I adore writing the far future, a place and time where you’re limited by nothing save your imagination. In my vision of space travel and data-as-mind, society treats you as the person you say you are. You may love where you wish, dress how you like, pursue any profession, and the right to a body which matches your sense of self is both universal and basic: like water and food. In this future, ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ have no meaning. A quality, a mode of dress, or a job is what it is, without gender coding or judgment. This future may be fraught with conflict, war, conquest – those things I don’t believe will vanish even when we’re all more cybernetics than skin – but when it comes to gender identity and all the complex ripples it causes, I’m a thorough (perhaps even naive!) optimist.
But writing contemporary fiction, even meshed with the magic of snake women and layered with fantastical cities, must take into account what we have now.
Of all matters Houyi is least acquainted with the society of dresses.
There are lines of etiquette woven into the nylon that sheathes the muscles of her thighs and calves, into the silk that bares the taut hardness of her arms and the blades of her collarbones. The laws of the skirt enforce the positioning of knees and ankles, as eunuchs once shaped the posture of imperial concubines, as the color red once dictated the conduct and silence of new brides.
My novella Scale-Bright takes place today, for a rough definition of ‘today’ (I try not to precisely date my fiction! I think it’s part of the Great Unwritten Code; at least mine). One of the characters is Houyi, the archer god who shot down the suns. Readers familiar with Chinese mythology may give pause here, as Houyi is traditionally a man. When I made the decision to write her a woman, though, I kept some of the trappings: in ancient China she dressed like a man, and in the present day she is seen in button-on shirt, slacks, men’s shoes; she wears what most of us would consider ‘butch’ getup.
Houyi sprang into existence fully sentient and adult; she carries herself without being informed by the experience of childhood or growing up. But even in the mythical heaven of her birth, she’s a quick study. She recognizes the limits placed on other women, goddess or mortal, recognizes as well that her mode of dress – her martial aspect, born with bow and arrows in hand – sets her apart, gets her treated differently. In Scale-Bright she tells Marshal Tianpeng, a god notorious for his lechery, ‘Pretend that I am a man. Your equal, if you will’ – and she knows that he does at one level because she has a wife and has always been known as a great archer, a hunter of demons. When she puts on ‘feminine’ clothes in one part of the book, it’s a surprise to all involved and a ploy that deeply discomforts her. That isn’t the only place presentation comes up; Houyi’s niece-in-law Julienne (mortal, and ordinary) thinks that Houyi ‘sits like a man, in a way Julienne would never dare’. How you appear is everything, the way you walk and sit, what you wear or don’t. It can shape your world.
It’s an immense gulf to leap between: as I write this, I’m also working on short stories and a manuscript all taking place in the far future. In that world, your appearance – makeup, clothes, shoes or even anatomy – has no bearing on perception of your gender. And, even in Scale-Bright, I don’t want the pressure and limitations to take over – that can be an important and necessary story, but it’s not the one I’m telling. A balance has to be struck.
That partly informs my choice to make this about a world aside, an interstitial city beneath the evident with demons and gods, where there are some of the same limitations and problems we experience, but not so strictly. If there are rules among demons they haven’t much to do with whom you may love and whom you may not. Even among the gods of Scale-Bright some of them are not one gender all the time, and despite everything Houyi and her wife Chang’e were wedded in heaven. When you and everyone you know is a deity who’s seen eons, or ancient shapeshifting spirits, there just have to be things so much more important than what’s being worn and who’s marrying whom.