An innocent alien visits Providence, Rhode Island on Christmas Eve. A trio of friends visit a haunted, haunting mansion. Queer cybernetically enhanced bands clash in a dystopian landfill. An attempt to summon the Devil doesn’t go as planned. These stories and more make up Meanwhile, Elsewhere, a collection of speculative fiction from trans authors. Order this remarkable anthology today with a donation to Truthout!
In Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers, some of the worlds and futures depicted are very unfamiliar. Others are so close to our world that they very clearly illustrate its cruelties, idiosyncrasies and beauty, whether it’s through the all-too-plausible public embrace of cybernetic conversion therapy in “Schwaberow, Ohio” by Brendan Williams-Childs, or a better world that seems heartbreakingly within reach yet elusive in Ryka Aoki’s “The Gift.”
Call them science fiction and fantasy, SF/F, speculative fiction or spec fic, these stories demand to be read by a wide audience. Like Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements — the obvious closest comparison — Meanwhile, Elsewhere reveals how much speculative fiction can achieve when it isn’t dominated by the same (cis, white, male) voices.
Truthout spoke via email with Casey Plett and Cat Fitzpatrick, the editors of Meanwhile, Elsewhere, about the anthology’s origins, goals and themes, about the editing process and about, well, destroying western civilization.
Joe Macaré: Can you tell us a little about the genesis of this project? Where did the idea come from to collect stories by trans people writing speculative fiction in particular?
Casey Plett: In summer 2014, Topside Press decided to do a speculative fiction anthology. I was in New York City at the time, but I was teaching in the day and getting drunk till four at night and literally my one memory of this being in the works is when Cat told me of the plan at the bar. Months later, the press, who had just published my own book of short stories, asked me to come on board as co-editor. This is all a way of saying Cat will probably be of more help on this answer here.
Cat Fitzpatrick: So, this was my idea! It is my fault. I love to get people drunk and co-opt them into misguided schemes. Some of this was to do with knowing Rachel Pollack, to whom the book is dedicated, who wrote all these amazing SF/F books starting in the 70s, and being aware of this somewhat submerged history of trans SF/F writers and wanting to continue this.
“Science fiction and fantasy seemed a good way to do more explicitly polemical work without being boring.” — Cat Fitzpatrick
Related to that was that I wanted Topside to do some work that was maybe more explicitly polemical because the world is so terrible, and SF/F seemed like it had previously been a good way to do that without being boring. I was particularly thinking about second-wave feminism, which had all these very political SF/F writers coming out of it whose work was really important to me, like Ursula Le Guin above all, and wondering where that piece of the puzzle was in contemporary trans lit. (Much like my poetry projects come partly out of being, like, where is our Adrienne Rich or Audre Lorde?)
At the same time, I wanted not just to emulate but also to reclaim feminist SF/F traditions that often have been, as with Joanna Russ, quite hostile to trans people. To offer us something better. Also, trans people all seem to be huge nerds, so I was like, maybe this will be popular. Maybe we will even make some money for a change.
Casey, I read in a Quill & Quire interview that you don’t come out of a science fiction or fantasy background as a reader or writer, whereas Cat, you’re very familiar with these genres. Can you talk a little about how you collaborated as a result?
Plett: Cat, please correct me if you think this is different, but: I thought I was going to be out of my depth much more than I was! I feel like there were … times where Cat would interject on a story I was editing and say: “Actually, this is probably why X thing is happening, it’s a common move in spec fic and it does Y,” and I’d go “Ahhhhh, roger,” but I feel like there weren’t that many of those moments. Most of the authors are huge sci-fi nerds themselves and I think they guided me along right where I came up short.
But also, I don’t think meaningful prose writing is a terribly different animal across genres. Figuring out what a story is saying, how the characters are relating to each other, and how the jokes and drama are landing or not landing — it’s not like those rules are different across genres. Am I wrong? Tweet at me if I’m wrong @caseyplett please.
Fitzpatrick: I knew you would be great at it! The reason I wanted Casey on board is, I was confident I could deal with fixing people’s world-building, but I wanted someone who could really help people with character dynamics. I wanted her to bring the Alice Munro. Most bad SF/F is bad because it has cool worlds, but doesn’t have actual people in it you can care about or actual stories for them. I think this collection has big ideas, but I think that by anyone’s standards, these are all also just really great character-driven stories full of emotion and people you care about and meaningful narratives. Which is totes down to Casey, who rules.
Were many of the contributors to Meanwhile, Elsewhere new to writing science fiction and/or fantasy? If so, what strengths and/or challenges did that bring?
Plett: Back of the envelope calculation: I’d say half the authors were already writing SF/F. Of the half who weren’t, I’d say half of them were SF/F fans but hadn’t given writing it a crack before. And the rest were enterprising spirits trying something new. As for strengths and challenges, I mostly refer you to my above answer, but now that I think about it, some folks came with the world-building firmly conceived and in place and some folks were figuring it out as we went, so that was a difference, though not one I’d really consider on a strength/challenge spectrum.
“If you have a three-dimensional, complicated, multi-faceted … character, it doesn’t matter if some of her nuances also fall into stereotypes.” — Casey Plett
Fitzpatrick: We have a couple of people for whom this is the first story they wrote of any kind. I think insofar as people were beginners at writing or at SF/F, it did mean we had to be very available as helpful editors, but also it brought a freeness, a freshness, a “you don’t know that’s impossible, so you just did it” kind of quality.
You say in the afterword that “trans people have been treated in science fiction and fantasy as part of the spectacle: either as an amazing future technology … or as awful unlikely monsters.” How do these stories resist that tendency while still allowing their protagonists to be free of the need to be perfect representative role models, to be monstrous if the story requires?
Plett: If you have a three-dimensional, complicated, multifaceted, interesting, weird, nuanced character, it doesn’t matter if some of her nuances also fall into stereotypes. To take “Delicate Bodies” as an example; in that story, the protagonist is a racialized trans woman who becomes a zombie and sexually assaults and murders people. That woman, in the process of becoming the undead, then has insights about how class and race and gender affects our notion of monsters. And the woman has been hurt by boys and still has a boy she’s in love with and misses her family and has a varied array of friends and is processing trauma and is feeling massively awful about the betrayal of new zombie body requiring her to kill and all of this is happening through her eyes.
In the terrible stories where trans people are awful monsters (in spec fic and elsewhere), none of that complexity happens.
Fitzpatrick: Likewise, with the amazing technology. Compare what happens in a story like Calvin Gimpelevich’s “Rent, Don’t Sell” to the ways Iain M. Banks or Kim Stanley Robinson write about “amazing gender technology,” and I think there is so much more humanity to it. Calvin has amazing bodyswap technology, but what it gives the characters is a complex and unsatisfactory legal relationship with the person whose body they have swapped with as a sex reassignment technique. Or a shitty job at the gym doing other people’s workouts for them. I think it’s that kind of attention to mundanity instead of spectacle that allows these stories of awesome trans monsters and machines to also be human and complex and lived.
Also, in re “Delicate Bodies” and monstrousness, I think on the left now there’s this prevalent axiom that being oppressed makes you virtuous — that when you are hurt you somehow become a better person. Which I’m not sure is always true. Or else that being hurt makes you pass on the suffering to weaker people in a miserable continuation of the cycle of abuse. Which is not the only way you can be a bad person.
“If cis women can write country songs about shooting their abusive ex-boyfriends … we can probably have a book where zombie transsexuals are out for blood.” — Casey Plett
But fighting back, even (especially?) in morally unjustifiable ways, can be a source of glee. And I think being able to address that possibility, of oppressed people responding with gleeful violence rather than victimhood or sainthood, in a way that doesn’t then jump straight to condemnation or denial of the character’s humanity, or panic, but takes it seriously, as a complex, ambiguous, difficult desire, is really powerful and helps us reckon with the feelings we might have like that.
Plett: If cis women can write country songs about shooting their abusive ex-boyfriends and have it played for kicks for millions on the radio, we can probably have a book where zombie transsexuals are out for blood.
Dystopia is a common theme in these stories, but in some cases the line between dystopia and utopia isn’t at all clear (like in Sybil Lamb’s “Cybervania”). Why do you think that is?
Plett: I think that’s a really insightful look at “Cybervania” in particular. I suppose my melancholy answer might be that many trans people have had the experience of (re)constructing their adult lives from near-scratch, in a world that is not interested in accommodating them.
Fitzpatrick: Because we are here to destroy western civilization, duh. And build amplified junk city-states out of the left-over plastic. Or yeah, because we know building your perfect life from scratch is never that easy, and that your life falling apart utterly is never that final.
Speaking of utopia, while it’s hard to single out any story, and I don’t want to give away too much about it, “The Gift” by Ryka Aoki is one of the most remarkable pieces in this collection. What made you sure it belonged here?
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Plett: Because its world-building is no different than the ones with the monsters and the zombies.
Fitzpatrick: It is the most dystopian utopia we have! That world is the impossible realisation of our dreams, which would be a nightmare, but even knowing that will not make us stop dreaming of it. It is so poised and smart and exact and deadly.
Some stories, like Tristan Alice Nieto’s “Imago” and Kaj Worth’s “It’s Called Fashion,” feature passages in which language itself breaks down from standard prose into something more like digital forms of language, or fractured traumatic memories or what resembles lewd texting. What was that like to edit? Did having worked in poetry as well as prose help?
Plett: I followed the slipstream, for lack of a better word for it. When I come across that kind of thing as a reader, I just follow the emotions of it as best I can and if the writer has done their job well, I can make my way across the room of the page even if it’s not 100 percent lit. As an editor, I just ask the writer if I have the right idea, and go from there if I don’t. Uh, I hope that worked for everyone, readers of the book.
Fitzpatrick: Hah! Not me! I have worked with too many poets to let anyone get away with being sloppy with experiment. I got Kaj on the videophone and made them explain every single thing they were doing and codify all the rules so that I was 100 percent sure that, even if it was unconventional, it was internally consistent and coherent and could be figured out by an attentive reader. And actually, the same a bit with Tristan, although that is more about disintegration than weird structure, but I pushed her to codify exactly what the form behind the disintegration was. I am a mean editor!
Do you know of plans by any of the contributors to turn or incorporate their stories or characters into longer works? Some of them seem to lend themselves to that, while others like Morgan M Page’s “Visions” very deliberately leave us hanging in a way that means “finishing” the story would only detract from its impact.
Plett: Bang-on about “Visions,” yup! As for plans, I know Dane Figueroa Edidi has a whole world of existing and continuing stories and books in which some characters show up in her story, “Matchmaker.” Sybil Lamb has published another story with Sterile Amerika from “Cybervania” and I think wants to do a few more in a serial novel kind of way. I don’t think it’s the case for anyone else, though authors, please feel free to send me a bunch of angry e-mails if I have forgotten!
“We know building your perfect life from scratch is never that easy, and that your life falling apart utterly is never that final.” — Cat Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick: Also, Nat Buchbinder has a whole universe “Kid Ghost” fits into [that] they are developing. It sounds epic. Kid Ghost turns up as an important secondary character in it, flying spaceships with their brain.
Finally, there are several stories which fuse speculative fiction with other genres and subvert those in the process: noir, crime, horror, erotica, satire. Are there other genres in which you can imagine putting together a similar anthology of trans writers?
Plett: Well, there are already a few trans erotica anthologies out there. (Nerve Endings edited by Tobi Hill-Meyer and Take Me There edited by Tristan Taormino come to mind, both of whom share some authors with us actually!) I feel like a trans noir anthology would definitely have the potential for some subversive, meaningful work that could be both tough and fun. Anyone want to edit a noir anthology? Not it.
Fitzpatrick: I LOVE DETECTIVE FICTION. I want trans mysteries. Again, Rachel Pollack wrote one. And I know at least one author who has written an Agatha Christie-style locked room mystery with a trans lady PI who breaks the rules and a trans dude cop who follows them, that she’s gonna send us and I’m excited to read it. But maybe that is less anthology, than that we need a whole trans pulp crime label for that. Those things come in series.