Sascha* Stronach’s new book The Dawnhounds is about queer folk who refuse to ‘die pretty’. Here, he heralds a queer revolution in science fiction and fantasy.
It’s an archetype we’re all familiar with: the tragic and noble LGBTQIA character who shows up to support the hero, and then dies beautifully while the straight folks run off to find true love/defeat the dragon/start a quirky bakery in Brooklyn. It is especially pernicious in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy; in 2017, popular D&D podcast The Adventure Zone (often held up as a standard-bearer for good representation) received backlash for burying lesbian couple Sloane and Hurley at the end of an arc, having them die in each other’s arms and merge their bodies to form a blossoming cherry tree.
TAZ responded well and have kept it out of their future narratives, but it still stands as a flashpoint of something that queer readers are sick of seeing: our deaths being mined for drama while our lives are pushed into the background.
Science fiction and fantasy are pushing back, and Kiwi authors are leading the charge.
Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is an international bestseller that has swept the Aucklander to nerd superstardom in a few short months, and there’s good money on her sweeping the 2020 Hugo and Nebula Awards. It’s the funniest political thriller about lesbian space necromancers you’re ever going to read. It’s aesthetically a very dark novel: mandatory skull facepaint, skeleton armies, a cadaverous stellar empire rotting from the inside. It’s also charming, hopeful, and effortlessly funny. I spoke to Muir and she said “Kiwis can’t help but take the piss a bit” and that seems to be core to its success – Gideon the Ninth pokes its tongue out at convention to deliver a powerful catharsis that LGBTQIA readers have been desperately waiting for. It’s dark, but it refuses to be hopeless.
Three different books – all by Kiwi authors – about queer characters who refuse to stay dead: Gideon the Ninth, my own novel The Dawnhounds, and Andi C. Buchanan’s From A Shadow Grave all came out within a two-month window of each other, and seem to have been born from the same impulse: queer characters kept dying, and queer authors were sick of it.
From A Shadow Grave is inspired by the 1931 murder of Phyllis Symons, the ghost reputed to haunt the Mount Victoria Tunnel. In the modern day, Aroha Brooke makes contact with her ghost, and attempts to undo Phyllis’ tragic death. Two queer women connect across the years, and rewrite history. It’s a recurring element in all three books: a protagonist dies, but doesn’t stay dead. They don’t return as zombies or demons: they’re whole, unbroken, ready to kick ass and live their best lives. Their stories reflect the genre’s transformation as a whole: from death to rebirth, to something more.
There’s some pushback against this, too: Gideon has received criticism for still representing queer trauma, rather than transcending it entirely. It has divided audiences and publishers alike, though a bridge appears to be forming – when I spoke to Buchanan, they said:
“I want both! I want queer trauma and queer happily ever afters and queer interplanetary skeletons and queer revenge and queer solidarity. There’s space for all of that; the publishing industry just needs to be open to it and queer authors need to have support to write and market it.”
Darusha Wehm’s recent Retaking Elysium portrays a workers’ revolution on Mars, with queer characters banding together to create a utopian vision of the future. It doesn’t depict trauma in the same way Gideon or The Dawnhounds do: it’s certainly not all sunshine and roses, but Wehm endeavours to write “futures in which queer lives are common and unremarkable”. Readers seem hungry for this sort of story; there are SF/F book directories that allow readers to filter stories by whether the queer characters die, or whether homophobia exists in the book’s world.
I asked AJ Fitzwater – whose much-hyped collection The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper comes out next May – about why they chose to write stories that depict less queer trauma, and they said:
“Queer lives are not just one big scar. An original tenet of speculative fiction is imagining better worlds, and now this includes imagining better worlds with queer people in it. Science Fiction without queer people is violent erasure – silence IS political. Imagining those better worlds also means allowing queer people to rediscover and redefine their stories and histories outside of hetero- and cis normative hierarchy, allowing them to create speculative frameworks for queer joy, family, community, health, education, and body.”
It occurred to me, hearing those words, that The Dawnhounds is a book about a queer woman who gets shot in the head by fascist cops and has to come back from the dead to solve her own murder. When I sat down to write the first draft in 2013, we weren’t talking about these sort of things. I wrote about my own experiences of queer trauma, of depression, anxiety, and suicide. I wrote a good book, and one I’m proud of: a cathartic book about hope, rebirth, and coming back from the brink. It’s a book about recovery and found family, but it is a book about trauma. Gideon showed me it was possible to write queer trauma with hope and good humour, and Cinrak shows me it’s possible to not write it at all.
I don’t know what comes next. There’s a pressure to land this sort of thinkpiece gracefully and say something profound about the human condition. What we have here is too inchoate for that, but it’s bursting with possibility. What we have, at the end of the day, is queer stories being told, and Kiwi authors kicking ass, and I’m proud to be part of it. Speculative fiction gives us the unique opportunity to create new worlds out of whole cloth, and that allows us to talk about identity and provide powerful emotional experiences in ways that other genres struggle to match. The future holds a lot of things and a lot of stories: some of them will be about pain, catharsis and recovery; some of them will be about worlds without.
Either way, it’s a future to look forward to.
The Dawnhounds, by Sascha Stronach (Little Hook Press, $25) can be ordered via Unity Books.
*Sascha also goes by ‘Alexander’ and ‘Alex’.