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date: 08 December 2022

Speculative Fiction and Queer Theoryfree

Speculative Fiction and Queer Theoryfree

  • Wendy Gay PearsonWendy Gay PearsonDepartment of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies, University of Western Ontario

Summary

Speculative fiction, like queer, can be an umbrella term; it can cover any writing in which reality is not mimetically represented. In other words, speculative fiction is a fuzzy set whose boundaries are permeable, capacious, and capable of definition and redefinition by readers and writers alike. The set includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, the Gothic, and most or all magic realist writing. Because of its focus on spaces and times that have not (yet) happened, may never happen, and may, indeed, be impossible, speculative fiction as a supergeneric category leaves open a great deal of room for queerness in all its forms. Queer theory illuminates depictions of sexuality, gender, and their intersectionalities as they are represented in speculative fictions of all kinds. In doing so, it traces several specific queer theoretical interventions, including: questions of queer representation; histories in which queer representation has been suppressed; queer dismantling of all types of normativity; queer theorizing about intimacy, kinship, reproduction, and family; questions of posthumanism and the queering of embodiment and/through technology; and issues of queer time versus the power of chrononormativity to reinforce assumptions about linear time and “normal” life. Speculative fiction is a powerful medium for both queer readers and queer writers because it empowers narratives, characters, and/or settings that disrupt the many ways in which dominant assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality are produced by, and in turn reinforce, colonial aspirations and expectations. Some speculative fiction may be dystopian, but some speculative fiction may also read the past reparatively in order to imagine more hopeful worlds.

Subjects

  • Critical/Cultural Studies
  • Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)

The question of whether the queer, for queer theory, has ever been human must, then, be answered, not equivocally but deliberately, Yes and No. Yes, because this sustained interrogation of the unjust dehumanization of queers insistently, if implicitly, posits the human as standard form, and also because many queer theorists have undeniably privileged the human body and human sexuality as the locus of their analysis. But No because queer theory has long been suspicious of the politics of rehabilitation and inclusion to which liberal-humanist values lead, and because “full humanity” has never been the only horizon for queer becoming. We might see the “Yes/No” humanity of the queer less as an ambivalence about the human as status than as a queer transversal of the category. The queer, we could say, runs across or athwart the human. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick reminds us, “The word ‘queer’ itself means across—it comes from the Indo-European root-twerkw, which also yields the German quer (transverse), Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart.” To say that queer transverses the human is to understand their relation as contingent rather than stable: it needs to be read up from particular situations, not proclaimed from above.

Luciano and Chen (2015), “Has the Queer Ever Been Human?” (pp. 186–187)

Introduction

This article examines the ways in which queer theory can help to illuminate depictions of sexuality, gender, and their intersectionalities as they are represented in speculative fictions of all kinds. As the epigram implies, if applied to speculative fiction, what is at the heart of queer speculative writing (and other art forms) is the question of queer inclusion in the category of human; however, the near boundless imaginative possibilities of speculative fiction, in all its forms, allow us both to recognize the limitations of this question (Is “human” the be all and end all?) and to ask if there are other horizons for queer becoming. Like queer itself, speculative fiction can transverse multiple epistemological and ontological categories, of which “human,” although it may be the prime category, is still only one possibility. The often queer categories of being encountered in speculative fiction, from the aliens that permeate science fiction to the elves and fairies in fantasy and folk tales, remind us that “human” may not be the sole way of defining good, livable, intelligible modes of being.

In opening up some very large questions, queer speculative fiction, taken as a body of work, speaks to several specifically queer theoretical interventions, including: questions of queer representation; histories in which queer representation has been suppressed; queer dismantling of all types of normativity; queer theorizing about intimacy, kinship, reproduction, and family; questions of posthumanism and the queering of embodiment and/through technology; and issues of queer time and the ability to critique chrononormativity (the normative sense of time across the life span) to subvert assumptions about linear time and “normal” life. Speculative fiction is a powerful medium for both queer readers and queer writers because it uses its ability to go beyond the limitations of mimetic, realist approaches to fiction to empower narratives, characters, and/or settings that disrupt the many ways in which dominant assumptions about “human nature,” notably in terms of sexuality, gender, and race, are produced by, and in turn reinforce, capitalist and colonialist aspirations and expectations. Some speculative fiction may be dystopian, but it may also read the past—or the future—reparatively, in order to imagine possibly more hopeful and certainly queerer futures for both the human and the un/inhuman.

Speculating about Speculative Fiction: Definitions and Conundrums

Given the nature of this encyclopedia, there is no need here to begin by defining what queer theory is, does, or means. However, it may still be useful to explain what is meant by the term speculative fiction. Speculative fiction (like queer) can be something of an omnibus term. It gathers the similarities between specific genres, including science fiction (sf), fantasy (in all its iterations), horror, and the Gothic.1 However, it is capacious enough to include more liminal works—works that, for example, flirt with the tropes of sf while remaining on its margins. Within the context of sf genre scholarship, to some extent these liminal texts are collected under the term slipstream. However, almost all magic realist texts can be considered forms of speculative fiction, as can many texts that play with fairy tales, traditional oral narratives, etc. The common tropes of all speculative fiction involve some form of imagination beyond the contemporary world or its dominant history (histories). In fact, the term speculative fiction was created in 1947 by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein (1947) to encompass works that did not fit neatly into the fairly “hard science” ethos espoused by many of the predominant voices in the sf genre at the time.

As is often the case, the question of definition is not wholly objective, but takes on a distinct political valence in the context of a literary history in which genre fiction has been variously dismissed as childish, trite, “girly” (particularly if focused on romance), obsessed with “boys’ toys,” and generally written significantly less well than Capital-L Literature. While one might hope that this trite distinction between genre fiction and Literature is grossly outdated, it still raises its head repeatedly. Indeed, the best-known case in point is Margaret Atwood’s determination that her science-fictional works—including The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), its recent sequel, The Testaments (2019), and the entire MaddAdam trilogy (2003–2013)—are not sf. However, if we look back at critical attempts to define speculative fiction, the late sf writer and editor Judith Merril used the term to distinguish “the essence of science fiction.” Merril (2017) classified sf into a threefold typology: “teaching stories” (often with the explicit goal of getting American boys—not girls—involved with science for the sake of the space race), “preaching stories,” which either allegorizes or satirizes (or both) contemporary society, and “speculative fiction,” which aims “to explore, to discover, to learn, by means of projection, extrapolations, analogue, hypothesis-and-paper experimentation, something about the nature of the universe, of man [sic], of ‘reality’” (p. 27).

This discussion reiterates Marek Oziewicz’s definition but adds a greater emphasis on the ways in which genre fiction is constructed in some sort of opposition to literature. Oziewicz wrote:

The term “speculative fiction” has three historically located meanings: a subgenre of science fiction that deals with human rather than technological problems, a genre distinct from and opposite to science fiction in its exclusive focus on possible futures, and a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating “consensus reality” of everyday experience. . . . Rather than seeking a rigorous definition, a better approach is to theorize “speculative fiction” as a term whose semantic register has continued to expand.

This expansion of the semantic register includes the ways in which Merril’s discussion turns on its head what has become a normative assumption among many readers that speculative fiction is the broader field (“supercategory”) to which sf belongs. Some earlier scholarship, particularly in the 1970s, also cast fantasy (usually as Fantasy) in the role of supercategory. Farah Mendlesohn (2014) began Rhetorics of Fantasy by noting that the lengthy debates over definition have largely resolved through the acceptance of “a viable ‘fuzzy’ set.”2 Rather than focusing on defining fantasy, Mendlesohn centered her work on the question of how the genre is constructed.

John Rieder referred to traditional (European) categories of writing in Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System (2017) as the “academic-classical genre system” and contrasted them to what he referred to as the “mass cultural genre system,” which includes works whose definitional categories both produce and contribute to their commercial value. Rieder described sf, specifically, as arising organically from mass culture and argued that

literary and cultural studies scholars in general, and science fiction studies scholars in particular, ought to be making [effects of stratification] part of the object of their inquiries into the workings of contemporary culture and the powers exercised by various forms of narrative within it (pp. 9–10).

In other words, Rieder argued that there is a tendency to create hierarchies based on genre and that these stratifications should be part of scholarship on speculative fiction. Queer theory is similarly conscious of, and critical about, forms of cultural hierarchy, particularly those that take as their bases assumptions about sexual, gender, and racial hierarchies (better to be heterosexual, better to be cisgender, better to be White).

Queer Theory, Paraliterature, and Literary Hierarchies

In one response to the hierarchical tendencies of literary and cultural scholarship to value “literature” above genre fiction, the gay African American writer and critic Samuel R. Delany argued that genre fiction can be understood as “paraliterature.” Delany’s own work spanned several genres, including sf, fantasy, pornography, and literary criticism. As Carl Freedman (2001) pointed out, Delany normally regarded definitions with skepticism but nonetheless proposed paraliterature as a term to gather “written genres traditionally excluded by the limited, value-bound meaning of ‘literature’ and ‘literary’” (Delany, 1999, p. 236). While Freedman argued that Delany established an unnecessary binarism that divided literature from paraliterature, Delany’s distinction is not one that allows literary fiction to seize the high ground. Delany argued that, “In literature, the odder or more fantastical or surreal it is, the more it’s assumed to be about mind or psychology” (Delany, “Semiology,” p. 143). Earl Jackson (1995) has pointed out that

Literature’s preoccupation with the inner states of the characters, its representation of the subject as the perceptual focus, the phenomenological frame, of the object, underwrites an ideological investment in the centrality of the subject as a self-evident unity; It is through this ideological investment that 'literature' serves as what Louis Althusser has termed an 'Ideological State Apparatus’, ('ISA'), a mode of representation that interpellates the individual as a specifically fixed subject" (pp. 101–102)

In other words, one might argue that paraliterary genres are those that are able to spring writing free of its interpellation in the process of subjectification by removing the focus on the psychology of the “hero” and placing it, instead, on the systemic and the structural, the contexts within which the hero’s journey is made possible.3

However, if we link this argument back to this article’s epigram by Luciano and Chen, we might also note that, by removing a certain focus on individual psychology and its attendant assumptions about the nature of the human, we allow in multiple forms of queerness, both those that focus on the inclusion of the queer within the human and those that long for more capacious options for both becoming and belonging. The notion of paraliterature becomes in its own right a queering both of generic categories and of the use of those categories to constrain and limit our conceptions of humanity. To finish this section with a concrete example, one could consider the relationship between humanity and animality in Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky (2016), in which the distinction between human and animal is constantly slipping, particularly among the animals who talk to Patricia Delfine, but so also is the distinction between organic and inorganic and specifically between the artificial intelligence CH@NG3M3 and the World Tree, a slippage commemorated in CH@NG3M3’s choice to name itself Peregrine. The novel raises the question of whether the bird Dirp or the AI Peregrine is less “human” than Patricia and Lawrence Armstead, the novel’s other protagonist, and what it means to ask that question.

Queer Orientations: From Paraliterature to Fuzzy Sets

To borrow from Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (2006), one might then suggest looking to see both the directions in which genres are oriented and the ways in which questions of humanity are posed. While the notion of the paraliterary has been taken up rather spottily in literary criticism, it seems possible to argue that all speculative fiction is, in one way or another, oriented toward understanding systemic and social contexts, contexts able to tackle big questions—like “What does it mean to be human?”—rather than individual psychology. In sf, those contexts likely have some relationship to technology and the future; in fantasy, despite its rather frequent reference to an often vague notion of the medieval, these contexts are rarely historical, but rather may use roughly historical tropes to imagine alternatives to the present. In queer speculative fiction, these alternatives are themselves usually queer, although not necessarily in obvious ways—to take one example, Naomi Novik’s dragon series (2006–2016) is a queerish speculative fiction work in which the focus is very much on the romantic, but asexual, relationship between the human, Will Laurence, and the dragon, Temeraire. In depicting the deep love between human and dragon, Novik also reinvented the Napoleonic era in ways that call into question its colonialism and its assumptions of European supremacy (the Chinese are much more knowledgeable about dragons and willing to assign them leadership roles). Laurence, already predisposed to detest slavery due to his politician father’s involvement in the abolitionist movement, is further influenced to understand its moral depravity by Temeraire’s appalled reaction to learning about the legal enslavement of humans and the de facto enslavement of dragons. The depiction of the consequences of Laurence’s and Temeraire’s love for each other creates a situation in which Novik effectively demonstrates the connections between colonialism, racism, misogyny, and homophobia that Siobhan Somerville (1994) explicated in “Scientific Racism and the Emergence of the Homosexual Body”—to sum it up, colonialist expansion requires the subjection of non-White bodies and the policing of White bodies as (re)productive, both of which necessitate the control of women’s bodies and the eradication or conversion of queer ones. Novik’s series brings into question any distinction between Laurence and Temeraire that rules one human and the other not. “Human” is rather randomly used in speculative fiction, sometimes to indicate Homo sapiens and, at other times, to indicate membership in an intelligent, sentient species, which is a broader and more generous definition of human-ness than is often the case in reality; in the latter sense, however, Temeraire is every bit as “human” as Laurence. Despite its characters’ heterosexual practices, the series thus demonstrates the ways in which queerness transverses the category of the human, with its implicit assumption of the superiority of the human animal over all other animals.

Queer theory, as an inherently contestatory field, is a place where arguments about the nature of genre and assumptions of what constitutes “quality” can be understood as discursive assertions precisely intended to construct and empower hierarchy. Indeed, speculative fiction in its most common usage is currently branching out to embrace such alternative forms to the traditional literary text as the graphic novel—a medium that has been increasingly taken seriously by readers and researchers alike since the publication of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980), Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta (1990), and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1991). V is post-apocalyptic and primarily science fictional; Sandman is probably best described as dark fantasy. Maus, however, is based on the experiences of Spiegelman’s family in and after the Holocaust and probably has more in common with Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoirs, Fun Home (2007) and Are You My Mother? (2012) than with either genre or nongenre forms of graphic fiction; indeed, its nonfictional qualities may have helped legitimate graphic narratives. These early graphic novels paved the way for works like Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam (2018), which is partially set in space and involves nonbinary and queer characters.

We can now define speculative fiction as any writing in which “reality” is not mimetically represented; in other words, a fuzzy set. That includes sf, fantasy, horror, and most or all magic realist writing. It includes slipstream, a term apparently invented by writer Bruce Sterling and bibliophile Richard Dorsett to categorize a certain surreal, postmodern sensibility in works that are neither quite mainstream (literature) nor clearly sf or fantasy (Sterling, 1989). Rob Latham (2014) summarized their argument by describing slipstream as nonrealistic fiction with a postmodern sensibility (p. 119), even though Sterling went on to argue that slipstream hasn’t, and in his opinion may never, come to fruition (Sterling, 2011). What all these variants have in common is a degree of nonrealism—while Atwood tried to distinguish her writing from sf on the grounds that it could happen, in practice, much sf could happen (Mancuso, 2016).

There is a whole movement among sf writers, jump-started by Geoff Ryman with the “Mundane Manifesto” in 2004, that focuses on what could happen; the essence of the Mundane science fiction movement is the belief that humanity and the planet are both in such a state of crisis that there is an ethical imperative to write fiction that tackles contemporary issues with a focus on Earth and our solar system—in other words, with readily imaginable and possible futures (Ryman, 2004).

The distinction between genres that can be coalesced under the label of speculative fiction is less one of events and worlds than of rationales: in speculative fiction, if a hammer floats, there will be a scientific explanation (zero gravity, for example); in fantasy, if a hammer floats, it is most likely a spell or other form of magic; in horror, if a hammer floats, there will be a supernatural force behind it. Both slipstream and magic realism may take up any or all of these rationales—or indeed none at all, as in the notorious start of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), which gives no explanation for the protagonists’ miraculous survival of a terrorist attack that destroys their plane in mid-air.

Understanding speculative fiction as a fuzzy set also makes it possible to understand that individual readers may identify the works they are comfortable reading or excited or challenged by without feeling compelled to accept any given author’s or critic’s determination of its genre identity. Indeed, for at least some LGBTQ2SI readers, the attraction may be less the specifics of genre than the types of characters and stories that address the issues and lived experiences of queer and trans people or that allow queer and/or trans characters to explore new worlds and new timelines while, in most cases, offering critiques of the present.4 In fact, one of the things queer theory may help us to understand is the possibility of queering genres categories, whether by reading without reference to them or by reading/writing in ways that transcend boundaries and rigid categories; generic identity need be seen as no more fixed than gender identity or sexuality within the overall rubric of queer theory. Reading outside of genre conventions may also open possibilities for what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called “reparative reading,” since the generic definitions may or may not allow space/time for queerness (Sedgwick, 1997).5

A Brief and Incomplete Queer Genealogy of Speculative Fiction

The question that underlies this article is what queer theory can tell us about ways of reading (and potentially writing) speculative fiction. This question can be broken down in several ways, including asking what is queer about speculative fiction, whether there is such a thing as specifically queer speculative fiction (with the corollary that some, if not most, speculative fiction is more normative, particularly in terms of gender and sexuality), if there are queer ways of reading speculative fiction that illuminate whether the work and/or its author(s) is or does anything that can be labeled queer, whether reparative reading, as a queer strategy, empowers readers differently from the critical habit of what Sedgwick labeled “paranoid” (or deconstructive) reading, what a queer history of speculative fiction might look like, and so on. This article looks briefly at these questions before moving on to consider some specific areas in which queer theory can shine a light on aspects of speculative fiction, including the question of queer representation and/or queering representation, the question of queer concepts of intimacy and kinship, the question of posthumanism, embodiment, and technology, and the question of queer temporality, which is particularly central in sf as a genre, where concepts of futurity (and its alternatives) play a large role. Queer theory’s critique of heteronormativity threads through the entirety of the article.

Is there a specifically queer speculative fiction? And, if so, can we construct a genealogy of when, where, and how queer speculative fiction appeared? One answer might even be the commonest origin story of sf, which is usually to locate the genre’s beginnings with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). It would be hard to deny that much about Frankenstein looks very queer from a contemporary perspective. Not only do we have a man using technology to bypass heterosexual reproduction and produce his own “child,” but the crux of the novel is Frankenstein’s inability to recognize that he has any responsibility for his progeny’s “birth,” education, or ability to live in the world. Steven Bruhm noted that for Shelley’s society, children were not only symbols of innocence, but also of sin (in the story of the expulsion from Eden). Furthermore, while the contemporary world sees children as a symbol of futurity, in a period before adequate contraception and safe abortion, reasonable pre- and postnatal care for mothers, and vaccinations against common, but lethal, childhood ailments, “Children = Death” (Bruhm, 2018). Not only is Frankenstein amenable to a variety of queer readings, but the figure of monstrosity the creature supposedly represents has resounded for trans theorists and activists as well, beginning with Susan Stryker’s important 1994 article “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamonix: Performing Transgender Rage.” Stryker originally gave an early version of the article as a performance piece, saying that she “sought to reclaim Frankenstein’s monster as an empowering figure, thereby directly challenging popular transphobic readings of the infamous character, particularly by TERFS” (Sanders, 2019).

Queer theory tends to be skeptical of origin stories, following Michel Foucault in preferring a more genealogical approach (Foucault, 2021). Given the breadth covered by speculative fiction, one could also look at other origin stories told about various genres; again, to use sf as an example, origin stories usually encompass primarily European and/or American texts, generally anglophone, so that one approach sees sf as originating from such works as Lucian of Samosata’s 2nd-century True History, or from Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638/2009), or from Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666/1994). True History involves a narrator who finds himself unexpectedly on the moon, among many other adventures; Moonites have no women and exist as an all-male society. Earlier in his adventures, Lucian discovers an island where rivers flow with wine and women grow on trees—but sex with them is lethal. Whether one locates the origins of sf in Lucian of Samosata or Frankenstein, it remains striking just how queer those origins are. An almost entirely different approach focuses more on the “science” in sf and locates sf’s origins on the one hand in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, primarily, or on the other hand in the pulp fiction of the early 20th century, notably the short stories published in Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, which began monthly publication in 1926 (and is still publishing today). What both these approaches and others (for example, those that trace the utopian strand in sf from Plato’s Republic through Thomas More to Shakespeare [The Tempest] and beyond) have in common is that they tend to focus on, first, anglophone work and, second, Euro-American work. Another genealogy might locate both sf and the larger genre of speculative fiction in a timeline that begins with the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and includes such fantastical works as the Tales of the Arabian Nights— both have elements that are susceptible to queer readings, even though Gilgamesh tends to depict heterosexual sex as a civilizing force, all the while Enkidu and Gilgamesh wrestle with each other.

Global Genealogies and Indigenous Interventions

Increasingly, the globalized and transnational nature of sf means that scholars are beginning to pay more attention to a genealogy that recognizes non-Western or non-anglophone ancestors of contemporary sf as a worldwide phenomenon. Wu et al. (2018) for example, trace the origins of Chinese sf in folklore and mythology, but they focus primarily on early 20th-century writers influenced by “the influx of Western scientific culture that brought about the flourishing of science fiction literature in China” (p. 45). That is one account and, as with the various genealogies and histories existing simultaneously in Western culture, there are others that place more emphasis on earlier Chinese texts. Certainly, Lu Xun’s 1903 translation of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon was influential in spurring an interest in sf as a genre. As Mimi Mondal pointed out, understanding how genres interact with each other and knowing something about their history is important because,

without it, it’s impossible to recognize which works from a primarily non-Western but also postcolonial culture were written clearly to be genre, or even fiction. South Asia had a significant culture of letters in several languages for centuries before British colonization (Mondal, 2018).

According to Mondal, Indian culture did not make clear distinctions between religious and secular works or between realist and nonrealist works. Only in the mid-19th century did novels and short stories become recognized and sought-after cultural forms, and it is only since the 1980s that speculative fiction has taken off in India, primarily published in English, but also in Hindi, Bengali, etc. In Japan, as in China, one sees a long tradition of myth, religious writing (notably the mirai-ki, which presumes a reader in the future), oral narrative, fairy tale, and so on. Some scholars trace the arrival of speculative fiction, and particularly sf, in Japan to the 1860s and the Meiji dynasty’s commitment to modernization and technologization, coinciding with decreasing tolerance for homosexual practices in Japan (see McLelland & Dasgupta [2005]; Pflugfelder [2007]); others trace Japanese interest in mass cultural genres primarily to the post-WW II period and the influence of pulp magazines imported by American soldiers. Outside of a purely written tradition, however, one should also note the importance and prevalence of graphic and visual media in the forms of anime and manga, whose popularity has spread these Japanese narrative modes globally. Furthermore, both anime and manga include powerful queer and trans elements, from the gender transformations of Ranma in Ranma ½ to the depiction of men having sex with men in yaoi, a genre usually written by women for girls (McLelland, 2005, 2006).

Before moving on from the question of the history and dissemination of speculative fiction and the genres that fall under its umbrella, it is important to note that in the last decade or so, Indigenous speculative fiction has also exploded as a field. Not only are Indigenous writers publishing widely in sf, fantasy, horror, and the like, but also Indigenous authors already recognized as literary figures are turning to speculative fiction, as, for example, with award-winning novelist Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017), which riffs on Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. In Canada, many First Nations and Inuit writers, including Cherie Dimaline, Eden Robinson, Thomas King, Daniel Heath Justice, Drew Haydn Taylor, and Waubgeshig Rice, have taken up speculative fiction, whether fantasy, horror, sf, Gothic, cyberpunk, or magic realism, as a way to comment on the present and to imagine (generally dystopian) futures within the context of resistance and decolonization.

Justice’s Kynship trilogy (2005–2007) mixes the traditions of high fantasy with science fiction tropes and the history of the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears both to represent the horrors of colonization and to imagine how a different relationship to nature and the planet might be a powerful tool for decolonization. As a Two Spirit writer, Justice tackles issues of gender and sexuality throughout the trilogy, distinguishing between Indigenous practices and the constrained normativities of the colonizer. In 2020, Joshua Whitehead’s Love after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit & Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction (2020), the first major collection of its kind, won the Lambda Literary Award. Queer Indigenous speculative fiction takes up the non-normative focus of queer theory and uses it in the service of an anticolonial and decolonizing praxis.

Critical Investigations of Queer Speculative Fiction

In the critical literature of queerness and speculative fiction, it makes sense to begin where the research largely began: with working out what is actually there. As a result, some of the earliest critical work was about locating depictions of alternative sexualities, usually under the rubric of homosexuality, in specific genres. Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo’s comprehensive bibliography, Uranian Worlds: A Reader’s Guide to Alternate Sexuality in Science Fiction and Fantasy (1983, second edition in 1990), lists every work the authors could identify as having primarily characters who are homosexual, bisexual, or have some other form of alternative sexuality, as having an LGBTQ2SI author, or as taking on issues of gender and sexuality in non-normative ways.6 They also interpreted genre broadly. As the editors pointed out, in earlier works, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, authors often found alibis for their characters’ sexuality: lesbians became vampires, gay men became monsters, and so on. Nicholas Mirzoeff (1999) pointed out that the figure of the alien is a tremendously useful floating signifier “that takes on complex resonances of race, gender, and politics” (p. 191) and often stands in for a culture’s particular obsession, whether it be women, queers, or communists.

During the middle of the 20th century, publishers would allow openly LGBT characters so long as they came to sticky ends; the Hays Code in Hollywood censored any overt representation of alternative sexualities, yet it was never able to stop writers, directors, and actors from sneaking it in by using cultural codes and references recognizable to queer people, but not generally to the straight community. In 1957, the Wolfenden Report recommended the decriminalization of male homosexuality in the United Kingdom, yet even the revised Hays Code, as Larry Gross (2001) indicated, permitted depictions of homosexuals “only as long as they were unhappy” (p. 60).7

Garber and Paleo agreed with other critics of the period in identifying the sf writer Theodore Sturgeon as more or less single-handedly opening “the science-fiction field to explicitly gay images with the publication of ‘The World Well Lost’” (1983, p. x). Garber and Paleo concentrated on this short story (Sturgeon, 1965), which features an alien couple known on Earth as the “loverbirds” being extradited in the hope of favorable trade relations with their home planet, Dirbanu; one of the two-person crew of the ship returning them is a closeted gay man (named Grunty) secretly in love with his captain. Upon realizing that the loverbirds are a gay couple, Grunty sets them free in an escape pod. His homophobic captain assumes he did this to prevent the captain from getting into trouble for killing them, as would any truly manly man. However, the true twist in the story is the revelation that the Dirbanu are homophobes who assume all humans are gay because our sexes look far more similar than theirs do. Sturgeon’s work also focuses significantly on alternative genders and specifically on the deliberately self-manufactured transgender humans at the heart of the novel Venus Plus X.8 Samuel Delany has also called Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels “the most effective/satisfying story of transgender revenge I’ve ever read”.

Following the work of Garber and Paleo came Donald Palumbo’s two collections, Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature (1986b) and Eros in the Mind’s Eye: Sexuality and the Fantastic in Art and Film (1986a). Both collections took a largely essentialist view of sexuality and identity and neither has since been taken up much by scholars applying queer theory to speculative fiction. The 1990s was, of course, the efflorescence of queer theory, yet it was a relatively quiet period for considerations of sexuality in speculative fiction. Most of the critical emphasis at the time was on feminist approaches to speculative fiction in both literature and cinema, while work on the recent emergence of fictional explorations of alternate genders and sexualities tended to focus on gender more than on sexuality. This was the era in which serious critical focus was applied to writers like Joanna Russ, whose novel The Female Man (1975) brought both lesbian characters and a de facto lesbian world (because Whileaway has no men) to fascinated readers; Ursula K. Le Guin, whose The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) explored what life would be like for a cisgender human male alone on a planet of hermaphrodites; Samuel R. Delany, whose Triton (1976) presupposed future recognition of nine sexual orientations and 40–50 genders; Thomas Disch, whose 334 (1972) is set in a future housing project full of lesbian and gay residents; Suzie McKee Charnas, whose Motherlines has another all-female society; Anne Rice, whose Interview with the Vampire (1976) abounds with homoeroticism and has an alternative vampire family; Elizabeth Lynn, whose A Different Light (1978) depicts a male spacefarer in search of his same-sex lover; Vonda McIntyre, whose Dreamsnake (1978) shows the reader a gender egalitarian bisexual future world; and Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose Darkover series contains a coming-out story set among gay male aristocrats in Heritage of Hastur (1975).9

Toward the end of the millennium, feminist criticism that had focused primarily on the status of women in sf also started to include queer approaches to speculative writing and, to a lesser extent, film and television. Wendy Gay Pearson’s “Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer” and Veronica Hollinger’s “(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender” were both published by Science Fiction Studies in 1999 in a special section on sf and queer theory. Foundation published a special issue on LGBT sf in 2002, edited by Andrew M. Butler, with articles on a spectrum of lesbian, gay, and queer issues both in sf literature and in film and television. In 2008, Pearson et al. published Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction. One of the critical moves in that book was signaled in its title, which no longer designates queerness as “alternative.” Queer Universes takes up Sedgwick’s contention that the homo–hetero binary has so dominated Western culture that it is impossible to escape its influence, even as queer theory calls into question the ways in which the very idea of binary sexual orientation has been naturalized.

Lewis Call’s BDSM in American Science Fiction and Fantasy was published in 2012 and offers a long-overdue investigation of kinky sexualities in speculative fiction. The Sex Is Out of This World: Essays on the Carnal Side of Science Fiction, edited by Sherry Ginn, Michael Cornelis, and Donald Palumbo, also published in 2012, offered a mixed bag of essays (there are two on Octavia Butler, but nothing on Delany or Russ, among others) split between literature and other media (mostly television). Stephen Kenneally’s doctoral dissertation, “Queer Be Dragons: Mapping LGBT Fantasy Novels 1987–2000” (2016), provides a comprehensive overview of queer and trans fantasy in the late 20th century. Also in 2018, Alexis Lothian published Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility, which is the book most informed by queer theory in the last decade. In terms of fantasy and other areas of speculative fiction, there are few dedicated book-length studies. Notable among them are Paulina Palmer’s The Queer Uncanny: New Perspectives on the Gothic (2012) and The Lesbian Fantastic: A Critical Study of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal and Gothic Writings (2014) by Phyllis Betz. However, much of the work on queer fantasy focuses on it as either a young adult (YA) or children’s genre (see, for example, Abate & Kidd, 2011; Roberts & MacCallum-Stewart, 2016). Most work on queer horror focuses on film; the classic work in this area is probably Harry Benshoff’s Monsters in the Closet (1997). However, a recent special issue of Research on Diversity in Children’s Literature included three articles dealing with different aspects of YA speculative fiction, including one on YA horror. This reflects the fact that the bulk of the critical work in every aspect of queer speculative fiction lies in articles on specific authors/directors/artists, works, or themes.

Representing Queer(ly)

In terms of queer theory’s applicability to reading and understanding speculative fiction, it makes sense to start with one of the most basic issues: the question of representation. Since queer theory, despite the name, is not about LGBTQ2SI people, but rather about the discursive and social structures that shape our understanding of sexuality (including the fact that we understand the randomness and diversity of sex acts by humans as “sexuality”), the question of representation, while basic, is not simple. When we talk about queer representation, what are we talking about? Certainly, it’s the place scholarship on sexuality in speculative fiction began, with locating and to some extent categorizing works that do represent forms of homosexuality, bisexuality, or, relatedly, the lives of transgender people. However, we could also talk about queer theory’s applicability to representation of sexuality and gender in speculative fiction not in terms of how fictional works illustrate contemporary life for those who fit into these identity categories but rather in terms of how fiction takes up queer theory’s broader pertinency to systems of thought and their enactment in social structures and cultural practices. Thus, for example, some of the first works to apply queer theory to science fiction, such as Pearson’s “Alien Cryptographies,” were focused less on the representation of LGBTQ2SI people and more on the epistemological and ontological practices that make categories such as “gay” and “lesbian” meaningful, whether those cultural meanings are inclusive or whether they work to exclude LGBTQ2SI people from the category of the intelligibly human. One of the ways in which speculative fiction can interrogate and/or subvert sexual and gender epistemologies and their potentially exclusionary effects is by relocating them to different worlds, different futures, and even different species.

Let’s begin, however, with the representation of practices and identities that today fall under the LGBTQ2SI rubric. How does speculative fiction represent queer people and their interactions with their own and others’ cultures? Representation matters in part because of the way it moderates both widespread cultural responses and political decision-making. The current “debate” between transgender-positive people and those who oppose trans people (usually referred to by the acronym TERF, although the term’s use is not without its own opposition) is an excellent example.10 Trans people have traditionally been represented, particularly by Hollywood, as either deeply confused or evil. But trans people have often simply been excluded, even from misrepresentation; in many cultural forms, trans people either do not exist or are significantly underrepresented. As a result, it is relatively easy for anti-trans activists to spread misinformation, so long as it conforms to existing stereotypes, and to enact legislation that is intended to make trans life difficult, if not impossible.11

Judith Butler (2016) noted that life becomes unlivable when one’s existence is not culturally intelligible. “The epistemological capacity to apprehend a life is partially dependent on that life being produced according to norms that qualify it as a life or, indeed, as part of life” (p. 4). If one’s life or belonging as human is not recognized, that has material consequences that increase one’s experience of precarity and vulnerability to insult and harm. Indeed, Butler wrote that unrecognized lives are inherently ungrievable, as they are apprehensible neither epistemologically nor ontologically; this is readily understood in relation to the epidemic of murders of trans women of color in places like the United States and Brazil. In so far as trans people or queer people are unintelligible culturally, the material consequences on their possibilities for life are immense. Representation is one of the ways cultural intelligibility is created or denied. Nonrepresentation and misrepresentation both do harm.

Speculative fiction has a long history of representing queer people that is quite different from its history of tackling issues that are at the heart of queer theory (the cultural existence and nature, if any, of sexuality; the function of discourse in shaping our understanding of sex; the implications of Foucault’s ideas about biopower and power/knowledge; the need to resist multiple forms of normativity; the importance of an intersectional approach to gender and sexuality, especially in relation to race and indigeneity). Queer representation often rests on a series of assumptions about what matters (including the way in which both senses of “matter” inform theoretical work on bodies). Speculative fiction allows us to imagine times/spaces where queer and/or trans bodies matter, both in having their material existence recognized and made possible and in terms of their identities, philosophies, relationships, and desires being credited as meaningful. This is the space in which we locate the aporia between same-sex marriage as a mode of homonormative assimilationist politics (“We’re just like you”) and marriage equality as a symbolic dismantling of the cultural hierarchy that overvalues heterosexuality.12 Equality, despite its limitations, is a powerful force for recognition, particularly for those too often deemed not to be fully human.

Athwart the Human: Queering Discourses of Health and Disease

In the 1980s, with the advent of the AIDS crisis, questions of representation became very clearly linked to the questions of who counts as human, whose lives matter, and how queer people are represented, especially in popular media. Queer speculative fiction engaged with many aspects of the situation, from a resurgence of public homophobia resulting in calls for quarantine and even concentration camps, to subversive political action that resulted in the creation of organizations like ACT-Up and AIDS Action Now, to reflections on the ways in which community came together to care for the ill and dying. Geoff Ryman’s Was (1992) featured in one of its three narratives a gay B-movie actor dying of AIDS who becomes obsessed with finding Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz; Jonathan travels to Manhattan, Kansas (home of nuclear silos) where Dorothy lived (the novel depicts her as an abused child in a settler colonial world where the Indigenous peoples are being caused to vanish). Arriving in Manhattan, Jonathan mistakes DZ for OZ, believes he has found OZ Magic, and vanishes himself. The third narrative features a young Judy Garland. All three protagonists have to negotiate childhoods that are difficult in different ways, including Dorothy’s sexual abuse by her uncle and Judy’s family’s constant relocations as her closeted father’s relations with young men are repeatedly exposed. The novel focuses more on the difficulties of family life than on AIDS per se, but it does so in a cultural context in which HIV+ gay men were frequently abandoned by their birth families and were supported only by their chosen families. Ryman finished the novel with an afterword in which he said that it is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy and to “use them against each other.” Susan Knabe noted that,

As neither overtly political nor obviously elegiac, the two most common responses of mimetic fiction to the epidemic, the fantastic works to undo the certainties both of these mimetic responses entail (particularly with respect to appeals to identity), while at the same time recognising the historical, social and psychic truths that underwrite these responses. . . . [F]antastic writing about AIDS offers an important, even necessary, alternative to mimetic responses.

(Knabe, 2008, p. 216)

Knabe’s point resonates with much speculative fiction dealing with AIDS. Where mimetic responses have tended to offer a steady diet of tragedy (sometime tinged with implicit homophobia, as in the film Philadelphia, in which the gay lovers are so muted as to seem unbelievable), fantasy and speculative fiction generally offer alternative perspectives and even possibilities for reparative reading. Early speculative works dealing with AIDS include not only Was, but also Tony Kushner’s two-part play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1994), Gary Indiana’s Gone Tomorrow (1993), John Greyson’s AIDS musical Zero Patience (1993), in which the ghost of Patient Zero meets up with the historical figure of Sir Richard Burton, who has found the Fountain of Youth, Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man (1994) and “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” in his Nevèrÿon fantasy series (1985), Elizabeth Hand’s Glimmering (1997/2021), Peg Kerr’s The Wild Swans (1999), and Ryman’s The Child Garden (1989), which contemplates the nature of both disease and cure and the difficulties, in some cases, of distinguishing between them (Pearson, 2002). Speculative fiction can address, and has addressed, the issues of HIV/AIDS in very different ways, many of them involving the use of allegory, but also other, sometimes quite subtle, ways of imagining the relationships between AIDS as a disease, sexuality (and, obviously, homosexuality understood historically—mostly—as a disease in both medicine and psychiatry), and the contemporary world.

Changing Contexts: Queer Intersectionalities and Representation

One of the most powerful ways in which speculative fiction opens up space and time for queer representation lies in its ability to change the context. The producers of Star Trek were at one time notorious not only for their refusal to include an openly gay character (at a time when mimetic cinema and television were increasingly representing LGBTQI people in shows like Six Feet Under and Will and Grace), but also for their torqued rationale: homosexuality will not be an issue in the future, so we cannot represent it, because doing so would make it an issue.13 By contrast, much of the most powerful speculative fiction simply ignores the homosexuality-as-problem trope and instead constructs worlds in which people’s same-sex desires and other alternative sexualities are completely unremarkable. An interesting iteration of this occurs in Ursula Le Guin’s Tiptree Award-winning story “Mountain Ways” (1996/2002). Le Guin starts the story with an explanatory note:

Ki’O society is divided into two halves or moieties, called (for ancient religious reasons) the Morning and the Evening. You belong to your mother’s moiety, and you can’t have sex with anybody of your moiety.

Marriage on O is a foursome, the sedoretu—a man and a woman from the Morning moiety and a man and a woman from the Evening moiety. You’re expected to have sex with both your spouses of the other moiety, and not to have sex with your spouse of your own moiety. So each sedoretu has two expected heterosexual relationships, two expected homosexual relationships, and two forbidden heterosexual relationships.

(Le Guin, 1996/2002)

This is a radically different form of social organization that disrupts every heteronormative impulse of contemporary Western society. The power of taking supposedly alternative sexualities and forms of desire for granted is significant, in part because it allows readers minoritized in their everyday lives the momentary experience of being in a space where they would not be noticeably different nor have to worry about the negative reactions to supposedly “alternative” sexualities inherent in heteronormative approaches to the world.

Other speculative fiction works explore what would happen if anti-queer attitudes continued as a norm or, indeed, became worse. An example of this, written from a queer perspective, is River Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017), in which the intergenerational starship setting involves slavery, segregation, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Contemporary speculative fiction is far more aware of intersectional issues and less likely to depict future worlds, or fantastical ones, as primarily or entirely White. In fact, this has long been the case with some writers. Le Guin, whose protagonists are almost always people of color, notoriously disagreed with the producers of the televisual adaptation of her Earthsea novels (Earthsea, 2004) when they turned the protagonist, Ged, who is described in the novels as a slight youngster with brown skin, into a muscular blue-eyed blond hero.14 While this was an unusually overt case of whitewashing, it reflected a certain trend in viewer expectation, notable also in the number of complaints inspired by the casting of Rue, described in The Hunger Games as Black, with a Black actor (Holmes, 2012).

Fantasy and sf are not discrete classifications, which is why speculative fiction can be a useful term for work that moves across and between borders. Queer sf and fantasy has always been written and read by people of color and Indigenous peoples, just as it has—if discursively denied in parts of the sf world—by women.15 Such newer generic classifications as afrofuturism, a term coined by Mark Dery in 1994, bring the perspectives of people racialized in the Western world to the forefront. Afrofuturism is defined as “a way of imagining possible futures through a Black cultural lens” (Ingrid LaFleur, quoted in Womack, 2013, p. 9). Afrofuturism is a form peculiar to the African diaspora and refers to a specific aesthetic, rather than a specific medium. Thus, work like Beyoncé’s short film Lemonade (2016) is both feminist and afrofuturist, as are Janelle Monáe’s “emotion pictures,” such as the film that accompanied her Dirty Computer album (2018). The ways in which speculative fiction can foreground alienation, as an individual experience, a cultural manifestation, and a literary/dramatic technique, enables consideration of the past’s effects on the present and speculation about the future, important when one’s past may have been entirely shaped by one’s ancestors’ experience of the Middle Passage and subsequent enslavement and dehumanization. Although the term didn’t come into being until 1993, a fair number of extant works have since been collected under its aegis, notably work by African American sf writers like Octavia Butler—particularly in terms of Kindred (1979/2003), her time-travelling and remarkably queer exploration of the complicated relationships created by race-based slavery—Samuel R. Delany, Nancy Farmer, and Steven Barnes.16 Both the comic book and film versions of Black Panther are now considered afrofuturist, while Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man can be understood as a precursor to afrofuturism (Yaszek, 2005).

It is impossible to discuss issues of queer representation in speculative fiction, and the concomitant recognition of LGBTQ2SI-identified authors, particularly in the context of race, without mentioning the series of events happening in the sf and fantasy world about the question of representation. RaceFail was a conversation that happened, largely on Twitter, beginning in 2009, about the issue of “writing the Other.” The arguments spilled over onto such questions as cultural appropriation, which is a particular issue in fantasy, where some writers have taken the myths, legends, folk tales, and even religious texts of other races and cultures as the groundwork for their own fiction. Multiple Hugo Award-winning author N. K. Jemisin pointed out in a 2010 blogpost that the “fail” in RaceFail was not, as some White people seemed to think, that it happened at all. Indeed, Jemisin describes RaceFail as a good and necessary thing for the speculative fiction community since it forced people to look around them and see who was, and who was not, present in any given conversation. However, RaceFail was followed by the eruption of two largely White, largely patriarchal, and largely homophobic groups who insisted (and continue to insist) that women, queers, and people of color have ruined “their” genre. Both groups, the original Sad Puppies and the derivative, but more extreme, Rabid Puppies, attempted to game the Hugo Awards (based on fan votes) in order to promote the work of cisgender straight White men—the real speculative fiction writers according to them. Anna Oleszczuk has a good account of these events in “Sad and Rabid Puppies: Politicization of the Hugo Award Nomination Procedure” (2017). Nobody watching the conservative backlash against human rights gains and social acceptance of queer, trans, and racialized people in Western cultures (and elsewhere) can be surprised that these White supremacist and heterosexist ideologues should be violently opposed to the presence, and worse yet the success, of queer, trans, and racialized speculative fiction writers and their works. Representation is political, and the politics of representation also shape the potential for the future to be imagined in more or less inclusive ways, to broaden or to narrow the definition of “human” itself.

Won’t Anyone Think of the Children?

How does speculative fiction writing provide (or not) space and time for queerness in a world that still reads queerness as antireproductive by necessity and as lacking a future? In part because of these questions, queer theory has a particular interest in children, both real and symbolic. Informed by two decades of fighting HIV/AIDS and the social and political structures that permitted it to ravage gay male communities, Lee Edelman argued in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004) that reproductive futurism (the investment of a culture’s ideas and hopes for the future in the children, particularly the White cisgender male children, it produces) both valorizes and reinforces heteropatriarchy.17 The child (or “Child” in Edelman’s usage) remains entirely available for the discursive hegemony of reproductive heterosexuality. The Child, in this formulation, has become wholly symbolic of life in the West and has lost (largely due to medical and social improvements) the association with danger and potential death, for both mother and child. For Edelman, this future holds no space for queers and should be resisted, which Edelman argued involves rethinking our queer relationship both to futurity and to the death drive. Edelman’s interest in the Child as a symbol of the cultural and political status quo certainly resonates with the ways in which the figure of the child has been mobilized politically in the United States: obvious examples include Anita Bryant’s notorious homophobic “Save Our Children” campaign in the 1970s, which rolled back hard-fought human rights gains in places like Dade County, Florida, and the rhetorical use of the “innocent” child, largely figured as a big-eyed blonde White girl, whose life will be hopelessly, if inexplicably, damaged by marriage equality.18 At the same time, however, queer speculative fiction proposes many alternative ideas about reproduction, children, and the future. An obvious alternative is the recourse to technology, either by choice or necessity. Thus, Victor Frankenstein uses science and technology to create a new being who, in Victor’s fervid imagining, will experience deep gratitude for his creation. Victor’s vision of his creation’s future neatly replicates in many ways Mary Shelley’s labeling of the novel itself as her “hideous progeny” (Shelley, 1818, p. 284).

Fast forward to the late 20th century and we see reproduction addressed variously, but often queerly, in much speculative fiction. In P. D. James’s novel, The Children of Men (1992/2010), the mainstream cultural fear of losing the future that Edelman addressed comes to life in a world where women are simply unable to conceive, for reasons both unknown and untreatable. The most queer thing about the novel is the situation itself: a species that cannot reproduce is effectively queered. But James takes for granted the desirability of restarting human reproduction and her novel is largely an exploration of the psychological effects of despair that the human race is ending and hope that a sudden and singular pregnancy might augur its survival. The film adaptation directed by Alfonso Cuarón (2006) further queered the narrative by locating the future hope of the human race in the racialized, classed, and largely abjected body of a Black teenaged refugee.

By contrast, in Woman on the Edge of Time (2016), Marge Piercy took up feminist writer Shulamith Firestone’s argument in The Dialectic of Sex (1970) that gender equality is impossible while women bear the burden of reproduction. In Piercy’s utopian future Mattapoissett, gender equality has been achieved, binary heterosexuality has broken down, and fetuses are grown in artificial wombs so that no one person has to become pregnant and give birth. Instead, families of three adults (gender both unspecified and unimportant) take on the job of creating and then raising the new child. Piercy contrasted this future, with its high-tech reproductive process and environmentally sustainable lifestyle, with a glimpse of a dystopian world in which women are property used solely for sex, breeding, and male display. Piercy’s bottle-raised fetuses are not dissimilar to those in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), except that their reason for being is much queerer; in Huxley’s world, it is only about controlling fetal development to fit the future adults uncomplainingly into their social hierarchy, from ruler to elevator operator.

Queer forms of reproduction also mean queer forms of maternity and, as we see with Piercy, of family and kinship. In “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” Judith Butler (2002) took up the somewhat awkward relationship between marriage and kinship.19 In 2002, marriage equality had been achieved in only a very few countries, not including Canada and the United States. Butler specifically looked at both French and American arguments around marriage and kinship and noted that these battles produce a “contemporary predicament in which the state is sought for the recognition it might confer on same-sex couples and countered for the regulatory control on normative kinship that it continues to exercise” (p. 17). The idea of families of choice, as alternatives to unwelcoming biological families, continues to exercise considerable valence for many members of the LGBTQ2SI community. Speculative fiction provides space to imagine alternative forms of kinship and family. Not only does Frankenstein depict a potentially very queer family (a single father and his non-heterosexually-reproduced progeny), as does Novik with her closely bonded dragon/human pairing, but many other speculative fiction works imagine alternative forms of reproduction and kinship, almost always tied either to a vision of at least quasi-utopian alternatives or to a thoroughly dystopian vision of contemporary trends projected into fictional, often futuristic, spaces/times.

Brave New Worlds of Queer Kinship

Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl (1999) plays with cyberpunk and particularly Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) to create a dystopian corporate-controlled world in which female clones are used for slave labor; some of these slaves, called Sonias, escape their corporate owner and learn to reproduce parthenogenetically. The futuristic story is mirrored by a second narrative grounded in Chinese mythology in which the goddess Nu Wa, who creates humans, also opts to become human herself and falls in love with a seller of salt fish. The novel juggles two queer relationships, the one with Nu Wa in human form and the salt fish girl, and the near-future one with Miranda and her lover, Evie Xin, and ends with Miranda giving birth to a non-heterosexually-produced baby, who may or may not be the start of a “brave new world.” Salt Fish Girl (1999) is distinctly a generic blend, bringing together the literary qualities of magic realism with the use of myth and folk tale and with riffs on both literary and cinematic sf. The novel uses the freedoms of speculative fiction to consider queer reproduction and queer family in the context of decolonization, something that Lai’s more recent novel, The Tiger Flu (2018) continues. In contesting normative reproductive and kinship structures, speculative fiction not only provides space for queer potentialities, but also allows writers and readers alike to consider the relationship between heteronormativity, misogyny, racism, and colonialism.

Similarly, Hiromi Goto’s The Kappa Child (2001) described the most liminal of pregnancies: the kappa fetus talks directly to the reader, yet the pregnancy is both invisible and undetectable by modern medicine. The kappa is a genderless reptilian trickster figure from Japanese mythology and the nameless narrator conceives during a very equivocal encounter with a nippleless, belly-buttonless but otherwise apparently human stranger on the runway of Calgary airport during a lunar eclipse. Kappa like to wrestle humans, and the narrator and the stranger wrestle/have sex on the runway—the narrator is quite confused about what has happened. Unsurprisingly, a pregnancy resulting from an ambivalently sexual encounter with a mythical figure does not follow normal developmental models nor is the kappa ever actually born in any recognizable sense. Goto’s novel comments on both traditional and nontraditional family structures; the narrator’s family home and relationship with her mother and three sisters are dominated by her father’s abuse while the narrator finds family among her friends and lesbian lover. All of this consideration of reproduction and family is framed by the story’s generic references to sf and by the narrator’s childhood reading of Little House on the Prairie (1935) in her quest to understand how to negotiate life in the gender normative, heteronormative, and racially hostile world of the Prairies. The crux of the story is the narrator’s realization that Little House on the Prairie is a lie—it not only erases the Indigenous presence, but also whitewashes the hardship and poverty faced by many White settlers; it absolutely cannot function as a guidebook to Canadian Prairie life for a differently gendered child of Japanese descent trying to claim intelligibility in an uncomprehending world (Pearson, 2019).

A more recent exploration of queer possibilities to rethink reproduction and family occurred in Annalee Newitz’s (2017) novel, The Future of Another Timeline. Newitz described a world in which five ancient Machines allow time travel to the past. Time travelers can go back and “edit” the timeline to produce specific effects. The conflict in the novel circulates around attitudes toward gender and reproduction: one group, led by a fictional version of the real historical figure of Anthony Comstock (Postal Inspector and Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which campaigned against sex education, birth control, and abortion), is trying to produce a future in which men have total control over women and reproduction; the other group, who call themselves the Daughters of Harriet, are trying to edit the past so as to create a present in which all women have the vote, Harriet Tubman was able to become a U.S. senator, and abortion is legal. The novel presents the reader with a group of protagonists that includes at least one nonbinary person, a lesbian couple (one of whom is murdered by the Comstockers, until an edit reverses that particular version of history), and a strong emphasis on the value of friendship and close bonds between women/nonbinary people that may or may not be sexual.

Even before marriage equality triumphed in some nations, including the United States, many speculative fiction authors incorporated same-sex marriages into their fictions. In fantasy, this may take the form of royalty negotiating marriages between their eligible sons, to take one example, or it can take the form of Cinderella triumphing but abandoning the prince for something better than a royal marriage, as in Malinda Lo’s Ash (2009), in which Ash chooses the fairy huntress, Kaisa, over the prince. Diane Duane, in her trilogy The Tale of the Five (1979–1992), ended the third novel, Door into Sunset (1992), with the triumphant marriage of Prince Freelorn to both his long-standing male love, Herewiss, and their pregnant partner, Segnbora.20 Duane is clear that her Middle Kingdoms’ universe accepts marriages with multiple partners and that marriage may or may not include sexual relationships between the various individuals involved. In another of the earlier LGBT-focused fantasy trilogies, The Chronicles of Tornor (1975, 1979, 1980), Elizabeth Lynn explored same-sex relationships both in the context of the brutal patriarchal world of the Keeps and a gender egalitarian society that opposes it. The three novels have multiple same-sex relationships, both male and female (and, in one case, incestuous), none of which are remarked on as in any way out of the ordinary. Fantasy often naturalizes same-sex attraction, treating it as an ordinary part of a fantastical world, but it can also play with such tropes as the evil queer or transgender character.

In sf, same-sex attraction (and potentially marriage) is more commonly part of the background. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series (2015–2021), which is not only sf, but also space opera, depicts a future in which sexual relationships between people of the same or similar genders is completely normative, but so are sexual and romantic relationships with or between alien species, where physically possible.21 Chambers also reimagined sex work as a free and respected profession that some people choose; this is possible because her one mostly human society, formed by people who have chosen to remain on multigeneration ships that fled Earth centuries ago, is also a completely noncapitalist world in which everyone has the basic right to air, food, water, clothing, living quarters, medical care, etc. The scenario in the Wayfarer novels reverses the TANSTAAFL ideology of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966/1997), in which the triumph of free-market capitalism means that not even air is a human right.22 Furthermore, Heinlein’s very unqueer attempts to imagine new forms of kinship and relationship (such as “line marriages” in which husbands and wives alternate and heterosexuality reigns supreme) are genuinely queered by the multiple forms of kinship and sexual relationship in Chambers’ novels. In Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018), the sex worker is a man and the client a woman, setting contemporary discourses about sex work on their heads, albeit it is hard to know if one should label this prostitution, since, in a noncapitalist society, the transaction involves neither buying nor selling.

From a queer theoretical perspective, then, speculative fiction provides space/time to explore the very things queer theorists focus on, including critiques of reproductive heteronormativity, of the relationship between heterosexuality and the state sanction or control of kinship in all its forms, of the relationship between capitalism and sexuality (not only in sex work, but also in the financial coercion that has historically underwritten much heterosexual marriage), of the relationship between gender and sexuality that is perhaps summed up by the question of whether one can have homosexuality without a binary gender system, and, finally, of the possibilities for sexuality and the idea of sexual orientations in times/spaces that might have quite different sociocultural and political contexts—spaces that, in some cases, are not so much literally situated in, as made possible by, the very unknowability of the future.

Strange Matings: No Future or Cruising Utopia?

The very idea of the future has been a hotly contested debate within queer studies for some time. Lee Edelman’s No Future is widely cited, even by those who ignore its psychoanalytic framing, as setting out the case that queers should ignore or dismiss futurity since, according to Edelman, there is no way to separate political and sociocultural futurity from reproductive futurity. So long as children are posed as necessary to a future, any future, Edelman argued that heteropatriarchy remains inescapable. One might argue that this is an inevitable consequence of Edelman’s Lacanian leanings, since, for Lacan, the possession of the phallus is what guarantees symbolic meaning and thus the very existence of culture. Heteropatriarchy seems largely inescapable. Conversely, José Esteban Muñoz (2009) argued that queer theory is inherently utopian and thus inherently invested in futurity. Muñoz quoted Oscar Wilde’s maxim that “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at” (p. 1) to argue that queers do need a sense of futurity and, following Wilde, that humanity is constantly in search of a more utopian world. Muñoz summed up his project in Cruising Utopia by writing,

We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future (p. 1).

The concept of utopia as something one cruises (with all its connotative ramifications) is particularly useful for considering the potential of queer speculative fiction to imagine other times and places.23 Not all these necessarily engage with identity politics, an idea about which queer theory is deeply skeptical. Many do not assume an essential gender identity or an essential sexual orientation. But all imagine futures that, while necessarily informed by past and present, give queer writers and readers (and other seekers of queerer worlds) a more capacious room of their own than society normally allows or legitimates.

Queer theory has since the early 2000s developed a strong critique of what has come to be called “chronomormativity,” a term that summarizes the normative life path expected of humans, at least in contemporary capitalist cultures (Knabe & Pearson, 2013; Lothian, 2018). Chrononormativity tracks the life path from birth to school to (heterosexual) dating to graduation, job, marriage, children, a house with a white picket fence, and eventually grandchildren, old age, and death, a very stereotypical narrative. While the queering of familial and kinship relations that has taken place since the 1990s means that more LGBTQ2SI people may be living a homonormative version of this life path, it is not, by and large, one that is amenable to queerness. Queers have a strange—or perhaps estranged—relation to time. As and Katherine Bond Stockton (2009), among others, has pointed out, queer childhoods enact a very different relationship to time than do heterosexual ones. Stockton referred to this as “growing sideways” (p. 1), because of the nonlinear relationship to chrononormative time experienced by queer children and adolescents. Indeed, notions of queer time also take up, often satirically, the Freudian notion of arrested development. Consequently, ideas about time and about queer futurity thread through speculative fiction in manifold and often exciting ways. Even writers identified as straight find queerness all over the future.

For example, the editors of a collection on African American sf writer Octavia Butler chose her phrase “strange matings” for the title of their book (Holden & Shawl, 2013). Butler’s work is full of strange matings—between contemporary humans and ancient ones, between slave owners and slaves, between humans and aliens, many of them nonconsensual. Two examples of human/alien matings should suffice: in the much-fêted story “Bloodchild” (1984a), a human boy expects to be impregnated by a female Tlic, a giant insectoid alien species. Butler has said that she wished specifically to experiment with the notion of male pregnancy. She wrote the story at a time when pregnant trans men had not yet become news; instead, she looked at impregnating a biologically male body.24 While the concept of a human male implanted with the eggs of a female alien has been addressed primarily in terms of gender, it is also very queer—particularly in the way T’Gatoi trades on the boy, Gan’s, affection for her. On the one hand, this could be read as an attempt to ease the process for him; on the other hand, the contemporary context suggests a kind of grooming of a child by an exploitative adult (although the impregnation does not involve sex).

In the Xenogenesis trilogy (Butler, 2012b), the queerness of the human protagonists’ situation is indeed sexual, although again not directly identified as queer. Humans from a dying Earth are scooped up by the Oankali, aliens for whom genetic information is wealth, collected by blending species. In the process of pursuing their trade, the Oankali, who have three sexes, male, female, and Ooloi, offer humans help saving the planet—but the price is creating a new species of hybrid referred to as “constructs.” Lilith Ayapo, the protagonist of the first novel, Dawn (1987), is initially repulsed by both the tentacled bodies of the Oankali and the prospect of a “sexual” relationship with an Ooloi that is not immediately comprehensible in terms of binary human genders. While neither the short story nor the trilogy, like the time-travel novel Kindred, deals overtly with the idea of queerness, queerness permeates every aspect of these works and shapes the potential for futurity in the last Xenogenesis book, Imago (1989). Only through accepting the queer creation of a new hybrid species are humans enabled to save the Earth and have an actual future. Butler’s map of the world includes a potential utopia made possible by the creation of Oankali constructs. Alexis Lothian (2018) pointed out that “within most genealogies of queer studies, [queer] belongs to the histories and cultures of gay men’s sexual activity” (p. 130), yet much of the queerest work in speculative fiction comes from women and people of color, not all of them queer-identified. The work of writers like Octavia Butler opens up more generous spaces of queerness, even though many readers might not recognize how queer her works are.

Speculating (about) Futures: Queering the Chrononormative

Several subgenres of speculative and science fiction lend themselves to pondering questions of chrononormativity and forms of queer futurity that may not be dependent on reproduction. Time travel and alternative histories both question how humans apprehend and experience time and the ways in which forms of governmental and societal power exploit chrononormativity to keep people “on the straight and narrow.” Neither author not characters need to be queer for the queering of the chrononormative to be central to the narrative, as for example in Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (2013) and Jo Walton’s My Real Children (2014). Life after Life tells the story of Ursula Todd, who is born and dies immediately, is born and lives to childhood, is born and lives to adulthood, each time experiencing a different life and, for the baby, a different future. The cover blurb for the novel asks, “What if you could live your life again and again until you got it right?” Of course, this begs the question of what is “right.” For Ursula Todd, it seems to be reinventing herself until she finds herself in 1930, in a cafe in Munich, pointing a gun at Hitler and pulling the trigger. Yet this apparent denouement is not exactly the end, as the novel returns twice more to the moment of Ursula’s birth in 1910. Yet Hitler’s apparent death is precisely where the novel starts—before moving on (or back) to Ursula’s birth during a snowstorm and immediate death from asphyxiation, as the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck. In the final 1910 sequences, the doctor and midwife remain stuck in the snowstorm, yet Ursula lives because her mother has secreted surgical scissors in her night table and is able to cut the cord herself. “Practice makes perfect” (p. 568).

The recursive structure of the narrative effectively queers any notion of time as linear and of the life course as chrononormative; little could be less chrononormative than the constant repetition of birth and death that Ursula experiences throughout the novel—and of which she has very vague, fuzzy memories. Since she cannot be sure that she is changing history, Ursula finishes the last section in 1945 both rejoicing that this time her brother Ted has made it through the war, and uncomfortably, if not entirely consciously, aware of the precarity of any timeline. The novel is both deadly serious and remarkably funny, combining a meta-commentary on the author’s power to create, manipulate, and destroy with serious reflections on the state of English middle-class life through two world wars, particularly in relation to gender-based violence, the limitations placed on women, and her society’s normative expectations of how a woman’s life should unspool.

Atkinson is largely regarded as a literary writer, although her five Jackson Brodie novels are mysteries, which means that Life after Life received more critical attention than Jo Walton’s My Real Children (2014). In her review of Walton’s novel, science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones (2014) noted its similarities to both Life after Life and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), referring to all three as “high-concept modern fairytales.” Generically, Walton’s novel contains more science fictional references—in one of Patricia Cowan’s two pasts (the novel is framed by Patty’s attempt to handle her dementia while coping with remembering two distinct pasts—and two discrete families), humanity has a base on the Moon, suggesting a degree of futurity not present in Life after Life. My Real Children is also more obviously queer, because in one life, Tricia marries a bully named Mark and endures a horrible, impoverished heterosexual relationship, while in the other Pat meets the love of her life, Bee, and lives with her in Italy, as well as England, while pursuing a fulfilling career and raising their three children.

Normative time is queered both by the movement between the two life stories and sets of memories and by the fact that the less chrononormative life is the happy one. In some senses, both novels offer us not alternative histories, but alternative genealogies in which the bending of time creates multiple pasts. Linear history can make sense of neither novel; instead, what they produce are affective histories that embrace, rather than obscure, “the continuities, contacts, contradictions among past, present, and future” (Freeman, 2010, p. xx). Jack Halberstam (2005) made the point that “Queer time and space are useful frameworks in assessing political and cultural change in the late 20th and early 21st centuries (both what has changed and what must change)” (p. 4). This is apt in terms of both novels, each of which uses repeated changes to dominant history as a way of understanding gender, sexuality, family, kinship, and the complications of human relationships under different sociocultural regimes; even small changes may make visible the costs and damages of life with bullying men, for example. Patty’s life with Bee seems, by contrast, positively utopian—so much so that Jones was reminded of Luciente’s life in Mattapoissett in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), another anti-chrononormative novel in which the racialized protagonist travels to two very different futures and ends by making choices in the present intended to bring Mattapoisett into being and prevent a dystopian misogynist patriarchal world (something of a precursor to the world of the Comstockers in Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline).

Repairing the Past: Reading to Transverse the Human

Nisi Shawl’s (2016) novel Everfair narrates a complex, richly populated, alternative past set largely in the Congo while King Leopold II of Belgium is attempting to gain control of the land, its resources, and its peoples.25 Its history begins to diverge from ours at the moment when, instead of putting its money into founding the London School of Economics, the Fabian Society in the United Kingdom instead opts to use its wealth to purchase land from Leopold in order to house Congolese refugees. Amin El-Mohtar (2016) usefully noted that,

The cast of characters is beautifully diverse in terms of faith, ability, ethnicities, sexual orientation and nationalities, making the web of relationships intricate and fraught; Shawl is brilliant at showing where the various ideals, motivations and desires for Everfair as a utopian experiment bump up against each other. From wealthy White families whose free attitudes towards sexuality and plural marriage compromise their return to England, to light-skinned characters deciding not to pass, to queer characters struggling to understand each other across racial lines, to Indigenous characters coming to terms with their new prosthetics, the depth and breadth of experience represented in a richly imagined setting is a huge achievement.

Because Everfair is so crammed with both character and incident, it is difficult to summarize succinctly. Important from the perspective of queer theory are the multiple ways in which Everfair queers its characters, its situation, its relationship to history, and even its genre. An offshoot of cyberpunk, Everfair falls squarely within the conventions of steampunk, a genre that, as El-Mohtar pointed out, is often “sepia-toned, gear-ridden, and frustratingly nostalgic toward empire and colonialism.” Everfair might be gear-ridden, but it is anything but sepia-toned, and it has neither nostalgia nor tolerance for empire and colonialism. Like much other Afrofuturist work, Everfair reimagines the past in order to make space for racialized, and particularly for Black, people in a future from which they have often been excluded. That it does so in the queerest of contexts and while debunking both colonial history and chrononormativity only makes it a more powerful critique of the ways in which colonialism has mobilized racism, misogyny, and homophobia together on behalf of its White supremacist goals. In this case, however, Shawl also directly took on the need to represent racialized queer people in the past (and, by projection, in the future). Her characters are often pansexual, polyamorous, and disinclined, in some cases, to obey the conventions of normative gender any more than they obey those of normative sexuality. Everfair is a useful work with which to end this article because it pulls together so many of the topics queer theory itself addresses and does so in ways that allow queer and racialized readers the option of reading (or perhaps re-reading) the past reparatively. As Sedgwick herself pointed out, there is both power and relief in realizing that the past could have happened differently. Understanding that one does not have to paranoidly refuse the potential pain of hope (because it is so easily disappointed) allows the reader to rethink the relationship between past and present and to consider the ways in which queerness has the potential to torque humanity into more inclusive and more generous modes of life.

Conclusion

This article examines the ways in which queer theory provides insights into speculative fiction, both as a category of genres that can be queer/ed and as a reading practice that can look at queer, nonqueer, and even antiqueer work with an eye to understanding how these works question, subvert, or simply reproduce normative epistemologies of sexuality and gender. That these normativities cannot themselves be separated from further questions of race, Indigeneity, and anticolonialism is amply demonstrated in the many ways in which queer racialized people have taken up speculative fiction genres to think about the inclusions and exclusions that variably define them as fully human, partially human, or not human at all. Queer theory allows insight into questions of how sexuality (and the people it categorizes as outside the sexual norm) can be represented in speculative fiction. It allows us to interrogate normative ideas of intimacy and kinship and to contemplate alternative understandings and potential practices of reproduction. It demonstrates the ways in which “human” itself is a limited definition that may ignore or deny the sentience and affective capacities of nonhumans, including terrestrial animals and the aliens we may someday meet. And, finally, it questions the ways in which chrononormative approaches to time limit our ability to imagine alternative life courses that may be infinitely queerer than cultural stereotypes suggest. In the end, however, just as the definition of speculative fiction is itself largely up to the reader, the queerness of speculative fiction will inevitably be understood differently by different readers. For those who read reparatively, or wish to do so, queer speculative fiction opens up possibilities of hope; it may even bring the horizon of queerness closer, leading to the potentiality of at least imagining a queer utopia athwart the very unqueer dailyness of contemporary culture and politics. The possibilities are endlessly queer.

Further Reading

  • Balay, A. (2012). “Incloseto Putbacko”: Queerness in adolescent fantasy fiction. The Journal of Popular Culture, 45(5), 923–942.
  • Benshoff, H. M., & Griffin, S. (Eds.). (2004). Queer cinema: The film reader. Psychology Press.
  • Bradley, M. Z. (1975). The heritage of Hastur. DAW Books.
  • Butler, A. M. (2002). Proto-sf/proto-queer: The strange cases of Dr Frankenstein and Mr Hyde. Foundation, 86, 7–16.
  • Butler, A. M. (Ed.). (2002). Special issue: Gay and Lesbian science fiction. Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, 86, 1–118.
  • Butler, A. M. (2016). Strange boys, queer boys: Gay representations in young adult fantastic fiction. In J. Roberts & E. MacCallum-Stewart (Eds.), Gender and sexuality in contemporary popular fantasy (pp. 53–67). Routledge.
  • Clay, D., & Brusuelas, J. H. (2021). Lucian, true history: Introduction, text, translation, and commentary. Oxford University Press.
  • Collins, S. (2011). The hunger games trilogy. Scholastic Australia.
  • Delany, S. R. (1985). Flight from Nevèrÿon. Bantam.
  • Delany, S. R., Gregory, S., & McCaffery, L. (1987). The semiology of silence. Science Fiction Studies, 14(2), 134–164.
  • Elliott-Smith, D. (2016). Queer horror film and television: Sexuality and masculinity at the margins. Bloomsbury.
  • Evans, R. (2017). Fantastic futures? Cli-fi, climate justice, and queer futurity. Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, 4(2–3), 94–110.
  • Faucheux, A. H. (2017). Race and sexuality in Nalo Hopkinson’s oeuvre; Or, queer Afrofuturism. Science Fiction Studies, 44(3), 563–580.
  • Foster, B. R. (Ed.). (2001). The epic of Gilgamesh (B. R. Foster, Trans.). W. W. Norton.
  • Grantham, M. (2015). The transhuman antihero: Paradoxical protagonists of speculative fiction from Mary Shelley to Richard Morgan. McFarland.
  • Haggerty, G. E. (2006). Queer Gothic. University of Illinois Press.
  • Justice, D. H. (2011). The way of thorn and thunder: The kynship chronicles. UNM Press.
  • Keeling, K. (2019). Queer times, black futures. NYU Press.
  • Keneally, S. (2016). Queer be dragons: Mapping LGBT fantasy novels [Doctoral dissertation, University of Dublin, Trinity College].
  • Kim, M. (2017). Afrofuturism, science fiction, and the reinvention of African American culture. Arizona State University.
  • Le Guin, U. K. (2010). The birthday of the world and other stories. Hachette UK.
  • Le Guin, U. K. (2012). A wizard of Earthsea. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Murchison, G. (2018). Let’s flip it! Quare emancipations: Black queer traditions, Afrofuturisms, Janelle Monáe to Labelle. Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture, 22, 79–90.
  • Novik, N. (2006). His majesty’s dragon: A novel of Temeraire (Vol. 1). Del Rey.
  • Pascual, M. C. (2021). The Tiger Flu: A critical posthumanist response to the illusion of transhumanism. Hélice, 7(1), 99–110.
  • Pearson, W. G. (2003). Queer theory. In E. James & F. Mendlesohn (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to science fiction (pp. 55–68). Cambridge University Press.
  • Pearson, W. G. (2008). Towards a queer genealogy of sf. Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction, 37, 72.
  • Reid, R. A. (2009). Thrusts in the dark: Slashers’ queer practices. Extrapolation, 50(3), 463–483.
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  • Wisker, G. (2017). Devouring desires: Lesbian Gothic horror. In W. Hughes & A. Smith (Eds.), Queering the Gothic (pp. 123–141). Manchester University Press.

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Notes

  • 1. General practice in the world of science fiction criticism is to use the acronym “sf” (lowercase). Oziewicz provided a quite extensive list: “In this latter sense, speculative fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the Gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales, and more” (“Speculative Fiction”; online, March 29, 2017).

  • 2. Oziewicz also took up the idea of the “fuzzy set”: “First applied to genre studies by Brian Attebery, a fuzzy set is a category defined not by clear boundaries but by resemblance to prototypical examples and degrees of membership: from being exactly like to being somewhat or marginally like. Likewise, speculative fiction in its most recent understanding is a fuzzy set supercategory that houses all non-mimetic genres—genres that in one way or another depart from imitating consensus reality.” (“Speculative Fiction”; online, March 29, 2017).

  • 3. Although the kind of literary criticism that understands literature as about the hero’s journey tends to use hero very much in a masculinely gendered way, it is used here as a gender-neutral term with a little more weight than protagonist.

  • 4. There are many acronyms working as umbrella terms for people with non-normative genders and sexualities; this one was chosen for its inclusion of Two Spirit and intersex people. LGBT and LGBTQ are more common variants.

  • 5. Sedgwick contrasted “reparative reading”—reading for the dangers and possibilities of hope—to the more common academic practice of “paranoid reading”—reading to reveal what concepts and ideologies underlie specific texts. The latter practice is deconstructive and often revealing, although Sedgwick noted that what is revealed may not be much of a revelation. See “Paranoid reading and reparative reading, or, You’re so paranoid, you probably think this introduction is about you” (1997).

  • 6. Uranian Worlds is the only print bibliography of queer speculative fiction. There have since been several online bibliographies of alternative sexualities in sf; currently the main one is Wikipedia’s less than comprehensive list of “LGBT-themed speculative fiction,” while Feministspeculativefiction.org also maintains lists of both fiction and nonfiction (criticism).

  • 7. Lesbianism was never criminalized in the United Kingdom; when a motion to include it was bruited in 1921, Members of Parliament concluded that it was safer not to criminalize it, since doing so would publicize its existence (and presumably women would flock to it by the thousands). See, for example, Caroline Derry’s “Lesbianism and feminist legislation in 1921: The age of consent and ‘gross indecency between women’” (2018).

  • 8. For more on the depiction of transgender people in Venus Plus X, see Pearson’s “Sexuality and the Hermaphrodite in Science Fiction, or, the Revenge of Herculine Barbin” (2002).

  • 9. Bradley’s work has never attracted much critical attraction and critics have been ambivalent about how to address her work since her children, Mark and Moira Bradley, spoke out in 2014 about sexual abuse by both their parents and about their mother’s facilitation of their father’s pedophilia.

  • 10. “TERF” stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.” While this is, on the face of it, merely descriptive, many of the people it describes have labeled it a slur and are attempting to rebrand themselves as “gender critical feminists.” The name does not alter their focus on denying the existence and rights of trans people.

  • 11. For example, one could question whether it is accidental that the timing of J. K. Rowling’s now notorious pronouncements about trans women coincided with the passage of a bill in the United Kingdom in 2020 (and overturned by court ruling in 2021) restricting access to puberty blockers to people 16 and over, thus rendering these agents pointless. To make clear how pervasive legal assaults on LGBTQ2SI people are, one need only note that between January 1 and March 20, 2022, some 240 anti-LGBT laws were tabled across the USA, bringing to 670 the total of proposed anti-LGBT laws proposed since 2018 (Lavietes & Ramos, 2022).

  • 12. Notably, the Canadian LGBT rights organization EGALE waited for the symbolic recognition premised by marriage equality before starting a campaign to help queer youth and to end bullying.

  • 13. The issue of queering Star Trek is addressed in Pearson’s Alien Cryptographies; much has changed since 1999, but it took until the 2017 season of Star Trek: Discovery for openly gay characters to appear on the show.

  • 14. See Le Guin’s “A Whitewashed Earthsea” in Slate.

  • 15. For a good account of attempts to erase women’s presence in sf as authors, illustrators, readers, and fans, see particularly Justine Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (2002).

  • 16. For a discussion of the queerness of Kindred, see Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson’s “Queer Kinship and Cruel Optimism in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.”

  • 17. The initial identification of AIDS with the “Four Hs” produced stigmatization of three groups (homosexuals, heroin drug users, and Haitians—standing in for racialized people generally); only hemophiliacs were discursively constructed as “innocent” victims of the virus. The very idea of “risk groups” was debunked early in the AIDS crisis.

  • 18. The term marriage equality is preferable to the terms same-sex marriage and gay marriage because both of the latter sound like they’re alternate and possibly unequal forms of marriage. Nobody talks about “heterosexual marriage” outside of the political debate over marriage equality. The same symbolic use of the figure of the child occurs in other places, notably the fight in Ontario against a revised sex education curriculum that would have taught children that LGBT people exist and that gender is a complex thing experienced differently by different people, as well as by different cultures. Lauren Berlant also discussed the political uses of the symbolic, but definitely not real, child in Queen of America Goes to Washington City (p. 20), although Berlant sees this occurring primarily through the depiction of a slightly multiracial girl, as opposed to a White boy. Either way, the “innocence” of the child, which must be preserved at all costs, serves to torque politics in ways that do not serve minoritized peoples.

  • 19. Butler’s argument in this article has been taken up by many other queer scholars in a variety of fields. David Eng, for example, considers queer kinship in the context of liberalism and racialization in The feeling of kinship: Queer liberalism and the racialization of intimacy (2010), while Harlan Weaver extends the kinship question beyond the human species in “Pit bull promises: Inhuman intimacies and queer kinships in an animal shelter” (2015).

  • 20. A fourth novel, Door into Starlight, remains unpublished.

  • 21. In Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords (1993), the male protagonist, Nick, makes the point that his relationship with a male alien should not be called “homosexuality” but “homeosexuality” since they are like (“homeo”) not the same (“homo”).

  • 22. Heinlein’s acronym stands for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

  • 23. To be clear, in gay parlance “cruising” refers to the practice of looking for sex in public areas, such as parks and public washrooms.

  • 24. From a trans perspective, the phrase “biological sex” is always fraught; indeed, science is increasingly less certain that there are clear-cut distinctions between “biological” sexes. See, for example, Simón(e) D Sun’s “Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia” in Scientific American (June 13, 2019).

  • 25. Shawl is an African-American writer who identifies as genderfluid.