Literary Hub

How Imagining Other Worlds Can Help You Imagine Other Selves

Of all the pleasures of speculative fiction, I may have missed world-building the most.

Any compelling speculative world resembles ours enough to fascinate, but is also different enough to be visionary. Masters of the genre—like Margaret Atwood or Ursula K. Le Guin—situate their most enduring works in singular places. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the unforgettable suffering, compassion, and strength of Offred can only come across in the uniquely brutal Republic of Gilead. In Le Guin’s Earthsea books—where words are so important that knowing the true name of things can reshape reality—this bold view of language governs her modern mythology and makes it original.

I was drawn toward Charlie Jane Anders’s most recent novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, precisely because its world is so exotic and full of potential. City is set on a planet that’s tidally locked with its sun—in other words, this planet always shows the same face to its sun, just like how we only see one side of our moon. The implications for human habitation on such a world—which have been explored by scientists—are many and astonishing. In Anders’s novel, humanity scrapes out its survival in a small strip of eternal twilight, sandwiched between unimaginably scorching heats and the bitterest cold.

City does what all great sci-fi and fantasy novels do: it uses its bizarre world to gain new insight into the parts of humanity that we already know so thoroughly. Anders imagines how humans might impose an Earth-like existence on such a world—in City it happens via a complex array of shutters, imaginary technologies, bureaucratic rules, enforced sleeping schedules, and newly evolved social manners. She also imagines that our instinctual drive toward freedom would rebel against this sort of system, even as our darker fears and need for security would make us cling to such an arrangement. City revolves around people who naturally rebel against this world, yet who are confronted by the immense difficulty of finding a different way of existence. I find its central metaphor of humans fighting to preserve normalcy while sandwiched between extremes to be so fitting for my life right now.

Picking up Anders’s novel wasn’t by chance, and it wasn’t simple either. Over the past year, I’ve been enjoying so many works of speculative fiction, something I denied myself for very long. These books are putting me back in touch with what drew me to sci-fi and fantasy as a teen, back when I had a seemingly unquenchable appetite for this sort of literature and read with much fewer boundaries.

My appetite for speculative fiction withered away as I developed into a professional writer. In my early twenties I became more and more identified with a literary vocation, moving away from the genres of my youth and toward the sort of literature that I believed was “serious” and “important.” Among those I wanted to impress, it felt self-evident that authors like Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, and Samuel Beckett were more valid than Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, and H.P. Lovecraft.

But as my transition began making me believe in happiness and completion, I felt less and less inclined to read books celebrating the hardest parts of my life.

As time passed and I built my career as a writer, I didn’t seriously question these values. But things began to change last year as I started medically transitioning from male to female. Transitioning has caused me to reevaluate so much that I thought I once knew—simply making the declaration that I needed to become a different gender required huge shifts in my most basic assumptions. This massive transformation opened up the possibility for many other changes. Once I admitted that something as basic as my gender could be false—something that almost everybody in my life had confirmed virtually every day of my existence for as long as I could remember—I felt that I had to begin asking what other long-held ideas were in need of change.

Unsurprisingly, in the early months of my transition I started looking at my reading habits. Over the years I’d tailored my tastes to books that were modernist, obscure, heavy, philosophical, and dark. This was bleak reading material, and it had accompanied a portion of my life in which I’d been repressing enormous amounts of pain and trauma, finding ways to continually look away from what felt too wrong and intractable to bear.

I thought I was fated to a life of suffering and longing for what I could never have, so I sought out literature that heroicized suffering and impossibility. But as my transition began making me believe in happiness and completion, I felt less and less inclined to read books celebrating the hardest parts of my life. I wanted reading material that reflected the process of healing and exploration that I was undertaking. Books that would help me look on life with fresh eyes and a positive spirit that emphasized all I could do.

With this in mind, it felt only natural to turn back to the speculative fiction that had animated my childhood. Going back to that genre represented a return to a time when so much seemed open, new, and possible. It felt like a chance to begin my reading life all over. My transition was empowering me to dismantle the shame that had always prevented me from being my true gender, and I could use this to break down all the limits I’d given myself.

As I’ve been exploring this past year, I’ve come to feel so much more enriched now that I’m making space for more kinds of reading experiences. To take one example, prior to my transition I immensely admired John Keene’s Counternarratives. This brilliant work creates narratives to fill the spaces where history has failed to record of Africa’s contribution to the New World. It makes us reflect on what our history has left out, and why, forcing us to think about how these forces have shaped the world we live in.

Perhaps I’ve keyed in on two books about rethinking history because transition has literally rewired my brain, giving me a unique opportunity to rethink what has gone into forming me.

If I had not transitioned, I probably never would have realized how Octavia Butler’s Kindred is similarly essential reading. It uses a time travel plot involving a modern black woman who must go back to slave days to repeatedly save the life of a slaveowner, keeping herself alive in the process. Like Counternarratives, Kindred finds a beautiful metaphor to make us think about how our past locks us into a certain world. But it does it in a way that’s completely its own, and one that has made my admiration for Counternarratives so much larger and more complex.

Perhaps I’ve keyed in on two books about rethinking history because transition has literally rewired my brain, giving me a unique opportunity to rethink what has gone into forming me. This past year I’ve been fighting to reclaim a life history that often feels as though it is not mine at all, but rather a creation of trauma, transphobia, and the people and institutions that have sought to masculinize and normalize me against my will. I’m reading the books that help me construct this alternative history, and here speculative fiction has been an essential way to connect with alternate ways of seeing. It’s no surprise that I’ve gravitated toward such books written by women and members of minority groups—the sci-fi I read as a child was almost entirely the creation of white men. I regret that when I was younger I lacked the wherewithal to question why this seemed to be the only writing available to me.

As I’ve worked through my life history, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea has felt so pertinent to me. Le Guin’s book is story of a maturing wizard who, in a youthful act of arrogance, unleashes a terrible shadow into the world. The shadow is forever tied to him by this lamentable act, and it terrorizes him in his young adulthood. The wizard knows he must one day war against it for his very life, or else he’ll be doomed to a life of fear and desperation.

To me, A Wizard of Earthsea seems absolutely a story of the trauma that is done to us in our childhood, and the ways that we must fight as adults to overcome this history and arrive into ourselves. This story has drawn me into new realms of self-exploration, and it has inspired me to not give when my own demons seem so impossible to overcome. It has also comforted me with the knowledge that my experience is a universal one.

As I build a new worldview, it seems natural to return to literature that lets me view new worlds. Books have always been essential to my self-creation: they let me think in ways that are otherwise impossible. I know that the work I’m undertaking at this moment is crucial. I finally have the space to discover who I actually am, and I want to give myself the books that will put no limits on where my mind can go. I’m feeling real freedom these days, the freedom to exist, the freedom to read past my trauma, the freedom to move toward the best of me.

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