How can a story about a perfectly ordinary day in our present world, with no untoward or strange happenings, be sci-fi? Ryka Aoki answers that powerfully in her short story “The Gift.” A young trans girl comes out to her parents, and everything is fine; she comes out to her church, and everything’s fine; she comes out to her school, and everything’s fine. She is surrounded by people who love and support her through her transition with hardly an abusive or even unkind word in response. This is speculative fiction for transgender people, Aoki seems to say. A banal world is in the realm of fantasy for us.
“The Gift” appears in Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers, the latest offering from Topside Press, which specializes in publishing the work of (mostly white) trans writers. This imbalance has been somewhat corrected with this collection’s impressive array of trans authors. M. Téllez’s story “Heat Death of Western Human Arrogance,” about a reptilian alien from Mars and their human girlfriend, is a masterpiece. It’s a challenging parable about how the good intentions of white liberals can dehumanize or even destroy those they seek to ‘save.’ As Inri, the story’s main character says, “there is nothing on Mars that is as aggressive,” as the “good intent” of white liberals.
Each story is a window into a vision of transgender life that doesn’t focus on the narrow range of issues cis audiences are presumed to care about. “The Gift” doesn’t linger on lurid aspects of transition—no pornography is made of its lead character donning makeup or getting surgery; these things are mentioned, but they are not the focus. Her character is. That shift in accents and emphases defines this anthology. The stories are for a transgender audience. All are welcome, but the stories were not made to cater to cis assumptions or anxieties.
There’s all manner of internecine drama that plays out on these pages, and it’s a guilty pleasure to read satire of transgender punk communities or the sometimes strange and isolated world of trans people in the tech industry. In Imogen Binnie’s “Gamers” for instance, the lead characters sniff about the “deeply unsatisfying text adventure game[s] from the avant garde of Trans Women and Games.” M. Téllez’s “Heat Death” uses a cyborg future to expose the shallowness of individualism. Jeanne Thornton’s “Angels Are Here to Help You” is a magisterial sci-fi epic that examines its protagonist’s tormented relationship with a trans woman in tech, whose easy confidence and ability to change her body is tied directly to her economic privilege.
Thornton’s “Angels” is a brilliant coda that seems to express Plett and Fitzpatrick’s vision for the book. Meanwhile Elsewhere is rich in sci-fi detail and worldbuilding, but also expresses its trans perspective without shame or fear. It’s not just a world where warp drive comes in deeply unsatisfying Ikea flatpacks you can build at home, or the hot new drug takes you into “Vegspace,” or where alien sea otters communicate through “nervous system ports in their butts.” It’s a world that serves as a brilliant backdrop to one trans woman’s depression.
The stories in this collection do many things. They not only provide an unapologetically trans perspective on a genre that has inspired so many of us, but do so at a time we urgently need to hear it. In an age when legislative attacks are renewing with a ferocious vengeance, we need to hold tightly to Aoki’s speculative vision. But sci-fi has never been purely escapist: It’s a mirror for our world. Like Tarot cards, the images that flash by are otherworldly, but still deeply connected to our own and use magic to illuminate the mundane.
Like the best sci-fi, these stories challenge the visions of the future promulgated by people not thinking carefully enough about it. This is an anthology about otter butts and individualism; videogames and death; alternate realities and our own less-than-stellar dimension; gentrification and gender mutation. The book itself is cleverly designed spec-fic; the blurb on its back cover advertises it as “The #1 post-reality generation device approved for home use!” and enjoins you to “experience post-reality as a transgender human!”
I recommend you do as the mysterious book says.