Usually when trilogies feature a coming of age story, it takes place (or at least begins) in the first book. The young, plucky hero goes through various trials to mature into an adult… and in speculative fiction, often saves the world in the process. Then in the following volumes, we see where things go from there. Adulthood Rites, and the whole of Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, turns this typical plotline upside down. In the first volume, Dawn—which I previously reviewed in this column—humans find themselves in a first contact situation with the extraterrestrial Oankali, and the book ends just as the Oankali-human coexistence on Earth is becoming a reality.
Today we’ll start discussing our second trilogy for the summer: Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis, also published as Lilith’s Brood. (The first trilogy featured was Daniel Heath Justice’s The Way of Thorn and Thunder.) Even though there have been a variety of science fiction books with three- or more-gendered aliens before this novel, Dawn—originally published in 1987—is one of the most prominent works to feature this trope before the current wave of trans speculative fiction.
So far in this column, I’ve already reviewed the first and second parts of The Way of Thorn and Thunder, and now we’re getting to the finale. I chose to review this book in three parts because it was originally published as three separate books, though I read the more recent re-release, which molds the trilogy into a one-book whole that is around 600 large-format pages long. Whew!
In my previous column I reviewed the first third of The Way of Thorn and Thunder, Daniel Heath Justice’s massive epic fantasy novel originally published in three volumes. Now I will be discussing the section roughly corresponding to the second volume, Wyrwood, that comprises Cycles Three and Four in the new edition.
Daniel Heath Justice’s Indigenous epic fantasy trilogy The Way of Thorn and Thunder (The Kynship Chronicles) was originally published between 2005 and 2007 by Kegedonce Press, in three separate volumes: Kynship, Wyrwood, and Dreyd. The revised and expanded 2011 reissue from the University of New Mexico Press appeared in one huge omnibus volume: one novel now divided into seven cycles. I only have the re-release, but I decided to review it in three installments roughly corresponding to the original three volumes—there is simply too much material otherwise to fit into one of my standard-size columns.
A Matter of Oaths is Helen S. Wright’s first and—so far—only novel, originally published in 1988 and re-released in 2017. It is a traditional space opera book with the mindbending, baroque elements characteristic of 1980s SF, but also with very clear queer themes: Two of the male protagonists and point of view characters are in a relationship with each other, and there are other queer characters as well. The gay elements are very matter-of-fact, and both clearly spelled out and treated as completely ordinary in the setting. A Matter of Oaths is not an issue book of any kind, but rather something that’s very much in demand right now: a space adventure with characters who just happen to be queer.
This week I’m reviewing the first book that was picked by my Patreon supporters! I have been accumulating eligible books for the QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics series at a steady rate at local library book sales, and at this point I have a small heap of them. (One of the good things about reading classic SFF is that the books can be more affordable!) So I asked people to vote, and they picked Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. This makes her the first author featured to be in my column twice: my first review was of her short story collection Skin Folk.
I initially picked up Vonda N. McIntyre’s 1979 collection Fireflood and Other Stories—the author’s first—because it included a novella featuring magical spaceship pilots, one of my favorite themes. I was surprised to find engagements with shifting gender and sex, polyamorous families, and thoughtful, emotionally resonant discussions of embodiment and shape change. In retrospect, this should not have been as surprising, because McIntyre’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning novel Dreamsnake was many readers’ first introduction to polyamory in fiction. (Samuel Delany’s Babel-17, which I previously covered, was another common entry point from the same era). Fireflood contains three novellas and a number of short stories, including the novella which was later expanded into Dreamsnake.
Hybrid Child by Mariko Ōhara is one of the few Japanese science fiction novels by a woman author that have been translated to English. It was originally published in 1990 and won the Seiun award the next year. The Seiun is the longest-lived and most prestigious Japanese SFF award; I’ve seen it called “the Japanese Nebula” because “seiun” means ‘nebula,’ but it’s more similar to the Hugo in that it’s an audience-voted award.
The translation (by Jodie Beck) just came out earlier this year, in the Parallel Futures series published by the University of Minnesota Press and edited by Thomas Lamarre and Takayuki Tatsumi. There aren’t that many university presses that have ongoing speculative fiction series, and I was intrigued by the previous starter volume of Parallel Futures: The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki, even as I had some issues with it. So I picked up Hybrid Child too, and I was very surprised to find that it had very explicit transgender themes. In this novel, characters change gender, beings affect each other’s genders when they merge, and one character performs impromptu top surgery on herself due to dysphoria. There is also various moments of gender confusion in the narrative, even related to cisgender people—one of the early scenes features a woman general mistaken for a man until she shows up in person, for example. Let’s dive in!
Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre is considered one of the major works of 20th century Haitian literature—when I picked up the new English translation by Kaiama L. Glover, however, I wasn’t aware that I would also be able to include it in my QUILTBAG+ SFF Classics column. Yet the title character, Hadriana, displays attraction to people regardless of gender, and at a key point in the novel, she describes her sexual awakening with another young woman. This wasn’t the book I had been planning on reviewing this week, but I was very happy that it fit into the column.
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.
Babel-17 is one of the early, short novels of SFWA Grand Master Samuel R. Delany, first published in 1966 and winning the Nebula Award the following year. Sexuality—including various queer and/or polyamorous sexualities—is one of Delany’s main themes, but people more commonly discuss this topic in relation to his later works even though it is present very early on. Several readers have asked me to review Babel-17, a novel which is possibly one of the earliest mainstream SFF works with casual queer inclusion—including bisexual inclusion, which is still comparatively rare.
Andrea Hairston’s debut novel Mindscape, published in 2006, won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award and was shortlisted for both the Tiptree and Philip K. Dick awards. It’s also a very explicitly queer book by a queer author, and its Afrofuturist approach pulls no punches. I was surprised that, given all this, there still seems to be relatively little discussion of Mindscape. I can’t speculate whether this is because the book was released by a small publisher (Aqueduct), or if it was ahead of its time, or some other possible reason—but I can provide my own thoughts about the novel, here. I enjoyed it and felt it was original and groundbreaking—but I also had some difficulty with the work, especially with its transgender aspects.
In this instalment of the QUILTBAG+ SFF Classics series, we reach the final volume of Melissa Scott’s science-fantasy trilogy The Roads of Heaven: The Empress of Earth. As I mentioned in the previous two reviews (Five-Twelfths of Heaven and Silence in Solitude), this book exists in two considerably different variants, because the author extensively revised it 26 years after its original publication.
For this column, I have read both versions in order to compare them. If you are confused which version you have, an easy way to tell them apart without any spoilers is to search the ebook for the string “Ciel”—this minor character only exists in the newer release. If you have a print book, you have the original text. (I am very grateful to the author, who helped me sort out the versions after I mistakenly purchased two copies of the old version, instead of one of each.)
Silence in Solitude is the second volume of Melissa Scott’s The Roads of Heaven trilogy, the first volume of which I reviewed in my last column. This is one of the few early science fiction series built around queer characters, published at a time when most books with QUILTBAG+ themes were standalone releases. The adventures of space pilot Silence Leigh and her two husbands continue, but the story doesn’t quite go where I would have expected it to go… In order to find an ancient tome that could help the characters reach the long-lost, mythical Earth, they need to rescue a planetary governor’s daughter from the heart of the empire.
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