Talking Queer Sci-Fi at Worldcon 75

October 18, 2017 in inQueery

The World Science Fiction Convention, more popularly known as Worldcon, is the longest running science fiction and fantasy convention in the world. Early this August, the 75th iteration of the convention was held in Helsinki, Finland. Among the panel topics were thoughts about the LGBTQ movement and its intersection with science fiction and fantasy.

One such panel, “LGBTQ+ Speculative Fiction Goes Worldwide” was held on Friday August 11th. The panel was moderated by Kat Kourbeti, a film critic and novelist. Participating on the panel were Laura Lim, an author, Catherine Lundoff, a publisher and writer, and Keffy R.M. Kherli, editor of the LGBTQ science fiction magazine GlitterShip.

Science fiction on the whole has a not entirely undeserved reputation for being puritanical in its depictions of sexuality. However, speculative fiction also gives authors and readers the freedom to imagine societies that are different from real-life cultures. This freedom makes speculative fiction a useful means of examining sexual bias. Additionally, critics like Nicola Griffith note that LGBTQ+ people tend to identify with mutants, aliens, and other outsider figures.

All of the panelists agreed that their work was important to defining their identity as queer people. Lim realized her bisexuality through her writing.  Lundoff started writing because she wanted to see people like her in science fiction.  As for Kherli, he said, “When I wrote my first stories, people would say in reviews that ‘these seem gay’ because I never wrote relationships.  I decided that this was not queer enough.  Now I do it without even thinking about it.”

Next, the panelists were asked about whether it was easy or difficult to publish LGBTQ+ fiction.  Lundoff said that it wasn’t as simple as a yes or no, due to the shifts in the publishing industry.  “Things changed after Stonewall when queer spaces started expanding.  We got queer bookstores and our own literature.”  This trend started to reverse in the 90s when those same bookstores started to close.  Now, with the rise of e-books, a new wave of queer literature is flourishing.

Lim noted that she lucked out with her first publisher, since they didn’t try to make her straighten out her characters, though she expressed annoyance that the cover chose to “straight-wash” her story.  Her new publisher, to her relief, doesn’t do that. Kherli said that it’s easy to sell queer short stories, but because of the ease, it’s harder to find a place to read them.  That’s what prompted him to start GlitterShip.

Kourbeti asked her third question:  did the members of the panel think that the science fiction genre generally lends itself to more queer fiction than general fiction?  Lum said yes, though she added that she didn’t like it when alien populations contained more diversity than human populations.  Lundoff was more ambivalent.  “Well, it should. The problem is that genres don’t exist in a media vacuum.”  She said that because of the larger media landscape, science fiction novels were less queer friendly than short story and independent publications.

Kherli was even more critical.  “I’m uncomfortable with discussions of sci-fi excellence because it doesn’t reflect the actual readership. It could be true, but we aren’t that accepting.”  It’s not hard to see why he would say that; within the past few years there has been a reactionary push from groups known as the Sad Puppies, and later the Rabid Puppies, who wish to return to an imaginary yesteryear where sci-fi didn’t have a (left-leaning) political agenda.  The last three years saw the Puppies attempt to subvert the Hugo Award voting process by pushing out all nominees save for their own narrow definition of what sci-fi and fantasy ought to be.

Lim brought that very fact up.  “The problem is that there’s two sci-fis: the progressive sci-fi, and the Puppies’ sci-fi.”  Kherli finished the discussion of the question by pointing out that, as science fiction is concerned with the future, writers and publishers need to be better than the world, but recognize that they are part of the world.

The first audience question asked how the new wave of LGBTQ+ fiction can be sustained.  Lundoff gave the obvious answers: Buy more books, read lists online to find more, and spread word of mouth.  Lim said that for those without money, going to the library and writing online reviews were ways to support people.  Kherli simply said that things are different from how they used to be. “It’s easier to self-publish, you can read free fiction online, the donation pool is increased.”  Barring a limitation on the freedom of the Internet, it seems this new wave is here to stay.

The last audience question was on balancing utopic and dystopic fiction and where gender and queerness intersect with it.  Kherli decided a balance was best on the grounds that homogeny was bad.  “I don’t want GlitterShip to be the Dead Queer Quarterly, but I like tragedy.”

Lim claimed she is cynical but said that, historically speaking, dystopias are bad for marginalized people. Lundoff was even more pithy. “If I wanted dystopia in my media diet, I’d watch the news.”

The state of queer science fiction is the state of the LGBTQ+ movement in miniature. Things are improving, but it is a fitful thing. Reactionaries are trying to fight back against acknowledging queer people, and the lion’s share of progress remains outside the mainstream. Yet despite the best efforts of those who want to turn back the clock, the wave is unlikely to recede any time soon.



Kern Wallace is a Visiting Writer at InQueery.