Stories by LGBTQ authors, or about LGBTQ characters, have persisted despite censorship and stereotype for centuries. Queer fiction has shoved its way out of specialty bookstores and obscenity trials and into the spotlight. Spoken and not spoken; closeted, quietly out, punished, defiant, rebellious, comforting, disruptive, revolutionary.
I take a lot of pride in being a queer author, and in promoting other LGBTQ writers and stories. So I’m not telling you this lightly: don’t bother reading FutureDyke, the Lambda Literary Award-nominated novel by Lea Daley.
FutureDyke follows Leslie Burke, a self-identified dyke from mid-twenty-first-century America, who was cryogenically frozen in 2076 and reawakened thousands of years later on the artificial planetoid Jashari. She discovers that she has been prophesied as Li’shayla Mar-Né, the one that will bring great change to an otherwise static and placid society. This premise isn't particularly imaginative. It's a typical white knight story with all the baggage that brings, but with a lesbian protagonist and some sci-fi trappings.
FutureDyke struck me as annoyingly retrogressive both as science fiction and as a queer story. Despite the fact that Leslie is from sixty years in my future, her sexuality and understanding of queer culture seem antiquated. I couldn’t for a second believe that this character was descended from the generation of queers growing up with Tumblr, in an era when Chelsea Manning has a Twitter and New York City’s Pride parade boasted hundreds of thousands of participants.
Much of the sci-fi garnish seems laughable as well: a character was infected with “Ultra-AIDS” before being cryo’d; in a memory from the late twenty-first century, Leslie mentions Celluchicken and Cabernet FauxVignon. Jasharians can be treated to Transdeltal Rejuvenations or Monosilcate Retreats. So many of these cliched elements are purely decorative, reminders that this is THE FUTURE, in case we’d missed the word in the title.
Even so, all of that might have been forgivable if Daley’s protagonist was someone I could stand to listen to for three hundred pages. Leslie Burke has Molly Bolt’s attitude without her complexity or charisma. She’s a caricature of the White Liberal Feminist on a voluntourism trip to the future, full of opinions about how this very complex culture she knows nothing about is Doing It Wrong.
Here’s a typical argument:
“But people—biological people—have needs that don’t always fit into systems! Unless you stop living for others every minute and sometimes put your desires first, you’re not truly human!”
“That would be so chaotic. How can we all go separate ways? Can you not see that individual needs must be suppressed for the Harmony of the Whole?”
“You’re wrong! Every time that’s been tried, it’s been a dismal failure! That’s exactly what was so horrendous about the World Unification Movement. It demanded that we give up our unique assertive, annoying selves to become cogs in a system.” (p. 150)
This entire novel is an Ode to Individualism, though it’s not necessarily consistent. The book notes that Jasharians were mainly descended from African and Asian people who had rejected Western values: "People known for their rigid adherence to discipline, their firm commitment to collectivism" (p. 195). No mention of the individual lives of the people from two separate continents. Did I mention that Leslie is white? With flowing red hair that has, in the logic of this book, been scientifically proven to be a sign of a fiery temper? She is a literal white savior, saving people of color from themselves.
What do the Jasharians think of this? No idea. Jasharians get a few walk-on roles, but are otherwise notably absent.There’s no appreciation for individual Jasharians here, no attempt at understanding the culture or their philosophy. All the arguments are framed in overly simplistic narratives: Jasharians like conformity, and conformity is bad. They don’t even get to speak for themselves.
FutureDyke’s antagonist is Chastity Whitehall, a fellow Returnee and dyke who has ascended the ranks of society through manipulation and selective bisexuality. (She’s the only bisexual person in the novel, by the way. And she’s not really bi, it’s just all a part of her power scheming.)
Leslie’s love interest is Aimée, a Variable Techno-Organism—a high-tech android who can read minds and change her physical appearance. Aimée is a guide to Jashari society, a defender of its doctrines, and Leslie’s emotional support in the strange new world. She’s shown to be hopelessly naive, and as a foil to Leslie’s arguments for conformism, doesn’t do much to represent the depth or complexity of her people. She’s converted to Leslie’s cause by the third act.
Oddly, for someone who repeatedly asserts the rights of the individual to make their own destiny, Leslie denies Aimée’s humanity for much of the book. Right up until, in a rather abrupt move, she realizes that she’s in love with the VTO. She doesn’t ever admit to being wrong, exactly—the question of Aimée as a living and thinking being is more or less resolved in declarations of love and a few quick, tasteful sex scenes.
As for the main conflict, between free-spirited Leslie and the conniving Chastity, it comes to a head when Chastity kills a child that Leslie’s befriended. Chastity is arrested and transported to an orbiting medical center to be put back into cryogenic freeze, but somehow gets the better of her captors, converting them to her cause and leading a coup against the Elder Council.
Her cannon fodder in the war she plans to wage? More Returnees, but ones with physical deformities that are so grotesque that Jasharians will faint dead away at the sight of them. “People with more eyes or limbs—or fewer—than typical humans. People with organs outside their bodies. Some grotesquely tall, others far too wide. People sheathed in lumpy skin. Or scales. Or bony plates.”
Everyone refers to them as monsters, who are both easily manipulated and easily incited to violence. Aimée manages some sympathy for them, of a sort: “Each made me shudder with distaste. Yet they also evoked pity, Leslie-ahn. I could feel their desire to be accepted, to be free” (p. 295).
Super magnanimous, right? People with lumpy skin and missing limbs are still monsters, but at least they deserve our pity. So much for glorious individualism.
Leslie gives a stirring speech about standing up to bullies and being yourself. When some of Whitehall’s “monsters” appear, she stage-dives off the tower that’s she’s speaking from, choosing to die in a suitably melodramatic way. She’s saved (sigh) by a literal deus ex machina, a goddess that lives in the software that controls everything on Jashari. Turns out that the entire plot of the novel, prophecy and all, was put in motion by the goddess because she was bored, and wants to terraform Jashari from a desert into a living planet. Leslie was needed as a catalyst of change, because an omnipotent and omniscient being couldn’t simply alter people’s minds that much.
In the end, FutureDyke is disappointing as both science fiction and LGBTQ fiction, and because of its internal inconsistencies—individuality is awesome, but individual disabled people are just monsters, and Africans and Asians are predisposed to conformism—doesn’t even really work as a philosophical thought experiment. It barely even works as propaganda for individualist philosophy. Heinlein did it better. Ayn Rand did it better.
This is not the queer science fiction you’ve been waiting for. Do yourself a favor and give it a pass. There are better books on the shelves.
Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago, and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Nino's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, In The Fray, Autostraddle, and Gozamos. One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.