We hunger for happiness in queer stories. Many critically acclaimed novels about LGBTQ life have explored and challenged homophobia: James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library are all classics, with more recent examples including 2019’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong and I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver. There are moments of joy in all of these books, but undeniably queerness is paired with homophobia. Now, though, a new spate of science-fiction and fantasy novels are quietly and gracefully opting instead to imagine worlds where homophobia does not exist.
Fantasy’s default mode still tends to be a faux-medieval past matched with archaic sexual and social codes, while sci-fi authors often imagine brave new worlds where a man will happily have sex with an alien, but not another man. However, many writers are solving one of the largest blocks for queer romance by simply doing away with homophobia in their fictional universes. In 2019 alone, we had Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower, with a trans protagonist whose trans-ness is interrogated as important but not other; Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, starring the best cast of lesbians the world has ever seen; Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, which makes space in its epic sci-fi plot for a romance between two women; and Jennifer Giesbrecht’s The Monster of Elendhaven, in which the central gay couple break every norm – except their universe’s rules on sexuality, because there aren’t any.
And more will come this year: 2020 promises AK Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name, with a sweetly deadpan queer orc heroine Csorwe, and the second novel in Muir’s trilogy, Harrow the Ninth, which somehow manages to get even gayer. And 2021 will see the launch of bestselling Captive Prince author CS Pacat’s new YA trilogy, set in a version of Victorian England where queerness is just as accepted as heterosexuality.
A fantasy editor said, ‘I love this book, but in order for me to publish it in my line, Alec has to be a girl.’Ellen Kushner
This burst of bigotry-free universes hasn’t come from nowhere. Malinda Lo published Ash, a YA lesbian retelling of Cinderella with a happy-ever-after, in 2009. Two decades before that was Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, set in a universe where everybody is bisexual. Bisexuality-as-norm is a common feature in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series, which began in 2001 and took as its internal motto “Love as thou wilt”, and, since 2010, NK Jemisin’s work has consistently featured queer characters in universes with shifting norms around sexuality. And that’s just western media: in Japan, yaoi manga set in queer-normative universes have been common since the 70s.
These books may look good in a list, but they were few and far between. For the authors, finding publishers was often a struggle. “It was awful,” Kushner says now of selling Swordspoint. “It was terribly hard to get it published. A very good friend of mine who was a fantasy editor said, ‘I love this book, but in order for me to publish it in my line, you have to put magic in … and I think Alec has to be a girl.’” Kushner fought back and eventually found a publisher who would accept the manuscript as it stood. Others weren’t so lucky; many queer characters metamorphosed into heterosexuals or had their sexuality relegated to subtext.
“I grew up reading fantasy novels in which there were few or no queer characters,” says Pacat. “Those that we had were often hidden, coded and subtextual. If they were explicit they always had the same quote-unquote gay storyline, which was, ‘I come out, I face an enormous amount of oppressive backlash, I’m forced to live my life on the fringes of social acceptability, until at the end I die tragically.’ It’s as though discrimination is just a fact of queerness that can’t be separated from it. It’s trans-historic, it’s trans-cultural, and now it’s even across fantasy worlds.”
Captive Prince, which began as a self-published online serial in 2013 and was picked up by Penguin Random House in 2015, was one of the tipping points for this rise of queer-normative fantasy universes. With its heavy emphasis on warring kingdoms and court politics, the trilogy had common ground with Game of Thrones. In other ways, it was revolutionary, with a gay male romance at its centre that was questioned in just about every way except on the basis of it being gay. Sexuality in Captive Prince was complicated and restricted, just as it is in our world; it offered different versions of sexuality across different cultures (including one where extramarital heterosexual sex was taboo, for fear of children born outside marriage), but it removed the automatic assumption that queerness in itself would be stigmatised.
“We’re getting to the point I yearn for,” Pacat says, “where if you have a queer character they could have a romance narrative where [their queerness] is not the romantic obstacle. They could have a more exciting obstacle, like, ‘You killed my brother but I’m falling in love with you’,” she laughs, describing Captive Prince. “Or a mystery detective narrative. Or a hero’s journey.”
Pacat’s next series, Dark Rise, is a YA fantasy set in a version of our historical past, but where queer relationships are freely accepted.
“There wasn’t a young adult in Victorian England,” Pacat says. “Victorians believed that adulthood began when childhood ended. So even putting a ‘young adult’ into that setting is ahistorical. If I’m telling my young adult reader, ‘you can travel back into the past on this passport of your young adulthood and believe that you, as a young adult, could have existed in this setting’, then why would I close the door to a queer person and say, ‘but you cannot travel there’?”
Once they removed homophobia, the authors I speak to express a sense of relief and freedom in what they can now do with their stories and characters. “It was intuitive,” Kushner says, while Pacat describes writing within a queer-normative universe as a “wondrous, free land where my imagination could just go wild”.
Muir says of Gideon the Ninth, which is part space opera, part murder mystery and part quest narrative: “I wanted my lesbians to be completely [unaware] of homophobia.” (She says she “set out to write lesbian epic”.) There are nearly a dozen major female characters and though the action centres on Gideon and Harrow, who merrily hate-flirt their way through the novel, it’s hard to think of one woman in Gideon who isn’t queer – and completely unconcerned about it. “I don’t think I could have written Gideon qua Gideon as someone who was raised within a breath of homophobia. I mean, she’s such a dickhead.”
Readers have met these queer universes with such joy that it’s unsurprising to find commercial publishing embracing them, too. Dark Rise sold at auction to HarperCollins in the US for a rumoured six-figure sum. When Muir was sending Gideon the Ninth out, she received one response that praised the “sisterly” relationship between Gideon and Harrow – but for the most part, she says, she has been lucky. “I was aware that [Gideon] was probably going to be able to go mainstream because maybe you wouldn’t recognise how gay it is. It was a miserable thought at the time, but then I got bought by Tor.com Publishing and realised they were just going to go full-steam-ahead lesbian. I know it hasn’t been the case with a couple of other people even now, but for me it’s been so smooth.”
The rise of such universes, where queerness is immutable and homophobia is not, will offer escapist worlds for LGBTQ people who would like to forget, if only for a moment, that our existence is questioned in the real one – how we should live or act, whether we should be allowed to live and act at all. But escapism doesn’t mean frivolity: these novels are also offering a glimpse of a world that could come, or the kind of world we want to build.
“Genre fiction has become the place where myth-making happens,” Pacat says. “We’ve exchanged Hercules for Harry Potter. And so, when you have queer characters who are condemned to the queer narrative B-plot, they never get to be the hero. Genre fiction is this form of cultural production, it’s telling us who the heroes are. But I want us to be heroes as well.”