Butchness and Liminal Mortality in SF

by Hannah Abigail Clarke

In the opening credits of Zach Snyder’s Watchmen, the phrase LESBIAN WHORES is briefly scrawled in blood on a wall. The lesbian couple from whom said blood was extracted lie adjacent, lifeless in lingerie. The lesbians here exist to display death. Death binds the lesbians to this opening credit spot, allowing the plot to roll on, unfettered by lesbianism’s potential ramifications—flashiness, campiness, demanding provocations—while still allowing the audience a lick of pulp erotic horror. LESBIAN WHORES is a particularly loud example of Dead Lesbian Syndrome, a trope pervasive in and beyond SF/F in which sapphic characters face their mortality seemingly at random and with little narrative payoff, and is incidentally the first time I can remember actually reading the word lesbian. I was twelve. This remains a pervasive narrative stasis.

Still, stasis ruptures and has been rupturing. Despite the scarcity of lesbian protagonists, particularly of the butch/gender nonconforming/nonbinary variety, SF has decorated examples in Tamsyn Muir’s ongoing Locked Tomb trilogy and Joanna Russ’s Whileaway stories, “When It Changed” and The Female Man. Lesbian death is omnipresent in these texts, but rather than being a device to shut down narrative potential, lesbian proximity with death becomes a driving, prose-warping force that generates its own kind of narrative structure. It is also noteworthy that Russ’s work does venture into transphobia, and its understandings of lesbian-specific gender tension aren’t verisimilar to many of today’s gender conceptions. 

Spoilers henceforth abound.

In Russ’s “When It Changed,” Whileaway is a lesbian utopia in which men have not existed for thirty generations. Then men show up, and the narrator knows at once that she will die, and that lesbian utopia is transient, ephemeral, mortal. Whileaway’s original name was For-A-While. Death is a promise embroidered on lesbian utopia’s foundations. Whileaway resurfaces in The Female Man as a place existent in one of several concurrent timelines, the home of one of several concurrent genderweird lesbians who might all be the same lesbian despite being radically different lesbians. The plot structure doesn’t arc so much as corkscrews between perspectives. Timelines tangle, worlds exchange. With “When It Changed” preceding, the discordant perspectives feel like neural fireworks before the system goes dark. It’s hilarious and devastating at once, stuffed thick with campy pulp tropes and brutality so jarring it’s almost comic. The book ends with a list of goodbyes. Literal goodbyes—goodbyes to the lesbians, to the reader, to the book itself. “Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book…For on that day, we will be free.”   

Fifty years later, we have Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, which is to say, Joanna Russ and her little book are not yet free. Necromancy is The Locked Tomb’s primary conceit—the worldbuilding in all its pomp is predicated on a mass accumulation of death that permeates every aspect of the characters’ lives, perhaps recalling Whileaway’s origins as a place that exists because all men were slaughtered in a sex war generations previous. When our butch dies, she also doesn’t die, and instead floats in liminal existence within the body of the lesbian who ate her. Harrow claws through a barrage of today’s campy pulp tropes, i.e. fanfiction tropes, looking for the semi-dead dyke in her head—a role reversal, a courtship ball, a coffee shop AU in imperial colors—and spirals through delusions of alternate timelines, fractured perspectives, a familiar mix of comedic genius and stomach-churning violence. The lesbians maybe die again. We get a brief goodbye.

These texts make no motion to overlook or wish away Dead Lesbian Syndrome. They make a tool of it. Where Dead Lesbian Syndrome forecloses the potential for lesbian stories to unfold, these texts use death as a crowbar to pry open narrative structure itself and make lateral space for all manner of lesbian nonsense. Bending space and time is an SF staple, but the particular method of plot scrambling in both The Female Man and Harrow the Ninth feels distinct. There’s a bracing, bitter humor about the absolute smithereens we’re left with in the wake of these books. There is little closure and only brief gasps of catharsis. We have few answers beyond a recognition of pain.

We who write queer SF/F are left with this: as much power exists in stories that imagine radical futures beyond queer trauma as it exists in stories we hope will be irrelevant soon. Stories like these affirm the brain-splitting aftereffects of pain, both fresh and long accumulated, as being worthy of narrative. Reckoning can be requisite for escape. 

Hannah Abigail Clarke is here and queer, etc. They’ve been published at Tor.com, Lunch Ticket, PRISM international, Dream Pop Press, Portland Review, Gothic Nature Journal, Eidolon, and Chaleur Magazine. They were a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Young Adult Fiction and a Pushcart nominee. The Scapegracers is their first novel.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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