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.
The first book I featured in this column was The Gilda Stories, an awesome queer vampire collection by Jewelle Gomez, and now I’m returning to her work again with the first-ever poetry collection I’ve managed to locate for the QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics column: Oral Tradition, published in 1995.
Queer speculative poetry only started to flower in the early 2010s with venues like Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, Mythic Delirium and more; what we can find before that is sporadic at best. There is plenty of QUILTBAG+ poetry—of course! —and also speculative poetry, but intersection of the two is very limited, given the former unfriendliness of the speculative poetry landscape toward QUILTBAG+ themes. I think the first multi-author queer-themed project within a speculative venue was Bridging, the queer issue of Stone Telling edited by R.B. Lemberg and Shweta Narayan in 2012. Everything before that—and before 2010, my cutoff for QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics—seems to have been published in non-SFF contexts, and is thus much harder for me to find.
This is not the book I’d meant to review, but it was due back to the library…and as I started reading, I discovered that it had story after story after story of material that would fit the QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics series. I love it when that happens, and I am happy to share this sense of discovery with you!
Memories of the Body: Tales of Desire and Transformation was published in 1992, featuring reprints of stories originally published in the late 1980s or earlier. It is a collection of mostly contemporary horror stories themed around bodily transformation, often related to gender, and dealing with complex feelings. The feelings involve not just desire as in the title, but also jealousy: a form of difficult desire, and one that stories often elide because it is uncomfortable to consider. Lisa Tuttle goes all-in on that discomfort, and a sense of unease that shades quickly into horror.
I wasn’t planning on covering Banana Yoshimoto’s N.P. (also published as NP and np), translated by Ann Sherif in the QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics series, but I picked it up at a book sale and it opened to the following sentence in the afterword: “I have attempted, in this miniature universe, to touch on as many of the themes that interest me as possible (lesbianism, love within the family, telepathy and empathy, the occult, religion and so on).” That definitely sounds both QUILTBAG+ and speculative! I was surprised the book qualified for my column, given that it was published as a non-speculative work; and it’s especially hard to find translated novels to discuss here, so I bought it right away. I was anxious about incest as a theme immediately following queerness, but I figured I’d still give the book a try.
(For readers who want to avoid these topics, though, please be aware that the novel involves both incest and suicide, and both topics are touched on in the article that follows).
In this ongoing survey of QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics, I want to try to go back to the very firsts—even risking the possibility that those works have not aged well. The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You was, to my knowledge, the first English-language speculative book that featured neopronouns: gender pronouns that are distinct from he, she, or singular they. It is a book that is unique in another respect as well: it was a massive self-publishing success, which was almost entirely unheard of in the 1970s when it first appeared.
The book was originally published under the title The Comforter: A Mystical Fantasy by Evan Press in Berkeley in 1971, then republished by Dorothy Bryant’s own Ata Press, until it was picked up by Random House in 1976. (I could not find out much about Evan Press; this might have been an earlier name for Ata Press as well. Interestingly, Edvige Giunta’s monograph on Italian American women writers points out that Italian American women like Bryant turned to self-publishing early on due to a preexistent cultural tradition.) The book is still in print and seems to have a following; for this review, I read a copy of the 1988 printing.
The novel begins with a detailed murder scene of a naked woman; the murder is committed by the protagonist, an up-and-coming Anglo-American male writer. (From here on, I’ll call him “Protagonist” with a capital P.) The Protagonist attempts to flee from justice, but after a mysterious event, finds himself on an island inhabited by “the kin of Ata”—a calm, quiet people of various races. Here, he experiences an entirely different way of life, and eventually achieves a spiritual awakening. But can he stay there forever?
James Tiptree, Jr. (also known as Alice Sheldon and Raccoona Sheldon) is primarily known for gender-bending, boundary-pushing work in short-form SFF—but Tiptree was also a poet, as well as a novelist with two published novels. My Patreon backers voted to pick Tiptree’s first novel, Up the Walls of the World, for me to read and review this week!
But first, a note: Readers voted on this book and I wrote this review before the current controversy related to the end of Tiptree’s life, which involved a murder-suicide and/or suicide pact. The Tiptree Award is currently in the process of being renamed (a decision I support—and I also don’t think awards should be named after specific people or novels in general, either). I feel that the review contributes to the overall discussion of Tiptree’s contributions to the genre, focused on a topic that is perhaps more easily approachable: critiques of Tiptree’s own published work; so I haven’t changed the column besides adding this note and changing the name of the award at the end.
Sometimes I start reading an older book, and it turns out to have QUILTBAG+ themes that no one mentioned. Over a year into doing the QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics reviews column—a lot of spreadsheeting and gathering books later—this still keeps on happening. I’m starting to wonder if it will ever be possible to run out of eligible work to review. And I don’t mean “this book has a possibly queer couple in the background” moments—I just came across a science fiction graphic novel with an intersex main character (!), originally published in 1984 and translated to English in 1997.
A, A′ [also written as A, A Prime] is a one-volume manga by Moto Hagio, one of the groundbreaking classic creators of shōjo manga, Japanese comics aimed at teenage girls. The book has three long chapters, which were originally published in serialized form both in Japanese and in English. I will discuss the loosely connected chapters separately.
Imago is the third and final volume of Xenogenesis, Octavia E. Butler’s groundbreaking science fiction trilogy about alien contact and its consequences. I have already reviewed the first and second books, and now it is time to finish the series! I will also conclude this set of reviews by quoting from Butler’s own reflections on the trilogy, and taking a brief look at how it influenced her later work.
In Imago, the merging of humans with the alien Oankali, and the creation of “constructs” (Oankali-human hybrids) reaches a new stage. After the appearance of female and then male constructs—in this order—the time has come for the emergence of constructs who share the Oankali third sex, ooloi. Ooloi are neither men nor women, but have unique reproductive characteristics and a biological aptitude for healing and genetic manipulation. Oankali only develop their sex upon puberty, and this is true of constructs as well; though in the previous volume, we have seen that some Oankali and constructs both often have an idea of their future sex, and can influence it to an extent.
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.
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