We are reprinting this review as part of our special trans/nonbinary issue. It first appeared at Strange Horizons on 16 October 2017.
Science fiction and fantasy have long been productive arenas for theorizing transgender possibility. From Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness to Delany’s Trouble on Triton, from Woolf’s Orlando to Larry Stylinson MPreg stories, speculative fiction has yielded many imaginings of, for example, non-binary gender, body swapping, and sex-related biotechnologies in alternate presents and other worlds. While many of these experiments have been fruitful in rethinking gender as a structure (often in the service of challenging sexism and misogyny), rarely do they center transgender experience in doing so. The twenty-five stories collected in Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers build a persuasive case for how trans-centered SF/F can produce a critical rethinking of gender. But these stories are, on the whole, aimed less at extending that project and more in how trans individuals, having already rethought gender, might get through the rest. Instead of using SF/F to theorize new trans possibilities, they use trans realities to imagine new possibilities for SF/F.
Edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett, this anthology of previously unpublished stories joins a spate of anthologies devoted to writing by/about marginalized groups, all of them doing important work to diversify and expand SF/F—but I believe this is the first devoted to SF/F by trans writers. Its closest kin may be Brit Mandelo’s great Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction (Lethe, 2012). If that’s right, their differences are illuminating: the stories in Beyond Binary are on the whole more interested in exploring queer forms of sexuality and desire through SF/F narratives than in centering genderqueer (or nonbinary trans) experience; it’s definitely more queer than trans.
In comparison, Plett and Fitzpatrick’s book is trans through the roof and into outer space. So much trans! All kinds of trans. If its heft at nearly 450 pages is any indication, it’s not the first trans SF/F anthology due to any dearth of writing. A big book, it has the feel of arrival, this mysterious rectangular object finally crashing down from the future, or many futures. Addressing issues as various as reproductive technology, haunted adolescence, trans monstrosity, trans-trans love (and sex), and good old-fashioned coming out woes, these stories represent a spectrum of trans experience and a range of speculative genres. All are explicitly trans-centered, and all speak to a trans—or trans-literate—readership. There’s very little explaining, in other words, which leaves more room for the alien spore that’s just landed, and the hologram café. Many storylines draw on speculative tropes to take up concerns specific to the trans community—not only dysphoria and medical technology, but also crossgenerational infighting, the prevalance of suicide, and the perpetual threat of anti-trans violence. In Cooper Lee Bombardier’s “After the Big One,” an intergenerational trans/queer group reckons with their ideological conflicts in the wake of apocalypse; as they move from conflict to coalition, they become a model for a new queer family. In “Visions,” Morgan M. Page reckons with the reality of trans suicide through a vatic dimension that resists rescue in favor of witnessing. And in their moving “What Cheer,” RJ Edwards turns an alien landing into a meditation on trans alienation in a transphobic world.
Combined, the stories form a field of vibrant possibilities, many of them diverging in intriguing ways. Stories by Ryka Aoki and Sadie Avery, for example, present opposite perspectives on similarly post-trans near-future worlds. In “The Gift,” Aoki conjures a reality closely resembling our own, with one key difference: Aoki’s alternate present is astonishingly trans-friendly. When Freddie comes out to her family as Samantha, her mother bursts out laughing—she’s “just relieved that it wasn’t something bad!” With only the subtlest touch of sardonic absurdism, Aoki’s fantasy provides a clear model for how things could be different, now.
Avery’s “Using a Treadmill, You Can Run Until Exhaustion Without Moving” imagines a similarly trans-friendly near-future: yet in this world, even as anti-trans bathroom bills are a thing of the past, even as transsexual psychology is now taught in every high school, our unnamed narrator still agonizes about coming out—so much so that they take a quick trip to Mars, where they can go on a bender while confronting their agony in solitude. Highlighting lingering stigma and internalized shame, Avery’s story resists a progress myth of (speculative) trans liberation.
Other stories adopt contrastive approaches to thinking through the threat and promise of technological advancements. In Ayse Devrim’s campy “No Comment,” reproductive trans justice meets Jane the Virgin when Maryam, a transgender nurse, acquires a recently deceased cis woman’s uterus and ovaries in a groundbreaking surgery. Little does Maryam know: her new uterus is with child. In “Angels Are Here to Help You,” Jeanne Thornton imagines a future in which tech development reigns supreme—“all roads … lead to tech,” her tech-challenged protagonist bemoans—and trans women are one target market among many. Beta phys-modding products, dysphoria-easing devices, and estrogen-delivery nanobots—all are readily available, part of a new and aggressive technocapitalism towards which Thornton takes an ambiguous stance. Brendan Williams-Childs’s bleak but compelling “Schwaberow, Ohio,” told from the point of view of an autistic teen, takes a more dystopian turn: in a near-future United States under ultraconservative rule, new biotechnology poses a chilling threat, as neurobiological behavioral modification implants threaten to erase both neurodiversity and transgender existence.
Williams-Childs’ story is one of a few that think through intersections between transgender and disability issues. Calvin Gimpelevich’s “Rent, Don’t Sell” is another: We first meet Nok, a veteran amputee, at a gym where she works as a physical trainer, swapping bodies with clients who don’t have the motivation or ability to push their own bodies themselves. Nok, who has lost an arm to combat, enjoys the opportunity to temporarily take on others’ bodies, and has some trans experiences in this capacity. This scenario in itself would be fresh and enticing, but Gimpelevich doesn’t stop there: soon Nok meets and falls for Natasha, a trans woman who has used the technology to permanently switch bodies with a trans man, only to find that her new embodiment has saddled her with new forms of dysphoria. Meanwhile, Nok’s sister is an escort in a new body economy, renting out her body for hours at a time and suffering the effects of embodied trauma memory. Stretching its premise to draw intriguing parallels between disabled, trans, and sex worker experience, this story is one of the strongest, and most strongly intersectional, in the volume.
Links between transgender identity and race come up a handful of times, most notably in Bridget Liang’s “Delicate Bodies,” which inhabits the zombie narrative from a trans Asian perspective. Beryl, a self-described “weird Chinese trans girl dropout,” has been maligned by cis guys time and time again: “Too trans. Too Asian. Too fat. Too crazy. Too poor….It was like she was a monster.” When she gets bitten by a zombie, “well, now she was a monster for real.” Beryl’s zombification initiates a spree of revenge killings—she just happens to run into every bad Grindr date of her recent past, and the meat she tears into, well, use your imagination. Liang’s story is a hilarious revenge romp that sharply and playfully critiques racism, classism, cissexism, ableism, colonialism, and more. If the signposting is occasionally heavy handed and the narration overexplanatory, all’s forgiven when Beryl takes advantage of her zombification to perform a DIY sexual reassignment surgery and engage in a sexual encounter that in its gruesomeness rivals Otto, or Up with Dead People.
From their bios and from what I know of their work, I would guess that some of these writers are venturing into specfic for the first time, and yes, a number of stories are overfamiliar, overpacked, or simply plodding as a result. There are a few that approach the genre with a campy artifice that may turn off some SF/F devotees. On the other hand, there are many stories that, in approaching speculative fiction unencumbered by genre conventions, bring new vitality and new formal and stylistic possibilities to the genre. Imogen Binnie’s “Gamers” is a case in point. Known primarily for the punk realist novel Nevada, here Binnie combines paranormal and scifi aspects to contribute one of the most original and consistently surprising stories in the book. I won’t give too much away: only that there’s a haunted ROM, a haunted adolescence, and an explication on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as a metaphor for being trans.
I haven’t mentioned Rachel K. Zall’s lightly paranormal, heavily hot “Control,” Beckett Koretz’s diaristic historical fantasy, Sybil Lamb’s madcap adventures with Queeferella Bitcoin$, or the many, many other gems in the anthology. There’s much to love, and much to dwell upon. A dazzling showcase of speculative writing by transgender writers in Canada and the U.S., Meanwhile, Elsewhere is huge, vibrant, and full of ideas.