What about the guys? …is not something we usually need to ask. The genres of science fiction and fantasy have, historically, never lacked for male writers—and similarly, and most likely as a side effect, there are any number of iconic male characters to be found. With notable exceptions, the popular notion of the “golden age of science fiction” is as a time dominated by dudes writing about dudes.
Today, some of the best and most popular SFF is being written by women—often, but not exclusively, about women—but it’s not as though the men have gone away (despite some very loud online assertions to the contrary). Many of this new vanguard of writers are queer, and many of their books feature queer women in either leading or strongly supporting roles. This is all very good news.
But where are the queer men? It’s hard to be too scientific with this assertion (which, in a sense, comes down to a general impression) but perusing any number of internet lists of SFF books with queer characters kind of backs it up: The number of books led by women on the LGBTQ+ spectrum (whether cis or trans) is astounding, if maybe not what it should be to make up for decades of deficiency in the representation of queer characters, but as we’re increasingly given the chance to visit worlds more impressively diverse than ever—sometimes reflecting the variety of our own world, and sometimes imagining better ones—as a gay man, I often don’t see myself in them.
In most other contexts, wondering “where are the dudes?” would be, at best, silly. If you want examples of SFF with straight, male protagonists written by straight, male (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) writers, you’re spoiled for choice. Alec Nevala-Lee’s recent (and essential) biography of John W. Campbell, the long-time editor of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine (later Analog) digs into the personalities who shaped (and constrained) our sense of what science fiction should be. Though Campbell was just one voice during the so-called golden age of the genre (though I’d happily make the case that we’re living in another one), he was one of the preeminent tastemakers, going to great lengths to popularize many of the common traits that we’ve come to associate with the genre. And though his influence is undeniable, and he certainly introduced or boosted the careers of some of the most important names in the field, his interest in voices that weren’t male (and straight, and white) was severely limited.
For all his very positive contributions, Campbell’s narrow mindset put binders on the popular conception of science fiction that took decades to shake off. (A particularly damning anecdote: when introduced to the work of Samuel R. Delany, one of the most innovative voices in the genre, the famed editor responded with indifference.)
The point being: at a time when the broader literary scene was taking shaky, halting steps in the direction of inclusivity with the emergence of queer voices like Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and James Baldwin, who managed a level of mainstream success while touching on LGBTQ+ themes, and while lesbian pulp fiction was a surprisingly popular, if disreputable, sub-genre—partly due to its appeal to queer women along with straight men—science fiction lagged behind. Lesbianism seemed more able to be made broadly acceptable by hinting at a performative aspect, as though female same-sex attraction is entirely a put-on for guys who like to watch, while the market for M/M fiction was much less broad; certainly SFF was mostly marketed to straight men who wanted stories about straight men.
In more recent years, the staggering and undeniable success of female-identifying SFF writers , many of whom identify as something other than straight, has been a blessing for queer readers. Books like Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion and The Light Brigade, Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange, R.E. Stearns’ Barbary Station, Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension, and Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet are just a few prominent, recent, and highly recommended books with diverse casts in which queer women are at the forefront.
Male and non-binary authors have also created some fabulous works with LGBTQ+ female leads: books like Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, Max Gladstone’s The Ruin of Angels, and Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. These are just off-the-cuff examples; there are many others, and many of them introduce characters that don’t identify on a gender binary (thinking of books like K.A. Doore’s The Perfect Assassin, with its asexual protagonist).
Still, it’s honestly quite a bit harder to come up with books lead by queer male-identified characters, particularly when we’re talking about science fiction. (Somehow, queer men slide into fantasy worlds rather more easily than they make it onto spaceships.) It’s not just an issue in vintage works: the recent mainstreaming of the Queer SF movement is definitively lacking in gay male rep (when Lois McMaster Bujold rewrote the history of her long-running Vorkosigan Saga to make one prominent, powerful male character explicitly bisexual, there was a good deal of outcry from readers who thought it betrayed certain aspects of his character).
Figuring out why this is so is more difficult. What is it about sci-fi—who is writing it, who is reading it, who is publishing it?—that makes queer men such a rare find? (And villains don’t count, at least when their sexuality is used to help code them as vile: if we need to point to Baron Harkonnen in Dune as an example of gay male rep in science fiction, something is amiss.) Still, there’s not a great deal to be negative about: though everyone’s story is different, there is a universality of themes in queer stories that can speak to every reader, and queer characters from across the spectra of gender and sexuality are making themselves known across SFF, very often in stories written by authors of similarly diverse orientations and identities.
In that spirit, a good number of relatively recent books, a number of them from #ownvoices authors, offer up queer men in lead roles.
One of the most prominent recent examples in fantasy is Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf (the first of a trilogy), in which lead character Tracker and his band of mercenaries hunt through an imagined, but not entirely made up, ancient Africa in pursuit of the mysterious child they’ve been hired to find. James’ writing is somehow both elegant and visceral, capturing the blood and filth of the mercenaries’ lives. That’s the main draw here, but he also captures a sweaty, muscular brand of M/M sexuality that dodges stereotypes of gay and black men alike. In this there are hints of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, particularly as he was often depicted by artists like Franz Frazetta as the quintessential muscle daddy-type of many a gay adolescent fantasy—if mysteriously marketed to straight men. Tracker’s relationship with the shape-shifter Leopard defies easy categorization, given the more openly fluid world in which they live, but its naked emotion and sexuality are among the book’s most impressive aspects.
Kai Ashante Wilson does something similar with his novella The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, another work that makes no apologies whatsoever for black, queer, male sexuality. An earthbound demigod named Demane is part of the mercenary band of a man known only as the Captain, himself a descendant of gods who left Earth for Heaven in the distant past. The contrast between their mythic, almost angelic origins and the gritty “reality” of their world of dangerous jungle and dark magic is at the story’s center, as is the physical and emotional connection between the two men. Wilson followed Wildeeps up with the very different but similarly impressive A Taste of Honey—set in the same world, but focusing on a privileged courtier Aqib bgm Sadiqi and his love for the soldier Lucrio. Differences in status provide the obstacles to their romance, though it all works as a metaphor for the real-world forces (class included, of course) that would keep two men apart.
Richard K. Morgan (best known for Altered Carbon, both the book and the resultant Netflix series) also produced a grimdark science fantasy series with a gay male protagonist: Ringil Eskiath, a war hero nonetheless shunned for his sexuality. In spite of his family’s disapproval, Gil’s mother enlists him to help free a cousin sold into slavery—a quest that soon puts him in the path of dark magic and sees the fulfillment of a prophecy. The first in the series, The Steel Remains, came out in 2008—not that long ago, really, but in a very different landscape. Making it all the more impressive: his sword-and-sorcery world admits not just graphic violence, but lots of fairly explicit man-on-man action. Which is not the point… but it’s kinda the point.
This year’s The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie, is another epic (again, queer men are mech less thin on that ground in fantasy) in which a god known as the Raven watches over the kingdom of Iraden, sustained by blood sacrifice. Warrior Eolo, a bisexual and trans man, comes to discover the dark secrets of the Raven’s Tower that could bring the entire kingdom to its knees.
Two excellent recent science fiction-adjacent novels are among the few with queer male leads: Sarah Gailey’s alt-history duology River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow (collected in American Hippo) follows the alternate outcome of a real-life plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana as a food source. In real life, it didn’t happen, but Gailey’s book imagines a bayou full of savage, fast-moving, well-adapted hippos and the people who try to control them, and one of the protagonists is a bisexual man in a relationship with a genderqueer person. Meanwhile, Nicky Drayden’s gonzo South Africa-set sci-fi/fantasy hybrid The Prey of Gods sees several leads facing multiple threats—an AI uprising, a hallucinogenic new drug, an out-of-control plague of genetically engineered livestock, plus, oh, an ancient goddess hungry for blood), and one of them is Muzi, a queer teen boy in love with his best friend, Ellkin.
One forthcoming work of note in this regard—out in early 2020—is Docile, by the queer, trans author K.M. Szpara. In it, he explores a dark future America in which hyperinflation and an economic collapse have birthed a new capitalist dystopia in which the easiest way for someone to pay off their creditors is to become a Docile—an indentured servant of sorts, given drugs to be made pliable and willing to perform work for those with the wealth to buy their debt.
The lead character, Elisha, hopes to do just that, but swears he’ll never take the Dociline that turned his mother into a hollowed out shell of the woman she used to be—a decision made more complicated when his contract is purchased by ultra-rich aristocrat Alexander Bishop III, whose family is the brains behind the drug. Troubled at the accusation against his family legacy, Alex determines to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without the help of the drug; what follows is a complex take on the intersection of capitalism and consent, dominance and submission, and love and obligation.
The diversity of recent works of fantasy and science fiction is stunning, even (and particularly) among major releases. I think that’s brilliant. The fact that women and non-binary writers are building new worlds, and diverse characters are exploring them, has opened up genre fiction in ways that would have been almost impossible to imagine a few decades ago. It wasn’t long ago that each and every LGBTQ+ character in a book was a cause for celebration. The fact that we’re beginning to take them for granted feels an awful lot like progress.
If there are fewer male-identified queer characters at the head of science fiction adventures? Well, we’ll get there.
Who are your favorite gay male-identifying characters in sci-fi and fantasy? (Valdemar represent!)