Growing up, I was an insatiable reader. Starting with the Lord of the Rings in third grade, I moved through the canons of Asimov, Clarke, Silverberg, McCaffrey, Heinlein and many more by the time I hit junior high. It wasn’t until I was in eighth grade and realized I had crushes on other boys in my class that I noticed the lack of diversity in speculative fiction.
And it wasn’t until much later – after I came out at twenty-three – that I started thinking about actually writing my own queer characters.
My very first one was a gay, winged man named Xander, who had a semi-explicit scene at the very start of a story I originally wrote in the mid nineties. It was a thrill to write such an openly queer character. I say originally because I didn’t finish that story until a good twenty years later, when those few scenes became the first chapter of Skythane.
Now, at the age of fifty-two, I am firmly committed to writing specuative fiction stories featuring diverse casts of characters. In some ways, it’s incredibly freeing – opening up new horizons of character interactions to explore.
But it can also be limiting in terms of the market. I am keenly aware that not everyone will read sci fi with queer characters. And while gay characters were “hot” a few years back, the marketplace shits with the culture.
Non-binary and black characters and authors are seeing a lot of demand these days. That’s way overdue and I hope all of my BIPOC and trans/gender fluid/nonbinary friends get some time in the sunlight.
Tomorrow it will be something else. I was struck by this in the TV show Pose, when the NY ballroom culture briefly sparked the national imagination with the release of Madonna’s “Vogue.” It was hot, and then it was not.
And even beyond the vagaries of the culture, there will always be a large subset of readers who don’t care for anything but the vanilla, middle-of-the-road mainstream.
The thing is, even the so-called mainstream isn’t the same today as it was ten years ago, let alone when I was nine and picking up my first speculative fiction books. The definitions of “mainstream” have been steadily expanded by those who have pushed back against the vanilla definitions in the culture, and will continue to be expanded by others long after I am gone.
There’s a dark but excellent mini series on HBO called “Years and Years” that deals with the mid-Twenties to -Thirties future in the UK. In one of my favorite scenes, the daughter of one of the main couples comes out as trans. Her parents breathe a sigh of relief, thinking she means she is transgender. We know what that is. We can handle that.
Then the daughter reveals that she’s actuall transhuman, and wants to leave her human body behind to live in the cloud.
It’s a humbling reminder that yesterday’s “strange” is today’s “normal,” and that none of us knows what changes tomorrow will bring.
So where does that leave me?
I will continue to write diverse characters in my work, and every now and then will be surprised when my definition of diversity expands again.
And sooner or later, more likely than not, what I write will no longer live on the margins, but will be mainstream.
To my writer friends – how “mainstream” is your work, and has that changed over the years? Has what you write ever held you back?