Genre fiction w characters who are not cisgender
August 1, 2020 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I predominantly read fantasy, sci-fi and sometimes (non-contemporary) romance. I would like to read more books with transgender, agender or non-binary characters. More below!

So this is a must:
- should be well written from the point of view of a transgender or non-binary reader. I'm cis and hetero and I don't want to accidentally absorb harmful ideas or stereotypes.
- their gender shouldn't be the main plot point. Like, I understand that plot arcs that center all their drama round a character being outed or having to pretend are a cliché. I would really like an interesting character doing interesting stuff, and they happen to be transgender, if that makes sense.
- they should be a key character, not just pop up for two pages.

I enjoyed Swordheart by T. Kingfisher and the Murderbot Series.

Do you have recommendations? Thank you!

(And please tell me if I said something wrongly or if I was offensive. I apologise.)
posted by Omnomnom to Grab Bag (37 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Try Melissa Scott's The Kindly Ones. A drug needed for space travel causes human embryos to develop into any of about eight different genital configurations, from cis- to fully hermaphrodite. (This is the social background, not the actual plot.)
posted by monotreme at 1:49 PM on August 1

Have you read The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin?
posted by number9dream at 1:49 PM on August 1 [4 favorites]

N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series has an important secondary character who is trans. I thought she was handled very well and respectfully.

If you've never read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin, it's about an entire planet of people who are normally agender but can become either male or female during rare fertile periods. The POV character is a male outside observer from another planet.

Another idea that may or may not fit is the recent Ancillary Justice series, in which the main character (whose identity I won't spoil) is from a civilization which doesn't classify people by gender and uses the pronouns she/her for everyone. (This choice by the author was actually a direct commentary on the much earlier The Left Hand of Darkness, which uses he/him for everyone.) The character is shown to be confused by the concept of gender and can't keep it straight when she's outside of her society and dealing with gendered people.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:49 PM on August 1 [11 favorites]

Le Guin revisits The Left Hand of Darkness in the short story Coming of Age in Karhide, which explores the possibilities of queer relationships in that culture.
posted by monotreme at 1:53 PM on August 1 [3 favorites]

The protagonist of Raven Tower by Ann Leckie is a trans man.

Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel is a collection of sci-fi short stories by a nonbinary author. Most of their point-of-view characters are transmasculine.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:00 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]

Have you read The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin?

I have, as a teenager, and it was wonderful.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:04 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]

Check out the Machineries of Empire trilogy. Written by a trans author and contains what you're looking for. Very entertaining books although the central tech conceit is... odd.
posted by selfnoise at 2:22 PM on August 1

If you can track down a copy of the short story Options by John Varley, definitely give it a look. (That link shows all the collections where it was published.) A near-future woman decides to try out the new body-swapping technology and see what it would be like to be a man. She winds up really enjoying inhabiting both her male and female bodies, which baffles some people close to her. I was very surprised that it was written in 1979 because it's handled so sensitively. It could have been written today imo.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:34 PM on August 1

Chrome by George Nader. I don't know if it's still in publication, but it probably could be found used.
posted by Splunge at 2:52 PM on August 1

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon. Last year I had resolved to only buy books unavailable through my library regardless of the wait, but I had to break it to get a hardcopy of this because I absolutely needed it to come live with me.
posted by teremala at 3:01 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]

This might not quite be what you want, but I am a huge fan of the Murderbot series by Martha Wells, which features a cyborg protagonist who is agender. They also find human sexual relations weird and off-putting. Murderbot starts off more on the robot side of cyborg but is increasingly humanized as the series progresses. The books are some of my favorites from recent years, and I think the protagonist really interesting and compelling.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:11 PM on August 1 [2 favorites]

OP mentioned Murderbot in the post.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:20 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]

The character is shown to be confused by the concept of gender and can't keep it straight when she's outside of her society and dealing with gendered people.

Yes! I read this and it's really fascinating the way the book deals with this. I found it challenging as a reader because... I didn't know the genders of a lot of the characters (even ones who had fixed genders) but that was kinda the point and it was brilliant.

You might also like On A Sunbeam by Tillie Walden which is a graphic novel which has all either female or nb characters and one of the main characters is nb.
posted by jessamyn at 3:33 PM on August 1 [2 favorites]

Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series is a series of novellas about kids who went through a portal to a fantasy world, came back, and are now at a school for kids in that situation, dealing with it in various ways. It features one explicitly trans character, one explicitly ace character, several queer and gender non-conforming characters, fat representation, and other rep I'm not thinking of. Each book focuses on a different character. For the most part, who they are is just who they are--the lesbian romance is never presented as scandalous, the ace character explains herself a couple times and then just goes on in the story being uncomplicatedly ace. The trans character's trans-ness is relevant to their portal backstory, but otherwise he is just accepted as who he is.

These stories are sweet and heartbreaking and life-affirming and I love them. I can't recommend them enough.
posted by rhiannonstone at 4:03 PM on August 1 [5 favorites]

I heartily recommend Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam. It’s a graphic novel. (Did not see Jessamyn’s answer til after I typed this out on my phone!)
posted by ferret branca at 4:05 PM on August 1

Margaret Killjoy has a series of two urban fantasy novellas, The Lamb will Slaughter the Lion and The Barrow will send what it May which is about a trans anarchist magician.

Also, I guess this is kind of a spoiler, but Katherine Addison's The Angel of the Crows fits.
posted by Ragged Richard at 4:13 PM on August 1

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is a must-read even if it didn't tick all your boxes, which it does.

You wouldn't know it from the web copy, but The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo also does.
posted by lampoil at 4:27 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]

To finish out the Ann Leckie books - Provenance is set in a (human) civilization where a person chooses between three genders. None of the characters are trans in our sense since they weren't assigned a gender at birth, and it's incidental to the plot. But several of the characters are young adults so there's some discussion about how that works, as well as a third set of gender pronouns/designations throughout the book.
posted by mersen at 4:43 PM on August 1 [2 favorites]

The Female Man by Joanna Russ is a classic from the 1970s. I haven't read it, but a synopsis suggests gender issues are the plot.
posted by JonJacky at 5:03 PM on August 1

Sarah Gailey's American Hippo series (River of Teeth is the first one) is alternate history SF with at least one nonbinary main character. I believe the author is NB themself.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:25 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]

It's been a while since I read them, but the Children of the Triad series features an agender society of winged people whose people use their own specific set of gender neutral pronouns.
posted by Jilder at 6:24 PM on August 1

Female Man by Joanna Russ is a classic from the 1970s. I haven't read it, but a synopsis suggests gender issues are the plot.

Not a good pick for this I’m afraid. While it’s an amazing book, it takes a pretty binary view of sex/gender in a way I believe Joanna Russ regretted later on.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:43 PM on August 1

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders is excellent sci fi, and Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve is excellent fantasy.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:48 PM on August 1

Tanith Lee wrote two books, Don't Bite the Sun and the sequel "Drinking Sapphire Wine" that you might enjoy which explore gender. Set in a world where you get to choose your own gender and appearance, receiving a new body every thirty days, or if you commit suicide whenever you feel like a change, the narrator is struggling to connect to her/his peers and find a purpose to life. He/she wants a child, but unable to find a partner attempts to create one alone by being both the male and female parent.

The books were written in the seventies and are doubtless quite dated by now, but they were seminal for me.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:20 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]

the Tensorate series by J.Y. Yang.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 8:31 PM on August 1 [3 favorites]

Hella by David Gerrold has some trans characters and while I haven't finished 100% of the book it seems like more of an aside than a major plot point. It's very much gay space communism.
posted by GuyZero at 9:29 PM on August 1

For a wonderful classically styled fantasy series, try The Bone Dolls Twin by Lynn Flewelling.
posted by Illusory contour at 11:27 PM on August 1

On the romance side, C. B. Lewis' Out of Time series features an awesome trans protagonist in #4, Time Turns, and he also shows up in #3 and as a major character in #5 (not at all because of me poking the author to write more Lysander...). It's a typical romance series in that #4 is a perfectly good place to start with, all recaps provided. (Not #5 because that one is the culmination of the series plot and requires reading #4 at least.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:39 PM on August 1

Once you're done with these suggestions, there's tons more at Bogi Reads the World, a site with well-organized tags to hundreds of reviews by Bogi Takács, who describes themselves as "a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person." E just won the 2020 Hugo award for best fan writer.
posted by Jesse the K at 8:01 AM on August 2 [1 favorite]

Though this isn't a specific recommendation, you might be interested in browsing the database of winners and honor lists for the Otherwise Award (previously known as the Tiptree Award). The Otherwise Award is specifically for works in speculative fiction/mediums that "explore and expand" the concept of gender, and has been around since the early 90s. You can find more details and lists of prior winners here, and can also search & browse the database.
posted by dryad at 8:23 AM on August 2

If you're willing to read short stories, you might enjoy the anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere. Some of the stories will tick all your boxes, and others will not, but hey, that's what anthologies are all about.
posted by dizziest at 8:38 AM on August 2

Hella by David Gerrold

Oh that reminds me of a book I recently read: Finna by Nino Cipri. One of the two central characters is non-cis, and they're in a relationship with the other central character but the book is all about exploring portals to other dimensions that show up in an IKEA-like store.
posted by jessamyn at 9:24 AM on August 2

It's not traditionally published, but you can read my novel, Lucid, for free. The protagonist is trans, as are a bunch of supporting characters. Although I didn't know I was trans when I wrote it, I think I still it counts as being written by a trans author.

(I also put it on Projects a little while back)
posted by Tabitha Someday at 5:29 PM on August 2 [1 favorite]

One of the four main characters in the sci-fi novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers is trans. The gender and sexuality of the crew is mentioned, but is not really relevant to the plot, which is that four scientists are exploring and gathering data about a series of different planets.

To be honest, this book was a little too "let's talk about how cool science and the scientific method are!" for my personal tastes. But, I don't regularly read sci-fi, so it might be right up your alley!
posted by catabananza at 7:07 PM on August 2 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed AMERICAN HIPPO by Sarah Gailey
posted by mareliz at 2:20 PM on August 3

[Friendly mod update. The biological h-word term above is one that is generally considered outmoded and stigmatizing when referring to humans and intersex is the preferred term.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:23 PM on August 3 [3 favorites]

Thank you very much for the recommendations, and also further resources. That was really helpful.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:05 AM on August 4

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