Transgender SF

Tagged: Theme

In the real world, gender reassignment surgery dates back to around 1930 as a technique; an earlier operation, in 1918, involved only removal of breasts and ovaries. The full procedure only became widely known to the general public, however, after the media blitz that surrounded Christine Jorgensen's transition in 1953. For reasons which may possibly have nothing to do with social attitudes (but almost certainly do), there seems to be no genuine early sf example of an attempt to anticipate anything like a describable medical operation of this sort, certainly not in American Genre SF, though there may be examples of such procedures being conceived along Horror in SF lines, perhaps drawing on tales like H G Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896). The value-neutral (indeed sympathetic) treatment of gender transformation at the heart of Ramon De Las Cuevas's "Teoquitla the Golden" (November 1924 Weird Tales) may well be unique in the American popular literature of the time. Nor do pertinent examples come to mind in the literature of Fantastika as a whole before the twentieth century; although Magic might be invoked to explain gender transformations, usually to punish or to disguise, it is difficult to discover an example in which the transformed person actually truly changes his (almost never her) "true" gender identity. Before the beginning of the eighteenth century, from Ovid on, tales of metamorphosis have little if anything to do with Gender issues as they are now understood.

Somewhat to one side, but adumbrating various issues, fantasies and sf tales of Identity Exchange became moderately common after the enormous success of F Anstey's Vice Versâ, or A Lesson to Fathers (1882; rev 1883), and were thought to be saucy, like Thorne Smith's broad but mild comedy, Turnabout (1931), where a married couple's body switch is titillating, and eventually reversed. Conversely, H P Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep" (January 1937 Weird Tales) treats the scenario as one of Horror. That these stories had exactly nothing to do with Transgender issues as expressed in fiction may be rather more clear now than then; and late examples of the type, like Robert A Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil (1970), tend to embarrass nowadays. In Heinlein's novel, for instance, to save his consciousness from death the brain of a rich old man is implanted in the body of his beautiful young secretary, allowing the author to play out an old man's fantasy of what life as a pretty girl must be like. But in any case brain transplants are a side issue, because the new gender identity is worn as a costume; Roland Puccetti's The Death of the Fuhrer (1972), in which a sexy woman "is" the brain-transplanted Adolf Hitler, though not embarrassing, is no more to the point. Further examples of the type include George MacBeth's The Transformation (1975), whose protagonist becomes the woman he loves, though only for a while; and Justin Leiber's Beyond Rejection (1980), which opens with the formerly male protagonist awakening in a female body.

Much earlier, however, at the beginning of the twentieth century, something like a genuine transformation on gender lines climaxes the plot of L Frank Baum's The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), where it is revealed that Princess Ozma, having been magicked as a child into the boy Tip, has no memory of her/his early years until the magic is reversed. Though couched in language for children, the Ozma/Tip/Ozma transformations edge into very dangerous territory for an American writer hoping for library sales, and may help explain Baum's unpopularity among educationists of his time; this transgressiveness conceivably underlies Alice Sheldon's use of the nickname Tip during her James Tiptree Jr years. And in The Anglo-American Alliance: A Serio-Comic Romance and Forecast of the Future (1906) by Gregory Casparian, one of the partners in a lesbian marriage, after they both suffer discrimination, undergoes a gender-reassignment operation; the couple, now male and female, marry and live happily. But Casparian's novel was published very obscurely, and would surely have aroused contumely had it been widely distributed. More typical, though also published obscurely, is a tale like Isidor Schneider's unpleasant Doctor Transit (1925) as by I S, where transitioning leads to madness. And though it is in far greater sympathy with its protagonist, who not only survives involuntary transition but is clearly happy with the outcome, Gu Junzheng's "Xing Bian" ["Sex Change"] (1940 Kexue Quwei) is still told in melodramatic terms.

The first tale in which a surgical procedure is actually – though not entirely realistically – described may be André Couvreur's "L'Androgyne" (January 1922 Oeuvres Libres; in L'Androgyne: Les Fantaisies de Professor Tornada coll 1923; trans Brian Stableford in The Exploits of Professor Tornada, Volume 1: An Invasion of Macrobes: The Androgyne coll 2014); the narrator of the tale, who is operated on without his consent by Professor Tornada, takes his transformation good-humouredly, explores the mental changes attendant upon the physical, and eventually has a reverse operation. The almost dementedly comedic tone of the story – much more penetrating and explicit than for instance Thorne Smith's mildly "naughty" identity-exchange tale – did not, however, establish a precedent. The first text of interest to anticipate actual transgender literature may be Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928), whose female/male protagonist inspires in succeeding Temporal Adventuress protagonists a persisting hint of transgressiveness. The actual transformation from one gender to another of the body of a single personality in Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is part of the Gethenian natural life cycle, and although the novel's stately but telling Feminism addresses a range of other targets it is not therefore concerned with a central defining characteristic underlying gender reassignment: that it is a medical intervention. A lack of trauma (or, in a sense, of pressing need) also characterizes other tales of that decade, like Robert Silverberg's Son of Man (1971), whose protagonist is transposed into the Far Future and there experiences a wide range of ways of being human, including being female; or the less penetrating Traitor to the Living (1973) by Philip José Farmer, whose earlier fiction about the polymorphoses of Sex did not dramatize transgender protagonists. In John Varley's stories and the novel Steel Beach (1992), people change gender on a whim and, consistent with Varley's essentialist approach to the biology of gender, find themselves turning into predetermined mirror versions of their inner selves, so that a red-blooded heterosexual male will turn immediately into a deeply "feminine" person obsessed with clothes and boyfriends: but always with the option to switch back. In Charles Stross's Glasshouse (2007), a male character is as part of an experiment trapped in a female body in a supposed recreation of twentieth-century Earth, providing a much less pleasant view of life as a woman. Such novels as these may be best described as Thought Experiments, a characterization that intensifies the sense that the changes described are, in the end, optional. It is perhaps a marker of the evasiveness of much twentieth century sf that, when gender reassignments are dealt with, they are often treated as easily reversible options – as implied in another Heinlein novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), where Mike the sentient Computer's inability to work out whether he/she is male or female is never more than a verbal issue. This "lightness" of touch is often as well found in Identity Transfer and Identity Exchange scenarios, as in Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967), though to a lesser extent in Jack L Chalker's more prurient The Identity Matrix (1982). Rudy Rucker's Master of Space and Time (1984) literalizes wish-fulfilment with a pseudo-technological rationale for fantasy's Three Wishes scenario: the protagonist wishes impulsively for an instant gender switch and later for its instant reversal.

An extended discussion of gender identity and roles, whose ramifications cut very deep into any discussion of the biological/cultural constitution of Homo sapiens, lies beyond the remit of this entry. Jean Marie Stine's Season of the Witch (1968) as by Hank Stine may more directly address the nature of change, but in a cartoonish fashion, and featuring a male protagonist whose remaking into a woman is an ultimately redemptive punishment for rape and murder. Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge (1968) explores physical aspects of the change, but is not fantastic; the sequel, Myron (1970), a Timeslip tale, plays with gender identity issues, but is focused elsewhere (see California).

It can be noted, however, that as early as the 1970s these difficult matters were now being confronted – more complexly if not very satisfactorily – by authors like Joanna Russ, whose The Female Man (1975) posits a world where men and women live in separate societies. Unable to reproduce, the men buy male children from the women, but force them to undergo masculinity tests. Those who fail narrowly are raised as effeminate men whose primary role is as diplomats (Real Men being averse to having to negotiate with women), and those who fail badly are forced through gender reassignment and raised as wives and/or sex slaves. This savage dicing with gender issues corresponded closely with popular opinion amongst Feminists of the time, many of whom believed that male-to-female trans people were intended as compliant replacements for feminist women. More subtle, but still embodying a coercive understanding of the issue, is Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve (1977), whose initially male protagonist suffers involuntary gender reassignment and is sent out to experience life as a woman in an America undergoing social breakdown. The experiences of New Eve as a woman are contrasted with the life of the Garbo-like actress, Tristessa St Ange, who is eventually revealed to be a clever transvestite living out a fantasy.

Sf novels dealing with transgender protagonists – or simply representing them as a synecdoche for the richness and variety of Homo sapiens over the next centuries – tend appropriately not to focus on the medical aspects of the change, opening the door to novels featuring actual human beings. Bron, the initially rebarbative protagonist of Samuel R Delany's Triton (1976; vt Trouble on Triton 1996), may seem to undergo transition for an inherently trivial reason: to find out stuff. But during the course of the tale, this shopping mentality is itself complexly exposed, with Bron's permanent discontent contrasted with the well-adjusted successful life of another trans person featured in the tale. M A Foster's The Morphodite (1981) and its sequels feature an assassin Genetically Engineered to switch gender involuntarily after each kill, chiefly as disguise; deeper resonances are here not explored. One of the protagonists of Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon (1994; 1995) is transgender, a state of being which is integrated inconspicuously into the flow of the tale. In Maureen McHugh's Mission Child (1998), a young woman disguises herself as a man for safety when her homeland is attacked and later has to decide whether she wishes to become fully male, revert to living as a woman, or perhaps choose something in between (of which more below): the focus is less on the choice itself than it is on the person making it. Neil Gaiman offers a very sympathetic portrayal of a transitioned woman in the Sandman sequence A Game of You (graph 1993): Wanda's phobic refusal to undergo surgery is presented as not being an obstacle to successful transition. There is an incidental female-to-male transition for essentially political reasons – to subvert a male-only rule of inheritance – in Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign (1999). Characters in Iain M Banks's Culture universe routinely change gender at will but appear not to change personality much, and most people seem to stick with the bodies they are most comfortable in; more significant variations on this assumed background occur as a minor plot point in The Player of Games (1988) and a major one in Excession (1996). Slightly more traumatic – though only in the sense of growing up and discovering the complexities of sex – is the first experience of gender-switching in Greg Egan's "Oceanic", where the penis transfers between partners during each act of conventional intercourse. In Ian McDonald's Brasyl (2007), one major character is bisexual and cross-dresses when going out clubbing, while another undergoes gender reassignment; the portrayal of a world which encompasses this range of protagonists is suitably multiplex.

Ian McDonald's River of Gods (2004) also includes the option of transition to a neutral or "nute" position outside the traditional gender binary. Earlier, Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960) had suggested that the key to Utopia might be the elimination of gender differences by the surgical imposition of hermaphroditism shortly after birth; more ambiguously, Robert A Heinlein's Friday (1982) offers a brief suggestion of gender indeterminacy as a personal choice. Further novels featuring intersex people include Mary Gentle's Ilario: The Lion's Eye: The First History (2006) and Laura Lam's Pantomime (2013).

In today's mature tales of transgender sf, gender choice is intricately interwoven into investigations of human interactions with (and, because they are sf, of actions upon) a complex world. Trans characters are, in other words, now being included in novels as part of the ordinary fabric of society, not specifically to examine issues arising from their trans nature. An anthology of interest is Transcendent: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction (anth 2016) edited by K M Szpara. [JC/DRL/CM]

see also: James Tiptree Jr Award.

further reading


Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.