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.
Melissa Scott is one of the biggest names in queer SFF, having won multiple Lambda Awards (with even more nominations), a Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and more. Yet I feel that her writing is not as well known today as that of more recent authors, despite her uncommonly wide range: she has written books with a variety of speculative themes, from cyberpunk to space adventures to fantasy police procedurals. She is also still actively working, and she even has a Patreon where she posts serial fiction related to one of her fantasy series, Astreiant—recently covered here on Tor.com in Liz Bourke’s column.
Out of Scott’s oeuvre, I chose Five-Twelfths of Heaven to start with, for multiple reasons. First, it is one of the rare works of classic queer SFF that are not standalone books—it’s the first volume of a trilogy titled The Roads of Heaven. Second, it makes use of one of my personal favorite themes: magical spaceflight. Third, this trilogy hasn’t been reviewed on Tor.com yet, even though many of Melissa Scott’s other books have been.
Nalo Hopkinson’s “Fisherman” was the first trans story I ever read where the trans character wasn’t an extraterrestrial or the product of futuristic biotechnology. The story made a significant impression on me, and so it occurred to me to take a look at Skin Folk, the collection where it first appeared.
Nalo Hopkinson is a cis queer Afro-Caribbean writer of speculative fiction who has lived in Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, Canada, and is currently living on the West Coast of the U.S. Besides many novels, she has had multiple short story collections published, most recently Falling in Love with Hominids—while this book, published in 2015, is too recent for me to include in this column, I would like to warmly recommend it. Skin Folk was Hopkinson’s first collection, yet it doesn’t come across as immature—the stories are confident, written with a strong and determined voice.
Johanna Sinisalo’s Tiptree Award-winning Troll: A Love Story (also available in the U.K. as Not Before Sundown), translated from the Finnish by Herbert Lomas, is one of the earliest works of translated QUILTBAG+ speculative fiction that I could find, originally published in 2000. I enjoy Finnish SFF, and read it whenever I can both in English and in Hungarian translation. So I was especially looking forward to reading this novel—but in the end, it didn’t win me over.
In Troll, Angel, a young, gay photographer and designer rescues a strange male creature from the hands of teenage louts in a scene reminiscent of a gay bashing. Angel takes the dark, furry creature home and realizes that it is a juvenile troll, a being from Finnish mythology. The troll indisputably exists in the novel’s present-day setting, albeit as a rare animal that was assumed to be fictional until recently.
Unquenchable Fire is an unconventional contemporary fantasy novel, one that pushes against the limits of narrative and genre. It won the Clarke Award in 1989, it has been reprinted in the prestigious SF Masterworks series, and it is also one of the earliest major speculative novels by a trans woman author.
Rachel Pollack is probably just as well known for her nonfiction as her fiction, if not better; she is a prolific author and lecturer on occult topics, especially the Tarot and other forms of divination. She has had over forty books published, and she is also known as a comic book writer and a visual artist. Pollack is still actively writing; her latest fantasy book The Fissure King came out just last year. Many younger trans writers cite her as an influence, and the recent trans SFF anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett was dedicated to her.
I started the QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics series with books I really enjoyed, but I want to cover as much terrain as possible, and be honest about what did or did not age well. I expected to likewise enjoy The Woman Who Loved the Moon, Elizabeth A. Lynn’s first short story collection—with the title story a World Fantasy Award winner in 1980. I’d heard good things about this book, and while it has been long since out of print, it is generally recognized as a queer classic.
I had mixed feelings. I felt this book was uneven (even beyond the unevenness that can be expected from a collection). While the secondary-world, epic fantasy stories were striking and memorable, the science fiction fell short in unexpected ways.
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