Vampires and transgender people are similar in a number of ways, says anthology editor Bogi Takács. Members of each group are often outcasts on the fringe of society, have atypical bodies, and attract the fascination of the mainstream.
Takács, who is transgender, emigrated from Hungary to the United States about four years ago. They live in Lawrence, and teach a variety of courses on LGBTQIA and Jewish Culture at the University of Kansas. Earlier this summer, Takács won a prestigious national Lambda Award for editing “Transcendent 2,” an anthology of 16 stories in the genre of speculative fiction.
“Many classic speculative themes allow us to explore things that we spend a lot of time thinking about,” Takács says of the genre, which is essentially fiction that does not aim for realism. “A classic example would be that shape-shifting is a very typical trans theme and also a very typical fantasy theme.”
The collection is not all shapeshifting, though. Takács says they made a point of sorting through 88 submissions for as much variety as possible both thematically and authorially.
Stories go into realms of environmental disaster, wars, cozy kitchens in winter, and robotic cats and dogs created in a dystopian future. Authors from other countries sent their work as did cisgender (or non-transgender) authors.
Bestowed by the Lambda Literary Foundation, the Lambda Awards celebrate books by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender editors and writers; winning one can propel an author or editor’s career. This year, Takács’ work was also up for Locus and Hugo awards, which are also prestigious in the area of science fiction (Stephen King and Neil Gaiman are both Hugo winners). While Takács didn't win the Locus, they’re still waiting to hear about the Hugo.
“Transcendent 2” is packed with material written in a way that often comes across not as speculative but as if characters have learned from hard lessons.
In “Her Sacred Spirit Soars,” writer S. Qiouyi Lu tells the story of a Meisun, a Chinese immigrant in 1940s California, who seemed at the outset to be one in a pair of fused-together lovebirds.
“We fold our wings together, the iridescent feathertips of my wing resting over yours. You bear our weight on your leg; when you tire, I bear our weight on mine. We work our two eyes together,” they write.
Hunters snare the creature from the sky and the narrator awakes in a lab and thinks, “I am no longer the bird; I am this wingless thing, this four-limbed thing, this human.”
The remainder of the story shows Meisun in treatment for mental illness, just as many LGBTQ people have been in misguided efforts to “fix” them.
The narrator fights the idea that their life as a bird might have been imagined, begins to doubt their own memories, and finally, finds love again with a fellow patient who, in dreams, melds into that first lovebird.
Another form of shapeshifting is explored via clones in Jeanne Thornton’s story “The L7 Gene.” It posits a world where a trans gene has been isolated and scientists are working to find the “final cure for gender identity disorder.”
In the story, Thornton describes that as “the gene that, flipped on, caused a kid to become trans and, flipped off, left their internal anatomical map comfortably congruent with their body.”
The person responsible for this genetic discovery is the mother of a transgender character named Sam. Forced to live with the “cis clone abomination boy” version of herself that her mother grew in a lab, Sam contemplates destroying it.
Because “Transcendent 2” sold well and won a Lambda Award, Lethe Press has asked Takács for volumes three and four, which Takács says is thrilling.
“For a long while, trans writers were like, it’s not even worth sending anything to big markets because they’re going to be turned off by the trans aspects,” Takács says. But, “where science fiction and fantasy are published in general, they have been open for trans stories for a while now. I think there’s also increased openness now.”
The early acceptance of trans literature by the science fiction community seems to have acted as a point of entry into the mainstream for LGBTQ writers and subject matter in general.
For instance, Carmen Maria Machado’s “Her Body and Other Parties” won a Lambda Award in the category of lesbian fiction but was also a finalist for this year’s National Book Award.
“If someone is open to reading speculative fiction,” Takács points out, “it’s not a huge leap to be open to reading work from people who have a different viewpoint from your own.”