When I was very young, my mum (whose literary taste is pretty good, even if I am biased) brought home a copy of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. I read it and it made enough of an impression on me that years later, with everything that has happened in the intervening decades, I still remembered enough of it to have a friend of mine identify it. I tracked it down, bought a new copy, and read it again. On doing so I realised that, not only had I been exposed to a remarkable piece of speculative fiction at a very young age, I had been exposed to my very first piece of queer fiction.
If a book describing a near-immortal, double-X chromosome shapeshifter who ends up fathering children isn’t queer, I’m not entirely sure what is. But that’s an entire semantical discussion for which I have neither time nor inclination.
My own interests are absorbed in human perception, and how our prejudices and preconceptions affect how we view and interact with the world around us. I see it everywhere, from the cyclist lit up like deep sea plankton nevertheless being the victim of a SMIDSY to blatant sexism, racism and homophobia. Take away the blinkers and you start to see into the cracks. The cracks aren’t in the fabric of the world: they exist in the fabric of our cultural norms and assumptions.
Here in the west we are largely caught in a bipolar paradigm. Light and dark, good and evil, black and white, male and female. The real world doesn’t work like that. The darkest night is the one that lets us see the stars most clearly. We are trapped by this adversarial idea of the world that has absolutely no evidence to support it.
If there is no evidence to support it here, in the real world, where the chairs and the hatstands live, then there is no place for such rigid definitions in speculative fiction, where lie the sex lives of crystalline extremophiles and the wistful desires of steampunk robots.
It was for that reason that I was pleased when the Outer Alliance was formed and immediately signed up. Their mission statement reads as follows:
As a member of the Outer Alliance, I advocate for queer speculative fiction and those who create, publish and support it, whatever their sexual orientation and gender identity. I make sure this is reflected in my actions and my work.
I don’t have a lot of work. My longed-for career as a writer is currently closer to the stage of wishful thinking than anything approaching reality. But at the bottom of this post is a rough first draft I penned in response to a prompt on a creative writing course a couple of years or so back. It’s the opening sequence of a story that would like to be much, much longer. The tutor didn’t rate it much. He thought it was a ghost story that had gone off the rails. He was very wrong, but I didn’t ever explain to him that there were no ghosts planned for this tale.
For me, the belief that there are male and female and one copulates with the other and that’s all there is to it flies in the face of everything the natural world tells us. As Mark Morford said:
Let us be perfectly clear. Not every individual animal necessarily displays homosexual traits. But in every sexually active species on the planet, at least some of them do, for all sorts of reasons, and it’s common and obvious and as normal as a warm spring rain falling on a pod of giddy bottlenose dolphins having group sex off the coast of Fiji.
Queer isn’t queer, it’s normal, and thus to fail to have it represented in speculative fiction would be not only refusing to think outside the box, it would be building a much smaller box inside the existing one, climbing inside and shutting the lid.
By the way, Outer Alliance Pride Day is, strictly speaking tomorrow, the 1st September. For various reasons I’m posting this now.
Call it thinking outside the box.
THE NEARNESS OF STRANGERS
I met him/her on the stairs. It wasn’t the first time. We often passed one another, usually while I was on my way down, heading to work with my bike slung over my shoulder wishing for the umpteenth time that I’d managed to find a place that had an elevator.
I’d never worked out whether the person who lived in the flat opposite me was a male or a female. There was an utterly androgynous quality about… well. What pronoun do I use? “It” is too impersonal. I wouldn’t want it used of myself, after all. He or she was about my height, which says nothing. The brown hair was shoulder length, which again is no clue; and the clothes were never quite right. No matter what they were they always looked like their wearer was cross-dressing. I had seen her (or him) wearing everything from silk dresses to a suit and tie and nothing seemed to fit.
On this occasion I waited on the third floor landing while he — he was dressed, very overtly, as a male, so for now it will do — came up the narrow flight below, the bike digging in to the muscle of my shoulder. I was determined to ask. How long had we been neighbours, after all? I should at least find out which was preferred. At first I was impatient because my grip on the bike was slipping and I was running late — again, which would put me in the doghouse — but then I saw there was something desperately sad about him. Usually he just seemed tired. I had naturally assumed that whatever job provided rent money for my mysterious floor-mate was night shift. Maybe that was why I had never done anything more than offer a brief hello in passing. We existed in different halves of the day and our starts and ends were jammed up against one another the wrong way round. Whenever our paths crossed I was always in a rush and he was exhausted.
“Are you okay?” I just blurted it out when he reached the top of the stairs. The question burst from somewhere at the back of my chest and left me feeling a little stupid. I didn’t know this person: this person didn’t know me. Why would anyone share details of their personal life with a stranger? I mean, in all the times I had said hello there had been nothing more than a slight nod in return.
My neighbour stopped, right on the top step, one hand resting on the rail of the balustrade. It was a very elegant hand. My mother would have described it as “artistic”. I could imagine that hand shivering exquisite music from a violin. A totally unexpected chill crept over me as my gaze drifted upwards over the slightly crumpled, stained silk shirt to the eyes.
Dear gods the eyes. I no longer felt the twinge of the bike’s weight on my shoulder, or the growing panic of being late again. I looked into those soft, grey eyes and was lost: trapped, like the wedding guest.
“It is terribly kind of you to ask.”
The eyes held me. In those eyes I could see that the answer was no. No, he was not okay, and would never be okay again. Something terrible had happened, something so dreadful that it could not be voiced out loud. Yet at the same time it had been something that always might happen, and now that it had it was almost a relief.
“Can I…” I wondered why I was whispering. “Can I get you anything?” It seemed a really stupid thing to say even as I said it. There was just this… this need to do something. To help.
His face registered a fleeting expression of uncertain recognition that turned briefly ponderous before vanishing to polite neutrality.
“Thank you, but no. You should be on your way.”
The eyes glanced down at the floor, briefly and deliberately. For a second I felt dizzy. My neighbour stepped past, surrendering the stairs. I was halfway down to the next landing before I was aware I was moving.
When I looked back he — or she — was already on the next flight. All I could see was a pair of elegant boots with cuban heels climbing slowly and oh so wearily onto the fourth floor.