Queering SFF

Tanith Lee — A Brief Retrospective

As many folks have reported by this time, Tanith Lee—a familiar name in science fiction and fantasy circles, prolific writer for both children and adults—is no longer with us. Charlie Jane Anders noted in her commemorative post at io9 that Lee wrote so much and in such different ways that she has multiple circles of fandom; she has been nominated for awards ranging from the World Fantasy to the World Horror Grandmaster—and also the Lambda for LGBT speculative fiction.

So, while Lee’s astounding oeuvre covered a multitude of themes, styles, and approaches, the reason I first heard of her work—true for many people, I’d suspect—was because of that common concern with gender and sexuality.

Her books were often rather directly queer and feminist in their appropriation of fairy tales, fantastical and perverse worlds and creatures, and narrative tropes. She also wrote lesbian fiction under the pseudonym Esther Garber and weird fiction under the related name Judas Garbah, as collected in Disturbed by Her Song and Fatal Women (both available from Lethe Press).

Disturbed by Her Song was the first and only Tanith Lee book I covered as part of the Queering SFF column in all this time—something I feel I should rectify, particularly after her passing. However, there are a whole lot of potential avenues to cover in terms of her queer work, so instead of choosing one particular text I thought we’d do a brief retrospective of some directions curious readers might take in discovering the work of Lee.

There have been a few recent installments that are good for starting out on; there are also the classic novel series that made Lee a household name not just for clever storytelling and lush prose but for her exploration of the fluidity and complexity of gender and sexuality. And, personal aside: when you’re a young teen like I once was, looking for stories that aren’t quite so binary in their dealings, that’s why you end up running into Tanith Lee sooner or later.

While these books are often interested in exploration and pushing boundaries—so they’re not always perhaps the most comfortable or pleasant experiences, particularly the horror stories—that is in and of itself a worthwhile task. And, especially in the case of the older books, taken as moments of historical record reflecting attitudes toward gender and sexuality at the time they’re also worth a look.

  • Space is Just a Starry Night (2013, Aqueduct Press)—This is a collection of twelve stories, mostly reprints from the seventies onward but also including two original pieces. This particular collection, one of the last things Lee published, gives a sense of her facility with genre tropes and modes as well as her dense and clever prose.
  • Disturbed by Her Song (2010, Lethe Press)—As the only collection that has been reviewed here before, this remains a good look into the work Lee had been doing with more specifically gay and lesbian protagonists; it’s also weird and historical, and has some very good stories in it. Plus, the conceit of a “dictated” set of stories “by” the protagonists is bizarre and neat.
  • Tempting the Gods: The Selected Stories of Tanith Lee Volume 1 & Hunting the Shadows: The Selected Stories of Tanith Lee Volume 2 (2009, Wildside Press) —Obviously, a two volume retrospective short story collection is a good place to stock up on Lee’s briefer work. Wildside’s efforts to collect a variety of different stories and make them available all together are admirable, also, considering the breadth of Lee’s output.
  • The Secret Books of Paradys (2007, The Overlook Press)—A collection of interlinked collections of stories, all originally published in the late eighties and early nineties and collected in this one hefty volume later on. These stories fall more on the “horror” side of Lee’s genre works, but they’re also concerned with gender and sexuality.
  • Tales from the Flat Earth—A series published from 1978 to 1986, in which the world’s societies are famously bisexual. As Lee has expressed in interviews, some folks certainly have preferences in one direction or another, but most have a fluid sexuality. Books include Night’s Master (1978) which was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Death’s Master (1979) which won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Delusion’s Master (1981), Delirium’s Mistress (1986), and Night’s Sorceries (1987) which was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology/Collection.
  • Don’t Bite the Sun (1976, DAW Books)—One of Lee’s earliest and most well-known novels, a work of New Wave feminist science fiction dealing with what is often described as a soul-crushing utopia. Issues of aging, gender, and sexuality are prominent in this work as the protagonist lives in a world where bodies can be customized and replaced, labor is a thing of the past, and maturing is more difficult than it seems. A short novel—almost more of a novella, in the way of lots of older sf—but packs a lot of punch. One of the first bits of Lee I read, also.

These are just a handful of books from Lee’s body of work that have explicit themes on gender and sexuality; there are also many, many more—and I encourage readers, here, to suggest their own favorites in the comments. Even note what makes them interesting, if you like. I certainly haven’t read even a fraction of Lee’s published work, so I can’t claim to be an expert, just someone who finds her interesting, and is sad to see her go.

She was doing the work long before a lot of us, and in doing so, helped paved the way.

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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