Speculative fiction allows us to ask why and how and why not about the world surrounding us—in ways that can often be used to tell unique stories about gender and society. The Transcendent series from Lethe Press (a longtime publisher of queer sff of all stripes) collects a yearly roundup of best transgender speculative short fiction in this vein: stories that push on those gendered boundaries in productive and interesting ways to tell stories for and about trans folks.
Contributors this year range from familiar names like Margaret Killjoy and Nino Cipri, both of whom have novellas already out or forthcoming from Tor.com Publishing, to folks whose included stories were debut work like Andrew Joseph White. The stories themselves cross through several genres, from young adult to post-apocalyptic to historical; there are flesh-eating mermaids, androids, AI, and more. A few pieces are even a bit more experimental in structure than the typical plotted narrative fiction.
The format of the fourth installment follows the same pattern that has been set so far: a brief introduction from editor Bogi Takács on the state of the field, number of stories considered, and recommended longer works that could not be included; a wide-ranging collection of 2018 short fiction from publications big and small; and a brief “contributors and content warnings” section at the end. This arrangement serves well to place each anthology squarely in the space and time of the year that it’s collecting from, as well as to give background on the contributors (which matters in thematic work like this).
On a more general note, I was pleased to see that Transcendent 4 contains more stories from trans-feminine perspectives than previous volumes. As Takács notes in the intro, the ever-increasing amount of speculative stories written by or featuring trans folks from across a wide spectrum of experiences also offers more variety in terms of content. Contributors’ individual backgrounds are varied in terms of place, space, and identification as well. Transcendent 4 includes a significant amount of work from writers of color and indigenous writers, including folks who locate themselves transnationally outside of the West.
While there isn’t enough room here to discuss every piece in the volume, I thought I’d highlight a few I found particularly compelling. “Ad Astra Per Aspera” by Nino Cipri is the opening piece—a whimsical but sharp meditation on losing one’s gender like a misplaced travel mug toppling from the roof of a car. Cipri’s protagonist speaks back to the reader, too, with “placeholder” asides for “your judgment,” or “your decision that I deserve to be abandoned by my gender.” As the first story in the collection, it sets a tone both combative and intimate, self-aware and intensely witty.
But out of the lot, the stories that caught me most were “The Substance of My Lives, the Accident of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte and “Into the Gray” by Margaret Killjoy. Iriarte’s piece is a tight, engaging mix of small-town mystery with a broader implied coming of age arc. Jamie’s past lives (the most recent of which ended in murder), a current developing understanding of a fluid or nonbinary gender identity, and a relationship to a close friend Alicia (who generally “likes girls”) that Jamie would like to pursue further—all of these significant moments merge into a story that has a strong sense of both expanding potential and painful struggle.
While both these stories have a certain relationship to violence, the Killjoy piece is taut and cutting as a wire. She weaves together historical and mythical imaginaries to render her thief and her mermaid with a physical, visceral realism that strikes at the reader in equal parts desire and fear. I also appreciated the matter-of-factness of trans-feminine experience in this setting. The way that Henrietta the Honored, the witch, is the only one to make note of Laria’s bodily realities in the piece is handled well, given the other opportunities for less pleasant conversations. The concept of sacrifices and love found in the margins, as well as boundaries in love, threads throughout the story in a way that places it, for me, as the most thoughtful and provocative piece in this year’s collection. Or, at least, the one that left me still thinking the most about it afterwards.
I also appreciated “The Sixth World” by Kylie Ariel Bemis for its slice-of-life sensibilities set among much grander implied changes to the entire world. Also, Bemis’s story contains a paragraph that hit me hard personally, which is:
She is neither man nor woman, but both. […] Sometimes Viola thinks it would be simpler if she were simply born in the wrong body. She knows some people feel this. But Viola can’t help but think that this body is hers and has been given to her for a reason, so she doesn’t want to regret being born with it
Vincent/Viola’s world is potentially about to change or end thanks to a staggering technological occurrence that no one has much input on aside from the rich (possibly evil) scientist creating it. However, that larger social context is subsumed under the daily rhythms of life in a familiar way: trying to land a voice acting gig, trying to ask out a close friend around barriers of gender and self-doubt, and so on. It’s a tender piece that handles a complexly gendered self well in a renewing/destructing world.
Several stories also dealt with intersections of gender and disabilities, including adaptive technologies, in engaging ways. Two of the most compelling were “Assistance” by Kathryn DeFazio and “What the South Wind Whispers” by H. Pueyo—both of which are science fiction pieces dealing with relationships between neurodivergent individuals, technologies, and the world. DeFazio’s piece is intimate, focused on the therapeutic relationship between a protagonist with an anxiety disorder and an adaptive support android who fills a service role; Pueyo’s piece has a wider lens, looking at the danger of an isolated relationship to an AI as well as the difficulties of forging personal connections across difference with another individual human.
Transcendent 4 is uneven in quality but still reasonably engaging, as I expect from most tightly-themed year’s best collections (given their narrower field of options to choose from). Not every story knocks it out of the park, and not every story was even necessarily to my taste, but the combination of all the pieces together makes for a useful retrospective of the sorts of trans stories that were published during 2018 as well as what venues they appeared in. It’s a good book for a day when—as a trans reader—I’m looking for both recognition and challenge that speaks to my experiences; it’s also a good book for the home shelf, to mark a point and time in tracking the field.
Transcendent 4 is available from Lethe Press.
Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.