Read the Room – Non-Binary Writers on The Future of Science-Fiction. Part 3: Past, Present, Exploration

Hello for the third time today (who is she, right?). Welcome back for part 3 of Read the Room: Non-Binary Writers on the Future of Science Fiction.

If you come from part 1 or part 2 or even both, I hope you’re having a hell of a time. If you have not read either of them yet, here’s where you can find part 1, and here’s where you can find part 2. Although technically you can read them out of order, I do urge you to explore what our writers have already discussed on previous parts of this four-part interview!

Read the Room is a blog feature focusing on conversations with authors shaping the future of genre, today. A multi-author interview in the style of a chatroom, Read the Room aims to set the stage for some of the most promising, exciting voices currently molding literary genres into the amazing, bright, out-of-the-box stories we know and love to read.

For SciFi Month, we are celebrating non-binary writers who are exploring the worlds of science fiction through their own unique lens!

Read the room banner

As mentioned, this multi-author interview is split into 4 parts (for both aesthetic purposes and to pace your reading experience), which are:

Part 1: Inspiration and Creation

Part 2: Gender and Genre

Part 3: Past, Present, Exploration* YOU ARE HERE

and lastly,

Part 4: Craft and Future

Don’t leave your seat until the end (seriously, it’s like playing musical chairs in here…) because the best is yet to come. The first questions to this part made me really excited because it truly exemplified why I wanted to use an almost “open-source” method for this interview. Let’s brew discussion like booze during the Prohibition era (it wasn’t exactly an era but I bet it felt like it)!

Before diving right in: I really recommend you read this on a larger screen (tablet or laptop), as the layout might read stranger on phone (columns, right?…you know what I’m talking about…).

Larger device or not, show our writers some love! Without further ado, let’s get to it.

Time to get critical. One of my favorite aspects of science fiction is that it’s (generally) an assessment of the future. Would you say that’s what makes it a specially important genre for non-binary voices (and other marginalized identities)?

Joseph Tomaras author photo

JT: I disagree with the premise of the question. As usual, Delany has said what I would say better than I have:

“Science fiction is not about the future; it uses the future as a narrative convention to present significant distortions of the present…. Science fiction is about the current world – the given world shared by writer and reader.”

Samuel R. Delany

Where I might tweak Delany is that the writer and reader are necessarily separated in time. I might share a present right now with him, in the sense that I can look at his Twitter feed and see pictures of his lunch, but when I read Trouble in Triton I am reading an historical document in which the future, as narrative convention, included people reading their books on microfiche readers.

When we talk about the present, we are talking about a more or less recent past – whatever is recent enough that we understand it to be, in some sense, present to us, retrievable, not irrevocably gone. In this respect science fiction is not appreciably different from other genres of fiction.

So I don’t think it is more important than those other genres. But because of the function of the future within science fiction as what Delany calls a “narrative convention,” it renders the exclusion of marginalized identities more horrific in its implications. Which goes back to what I wrote above about fantasies of genocide.

EB: I touched upon what Joseph says about speculative fiction being a reflection of current society in my answer to the previous question.

In order for any speculative fiction to be truly effective of a narrative, it has to have some sort of ties to the present. It doesn’t have to be super explicit, but there has to be something. Having that tie to the present is a way of showing there is a place for marginalized people in both the present and future. That our existence is valid and that our voices are heard no matter what society may say otherwise.

I have been mentally ill since I was ten, it’s hard for me to see a happy future for myself. But with speculative fiction where there are trans people, I can start to see a future. Not only that, but stories about and by marginalized groups allows for creation of communities especially in the age of the internet.

A trans person could be isolated from the queer community offline, but make meaningful connections and relationships through reading a queer SFF book and connecting with other fans/readers online. The genre can give so much hope and comfort.

Erin Barbeau author photo

Blogger’s pop-up: As someone for whom the accessibility of tech is a great passion and means the world, I love that you mentioned that.

Matt Doyle author photo

MD: I agree with Joseph and Erin. While Sci-Fi often – but not always – depicts a future far removed from our own in time, it does also reflect the modern world.

There are so many identities out there now that weren’t ever mentioned when I was a kid in the 80’s and 90’s, and it would seem wrong for them not to be represented in these futures now. People are a lot more open, and that’s a wonderful thing, so a future world without LGBTQ people seems somewhat sinsiter.

So, yes, it’s important because it can show a future where being non-binary is just another part of a person, but it also has to reflect the people we see around us. If that means we can paint a world where there’s less conflict about gender identity too, then maybe that will be a guiding light and a message of hope for others that are struggling to find people like them.

DD: I agree with Joseph, Erin, and Matt! The majority of what I’d say has already been said, so I won’t rewrite their answers, but I do think that fiction, especially speculative fiction, is grounded in the present in some way, even if it’s just something as small as the writer’s personal biases, beliefs, and experiences.

Dominik Myles Dyer author photo

Judith Vogt author photo

JV: Last year, I talked on a panel with the title “Back to the future’s already past” and we touched on that: Science fiction is always about the present. But, yes, it pretends to be about the future and it sure does shape our ideas and perspectives on future. Therefore, you’re absolutely right, the future is a place that’s not yet there, a non-place (utopia means non-place when translated!).

So we can shape a narrative that’s empowering and freeing instead of just “escaping”. We can nourish ideas that may never take place but need at least to be formed in our minds. So, yes, I think that SF is a very special place for nonbinary folks and other marginalized identities

ESA: I agree with the above statements as well–all fiction is a reflection of the world in which it’s written and how the author views and interacts with that world.

But I think there is something particularly special about SFF in the greater realm of fiction because so many people do associate it with looking toward the future and reshaping what’s around us right now.

For me, SFF and fantasy tend to be the places shifts happen first because they are so malleable and the reader’s suspension of disbelief is already higher than, say, commercial romance.

It can be easier to swallow for folks outside the queer community to see nonbinary characters in a futuristic world–and if we as authors can make that a norm, then I think it becomes easier to slip us into other genres, too without quite as much resistance. 

E S Argentum author photo

Alex White author photo

AW: Given that it often takes place in the future, queer representation is a way to say that we’ll always be here, no matter what changes. We could be jetting around on hyperdrives, but that doesn’t change the basic facts about identity and love. I’d also like to agree with ESA that the suspension of disbelief enables the appearance of more queer characters without seeming so out of place. It’s hard to critique someone’s makeup when everyone is swinging around laser swords.

AE:  I think I’ve said this in a previous answer, but science fiction is based on the real world, except you have the opportunity to mould it. So adding non-binary characters to science fiction is something you do because non-binary people exist. You can however write about how you imagine the future to be.

Our future is always shaped by our past and present. A good example of this is a story I’m currently writing about some alien planets where humans are involved as well. In this story there are three planets, one of which is inhabited by what used to be humans. After 800 years have passed, they are no longer human as they have their own, new culture, but there are still aspects in that culture that come from our current reality.

So something being in the future doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it being important for marginalised voices. It becomes important for marginalised voices when you decide to represent them in this future narrative, and decide to represent them in a positive and accurate way.

Anna Everts author photo

Kiya Nicoll author photo

KN: I like the idea of the opportunity to play with material reality that science fiction offers.  (It doesn’t offer it uniquely, but it offers it in a particular flavor.) 

Like Anna’s story – “What if a space colony, which evolves its own tech and cultural shifts” is a classic one. One of the things I think is key in science fiction is not so much the imagined future but the way it shines a light on aspects of the present that could point towards that future.  These colonists came predominantly from this background, and their culture evolved from there; they interacted with this unique experience from their environment, and it changed them this way. 

Forty thousand in gehenna cover

(Look at me, I’m back at Forty Thousand in Gehenna.  Shhh, don’t tell anyone.) 

Meanwhile, if I write about technologically reshaping the body, no matter what I say, it’s going to be relevant to trans and nonbinary folks, it’s going to say something about ability and disability, it’s going to touch on all the present-day discussions about everything from hair dye to tattooing to cosmetic surgery, at a minimum.

JJ: Oh yes, absolutely. We’re living on the brink of great social change, with greater understanding and acceptance of marginalised people, nonbinary people among them.

If a nonbinary person can pick up a science-fiction novel and read about somebody just like them having adventures in space, the kind that have often been reserved for cisgender characters, that has to have a positive impact, and hopefully it would inspire them to have hope for the future – and even to do their part to make that future happen!

J Patrick Jones author photo

K B Wagers author photo

KW: I agree here with Joseph. Contemporary genres, fantasy, romance, etc provide just as much importance to both folx seeing themselves on the page and others learning the important skill of empathizing with people who aren’t like them. Science fiction doesn’t really have a lock on that ideal.

JS: I think others have covered this well. Nonbinary people exist now, and have always existed. Science fiction has a duty to show the real world, but in more fantastical and sometimes more political contexts. The future aspect allows readers to separate themselves enough from the narrative that they don’t get smacked in the face with it, so I think the future aspect is more about giving readers a chance to read and digest moreso than showing this is what the world SHOULD be like.

J S Fields author photo

What is it about science fiction that allows for the fictional exploration of an ever-evolving real-life society?

DD: There’s a lot of freedom in science fiction, especially as it’s not just an exploration of what I suppose most schools would refer to as the “core sciences,” and rather it includes the social sciences, which encourages writers (and their audience!) to explore societal issues. It also allows you to carefully slide in those societal issues (capitalism, homo/transphobia, classism, etc.) without people really batting an eye because you’ve also got other things going on that hold people’s attention. They’re essentially being fed your beliefs without even realising it.

Dominik Myles Dyer author photo

Kiya Nicoll author photo

KN:  Science fiction also allows for the thought experiment in ways that “realistic” fiction cannot.  The scope of “what if” means that we can – to go back to Cherryh as an example – imagine a society of evolved, intelligent lions like her hani, and play with their gender dynamics based on that different set of behaviors and explore the different chauvinisms that result. 

“What if there were aliens that are like this” is a way of sneaking in thoughts about how people are like that, too, at least sometimes.

EB: There’s a freedom to science fiction since in other genres, readers are less willing to suspend their disbelief. But in science fiction, readers expect for there to be whacky and fantastical elements.

The fantastical elements are what at least to me makes the social commentary more digestible and often more thought provoking than someone just being like here’s why x thing is bad. It’s more of an immersive experience.

If you want to write about an alien worm trading SSRIs for candy with a human, no one is going to bat their eye if you also are writing about capitalism as a roadblock to mental healthcare since hey it’s science fiction! It’s gonna be weird!

Erin Barbeau author photo

Joseph Tomaras author photo

JT: I think for science fiction to do this best, it needs to engage with the full breadth of the sciences, including the social sciences.

A lot of science fiction is primarily about technology. Technological development is far from the entirety of science, as is clear to anyone who spends any time with scientists. And such science fiction, including some of my own stories, is not necessarily bad!

Some language play, I think, illuminates how this works. The word technology is derived from the ancient Greek work tekhnologia, which can be translated as, “words about how to get stuff done.” In most European languages, the word for literature is derived from Latin, but in modern Greek, they reached into the ancient roots to coin their own term, logotekhnia. In other words, “how to get stuff done with words.”

When we write science fiction that focuses primarily on technology, we are doing things with words to understand the words that people use to understand how they get things done. Done well, that can encompass, if not the entirety of human endeavor, then at least many of the motive forces that lead our societies to change over time.

JV:  I’m really happy with the answers Erin and Joseph gave: social sciences are so important to incorporate in our idea of SCIENCE fiction. SF fans are so used to having descriptions of fancy machines and interstellar travel, but please, don’t you touch capitalism, patriarchy and gender binary, cause they wanna keep that!

Judith Vogt author photo

Alex White author photo

AW: I know the others have said this, but any rule reality forces upon us can be broken in SFF. Its second-world nature enables writers to critique without explicitly attacking a modern group. The nice side effect is that while my books might be attacking, say Trumpists–because I filtered them through an allegorical lens, the next group of clowns will also get automatically attacked. That’s nice. SFF lets you set things up in timeless ways.

JJ: Calling back to an earlier answer, I think it’s because it’s all possible in the real world. It’s speculative fiction, to an extent, but not as speculative as, say, a colony on Mars, or aliens coming to Earth.

Non-cisgender people already exist in the real world, so by extension they exist in science-fiction and speculative fiction.

Sci-fi allows us to picture the progression of social change in our own near future, as understanding and acceptance of gender identity and sexuality grows and becomes more widespread, in a way that I don’t think any other genre does.

J Patrick Jones author photo

E S Argentum author photo

ESA: To kind of reiterate and expand on both Erin’s answer here and my comments in the last question–the suspension of disbelief that readers bring to SFF can work hugely well in our favor as authors exploring our society.

Despite what certain groups would have folks think, SFF has always been at the forefront of social critique and change. Logan’s Run and Soylent Green explore the issues of overpopulation and dwindling resources. Silent Running is discussion about climate change, and 2001: A Space Odyssey delves into what it means to be human. (Yes, I know, they’re all movie examples, I’m sorry.)

Audiences are willing to accept these deeper, sometimes unsettling concepts within the scifi genre because there’s enough buffer between them and this fictional world that they can walk away thinking “oh, that was a good story” while their subconscious chews on the underlying themes and messages. I think there’s something interesting about retrospective scifi, too: using our ideas of the future to compare and contrast with both where we are while creating it and with what past creators imagined.

AE: Science fiction gives people space to step away from reality and explore what’s possible in our imagination. Not only that, it also sometimes inspires people to make parts of fiction reality.

For example, I know that Adam Savage ended up building a functioning Iron Man suit (minus the high-altitude flying, but it did fly low above the ground). There have been other things from science fiction that ended up becoming reality. But aside from the technology, sci-fi also just inspires people to think outside of the box and look at things from a different perspective. I also agree with Erin and Joseph on the social science part. It’s just as important!

Anna Everts author photo

J S Fields author photo

JS: You can hide so much in SF under allegory and alien species. Writers have been doing this forever, and it offers a way to examine our world with enough space that readers don’t feel attacked. SF writers, as many have noted above, are very aware of this and make strong use of the tactic. And it’s very effective!

Tell us about your favorite experience with this genre.

JJ: As I mentioned earlier, most of my introduction to the sci-fi genre was through video games, which – to my mind – feel like more of an in-depth experience of the genre than movies or TV, since you’re actually in the setting. One of my favourite things is exploring my favourite sci-fi settings beyond the scope of their original games, films/shows etc – such as through extended universe books, pen-and-paper RPGs, and so on.

Kylo Five book one cover

A particular favourite experience of sci-fi is the Kilo-Five Trilogy, a short series of novels set in the universe of the Halo video game franchise.

It’s the first to take a critical look at the “good guys” of the setting, and examines the fallout of in-game events in a very compelling way, expanding on the lore of established individuals and species. Very much my cup of tea.

J Patrick Jones author photo

Alex White author photo

AW: SFF gave me worlds to inhabit when mine was small and terrible. My favorite experience with the genre has to be sneaking tie-in novels to my 7th grade English class because I didn’t want to read any more Jack London. Aliens and Predators, yes. Arctic cold, no.

AE: In sci-fi I found friends when I had none. Well, I have one best friend, whom I’ve known since childhood. But for a good couple years she didn’t live near me and I wasn’t at all popular in school. No one had the same interests as me, so I felt like an outcast.

So I went online and found friends who liked the same TV shows, films and books as me. All of those things were in the sci-fi/fantasy/superhero genre, so being able to connect with people who shared those interests was huge for me. It made me feel a lot less alone and I’m very grateful for those experiences, even if some contacts ended up in the water, so to say.

Sci-fi just gave me a place to belong.

Anna Everts author photo

Joseph Tomaras author photo

JT: Probably the best experience so far was having my story “Ruins of a Future Empire” edited by China Miéville. He is the fiction editor for the heterodox Marxist journal Salvage. His editorial notes are sensitive; I followed most of his suggestions, made a few additional changes in slightly different directions in response to some of his other comments, and the net effect was to significantly improve the story. Yet he saw something in it in the first place, which considering how amazed I have been by those of his novels and stories that I have read, was quite flattering.

EB:  I’ve sort of touched on this earlier, but the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie is deeply important to me for several reasons. It was what allowed me to connect and find my queer community. It was what got me through some of the deepest pits of my mental illness. It was what finally broke the dam allowing me to accept my queerness.

Because of this, I named a species of wasp after Ann, Eadya annleckieae.

I went to 2018 Worldcon in San Jose with my Imperial Radch friends and I got to meet Ann. She was so incredibly kind and gracious with her time, not only signing my species description paper for me, but hanging out with my friends and I where she gave writing encouragement.

I had only started submitting my short fiction for publication a few months prior so it really was a huge confidence booster.

Ann is really a big role model and inspiration for me when it comes to being a part of the science fiction community. 2018 was a really rough year for me in many ways, but getting to meet Ann Leckie was honestly one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in the genre that I’ve loved since I was seven.

Erin Barbeau author photo

Kiya Nicoll author photo

KN: I used to spend a lot of time in the USENET newsgroup rec.arts.sf.composition, which was honestly an amazing experience. Here were a bunch of actual professional authors hanging out and talking shop, with an assortment of fans, wannabes, and up-and-comings in on the conversation and part of the community. 

I made friendships there that lasted even through the years I was basically out of fandom and the writing circuit because I’d given up on writing fiction.  (I got better, obviously.)  For the sort of alienated and lonely kid I was at the time, that sort of acceptance – and acceptance as a potential professional – was amazing.  I learned a lot there, and got a lot of encouragement that meant I could come back.

JV: I’m very happy about my bubble of stubborn, brillant, rebellious writing and publishing colleagues. We may not look like much, but we’ve got it where it counts, kid.

Judith Vogt author photo

E S Argentum author photo

ESA: Yeah, community is a huge part of the SFF experience for me. I have to say, though, I think my absolute favorite moment was at a small, local convention in 2019. My co-author and I were selling our hopeful, queer dystopian series in the vendor room. A young person came up and started chatting with us and almost burst into tears when we told them the series starred a trans protagonist and several other queer characters. They spent a while with us, discussing how much that meant to them, even before reading the book, and it was such an incredible and humbling experience. 

JS: I love all the other authors I have met and how many new books I have been exposed to. The SFF writing community is small and tight-nit, and an extremely wonderful group. I couldn’t have asked for better friends.

J S Fields author photo

Blogger’s pop-up
And to you, reader, where does sci-fi center itself? What is the role of the sciences in shaping discussions? And what are some of your favorite experiences in the genre?

Read more about Joseph, Erin, Alex, E S Argentum, J S Fields, Matt, Judith, Kiya, Anna, K B Wagers, J Patrick, and Dominik in the next part of this interview, where you will find out: What future projects await the writers? What else is there besides writing? and finally, What IS the future of science fiction?


4 thoughts on “Read the Room – Non-Binary Writers on The Future of Science-Fiction. Part 3: Past, Present, Exploration”

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