I honestly don’t even know how to begin this review because I loved Meanwhile Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers so damn much and I think I must accept that I will never be able to express in words just how great it is. If you trust my recommendations and want to save yourself the time of reading this long review, just go ahead and get yourself a copy of Meanwhile Elsewhere asap. YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.
I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention how ground-breaking this book is: it’s the first anthology of speculative fiction by trans writers. At nearly 450 pages it is quite an offering, both in quality and quantity; editors Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett have done an astounding job. There are simply so many incredible stories in the book, all over the speculative fiction map: horror, dystopian, alternate realities, mythical pasts, cyberpunk, and all variations of science fictional futures. I was totally blown away by the quality: their inventiveness, their humour, and their emotional impact. There were stories that made me laugh out loud, ones that made me think real hard, and ones that made me cry. I started reading this deliciously fat book back in September and some of the early stories are still burned in my brain; I know many of them will stick with me for a long time.
Naturally the collection is focused on trans experiences, in a way that wonderfully centres trans readers and implies a trans readership, or at least one familiar and informed about trans issues. Unfortunately that fact is still a notable one, with so many books with trans characters and by trans authors being pigeonholed into a mold for an implied cis audience. If I find it so refreshing to read trans books that are so authentically and messily trans, I can’t imagine how transformative it must be for trans readers.
What’s so striking about Meanwhile Elsewhere is how speculative fiction opens up so much space for not only familiar trans coming out stories but also some just plain incredible fiction where being trans is incidental to the plot or organically integral in a way where the story is about being trans but also so many other things. The science fiction stories in particular imagine so many futures and possibilities which interrogate what it means to be (a trans) human; that is what I love about science fiction and what so many of the writers in Meanwhile Elsewhere do so beautifully. So many of the stories gave me that delicious feeling of seeing the so-called real world anew, from a fresh perspective, reminding me of that ever relevant impulse of science fiction, of imagining the world other than how it is, of imaging a world where things could be different.
If you’re looking for sapphic aka lesbian/bi women content, there is also a substantial amount of that, which I was obviously delighted about. FYI, there are definitely more stories by and about trans women than trans men or non-binary folks, so the queer women content makes sense. And there are some standouts by Canadian writers, including Morgan M. Page, Sybil Lamb, Trish Salah, Bridget Liang, and more! (Also let’s not forget Casey Plett is Canadian too!).
Can I tell you about the stories now?? Okay, but what do I even say because there are at least a dozen stories in Meanwhile Elsewhere that I could write a whole essay about. I will attempt to restrain my word count while simultaneously giving my love and passion full reign.
Were you expecting a gentle, unchallenging introduction to Meanwhile Elsewhere? Too bad. Do you know what the collection opens with? FUTURISTIC BDSM TRANS EROTICA set in a mysteriously paranormal deserted house in a future city’s undesirable quarter. When I say this anthology is unapologetically trans, in both its content and the audience it imagines, this is the kind of thing I mean:
She fell through the glittering cloud and landed on top of him, grabbing his hair and smashing her lips into his. His little cock has hard between his thighs; her clit was tenting her skirt.
Before you can recover from being simultaneously turned on and creeped out by that first story—“Control” by Rachel K. Zall—Fitzpatrick and Plett spin you into the darkest, goriest piece in the collection: Bridget Liang’s “Delicate Bodies.” Beryl, the main character, is a Chinese Canadian trans woman living in Toronto. It’s a regular day for her, on her way to a meeting with her Ontario Works caseworker who refuses to call her anything other than her dead name, until she gets bitten. By a human. What would you do if you became a zombie? What if you suddenly started to crave human flesh, and, after checking Facebook, realized that the zombie apocalypse is here and you’re one of them and your friends are mourning you in a way eerily reminiscent of the fucked up way they did that when you came out as trans? Here’s what goes through Beryl’s head:
She had a sinking feeling the only thing she wanted now was brains… But that was revolting! Her belly growled at the thought of eating human brains? Or just human flesh in general? Suddenly all she could think of was the salty warmth of blood pumping from a fluttering heart. Every fiber of her body was crying out for her to feed. Tear. Rip flesh. Bathe in the blood. Rinse. Repeat.
This was worse than testosterone! She was a vegetarian. Her family was Buddhist. She could barely stand the thought of eating meat, let alone her own kind!
Although, she thought to herself, were they really her own kind? People like her certainly weren’t seen as fully human. Not many professional queers were willing to hire a weird Chinese trans girl dropout who’d barely started her medical transition.
Such is the beginning of what becomes a tale of revenge fantasy violence and trans-zombie-on-trans-zombie sex. Just like the scariest zombie movie you’ve ever seen, “Delicate Bodies” is not for the faint of heart.
The collection takes a decidedly different turn with another story with Canadian connections: “What Cheer” by Vancouver resident RJ Edwards, a beautiful and weird and sad story featuring Christmas, aliens, and non-binary feels. Addie has returned to their hometown for Christmas to the complexity of negotiating how to not be too queer or trans at family gatherings so as not to “ruin Christmas” and trying to stay “cool and invulnerable” in the face of being in love with a friend who only friend-loves you back. All this would be enough for a fascinating story, except it’s just the setting for Addie finding a mysterious egg that spawns an alien double that looks just like them and wants to learn all about what it means to be human.
The fourth story, again, takes readers somewhere completely different with a hilarious story, “Satan, Are You There? It’s Me, Laura?” by Aisling Fae, in which Satan is a bad-ass trans woman and God is a douchebro who’s in love with her but obviously unworthy. I LOVE IT. I laughed out loud on the bus while reading that story.
Canadian Trish Salah’s “It Can Grow!!!” is next and it’s about a queer trans woman trying to figure out how to deal with her brain-eating amoeba and her inability to have an orgasm. Was taking home the trans guy she meets at the Toronto dyke bar where her girlfriend is a bartender a good way of dealing? Probably not. This story was bizarre and funny in a way that made me go “huh??” at the end and start reading the story anew.
I think it was about this point in the anthology when I thought, can Meanwhile Elsewhere keep this up? So far every single story has blown my mind. Well, the answer to that question is a resounding YES. Because the next story Calvin Gimpelevich’s “Rent, Don’t Sell,” one of my favourites from the whole anthology. “Rent, Don’t Sell” is about a cis lesbian veteran and amputee named Nok who deals with her PTSD and newfound disability partly through her job at SciFit, a gym where she inhabits the bodies of others who want to get fit or lose weight without putting in the effort themselves. This is only one use of the future’s body swapping technology: Nok’s love interest is Natasha, a trans woman who’s used it only to find herself struggling with a different kind of dysphoria in the body she thought she wanted. Nok’s sister Mara is also making use of the technology through temporary capitalist gains available by allowing her body to be rented for sex work; she too is unprepared for the consequences of the body swapping. For Natasha, it’s the realization that although she now inhabits a woman’s body, it isn’t her body; for Mara, it’s the ignorance of the kind of trauma a body can carry even if your mind didn’t experience it. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but be prepared for amazing Thelma and Louise-type feels (without any of the tragedy).
Would you even believe the next story “No Comment” by Ayse Devrim is another favourite of mine? It’s a campy, hilarious story about a trans woman Maryam who is a recent recipient of a uterus transplant in the near future. A la Jane the Virgin she finds herself mysteriously pregnant and acquiring mythic Virgin Mary status; unfortunately Maryam is, to quote her friend, “single, surly, and sauced” and about as far from holy as the good wholesome Christian woman whose uterus she inherited was righteous. She also has no time for the bullshit government doctors who want to study her as a medical curiosity. In the ARC of Meawhile Elsewhere that I read, “No Comment” was the first story and it was what made me fall immediately in love with the book.
Did you think Sybil Lamb’s novel I’ve Got a Time Bomb was a work of absolute genius that the world will never fully appreciate like I did? If not, please read that book now, and then you can fully appreciate being able to dive back into her mind in her contribution to Meanwhile Elsewhere. She’s at it again, with her story “Cybervania,” a gloriously grotesque and truly bizarre post-apocalyptic cyber punk vision of the future that I can only describe as quintessentially Sybil Lamb. The only thing that disappoints me about “Cybervania” is that it isn’t accompanied by Lamb’s unique, trippy visual art like her novel is.
Fantasy is definitely in the minority in Meanwhile Elsewhere in favour of science fiction, which perhaps speaks to the more ample possibilities and revolutionary potential in reaching towards the future in SF versus the more conservative tendencies of fantasy, so often looking to the past for inspiration. There are, however, two amazing fantasy stories, “Matchmaker” by Dane Figueroa Edidi and “Notes from a Hunter Boy” by Beckett K. Bauer that I want to mention. I can perhaps give “Matchmaker” no better endorsement than say that it reminded me of the best of season 6 of Buffy, but with a Black trans witch for a main character. “Notes from a Hunter Boy” is a unique historical fantasy, told in the form of a diary discovered eons later, in which the concepts of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are truly turned on their heads.
For another taste of Canadian urban centres in trans speculative fiction like Bridget Liang’s piece, see Morgan M Page’s short but powerful “Visions.” Like many of the other stories in the anthology, it centres on relationships between trans people; this time it’s a trans man who’s been haunted by visions of a trans woman’s future suicide which he has been destined to intervene in. This destiny has haunted him and shaped his whole life, bringing him to the slushy streets of Montreal from rural Vermont. When the moment finally arrives, Page takes the reader somewhere quite unexpected from the usual “don’t jump” narrative.
I have, of course, saved my very favourite for last: “Imago” by Tristan Alice Nieto. This story wrecked me, breaking me apart but then putting me back together, albeit in a bittersweet way. It made me cry. It is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Tabitha lives in a future world where an epidemic that came to be known as the “White Death” has decimated humanity. A wonder drug called “Revivranol” was at first heralded as a miracle in response to the White Death and other kinds of dying, extending
viability for cardiopulmonary resuscitation from thirty minutes to twenty-four hours, and allowed the body to function in spite of massive physical trauma…But soon the promise gave way to reality. Those we revived came back broken, cold and distant…it was usually a confused and perverse confrontation as people tried in vain to locate a tiny fragment of the person they once knew within the talking pile of human remains that wore their lover’s skin.
This is the setting for this remarkable story, which integrates tidbits of butterfly biology, superstitions about and prejudice against people with albinism, grief over lost love, the impossibility of conceiving of your own death, the peculiarities of memory, and the cruel directions capitalism leads people in dire circumstances as well as those willing to capitalize on the miseries of others. Midway through the story Tabitha thinks:
I can’t shake the feeling that I should feel something more than mild disappointment at the thought of being dead. I think about all the things I never got to do, all the people and places I’ll never see again, but it doesn’t stir anything. Perhaps it’s a blessing, perhaps I’m protecting myself from the immeasurable cognitive weight of truly comprehending my own death.
You will weep and be forever changed by “Imago,” I promise.
There are so many more amazing stories that I didn’t have space to mention, like “After The Big One” by Cooper Lee Bombardier, about surviving an apocalyptic earthquake with an intergenerational trans and queer group of misfits; “Heat Death of Western Human Arrogance” by M Tellez, a story that beautifully imagines a sentient non-human, non-gendered being with rhizomatic thinking; “Schwaberow, Ohio” by Brendan Williams-Childs, featuring an autistic trans man living in a future where biotechnological advancements threaten the existence of trans people and neurodiversity; “The Gift” by Ryka Aoki, a story about a future so lovely and trans positive it’s heartbreaking to realize we are not there yet; “Thieves and Lovers” by Emma Addams, a tale of old Hollywood glamour and future holographic selves; “Angels Are Here to Help You” by Jeanne Thornton, a delightfully weird and funny space tale about leaving Earth on a spaceship you built yourself and financed with money you embezzled from your cat.
I am so excited for the future of speculative fiction and trans fiction and that very special intersection of trans speculative fiction that Meanwhile Elsewhere represents. Get this book, and get it now.
[Strong warnings for sexual and physical violence, as well as emotional abuse and suicide in a significant amount of the stories.]