Book: Capricious: The Gender-Diverse Pronouns Issue edited by A.C. Buchanan
Age/Genre: Speculative Fiction, Appropriate for Adults and Young Adults
Preferred Reading Environment: The bathtub, of course
Reading Accoutrements: Show the universe you don’t give a shit about gender roles or stereotypes by mixing and matching stereotypical “feminine” and “masculine” things. Drink something “girly.” Use a “masculine” scented bath bomb. Or vice-versa. You do you.
A while back, one of the independent sci-fi authors I follow on Twitter posted about a collection of short stories where one of their stories was appearing. I happened to be in the market for an ebook to buy with a gift card I’d been awarded at work, so I put it on my order, not planning to read it immediately, but excited for when I got to it.
I’m not sure if this collection is annual or seasonal, the website didn’t make it completely clear, but Capricious is a literary magazine that showcases speculative fiction, sometimes fitting a theme, sometimes not.
This issue, the ninth, features the theme of gender-diverse pronouns. All of the stories have at least one character who uses pronouns other than “he” or “she.” I was instantly intrigued when I saw that this was a concept, because I haven’t read a lot of fiction that does this, and I was interested in seeing what character descriptions that don’t adhere to the gender binary look like.
Unfortunately, because I bought the ebook, bathtime reading wasn’t the best idea. Unless…. I thought back to the pottery class I recently took where we were told if we wanted to protect our phones from clay, plastic sandwich bags worked great, and you could still operate your touchscreen through them. I know freezer bags are apparently too thick, but a quart-size storage bag should work, right?
Bethany: A POTTERY CLASS? I told you that I use a sandwich bag to keep my phone safe in the shower a couple of years ago and you give credit to a POTTERY CLASS!?! Come on, man…
Anyway, now that I could read in the bath in comfort, it was time for the actual book. In the introduction, A.C. Buchanan, the editor, talks about what drew them to the idea of a collection featuring gender-diverse pronouns. They wanted to highlight stories where the conversation around pronouns wasn’t limited to characters having to justify their existence. They wanted to bring more stories with alternate pronouns into the world so that people who struggle with remembering pronouns that are new to them can get some practice getting used to it. Since I have several friends who are having to deal with being misgendered this holiday season, I thought now would be a great time to explore fiction where “alternate” genders aren’t some issue of contention, but mostly a given in the established universes.
There are ten stories in this collection, and while I enjoyed parts of all of them, three really stuck out as my favorites:
“Ad Astra Per Aspera” by Nino Cipri is the first story in this collection. This story opens with the line “I’m pretty sure I lost my gender in Kansas,” and proceeds to be a reflection of the narrator’s gender, or lack thereof. They speak directly to the reader, imploring them to judge or withhold judgement in certain parts. The tone is light and a bit sarcastic, and overall it’s a fun read that makes you think about the concept of gender outside of biology.
“Phaser” by Cameron Van Sant follows a 15-year-old-girl who just came out to her mom as a lesbian and has been grounded as a result. She gets abducted by aliens and meets several of her future selves, who illustrate how a person’s gender and sexuality can change and evolve without giving credence to the common “it’s just a phase” argument. I loved the characterization in this book, and how each future-self’s attitude and personality reflected their lived experience.
“Glitter and Leaf Litter” by Rae White is the final story in this collection. Two non-binary teenagers search through a haunted house, exploring and explaining their ideas about gender with some interesting supernatural characters. I definitely felt like this story could easily be expanded into a novel or series, though the story is still complete by itself.
Though these stories all follow a “theme” their actual characters and plotlines vary greatly. I talked about two stories with teenagers as characters, but most of the others follow adults. Some stories take place on Earth, while others take place on other planets. So if any of these interest you, know this book holds even more amazing stories: a sun/moon mythology involving paper origami walls, a friendly visit between a human and a faerie, an immigrant trying to establish themselves in a new place with a language that forces them to consider gender for the first time, and more.
Though all of these pieces are intriguing and well-written, there were stories that were a little hard for me to get into. One of the stories didn’t really have physical character descriptions, so it was really hard for me to picture the characters. That made me realize that just designating characters as male or female can act as a sort of short cut to help the reader visualize a character. Even though how men and women look and sound varies greatly, having something designated as male or female does help us paint a picture, though that picture is informed by stereotypes and assumptions. If I had been told a character had a deep voice or a high one, or given physical attributes, I would have been better able to picture them, so the story wouldn’t have been so confusing.
The collection has interviews with several of the authors, which I thoroughly enjoyed. You get to see some information about their influences and motivations for the piece, as well as info about their other work and recommendations for other gender-diverse fiction. I will definitely be looking up more by these authors. There is also a “further-reading” list with tons of interesting titles, so if you’ve been looking for ways to find fiction with gender diverse pronouns and nuanced takes on gender and sexuality, I think Capricious: The Gender-Diverse Pronouns Issue is a great place to start.