Guest Blogger

Transgender Themes in Science Fiction

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 03, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Alicia Goranson, Angela Carter, ftm, gender, Ian McDonald, Joanna Russ, John Varley, Mary Gentle, Maureen McHugh, MTF, nute, science fiction, Steel Beach, Supervillainz, The Female Man, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lion's Eye, The Stone Golem, transexual, transgender, Ursula K. Le Guin

Editors' note: Cheryl Morgan is a cheryl.jpgscience fiction critic who takes a particular interest in feminist and gender issues. Her online book review magazine, Emerald City, won a Hugo Award in 2004. While the magazine has now ceased publication, Cheryl still occasionally writes about books and gender at her personal blog, Cheryl's Mewsings.

stonegolem.jpgIn the future, all sorts of things will be possible. One day we may even get jet packs and flying cars. We may also be able to re-shape our bodies in all sorts of interesting ways. It is not unexpected, therefore, to find sex changes featured in many science fiction stories. But just how relevant are such stories to real transgender people? Do these stories portray transgender experiences accurately? Could they help non-transgender people understand the issues somewhat better? Or is there something else going on?

Given the amount of science fiction that features sex changes, I'm not going to be able to cover anywhere near everything. I'm also going to restrict myself to books, which is what I know about. But hopefully I'll cover a range of different approaches to transgender issues and give you a good idea of what is out there.

Bodies like clothes

steelbeach.jpgIn some science fiction changing biological sex is as routine as buying new clothes. You will see characters say things like, "so I decided to spend my next 100 years as a woman." But do these books have any concept of gender identity? Mostly they don't. In fact some of them are very confused indeed. One of the most famous is Steel Beach by John Varley. In that book Varley conjectures that what is essential about humans is not their sexual preference or gender identity, but their sexual orientation. So a lesbian who has a sex change will immediately start fancying men rather than women in order to stay homosexual. It is as if people got a personality transplant along with their new bodies.

Feminist Agendas

femaleman.jpgFeminist science fiction writers love covering gender issues, but many of the more famous works were written at a time when feminism was generally suspicious of transgender people. The Female Man, by Joanna Russ, is a classic of feminist science fiction, and a wonderful book. It features separate male and female societies and the men, deprived of women to oppress, make their own by surgically converting boys who fail a machoness test. The whole set-up is very reminiscent of how Janice Raymond talks about transgender people in The Transsexual Empire. Russ has since apologized for her early antipathy towards transgender people.
neweve.jpgAngela Carter takes a rather different line in The Passion of New Eve. An arrogant young man is surgically transformed into a woman and left to fend for herself in an America suffering social collapse. Her experience of a real woman's life is contrasted with idealized views of womanhood as embodied by the Garbo-like film star, Tristessa de St. Ange. Real trans women, of course, tend to live lives more like Eve's than Tristessa's.

What about the boys?

missionchild.jpgTrans men are much rarer in science fiction, as they are in other media. One honorable exception is Mission Child by Maureen McHugh. It tells the story of a young woman who struggles with her gender after disguising herself as a man to escape persecution. Although Jan finds much of life as a man attractive, and is offered the chance of surgery, she is unsure how to proceed. In particular she tells her doctor that she had no thought of being male before circumstances required her to disguise herself. The questions that the doctor asks suggest that McHugh researched the issues well before writing the book, though it is unclear whether she accepts the transsexual viewpoint as valid.

Beyond the Binary

lefthand.jpgThere are many books that feature aliens who are sexless, hermaphrodite or even change sex naturally. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is a well known classic that shows the difficulty humans can have in related to someone who changes from male to female in front of their eyes. But for Le Guin's aliens the change is perfectly natural and their gender identities must be very different from ours.
Lionseye.jpgI do know of one book that deals with a genuinely intersex human. Ilario, by Mary Gentle (published in two volumes - The Lion's Eye and The Stone Golem - in the USA) is a fantasy novel featuring a lead character with both male and female sex organs, and a functional womb. The book is excellent when looking at the social disadvantages faced by Ilario and the unpleasant attitudes of other people (including Ilario's mother). However, the book also features something of a caricature of an MtF transsexual in the form of a eunuch who chooses to live as a woman. Neferet is described as behaving with exaggerated femininity. She also has a strong sexual relationship with a gay man, thereby advancing the theory that MtFs are "really" gay men who have "gone too far".

Some recent progress

riverofgods.jpgIn River of Gods Ian McDonald describes a character who has undergone surgery to become a "nute" - a person without gender. Tal has no traditional sexual organs, but is capable of orgasms thanks to especially sensitive parts of yt's skin. The complex surgery required to become a nute, and the social ostracism that nutes face in society, are clearly based on issues that face transsexuals in the real world.

supervillainz.jpgFinally we have a book that features real transgender people as heroes. Supervillainz by Alicia E. Goranson tells the adventures of two transgender people (one MtF, one FtM) who accidentally become enemies of a group of capitalist super heroes. Set against a background of the queer community in Boston, it is clearly written by someone who knows the full spectrum of transgender experiences very well.

As I said at the beginning, I have only scratched the surface here. There are many other books worth discussing - not to mention comics, films and so on. I suspect a few might appear in comments. I'd like to hear of some more positive representations. Hopefully, as transgender people become more widely known, writers of all sorts will portray them more accurately.

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The character (in several books) Elizabeth Andrew Jackson Libby Long. "Slipstick Libby". The most accurate portrayal of a TS woman I know, sketchy though it is.

Heinlein must have known someone TS very well.

A ridiculous number of us are engineers, mathematicians, or rocket scientists.

For that matter, add RAH's "I will fear no evil".

And Le Guin's "Left hand of Darkness" of course.

Good selection. I noticed that Robert A. Heinlein classic "I Will Fear No Evil," released in 1970, gave a sci-fi head start on all of the other books you mentioned. An old, rich man get the brain of a young woman. For a young fledging trans person in the 1970s, this was a book I enjoyed over and over. "Stranger In a Strange Land" skirted the edges of this idea, however, because the main character moves from Mars to Earth, he feels out of place, like trans people sometimes feel.

I have written a few Sci-Fi novels as well, and only had one of them pulished in the early 1990s and it is no longer in print. I wrote all of them before I started my transition and all but one has a trans character in them. Some of my sci-fi short stories also have a trans theme. They are fun to write, but it would be more fun to see more of my sci-fi work in print.

Ooops. In "I Will Fear No Evil," The rich man's brain is transplanted in the a young woman's body. I must have been a bit dislexic today.

Thanks for the list, Cheryl. I'm not much of a sci-fi reader, but I've always heard that Leguin's books are really good. So maybe I'll actually give them a try now.

In my transgender history class at the U of Iowa I usually assign Fred Pohl's "Day Million," from the BioFutures anthology.

I'd be curious to know your take on "The Breeds of Man" by F. M. Busby. It was my first exposure to SF dealing with gender identity.

But, but, but...

What about the Wraeththu books? I keep trying to track down Storm Constantine to see if she'd be willing to join the blog, but I've never found a way to contact her.

I too read the Heinlein when I was a kid. I'm pretty sure that there's something going on there. On the other hand, given his general attitudes to women, I suspect that any attempt to portray Heinlein as trans-friendly would lead to hard-line feminists saying that proves that trans people fetishize womanhood. Also, of course, it would cause outrage amongst all the far-right Starship Troopers fans out there.

Kat: interesting suggestion that I shall definitely follow up.

As for things like the Le Guin and the Wraeththu, they are certainly very interesting from the point of view of examining gender roles. However, the beings in question are not human. They do what they do "naturally". One of the most common charges laid against transgender people is that they are "unnatural". Writing about interesting aliens won't necessarily help transgender humans, nor will transgender humans necessarily identify with those aliens. Is it possible for a Genthian or a Wraeththu to be uncomfortable with his/her gender?

I've not read the Busby, but it sounds like the same thing.

just wanted to add isaac asimov to the list. on the planet solaria in the book 'foundation and earth', humans have genetically modified themselves to be hermaphroditic, possessing both male and female genitalia in order to complete their goal of each human being completely isolated (and therefore, completely "free") from other humans.

If you get a chance, I highly recommend finding a copy of Shadow Man by Melissa Scott. It's out of print but I was able to get a used copy through Amazon.

I'm not great with book descriptions so I'm just pasting from an Amazon review here:
"In the future, humanity has developed five distinct sexes due to the effects of a drug that allows faster-than-light travel. The Concorde worlds have officially recognized all five sexes, but on the isolated planet Hara those in between male and female are considered mutations who must choose to live as one of the two traditional sexes. When Hara regains contact with the Concorde worlds, it's an opportunity for Warreven--a "herm"--to break the long-standing role society has forced on him. But it will also put him in the center of a political battle that will span the stars. Shadow Man won the 1996 Lambda Award."

I don't know how relevant or accurate the book is in terms of transgender or intersex experience, but for me it was definitely food for thought on all kinds of gender fronts. Plus it forced me to get more used to using alternate pronouns (ze, hir, etc.).

The Wraeththu may be a different species, but the first generation of them began as human males. After they become Wraeththu they have to accept their new identity as members of a third gender, and when they learn to reproduce some of them have a hard time accepting the idea of being pregnant.


You are quite right there, and some of the most interesting aspects of the Wraeththu books are the differences between Wraeththu who were originally men and those who were originally women. Even amongst those who were originally men, there are some who prefer to do the getting pregnant and others who prefer to do the making pregnant. Storm does a fabulous job of gender deconstruction. But it is unclear what Wraeththu society will be like 10 generations down the road.

Svenn Diagram | September 3, 2008 9:00 PM

No Jack Chalker? The man made a career out of body swapping.


Body swapping in and of itself is not necessarily anything to do with transgender people. Indeed it is just as often used as an excuse for claiming that the feelings of transgender people are invalid because a body is no more than a set of clothes that people wear.

Being mindful of discussions elsewhere today, I'm happy to admit that are people within the transgender community for whom that is all that bodies mean to them, but it is by no means a generally applicable description.

Of the Heinlein books (and yes, I read I Will Fear No Evil), the one that most resonated with my experience was Friday. The questioning of Marjorie Baldwin's humanness, her concern about being detected (especially in terms of strength and speed), relationships that were destroyed because of her natal history, and her sterility all struck a chord.

As an inveterate RAH fan (even of things sch as starship troopers), I am very glad to see friday listed.

I will fear no evil was an awesome book to read, and although RAH's portrayal of women is often derided, I do not find it to be so, since every woman in my family often seems to have walked out of one of his novels.

Friday is absolutely my favorite novel of his. She may not change her sex, but her experiences -- and the often times utterly unbelievable aplomb with which she handles them and the strange way she allows herself to be dictated to -- or a sort of roadmap in many ways to what we go through.

He hated the book, btw.

Maureen Long is also a great character of his, and Sail sorta serves as a survey of sorts of the ways in which women have been treated in many ways in the 20th century.

Chalker did more than body swapping. Much more. Chalker was fascinated by the power of chemicals and the brain, and toyed with all manner of exaggerations of stereotypes and outright torture. The gist of his work seemed to say if we change this about your brain chemistry, we change you.

In the Well world books, he even used a sex and species change as a punishment -- twice.

Gentle's first book was rather interesting as well, in terms of gender, as her alien species more or less went with their gender identity, forming that and then changing at the end of puberty -- so I think that perhaps she gets it a little more than people realize.

thanks for the article :D

Two other books come to mind. A Civil Campaign by Bujold has a FtM character in it. It isn't the main character, but he does show up and cause a bit of a stir.

Charles Stross' Glasshouse is another far-future setting where body-swapping is common as breathing, but the twist of the plot is where the characters get stuck somewhere where that can't be done. It does directly address gender identity as a societal construct in several ways.

How about Iain Banks' Culture books? It's set in a posthuman society where every human has a vast array of enhancements, one of which is the ability to consciously decide to change sex.

It's not specifically true to the trans experience, beyond the fact that everyone has the power to choose their sex, which probably means the trans experience in the Culture is fairly unremarkable.

Apparently, it's popular for couples in the Culture to arrange things so both partners are pregnant at the same time.

The Culture is pretty close to a post-gender society in that anyone can be any gender that they want, when they want it. They keep gendered bodies because they enjoy sex and are at least interested by reproduction (though I'm pretty sure they have ways to make it totally painless). Gender only really becomes an issue when Culture citizens visit worlds where these things are not possible.

If you want to see Banks write about gender you need to read The Wasp Factory.

I'll give a shout out to Rachel Pollack's short story 'The Second Generation' from 1976 which a recent conversation with Cheryl had me searching out again. Pollack's future in that story has pills available for all which can effect immediate sex change (she doesn't bother with the science, the process is more akin to magic) and the relationship she describes between a pair of teenage lovers I found to be thrilling and dizzying in its implications. I was 14 when I read it and this was my first contact in fiction not only with queer themes but with a queer identity being presented as natural and universally acceptable. Unlike John Varley above, she has the two characters discussing their "inner" gender and the meaning of gender itself when anyone can choose how they want to be.

I am not surprized that Gael Baudino's DragonSword trilogy wasn't discussed. Published by Penguin Books" ROC fantasy division, 1988 through 1992, it delt with several issues. The first book of the trilogy dealt with acceptance, both individual and societal of transsexuals and women in general. Of course, the setting is mostly in the Fifth Century C.E. Britian, which was a very mysogonistic (sp?)time. This theme continues in the other two book of the trilogy. Although in the second book, a 20th Century feminist, anti-transsexual character is added and this carries over into the final book.

I wish I could go into more detail, but then that would be giving away too much of the story.

As an interesting aside, I found the first book in a collection of books while I was serving in Southwest Asia during the first Gulf War. The books were collected and sent to units serving in the Gulf Area.


Have you read her later trilogy, which uses some odd mixing of narrative styles? It had a character who was presented as being kind of trans like, who by the end wanted the goddess to transform her completely into a woman (and this never happens), and is ultimately attacked for not being a "real woman." This bothered me more than a bit, because I got the impression she was portraying this character as somewhat delusional, and the violence she experienced was typical.

Don't know for sure but I think Glasshouse should have been mentioned... but I guess it's more transhumanism then transgender.

As Glasshouse has been mentioned twice now I should perhaps direct you to my review and to Timmi Duchamp's.

Vic in Chicagoland | September 4, 2008 1:15 PM

Theodore Sturgeon's 1953 story "The Golden Helix" comes immediately to mind that seems to predate most of the others mentioned.
Interesting sidenote is that Sturgeon postulated the DNA helix independent of the actual discovery of the helical structure at the same time.

He also wrote a number of other short stories that touched on non-traditional gender traits.

Great article!

On the televisual front, the new series of "Doctor Who" featured a comic trans-gender villainess called Cassandra in the episodes "The End of the World" and "New Earth." Cassandra was originally a boy, transitioned at some point, and by the time we meet her she's had so many face-lifts she's just a piece of translucent skin, with eyes and lips, stretched onto a metal frame connected to a brain in a jar. So not just transgender, but post-human...and morbidly proud of her "thin and gorgeous" looks. In the second episode, Cassandra indulges in some body-swapping hi-jinks, inhabiting bodies both male and female. Author Russell T. Davis says the character was inspired by the parade of anorexic face-lifted actresses at the Oscar ceremonies.

Hmm, Mr. Davis is developing a track record of negative attitudes towards trans people.

I hate Cassandra as a character, but what else has Davies done?

When asked if he could ever see the Doctor regenerating as a woman he said that was out of the question because it would lead to fathers having to explain sex changes to their children.

Oh, right, I completely forgot about that, and it totally did piss me off at the time.

He seems like he's carrying around the usual load of cissexism, which is painful enough to deal with.

Commitment Hour by James Gardner. Everyone cycles through genders until they are forced to choose one in late puberty. Not a great book.

Maria V. Snyder's Study series features a character...well, I can't say more without spoiling, but that character's gender issues play out over the first three books in an interesting way, with twists and turns.

Two sci-fi stories I have read which deal with transgender issue and stuck in my mind are the novel "Crygender" by Thomas T. Thomas and the short story "Changes" by Neil Gaiman.

In the novel, a detective tracks down a criminal who has completely dropped from public notice. In the investigation, he ends up at a resort run by the character Crygender who has surgically modified themselves to be half male and half female (split left/right) with the functional genitalia of each.

In the Gaiman short story, a cure for cancer is discovered and put into pill form. The pill cures cancer very quickly (in a matter of hours), but has the side effect of causing the person to switch physical gender. This leads to a subculture of individuals who take the drug recreationally to spend the day/week as the opposite sex. Additionally, it introduces new prejudices regarding an individual's "true gender" such that if you attempt to enter establishments as the gender you were not born with (or was otherwise not appropriate to you), then you were barred entry.

The people in _The Left Hand of Darkness_ are human, if you read the meta-background of her Ekumen stories. (There are two versions of her earlier story "Winter's King", one with all female pronouns, the other with all male.)

Her short story "Old Mountain Ways" may also be of interest.


Another Rachel Pollack piece of interest would be her novelette "The Beatrix Gates" which I published in THE FUTURE IS QUEER (Arsenal Pulp Press).

Anonymous | March 6, 2010 3:18 PM

Erm, actually, Cassandra was always a woman. If you watch the episode all the way through, we see her as she was as a normal human, back before she had so much plastic surgery that she was reduced to being little more than a stretched out hide with a face. She went body hopping to get a new body and ended up taking Rose, the Doctor and then her little male servant fellow before dying.

No one is "always a woman," but Cassandra specifically refers to being a little boy on Earth, living near the Los Angeles Crevasse. I have no idea what your assertion that we see her as a woman has to do with a possible transition in her history. Of course we see her as a woman! She was a woman, but that does not mean she's not trans.

HBPattskyn | March 6, 2010 3:24 PM

I'd like to mention Margaret Weis' Mag Force 7 series. The transgender issue is really only barely a sub plot (and a not really part of the first book, per se, we only hear about the main character's *male* former colleague. Later we discover that he has become a she.) But that said, Weis handles the issue with grace and intelligence. The books themselves are a light, easy read with a good blend of humor and action, plot and character development.