Death, conflict, and community have always been central themes in literature, but historically literature has tended to center the experiences of white, heterosexual, cisgender men. That has begun to change, and nowhere is the shift more evident than in speculative fiction. Several forthcoming titles focus on queer and female characters, exploring timeless themes and complicating stereotypes about marginalized identities.
For Isaac Fellman, author of Dead Collections (Penguin, Feb. 2022), in which a sapphic television writer’s widow falls for a trans vampire archivist, subverting stereotypes means allowing queer characters, including trans characters, to be authentically complex. “Suddenly, things have opened up for these unapologetically trans books about messy experiences,” he says.
These books put the creativity and tenacity of queer characters in the spotlight.
Queer characters have long been dogged by the prospect of misery and death, so much so that the trope has a name: “bury your gays.” A companion to this is “women in refrigerators,” a trope in which female characters are made to suffer or, more popularly, die, mainly to facilitate the development of male characters.
Speculative novels are increasingly challenging this trope. No longer are queer or female characters merely allowed to live to the end of a book. They’re permitted to thrive and grow beyond expectation. And in doing so they’re allowed to be imperfect.
According to Victoria Savanh, an associate editor at Penguin who acquired Dead Collections, marginalized people want to break free of the obligation to be perfect in order to gain acceptance. “For queer people, people of color, and women, I really love messy characters,” she says. “They should just be allowed to be messy and still human.”
For some authors, death becomes not a silencing mechanism but a way for queer characters to transform or find happiness, even peace. Death is a companion, a rite of passage—not the end of the story.
One example is TJ Klune’s Under the Whispering Door (Tor, Sept.), which PW called “charming fantasy” in its review. The novel centers on a recently dead bisexual man, Wallace, who develops a romance with Hugo, the Black gay ferryman meant to guide him to the “other side.” A chaotic series of events leaves Wallace with only seven days to live the life he’s always dreamed of before it slips away. For him, death is only the beginning.
In The Bone Orchard (Tor, Mar. 2022), a fantasy debut by Sara A. Mueller, Charm, the concubine of a dying emperor and the last surviving necromantic witch of a conquered people, uses her power to raise a selection of Bone Ghosts—doppelgangers whom she creates from pieces of her bones and who take on her form. These Bone Ghosts are put to work at Charm’s brothel, serving men who want Charm but can’t have her, and they carry fragments of Charm’s traumatic memories—“pieces of her history,” Mueller explains—that she can’t carry by herself.
Mueller says, “A lot of The Bone Orchard is about having supernatural means to take your trauma in smaller doses, to keep getting up.” Even the dead parts of Charm don’t rest.
Living by itself can be a form of resistance when one is a person of marginalized gender or sexuality. In several forthcoming books, authors show queer characters finding resolve and hope in the face of bodily and existential threats.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Noor (DAW, Nov.), which PW called a “probing, brilliant near-future odyssey” in its starred review, tells the story of a Nigerian woman named Anwuli Okwudili (AO, for short) who survives congenital health conditions and a severe car accident thanks to increasingly extensive futuristic body augmentations. AO embraces her augmentations but, as is often the case for physically disabled women, women of color, and queer individuals, her relationship to her gender and humanity are challenged. The intersection of AO’s identities compounds the discrimination she faces.
The protagonist of Ally Wilkes’s debut, All the White Spaces (Atria/Bestler, Mar. 2022), Jonathan, a white 17-year-old trans man, is a stowaway on a ship bound for the Antarctic in the wake of the WWI that falls prey to a mysterious supernatural force. Wilkes notes how well-known authors of polar expedition literature, such as Ernest Shackleton or Robert Falcon Scott, opined that such treacherous explorations inevitably revealed the true nature of the explorers.
“Down south,” Wilkes says, referring to the Antarctic, “you see who you really are. Anything you use to conceal your identity or conceal your true qualities comes off.”
Jonathan’s expedition, carried out in close quarters with an all-male crew (from whom he keeps his gender identity a secret), allows him to uncover who he is as a person, irrespective of gender: to claim his identity and seek a meaningful life despite obstacles. “This is about the core of who he is,” Wilkes says.
Two trans women face a different existential threat in Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt (Tor Nightfire, Feb. 2022). The novel follows Beth and Fran five years after a virus has infected anyone with a certain level of testosterone in their bodies, rendering them rabidly violent. They spend their days exploring a post-apocalyptic New England hunting “feral men,” harvesting their estrogen-rich tissues, and trading it for survival.
In Manhunt, Felker-Martin aimed to foreground marginalized persons that are typically neglected in conventional dystopian novels. “I wanted to make something that was totally and unapologetically about the world that I live in,” she says. “That’s a world with poor people and disabled people and queer people and fat people. Those are the things that matter to me.”
The Bone Orchard author Mueller says that, for fictional characters and real people who’ve endured trauma and survived, “hope is important. It’s the last thing out of the box, but it’s important. Without seeing the person who got up, it’d be easy for people to forget it’s the one of the choices.”
Hope, too, can be an act of resistance.
Much of the marginalized queer experience is defined by community, the place where one can be happy, accepted, and even loved. That theme, too, informs speculative novels that focus on queer characters.
Khan Wong’s debut, the space opera The Circus Infinite (Angry Robot, Mar. 2022), for example, centers on a circus troupe made up of interspecies queer performers who act as a found family (see “Balancing Acts,”).
More terrestrially, the protagonists of Fellman’s Dead Collections, Sol and Elsie, share a tumultuous past as members of the online fandom community, a common refuge for queer and questioning individuals.
Fellman doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects of this community. “Sol is one of those trans people whose early relationship to fandom had everything to do with dysphoria, being really self-loathing, and trying to use writing fanfic to think about being a man,” he says—“but in a miserable way because he thought it wasn’t possible.”
Indeed, the theme that most emerges from this coming crop of queer and gender-focused speculative titles is a growing emphasis on authenticity: the good, the bad, the messy. Superficial representation for its own sake no longer suffices: readers and editors want true-to-life depictions of marginalized characters and groups, warts and all.
Idris Grey is a Black queer writer, book reviewer, and sensitivity reader in Texas.