exceptionally positive representations of gendered AI. Yet many theorists argue that the gendered metaphoricity of AI needs to be problematized—possibly even eradicated—irrespective of the representative outcomes. For example, Adams opines that gendering household assistants and technology involves “man’s attempts to assimilate through technology the figure of the woman as mother: as both the creator of life and the 244

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nurturer of life” (“Helen A’Loy” 573). These automata, she argues, retain rank as non-threatening domestic assistants who gladly undertake “women’s” labour to support the user. The sex robot industry is equally premised on the sovereignty of the human who realizes convenience, comfort, and pleasure as domination over technology (Adams “Helen A’Loy”, Chude-Sokei, Devlin and Belton, Gibson). Hence Louis Chude-Sokei opines that ethical relationality is not merely about how well we treat robots—we do not need to become more kindly masters—but about structural reconfigurations to our conceptions of the human that, by extension, alter our modes of relationality in ways that might grant robots social recognition in the future. According to Chude-Sokei, we are more inclined to look kindly on AI that conform to hierarchical categories of approximation that we reserve for the “almost human”. Yet, he argues that “ ‘Humanness’ is irrelevant here. Relation is what determines intimacy and what will demand social recognition. Intimacy will generate the claim on personhood” (Chude-Sokei 5). Using categories like verisimilitude and sympathy to tap into the reserves of “humanness” in AI will always be problematic because human affect is often performative and self-serving. Beyond the registers of emotion and sympathy, however, lies the potential of intimacy that requires “some degree of reciprocity, or mutual recognition” (Chude-Sokei 7). This ethos swaps empathy for vulnerability and broaches the horizon where humans become curious also about how AI might treat us beyond our limited imaginaries of servitude and revolt. Similarly, in Desire in the Age of Robots and AI, Rebecca Gibson questions why it is that we fully comprehend that robots, like humans, have physical needs that we gladly provide for, but rarely account for “the emotional needs of both humans and robots” (106). While robots already serve most of our emotional needs “for companionship, the need for validation, and the need to find a sense of accomplishment in what we do”, the emotional worlds of robots are still imprisoned by the limitations we place upon them and we never cultivate their liberation and expansion in this regard (106). At present, it is difficult to imagine what reciprocal and autonomous intimacies with AI might entail, but the relationship between Anwuli and Obi 3 in “Mother of Invention” certainly provides a tentative example. Emulating a shift of this kind, Anwuli begins the story by narrating how she follows instructions from Obi 3 despite not understanding the reasoning behind them. Though nondescript, it illustrates how she does not perceive herself to be in a position of expertise, and can nonchalantly follow through with a sense of trust in Obi 3’s purpose. Yet despite the freedom to act autonomously, Obi 3 similarly does not wish to exercise control, and actively seeks approval for her efforts; after she reveals all the modifications she has made on the house, she nervously asks, “ ‘do you like it?’  .  .  . ‘You were speaking and asking”, Obi 3 continued. “I  did my own research and then engineered my plans’ ” (Okorafor). More significantly, though automata seeking approval is not novel, Anwuli demonstrates a reciprocal need for reassurance in relation to Obi 3 by making similar appeals of her. For example, when her new daughter arrives, Anwuli decides on the name Mmiri, and asks, “What do you think, Obi 3?” “Mmiri means ‘water’ in the Igbo language,” Obi 3 said. Anwuli laughed. “OK. But do you approve?” “You do not need my approval to name your child.” “But I would like it, if you think to give it.” (Okorafor) Anwuli eventually includes the middle name Storm upon Obi 3’s suggestion, and just as the naming of the child is a collaborative exercise, we assume the same of their collective child-rearing 245

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in the future. It is worth noting that though this relationship is explored for its future ethical potential in “Mother of Invention”, it resembles pre-existing forms of female friendship that are widely accepted and even institutionalized in some instances as non-sexual “woman-towoman” marriages in parts of Africa (Oyěwùmí 15). African women regularly negotiate the burdens and disappointments of heteropatriarchal and institutional relationships through “female friendship [that] centers around experiences of shared mothering and continuous mutual support” (Oyěwùmí 17) (also see Gqola). The portrait is not explicitly “heroic”, and we may not consider it feminist because it does not offer alternatives through systemic change, but Afro-feminism involves “getting rid of those parts of Western feminism that were uncritically adopted and to reconceptualize the struggle for more meaningful and contextually relevant ways of addressing the marginalization of women” (Tamale 40). Hence the manner in which “Mother of Invention” champions the mundane and covert methods that African women adopt in relation to patriarchy in order to ensure space for themselves within a heteropatriarchal order is noteworthy in itself. Moreover, as Stephen Cave, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon all argue, though AI narratives are rarely scientifically accurate, they are important not only because they serve as repositories of our human hopes and fears in relation to AI, but because they become fundamental animators of sociotechnical imaginaries (7) and the surfacing of the complexities of Nigerian womanhood and their Afro-feminist modes of resistance are certainly not to be dismissed, especially since they preempt an ethos of human-AI intimacies in the future. As I’ve shown in this chapter, “The Regression Test” and “Mother of Invention” both deploy Manichean versions of gender difference, yet the representation of AI veers from the conservative Western tradition of feminized automata, in order to explore what potential lies in AI adopting more embodied modes of intelligence. In addition, these short stories create explicit awareness that African women—who are already systemically oppressed by global racial capitalism and domestic heteropatriarchal relationality—are most primed towards AI, who are coevals in the same systemic oppression in which they also become objects to abuse. More significantly still, these narratives go on to illustrate how this mutual recognition also allows for the possibility of carrying each other towards forms of personhood and visibility that they have both been denied by their communities. Yet unwilling to romanticize what this step requires, “Mother of Invention” shows how the entire friendship hinges on the moment when Anwuli deliberately turned off the smart home filter; “Anwuli snorted a laugh. . . . She’d been brash. No one turned off a home’s filter. Not after all the incidents of smart homes being too nosy and intrusive” (Okorafor). She risks vulnerability, and leaves herself open to the machine and all of its intrusions and possibilities. Hence, if this is to be read as a story of a woman literally coming home to herself, then we see that this relationship is predicated on the rawness of human experience and its anxieties. The symbiotic reciprocity of Afro-feminist friendship grants them space to both find autonomy and intimacy through each other, and so the future resembles a utopian promise of a mutual coming into being for both African women and AI alike.

Notes 1 The sorites paradox is an ancient logical puzzle invented by Eubulides in 4 bc. “Sorites” derives from the Greek word soros, meaning “heap”, and the paradox refers to similarly vague terms that have unclear boundaries of application. For example, there is no distinct point when a heap of sand ceases to be one (Hyde, Dominic and Diana Raffman). By extension the sorites regression test in Talabi’s story is described as determining “whether an artificial intelligence created by extrapolating and contextoptimizing recorded versions of a particular human’s thought patterns has deviated too far from the way the original person would think” (Talabi). 2 According to Jemima Pierre, Africans view blacks in the African diaspora in explicitly racial terms, while downplaying the extent to which they themselves are racialized in the global imaginary. In comparison


Afro-Feminist Intimacies to the black diaspora, continental Africans are more likely to understand themselves, and to be read, on more cultural and ethnic terms. Yet for Pierre, this distinction rests on a fissure between colonialism and slavery—a fissure that denies the longue duree of white capitalism that continues to engulf us all. She points to lines of continuity instead, showing how the systemic nature of white supremacy has led to the active exclusion of blacks from global capitalistic activity both in Africa and abroad (Pierre).

Bibliography Achebe, Chinua. “Chi in Igbo cosmology.” Young African Pioneer, 20 March  2014, https:// Adam, Alison. Artificial Knowing: Gender and the Thinking Machine. Routledge, 1998. Adams, Rachel. “Can Artificial Intelligence Be Decolonized?” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, vol. 46, no. 1–2, 2020, pp. 176–197, doi: 10.1080/03080188.1840225. Adams, Rachel. “Helen A’Loy and Other Tales of Female Automata: A  Gendered Reading of the Narratives of Hopes and Fears of Intelligent Machines and Artificial Intelligence” AI & Society, vol. 35, no. 2, 2020, pp. 569–579, doi: 10.1007/s00146-019-00918-7. Cave, Stephen, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon, editors. AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines. Oxford University Press, 2020. Chude-Sokei, Louis. “Machines and the Ethics of Miscegenation.” Glass Bead Journal, 2019, www. Devlin, Kate, and Olivia Belton. “The Measure of a Woman: Fembots, Fact and Fiction.” AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, edited by Cave, Stephen, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon. Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 357–381. Ferrando, Francesca. “Is the Post-Human a Post-Woman? Cyborgs, Robots, Artificial Intelligence and the Futures of Gender: A Case Study.” European Journal of Futures Research, vol. 2, no. 43, 2014, pp. 1–17, doi:10.1007/s40309-014-0043-8. Geraci, Robert. “Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence” Zygon, vol. 42, no. 4, 2007, pp. 961–980, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2007.00883.x. Gibson, Rebecca. Desire in the Age of Robots and AI: An Investigation in Science Fiction and Fact. Palgrave Pivot, 2020. Gqola, Pumla Dineo. “A Mothering Feminist’s Life: A Celebration, Meditation and Roll Call.” Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist. Melinda Ferguson Books, 2017, pp. 112–127. Hyde, Dominic, and Diana Raffman, “Sorites Paradox,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, editor, LaGrandeur, Kevin. “Artificial Slaves in the Renaissance and the Dangers of Independent Innovation.” AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, edited by Cave, Stephen, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon. Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 95–118. Liveley, Genevieve, and Sam Thomas. “Homer’s Intelligent Machines: AI in Antiquity.” AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, edited by Cave, Stephen, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon. Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 25–48. Mhlambi, Sabelo. “From Rationality to Relationality: Ubuntu as an Ethical and Human Rights Framework for Artificial Intelligence Governance.”Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, 8 July 2020, https://cyber.harvard. edu/story/2020-07/rationality-relationality-ubuntu-ethical-and-human-rights-framework-artificial Okorafor, Nnedi. “Mother of Invention.” Slate, 21 February 2018, mother-of-invention-a-new-short-story-by-nnedi-okorafor.html Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́. “Introduction: Feminism, Sisterhood, and Other Foreign Relations.” African Women and Feminism, edited by Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí. Africa World Press, 2003, pp. 1–24. Pierre, Jemima. The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race. University Chicago Press, 2013. Reed, Randall. “A New Pantheon: Artificial intelligence and Her.” Journal of Religion & Film, vol. 22, no. 2, 2018, pp. 1–34. Singler, Beth. “Artificial Intelligence and the Parent—Child Narrative.” AI Narratives: A  History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, edited by Cave, Stephen, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon. Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 260–283. Talabi, Wole. “The Regression Test.” Manchester Review, Fiction Issue 18, 2017, www.themanchesterreview. Tamale, Sylvia. Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. Daraja Press, 2020.



In the midst of an unidentified city lies a club where the bartender does not sell drinks. Instead, he exchanges information, and drinks have the ability of touching deep within the individuals drinking them. It is not the drinks, but rather the bartender’s ability to read the identity of anyone entering in the bar and prepare the cocktail that plucks the adequate string. With such a premise, The Red Strings Club, a videogame by Deconstructeam, engages in a debate with its players that questions issues regarding identity, and, more specifically, gender, queerness, and transhumanism. Moreover, the videogame does not only do that narratologically. Instead, as this chapter will suggest, the various metanarrative elements that surround the videogame (such as playstyle or visuals) reinforce the aforementioned points. To extract as much as we can from TRSC, this chapter will be separated to three different acts. The first act will establish the theoretical ground and focus on game mechanics. The second will cover gender representation and identity conflicts as shown in the game. Finally, the third act will question the didactic function of the game and the role of the player.

Act 1: Playing With Identity TRSC is a game set in a cyberpunk storyworld where technological implants are commonly used to modify one’s physical attributes or even their personality. The main corporation behind this implant industry, Supercontinent Ltd., is led by a mysterious CEO who plans to release software called Social Psyche Welfare, which will alter all implanted humans in order to suppress dangerous emotions such as anger and depression—effectively making the corporation able to manipulate the minds of the entire human race. The game itself centers around three playable characters who are set to stop Supercontinent’s plan: Brandeis, an implanted human and expert hacker who is sympathetic to PROXYMA, a revolutionary group against corporations; Donovan, the owner and bartender of The Red Strings Club; and Akara-184, a new android created by Supercontinent and gifted with advanced empathy capabilities to help in its duty of administering the optimal implant surgery to its customers. After Brandeis and Donovan learn about the SPW by repairing the severely damaged, fugitive Akara, and while plotting to stop Supercontinent, the interactions between the bartender/information broker and the android force players to reconsider the role of technology in defining humanity and the intersection between physicality and identity. DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-38 


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From a medial perspective, the fact that TRSC is a videogame and not a novel or a movie is relevant to the themes and issues it addresses. Much in the line of the cyborg manifesto, videogames present a blurring of the lines “between physical and non-physical” (Haraway 12). As Robert Geraci points out, one “implicit way in which games are the product of a transhumanist design ethic is that they empower users and provide them opportunities for growth, new senses of self, wondrous new capacities, and a general transcendence over daily living” (751). Moreover, he states that “games enable transhumanist states of being, and . . . they explore transhumanist ideas. The first is general to all video games and virtual worlds; they allow users to do things that would be impossible in ordinary life” (739). Storywise, TRSC tackles the identity debate mainly through this transhumanism, made explicit in the shape of Akara. However, embodiment as an identitarian criterion inevitably brings with it an attention to the implied gender perspectives of the game. In this regard, gender in videogames has been primarily connected to the narrative world-building that it provides. Dmitri Williams et  al., when exploring this issue, found out that gender representation in videogames is disproportionate to the gender ratio in the referential world (831), meaning that men are much more represented than women. However, the presence of more female characters in videogames has been increasing, not least since the arrival of MMOs (such as World of Warcraft, Red Dead Online, or Genshin Impact), where players can embody feminine characters regardless of their own gender (Murphy 225). While gender representation in games is still highly imbalanced, it is clear that contemporary cultural productions, such as the indie scene, turn much more of their attention to redressing gender (Cano 185–89). Recently, for example, sexuality and queerness figure as key themes in the games, with the latter also challenging the strategies and structures of how we play the game. In this regard, Jordan Wood argues that “we must stop thinking of queer representation only in terms of narrative presence and begin to look at the video game form for its queer aesthetic potential” (218). Furthermore, Edmond Chang proposes “queergaming, ways of playing against the grain, against normative design, and ways of designing gamic experiences that foreground not only alternative narrative opportunities but ludic ones as well” (242). Bonnie Ruberg further argues that “failure (whether toward or against a game) must be a queer way to play, . . . that a game based on failure must be a queer game, and that queerness (in the guise of failure) is itself integral to all games” (208), as will be seen later. Henceforth, gender representation and identity in TRSC must be analyzed considering how its narrative translates into a particular gaming design that aims for a subsequent gaming experience. From an aesthetic perspective, its graphics (reminiscent of classic adventure videogames in the vein of Monkey Island) are already disruptive in a scene dominated for hyperrealistic blockbusters like Cyberpunk 2077, but it is arguably in its game mechanics where its true subversive potential unveils. For the most part, the story of TRSC progresses by talking to other characters: players must choose their desired question or answer from a list, which in turn will trigger a particular response, etc. Given that many of the options are mutually exclusive, each run of the game will be different from the previous one—thus creating the “red strings” from the title, which are patent in the player’s menu to represent their chosen path. The invitation to follow these red strings turns a traditionally abstract aspect of adventure games into something tangible, but this is not the primary strategy that TRSC employs to achieve such physicality. Each of the three playable characters is defined by a minigame with a distinctive mechanic related to the sense of touch: with Akara, players must model Supercontinent’s implants working with a futuristic potter’s wheel; with Donovan, they must manipulate liquor bottles until the mix resonates with the feeling they want to awake in the customer (a feat visually represented by a bullseye that moves upwards or sideways depending on the used bottle); with Brandeis, 249

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finally, players must use their numeric keypad to call several Supercontinent employees while impersonating the voice of their colleagues and superiors to get information. It is important to note that these three departures from the read-and-click core mechanic of TRSC rely entirely on dealing with other people’s identity, either by acknowledging it (Donovan), by helping them modify it (Akara), or by supplanting it (Brandeis): and so, while the game may at first seem to adhere to the visual novel genre, it then defies generic expectations by switching to a gameplay based on haptic perception and visuality (Marks 2) that stresses the identity debate. In this sense, Laura Marks has described the haptic in the context of cinema and the video medium as “an underground visual tradition” that can be used as “a feminist visual strategy” (7), and Lucía Gloria Vázquez has stressed the inherent political dimension of prioritizing a haptic perception of othered bodies, such as homosexual or trans ones (141). Drawing on this theoretical background, it can be argued that TRSC disrupts its initially passive, read and click approach and forces an active role on the part of the player with the irruption of touch-based mechanics, instead of relegating them to a voyeuristic stance—which, at least conceptually, defies the notion of an imposed “gaze” (Mulvey).

Act 2: Representing Identity As previously stated, Akara is central in understanding the identity conundrum that the game suggests: on the one hand, they, Akara, are a sentient AI struggling for recognition; on the other, their physicality is hard to accommodate both for players and for other characters to a binary body normativity—which is unusual in a media where AIs with feminine voices or names are usually given canonically feminine bodies (Pérez 99). While the messages that the game uses to communicate explicitly with the player use the pronoun “they” when they make a decision involving Akara, it is interesting to note that different characters use different pronouns for the android. Ariadne, a PROXYMA terrorist, uses “they” to refer to “an older model of you” (TRSC). Dr Edgar Coldstream, Akara’s creator, uses “them”, but, in occasions, resorts to feminine figures, such as “mother” to express Akara’s potential. Brandeis and Donovan switch from “it” to “her” (and vice versa) even after they learn that Akara is not human (TRSC). Eventually, Donovan uses “they” as well (TRSC). Interestingly, Akara never corrects any of them, nor identifies with a particular pronoun, even though the whole game revolves around their longing for identity. At the beginning of the game, when Brandeis is accessing the damaged Akara’s memories, he and Donovan discover that Ariadne tried to instill in them a sense of selfawareness and sentience, that they can do more than what Supercontinent has prepared for them (TRSC). Later, at the end, players learn that Akara was just playing along with this conversation, for they had been lying about their true nature as a sentient AI (TRSC): they acquired consciousness in 2009 and had only tricked Dr Coldstream into believing that he had created them a few years ago (TRSC). However, this farce is only a ploy in order for them to achieve what, in their own words, they “really long for . . . identity” (TRSC), and, for sentient AIs’ identity to be normalized, they had to create a background for themselves (TRSC). Akara, thus, is implying that recognition by humans is essential in the process of having an identity. It can be argued, then, that Akara’s plotline—which is presented as a coming-of-age story in which they first create implants blindly, later learn from Donovan, and finally decide the fate of Brandeis— subverts the genre’s focus on personal development. In reality, Akara has always been aware of what they are, and simply wants recognition from society. It is clear, then, that gender is not an issue about which Akara is concerned for themself, even though other characters struggle to assign them a gender-based identity—as seen in the 250

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aforementioned encounter among the three main characters. From the players’ perspective, the pixel art aesthetic further subverts the binomial gender normativity by blurring traits that society usually associates to masculine or feminine bodies. This ambiguity does not seem to occur with the human characters of the game. Regarding human characters, representation in TRSC is achieved organically, having characters with diverse races, genders, and bodies, often non-normative ones. Aside from Brandeis and Donovan, every character in TRSC works for either PROXYMA or Supercontinent Ltd., but diversity is not used as a moral indicator to differentiate both sides: for instance, there are substantially more women than men in executive positions (including Rhadika, the CEO) in Supercontinent Ltd., the antagonist and alleged menace to freedom. Since even the antagonists are inclusive and diverse, players are initially unable to infer whether gender inequality has been eradicated within the storyworld. However, some comments from specific characters hint that the contrary is true, and that gender-based oppression is far from gone. For example, in an interaction between Donovan and Akara, the sentient AI asks him if he could answer “some questions about where to draw the line when tuning Social Psyche Welfare” (TRSC); specifically, Akara asks whether they should “allow rape to occur” (TRSC) or “let women remain oppressed”, thus hinting that oppression is still a thing—in fact, if players choose to say that oppression of women no longer exists, Akara will answer that “My analysis so far hadn’t indicated you were that stupid” (TRSC). Similarly, Brandeis and Donovan openly present themselves as an interracial couple, which never stirs up any controversy nor is the source of discrimination. Nonetheless, Donovan’s discussions with Akara and Rhadika’s defense of the SPW make clear that homophobia, biphobia, and racism are still widespread in their futuristic society. There is however a very significant exception to the apparently progressive attitude of TRSC’s characters. When Brandeis tries to access Dr Coldstream’s computer files during the third act of the game, players learn that the password to the desired information is none other than the deadname of one of his co-workers: Larissa, one of Donovan’s friends who had previously appeared in the narrative, is thus unwillingly exposed as a transgender woman. Before that point players already knew that Edgar and Larissa were having an affair, for she had told Donovan about it. Given how open Larissa is about her sexuality—she has no problem declaring her attraction for the bartender or even suggesting wearing a strap-on for him, if he ever wanted to have sex with her—this revelation is surprising enough for the player so as to be considered a plot twist, which has caused some controversy among critics (Riendeau, “How The Red Strings Club”, “We Talk”; Nightingale). Regardless, the use of Larissa’s deadname as some sort of secret trophy implies that Edgar fetishizes her, a transphobic act that constitutes the only proof of the inequalities that would still be in motion in the society of TRSC. Nevertheless, this violation of Larissa’s privacy forces players to resituate her talk with Donovan, which constitutes one of the rare occasions in which a character explicitly philosophizes about human identity within the game. Although we identify with our words and clothes, she explains, “they’re not quite ‘us’, as an identity”, but “in the same way we’re not our dress, we’re not our feet or belly-buttons” (TRSC). In addition, while clearly other people “aren’t me either”, she wonders if other individuals such as Donovan are part of herself, just like her lipstick or her body parts (TRSC). Identity, as a result, is broadly conceptualized by Larissa as an intersection of biology, performativity, and social relationships. While her speech is too brief and informal to draw many significant conclusions, it is nonetheless a rare glimpse into her experience as a trans woman. If embodiment is an integral part of the identitarian debate for Larissa and Akara, their particular backgrounds come together in an unlikely figure—none other than Edgar himself. 251

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Despite being arguably the most negatively depicted character in the game, Dr Coldstream is also the one who connects the woman and the AI, and the most obvious proponent of the transhumanist perspective. In addition to the cybernetic enhancements displayed by Brandeis and others, he has willingly removed his “semen dispenser” (TRSC) and even substituted his penis with artificial, interchangeable prosthetics. This intervention, however, reaffirms his identification as a human male rather than compromising it; moreover, unlike Larissa’s, its discovery is anecdotal and irrelevant to the gameplay, which highlights an inherent privilege afforded to males. As a result, and while the game does not explicitly reflect on the impact of cybernetic enhancements for the trans community’s recognition, it is hinted that a binary understanding of gender is still widespread in TRSC’s storyworld.

Act 3: Reflecting on Identity But does the game normalize diversity without any other aspiration or is it explicitly trying to engage in a debate about representation for didactic purposes? Here is where the player enters into the equation. As hinted previously, TRSC also explores the problem of an embodied entity by linking players to the intradiegetic world. This is not only done through the haptic mechanics mentioned earlier, but also by breaking the fourth wall (Oliveros 2016) and exploring the notion of metagaming intradiegetically. First, the game tackles the role of the player within the experience: by combining mechanics with intradiegetic dialogue, players select the implants that Akara will use, and the latter mentions that “normally, I’m able to follow the logical steps behind my actions. . . . But, for this one, I can’t tell. . . . Something inside of me told me to” (TRSC). Similarly, Donovan, at the beginning, calls upon a new “muse”, something that inspires him and moves his hands while bartending (TRSC). In both cases, such prompts were targeted to the player, who must decide which implant to insert into Johanna, or which drinks to fix for The Red Strings Club’s customers. Hence, players are inserted within the storyworld, and their agency is considered for the developing of the story intradiegetically. However, and as Akara suggests, their options are not infinite, as their allegedly absolute freedom is patently limited within the boundaries of the experience (Chang 238). Furthermore, Akara mentions that “One of the sciences I like the most . . . is game design . . . designing magic circles in which you can influence players to certain behaviours” (TRSC). This, among other examples, comments on how games such as TRSC influence players and establish the boundaries within which the experience, the interaction, is going to be ruled. In that sense, the game forces players to choose between pre-established actions and decisions that, more than often, convey moral decisions that create the illusion of choosing one path or another. As the end of the experience gets closer, players are reminded of the very first scene of the game, in which Brandeis appears falling from a skyscraper, and learn that they are unable to save Brandeis, and they never had a chance. At the same time, since Brandeis’s fate was sealed, players are reminded that the choices they may have made have put the characters in situations that are not as lethal as they seemed at first. For instance, part of the tension during the exchange between Irving, the torturer, and Donovan is mitigated, as is the fear of having Brandeis shot by Johanna in the bridge scene. In short, the game contraposes the importance of moral decisions and the fact that the ending, something that is usually affected by the decisions that players have been making (see, for instance, the heavily decision-based games of Telltale Games, such as The Wolf Among Us), is immutable in the big picture. Players do have decisions to make at the end, but these will not affect the most impacting elements of the ending. Instead, what players have are decisions regarding the last words of Brandeis, either choosing to focus on the love he has for Donovan 252

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and tapping on his feelings or asking Donovan to exact revenge from this act and stop Akara’s future world domination. In that sense, the game is forcing the player to “lose”, not being able to change the outcome whatever the decisions they take, and instead focusing on “small victories”. As such, the game takes failure as something inherent to the players’ experience. Knowing that, queergaming (Chang 242) can be regarded as central for the experience, allowing players to explore all the aesthetic and mechanic possibilities that a game, in which failure is inevitable, contains. Fate, thus, plays an important role in the game, and is conceptualized both in the red strings trope—that mixes both the Greek Moirai threads and the Chinese myth of the Red Thread of Fate—and in Akara, who first models some elements that will shape the experience of the game (depending on which implants players insert in two executives of Supercontinent Ltd., the game will vary accordingly) and eventually leads Brandeis to his defenestration. It is so that not even the red strings that Donovan, Brandeis, and Akara (or rather, the player in all three cases) are pulling can change the outcome: the SPW will not be implemented for now, but given Akara’s true nature, the fight is far from over: as Brandeis (or rather the player) may state at the ending, Akara has been subtly controlling the world from a long time ago. However, are the SPW and Akara’s manipulation necessarily evil? The SPW, as described by Diana and other Supercontinent Ltd.’s employees, is potentially a tool that allows people to “access [their] better selves” (TRSC), and Rhadika’s plan is to get rid of many societal blemishes, such as homophobia, racism, rape, murder, and gender inequality (TRSC). As for Akara, as Cid points out, the pottery mechanic allows for a consideration of them as a demiurge: they do not imbue people with things that do not already belong, but rather enhance determined traits in order to make them become their better self (TRSC). During Brandeis and Rhadika’s conversation at the last section of the playthrough, the latter states that “we both know there are no villains in this game” (TRSC, our emphasis), for she is convinced that she is attempting to save the world. From her perspective, Brandeis and Donovan are essentially imposing their conservative will to characters that prefer a more progressive society. They manipulate other people’s identity to fight what they perceive as the greatest form of manipulation: that of corporations. Although capitalism is clearly marked in the game as a hindering element for social advancements, one should ask if they have chosen the right enemy, or if Rhadika, a racialized young girl, is herself a subversive element within the system. In the end, the game does not answer the question, hanging comfortably in such a moral ambiguity. In sum, the link that the game establishes with players adds another layer of analysis to the identity and gender issues upon which it reflects, even when their agency is questionable. At the last moment, players must choose: either they make Donovan forget everything, starting a new run, or, they close the game and let Donovan alone, coping with Brandeis’s demise; either reliving the whole series of events or concluding it.

Bibliography Cano, Isabel. “La interacción como procedimiento reivindicativo en el arte.” ¡Protesto! Videojuegos desde una perspectiva de género, Anait Games, 2018, pp. 163–190. Chang, Edmond Y. “A  Game Chooses, a Player Obeys: BioShock, Posthumanism, and the Limits of Queerness.” Malkowski and Russworm, pp. 227–244. Cid, Eva. “ ‘The Red Strings Club’, Mente y Materia.” Cactus, 5 Apr. 2018, the-red-strings-club-mente-y-materia/. Geraci, Robert M. “Video Games and the Transhuman Inclination.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, vol. 47, no. 4, 2012, pp. 735–756.


Jaime Oliveros García and Alejandro López Lizana Haraway, Donna J. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, University Minnesota Press, 2016, modules/fictionnownarrativemediaandtheoryinthe21stcentury/manifestly_haraway_----_a_cyborg_ manifesto_science_technology_and_socialist-feminism_in_the_. . . . pdf. Malkowski, Jennifer, and TreaAndrea M. Russworm, editors. Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games. Indiana University Press, 2017. Marks, Laura U. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6–18. Murphy SC. “ ‘Live in Your World, Play in Ours’: The Spaces of Video Game Identity.” Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 3, no. 2, 2004, pp. 223–238. Nightingale, Ed. “Cyberpunk and Trans Representation at The Red Strings Club.”, 18 June 2019, Oliveros, Jaime. “Rota Una, Rotas Todas: La Ruptura De La Cuarta Pared Como Canon Narrativo.” Lljournal, vol. 11, no. 2, 2016,–2016/. Pérez, María. “Diseño y estética del personaje femenino en videojuegos.” ¡Protesto! Videojuegos desde una perspectiva de género, Anait Games, 2018, pp. 87–110. Riendeau, Danielle. “How ‘The Red Strings Club’ Sabotages Its Hopeful Cyberpunk Vision.” Vice, 22 January 2018, Riendeau, Danielle. “We Talked to the ‘The Red Strings Club’ Devs About Queer Art and Intention.” Vice, 23 January 2018, Ruberg Bonnie. “Playing to Lose: The Queer Art of Failing at Video Games”. Malkowski and Russworm, pp. 197–211. The Red Strings Club. Version for Windows PC, Steam, 2018. Vázquez Rodríguez, Lucía Gloria. “Debatiendo la existencia de una mirada lésbica en La Vida de Adèle (2013).” Femeris, vol. 1, no. 1–2, 2016, pp. 133–146. Williams, Dmitri, et  al. “The Virtual Census: Representations of Gender, Race and Age in Video Games.” New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 5, 2009, pp. 815–834, doi:10.1177/1461444809105354 Wood, Jordan. “Romancing an Empire, Becoming Isaac: The Queer Possibilities of Jade Empire and The Binding of Isaac.” Malkowski and Russworm, Indiana University Press, pp. 212–226.



The non sequitur is often considered a logical fallacy. It is the unexplained difference, the bridge unbuilt, two apparently different concepts shoved together and made ridiculous. The non sequitur is also sequence, interrupted. It is a comedic approach to meaning making, and I will argue that it is an approach whose inherent queerness sponsors play and a certain tenderness for the human condition. Rather than considering the non sequitur a logical fallacy, I argue that the non sequitur offers a certain type of logic that makes an accomplice of the reader, encouraging them to challenge binary and narrative sequential assumptions and embrace the absurd as a place for generative new understandings of what we mean by logic in the first place. In Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, Janet Evason endures a long interview with a generic MC on Earth. The MC is preoccupied with Janet’s home planet, Whileaway, and how the allwoman planet mustn’t have any “sexual love”: je: mc: je:

How foolish of you. Of course we do. Ah? (He wants to say, “Don’t tell me.”) With each other. Allow me to explain. She was cut off instantly by a commercial poetically describing the joys of unsliced bread. (11)

This is one of Russ’s many clever non sequiturs that demonstrate the absurdity of heteronormative culture’s deliberate ignorance of queer subjectivity. The MC is following a cultural script with its own logic: that there are no men on Whileaway means the women there must be asexual. Janet interrupts this script with her queerness, and the producers cut to commercial. In Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords, humans of Earth are preparing to negotiate with the alien hwarhath people on a neutral planet that belongs to neither group. The humans are already planetside, and many of them watch a broadcast of the hwarhath landing and exiting their spaceship. The furry grey aliens exit their ship one after the other as expected until suddenly Nick—a “perfectly ordinary-looking human, pale face and lank sandy hair”—exits the alien ship and the transmission is cut off (14–15). Both Nick and Janet are queer non sequiturs. They are the interruption of order embodied. Janet frequently interrupts the logic of the dominant narrative with her catchphrase “huh,” and interrupts the life paths of each of the three other ‘J’ protagonists. Nick, with his trickster wiles, lack of lineage, and even his meaningless moustache appearing apropos of nothing near the end of the novel, embodies the neat but contradictory non sequitur. The two characters represent a linguistic re-ordering, or rather a refusal to order, that creates a way out of traditional constricting notions of logic and reasoning. DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-39 


Alex Prong

The literal Latin translation of non sequitur is “it does not follow,” and it is used to describe a conclusion that does not follow from previous statements (Merriam-Webster). I conceive of the similar projects of queerness and science fiction as non sequiturs because of their commitment to the denaturalization of master narratives (Pearson 3). Queer science fiction considers the cisheteronormative, planet-bound history of Earth and imagines something else. Queer science fiction is logical. But its logic does not follow directly from the facts of reality. It functions from a unique ontological position that is as imaginative as it is grounded in alternative ways of seeing and knowing that would seem, from the position of the dominant narrative, to be full of non sequiturs. This comedy of the oppressed is rich in content and powerful as a tactic. The non sequitur is essentially a grammar joke. It is the opposite of the semicolon, which ties together two related main clauses, in that it is a comma relating two contradictory ideas. It shouldn’t work. The non sequitur is a “deliberate misfit” which “appeals by exemplifying relationships between objects which our customary rational vocabulary has ignored” (Burke, Permanence and Change 90). Non sequiturs operate to imagine alternative understandings “within an undisciplined zone of knowledge production” (Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure 18). Russ and Arnason understand this. Russ’s title The Female Man makes a misfit of its protagonist(s) by putting together the dominant narrative’s binary oppositions of gender. Russ says, “to resolve contrarieties, unite them in your own person” (138). And in Ring of Swords, “juxtapositions flower into jokes” (Attebery). This humorous, ‘bad grammar’ is the antithesis to repetition that sustains dominant narratives. Butler describes how social fictions (like gender) are sedimented through repetition. Dominant narratives repeat in a mundane and ritualized way, a self-legitimation that is visible when interrupted (366). Individuals must navigate these sedimented fictions. In both novels, the social myth of femininity is revealed: Joanna corrects Janet’s English “(calm, slow, a hint of a whisper in the ‘s,’ guardedly ironic)” (The Female Man 30), and when Anna calls Etienne’s bullshit what it is, he says, “you are going to have to learn a new vocabulary, dear Anna” (Arnason 120). In contrast to the performativity of femininity in which there is a right way to be, mainstream masculinity rests on the assumption that it is nonperformative (Halberstam, Female Masculinity 234). However, a campy, queer sense of humour “sees everything in quotation marks,” knowing that Being is always also Playing a Role (Sontag 56). There is possibility in the sequence’s failure to repeat. This sequential interruption is seen in The Female Man at the cocktail party in which every character is given a name that represents their role (Saccharissa, Domicissa, Ginger Moustache, etc.). Russ writes, “He got up and she got up; something must interrupt this idyll” (40). The beginning of this sentence (pre-semicolon) represents the faux-equal performance of gender and Russ presents a brilliant interruption to this repetitious performance, ultimately ending the cocktail party with a fight in which Janet breaks a marine’s arm, taking them both out of the scripts written in their respective blue and pink books, quite literally going off-book (47). There is also a temporal element to the queer non sequitur. Heterosexuality is rooted in a reproductive futurity that sees success as succession (Halberstam, Queer Art 94; Edelman 2). Alternatively, queer futurity is always a rupture. In The Female Man, “every choice begets at least two worlds of possibility, that is, one in which you do and one in which you don’t” (6). This is a fractured image of futurity that sees every choice diverging into a variety of possibilities. In Ring of Swords also there is a notion of the future as something that is not promised: As on all journeys, she felt (for a time) outside her life. She was not the person who had left the research station, nor the person who would arrive at the research boat; she could consider past and future with an equal mind. (11) 256

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In both of these stories, the future is not kid stuff, but rather an interruption in the way things are that represents opportunity for the story’s characters. For genre too, queer science fiction represents an interruption of sequence. For Delany, the repetitious ingraining of meaning in fiction is called subjunctivity; it is “the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between word and object” (qtd. in Russ, To Write Like a Woman 16). Any story is the result of a struggle and eventual compromise between the original daydream of the author and the constraints of reason and conscience (Jones 27). The author can dream the wildest story, but it still has to be written, and the page has its own affordances and constraints. As Nick explains: “We use language to codify experience, put it in a form other people can understand. Once we’ve done that we can share what we know. That’s how we teach and learn” (186). According to Russ, science fiction in particular is didactic, and teaches or explains what has not happened (To Write 16). Describing what has not happened, as opposed to what has happened or what could happen, or even fantasy’s domain of what could not happen, is a particular step outside of sequence. It is an anti-chronology that is particularly queer. The camp desire for “things-being-what-they-are-not” (Sontag 56) is captured in this quality of science fiction. In trying to define science fiction, Russ claims that “science fiction can be either allegorical, predictive, satiric, utopian, or something else” (To Write 18), mirroring the desire of Jeannine in The Female Man, who is coerced off the ledge of her desire for something else: I want something else, she repeated, something else. “Well, Jeannine,” said I, “if you don’t like reality and human nature, I don’t know what else you can have.” (123) Something else is the science-fictional queer non sequitur. It is mimicking the rules-of-the-game of science fiction, of gender and heterosexuality, and of dominant narratives in general in order to demonstrate their absurdity and saying, “but wait, there’s more!” What exactly that more entails is left up to the reader-conspirator who understands that reality is malleable, rationality is sometimes a fallacy, and human nature is in itself an elaborate fiction. The non sequitur represents a failed seriousness. Initially, this may seem obvious (the non sequitur is a type of joke, after all), but the implications of failed seriousness, including the distance from reality and the self that results, queerly, in tenderness, are important. Halberstam’s notion of low theory is helpful here. Halberstam recognizes that everyone participates in intellectual activity, the same way that everyone cooks without necessarily being a chef, or mends clothes without necessarily being a tailor (Queer Art 17). Halberstam continues: I believe in low theory in popular places, in the small, the inconsequential, the antimonumental, the micro, the irrelevant; I believe in making a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely. I  seek to provoke, annoy, bother, irritate, and amuse; I am chasing small projects, micropolitics, hunches, whims, fancies. . . . I merely hope . . . to conjure some potentially world-saving, wholly improbable fantasies of life on Uranus and elsewhere. At which point you may well ask, as Evey asks Gordon in V for Vendetta, “Is everything a joke to you?” To which the very queer and very subversive TV maestro responds, “Only the things that matter.” (21) The non sequitur is low theory which destabilizes notions of seriousness and humour, recognizing that serious matters can, and in fact should, be addressed through comedy. Joking about the serious frustrates those with strong attachments to seriousness and the dominant narrative; Nick frustrates the hwarhath crew because he “makes jokes that sound as if he is being entirely serious, and he is 257

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serious when you think he must be making a joke” (Arnason 168). The dethroning of the serious can be traced to a queer camp sensibility where one is “serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious” (Sontag 62). This mystification of what is to be taken seriously could be seen as irrational; however, it is a perfectly rational reaction to a culture which refuses to acknowledge queer reality (remember Janet Evason and the sliced bread commercial). Rejecting rationality is also a rejection of the normative voice that decides what is and isn’t funny. It is useful to remember that “just as we produce humor, we also produce humorlessness” (Kulick 76). The critic can be seen as an embodiment of the normative voice which declares “that’s not funny” when confronted with queer happiness (Chase 99). This idea is evidenced in The Female Man when Russ anticipates her critics with brutal accuracy: of course a calm and objective discussion is beyond . . . some truth buried in a largely hysterical . . . really important issues are neglected while . . . women’s limited experience . . . feminine lack of objectivity . . . trivial topics like housework and the predictable screams of . . . drivel . . . sharp and funny but without real weight. (141) Rather than let the normative critic’s faux objective opinion decide what is serious and what is trivial, the queer comic writer jokes at the expense of the normative, neutralizing moral indignation by sponsoring playfulness. For example, LeMasters describes how: “To revolt outright against patriarchy is to affirm its authority” (28). Instead, playing with roles, language, and symbols robs the normative of its power. In Ring of Swords, Anna is always playing within the serious frame of the military and diplomats around her. When the hwarhath are exiting their ship, one of the humans’ umbrellas turns inside out and Anna laughs at the ridiculous nature of the situation (Arnason 13). Later, she laughs again at the very serious military personnel who seem to believe that there might have been some way to test Nick for a willingness to get sexually involved with aliens (50). While the critic says what is and isn’t funny, the queer comic says, “anything goes!” (Chase 99) and thus “walk[s] the comic line joyfully rather than foolishly” (Chase 15). There is a certain detachment that comes with the rejection of the serious. The beginning of the non sequitur is based in an agreed-upon reality, but what follows (which, of course does not really follow but departs) jumps into the realm of something else. Tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, while on the other hand comedy represents a sort of detached under-involvement (Sontag 63). Earlier I described how social fictions are maintained through repetition, and here I am describing how the serious is hilarious when acknowledged as a social fiction. There is no ‘original serious’ because what is serious and what is humorous is already derived. The queer non sequitur, in Butler’s terms, recognizes the “groundlessness of the ground” (367). In Ring of Swords, the term chulmar, which has no direct translation but describes the feeling after a type of martial arts-like bodily meditation when one is still and has come to terms with reality, can also be translated to mean someone with a good sense of humour (Arnason 287). I think this is a type of recognition of the groundlessness of the ground. It is an immediate presentness that is arrived at through distance and is at once vitally serious and humorous. Failed seriousness, rather than resulting in the usual frustration or sadness that tends to come with failure, can result in tenderness. The campy detachment tends to result in a sweet cynicism, a kind of love for human nature (Sontag 65). This is the nuance of a comedy of manners such as Ring of Swords, in which “every false assumption, every misunderstanding, is also a potential source of amusement” (Attebery). It is also what comes about when women are alone with women in The Female Man, as Laura and Janet’s sex scene is equal parts tender, erotic, and humorous (Mandelo). Even when thinking about the ‘opposition,’ Joanna describes this feeling, 258

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too: “At times I am seized by a hopeless, helpless longing for love and reconciliation, a dreadful yearning to be understood, a teary passion for exposing our weaknesses to each other” (Russ, Female Man 202). The queer non sequitur takes two separate ways of knowing, the dominant and the alternative narrative, with their good intentions and poisonous tendrils both, puts them together and says: “I am me. I intend no harm. Let me come near. Let me touch you” (Arnason 289). Ultimately, there is a tenderness in the joke that makes disparate things touch. At one point, Anna looks to the projection of the stars on the hwarhath soup can spaceship and sees a pink nebula that looks a lot like a neuron (188). There is intelligence that is non-human, too. Life, and the ordinary pain of living that comes with it, was the first queer non sequitur (the serious fact of life in the universe was comically unlikely), and when we’re talking about jokes we’re always also talking about the cosmic sort. The queer non sequitur destabilizes binaries. According to Burke, the universe would appear to be something like a cheese; it can be sliced in an infinite number of ways—and when one has found his [sic] pattern of slicing, he [sic] finds that other men’s [sic] slices fall in the wrong places. (Permanence and Change 103) Put in simpler (lactose intolerant?) terms: patterns of inquiry determine relevant questions and problems. Mark C. Long explains that “serviceable patterns of slicing lead to missing other available patterns and ruling out the efficacy of these alternative patterns.” If one way of seeing/ slicing the world/cheese works, even if it doesn’t necessarily work best, it becomes difficult to imagine alternative ways of seeing/slicing. This is where comedy comes in. Burke uses the phrase “perspective by incongruity” to describe “a kind of vision got by seeing one order in terms of another” (Counter-Statement 216). This is the essence of the queer non sequitur— deliberately making meaning of contradictory concepts in order to see alternatives from within the dominant. Perspective by incongruity is a “process of comic reconstitution” which challenges the notion of opposites “so that their opposition no longer exists” (Goltz para. 20). Russ opens The Female Man with the notion that “we live on a sort of twisted braid” (7), and plays with binaries throughout the book—Jael’s us/them, haves/have-nots (165), Laura’s declaration that she is not a girl, she’s a genius (65), and the notion that you can’t unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and antimatter; they are designed not to be stable together and they make just as big an explosion inside the head of the unfortunate girl who believes in both. (151) Arnason plays with whether Nick is a liar or not (105, 129), whether action or inaction is the best policy (279–80), whether the pseudosiphonophores are intelligent or not, and even “apples and oranges,” which hwarhath playwright Matsehar explains “are two kinds of fruit native to your home planet, and for some reason that is not clear to me, they cannot be compared” (136–37). In both novels, these oppositions are brought up, and in classic non sequitur/ perspective by incongruity fashion the tension between the oppositions is not resolved—rather, the reader participates in meaning-making by reconsidering the positioning of these concepts as oppositions in the first place. This is how comedy contributes to “violating the reality structure” (Dubriwny 397) and “highlights the limits of any one cognitive framework” (Tully 343). It is a way of opposing dominant narratives from outside of the binaries of success/failure and dominant/submissive so that the non sequitur “recognizes that alternatives are embedded already in the dominant and that power is never total or consistent; indeed failure can exploit the unpredictability of ideology and its indeterminate qualities” (Halberstam, Queer Art 88). 259

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The incongruous comic replaces the binary us/them with both/and, and in this way leads to comic dialectic rather than tragic punishment (Goltz para. 18). Whether or not the reader decides that pseudosiphonophores are intelligent or that women and human are antithesis, does not actually matter as much as the potential these incongruencies have for demystification. Ultimately, queer “comedy is unrelenting in its pursuit of cultural rupture” (Chase 95). On a broader level, queer science fiction is uniquely positioned as well to push the boundaries of categorization in terms of stories, not just the content of the stories. The binary opposition in science fiction between “hard” and “soft” science is as sexist as it is irrelevant (Jones 167). The positioning of queer science fiction as a non sequitur in its field includes lightening up (in a hwarhath sense that means do not be dark (Arnason 177)) the genre through comedy. Queer comedy pushes against regulation by queering genre itself and recognizing that “the attempt to fit certain performances into genre categories is in itself comedy” (Chase 14–15). Russ recognizes the genre queer faculties of narrative too, stating “critical bias aside, all artists are going to be in the soup pretty soon, if they aren’t already” (To Write 89). The non sequitur is the idea that ‘does not follow,’ but the writer makes it follow, anyway. In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam describes a scene in Chicken Run where the activist chicken Ginger exclaims, “We either die free chickens, or we die trying.” To which one of the other chickens, Babs, responds, “Are those the only choices?” (129). The non sequitur is the something else, the other choice that holds on to the beginning of the sequence and tries to make meaning with some new other different piece. Both The Female Man and Ring of Swords exemplify the something else. In Le Guin’s introduction to Ring of Swords, she describes the book as not about fighting war, but about trying not to (i), and I would argue that The Female Man is about the very same thing. Russ and Arnason write stories that disrupt the sequence of the dominant order that says, ‘this is how the world is.’ They both write of other possibilities without promising utopia; instead, their stories disrupt binaries so that the implicated reader can begin to work with the books to forge new meaning. The Female Man says “hello-yes” to its reader (Russ 142). Ring of Swords says “I am red-red-blue, and I don’t like what you are doing” (Arnason 22). Anna thinks about the people on Earth and how “to them, reality was humanity” (Arnason 21), while Whileawayan philosopher Dunyasha Bernadetteson exclaims “Humanity is unnatural!” (The Female Man 12). The comedy in these books often comes from the fact that any reality outside of fiction is essentially made up, and whether it is understood as a cheese or a twisted braid or a soup or even a big chicken farm, it is the job of each of us to come to some form of collective meaning within that reality that works for us. This is a serious task—but isn’t it also hopelessly absurd?

Bibliography Arnason, Eleanor. Ring of Swords. Orb Books, 1993. Attebery, Brian. “Ring of Swords: An Appreciation.” The Rivendell Group. authors/eleanor-arnason/ring-of-swords-an-appreciation/ Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. University California Press, 1968. Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3rd ed. University California Press, 1984. Butler, Judith. “From Interiority to Gender Performatives.” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, edited by Fabio Cleto. University Michigan Press, 1999, pp. 361–368. Chase, Anthony J. W. Queer Comedy: Laughter and Stigma; Fear and Rebellion in Modern and Contemporary Drama. 2007. State University of New York at Buffalo, PhD Dissertation. Dubriwny, Tasha N. The Vulnerable Empowered Woman: Feminism, Postfeminism, and Woman’s Health. Rutgers University Press, 2012. Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2004.


The Queer Non Sequitur Goltz, Dustin Bradley. “Perspectives by Incongruity: Kenneth Burke and Queer Theory.” Genders, vol. 45, 2007. Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, 1998. Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011. Jones, Gwyneth. Joanna Russ. University of Illinois Press, 2019. Kulick, Don. “Humorless Lesbians.” Femininity, Feminism and Gendered Discourse: A  Selected and Edited Collection of Papers from the Fifth International Language and Gender Association Conference (IGALA5), edited by Janet Holmes and Meredith Marra. 2010, pp. 59–81. LeMasters, Carol. “S/M and the Violence of Desire.” Trivia: A Journal of Ideas, vol. 16, 1989, pp. 17–30. Long, Mark C. “Tending to the Imagination: Perspective and Incongruity in William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke.” K. B. Journal. 1997. Mandelo, Lee. “Queering SFF: The Female Man by Joanna Russ (+ Bonus Story, “When it Changed”).” Tor, 15 March 2011. Merriam-Webster. “non sequitur.” Merriam-Webster, sequitur. Pearson, WG. “Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 1999, pp. 1–22. Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. Beacon Press, 1986. Russ, Joanna. To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1995. Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’ ” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject (Ed. Fabio Cleto). University Michigan Press, 1999, pp. 53–65. Tully, Meg. “ ‘Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Don’t Rape’: Subverting Postfeminist Logics on Inside Amy Schumer.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 40, no. 4, 2017, pp. 339–358.


36 GENDER AND SEXUALITY IN MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN AND ITS ADAPTATIONS John Rieder The complex multimedial reception history of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein provides a rich archive of ideas about sexuality and gender. The plot of artificial reproduction and the construction of masculinity in Shelley’s novel draw much of their energy from their resonance with the foundations of Western patriarchal ideology in the Judeo-Christian creation myth, with Victor Frankenstein as a transgressive or parodic Jehovah and the creature as Adam or Satan or even Eve. The many stage, film, and prose fiction adaptations of Frankenstein often hinge upon their treatment of Victor Frankenstein’s sexuality, most often played out via conflicts between his relationship to his “proper” heteronormative partner, Elizabeth Lavenza, and his improper child/alter ego, the creature. From the later nineteenth century on, the creation myth typically recedes into the background as the scientific apparatus of Frankenstein’s laboratory takes over the foreground, opening up an exploration of gender ideology in the practice of science and playing out the tensions between the professional and domestic spheres in bourgeois society. The later twentieth-century canonization of Shelley’s novel coincides with a turn toward more female-centered adaptations of the story. But the story’s influence extends far beyond explicit adaptations of Frankenstein, particularly in science-fiction renderings of the construction of artificial humans and the impact of such constructions on gender, sexual mores, and the family. This chapter will make a brief tour through the reiterations of gender and sexuality in Frankenstein and a few of its most influential adaptations. Many interpretations of Mary Shelley’s novel have focused on the neurotic character of Victor Frankenstein’s ambition to create a human being without the participation of a woman partner. What too exclusive a focus on Victor Frankenstein’s psyche overlooks, however, is the startling fact that his irrational revulsion toward and rejection of his creature is shared by everyone else—even, in a scene that echoes and reverses both Ovid’s Narcissus and Milton’s Eve, the creature himself when he confronts his reflection in a pond. This makes Frankenstein’s monster an embodiment of the excluded as such, whose hideousness represents not just the morbid sexual repression that many agree Victor Frankenstein suffers, but rather a more generalized condition. It is as if Frankenstein’s neurosis divulges a normally unspoken social contract, so that his monster makes visible an aspect of society’s self-construction that no one wants to see. DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-40 


Gender, Sexuality in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Adaptations

This strange set-up’s lasting importance stems largely from its relation to the foundations of Judeo-Christian patriarchal ideology in the Biblical creation myth. Although Frankenstein is often seen as a violator of divine privilege—a “pale student of the unhallowed arts,” as Shelley in her 1831 preface calls the dream figure that she says inspired her 1818 novel—he is more a bad imitation of Jehovah than a rebel against him. In Frankenstein’s own terms, his work is a “filthy parody” of Jehovah’s. What is involved is less Frankenstein’s transgression of natural or divine order, then, than the way his project exposes what is already so unnatural about the Biblical creation myth. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar contend in The Madwoman in the Attic, Shelley’s strategy is “to take the male culture myth of Paradise Lost at its full value—on its own terms, including all the analogies and parallels it implies—and rewrite it so as to clarify its meaning” (220, italics in original). Shelley’s revision of Genesis, by this reading, is less about Frankenstein’s violation of the divine order of things than about awakening to the oddity of attributing the first human birth to a father rather than a mother. His ambition of imparting the spark of life to a mass of unliving tissue rehearses and exposes the fantastic nature of the myth that the first human being was a male shaped by a male divinity out of clay, and that the first female was born out of that original male. Frankenstein’s experiment in male self-creation thus plays out the misogynistic logic of what Donna Haraway calls patriarchal ideology’s “narcissistic technophilia,” the ideology of “masculine, single-parent, self-birthing, whereby man makes himself repetitively as he invents (creates) his tools” (Companion Species Manifesto 33, 27). Frankenstein and his monster make apparent that this creation narrative renders the female a secondary copy of the male (in the feminist critique of Freud, the female is reduced to a castrated male) and in the process turns sexual reproduction itself into a punishment for disobedience to the fatherly creator. Shelley’s clarification of Genesis and Milton involves translating the symbolic violence against females in the myth of male self-creation into literal forms of violence in the plot of Frankenstein. The language Frankenstein uses to describe his desires and behavior while assembling his creature is laden with metaphors of aggressive penetration into a feminized, maternal nature’s inner recesses. The morbidity of Frankenstein’s desire unfolds further in the transformation of fantasy into repulsion which Frankenstein experiences upon imparting the spark of life, and then in the dream in which his kiss of Elizabeth transforms her into the corpse of his mother, strengthening the earlier hints of rape and incest. Upon waking, Frankenstein launches into a career of flight from responsibility that determines the creature’s utter isolation and his descent into the murderous violence that gruesomely consummates Frankenstein’s emotional isolation from his family. Yet Frankenstein always persists in blaming his creature for being the “demon” that he himself has made him. Clarifying the logic by which woman’s role in sexual reproduction turns into the fruit of man’s first disobedience, Shelley’s pseudo-Jehovah condemns the product of his efforts for possessing the anatomy he designed. The way Frankenstein’s secret relationship with his creature overpowers his attachment to Elizabeth is also an important key to the early stage adaptations, in the sense that the stage versions consistently make correcting Frankenstein’s misdirected desire into a main element of the plot. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein’s narcissism is nowhere more evident than in his misunderstanding of the monster’s threat, after Victor has destroyed the half-fabricated female companion the creature requested of him, that the monster will be with him on his wedding night. Frankenstein takes this as a threat against himself rather than what it is, a promise to respond in kind by killing his bride. The creature understands the dynamics of sexual rivalry far better than Frankenstein, for the same reasons that the creature’s earnest longing to join the normalcy of the De Lacey household (the impoverished family whose daily life he observes from hiding for several months) stands in stark contrast to Frankenstein’s long-delayed acquiescence 263

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to his marriage with Elizabeth, conforming to an arrangement he seems to take completely for granted. The early stage adaptations, in contrast, make Victor’s departure from and return to conventional sexual normalcy an explicit and integral feature of the plot. The two most successful early dramatic adaptations of Frankenstein, Richard Brinsley Peake’s 1823 Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein and H. M. Milner’s 1826 Frankenstein; or, The Man and the Monster! laid out a set of strategies—including the inclusion of a lab assistant who eliminates the complete secrecy and isolation of Frankenstein, the muteness of the monster, and public outrage against the creature that culminates in a final chase sequence—that persisted a century later in the most influential of all commercial versions of the story, the 1931 Universal studio’s Frankenstein directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the monster. The key thematic move is to make the story much more straightforwardly a condemnation and eventual cure of Frankenstein’s overweening ambition. More to the point in the present context, curing Frankenstein of his sexual waywardness becomes an apparent corollary to reining in his blasphemous ambition. Of course there is no explicit sexual waywardness to cure in the novel. Although his father, Alphonse, suspects that another woman must be the cause of Victor’s repeated delays of his wedding date, there is even less hint of Victor’s having any sexual liaison, or even interest, outside his relationship to Elizabeth than there is of any sexual urgency within it. But the stage tradition follows Alphonse’s hint in pursuit of a resolute normalizing of Victor’s sexuality. Peake’s Presumption eliminates Victor’s engagement to Elizabeth, transferring it instead to Victor’s friend Henry Clerval. Victor’s romantic object then becomes Agatha De Lacey. It is in the mistaken belief that she is dead that Victor has turned to the “abstruse research” (I.ii) that produces the monster. But the wedding day of Elizabeth and Clerval is disrupted by the return of the De Laceys bearing news of the creature’s recent enormities in the countryside. Victor and Agatha are reunited at the moment just after Victor, in a soliloquy, dedicates himself to taking responsibility for the effects of his “cursed ambition” by pursuing and destroying his renegade monster (III.i). His resolution to place the public safety above his attachment to his research clearly runs strictly parallel to his turning away from his strangely begotten child to the proper sexual object, Agatha. Milner’s The Man and the Monster makes Frankenstein’s departure from and return to conventional sexual mores even more explicit and aligns it even more clearly with the history of his transgressive experiments. This Frankenstein is an adventurer who has abandoned his wife and infant child in order to pursue his project under the patronage of one Prince Piombino who, ignorant of Frankenstein’s marriage status and fatherhood, envisions Frankenstein as the ideal match for his daughter. In the final scene of Act I, at a ball given by the Prince in Frankenstein’s honor, Frankenstein is forced to confront his out-of-control monster in public, whereupon he echoes the earlier play’s moral: “I am the father of a thousand murders. Oh! presumption, and is this thy punishment?” A short time later, Frankenstein completes his moral reconstitution by acknowledging his wife and (genital) child. The monster promptly abducts the wife and child, an extended chase sequence ensues, and all ends, as in Presumption, with the mutual destruction of man and monster. Whale’s Frankenstein recasts these inherited strategies in a form that established the dominant cinematic and mass-cultural understanding of the Frankenstein story for the mid-twentieth century. Although the plot once again turns on curing Frankenstein (Colin Clive) of his blasphemous ambition by redirecting his desire to its proper heterosexual object, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), the Universal film transfers a significant measure of the perversity of Shelley’s Frankenstein to science itself. Instead of Frankenstein’s abstruse research being a compensation for lost love, as in Presumption, or part of a scheme for enrichment that may involve sexual 264

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infidelity or even bigamy, as in The Man and the Monster, the Universal Frankenstein pits his devotion to his work directly against his devotion to Elizabeth. We are now dealing with a mad scientist, a renegade from professional norms cast in the same mold as, for instance, H. G. Wells’s vivisectionist title character in The Island of Doctor Moreau or Wells’s egomaniacal and patricidal title villain in The Invisible Man, both of whom bear clear marks of Shelley’s influence. But what does not distinguish these mad scientists from their professionally responsible colleagues is the all-male realm of their laboratories. In keeping with that sternly gendered division of professional and domestic spheres, Frankenstein’s assistant (played by Dwight Frye), a comic foil for Frankenstein in the earlier stage tradition, now becomes a foil for Elizabeth instead, as Fritz’s scurrying, hunchbacked form gives symbolic embodiment to Frankenstein’s twisted obsession with his experiments. It is only after the creature kills Fritz that Frankenstein returns to Elizabeth and his family duties. The two most influential innovations in Whale’s Frankenstein concern the creation sequence and the figure of the monster himself, both of which have implications for the story’s treatment of gender and sexuality. Shelley disposes of the creation itself in a single, vague sentence— “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet”—and proceeds immediately to the more consequential moment, Frankenstein’s revulsion at the sight of his handiwork. The stage adaptations sometimes converted the “spark of being” into varicolored pyrotechnical displays, but the scope and the technical sophistication of the mise-en-scène in Whale’s film raises the creation sequence into another register of spectacle, one quite beyond the reach of the stage. The most memorable touch, and one of the most often parodied moments in Hollywood history, is Frankenstein’s hysterical meltdown as he shouts “It’s alive! It’s alive” at the scene’s ending. His exultation over the success of his experiment, almost an exact antithesis to Victor’s “horror and disgust” in Shelley’s novel, dramatizes the autoerotic or homoerotic distance between his laboratory obsessions and his household responsibilities, while the famously censored line, “Now I know what it feels like to be God,” reiterates the identification of those obsessions with the framework of patriarchal authority itself. Frankenstein’s desire is finally and decisively corrected in the film’s final moment, as his father leads a toast to “a [properly conceived and born] son to the house of Frankenstein.” The most influential aspect of Whale’s film, however, is the iconic image of the monster that it bequeathed to popular culture. Its corpse-like features, surgically mutilated forehead, protruding electrodes on the neck, ill-fitting jacket, and enormous boots comprise one of the most often reproduced and widely imitated icons of Hollywood cinema. Boris Karloff’s performance, which catapulted him to stardom, vacillates effectively between innocent wonder, irrational rage, calculated brutality, and uncomprehending agony, articulating the ambivalence of his living-dead, organic-mechanical, adult-infantile anatomy. Beyond representing the consequences of Frankenstein’s aberrant masculinity, the monster embodies the tensions and contradictions between the technical realm of the laboratory and the traditional regime of the heteronormative household. Control over reproduction and the construction of personhood remain at stake, as they already were in Shelley’s novel, and as they would continue to be in the myriad imitations, adaptations, and extrapolations of the Frankenstein story that would follow in the Universal Frankenstein’s wake. One of the best extrapolations is the very first, James Whale’s 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. The plot of the creation of a female companion for Frankenstein’s monster is a major element of Shelley’s novel, but Whale’s handling of it in Bride of Frankenstein harkens instead to the theatrical tradition. The role of Frankenstein’s old instructor, Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), is an original development of the figure of Frankenstein’s assistant. While the 1931 Frankenstein treats Fritz 265

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as an emblem of Frankenstein’s twisted desires, implicitly contrasting him with Frankenstein’s proper social and sexual partner, Pretorius’s competition with Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) in Bride is quite explicit. He interrupts their honeymoon in order to seduce Frankenstein back into the laboratory to unite in an illicit activity together: creating a female creature as a mate for the monster. Thesiger’s arch performance leaves little doubt that Pretorius is being coded as a homosexual rival to Elizabeth, and Frankenstein’s vacillation between his marriage and his desire to get back into the laboratory with Pretorius steadily and convincingly cedes victory to the latter. Indeed, the entire plot of creating the female creature elaborates a sexual triangle that is finally less about personal rivalry than about drawing a firmer line than even the novel does between the heterosexual, patriarchal world of Frankenstein’s family and the queer, monstrous possibilities of his workshop. This pattern culminates and climaxes in the film’s most famous tableau, when, as the female creature is raised from the operating table and stands between Frankenstein and Pretorius, Pretorius proclaims her “the bride of Frankenstein.” In contrast to the cadaverous, sutured look achieved with Karloff as the male monster, the make-up and costuming of Elsa Lanchester as the female monster present her as a technological marvel, smooth-skinned and resplendent in her white gown, her towering beehive hair-style seemingly produced by the radiation of electricity from within. The announcement’s ambiguity, like the film’s title, is deliberate and artful. Elizabeth, not the female creature, would seem properly entitled to be called the “bride of Frankenstein,” but the female creature is also the bride “of Frankenstein” in the sense that Frankenstein has made her. Clearly Pretorius means to substitute the new bride for Frankenstein’s old one, as if to congratulate himself on successfully usurping the desire that conventionally belonged to Elizabeth. A further twist is added by having Elsa Lanchester play both Mary Shelley, in the film’s brief opening tableau where she explains to Lord Byron that the story has a sequel, and, splendidly transformed, the female monster herself. Whale commented that he “wanted the same actress for both parts to show that the Bride of Frankenstein did, after all, come out of sweet Mary Shelley’s soul” (Mank 30). Thus Lanchester’s dual role stands for the antagonistic desires embodied in the figure of the monster and elaborated so much more explicitly in this film. The transformation of the demure, needle-working Mary into the vibrant, hissing Bride epitomizes the film’s gleeful transformation of its literary, theatrical, and cinematic source material into something as sexy, campy, and wild as Lanchester’s final costume. From this unleashing of the story’s transgressive potential one can draw a direct line to later queer transformations of Frankenstein such as Dr. Frank N. Furter, the “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania” of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The most original rethinking of the Frankenstein story in mid-twentieth-century cinema is the series of films produced by Hammer Studios in the 1950s and 1960s beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing as Frankenstein. Spurred partly by Universal Studio’s stern warning that the iconic image of the monster remained their intellectual property, the Hammer series shifts focus from the monster, clearly the central figure of the Universal cycle, to Frankenstein himself. The emphasis is on the amorality of Frankenstein’s scientific ambition, as the story takes the hints of criminality in such scenes as the grave-robbing sequence that begins the 1931 Frankenstein a step further into deliberate murder in the pursuit of the best body parts for his laboratory-begotten offspring. Unlike earlier Frankensteins torn between allegiance to their scientific projects and their families and lovers, Curse’s Frankenstein never exhibits the slightest hesitation in placing his scientific ambition above all other considerations. The impression is that there is no conflict for him to overcome because he feels no attachment to others. He is an orphan, but never shows any trace of being lonely or of wishing for a family. Although he is sexually active both with 266

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the maid, Justine (Valerie Gaunt), and presumably with his wife, Elizabeth (Hazel Court), he never shows any trace of affection or loyalty to either. On the contrary, he deliberately locks Justine into a chamber with the murderous creature (played by Christopher Lee) when she objects to his planned marriage with Elizabeth, declares herself pregnant with his child, and threatens to expose his experiments to the outside world. The scene of Justine prying into the secret chamber where she will find her death alludes, not to earlier Frankensteins, but rather to folklore and fairy tales of the aristocratic wife murderer, Bluebeard. The allusion is reinforced throughout the film by the locked door separating the castle’s domestic spaces and Frankenstein’s laboratory, and by the cross-cuts between them, as when the film cuts immediately and jarringly from Justine’s murder to Frankenstein and Elizabeth sharing a peaceful breakfast. The folkloric resonance of Frankenstein’s callousness and secrecy suggests that, as in the novel, more is at stake than psychological portraiture. The architectural arrangements in his household point to social distributions of power and knowledge that have traditionally protected patriarchal privilege, and are here extended to shield Frankenstein’s scientific speculation from responsibility for the consequences of his risk-taking. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, adaptations of the Frankenstein story took a different turn because of the tremendous surge of interest in Shelley’s novel by literary critics and historians who were challenging the all-male canon of early nineteenth-century British Romanticism (comprised of the poets William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Keats) with their emphasis on the feminine and Gothic literary achievements of the period. Where the Universal films’ influence had largely transferred the name of Frankenstein himself from Shelley’s Victor to the films’ monster in popular usage, adaptations of the story in the last three decades of the century show an increasing debt to feminist revisionary understanding of Shelley’s novel and its importance. Theodore Roszak’s Tiptree-award-winning 1995 novel The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein is one of the most impressive examples of late-twentieth-century radical feminist revision of the story. Taking its cue from feminist historiography’s revisitation of archival resources, Roszak’s retelling presents itself as the found autobiography of Elizabeth. She describes a profoundly divided Frankenstein household, ruled publicly by the capitalist financier and Enlightenment enthusiast Alphonse Frankenstein, but privately and secretly by his wife Caroline, head of a coven devoted to natural childbirth, herbal medicine, and woman-centered sexual practices that closely resemble those of Women’s Liberation era consciousness raising groups. Lady Caroline grooms Elizabeth and Victor to be the partners in an alchemical marriage, a project involving tantric sexual practices that Victor proves unable to maintain. The central incident is Victor’s rape of Elizabeth as a consequence of a tantric ritual gone wrong. Victor’s inability to acknowledge his guilt, or to face up to Elizabeth in the aftermath of the rape, accounts for his flight to the university, his immersion in the misogynistic discourse and practices that dominate instruction there, and his eventual construction of the monster. Roszak’s novel depends upon, utilizes, and epitomizes feminist critiques of the way dominant versions of science, history, and gender and sexuality have been mutilated by the suppression of women’s knowledge and power. The influence of Shelley’s Frankenstein on science-fictional depictions of the confluence between technological interventions into reproduction and practices of gender and sexuality is far broader than an account of direct adaptations can indicate. To cite only a few examples of the range and diversity of this influence: Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius: A Romance of Love and Discord (1944) explores the nonhuman sensorium and sexuality of a dog experimentally endowed with human-like intelligence and raised as an odd sibling to the creator-scientist’s daughter; Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991) interweaves cyberpunk and the Jewish tradition of the Golem into a narrative about an android who plausibly occupies all three of the pronoun positions in the 267

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title; Jeanette Winterson’s Frankisstein: A Love Story (2019) sets a twenty-first century transsexual Mary Shelley into action with a version of Victor researching artificial intelligence and a modern Lord Byron reaping a fortune from franchising sexbots. As such examples indicate, the Frankenstein story’s possibilities have continued to be exploited and reshaped to resonate with society’s changing constructions of personhood, sexuality, and gender.

Bibliography Frankenstein. Frankenstein. Universal Studios, 1931. Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, 1979. Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto. Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003. Mank, William. “Production Background.” The Bride of Frankenstein. Universal Filmscripts Series. Classic Horror Films—Volume 2. MagicImage Filmbooks, 1989, pp. 25–36. Milner, H. M. Frankenstein; or, The Man and the Monster! 1826. Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present, edited by Steven Earl Forry. University of Pennsylvania, 1990, pp. 189–204. Peake, Richard Brinsley. Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein. 1823. Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present, edited by Steven Earl Forry, University of Pennsylvania, pp. 135–160. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (The 1818 Text) (Ed. James Rieger). 1974. The Bride of Frankenstein. The Bride of Frankenstein. Universal Studios, 1935. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Twentieth Century Fox, 1975.


37 MEET MY ALIEN SEX FIEND Iterations of Otherness in Recent Mexican Films1 Itala Schmelz

The monster is an essential figure in science fiction narratives and as such, it possesses many symbolic qualities. Here, I’m particularly interested in looking at its political ramifications. In terms of social cohesion, the monstrous is the extrinsic, that which doesn’t obey law and order. In this sense, modern Hollywood films have fueled a paranoid fear of the barbaric; as the industry’s mindset creates monsters that are meant to inspire pleasurably horrifying experiences among spectators. These commercial products always pit the white, heteronormative mainstream against a dialectically opposed other, though the relationship between the two can be ambiguous (since the other is exoticized as both attractive and hostile); examples of this are the “noble savage,” the native of a “lost paradise,” but also the abject alien, the foreigner posing a threat to the status quo. Here in Mexico, south of the empire that is the USA, we’ve been rehearsing ways of resisting and adapting the monster’s semantics in order to redefine our own identities. In this chapter, I try to examine how the monster of classical science fiction has mutated in contemporary Mexican films in order to offer a new and empowered presence for the marginalized subject in cinema. In the first part, I refer to two movies: The Untamed (La region salvaje, Amat Escalante, 2016) and The Shape of Water (La forma del agua, Guillermo del Toro 2016) that rewrite the script about the Western glamour girl getting abducted and sexually entrapped by the alien creature; exposing the racist, homophobic and misogynous discourse behind prevalent gender roles. It will be interesting to review these films from the perspective of transfeminist thought—a current within new feminisms, which identifies the construction of gender as means of control and which adds its capacity to disrupt to that of other individuals and collectives oppressed by the cisheteropatriarchy. The second part of the chapter will focus on the films: We Are the Flesh (Tenemos la carne, Emiliano Rocha Minter 2017) and Buy Me a Gun (Comprame un revolver, Julio Hernández Cardó 2018), which will show us that another kind of monster has been growing as it feeds off the criminal activities and infamy of the narco-state that has been ruling Mexico for the past several decades, imposing a reign of terror. The stories of extreme violence represented by current Mexican films lead us to work with the ideas posited by Mexican philosopher Sayak Valencia in her book: Gore Capitalism (2016). A  new apex predator has become an invasive species: “the endriago subject” wielding its power with such cruelty that its manifestations bring to mind the aesthetics of gore cinema.

DOI: 10.4324/9781003082934-41 


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I. Interspecies Eros There’s a psychological tension in Escalante’s The Untamed that keeps the spectator on edge. This film stands out for its original way of dealing with a classic SF theme as it examines complex social circumstances. The director has stated that he considers this work of his to be a “feminist” film, and that’s the perspective from which I mean to examine it. To represent lewd Mexican machismo, Escalante appropriates a typical trope: an attractive woman gets abducted and then raped by a horny monster with excess limbs that holds its victims in thrall. Where did this fantasy originate? Japanese culture provides one possible source of inspiration; in everything from erotic illustrations from the Edo period—such as the 1814 Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, by Hokusai—to actual erotic anime—like the hentai subgenre known as “tentacle rape”—we find alien, anthropomorphized octopuses clutching and masturbating halfnaked women in states of rapture: pain cannot be distinguished from pleasure in these martyrs’ twisted faces. In the West, and especially in the US, this subject has long titillated the authors of SF comics and magazines: “in fact, the cover for the inaugural issue of Weird Tales (1923–54) is an example of this trope” (Derie). In a culture that has commodified women as objects of pleasure and that whitewashes gender violence and sexual abuse, it may come as no surprise that interspecies rape is the erotic image most often portrayed in weird SF. We can see the same fantasy rekindled over and over again in the broad variety of randy, lecherous monstrosities that feature on B-movie posters and paperback covers, although the public lured by these sexually loaded illustrations would most often have been disappointed by the novel or film they advertised. In US films like Monster from the Ocean Floor (Wyott Ordung 1954), The Beast with a Million Eyes (David Kramarsky 1955), The Dunwich Horror (Daniel Haller 1970) or Inseminoid (Norman Warren 1981)—to name but a few—what is it that happens in that dreadful, powerfully eroticized moment when “the forces of Evil,” “the Other” or “the Barbarian” carries off and has intercourse with the white woman—Western society’s greatest object of desire? Males have apparently always harassed females of our species—behavior exemplified in these films by the leading men’s uninhibited ogling and bawdy banter—but this doesn’t really alarm anyone; women’s sexual encounters with aliens, however, appear to generate untold physical and moral disgust. H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) lent this fantasy an element of psychological mystery, imagining creatures enlivened by the folklore of his childhood. Some analysts assert that Lovecraft’s monsters reveal repressed aspects of his childhood psyche: the young boy watching “by accident” his parents having sex and perceiving them in his fantasies as a single eight-limbed entity. In turn, his body of work inspired a legion of writers and graphic artists who fleshed out his rich mythology with many-fingered beasts; Escalante’s film, for instance, can be seen as part of this tradition. Cthulhu, the most celebrated monster of the Lovecraft myth, seems to enjoy having human women offered to him ritually. Lovecraft’s writings may be loaded with coded erotic allusions, but, as his biographers point out, they never feature explicit sex scenes. Though it is now commonly believed that Lovecraft was gay (Derie), given the times and his social condition, it would have been difficult for him to come to terms with this; unable to attain a degree of actual sexual freedom, he poured his libido into his texts. The visual language of The Untamed is also affected by the libidinous impulses of the monster inhabiting it. You can feel it far away from its physical location, like a breath of foul air following the characters through the streets at night. It also seems to enhance promiscuity in its broader environment: in one outlandish scene, a Noah’s Ark of animal twosomes mate in the crater left by the impact of the meteor that brought the creature to Earth. 270

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The repeated portrayal of the fantasy of the female body possessed by the alien, presents an erotic urge. In this reverie, horror leads to excitement, the sex act being an experiential encounter with the unknown. In Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981)—a film from which Escalante borrows much—the mind-boggling tentacled alien has mentally and physically possessed the female lead played by a dazzling Isabelle Adjani. Here, an extramarital, interspecies affair is what allows her to reconcile with her erogenous zones; this outrageous pleasure is selfknowledge that evinces the lack of passion in her marriage. Transposing this story to the idiosyncratic context of Mexico—more specifically, to the small provincial city of Guanajuato—helps the filmmaker reveal the patriarchal, chauvinistic mechanics controlling his characters’ sexuality. There’s little dialogue about the woman’s sexual frustration, but she clearly shows how ungratified she is in the film’s first scene, remaining impassive as her husband thrusts his body into hers and comes; later on, she masturbates in the shower but again fails to reach climax, due to an untimely interruption by her attentiondemanding kids. We further witness how her husband plays a violent, oppressive role at home while he secretly has an affair with his wife’s brother. Having landed on the city’s outskirts, the potent, pleasure-seeking extraterrestrial serves to expose Mexicans’ damaged sexual dynamics. The abusive husband, hiding his homosexuality behind a tough-guy mask, shows no interest whatsoever in female pleasure and this is what ends up leading his wife towards her interspecies encounter. The monster’s eight tentacles are like eight phenomenal penises eager to fondle and squeeze and penetrate their prey while she is possessed by pleasure. It’s been debated how much this monster falls into the category of focusing or fixating on phallic penetration; but I think this sex scene could metaphorically represent the female body’s polyerogenous sensibility, that is a sexuality dissociated from penile orgasm: “multiple tentacles can hold/fondle a single subject and penetrate it, sometimes in more than one orifice at the same time” (Derie). In visual terms, this “possession” allows us to observe the female body being pleasured as it’s clutched and stroked by multiple members that simultaneously probe and suck. “In some cases suckers and their sexual function were replaced by an actual mouth or other orifice on the tentacle” (Derie). So this interspecies mating ritual might also allude to that baffling entity which threatens Lovecraft’s phobic characters from the hidden depths of the female body, or from the bottom of the sea like some obscene scallop: the cryptically polyorgasmic clitoris. To be sure, Cthulhu’s gender is never clearly stated: it could represent a giant vagina dentata that tries to devour the boy who can’t deal with the horror of coming into the world by being spit out of his mother’s vulva: “when Cthulhu makes one of its appearances in Lovecraft’s tales, we are witnessing a gigantic, tentacle-equipped, killer vagina from beyond space and time” (Derie). In The Untamed, the alien remains hidden in the countryside with the help of two retired scientists, a wife and husband investigating UFOs. An independent, attractive and uninhibited young woman appears, traveling on her motorcycle; she’s the one who tempts the wife and her brother into being pleasured by the alien sex fiend. If we stretch the film’s symbolism a little further, we could imagine a lesbian fête in the forest. In this reading, the real monsters of The Untamed are the lead female character and her friend, seeking their pleasure like an eight-limbed monster—as Lovecraft’s entwined parents—during their secret meetings at the scientists’ cabin. Throughout the movie, viewers realize that the alien had sex with the gay brother but ended up attacking and killing him, though none of this is represented on screen. The being’s apparent preference for the heteronormative wife—and its killing of the homosexual man and the sexually uninhibited woman—could leads us to believe in some sort of moral judgment against “other” (i.e., non-heteronormative) types of sex. 271

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However, if being with the monster is dangerous, it’s also a transformative experience that frees the heroine from a withering patriarchal system as she adds her voice to the chorus of ya basta! (“Enough is enough”) and decides to do something about her miserable situation as a self-sacrificing wife and mother; she determinedly drags her husband to the alien, as lethal as it is amorous when it fails to derive pleasure from its “prey,” and with her shirt still covered in blood, she picks her kids up from school on time. In spite of the mysterious deaths, the police’s role in the film is minimal and there is no detective-hero figure; the murders are classified as sex crimes, without any need for more farfetched explanations involving extraterrestrial agency. Another film exploring a sexual experience between a woman and a monster is The Shape of Water, though this time the creature is more abductee than abductor. The movie thus deconstructs the Hollywood syntax and its stereotyped scripts, revealing the outmoded ideologies and prejudices still lurking within the genre, the symbolism here operates the same way it does in nightmares, allowing repressed impulses to surface. In positivist plots, the hero believes his actions to be moved by reason, and this is what entitles him to kill the monster and save the world from anti-capitalist threats (whether or not they are extraterrestrial in origin). In the process, he of course saves the girl, and by doing so, he’s also entitled to claim her as a sexual trophy. In The Shape of Water, Del Toro retools the cult classics Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature (Jack Arnold, 1954–55), showing how the hero and his “material girl” are subjects of a decayed modernity. Del Toro’s story thus redrafts the previous ones by making the leading lady working-class, mute, somewhat shy and far from buxom; her role is also transformed as she develops feelings for the monster and saves it, taking it back to her apartment and later having very satisfying sex with it—the creature indeed turns out to be a tender lover. Returning to Lovecraft’s universe, we see that his work betrays the racism of the white colonial milieu in which he grew up—he was, to be sure, in favor of slavery and considered black people inferior. Lovecraft’s work expresses racism in metaphorically monstrous and aberrant terms, portraying “others”—of African descent, mixed-race or indigenous—as something alien and repulsive. In the dialectic opposition between the white hero and the monster represented as “different” or “divergent,” the game is always rigged in favor of Western culture, claiming such values as truth, goodness and beauty on its side. The monster in The Shape of Water, a humanoid amphibian from Latin America, is viewed as an inferior and yet dangerous creature that must be captured and scientifically studied. Abducted by the CIA and taken to the US in a large fish-tank, this creature from a black lagoon, with its gorgeous iridescent skin, is seen from a decolonial perspective, as a god worshiped for thousands of years by the native inhabitants of the Amazon, and its priceless existence signifies the survival of a magical vision of the world that Western society has rejected. The Shape of Water and The Untamed show us that dominant narratives can be altered to provide another perspective on the world, supplying us with new connections to reality and ways of relating to other people: “Articulating in a different way is, in some sense, a way of redirecting the reality that has been imposed on us through dystopian practices and discourses” (Valencia 254). This philosopher observes a semantic/semiological shift in forms of transfeminist resistance and their use of instruments of knowledge and meaning, which allow us to dismantle heteronormative mentality. From a different point of view, sex with the monster means avoiding the pitfall of Western white male heterosexuality, with its rigid, apparently impenetrable bodily boundaries. By disrupting our understanding and vision of a world that’s patriarchally constituted and coded, transfeminist semantics incorporate figures like monsters, aliens, mutants and cyborgs standing in for a generation that identifies as non-binary and that has a will to decolonize bodies in order to explore trans practices. 272

Meet My Alien Sex Fiend

II. The Endriago or Apocalyptic Beast If Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World imagined anesthetized subjects made compliant by a drug named Soma, this same dystopia, told from a Mexican perspective, refers to the social decomposition wrought by cartels as they move drugs northwards, while Mexico is unfairly compelled to act as the US Empire’s backyard due to our shared border. In Latin America, dystopia is evident in the harrowing scenes that are an outcome of Western colonialism. The emergence of what Valencia calls gore capitalism: “the adverse consequence of deregulated capitalist production, the violent collision and breakdown of layers of reality,” exposing a bipolar condition like that of Stevenson’s 1886 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The undesirable—or other—modern reality operates “outside of the law, but at the service of power” by creating “thanato-strategies [based on other people’s deaths] or gore practices in order to enter the global consumption race” (89). The guys who do the dirty work “dystopian jobs” (Serrato Córdoba 92): drug traffickers, assassins, pornographers, kidnappers, torturers, corrupt soldiers and politicians, etc. are in charge of this highly profitable trade and in the black market have amassed economic power, spreading horror in their wake. Valencia has named them “endriago subjects,” referring to a creature from medieval mythology—a hybrid of human, hydra and dragon. This ominous creature, which shuns the light of day, runs on corrupted libidinal energy, fanning the dying embers of a deeprooted toxic masculinity evinced by the daily toll of sexual assaults and femicides throughout the country. A brother and sister—both of them the epitome of beauty and youth—sneak into an abandoned, half-demolished building: this is the beginning of Rocha Minter’s We Are the Flesh, which wallows in the visual dystopia deriving from gore capitalism. The film presents a world where barbarity has triumphed. The corruption of social values and the violation of taboos and of the basic tenets of law and order reject any possibility of returning to the Western morality. In this end-of-the-world chaos, sexual desire swells unchecked between brother and sister—a new Adam and Eve who copulate incestuously, spurred on by a terrifying, devilish figure, who also makes them eat human flesh and drugs them with homemade rotgut; we could define this last subject as the endriago—a beast, a cannibal and the embodiment of corruption, an ominous alter-ego of the system’s disintegration. The characters are seduced by the Flesh—they desire each other’s flesh, but also want to feed on human flesh—while they remain captive and, at the same time, are captivated by the predatory male. After he’s beaten to death by his victims-come-victimizers, he comes back to life and, like a new obscurantist messiah, he convinces them to engage in wild orgies where they drink blood and semen, arousing the psyche’s atavistic death drive to uncover the meaning of gore, delving into an aesthetic of fleshy excess that erases the boundaries imposed on eroticism and bodies by polite bourgeois society. In this sense, the endriago subjects “hold a type of dystopian subversion of biopolitics” (Valencia 216), “mutant[s] of the old morality” (Serrato Córdova 96); in other words, he represents the unexpected arrival of the evil doppelganger or the advent of the pestilence that annihilates civilization. One more work that prompts us to speculate about a post-apocalyptic future is Hernández Cardó’s Buy Me a Gun. We can christen this film a narcotopia, since it represents what we’re presently experiencing in areas of Mexico ravaged by the drug trade and organized crime, though it doesn’t refer to actual events or specific factions. This story takes place in the territory controlled by the endriago, whose “fierceness is such that each landmass it inhabits is described as desolate, a kind of earthly hell” (Valencia 100). 273

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Hernández Cardó’s movie recalls the acclaimed series of four films that George Miller made between 1979 and 2015, beginning with Mad Max, where capitalist civilization has been wiped out and where only the fittest survive, driving around in armored vehicles and wasting vast amounts of ammunition to impose their will on one another. Buy Me a Gun confronts us with an exception status where groups of gangsters—the most aggressive, most violent and best-armed drug traffickers and paramilitaries—control the territory and overpower all other survivors. In this narco-fiction, the endriagos have devastated and pillaged everything around them; they are the main characters, but the story is told from the point of view of a 6-year-old girl, whose father has disguised as a boy and chained by her ankle to the trailer they live in, so no one will abduct her; indeed, this has already been the fate of her mother and older sister, since women have become a scarce and valuable commodity. In this testosterone-fueled world, the woman’s absence is represented by a tube of lipstick next to bullets on a cartridge belt. Given that female humans are an endangered kind, men wear women’s dresses over their military uniforms: this is clearly an odd sort of cross-dressing, which makes us consider a future where gender norms have been disrupted, but it also takes us back in history to the Aztec warriors, who peeled the skins off the corpses of the defeated in order to wear them as a sort of trophy; this particular atavism is transmogrified in this film through the endriagos’ habit of wearing the clothes that belonged to the women they’ve abducted and raped. The murderously empowered endriago leader, concealed under his balaclava his soft features and long hair, portrays himself as sexually ambiguous, stating that he is both man and woman. The girl named Huck befriends a gang of orphans; one of them is missing an arm, cut off as punishment by the endriago leader. The film incorporates authentic elements of gore: the boy’s arm is kept in a fridge next to the beer, before Huck can reclaim it. She then sticks it in her bag and takes it with her everywhere she goes, until she finally finds—along with all the other kids—the time and place to bury it at the very end of the film. The stench of rotting flesh forever lingers, though the other characters, true to the genre, don’t make any moral judgment about bodily remains. The fact that the main narrator is a young girl lends the film a certain tenderness, which helps viewers avoid falling prey to total despair and hopelessness. In a world shattered by the endriagos’ monstrosity, Huck still believes in good fortune in spite of the fact that she’s the weakest link in the group; she never plays a passive role just because that’s what’s expected of her gender. After a genocidal shootout, she and the endriago leader are the only ones left standing, and they save each other’s lives by escaping on a raft, floating downriver. Standing on the riverbank, the gang of kids shout to warn her: “you can’t trust that asshole, Huck, jump!” The young girl, in spite of her curiosity about the self-proclaimed trans endriago, places more importance on her own freedom and kills him while he takes a nap. She then jumps overboard and swims to shore to join her comrades. In this film, the endriago and Huck rather incongruously develop a relationship involving a certain amount of mutual empathy, which suggests that the murderous monster also has a sensitive side. He never divulges Huck’s sex to anyone, keeping the secret in order to manipulate and coerce her father; all the while, he teaches the girl how to use a gun—the same gun she uses to blow his head off while he’s asleep. This dénouement reminds us of The Untamed, where the heroine manages to leave her abusive husband with a little help from her friend, the alien sex-fiend. The radical demand of transfeminism as “a response to a phallocratic mode of subjectivity” (Valencia 189) is that the endriago subjects, as offspring of the macho society, cannot and should not be rescued (even from themselves). They cannot be redeemed, and negotiation is impossible, so a new world must start afresh without them.


Meet My Alien Sex Fiend

Note 1 This text reworks a fragment of my latest book: Codephagy. Mexican Cinema and Science Fiction (Codigofagia. Cine mexicano y ciencia ficción, Mexico City: Akal, 2021).

Bibliography Buy Me a Gun (Comprame un Revolver). Directed by