Queering SFF: While I Was Away… (Now with Added Theory!)

It’s been some time since we’ve had a discussion-oriented post at Queering SFF—sure, there have been book reviews and awards coverage and the like, but hardly enough chatting about the field generally, or about topics related under the headings of “queer” or “speculative” (or both). Blame your friendly correspondent, here; between the Exploring Carl Sagan’s Cosmos wrapping up and the Short Fiction Spotlight beginning, I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting my favorite space for talking about queer topics in the genre.

So, what’s been happening? For one thing, I’ve been reading some fascinating queer nonfiction, which I believe falls under our “related topics” heading. (That’s what I’d like to talk about this time—theory, practice, and cultural connections inside and outside of SF.) For another, I’ve been acting as senior editor at Strange Horizons—a magazine devoted in part to diverse fiction—which has made me think quite a lot about short queer SF from the slush pile to publication and beyond; we’ll get to that in the next post.

I’ve talked a tiny bit before about the intersections between queer speculative fiction and theoretical/nonfiction writing: how nonfiction on queer narratives and experiences can inform our speculation (ex. Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation), and/or how theory can offer frameworks for understanding subjectivity, intersectionality, and all of that jazz (ex. Queer Theories). There are a complex set of links between writers, scholars, cultures, and the folks who participate in one or all or more than those categories. A lot of writers wear many hats; a lot of readers do, too—and we’re all inevitably participants in a variety of cultures and subcultures, all of which are part of who we are as people, our axes of identity.

But, you may say, aren’t we talking about spec-fic here?

Well, yes, of course. But, of all the genres in the wide world of prose, I’d be willing to make an argument that speculative fiction is the most connected to contemporary issues, the most concerned with cultural and social extrapolation, and the most interested in pulling apart the machinery of contemporary lives around the world to see what makes them tick—as well as what we could do better. In the end, that’s why I love the stuff; it’s provocative, crunchy and complex as often as it is fun and adventurous. (There are also, you know, very obvious reasons why I’m a big fan of Joanna Russ’s critical SF work….)

But to speculate, we have to know some basics: background, context, the layout of the land, the map (with or without) the territory, whatever you’d like to call it. I don’t think that’s any different with social and cultural theory than with math or physics. Plus, it’s often hard to see the big picture when submersed in the details; that’s why I like reading alternative points of view from folks who’ve been doing this longer than me, and who have fascinating insights that I can benefit from as a writer and a critic. I like to learn things—and that’s a trait that lots of fans, writers, and critics in this field seem to share—so, naturally, I like to have periods where I read predominantly nonfiction and theoretical/critical prose. To keep using metaphors: it refills the well.

In that vein—learning new things and exploring fresh points of view—my recent reading material has been the work of J. Jack Halberstam, specifically Female Masculinity (1998) and In a Queer Time & Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005). These are a pair of great books outside the genre that can provide some context and frameworks for thinking/writing/surviving, and for examining cultural products (like speculative fiction!). These are both books concerned with folks who have bodies that are or have been nonconsensually assigned female, with trans* and/or genderqueer identities across spectrums of embodiment, and with cultural productions made through these subjectivities. Butches, dykes, transgender and transsexual men, genderqueers: these are books about us and about ways of being in the world, by a writer who herself identifies as a butch and sympathizes with genderqueer issues. While I don’t agree with all of Halberstam’s claims—does anyone, when it comes to gender theories, ultimately and totally agree with anyone else?—I do find her ways of working through these complicated identities and their cultural relationships to be provocative and enlightening, particularly being what I might occasionally label as a genderqueer butch myself.

The first book, Female Masculinity, surveys alternative masculinities in terms of class, race, and gender, particularly as performed by folks with socially/medically-assigned “female” bodies. The text spends a lot of time working on ways of doing queer reading, queer history, and queer criticism; that’s a deliberate and necessary focus for a topic as prickly as masculine identifications paired with embodiments that aren’t normatively “male” by hegemonic standards. How do we talk about these varying ways of being over time, across space, and between people—without erasing someone, or hurting someone else, or misrepresenting the selves of, say, people in the nineteenth century who passed as men in their daily lives?

Halberstam’s answers are just as varied as the questions themselves. It’s important, as she notes, to observe “some very obvious spaces in which gender difference simply does not work right now, and [how] the breakdown of gender as a signifying system in these arenas can be exploited to hasten the proliferation of alternate gender regimes in other locations.” Halberstam is concerned with more options, more possibilities, and more open exploration—for folks who want that—and more availability of forms of masculinity for those who find it necessary and natural. She also does a fascinating job of exploring “masculinity” as a concept: how it’s performed, embodied, and understood in alternative forms, and how those alternative forms matter in the larger normative culture, though it might try to ignore them.

Also, the “border wars” between various ways-of-being that are discussed in this book seem to have a contemporary currency, still. God knows I and many folks I know have encountered debate on all sides of various cultural groups about who is and isn’t trans*, what the right ways to be are, who gets grouped with who and why, etc. The use of labels, what words are all right and what words don’t work—these are all such individual issues that it’s hard to try and take an overview, but Halberstam’s attempt to is helpful and productive. Proliferation often results in some conflict, and how those conflicts play out matters, deeply, for how cultural groups both fit and fracture.

Making a similar move in taking a long-view of cultural movements and moments, In a Queer time & Place works predominantly with the concept of the “archive.” Archives are “collections” of all of the stuff on a given topic—various discourses from varying places and people, alternative representations, popular criticism, etc. The idea of the archive, as opposed to the history, allows for a multifaceted understanding of a topic instead of a narrative or a “right” way of looking at it. As Halberstam says, “The archive is not simply a repository; it is also a theory of cultural relevance, a construction of collective memory, and a complex record of queer activity.” In the book itself, Halberstam explores various queer subcultures and how we might think about queer temporality as different from normative temporality—particularly when considering narratives about the transgender or genderqueer subject.

This is the book that I suspect will appeal to a more general SFnal audience, because it offers a lot of opportunities for exploring subcultures and their creative productions—which certainly can describe our field, particularly the queer corners. Also, there’s a lot of time spent thinking about alternative temporalities, and time/space are the sort of things that we like to play with in speculative fiction; applying Halberstam’s ideas about queer time and space to an SFnal story might be a great deal of fun.

Additionally, Halberstam’s call in the final chapter for a sharing of spaces, stories, and identities appeals deeply to me and the work I’d like to do. As she says, “queer subcultures encourage blurred boundaries between archivists and producers;” “the theorist and the cultural worker may be the same people” —subcultural work allows for intermixing roles, for more than just observation or participating, but a combination of theory and practice. That’s what inspired this post, ultimately: a desire to try and unite a sense of my practice as a reader and writer of queer spec fic with my theory as an academic and my experiences as a queer individual. Halberstam’s book offers a wonderful set of explicit and implicit insights into how to juggle these various investments.

It’s also worth noting that In a Queer Time & Place is a very different kind of book than Female Masculinity; it’s more topical, more accessible, and more concerned with things like queer arts and queer music than with abstractions. I enjoyed them both, and they’re certainly related in terms of how they try to make sense out of the world and out of subjective experience—but I also find their differences intriguing. Time & Place deals more extensively and explicitly with issues surrounding trans* subjectivity, representation, and life contemporarily, whereas Female Masculinity is a genealogical exploration of a general vision of alternative masculinities.

These texts also provide some fascinating juxtapositions in terminology and ways of thinking about gender between ’98 and ’05. (Halberstam has newer books, too, that I can’t wait to read but haven’t been able to peruse yet.) The evolution of the word “genderqueer” strikes me, especially. As a catch-all for nonbinary and non-normative genders, it is of clear utility to Halberstam in the 2005 book, and would likely have served a similarly integral purpose in Female Masculinity had it had greater parlance at the time. Watching the change and growth in ways for speaking and writing about trans* subjectivity as well as gender nonconformity between these books—the radical changes that take place across merely seven years—gives me a distinct sense of vertigo when it comes to further speculation.

Thinking about where we might be in a century on issues of gender is stunning, particularly when given form and data by contemporary theory and criticism. Thinking about the ways that identities and the general concept of identity have changed, as Female Masculinity does over the course of a long century, should provoke even more intense thought about the future and where we might go from here. The occasional nonfiction binge gives depth and nuance to my thoughts about queer issues, and also offers fresh avenues for thought—on my own identity, for my fiction, and for the field as a whole. For the queer SF fan wanting to indulge more in nonfiction reading and context-research, Halberstam’s books are a good place to dive in.

Or, various readers, are there other nonfiction books you might suggest for an audience interested in speculation and queer issues?

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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