It’s been a helter-skelter year for sci-fi and geekdom. From the yearlong GamerGate harassment campaign to the so-called Sad Puppies movement—which sought to game the Hugo Awards by ballot-stuffing in support of “traditional” and “anti–social justice warrior” science-fiction works—there’s been a powerful backlash against the increasingly vocal and independent presence of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color in geek culture.
And yet as febrile as this moment in the world of science and speculative fiction feels, it’s also a fertile one—a fact emphasized by speaking to authors Casey Plett and Cat Fitzpatrick, who are editing a speculative-fiction anthology by trans writers, to be published by Topside Press in 2016 (submit now—the deadline is December 1, 2015).
Plett is the Lambda Award–winning author of the short-story collection A Safe Girl to Love, and Fitzpatrick is both a poet and the poetry editor at Topside Press, which has distinguished itself by providing a prominent platform for transgender writers, mostly trans women, to tell stories in their own voices. Together, Plett and Fitzpatrick hope the as-yet-unnamed anthology will probe the outer limits of sci-fi and fantasy.
I sat down with the authors for a dialogue about the anthology and its cultural moment. We discussed what the book means to them, what “speculative fiction” actually is, and why the medium presents new and unique opportunities for trans storytellers.
KATHERINE CROSS: Why a speculative-fiction anthology and why now?
CAT FITZPATRICK: Sci-fi and spec-fic really get to the heart of political questions. If you’re someone whose existence is deemed impossible, or someone who is given an unacceptable frame for their existence (which I think is the experience of most or basically all trans people), then sci-fi can ask, what if there was a world in which we could exist?
My interest in speculative fiction was sparked by feminist speculative fiction from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Some of it is just great—Octavia Butler is pretty perfect—but a lot of it, like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, exploits the inherent political potential of speculative fiction in ways that are very exclusionary toward trans women and trans people generally. There’s a very specific political history of sci-fi, and there’s so much there that speaks to me, and yet I don’t find myself represented.
Why now? Well, a lot of trans women are big fucking nerds—so are a lot of trans guys and nonbinary folks. We grew up in a world that didn’t accommodate us and we really wanted to escape it to find something else. That “something else” made no space for us either, but it still seemed to hold a little bit more potential than what we had. Now we’re at this point where we as trans women are starting to have confidence and can say, “We can claim these things”—like speculative fiction.
CASEY PLETT: The last few years we’ve been very lucky—there’s been a vast movement in trans culture to say, “We want to make art which is realistic and reflects our lives in a straightforward fashion.” Imogen Binnie’s novel Nevada or the publications of Biyuti Publishing attest to this. And yet, what Cat said about so many of us seeking art that escapes what is real—and how that’s a function of dealing with a world that doesn’t want us to exist, that doesn’t believe that we exist—then spec-fic is the next interesting thing for trans fiction. I think it’s a very natural progression.
CF: I mean, who needs to imagine a different world? Us, definitely.
Casey, I wanted to ask you specifically about your interest in this and what drew you to putting together an anthology. Cat has a long history with spec-fic, whereas you come out of a different set of interests. What brought you to this project and what are you hoping to bring to it?
CP: I come out of a realist fiction background and am mostly interested in the emotional aspects of fiction, particularly in how characters react to each other and the world around them, which isn’t different in speculative fiction. Cat and [Topside Press publisher] Tom Léger asked me to come on board pretty much for that reason.
That being said, I read a lot of spec-fic when I was younger, and it really excited me when I was in a different, lonely, more isolated place in my life, and so it’s a very cool thing to be involved in again, coming from the very different place that I’m in now.
CF: If I can chime in, the reason why I, as a publisher rather than as a friend, wanted Casey involved is that many trans women are interested in spec-fic and in world building [the construction of a fantasy environment and setting] in particular. As an editor, I could critique your world building because of this and that inconsistency. But we want this to be about all different kinds of people, and Casey as an editor is someone who can say, “Here’s how to take this story and make it really communicate the things you’re trying to say about humans.”
What do you believe the umbrella term “speculative fiction” does that “science fiction” by itself cannot?
CF: I have a personal answer and an intellectual answer. The personal answer is that at heart, I’m more a fantasy girl than a sci-fi girl, because I’m interested in the past whereas sci-fi is interested in the future. My favorite fantasy books are by T.H. White, Hope Mirrlees, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susanna Clarke, sort of the British fantasy tradition of reimagining the English past in perhaps critical ways. As a kid who grew up in England with an Irish immigrant family, those stories that investigated and troubled Englishness were very interesting to me.
The intellectual answer is that science fiction, as a term, doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Speculative fiction asks, “What would it be like if things were different?” whereas “science” makes more truthful claims: “We know how things are.”
CP: My favorite reaction to [Topside Press’s 2012 fiction anthology] The Collection, which moved me deeply, was when Annie Danger, a trans woman performance artist, said people should read the book because it’s a snapshot of what 28 trans people are thinking about. She said, “When do we hear what trans people are thinking about? All we ever hear about is what trans people are.”
The powerful thing about fiction—what makes it more powerful than nonfiction, always—is that it asks what an author is thinking about in the middle of the night when they could be thinking or talking about literally anything else, and this is what’s on their mind. Spec-fic for me unlocks that more than anything.
When it comes to trans people, who are shut out of culture and society in so many ways, where are their minds going? That’s what fascinates me. And I don’t think it’s opposed to realism, where we’re talking about what exactly our lives are like, but there’s this other side of that coin: Because this world hurts us and rejects us, our minds go somewhere else.
Cat, you mentioned the sometimes exclusionary traditions in feminist sci-fi, which made me think of Joanna Russ’s pathbreaking The Female Man, which is a brilliant piece of fiction but also quite transmisogynist in parts. My impression of reading through sci-fi’s historical tradition has been that some books do better with representing trans characters than others. Kim Stanley Robinson’s books actually do a decent job in thinking through gender variance—not perfect, but certainly better than casting us as the ultimate villains—yet we’re still largely an absence in the literature. Even in more positive portrayals, we tend to be in the background as sci-fi weirdness and flavoring.
CF: Right! I had this fantasy when I was like 16 that Ursula K. Le Guin was trans. I read The Left Hand of Darkness and I thought, “Maybe she’s trans!” I did all this research trying to prove she was, only to admit, “Oh shit she isn’t.” But I wanted that representation so badly.
[Laughs] Yes, likewise.
CP: I’ve been thinking about something you wrote years ago, Katherine, which really influenced my own fiction writing: your essay about women as immoral and villainous people in fiction [that discussed] why we need more, well, immoral villainous women! There’s been this odd change where trans people have switched from being these immoral, one-dimensional villains to being these virtuous, die-on-the cross, also one-dimensional, heroes, which I wrote about in an article, “Rise of the Gender Novel,” for The Walrus. But how interesting would it be to have a trans person not just as a villain in one of these stories, but as a villain who is interesting, three-dimensional, and compelling. We have interesting, three-dimensional villains; they are all over the place.
CF: Yeah, like Satan in Paradise Lost. Side note: Satan was a trans lady, that is my belief. Also: Milton is spec-fic, by the way. So is Gulliver’s Travels, so is Utopia, so is fucking half the white, straight, literary canon before about 1950.
On that note, what are your thoughts on the controversy around the Sad Puppies, the group who tried to rig the reader-voted Hugo Awards to favor “traditional” sci-fi works. It was clearly a powerful, angry, and organized reaction against the steady diversification of storytelling in sci-fi and spec-fic. What exactly is happening to this genre that’s so explosive and dangerous?
CP: White straight cis men are getting very upset because they feel they’re losing something when a more diverse set of stories is represented. On the one hand, they don’t have to worry—the share of representation of white straight cis male characters in sci-fi is maybe dropping from 98 percent to 95. But on the other hand, they’re right—they are losing some measure of dominance, and they should lose this. And I think acknowledging that challenges a fluffy teddy-bear idea of what an ally is—the idea that no one is going to lose anything. Being an ally requires giving shit up, which is what these people are not prepared to do.
CF: I think the throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-pram thing totally describes Brad Torgersen [sci-fi author and ringleader of the Sad Puppies]. I think Vox Day [another author, who organized an extreme offshoot of the Sad Puppies called the Rabid Puppies] is altogether a more sinister person, with really far-right politics and a desire to upset people to get attention. He’s a serious reactionary, traditionalist, religious, pseudofascist type—he even called leading spec-fic writer N.K. Jemisin an “uneducated half-savage” because she’s Black. And I think he saw Torgersen’s toy-throwing and said, “Here is a tool I can use to hurt people.”
I do fear that the way the story has been reported makes it seem as if spec-fic is going through growing pains that literary fiction outgrew long ago, as if lit-fic is more mature than spec-fic or sci-fi. Yet lit-fic has these same problems [with diversity and bigotry] and actually deals with them in a much less effective way. Part of it is that spec-fic is always concerned with community—you always have to invent the world from scratch, which entails obviously political choices. Traditional lit-fic straight white authors can say, “I’m just writing how the world is,” and even believe it, but if you’re a sci-fi writer who wants every book to be like Heinlein, you can’t escape the fact that you’re making this up, that your choice as a writer is meaningful and political.
CP: I think this stuff does get talked about in lit-fic—the VIDA Count revealed just how male the writing published by prestigious magazines was. That caused a big scandal. But it was still limited to writers. People in my mfa knew, but I think if you asked a person in a bookstore’s fiction section about the VIDA Count, they would have no idea what it was, whereas someone in the sci-fi section would probably know about Puppygate.
CF: Totally. On one hand, that relative openness laid them open to the whole Puppy thing, but on the other hand, it has meant much more engagement with the debate. And in the end the Puppies were voted down in the actual awards, even if that meant not awarding some categories. Which was kind of amazing. And it opened up a really important conversation and brought a lot of people together around it. I’m actually kind of happy about how the spec-fic or sci-fi community as a whole has handled this thing.
CP: I have a friend who said, “When stuff like this happens, it means you’re winning,” and I think they might be right in this case. It also opens up that question, “Who is focused on awards, and why?” I know awards can help sales, and it’s nice to be recognized, but I think it’s interesting these straight white cis guys are so focused on prestige. Whereas our feelings as editors about recognition are, “It’s nice, but it’s a byproduct.” We’re not interested in this writing being prestigious, we’re interested in it being interesting, first of all, to a trans audience—we want to be accountable to them.
Cat, you’ve said in the past that poetry worked as a coded language to express the unsayable, but I wonder if in some ways spec-fic works in much the same way, an elaborate language that is allowed to tell truths in a coded way, which softens the truth but also makes it more powerful, because it can sneak it through people’s defenses. By its very nature, spec-fic takes winding and circuitous paths to then come back around to a whole new truth.
CF: One of the things imagination allows you to do is engage with the limits of the language that you have available, and spec-fic allows you to push those boundaries even more. All you ever have to work toward a better language is the shitty language you already have. And I feel like the impulse of speculative fiction is to move beyond what you have, as you say, by winding and circuitous paths, by telling these weird stories that then turn out to have this pulling effect on reality.
CP: I feel like one of the things fiction has great power to do is give me a relentless rush of reality in a way that doesn’t compromise that reality but lets me deal with it. And I mean, what better medium, what better form, to do that than speculative fiction? There’s so much power there.
Any closing thoughts?
CF: The people we want to hear from most are the people who think this is not for them, who think we would never give their writing a second look, who think we’re not interested in people like them. If you think “no one will ever publish me,” please send us your work.
Also, we’re these two white middle-class trans ladies, who do occupy this certain position of privilege (even though we’re also trans ladies, so kinda fucked, too), but we are really open to hearing stuff that will knock us off our perches.
CP: We’re looking for pieces that will disrupt us and make us feel weird and fuck us up. If you think your work doesn’t fit any lofty expectations, that's okay, too. We want to hear about trans elves and swords.
CF: Right, don’t concede to respectability. We want your dirty fan-fic about trans Dumbledore fucking Legolas. And Legolas is cis, and after they have sex Dumbledore feels really fucked up about it. If you have written that story please send it to us.
CP: …..That’s not where I was going, but oh my god!
CF: We want like good constructive writing that tells you about characters. Whatever weird things are happening in the story, we want to believe in the characters.
CP: And we also want elves and monsters. We do.
Send your submissions by December 1, 2015. For more information, visit Topside Press.