Science Fiction & Fantasy



Author Spotlight: K.M. Szpara

This is a very in-the-moment, visceral story. Where did you find the inspiration for this story?

This story did not come from one moment of inspiration, but rather a series of my trans experiences. And I say “my” because while I think many other trans people may agree, there is no universal experience.

The Internet, via role-playing and online accounts, message boards wherein no one can see or hear you, acts as an escape for many trans people. You can be your true self there without being questioned. That was the SimGrid portion of the story. When Ash plugs in at a young age, his avatar generates in his self-image. He gets to be “a character who just happens to be gay” — though he is unaware of this, that’s how the story begins for readers. That’s who I’ve always written, too, characters for whom their queerness did not impact the plot.

Even while in the SimGrid he faces a longing for more — to unplug and experience physical and emotional sensations in a different body. Body jealousy is overwhelming: this isn’t right; this will feel better in a different body; I don’t belong here, etc.

Then, there’s the shock and disbelief when Ash is forced to face his physical body. Gender dysphoria is admittedly hard to describe to someone who has never questioned their gender before, who has never stared at their naked body in a mirror and felt out of congruence with it. And, for course, the first medical professional he encounters doesn’t even know what to say, much less do for him. As someone who generally trusts doctors, I don’t trust that they all know what to do with my body. I do feel bad that it all happens at once, for Ash. I can’t imagine dealing with all my dysphoria like a piano being dropped on my head.

When it came to the ending, I recognized the number of depressing arcs for trans people, but also didn’t want to tie a tidy rainbow ribbon around it. For a moment, I considered Ash accepting his physical body — Zane too. Trusting doctors. Making it work. Living “real” lives. But why? That’s our only option, nowadays: making it work. And lots of trans people have not only made their peace but thoroughly enjoy the bodies they have formed in their true image. But what is real? Trans people talk about “realness” a lot. For Ash, existing in his physical body is too hard — which is not weak to admit. He knows who he is and that person exists in the SimGrid.

Recent developments in virtual reality have brought us one step closer to the reality of your story. How do you envision the implementation of such full VR immersion that have come about in “Nothing is Pixels Here”?

Oh, some big corporation will obviously get a hold of virtual reality once it inevitably becomes as popular as smart phones. They’ll have the most high quality version available and they’ll offer it as a perk to contractors. In this case, the “work” is glazed over, as it’s not vital to the story. I imagine Kinetic, Inc. harvests energy from its contractors, but requires them to exist in a passive but productive state. Being asleep for twenty years doesn’t appeal to anyone. Living in your dream world does, especially to vulnerable people: homeless, abused, or rejected queer kids for whom reality is too much to handle.

Some feel that there is no need for a special issue of Lightspeed Magazine focusing on the views of the QUILTBAG community, saying that such an issue would be divisive and exclusionary to other writers. If you could speak directly to those concerns, what would you say?

Naysayers don’t know what it’s like to be queer. Even though I have gained confidence in myself and my writing, I still have doubts about whether my work will be considered “too queer.” This story’s plot hinges on Ash being trans. Science fiction can be an unforgiving genre. I’m often intimidated out of writing too-queer plots or characters. Will the story or novel be relegated to the LGBT section far away from the science fiction and fantasy audience — its intended readers? QDSF was a safe space, an invitation to authenticity. Even then, I still worried a little, but mostly because of the current emphasis on writing “characters who just happen to be queer.” That’s important, too, and is often how I write. But queer people will face unique challenges in the future, be it technologically advanced, dystopian, on another planet, or post-apocalyptic. Those stories are also important to tell.

How have your own queer experiences influenced your writing?

Before I knew I was trans, I wrote in order to occupy male head and body space. When friends would ask why I never wrote female protagonists, I didn’t know how to answer. I identified (and still do) as feminist and wanted to smash the patriarchy. So, why couldn’t I write that? I felt bad, but didn’t let that stop me. I continued writing cisgender gay male protagonists because, like Ash, that’s how I imagined myself — though I was not fully aware of the implications, yet.

It’s only now, after years of facing my identity, that I’m beginning to write trans characters. It’s harder than I thought it would be. Even though I’ve made peace with my body, that doesn’t mean I still wouldn’t take a new one, if offered by Kinetic, Inc. I’m just starting to think of my body as desirable, again. And since I almost always write sex/bodies/romance alongside my science fiction and fantasy, that matters.

What’s next for you? What writerly treats can readers expect in the future?

Hopefully a novel! This short story was my first in several years. I recently finished writing and editing Docile, a science fiction romance set in a near-future Baltimore City. It focuses on debt, autonomy, and consent, features lots of queer characters, and lots of plot-relevant sex (!!!). By the time QDSF is in your hands, I’ll be nose-deep in querying. Other than that, QDSF has given me hope for the future of queer short fiction and I plan to be a part of that.

Xander Odell

Sandra Odell

Xander Odell is a 47-year old, happily married mother of two, an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Their work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, Crosssed Genres, Pseudopod, and The Drabblecast. They are hard at work plotting their second novel or world domination. Whichever comes first.