Nearly Roadkill: An Infobahn Erotic Adventure by Caitlin Sullivan and Kate Bornstein is a novel that is not widely known today; at the time I’m writing this column it has only six reviews on Goodreads. In some ways this is understandable. Published in 1998, Nearly Roadkill is a cyberpunk adventure and erotic romance set in a future so near, it is in many aspects indistinguishable from the late 1990s. But if we can get past the technical details of an almost entirely text-only internet, where the term “website” still needs to be laboriously explained, we find some of the most groundbreaking discussions about gender and sexuality in speculative fiction—discussions that are still just as powerful as when they were written.
This is no accident: Nearly Roadkill is, as far as I’m aware, the first speculative fiction novel with trans characters (co-)written by a trans author.
Kate Bornstein is much better known for their nonfiction, spanning a wide range of subgenres from memoir to edited anthology to self-help for teens, all with a queer and trans focus. Generations of trans people have read their work and were exposed to their activism, and their words on queer suicide prevention have probably saved many lives. Nearly Roadkill, by contrast, is little known, and often treated as a weird footnote in their oeuvre.
Bornstein wrote this novel together with journalist Caitlin Sullivan, and it was at least partially an autobiographic venture for both authors. In Bornstein’s memoir A Queer and Pleasant Danger (subtitled “The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today”), we get to read about how Nearly Roadkill came into being: “I was sitting–very gingerly–at a booth, writing notes for a book idea that Caitlin Sullivan and I had been tossing back and forth. We’d been having fun playing around online with virtual identities and cybersex. We joked that we were doing research for a book.” Some of the personae mentioned do indeed surface in the novel: “I never played myself. I was variously a skateboard dude, a lesbian Star Trek officer, or food for some vampire.”
Right at the beginning, we are plunged into steamy online chat sex scenes between the two protagonists Winc and Scratch, both using ze/hir pronouns and appearing to each other in these various guises. But then the plot shifts and the novel focuses more on how the new internet regulations have made Scratch and Winc essentially into outlaws. By not registering with their real names and other personal details—including a binary gender choice—they are hindering the big business conglomerates from targeting advertising more efficiently at them. The issue is stunningly timely, and would have been remarkably prescient at the time the book was written: beyond issues like Facebook’s real-name policy, Facebook itself didn’t even exist in 1998, and companies were still experimenting with the first attempts at targeted online advertising.
When it comes down to the details, however, you might need to exercise your suspension of disbelief regarding how the internet works in the novel. Frankly, the technical details worked better for me when they were handwaved outright—for example, when hacking is presented as witchcraft. But as in the previously reviewed Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany , I found the social aspects of the book have aged far better…
After copious cybersex in various gender and presentation combinations, Scratch and Winc end up meeting each other in person due to a need to save a fellow outlaw from danger. This is where I felt the novel really begins to shine. The two of them both struggle intensely after meeting the other, and it turns out that they experimented with a range of gender expressions for radically different reasons. This happens quite a ways into the narrative, but I need to provide at least a brief discussion of the relevant plot points, because I feel this may impact whether readers are inclined to pick up the book. I will try to restrict spoilers to the following paragraph:
Winc is a nonbinary person who had previously lived as a trans woman, while Scratch is the kind of second-wave feminist cis woman who wants to abolish gender. Their views clash very sharply, and all the terrible arguments that surface are disputes that still play out today in relation to trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs); Scratch accuses Winc of trying to invade women’s spaces, and so forth. This book has a reputation of “that weird one with a lot of chatlogs of cybersex,” but that characterization entirely ignores the novel’s main conflict of trans exclusion in feminism—a conflict that is incredibly painful to many trans people to this day.
Nearly Roadkill offers a detailed, in-depth exploration of different streams of feminism and how the differences between them aren’t just about words and principles, but about very real people getting hurt. The book pulls absolutely no punches, and goes so far beyond basic Intro to Gender territory that it still reads as if on the cutting edge two full decades after it was published. Both main characters need to give a lot of themselves in order to sustain their romance and deal with their undeniable attraction toward the other. There’s also the fact that while they understand each other so well, they are in other ways on opposite ends of the political spectrum. They love each other desperately, and they don’t want to lose each other.
The book does have its ‘Intro to Gender’ character in the person of Mr. Budge, a cis man and criminal investigator chasing Scratch and Winc, who ends up registered on the internet as a woman due to a technical mishap. While Winc and Scratch explore the outer reaches of gender, Mr. Budge finds that all of a sudden no one takes his work emails seriously now that his sender information says “Ms. Budge.” The counterpoint works surprisingly well, and demonstrates how different people can have different experiences and struggles even in the same general social context.
Those who want to read the book in its entirety as porn will be disappointed, because there is much less sex after the initial kaleidoscope of shapeshifting smut. But the book can’t quite be read without the sex, either. The graphic sex scenes demonstrate key points: both that the internet enables a level of experimentation with identity and sexuality that was previously unavailable, and also that something remains constant across all those shiftings—these characters are undeniably attracted to each other, and not just to whatever persona they assume at any given point. They also have boundaries and limits, and their interactions both online and offline help them to change and develop as people. They are still working out how the internet shapes and alters them and how they relate to it—much like Mr. Budge, in this respect.
The book is not perfect. It often meanders, and it could have used another editing pass. Despite the length (almost 400 pages, some typeset with a very narrow font), some issues are only ever briefly mentioned, without elaboration—I predominantly had this feeling about race, which came up many times, but was mostly handled in passing and in ways that sometimes gave me pause. But the fact remains that this kind of non-beginner-level gender discourse is just now reaching the mainstream of SFF publishing, and it is very worthwhile to take a look back at works like Nearly Roadkill which were so ahead of the curve.
Next time, we will take a look at a book from 1990 that has only been translated to English this year! Translated books are always hard to find for this column, and I am very happy I chanced on another one…
Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is currently a finalist for the Hugo, Lambda and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.