In revitalising my blog and thinking about what kind of theme I could pick up through these Stories What I Liked ((I apologise to everyone for all the stories I liked for most of this year but didn’t write about because of brainweasels. I’m really sorry.)), it didn’t take long at all to pick up on the topic of othering–monstering, if you will. Appropriate, I suppose, that I haven’t been able to bring myself to the blogging table to write about this until this particular time of year, but there you go.
These stories, these October stories about monstering, all resonated with me a lot on a personal level, spoke to different identity aspects for me. Hence, obviously, while these rang true as a bell for me, they might not be your tales; even so, it’s damn important to read stories that aren’t our own too, and I think these all have value for readers regardless of identity politics.
To start, I’ve been following Rose Lemberg’s Birdverse for some time now, and have to start by saying they have been building a really unique and fascinating world that deserves more attention and acclaim. The world is realistically made up of some very different nations and cultures, and Rose has written stories across a number of these. Finding the links to the rest of the verse is always a treat for me, but each story does stand alone. Also effective is that none of these cultures is perfect–there is no holy grail of utopian bliss, though some are more open than others, and again in vastly different ways.
And the magic based on language and names and…I’ll let you read for yourself. It ticks all my boxes.
Geometries of Belonging (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) is set in a milieu that reminds me a bit of Kushner’s Tremontaine and Flewelling’s Rhiminee, though I’m not sure if I’m projecting my metanarrative of queer class-and-nation-crossing relationships onto the story that’s actually happening. Possibly that, and possibly the fact that the characters in the story (as is a theme in Rose’s work) are very bound to very codified cultural constraints that harm and chafe them.
Parét is a healer, but uniquely, he is a mind-healer–basically a magical psychiatrist–which ticks my boxes immediately. He’s a rare breed, and he’s in a rather complex social situation in that he has a patron/lover who’s nobility with high status but also an outsider. He’s also in a city that needs mental healthcare desperately, both for the every day and for the scars of war, a number of years past but still linger as trauma and political repercussions.
And Parét isn’t well himself, to be honest; he has what we’d think of as PTSD due to the war and what happened to his wife and son, which he doesn’t want to heal in himself for reasons that we’ll eventually understand. Despite his problems, he’s committed to the work he does, and has a deep and unshakeable code of ethics regarding his patients. The young person Dedéi comes into Parét’s life through a combination of all these aspects–the professional and the personal and the political–and he must negotiate very thin lines of ethics, personal safety, and compassion in trying to help them.
How he traverses this path makes for a tense and compelling story, one that doesn’t really let up even after things come to a head. I found that despite the very clear ideological goals of the work, I honestly wasn’t certain where things were going to end up for our protagonist and for Dedéi, as I’m conscious from some of their other work that Rose doesn’t pull punches. For me, finding a suspenseful tale that doesn’t throw my anxiety to a head is rare, so aside from the conceptual affinity I had for the story, I took pleasure in it from a readership perspective as craft. (Admittedly, this is personal preference. I have particular problems getting through stories where we know Something Terrible Will Happen–it took me ages to get through the first half of Ancillary Justice.)
Thinking about that actually brings me back to the ideology, of Parét’s healing ethics and refusal to treat anyone without consent, but above all Dedéi’s haunting refrain: I do not wish to be remade.
It’s made clear that Dedéi would, in our world, be considered to be on the autistic spectrum, and that their gender identity is non-binary. It’s also made clear that their extremely powerful family would rather they were neither–that they were made normative, particularly as the culture they live in has literally no room for these identities. As someone who’s neuroatypical and non-binary, the word that Dedéi uses, again and again, haunted me. Remade.
Because Lemberg has it here in one–forcing normativity is an undoing, a squishing up of the identity like clay until it can be remolded to someone else’s liking, leaving little of the original form. Like a lot of folks, I’ve spent more than a little time pondering and deciding fiercely against any hypothetical ‘fix’ for my brain chemistry, and in the end, despite the pain and difficulties, I know I would rather be me as I am than someone completely unknown and tidy.
As for non-binary gender…it ain’t broke, and it’s certainly not something that’s a part of my brain being slightly askew, that would be fixed were I fully ‘well’. This is something Dedéi and Parét know as well.
Of course, aside from my personal identification with it all, Rose is also in conversation here with the Miracle Cure narrative in SFF, the remaking of disabled characters to fit into the normal box. But the truth of it, their own knowledge of this experience and their own feelings that are simpatico with mine and so many others’…that is what really makes ‘Geometries’ sing (like bird song, perhaps) for me.
Rose had another Birdverse story in BCS this year, Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds, which is moving and powerful in very different ways. It resonated a lot with me from the perspective of gender and societal expectations, but also that of the complexities of family: disappointment and love and misunderstanding. Do give it a read too!
In part 2: I take a look at the fantastic Queers Destroy Horror special issue of Nightmare, particularly Alyssa Wong on navigating being a monster/daughter and Sunny Moraine on the fierce reality (both agony and hope) of online life.