I’ve invited a group of transfeminine SFF authors to talk about craft and worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy, and I couldn’t be more excited to hear how our panelists go about weaving the magic in their stories! In part one of this interview, we’ll talk about worldbuilding, and in part two, coming in about a week, we’ll focus on craft.
The panelists are:
Charlie Jane Anders
Greetings fabulous authors and thank you so much for agreeing to join in this roundtable interview and discussion! Please introduce yourselves and tell us about the books you’re best known for and something that might surprise us to learn about you or your fictional worlds.
Ela: Hi! My name is Ela, an author from Belgium. Used to be that when I was asked “why do you write?” the answer was quite simple: Because I wanted to tell the kind of stories that I wished I’d have access to growing up. That’s where works like Penumbra, Demon Queen and Not So Different came from, putting queer and trans characters struggling with their identity in the kind of SFF that I grew up with. Oh, and a lot of romance – We’re Not Here (het), Mutually Assured Seduction (gay) and Campus Creatures (astoundingly bisexual). However, as I’m now a good two dozen books later, nowadays I write, well… anything. Mostly just ‘things I love,’ like Plot Twist: It’s Gay, which is a love letter to both food and queerness, or Clear Blue, which is a love letter to falling in love with everything again after depression, or Nexus Alpha, which is a love letter to lesbians, sex and giant robots. And finally, there’s the things I write because there’s monsters in my head and they’re more manageable on the page, which is where the concept behind my upcoming horror anthology The Flesh Cathedral comes from. At this point, I’ve reached a point in my craft where I can paint the tiger in my head. If I can think of it, I see no reason not to write it.
May: Hi, my name is May, but you can also call me Bunny. 🙂 I’m known for my debut trilogy of queer fantasy romances, The Sacred Dark, which focuses on some of my favorite fictional things, like angst, witches, shifters, and other supernatural drama. I both love writing and spend a long time avoiding writing. Like many people, I felt for years like it’d be selfish to be a novelist—so for a long time, I poured a lot of my creative energy into other activities like game design (primarily TTRPGs) and creating elaborate stories, worlds, and characters for those games. This is where the phrase “avoiding writing” began to make sense to me—I was writing all the time, or daydreaming about writing, creating labyrinths of imagination whenever I had the chance. As much as I tried to not make “too much” of my creative interests, it occurred to me that I had never stopped engaging in them, so why not put these creations into a form others could easily read? And when I let myself go down that road, I found writing to connect to myself in a way few other things did. This creative energy has always been part of my life force, and suppressing it was also a suppression of myself. I still have a lot of fondness for role-playing games because of how they helped me see this. 🙂
Vyria: I’m Vyria and I’m best known for are the following transbian stories: The Hatchling, a fantasy journey of self-discovery, and Catnip, a scifi story of self-discovery and polyamorous lesbians. Something that may surprise folks is that I’m still a relatively new writer. Before Hatchling, I wrote only a small, abandoned story scrap and nothing prior to that. I took up writing as a way of coping with Covid, at the urging of a dear friend of mine, and just kept on writing ever since. A big part of why I write is I want to create stories I wish had been around when I was younger, but also stories that I want to see in the world now. Stories with women like me at the forefront, getting to go on exciting adventures or see new, fantastical places, experiencing love and joy and sorrow. My books are primarily focused on the intersection of gender and sexuality, but I also really enjoy exploring all the little things that bother me about fantasy and scifi stories that are out there. Magical bloodlines, fantasy races as poor stand-ins for real world cultures, artificial intelligences (as people) as something to fear, all of these are things I want to do away with or address with my writing.
Abigail: Hi! I’m Abigail Trusity, and I’m the author of the Pride, Pain & Petticoats series. Book 2 launched on October 13th, on Amazon in ebook and paperback, and on Itch.io in ebook format! My entire childhood was sappy romance novels because I could never remember to bring one to school, but my English teacher loved them. Danielle Steele anyone? But it might surprise you to learn that I spend more time researching than I do actually writing! Whether it be Historical Fantasy to be free of anachronisms, or Science Fiction to keep bits as grounded and real as possible, research is the engine that keeps me going. I’m the type of writer that picks apart other works for inaccuracies among their intricacies, and write to protect that flank.
Charlie Jane: I’m Charlie Jane Anders, and most recently I’m the author of the Unstoppable trilogy, which starts with Victories Greater Than Death. It’s a YA space fantasy series that’s chock full of trans, genderqueer and non-binary characters, plus it takes place in a universe where technology makes it impossible to misgender anyone. I also recently co-created a trans superhero named Escapade for Marvel: You can read her intro Marvel Voices: Pride (2022) #1, and then she also appears in New Mutants Vol. 4 (out now) and New Mutants: Lethal Legion (you can preorder the trade now.) I also recently published a short story collection that’s chock full of trans characters, Even Greater Mistakes. Plus a book about writing called Never Say You Can’t Survive. I’ve been writing trans and queer fiction for twenty freaking years. Yeesh.
Devi: I’m Devi Lacroix, the co-author of the Those Who Break Chains urban fantasy trilogy, which starts with The Grace of Sorcerers and concludes with The Ruin of Beasts, which came out November 14 on Amazon Kindle and itch.io. It’s a queernormative series focusing on the trials and tribulations of a family of lesbian mages and their butch magical retainers. Two neat facts about me: first, my writing partner Benjanun Sriduangkaew and I live on almost opposite sides of the world, so our collaborative discussions happen in the early morning and late night for both of us, as our periods of wakefulness overlap for a few short hours. Our books burn a lot of midnight oil! Second, I’ve been reading Charlie Jane Anders’ writing for almost 15 years—the reviews and analysis she did on io9 left a really big impression on a young Devi!
Let’s start by talking about imaginary worlds, since that’s what brings a lot of readers to these genres. What is it about the subgenre of SFF you write that gets you so excited that you have to create and populate entire new worlds in order to tell the story you want to tell?
Ela: I think often we find ourselves constrained by the real world when it comes to exploring ideas. A lot of my work starts with a “what if,” which is already the question at the heart of Sci-Fi, and many times those questions are simply irrelevant in the ‘real world.’ But I don’t think that ever makes them not worth asking or exploring. SFF gives you the ability to meticulously sculpt a sense of time and place that bends to your will, and incorporate linguistic visuals that are largely culturally understood. From there, the narrative is fully under control, without me having to google ‘what was the summer of 1996 like in North Carolina’ to make sure it all makes sense.
May: You know, I’ve seen questions like this asked over the years, and I always struggled to imagine my answer, because my impression has been that the answer should be some kind of reasoning for why SFF is the right genre for the job. My impulse in writing it seems to much more irrational—I just plain love it! But maybe that is my answer, because there’s something about imaginary and fantastical tales that touches people deep where our feelings are felt. Fantasy and spec fic tend to hold the language of myth and archetype in their bones, because that’s what spec fic is really about—finding the big, connecting realities between the everyday world and the worlds we dream up. Something about this storytelling language has always spoken to me with a kind of electric charm, since I was barely old enough to speak. But there’s another part of this I find fascinating—many of my favorite character concepts are oriented around fantasy and spec fic in a way that I can’t get enough of. Seers and magic healers, monsters and princesses, mutants and cyborgs—these kinds of characters and the worlds they exist in definitely do present enchanting metaphoric and creative opportunities, sure. But there’s a charm and beauty to them in and of themselves, the same brand of beauty that illuminates our most childlike fantasies. It’s the imaginative wonder in itself that gives it this special spice, a spirit of play and possibility that makes those archetypal stories feel so primally real.
Vyria: Imaginary worlds can be interwoven with a narrative in a way that something grounded in the real world struggles to or possibly can never achieve. The fantastical universes we dream up become the structure upon which the themes and concepts of a story are rooted, a foundation that reinforces every piece. Whether that’s a world that’s cruel and uncaring shining a light on the perseverance of the characters or a world that’s accepting and bright, giving characters a chance to heal and grow and to bring exciting new possibilities to mind. In SFF, we can envision brighter futures and worlds brimming with wonders that seem impossible in our day to day life. It is those elements which can inspire and carry us through the frustrations and pain we face in the real world. Plus, nobody can stop you from writing more lesbian dragons into the world, so that’s cool.
Abigail: Freedom and the lack of it. There was always something touching about the thought of traveling, finding a new place and leaving behind the old. I grew up pretty poor, so there were no day trips to the beach or vacations to see the sights in my youth. And I’m still not well-off enough to do anything with vacation days but sleep in! But I want to capture that wonder, of new places, new faces, so that the meaning I’ve ascribed to them in my dreams can be imparted unto others. I also want to write worlds where bad people mostly get punished for it or grow into better people. Talk about fantasy, am I right? Haha…
Charlie Jane: I think there are a few things: 1) SFF includes a lot of escapism and wish-fulfillment, which lets you escape from transphobia and other forms of bigotry, and also show trans characters being awesome and finding chosen family. The same thing that let Luke Skywalker and other cishet white guys become the saviors of everyone lets us make trans and queer characters into epic heroes. 2) Creating your own world makes it easier to imagine a queernomative world where pretty much everyone is queer or comfortable with queerness, and where queerness is just part of life. (As it is in our world, but some folks have an issue with that.) 3) SFF are great for letting us see real-world issues, including bigotry and hate, from a further remove. Like I talk about in Never Say You Can’t Survive, you can create metaphors or allegories that illuminate stuff we’re dealing with now, letting people see it from a distance and in a different context. Also, I just really love using my imagination and exploring made-up places!
Devi: I picked up some of Kurt Busiek’s old Astro City run about fifteen years ago—now that I do the math, it must have been fifteen years old itself, at the time. If you don’t know it, Astro City is the emblematic cape comic, with all the fantastical elements you’d expect—flying, telekinesis, telepathy, those fancy powers that only men and women in spandex wield. But the thing I remember, a decade and a half later, is Busiek’s story about an ex-con named Steeljack. This is a superhero story, so of course Steeljack has shiny, impregnable skin that he used for a life of crime. But he’s also got an old green coat, and a newsies hat he pulls down over his eyes, and he uses steel wool to scrub away the rust that is ever-so-slowly encroaching on his body. Busiek writes this impossible silver skin—the weight of it, its durability, its visibility—as this… extended metaphor for the weight and durability and visibility of Steeljack’s criminal record; children, ignorant of Steeljack’s past as a criminal, mistake him for an angel, even as he acutely feels how literally grounded he is—heavier than the earth!—compared to the metaphorically angelic superheroes that fly overhead and in whose shadow he walks. This is the plight of real ex-cons—more than that, of any person who might feel guilt, any person whose present circumstance was cast in the unbreakable mold of a heartless and immutable past—made larger than life, made resonant and real.
In the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin argues—and I am paraphrasing here—that a science fiction author’s goal is to use lies to tell something true. SFF gives me the opportunity to take some element of our world—the pageantry of it, its heartlessness, its unexpected beauty—and enhance it just enough that it feels new. And because it feels new, it lets you feel old things, new again.
How do you use the unique opportunities SFF allows to explore questions of gender in your worldbuilding and storytelling?
Ela: Similar to the first, I think it’s that SFF allows us to explore the “what if” of the thing. Obviously there is the “what if there was no queerphobia?” A valiant question to ask, but maybe a little simple since the answer is a succinct “things would be better.” But in my Verdant trilogy, for example, I have the option to ask the question “what would trans healthcare look like in a world that is going through an alchemical industrial revolution where the most powerful individual is a trans woman?” It allows me to create a sort of trans fantasy utopia which is still set in a fantasy world with all its hardships and tribulations, where, yes, trans healthcare is present but cultural understandings thereof are still developing. SFF allows you to set up these interesting scenarios that are separate from – but informed by – our own cultures and ideas to put characters in a scenario that isn’t just “they’re in Britain so the next 8 pages are going to be about the NHS, brace yourselves.”
May: Oh, gosh. I love this question, maybe because it touches on why fantastical and mythical stories were so precious to me as a young kid. Somehow, their dreamy contours gave me a space to explore my sense of self, my very experience of what the world meant to me—and of course that means what gender meant to me too, as one of the most rife aspects of my young life. So many stories are about gender if you think about it. About what makes a prince or a princess, a human or a monster, what makes the person who wins love and the person who doesn’t. Gender impacts our most mundane understanding of these concepts, and so too it lights up our dramatizations of them. Fantasy and spec fic let me slide into experiences of these things in the exact way I dream them, with all the imaginational glitter and cosmic immensity my childlike psyche could have ever wanted. But maybe even more importantly, they let me imagine whatever endings and victories I want, through magic or miracle or wormhole or warp drive. I itch to explore these fantastic depictions for probably the same reasons they’ve always meant something to me—it lets me paint the world in my own terms.
Vyria: SFF is an exploration of what could be and also a way to examine our world as it is through contrast. Primarily, my stories have been aimed thus far at dense eggs, so I have tended to keep things relatively simple. That being said, the fantastic lets us look at gender expression in a variety of ways. So much of the conversation about being trans, being nonbinary, being GNC, etc in our world is defined by limitations and perception. Magic and future tech allow us to explore outside those restrictions, to talk about what existence could be like if we were freed of such things. And, while I like to write about how things would be better, I also want to explore how things could be challenging in different ways even in an accepting society. The protag of Catnip, for example, lives in an accepting world and yet still can’t accept herself because of her past and her personality. She needs the nudge to progress. An accepting society and easy access to transition care won’t solve everything. You have to have room to explore and encouragement to do so.
Abigail: One thing historians are fond of, is the claim that you cannot call historical examples of LGBTQ+ people by the labels we have today, as their understanding was different then, as opposed to now. I categorically reject this line of thinking, as it serves no purpose but to disappear historical examples of people like us into the morass of cishet ‘culture,’ or at least, what was left of it when religion effectively replaced it wholesale. So I wanted to start from scratch, to put pen to paper and break down everything about being trans, dysphoria, euphoria, joy, heartache, and becoming. My worlds have very different understandings, but what they are understanding on their terms is what we have always felt. We have always existed!
Charlie Jane: I’ve loved books like The Left Hand of Darkness by Le Guin or Dawn by Butler for as long as I can remember. There’s a really strong tradition in SFF of using other times and places, or fantastical versions of the here and now, to explore how gender could be radically different. (See also: Venus Plus X by Sturgeon.) I was really happy to have the chance to serve on the jury of the Otherwise Award, which looks at books and stories that expand and challenge our conception of gender. I really think right now is a golden age of science fiction and fantasy that blow up gender in a good way — in part because so many queer people are writing SFF now.
Devi: I’m a little more dour than my other esteemed panelists: I think SFF is value neutral. It is a genre that gives authors a chance to imagine a different, impossible world—and that world isn’t necessarily one that aligns with your or my values. There’s a reason that one of the most compelling visions of the future—for a specific and problematic definition of compelling that includes “featured on the US Marine Corps commandants’ reading list until 2020”—continues to be Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.
When Benjanun and I were writing The Spy and Her Serpent—which isn’t SFF but is set in a divergent timeline from ours and which is also the most trans of our stories, with both leads being trans women—an old quote from SFF alum Mercedes Lackey surfaced. She once answered a reader’s question on gender by explaining that she could never write a trans character: “So much of a transgendered person’s life and thought is tied up in their gender difficulties, the ordinary reader would swiftly become bored with such a character…. A wider audience wants to see a character with problems that are solvable.”
It’s dehumanizing, to have the sum of you reduced to just one topic, and then to have that topic casually dismissed as being uninteresting to the “rest” of us. The irony here, is that I actually think the Transgender Experience—whatever that might mean—is relatable, even universal. Of course, not everyone suffers from gender dysphoria. But the furious futility of fighting a body that refuses to move or exist the way you want it to? The feeling of helplessness that comes when you recognize the wide gulf between who you are and who you want to be? To embrace a goal and pursue it with the sum of yourself, risking destruction and opprobrium to seize a dream? These are feelings any human—any ordinary reader—can know and relate to. All it requires is that you empathize with others, to see a part of yourself in them. And that’s the opportunity I try to seize with my writing.
How do you immerse the reader in a new world that feels distinct from this one without leaving them adrift in a sea of unfamiliar details?
Ela: SFF is a fun place for this because (in my very biased opinion) I don’t think there is such a thing as an unfamiliar detail. There is only description and then differences in quality and scale. As a species, we are able to imagine and remember a great deal of things. Even those with Aphantasia have an incredible library in their heads of references, thoughts, ideas, memories, of what the world looks like. It is the job of the author to find the things they might be able to recognize to sculpt something new. I like to use absurd imagery in my work to evoke something recognizable. If I tell you “the Navico Tank weighed 800 tons, its ceramo-lattice hull was colored with the octaroon pattern of the Transgalactic empire’s flag, the Norco-turrets at the ready” that tells you absolutely nothing. But if I tell you “the tank looked like someone had left a wax corgi in the sun for too long and had then decided on using it as a toothpick holder” you are now imagining something that is completely ludicrous while simultaneously evocative and gives you some idea of not the exact visuals of the thing, but of its vibe. Its energy. It doesn’t have to be silly of course. My point is that, as authors, we have access to visual language that allows us to bring the real world into the fantastical and vice versa.
May: I think this is kind of the secret ingredient of any and all storytelling, no matter the genre—the trick to connect the reader into it is through the emotional experience of the primary characters. Remember how SFF uses the language of archetype and myth? That language can be particularly powerful at giving emotional meaning to even the strangest vistas of poetry and color. This is probably why cultures have myths, because they’re ways to universalize and share the emotional intensity of our preciously small lives. A big part of what makes a thing familiar or unfamiliar is its emotional meaning to the perceiver. Give a thing emotional meaning, and you can give it shocking familiarity, no matter how novel and weird it is.
Vyria: I think the best thing to do is to avoid RPG Sourcebook Syndrome. This handy term is for the problem I’ve seen time and time again where authors put their worldbuilding first and their story second. It’s okay to have this really cool world full of fascinating wonders, but you need to ground that world in the context of your characters. Tie the world to the moment, the action, the plot. It is also important to keep things simple. If there exists a term or concept that people are already familiar with that describes what you wish to show, use it. You don’t need unique terms for everything. Using those sparingly gives it more impact when you do and lets the reader keep up. SFF should be a wonderful contrast between the familiar and the strange. Focus on that!
Abigail: I agree with Ela. There’s no such thing as an unfamiliar detail, it’s always referential in its existence. To describe something without setting detail in our own world is to write words that have no meaning. While I stray from the evocative in my detailing and much prefer to stay grounded, there are so many things that are otherworldly in our own world. The colors of a sunset and sunrise, for instance. Every one is beautiful but different from the last. Then, when the familiar is accepted as normal as it is, the unfamiliar can branch from those concepts and images.
Charlie Jane: It’s really about the characters and their emotional journey. If you buy into the characters and identify with them, then you’ll be able to get sucked into the story, even if a lot of the world or the events are kinda strange.
Devi: One of the weakest parts of classic Star Trek—and as a 90s kid, I mean The Next Generation—is how it wed its character moments to absolutely incomprehensible technobabble. A character is risking life and limb to save the starship: I’m invested, this is a narrative topography that I’m intimately familiar with. But then I have to suspend my disbelief a tiny bit more, to parse that the threat to our character comes from a device that has heretofore never been mentioned, or a type of a radiation that our specifically-immune-to-radiation character is affected by. So I’m going to echo Charlie Jane here and say it’s about writing the characters and struggles that are intelligible to your audience. SFF elements should provide a stage for your characters, not replace them; the fantastical contrasts against and enhances the too-human.
Ela: Charlie Jane touches on something obvious here too which is that, well, if a reader doesn’t care about the characters, they won’t care about the story, and if they don’t care about either of those, they’re really not going to give two cents about the setting. When you can get people to care about the love between Jane and Alice, they really won’t care that Alice is part Smeerp.
What is one worldbuilding concept or detail you’re especially proud of, and how did you go about conceiving and building it?
Ela: The Infinite City in Not So Different. Without going into spoilers for its origin, in the novel, the city is, well, infinite. In every direction. Except one. It consists of city blocks that are as high as they are wide as they are deep, blocks of steel and iron riddled with a latticework of tunnels and halls and rooms, all floating above each other, sometimes a thousand feet or more apart, requiring flying vehicles to go back and forth, separated into layers (or Floors) that create a heavily stratified society because there is exactly one limit: Up. The top few floors can see the sun. And that has allowed me to create a setting that can be at once cyberpunk and classical sci fi. There’s the idea of the sundowning, artificial lights being sent down the floors once a year, or The Drop, a criminal punishment where someone is dropped between the different city blocks where they will fall, presumably, forever. The idea started as this image I had of a floating block of steel, so large people found themselves living in and on it, and the rest of the city followed from there. A lot of the setting’s worldbuilding comes from this one idea.
May: I get so much childish joy from my creations that it feels a little embarrassing to try and answer this, haha. There are quite a few creative devices I’ve taken pride in, including in newer work that aren’t published yet. In my currently published work, maybe my favorite detail is the way I constructed magic. Instead of being rooted in craft or lore or technique, magic is tied intimately to the body, even to specific body parts. Readers may note that Mio’s magic is centered around his voice and throat, Serafina’s around her eye, and Violetta’s around her hair. The way they use their powers is also instinctual rather than intellectual—sorting through their messy emotions and motivations in order to unravel magical problems, rather than discovering the right incantation or spell or ingredient. This reflects my fundamental love of the irrational, and my view that magic is much more a creature of irrationality than rationality. I want to depict fantasy worlds in which the fantastical things come from the same place as our infant emotions and sorrows and hungers, because those are the things that connect us much more deeply than ideas or knowledge.
Vyria: It is really hard to pick just one thing, but if I had to then I’d pick a concept that is part of my current ongoing story (Forged): Chimera. Or Chimerism, Chimeric art, take your pick. Every single person in the world of Tellara has the option of complete bodily autonomy. Flesh is malleable and constrained only by your own desires and limitations. And because this exists, because this is a world without scarcity as we know it, then perceptions of beauty and strangeness are flexible and ever shifting. People can feel truly comfortable in their bodies because their bodies can be molded to their exact specifications. Tellara is a world with no ‘fantasy races’. There are no elves, no orcs, no other weird stand-ins for real world cultures. There are simply people who view themselves as kin with one another. Things like pointed ears, fangs, wings, and so on are all personal choices. And I think that’s so fun to think about.
Abigail: In Pride, Pain & Petticoats, the idea was to portray the minutiae of life in the time period fairly consistently and free of anachronisms. Something that smacks of historical fantasy, of political intrigue, of romance! And that meant researching how things were done… and particular examples of plenty of others! For instance, in Volume 2, there’s a Chekov’s Gun moment that I’m particularly proud of, though I do sort of wish I showed more of the process, as the lovely butch lesbian Therese fashions an instrument of… joy. 😉 I think everyone enjoyed the fruits of her labor. Taryn especially!
Charlie Jane: I mentioned earlier that the universal translator in the Unstoppable trilogy makes it so you always know someone’s correct pronoun — and even if you try on purpose to use the wrong pronoun, the translator will make sure nobody else hears it, because it’s clearly a misunderstanding. I had a lot of fun in the second book of the trilogy, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, having a gender-fluid character named Kez figure out how to hack the translator. That way, Kez can change his/her/their pronoun every day, and everyone will just automatically know and use the pronoun Kez is using today. It felt very utopian to me.
Vyria: I’m glad you brought up a universal translator and pronouns, Charlie Jane, because I think that is a plot device that lets you feature and acknowledge queer identities without slowing the pace or making the flow awkward in a story. It’s something I wish more stories would do. And this isn’t even something unique to magic or sci fi tec, there are languages out there with ways to signal presentation and gender identity through modes of speech and I think that’s something English is sadly lacking in.
Devi: I’m very proud of how The Grace of Sorcerers handles the concept of True Names. It isn’t particularly unique—one of the major touchstones of the concept was Le Guin’s Earthsea series—but the trope that the sum of something, all its nuance and depth, can be contained within a name spoken with perfect understanding? That deeply appeals to me. I think we employed the conceit in several clever and unexpected ways in The Might of Monsters, and I’m happy with how it returned in The Ruin of Beasts.
We’ll get into recommendations from the authors in the panel in the next half of the interview, but I wanted to share an invaluable resource, May Peterson’s Twitter mega-thread of transfem authors and books. Despite the Hellsite it’s stored on, it’s one of the best lists I’ve come across.
I’ll share the second half of our interview next week, focusing on the craft aspect: How do these writers craft the fantastical worlds we just can’t get enough of! I hope you’ll join us! And I’m linking my reviews of books by some of these fabulous authors below.