Transgenderism in speculative fiction

A digression from talking about the Hugos
Thought we could talk about depictions of transgenderism in speculative fiction. As a genre, speculative fiction (and to a certain extent, science fiction) provides an opportunity to write about topics before their time. From what I recall from my own reading, the mid nineties was when I noticed that being gay was a way of fleshing out the odd character–making the setting seem more real, though perhaps I was simply obtuse prior to that time. Similarly, sympathetic transgendered characters might pop up as a nod to realism.

But there was a time, when such themes weren’t really a nod to realism, but a speculative extrapolation of social trends into the far future. So what SF authors embraced switching sex as “one of those freedoms we’ll eventually have,” before most of their readers had even though it possible.What authors have done this? What works included those themes “before their time?”


Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness springs to me, as does Banks’ Excession.

But they might not be quite what you’re thinking of.

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Just to throw up some bio to give my remarks context: I’m 54, straight, cis-male. The first novel I really remember reading was Harry Harrison’s Spaceship Medic when I was around nine-ish, I think? Though I’d been a keen fan of sci-fi comics before then (TV-21 is the only title I recall from that time).

I’ve got a feeling that the first transgender (human) character I read about was probably the protagonist of Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that he gets a whole body transplant early on, transferring his brain from his old man’s body to that of his pretty young secretary’s (who coincidentally has a fatal-to-the-brain accident around the same time as he has a heart attack).

Now, for someone whose undead corpse gets held up as a totem for conservatives all the time, Heinlein had some pretty liberal ideas, not just about sex, but about gender, too. By our standards he may have failed on the follow-through in real life, and even arguably handled them clumsily in his fiction, but he had no difficulty in contemplating what was originally a man’s brain in a woman’s body and accepting that she was now a woman by any useful definition.

I think our present-day conservatives would make a great deal of that, probably falling on the side of insisting that our protag is still male and getting the screaming habdabs at contemplating “him” having sex with a man. (Which she does, rather a lot, as I recall. (But discreetly written. (Still, it was pretty steamy for my pre-internet 14yo brain.))

I think that, though I’m far from perfect in this regard, to the extent that I’m accepting of trans* issues today, it’s mostly down to reading such out-there stuff early on. For a long time I thought what the general media wanted me to think about it all, but eventually (fairly late in the day, really), rejecting the general narrative wasn’t such a big step because of books like this.

Saying that, IWFNE does rather weigh the considerations heavily towards the sexual end of gender issues, I think, which is one of the clumsinesses of Heinlein’s text. It could definitively been better in this regard. But from my young cis-gendered perspective, I’ll give it a C+.

(Is this the kind of thing you were wanting, @jerwin ? )

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I really doubt that a man’s brain could adjust to a womon’s body, hormone levels, etc.

Sure, if it happened today, the doctors would probably want to fiddle with hormones as part of the post-operative therapy, and so on. But the genre is science fiction, not grant proposals (which I’m led to believe are another form of fiction altogether). The premise is, how would a man suddenly placed in a woman’s body react? How would society react to them? Not, what are the surgical and medicinal complications likely to arise if…? The surgery is just the magic wish-granting ring in this scenario.


I agree there. But the thing about speculation is that it risks being false, and in this case, it was almost certainly false. For ethical reasons we can’t test this with n≥30.

Nod. Sure, we’ve the advantage over 70s Heinlein of another couple of generations of medical research into what makes brains tick, not to mention the on-going research on MtF and FtM transitioning. If the reincarnation of Heinlein was writing a reply to his previous incarnation on the subject, we could count on the magic ring having a completely different form, as well as different conclusions about gender essentialism and so on.

Sure. The most that I could ever want from this thread is an amusing rejoinder to comservative nostalgia for what never really existed.


Drinking Sapphire Wine, by Tanith Lee (and the rest of the Four BEE series)

Charles Sheffield’s Proteus books

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Well, there’s also Gore Vidal’s sequel to Myra Breckenridge, Myron. (While hardly realistic, Myra probably wouldn’t qualify as speculative fiction.)

Right now I can’t think of any examples prior to Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil. It’s a good question.

In a number of Varley’s books and stories of the future, it’s taken for granted that most people will change genders from adolescence on, possibly back and forth several times. Then in at least one of his novels, there are also the people who become Barbies and Kens - just smooth. However Varley was writing after the '70s and the first publicized sex changes, so that’s not what you’re asking.

I don’t think we want to be too strict about precedent. After all, the first known gender re-assignment surgery was in the 30s, which would exclude nearly everything we’re pleased to call SF, leaving only Woolf’s Orlando for consideration on the subject.

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Oof, she just looked at me as I hit Reply! I thought it was a still! :smiley:

But, yeah, I got to catch that movie some time.



Certainly not the earliest example, but George Alec Effinger’s “When Gravity Fails” (a 1986 cyberpunk book set in the middle east) had a large number of supporting characters and in fact the main character’s girlfriend was born a man (as I recall he has no problem with this, and only slightly more problems with the fact that she’s a prostitute). Somewhere in between “this is just one freedom we will eventually have” and “nod to realism.”

And for some detailed information on examples most of which I’m not aware of:

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nice find. Will have to read that later.

While Heinlein’s on my mind, I was reminded in another venue that in his Time Enough For Love, in the far future Lazarus Long’s old male friend, “Slipstick” Libby has transitioned.

As I recall, Libby’s trajectory is less fantastic than Joanna Smith’s in IWFNE, resembling a not-uncommon story from our time, I think: Born a man, knowing that she’s not, but keeping it secret until such time as the surgical techniques are perfected to her satisfaction (I forget, but probably to do with cloning her a female body) when she makes the transition. This is at least a few centuries from our time, as Long’s over a thousand years old by then.

Naturally, Long and Libby have sex, but by this time Heinlein’s protagonists are having more sex than bonobos.

Edit: I seem to have made this all up. Please ignore all the struck-out bits. The final paragraph, I’m fairly sure now, happens in “The Number of the Beast—”.

Long time since I read it, but I think Libby was in some way ressurected. During her time between lives (I know that’s vague but I can’t remember it clearly), she heard someone repeatedly asking her “Do you want to be a boy or do you want to be a girl?” and eventually she made her choice. Not to say she didn’t feel female before, but I think the transition wasn’t exactly something she sought out.

Just checked on line, Libby doesn’t appear as female until The Number of the Beast.

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