Brave Boy World
BRAVE BOY WORLD
Michael Takeda (editor)
Trans men, nonbinary characters
Reading Brave Boy World upped the number of trans male characters I’ve seen in fiction by a factor of at least five, probably more. There aren’t a lot of stories about us out there, and I’ve been a little scared to go looking.
And, admittedly, some of the stories in this anthology justified a few of those fears. However, as a whole, reading this collection went a long way towards proving to me that looking for stories like mine is worthwhile.
Brave Boy World: A Transman Anthology contains twenty stories by a variety of authors, some of them trans and some of them not. (The introduction notes that due to the publisher’s inclusion policy, “all writers—whether they be cis, trans, male, female or non-binary—were eligible for inclusion in this anthology.”)
These stories are complicated, messy, and often painful, sometimes flirting and engaging with harmful language and/or tropes in their handling of trans experiences. Additionally, some of the stories use odd language, or have a different philosophy related to transness, or any of a number of other aspects that made them uncomfortable for me, personally, to read.
For these reasons, it would be easy to dismiss certain stories, or criticize their inclusion. But discomfort can be a good thing, especially when the ultimate goal is exploring a variety of perspectives surrounding a minority group.
As the introduction notes, “one of the goals in putting together this book was to select a range of stories that would reflect the variety of the trans masculine existence.” Ultimately, I think that the broad range of perspectives in this book is one of its greatest strengths. Without a few stories whose inclusion readers might question, some of the outer boundaries of the trans male experience would, by necessity, go unexplored.
It’s true that some of the stories included in this anthology were irritating or painful for me to read, but that doesn’t mean that someone else might not get a great deal out of them. And it also doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend this anthology highly, because I absolutely do.
It’s not particularly Trans–101 friendly, but that’s not what it’s designed to be. Instead, it’s a glimpse into the wide variety of lives and stories of a subset of the trans experience.
A lot of these stories are best read slowly, which was a bit of a problem for me as I chomped my way through them on my first read-through like they were the bag of potato chips I’d been waiting for all my life. With 20 stories, some of them closer to novella-length than short fiction, this collection has a great deal of reread value.
I think that wanting to see myself in this raised my expectations very high, which may have made me more critical of individual stories than I might be otherwise. Overall, though, this book lived up to my expectations and then some.
From here, I’m going to give a brief rundown of each story, along with my thoughts. I will try my best to avoid spoilers, but it may be best to ignore these if you want to go into each story fresh.
In “According to His Substance,” a transgender man is rescued from his suicide attempt by a dimension-hopping stranger. I didn’t love this story, given its focus on trans suicide, violence towards trans people, and counterfactuals in regards to gender identity. A setting in which universe-hopping is a the most realistic solution for getting proper identification is not the friendliest or most hopeful story to be starting out with. Still, it was powerful and intriguing, and I found myself warming up to it on a second reading.
“Spoiling Veena” is another story that wasn’t my favorite. Focusing on the parents of a trans child rather than the child himself, the story describes the impact that gene therapy and improved technology have on views of gender in a future India. I appreciated the setting, however, and the sense I got from the story of cis people willing to exploring the trans experience in their own way, even outside of current queer theory.
“Fluidity” is set in a world where everyone in society is forced to undergo medical and social transition periodically throughout their lives. People who are desperate to stay in one gender identity are institutionalized and brought back into the system. It’s a rather odd strawman argument brought to its logical extreme, with subtle violence as an undercurrent throughout the narrative. Still, the story ends on what could be considered an ambiguously hopeful and affirming note.
“My Brother, The Horsehead” seems to be set nearer to the present day, and is a story as much about family and technology as it is about gender and identity. It’s well-structured, with a context that doesn’t come into focus till the very end.
I absolutely adored “Liner Notes for the Crash.” It’s a gay trans punk mess that I needed but didn’t deserve, or something. A band that uses head-jacks to communicate with its audience sets up for a concert, still dealing with the recent departure of one of its members. This story had me at, “Drew’s got his tits out, hang on,” and it really only got better from there. What really stood out to me is the love that’s everywhere in this story—love between audience and performer, love straddling romantic and platonic lines, love between cis and trans men as well as between trans men. It’s a whole queer rainbow of pain and passion, and it’s probably my favorite story in this whole anthology.
“Boy Rescue” is another favorite of mine, right up against the first. A story about a male android whose compatriots are all female has the potential to end up feeling dehumanizing or depressing, but for me, a robot boy finding ways to be comfortable in his masculinity and his position in society was very relaxing and healing to read about.
The author of “Sindali” is currently working it into a full-length novel. While there’s quite a bit of exposition, the writing style of this story is beautiful, and I found I had strong feelings about a great deal of the cast. There’s some some graphic depictions of (non-sexual, but suggestive) abuse to watch out for, but that, too, is handled well. Overall, the setting and the story were compelling enough that I’d be happy to read a longer version.
“Deadhead Chemistry” is intense but a bit confusing, full of sharp edges and painful truths and people that don’t seem to like each other very much. There’s lot of peculiarity and precarity, and a heaping helping of the bitterness of transition, mixed with magical realism, gothic and cosmic horror, and dream logic/unreality. It wasn’t my thing, honestly, but it was also nice to see a trans male protagonist so far from what I would have imagined.
“Choice Cuts” is social commentary on a society far in the future with a null population and functional immortality based on body-switching. It explores how these factors change people’s lives and beliefs, with a hint of Swiftian flair. Interestingly, it’s another story in which transition is readily accessible: the main character’s preference is to switch regularly between male and female bodies, with binary pronouns changing to match.
“Robinson Faces the Music” is kind of like A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, if it had a Victorian ambience and the protagonist was a self-styled, cheerfully malevolent butler. Oh, and if said butler was also trans—which was handled in a refreshingly different way than I would have expected. This story is stuffy, fussy, and hilariously misanthropic, and I enjoyed it a great deal.
“The Three Ways of the Sword Man” takes the “female twin impersonates a male twin for political reasons” trope, moves it from a fantasy into a science fiction context, and makes the sibling in question trans. (I really wish there were more of these kinds of stories out there, because trans people transitioning has probably always been more common than cis people impersonating another gender long-term. Yet, at the moment, we tend to have more of the latter.) Though grim in places, and addressing themes of war and suicide, this was a lyrical and dramatic story that I enjoyed a great deal.
“LGB(T)” is a superhero story. The tone is bantery and conversational and a little silly, with alliterative superhero names and unreasonable expectations. It describes in a dry, tongue-in-cheek tone the barriers that bureaucracy and prejudice put in the way of transition—and how love and self-respect can sometimes find a way to make it through regardless.
“Flipside” is written in a noir style, in a corner of the far future rife with economic inequality. The amount of deadnaming in this story may bother some trans readers, but I found it to be mostly justified by the narrative. It’s a fun heist story on a small scale, with a smooth-talking, hard-hitting protagonist in more trouble than she’s willing to admit to and her mysterious, soft-spoken passenger.
The primary force in “The Next Great Race” is the friendship between Colin, a trans man who enters the New Iditarod on Pluto with forged identity documents, and Hector, his asexual long-distance teammate. Between main characters’ dynamic, and the pacing as the race exposes unforeseen dangers, my only complaint about this story is that given the number of unanswered questions at the end of it, I kind of wish it were a full-length novel.
“Coyote Dog Bitten” does a wonderful job of weaving transness into the narrative so that it is incedental to the plot itself, while still being essential to the story. Walker’s primary concerns are related to surviving a harsh environment despite his recent injury. But, for example, the fact that he can’t get his binder off because he’s injured, or his subtle suspicions about the possible transness of a child he befriends, are woven into the story with minimal fanfare. A found-family dynamic develops between “desert-crazy” Walker, the child, and an AI Walker calls “Ghost-Girl,” as they work together to escape to the skies.
I found “The Tree Planters” to be a bit grating, at first, and it certainly is grim, with little resolution to be found. Two workers are planting seedlings as a part of a terraforming project on a faraway planet, while the rest of the population is in suspended animation, waiting for the results of their handiwork. Though already living as male, the protagonist is nonbinary, in a society with no room for nonbinary identities.
“If You Can” is a sequel to a novel published by the company that released this anthology. It’s a story that feels a lot like old feminist sci-fi, comlete with profound philosophical questions about what it means to be human (or not) right alongside questions of gender. It’s a bit plodding in places, even as it blooms into something interplanetary in scope. I particularly liked the ambiguity of the ending.
“Trans Mare Cognitum” is definitely not for the easily triggered, or even for the more literary “faint of heart.” Themes of misgendering, forced medicalization, gaslighting, abuse, and suicide abound. I got a sense of a sort of outdated sensationalism from some of the themes, such as the idea of a walled-off all-trans community (where people can finally “belong”), or the horrorifying serial forced detransitions that cause the crisis in an otherwise bittersweet middle-aged love story. All in all, when I say this story is uncomfortable, I don’t really mean it as a compliment.
“Fire Fills the Belly” is the story of a street sweeper and street performer named Raphael, living in an area struggling to recover after war. His encounters with others—from his nonbinary neighbor, Adison, to the children he starts mentoring over the course of the story—are full of the awkwardness and sense of otherness which is as much a part of being trans as they are a part of being human. The story is handled in a very poetic, if painful, way. I don’t know whether it counts as satisfying or not, but it does ring true.
I honestly found “Edge of Everything” to be a little hard to keep track of. It’s a miniature road trip story, about a ferryman taking a mysterious customer to the end of the universe. A sense of mysticism is present throughout, and the sense of a great many stories to tell.
Each of these stories is complex enough to merit a much longer analysis than what I had time for here, but I hope that at least a few of these descriptions are intriguing enough to give this anthology a try.