Writing Queer Speculative Fiction

What is Queer Speculative Fiction?

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

This week, I’m diverging a little bit from my normal advice-driven fare to talk about Queer Speculative Fiction.

I write pretty much exclusively spec fic — mostly sci-fi and fantasy, inspired by the classics (and knock-off classics) of the genre that I read throughout my childhood. Sometimes I’ll write things that are a little harder to describe (like one of the novels I’m currently shopping around), but they always draw on the core idea of spec fic: asking the question, what if this aspect of our existence was different?

Speculative fiction is a powerful tool for examining the future, the past, and the present. Queer speculative fiction is, to me, its own entire subgenre — or perhaps more accurately, a broad style.

When I talk about “queer” spec-fic, I’m not just referring to sci-fi, fantasy, or horror media which features LGBTQIA+ characters. I’m talking about utilizing aspects of LGBTQIA+ identity and queer theory to examine our world from new directions, to illuminate our shortcomings and offer hope for solutions outside our patriarchal, heteronormative, restrictive status quo.

What Does “Queer” Mean?

I once wrote a series of posts with arguments for and against using the word “queer” to describe LGBTQIA+ characters, and some potential alternatives. I’m not using “queer” in that context here, though.

Rather, I’m using the word “queer” as it is used in “Queer Theory,” a framework for literary and political criticism which, in the words of Jay Stewart, “celebrate[s] transgression in the form of visible difference from norms. These ‘Norms’ are then exposed to be norms, not natures or inevitabilities. Gender and sexual identities are seen, in much of this work, to be demonstrably defiant definitions and configurations.” (Genderqueer and Non-Binary Genders, 2017).

Queer theory seeks to examine binaries based on gender, sex, and orientation in order to challenge hierarchies and fight social inequality. This framework utilizes the LGBTQIA+ experience — in the form of sexuality, gender identity, or a combination therein — to challenge the norms of our society, to force people to look at such norms in a different light.

When I talk about “queer speculative fiction,” this is what I’m referring to, not the specific orientations or gender identities of the characters (though a narrative without LGBTQIA+ characters would be a hard sell as queer spec-fic).  Queer speculative fiction uses the styles, norms, tropes, and structure of spec-fic to examine, deconstruct, and critique the norms of our society through the lens of gender, romantic, or sexual variation from those norms.

To me, to be queer is inherently to be working against societal norms. Our world — especially in the West — remains intensely patriarchal, cisheteronormative, and binary, even as “inclusivity” increases. Queerness chafes against these norms, or in some cases rejects them entirely. To be queer is to resist, to be the exception which proves that the rule is meaningless.

Queer speculative fiction, therefore, utilizes this definition of queer to show how our world might be different — and much improved — if certain hierarchies were broken or removed entirely. Alternatively, it might utilize queer experiences and queer points of view to bring to light injustices or inequities in our current system. Queer spec-fic might also satirize our current understanding of gender or sexuality by hyper-fixating on them in a self-aware framework, like a literary drag show, to illustrate their absurdities, inefficiencies, and atrocities.

Who Can Write Queer Spec-Fic?

I mean, anyone, so long as you’re examining the world around you.

There’s a lot of great examples of queer spec fic from folx who don’t necessarily identify as queer. I’d call Iain M. Banks’ Culture series queer speculative fiction, since a large part of the titular Culture’s radical freedom involves fluid sexuality and the ability to medically transition between biological sexes on a whim. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness is a foundational work of queer science fiction, and one of my personal favorites. Adrian Tchaikovsky has also employed queer themes relatively well in books like The Doors of Eden, for a more contemporary example.

Fundamentally, though, good queer spec fic comes from the minds of those who experience or examine the world through an alternative lens, those being queer folx themselves. Often, too, these individuals have intersecting identities which give them an even more transformative perspective on the topic. Queer BIPOC, disabled, and/or neurodivergent authors like Rivers Solomon, Akwaeke Emezi, Nghi Vo, and Yoon Ha Lee often write from a place of many intersecting identities, and through their lived experiences can explore not just the false binaries and hierarchies of gender and sexuality, but also race and ableism.

This is sometimes lost on queer folx who just want to “fit in” — often so-called “single identity” queer folx, those whose queerness is the only intersecting identity which removes them from privilege and power. This is why a queer person writing speculative fiction is not inherently writing Queer Spec Fic. If a story seeks to simply normalize and streamline the queer experience such that it fits into our society, or another that is very similar to it, rather than explore and deconstruct the fraudulent powers that make up our culture, then they’re just writing sci-fi or fantasy with queer rep.

Which, let me be clear, is fine! We need more fun and light fare featuring queer folx, something for us to escape into. It’s taxing to read and write only deep, heavy-hitting work. Sometimes you need to unwind and relax. We all deserve rest. Just know that you aren’t sparking any revolutions by just having your space lesbians kiss.

Writing Queer Speculative Fiction

So how do you do this? How do you live up to this high-minded theoretical framework which I’ve just laid out?

I dunno, friend.

I strive for it in my work — I’m white and grew up with a lot of class privilege, and my culture and the religion I was raised in are both celebrated and centered. It’s tough to break apart the advantages that I hold and examine the unfairness and violence in the world, and then write about that in a coherent and engaging way.My queerness — in the counter-culture sense, regardless of my trans and bisexual identities — is my personal avenue to that, but it’s imperfect, and the best I can do is try.

Read a lot, and seek out works that aim for this style of examination. Read work by those with and without intersecting oppressed identities (ie — read work by queer white people and queer BIPOC people) and observe the differences in observation and experience. Read also works from different cultures, stories with structures unfamiliar to you, to understand that the way you tell stories is not the only way — that there is no right way to tell a story. Observe the hierarchies and power structures as they exist in the world, who they harm and who they help, and think of how gender and sexuality intersect with them.

The main thing I want to hammer home here is that speculative fiction that merely features LGBTQIA+ characters does NOT fall into this broad critical category. Again, it’s still fun and I absolutely adore that sort of fiction, but it’s not inherently revolutionary to uncritically tick representation boxes.

Just do your best to think about how the world might be different, and you’ll be well on your way to writing critical queer speculative fiction!

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