I’ve been reading fantasy and science fiction for over 40 years. Piers Anthony and Robert Heinlein were mainstays through my adolescence as were Stephen Donaldson and Stephen King. In the last couple of years I’ve focused a lot more on writers who aren’t white men. I know that my experience is by no means exhaustive, but fantasy in the last few years seems to have made a real leap in terms of the presentation of sexuality and gender roles.

A note about the more recent books and podcasts I link to below: I am inordinately fond of all of them and not nearly as critical as I might be.

The dynamics between characters with regards to sexuality, gender, and gender roles have taken a giant leap forward. Consider Star Trek, which was itself a leap forward with a Black woman, an alien (played by the son of East European Jewish immigrants), a Russian, and a Scot holding lead roles alongside the only slightly evolved Wild West White Male hero. In the late 60s there was almost no hint of non-binary sexualities. Gene Roddenberry had advanced a little beyond the rigid gender roles espoused by Robert Heinlein. Consider Stranger in a Strange Land. The titular character a human raised on Mars, whose parents were two of the four crew members of a mission who managed to kill one another out of jealousy (if I recall rightly). He returns to Earth as a messiah of sorts, but all the surrounding characters (including Heinlein’s perennial stand-in Jubal Harshaw) are very much about the heterosexual/dominant male dynamic, more evolved though Heinlein might have preferred them to be.

Fast forward to the late 80s, we get the first volume of Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu trilogy, which imagines a world with a very queer milieu of traditional humans and this next level hermaphroditic race who become who they are through a kind of vampiric infection. Constantine was writing this at the height of the AIDS epidemic and imagining infections that made one more powerful, better able to heal, and impervious to (rather than suffering an accelerated) mortality. In addition, it’s humans, not the very queer Wraeththu who are on the way out. There’s definitely a revolution in her approach to fantasy, but it’s also a reaction to the time.

Fast forward to now. I have no idea if the writers I’m enjoying today are at all representative, but consider these. In the first book in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, two of our humans fall in love with distinctly different aliens. Captain Pei (an Aeluon – a sort of reptilian biped) and Captain Ashby have a relatively hetero relationship, but at the heart is the fact that extra-species relationships are explicitly taboo for Aeluons. She has to keep her relationship with Ashby secret through the whole series. Chambers has derived these characters from deep considerations of how different species might evolve. When Rosemary and Sissix connect, we’ve already learned that the adult Aandrisks (Sissix’s species) raise families of offspring that they haven’t themselves given birth to. The whole clan structure is discussed before their ship lands on Sissix’s home planet. The fact that she connects with a human, however, is a matter of course and not addressed as strange.

The characters in Neon Yang’s Tensorate series are born without gender and decide sometime after adolescence which path to take. Our heroes in the first books are twins and one decides for female, the other male. And the male takes up with one who made no transition.

In Charlie Jane Anders’ Victories Greater Than Death, the human characters introduce themselves with their pronouns. Is this heavy-handed? I’m not sure. They’ve got something like a babelfish. When our hero introduces herself to a Chinese character with her pronouns and a whole bunch of hard-to-digest information, she asks if everything made sense. The other says, ‘I’m Wang Yiwei. Your Mandarin is hardcore except the part where you try to use gendered pronouns.’ Anders acknowledges that in a very diverse galaxy, some species might feel differently still. ‘Then acting Senior Engineer Yma is a Zyzyian (small, slimy, blows bubbles all the time). It’s a huge insult to use any kind of pronoun to refer to Zyzyians – like, a battle-to-the-death-level insult.’

Also, in addition to the crew of the main ship being aliens from all over, the humans who join are from all over. Tina and Rachael are Americans, Damini is from Mumbai, another is from Brazil.

Nghi Vo introduces a character on page 1 of The Empress of Salt and Fortune as ‘they’ as does Nino Cipri in the LitenVerse books (Finna and Defekt, which take place in a very weird version of Ikea).

I think my favourite of this new kind of fantasy is Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. (And it’s really easy to mix up Wayward Children and Wayfarers, I know). The conceit of Wayward Children is that the main characters all end up at a school for kids who have been through doors into what we would call fantasy worlds. McGuire takes the idea of how the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe would actually have interacted with their parents upon return from Narnia, and how very hard they would have been to deal with and what if we could shunt them off to someone who could actually handle all the blather they talk about Narnia and talking lions and fauns and evil witches. So we go to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children. All of our kids have been somewhere else and returned. And long to go back to the Goblin Market (where every trade is based on agreed upon fair value) or the Moors (ruled by a vampire and a mad scientist always in competition) or Confection which is sugar and sweet and nonsense. Kade is trans, Jack and Jill are twin girls (and require a look into their histories to recall what made Jack different. But all of their differences are cherished and the fantasy aspects of their adventures are as normal as the differences in sex and gender.

When Yskander says to Mahit in Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire that she ‘should do something about’ her feelings for Three Seagrass, it’s solely an acknowledgement that love should be attended to. Yskander had had both male and female lovers and acknowledged love as the key to things. (This brings to mind the end of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element in which love is quite literally the key. Beautiful but annoyingly heterocentric, much like Besson’s more recent Valerian.)

I’d love to know what Constantine would think of these modern evocations of love in all its normality. Sadly she passed away earlier this year. I’m finding in my reread of Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit (the first of the Wraeththu books) a sort of normalization of queer love, but it’s very much in opposition to that of humanity (credit in the straight world, as Courtney Love once put it). Non-Wraeththu society still exists in opposition to queerness. Where we are now is (despite the anti-gay battles still being fought) offers a harmony.

Ongoing radio drama podcast The Strange Case of the Starship Iris deals in much the same realm of sex, gender, and race being aspects of life and makes the embrace of same central to the plot. Populated mostly by humans, and one Dwarnian, the titular starship is a mixed bag of characters. Dwarnians and humanity fought a disastrous war, but the Dwarnian on Iris is engaged to Brian Jeeter who’s trans, and the other humans, male and female are from all over, as are the actors. Liu, Patel, Captain Tripathi. The cast, based on the actors’ names are equally from all over.

My experience of fantasy writing nowadays is very much informed by the fact that I’m focusing on writing by women and trans authors. I have little or no idea how representative these writers are, but Chambers, Yang, Vo, and Martine are nominees (winners?) for major SF awards. It’s not as though these are niche writers at this point. I know that these stories and authors are not exhaustive with regards queer in SF/F these days. One omission here is Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (and its successors) which I started but from which I was distracted. Noting that Lee contributed to All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages, one can guess that her work might fit here as well.