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Transcendent ed. K. M. Szpara

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There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. Cisgender people can never quite understand this distancing. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.
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K. M. Szpara, in his introduction to Transcendent, explains where this anthology came from: a submission to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories 2015, their year’s best of gay speculative fiction. As a result of that, Steve Berman of Lethe Press gave Szpara a call, and asked him to edit a similar anthology, but trans themed… to which, thankfully for us and for history, Szpara said yes. Collecting the year’s best trans speculative fiction must be an incredible challenge, and to narrow that down from however many submissions Szpara received to the fifteen he eventually chose must have been a monumental task; I don’t intend to comment on all fifteen stories, but to highlight those I think are best – and those that I think don’t fit so well into the collection, for whatever reasons.

It’s hard to pick out the best stories to talk about in a collection where the standard is so high; but one of the best is E. Sexton’s ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’, which is barely speculative fiction (and increasingly mimetic as time advances), and that is absolutely brilliant. It’s a relatively short story that draws on queer love to help boost the tension felt by its central character between preserving texts and ensuring access for as many as possible; Sexton walks that tightrope without ever providing an answer to the titular dilemma, and the transness of the central character matters but isn’t what the story is about.

Transcendent is full of stories like that; Bogi Takács’ story ‘The Need For Overwhelming Sensation’ is a queer, kinky space fantasy that looks at assumptions, power, and politicking, whilst also being about a beautiful and sweet queer sub-dom relationship. The presentation of nonbinary gender is natural, as one might expect from eir work, and the way e challenges assumptions about kink is fantastic, but the transness of the story is almost incidental. The same is true of A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Where Monsters Dance’, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is a trans woman; the story is largely about parental abuse of the protagonist by their step-father, and the psychological protective mechanisms one builds to deal with abuse, among other things, and it is a fascinating, powerful, and moving story.

A few of the stories in Transcendent are very directly engaging with being trans. The volume opens on one, ‘The Shape of My Name’, by Nino Cipri. Their story is a fascinating take on time travel and on the emotional complexities it can lead to, with the mixture of certain fate and changing destiny a major theme; Cipri writes about being trans powerfully in the story, and is interested in the circularity a time travel narrative can allow. Everett Maroon’s ‘Treasure Acre’ also plays with time travel, but rather more simply; it’s a very short story, about the way that the struggles we have to face as trans people make us who we are, and although we could wish them away, it might not actually be better to not have them. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s ‘Everything Beneath You’ is the most personal to me; it engages directly with the wish to be neither male nor female, and the possible consequences of that, whilst also telling a tragic love story in a very mythic fashion. Stufflebeam’s embrace of myth is powerful, and her use of mythic motifs works excellently.

One theme I singularly dislike that runs through a number of these stories is nonhuman, magical transformations as a metaphor for trans experiences; this is strongest in Alexis A. Hunter’s ‘Be Not Unequally Yoked’, but Transcendent also sees it occur in ‘The Thing On The Cheerleading Squad’ by Molly Tanzer, ‘into the waters i rode down’ by Jack Hollis Marr, and ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ by Holly Heisey. Each of these stories has their own strengths, and some of them, notably Marr’s, also have trans characters outside their metaphors, but at the same time, it is still frustrating to see selected as some of the best trans fiction stories that conceptualise being trans as essentially not human.

That said, of that set of stories, Heisey’s ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ really does convey powerfully and movingly a lot about the experience of transition and the reactions to it of different people; the three parts of the story are fascinatingly written with different approaches to transition, with the last being cathartic and heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.

There are also a couple of stories which are simply not up to the same standard as the rest of the anthology; Benjanun Sridungkaew’s ‘The Petals Abide’ has the potential to be a fascinating piece, and the way she uses gender in the story is important in its straightforward acceptance of a variety of gender identities, but the whole thing should have been about half the length, and the literary quality of the language is such that it tends to tip into convolution and self-parody rather than beauty. E. Catherine Tobler’s story, ‘Splitskin’, feels like it isn’t sure quite what it’s trying to be; somewhere between a circus tale and magical realism about the gold rush, it never really works as a piece of fiction until the very ending, which is beautifully written.

The anthology closes on a very interesting story which brings together multiple themes discussed above; Penny Stirling’s ‘Kin, Painted’ in one sense is a metaphorical discussion of being trans and trying to find one’s gender, and in another sense, given the explicit inclusion of trans characters of a variety of genders, is not about that at all. Stirling’s story is a fascinating meditation on art, and how art derives meaning from its context; ou writes about growing up, discovering oneself and one’s community, and about the idea of family, whilst also having built an incredibly queer world in the background.

Transcendent isn’t perfect, as no anthology can be; I think there’s too many stories which treat being trans as a metaphor, and some which just aren’t up to scratch in here. But overall, Szpara has done a fantastic job of selecting stories to showcase a range of trans narratives and voices, and his work should be applauded.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of Bogi Takács, one of the writers in the anthology, and of K. M. Szpara, the editor. Transcendent 2, also published by Lethe Press, is forthcoming, edited by Bogi Takács.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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