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“I was a shapeshifter, worshipped for my pluralities. Without, within. So many stories of self, huddled together to wander the void of my own uncertainty, fleeing and seeking in equal measure. Transcendent. The lights within me spoke an impossible language, and all at once the ship of my body caught the proper glimpse of its lone occupant.”

Sometimes you read the rare book that is not only utterly exceptional, but also life-changing.

For me, the science fiction book “Pluralities”, by outstanding author Avi Silver, is one of those works. It has helped change my way of thinking about gender identity/transgender concerns, and all things related to who and what we are as a human race.

I was introduced to this book by another incredible author other than the one who wrote it: EDE Bell, who heads Atthis Arts, the publisher of “Pluralities”.

I am indebted to you EDE. Thank you for telling me about this book, and prompting me to read it.

I preface this review by saying up front, I consider myself a CIS heterosexual male. I do not provide this to disqualify my interpretations this brilliant book as being wholly invalid. For of course, like any review, this one is subjective, and I am entitled to my subjective observations and opinions, as a reader.

I mention this, only to say that my ultimate understanding of this book is definitely hamstrung by who and what I classify myself to be. I may consider myself an ally of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, but that does not mean I will ever be able to completely empathize, and understand their needs and challenges.

And nothing in my life – for example, even being racialized though I am, and thus as such being marginalized, as members of the queer community are too – will ever make me able to do so.

I am noting here my inadequacies, with some attempt at honesty and respect, in truly being able to absorb this wonderful book, and all of its amazing depths and nuances. I’ve never grappled with gender, so I can’t say I can fully comprehend what it’s like.

And I with candour, thought I may be incorrect, I feel that’s as good a place to start as any, with the foreknowledge that for all I might strive to grasp, I will fall short. Nonetheless, I will make the attempt.

As this book, and life, has taught me, it’s much more about the effort, and the journey, as opposed to the final destination.

“Being trans is always harder with cis people, even if they’re not outright hostile…take my cis friends – it’s not like I think they’re bad people, they just can’t fully understand where I’m coming from on a lot of stuff. I can’t image how coming out would have felt without all my trans friends back in the city.”

Because the main reason I wanted to read this book was to continue to enhance my understanding of gender concerns, and people who are most affected by them.

Because, like most of us, I endeavour to be a good person, and someone who cares about all people, even though I am doomed to fail, to some extent. And I want to be able to better understand and support any friends, acquaintances, or future family members I may encounter who experience gender dysmorphia.

Nonetheless, I feel that mission, while it will be one of course that is ongoing throughout my life, was certainly closer to fulfillment than ever before, and this single book, “Pluralities”, has been an integral part of the journey.

Forgive this digression, please. Enough about me. Let’s get back to talking about “Pluralities”.

The book is not long at all, just over 125 pages. But, boy does it pack an emotional wallop.

“Pluralities” straddles two POVs.

The first POV is that of a young retail worker, and unnamed protagonist, who lives in an alternate or future earth, however one that feels very contemporary. In this world, gender stamps are worn on people’s faces. For example, women are branded with a “SHE” stamp, and this young worker is one of those people who bears such an identifier. The protagonist’s mother also refers to her sometimes during the narrative, other than with endearments, as “SHE”.

(Is this really because it’s an alternate earth, or is this simply metaphorical?)

Being stuck in a dead end-job that one doesn’t enjoy would be problematic for anyone. Far more impactful than this, the protagonist is coping with her gender identity.

While she has a fairly progressive and compassionate mother, she rejects the idea of femininity, and Jewish feminism, despite admiration for who her mother, grandmother, and ancestors are and were.

“..When I was still a girl, my family raised me in the cult of divine, empowered feminine. They aligned womanhood with strength and survival, fought back against the greater prevailing tumour known as the cult of domesticity. They gave me books on badass women throughout history….in my home being a woman wasn’t about being a man’s equal – it was about being something more. A sacred piece of core programming, beloved and often understood…Our endurance in a man’s world was a point of pride….Strong women – in the home, the synagogue, the street…They looked at each other, the mysteries flowing between them like cosmic feminine ley lines, and I felt nothing….In a world that wielded womanhood as a silencing tool, I had been born into the mysteries, graced with the knowledge of an inherited power…but what I’m trying to say is that even though I knew I didn’t belong, leaving didn’t feel like an option.”

So, ultimately, our first protagonist decides to quit both: being a retail employee, and being a female.

“…I was hyperaware of what my body was and was not and longed to be. And yet, my gender didn’t feel inherently linked to my genitals or my body at all. I felt a bone-deep sense of gender dysphoria, but relatively little dysmorphia to accompany it….it was because I’d been allowed, for a moment, to alter the traits that society had wrongfully told me were tied to womanhood. It was about finally being able to experience what is was like to step away from my misassigned gender and exist as something else.”

The second (and third) viewpoint and storyline is shared between the spaceship who pilots the adventurous Prince Cornelius “Flux”, and the prince himself.

Cornelius seeks to become a “rogue” prince. Cornelius is a mostly humanoid-type being, with some physically reptilian traits and other overt traits belonging to a variety of species. Cornelius wants to abscond from his royal responsibilities, and travel the galaxy in search of carefree amorous pursuits, excitement and danger. Cornelius wants to feel free, and feel alive, and enjoy life to what he feels is the fullest.

“…Some of the greatest thinkers of the homeworld have sung the praises of getting away from it all, of sitting somewhere quiet with your thoughts and listening in for the whisper of the universe.”

Yet Cornelius is also escaping his inner turmoil about who and what he is, and how he feels about himself.

Fortunately, Cornelius’s sole companion for his galactic romp in search of himself, will be his faithful B.O.D.Y. (nicknamed “Bo”). This unique spacecraft that also functions as best friend and protector to Cornelius, and who enjoys a symbiotic, yet sometimes imperfect and even volatile relationship with the prince.

“The prince had heard of these before – Bionic Organic Developmental Ylem! Sentient machines powered by life-giving cores, able to assemble their parts the same way organics picked out clothing or exoshells. They were mostly nomadic, traveling where they wished until they took an interest in something long enough to form a bond. No one really knew where they came from, or what they wanted from other sentient species.”

And Cornelius will need all the protection he can get. For although knife-wielding assassins lurk in the shadows of outer space, looking to harm the prince, the true threat to the prince’s well-being might come from within.

The way these two stories/POVs connect sometimes feels nebulous, strange, dream-like, yet in the end it is subtly and masterfully done how they are woven by the author.

“My skin felt too tight, all wrong. I stared in the bathroom mirror, trying to understand this version of myself that was trapped in flesh. It was easier to be a metaphor of a body. A piece of faulty architecture, a weather-worn monument, a self-sustaining spaceship unable to reach its pilot.”

As always, every book for me starts with the characters, and the two main characters (I consider B.O.D.Y./Cornelius essentially as one character, and “SHE” as the other) will stay with me forever.

The incomprehensible bravery, intellect, and ultimately self-awareness that these characters summon to face their complicated and heart-wrenching situation, brought me to my knees with sorrow, awe, and finally, joy.

“I touched my cheek, considering what it would mean to treat masculinity or femininity as an option rather than a demand. To grant myself a little imagination, or something. Realistically, I understood the notion of gender presentation, that someone could be a woman, without performing society’s definition of femininity, and vice versa with men. And beyond that, I knew about trans people – the internet was a thing, and a couple of old high school friends of mine had come out in the past few years. I marveled at their ability to know themselves, to identify where something wasn’t working and act on the changes they needed to be happy. Envied it, even.”

As for Bo and Cornelius, the reality of who and what they are – two seemingly disparate entities who were actually always intended to be one, that develop over time an enduring relationship that is all about mutualism, healthy dependency, and self-realisation – was so wonderful and poignant to read about.

Things don’t start off harmonious between them, and like any solid relationship, it is built up over time, with moments of fracture and discord. But it evolves into mutual respect, understanding, trust, and love, as they take a trip together, and merge into something different, better than they were before, as more isolated individual beings. Yet, for me, it is Bo who is the overall architect of this new and better place the two achieve together.

“Before Bo constructed itself a body, it was a ball of ylem, an impassioned cluster of neurons and potential. It lived the peace of infinite possibility, secure in the knowledge that whatever it was now, it could become something new in the future.”

The themes in this book are squarely centred on the transition from understanding and accepting that one isn’t where one wants to be, to finding that place of gender euphoria that might be incomplete, yet far more complete than where one has started.

It is certainly not lost on me, and will not be on other readers, how immensely difficult, and yet rewarding, such a transition must be. And, that in the end, it is a solitary endeavour. For even with people who support you along the way, things are extremely tough. No support system, well-intentioned or not, can get one to a place of more comfort and security within oneself, than oneself.

And in fact, even the most supportive and loving and well-meaning can unintentionally hinder the journey.

“I looked up at my mother, putting on my best imitation of an independent woman overcoming hardship. I tried to become a mirror for her, a point of connection and pride, even as I was crushed under the realization that a nonbinary life meant the rest of my days would be spent as a teacher. Despite the fact that I barely understood myself, I wanted to be understood by others. I wanted to be comforted without having to explain myself over and over again.”

The aspect of the burden of having to constantly explain oneself, to provide justifications to those who don’t understand you, while coping with the struggle of understanding oneself, as articulated in this passage, hit me like a ton of bricks. A real message of relevance to those of us who consider ourselves allies.

Silver, the author, also reminds us that achieving gender euphoria is not some linear thing, that everyone experiences the same way, arrives at the same time, and has the same final result. One doesn’t just simply start, struggle, then finish. It is a complex, unique, individualized, ongoing development.

“This is the part of the story that I’m always so tempted to revise. Who doesn’t want their epiphany to be joyful? Who doesn’t want to look back on self-discovery with pride? These days, I’m so glad to be who and what I am, hatched and whole. So I wish I could tell you back then, my discovery of other stories, other possible futures, felt like an exciting thing, like the first step in a beautiful process. But it didn’t. Not a first.”

Author Silver asks the reader to consider the considerable constraints those coping with gender identity issues face within society, from the perspective of those who are searching for who they are, and who they are not. Silver also notes what the consequences for ignoring one’s true self are, adding a beautifully simplistic yet eloquent statement about self-awareness.

“Bo doesn’t know why the homeworld’s organics are so fixated on personhood, why so many rules are constructed around it, so many limits and qualifications imposed. When B.O.D.Y. units fail to respect their own internal workings and the limitations of their ylem, they are likely to misfunction, to fall right out of the sky along with those they carry. A machine must know its specs, not the nature of its being.”

Silver’s prose is outstanding, lyrical, poetic, fabulous. I have included many examples of passages throughout this review, I could have included many more as examples of how wonderful their writing is.

This is a novel about heartache, heartbreak, and joy. A novel about what it means to live your best life, enjoying it with all its messiness and heartaches, finding peace, and potentially providing a tentative roadmap how to get there.

This book is about transcending the binary experience, and it affirms that one does not need to always have to explain or rationalize one’s experience to others, in order for one’s experiences to be valid, and worthy of acknowledgement and recognition.

A very important, thought-provoking, captivating, and extremely well-written book that strays at times into the surreal, but is very much grounded in today’s real.

“Pluralities” by Avi Silver accomplishes what I believe was the author’s intended goal, of capturing the experience of otherness (in terms of gender-fluid, transgender, and non-binary persons), in a science-fiction setting, with guts, heart, veracity, and conscientiousness, in a very small page count.

All of that is an amazing, commendable feat, a five-star read, and I hope this book and author continue to receive well-deserved praise and accolades for this achievement.

 

 

 

 

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