As queer SFF moves from an once-in-a-while presence – seen at the same time as a weird curiosity and a revolutionary statement – to something of which we get several dozens of new titles every year, I’m seeing more and more discussions regarding the role of anti-queer bigotry in those titles, and whether it should be playing one at all.
As everything I often see on twitter, this is not a new discussion, and if you’re around in queer SFF circles at all, you’ve probably seen it many times; you might especially have seen a push for stories in which queerphobia Just Isn’t A Thing. Since I love talking about worldbuilding, I thought I’d give my opinions on this anyway.
(With footnotes. Who would have thought.)
What Is A Queer World, And Why It Matters
When I talk about SFF worlds in which various forms of anti-queer bigotry aren’t a thing, or as I will call them in this post, “queer worlds”, I don’t mean what is often phrased as “a story in which the characters just happen to be queer”, because bigotry is not a surface-level thing born from nowhere, and you can’t expect to do away with it and leave everything the same¹. For clarity, I’ll say that the “just happen” category is what I’d call “books with no on-page queerphobic aggressions”: for example, you can write books set in the contemporary US with no on-page queerphobic aggressions, but you can’t write a “queer world” book, because the society in the US has homophobia, transphobia and other connected forms of bigotry embedded in it.
I want to talk about those SFF worlds in which the author tried to portray a society completely different from our own, in which queerness isn’t only “not an issue” but an integral part of the worldbuilding.
I sometimes see worldbuilding dismissed as something secondary, not that interesting, something “white dudes who write adult fantasy are obsessed with” (seriously)², but worldbuilding isn’t so much the background of a story as it is the foundations of it. It’s vital, and in a genre that is as much about how thing are as it is about how things could be, imagining stories in which there is no place for homophobes, transphobes, other assorted bigots and the structures they support/are supported by has its own weight. So much about our notion of “important queer stories” is about “stories rooted in queer pain” (especially marketing-wise), but as an actual queer person, they aren’t the most important to me³.
The First Time I Read About One…
I remember reading the short story Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee, a prequel to Ninefox Gambit, back in early 2017. That was my first encounter with a queer world. And when I read that short story – weeks before I could get my hands on the book – I knew that the novel would be a favorite. What are made-up worlds for if not to completely do away with homophobia, make polyamory the norm, and write an all-queer series about villainous geniuses trying to outsmart each other? I don’t think I can explain what Ninefox Gambit did to “used to only find gay people almost only in issue books” 17-year-old me, but I’m not surprised it has occupied my brain ever since.
I remember that when I read that short story, I kept getting stuck on the details. It has a short-story appropriate worldbuilding, but there was so much about it, stuff that maybe was only mentioned in passing, that just made me go you can do that? you can just do that??, like Shuos Meng and their five-people marriage; I didn’t even know polyamory could be a thing back then.
The novel was even more of a revelation because of 1) it being half written in what I call “realistically mimicking sciencespeak”, a form of communication I kind of grew up with and was therefore close to, and for 2) the way it… let queer people be evil. I know, that sounds paradoxical, but what I usually heard even only about cis gay people was:
- “gays go to hell” – nuns in Catholic middle school
- “homophobia is bad, some gay people are perfectly normal™” – my family
- “gay people are gross. I’m not homophobic, I’m just old school” – high school math teacher, during a math lesson
- “gay teens aren’t allowed to have flaws. If you’re a lesbian you don’t even get a personality” – queer YA written for the straight gaze
- “this is a gays only event!! also flawed lgbt people are freaks and created homophobia and asexuals are the source of our oppression” – tumblr in 2016
Lovely times! Anyway, Machineries of Empire was the first time I saw only queer/trans people at the center of a story… and many of them were very competent, compelling, evil people. There was no trying to appeal to homophobes’ morality, no fears of “making us look bad”, no attempt at saying that “actually, we’re normal people too!” because the book didn’t even bother to, it was queer and it was weird and it was gloriously abnormal.
To write a queer world is to disregard bigots’ reality, which I think we should do more often, but also, you know what? Queer villains are very sexy and that’s reason enough.
Some of My Favorite Examples
Something queer worlds are great for is also examining preconceived notions about gender, especially in the context of gender essentialism and gender roles. The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley has a cast made up only of women and it’s one of the most gory, brutal things I’ve ever read, which was surprisingly refreshing – taking male characters out of the picture entirely really makes you notice the way female characters almost never get to be written, and you also get so many lesbians. [Again, the F/F/F love triangle with the villainess sex scene was the best part, because queer villains >> everything else]
Temper by Nicky Drayden has some of the most imaginative, vivid and plain out weird worldbuilding I’ve ever read. Among the many things that set it apart: in this society, there are 3 genders one can be assigned at birth (kigen for intersex people, who are very common, female, male) – and it also features a trans side character in this context. Temper isn’t many people’s concept of “queer book”, as far as I remember the mc isn’t queer, but the world certainly is – and I mean, as a whole this is a story about how being assigned some role at birth that doesn’t reflect you sets you up for a lot of struggles. [This is so underrated. Please read it.]
I want to point out that by “queer world” I don’t necessarily mean “queer utopia”: for example, in stories like the Tensorate by JY Yang, while homophobia doesn’t exist and children get to choose which gender to be confirmed as (before that, everyone uses they/them for them), most of this series is set in a strictly binarist society – you’re expected to either choose to be a man or a woman, and the Tensorate explores the life of non-binary characters in that situation. It’s really interesting to read stories about places with biases completely different from our own, with completely different bigoted ideas backing them. If you’re even marginally interested in queer worlds and haven’t read these yet, what are you doing? [By the way, The Ascent to Godhood is also a queer villainess story!]
But what if we want to talk about utopian narratives? Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is the only one I can think of, and it’s about a young Black trans girl with selective mutism discovering what it means for her “utopia” (mostly-utopia? As usual, it’s complicated) to have monsters. A beautiful story portraying a future America without transphobia and other kinds of discrimination (and no billionaries or police either!), and still not what I’d define a light book. This is the only YA on the list, because I couldn’t think of any others – YA seems to find the kind of worldbuilding necessary to lay down a queer world to be too much.
I read Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie later than many of the books on this list, but its success likely paved the way to them. In this trilogy, the characters in the Radch either don’t seem to have a concept of gender, or have a radically different one from ours; the narrator refers to everyone as “she” to translate this situation. Reading it is also an experiment in exploring your biases, if you catch yourself thinking of someone with different pronouns by accident. If you haven’t read it but the thought of backlist discourages you, I can say that it’s also an incredibly compelling story and I remember never wanting to put it down.
Footnotes! Not Sorry This Time Either
Or, you could! Many successful authors of queer SFF do this. I also think it’s a very boring approach and makes the worldbuilding inherently inconsistent. You can’t have a society that is exactly like our own (or, exactly like Medieval France or Edwardian England… you get the point) just with no homophobia. That’s not how things work, but it’s common in US publishing because the idea that you can take an aesthetic and some of its core elements outside of its overall context is a popular one in all its aspects – I’m wondering if this is yet another side effect of seeing your society as the default and therefore not being able to see the parts that make it what it is, or what it’s a consequence to. This is the same fault that leads to hilarious things like books pitched as “a desert society inspired by 16th century Florence”, but then I remember that stuff like that really can get published.
Counterpoint: it is true that worldbuilding the way Men Have Done It is often used to gatekeep what does and doesn’t qualify as “good worldbuilding”. My post On Rules and Magic Systems was a somewhat sideways attempt at tackling part of that (oh really Brandon Sanderson writes the most realistic™ magic systems… according to writing advice popularized by Brandon Sanderson. Revolutionary!), but I really should have framed it in a larger context: I’m so tired of seeing unconventional worldbuilding – especially when from marginalized authors – be dismissed. Still, acting like focusing a lot on worldbuilding is a white man’s thing does a disservice to them too.
I’m sure I’m not the only one, and yet I’m sure that’s not necessarily true for everyone else, and more than anything I will never push for designing one type of story as the most progressive™, empowering™ and uplifting™ kind of queer or want to participate in similar tiresome endeavors. One can’t on the surface push for diversity but deep down want all queer people to fit into one box.
What are your favorite queer worlds? Have you read any of these?