The Butch Lesbian Sci-Fi Aesthetic: A Conversation With Tamsyn Muir




TAMSYN MUIRS DEBUT NOVEL, Gideon the Ninth, the first in her Locked Tomb trilogy, exploded into the world to universal critical acclaim last year. The series doesn’t fit nearly into the castles-versus-spaceships division that characterizes much of mainstream science fiction and fantasy. It has too many swords to be straight sci-fi, too many planets to be straight fantasy, and too many complicated, sexy relationships between women to be … straight.

The Locked Tomb trilogy can be described as the story of two girls and a lot of bones, set in a universe divided into Nine Houses of necromancers and cavaliers who serve an undying Emperor God. Gideon Nav is not one of them. Her origin a mystery: she is an indentured servant of the Ninth House, a barren and dying tomb of a planet with only Harrowhark Nonagesimus for company, Reverend Daughter, heir to the decaying Ninth House and Gideon’s sworn nemesis. Gideon is determined to escape from the Ninth forever, until Harrow offers her the deal of a lifetime: come with Harrow to the First House, where Harrow has the chance to become a Lyctor, the Emperor’s immortal and all-powerful seconds-in-command, and Harrow will secure Gideon’s freedom.

But the deadly game to become a Lyctor doesn’t free anyone, and Harrow and Gideon have always been too closely intertwined to escape one another. In Harrow The Ninth, Harrow is trapped on a planet with the Emperor God, her Lyctorship powers failing, her teachers disappointed in her, and Ianthe, her fellow Lyctor, an unsettling and cruel comrade who won’t stop flirting with her. What follows is a tense, claustrophobic tale where everyone is keeping secrets — not least Harrow herself.

Muir is the winner of the 2020 Locus Award and Crawford Award and a finalist in the 2020 Hugo and Nebula awards; Gideon has received rave reviews in The New York Times, NPR, Forbes, and elsewhere. I caught up with Muir, a New Zealander now living in the United Kingdom, over the phone before the arrival of Harrow on August 4, 2020. Muir is an ebullient and cheerfully brutal conversationalist, well versed in the early days of the internet, wheeling from a lesbian presence in SFF to body horror and back again. This interview contains some vague spoilers for both Gideon and Harrow. 

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MIKAELLA CLEMENTS: A lot of reactions to Gideon have nodded to how contemporary it is: full of memes, with a particularly millennial sensibility. How did you approach its temporal aesthetic? 

TAMSYN MUIR: I’ve seen people point at Gideon as an example of really 2017/2018 humor — that one year captured in amber. I’d say that Gideon owes a lot more to internet culture starting from 1995 than it does to that particular post-2010 Tumblr culture. A lot of the memes in Gideon are really old. They are dated as hell.

Temporality in books is all artificial. When you are writing fantasy and science fiction, you are reaching into the period that you are writing from, even if you’re writing in the year 20XX. Any attempt to hide that is fake. The language is going to change so strongly, the mores and cultural ideas are going to change so wildly. When he taught me in 2010, Chip [Samuel R.] Delany spoke really interestingly about how you can’t ever write a true alien novel because it would just be too weird. We wouldn’t be able to access it. You have to find that sweet spot where people believe it’s an alien culture but it isn’t so removed that we can’t get into it. Jeff VanderMeer does that really well with his Annihilation novels. It’s weird, but the kind of weird that we can still look into and see ourselves in.

It’s not incomprehensible. It both is and isnt the world were used to.

Incomprehensible is the word. With Gideon, I’m pushing at the idea that there’s a line of comprehension and a fourth wall you can’t break. I did deliberately want to play around with language and with jokes and the kind of words and phrases and even structures that we use that point to internet humor. This is what we’re all doing anyway. It’s just that we hide it so that we can stop people feeling like they’re brought out of the text, but where one person is pulled out of the text, another wouldn‘t even notice it. Other people think, Oh, wow, this is really cool and fresh.

It also feels like such a Kiwi book. Obviously New Zealand doesn’t exist in the world of the Locked Tomb, but I feel like there are New Zealanders there.

It’s a case where it took adulthood for me to find my Kiwi voice without it feeling — to sound very millennial — cringeworthy, especially because I didn’t associate New Zealand with glamorous fantasy or sci-fi. It was okay so long as I was writing contemporary fiction, but bringing New Zealand into my science fiction and fantasy writing [was difficult]. I felt like it was authentic, but then I put it out there and a bunch of people said, We can’t understand any of the language you’re using. Also is this set in New Zealand? No, it’s science fiction. But its not the default American voice.

So that sucked. Then when I was writing Gideon, I had a meltdown and thought, when I read characters, I’m reading them as me and they’ve got a New Zealand voice. I’m just going to lean into that again.

From its marketing to its central narratives and literary aesthetic, the Locked Tomb trilogy has always been very gay and specifically very dykey. Could you talk a little bit about that consciously lesbian aesthetic, even in a world where the word lesbian doesn’t exist?

Gideon as a book itself is the butch lesbian aesthetic that I’ve always wanted to write; that is my teenage self. You’re just lucky that Gideon isn’t walking around with the really ugly, patterned, button-up men’s shirts that we were all wearing in 2006.

I wrote Gideon focusing on an inevitably homoerotic relationship between every woman who stands next to another woman for more than five seconds. It’s an expression of the fact that in the early Noughties when my lesbian mates told me: “You’ve gotta see this movie, it’s gay,” — the understanding was that nothing was going to be gay, but we had to put on our lesbian goggles. In Gideon, the lesbian goggles are fused to your face. It’s impossible to escape. Even the plot relies on women having had terrible affairs with each other. I wanted it to reflect the world as I lived in it, where everybody’s three degrees removed from everybody else, everybody’s ex-girlfriend is another person’s ex-girlfriend, or current girlfriend, or future girlfriend. There is an awareness of everybody’s ability to date each other that I think is not present in a book that has more heterosexual concerns. Writing the series, I wanted it to be a book where every girl could possibly hook up with every other girl.

No one ever really has to come out in the series because queerness is the default, but there is a moment where Gideon leaves her home planet and is suddenly surrounded by all of these women. It echoes the moment of coming into your own as a young queer person, but without having to do the soul-searching identity crisis.

That is me having my cake and eating it too. I didn’t get a great coming out. And you have to come out so often, you come out ceaselessly, when you meet strangers or when you go to a new workplace. The nicest times when you’re coming out are when you’re talking to other people like you.

In the first book, Gideon has only had one other real human being her age to interact with, and then she goes to this place where it’s accepted that a lot of them are going to be queer. Everyone’s going to have this queer lens and queer structure for the world. There’s suddenly a whole bunch of possible girlfriends.

I wish I could say that I had set out to do something very specifically, breaking the paradigm and queering the medium, but I was sick and tired. I didn’t want to think about writing it for an audience. So I sat down, I wrote myself, and I took out the most egregious bits, which is why nobody travels to the Hamilton Balloon Festival or has a terrible accident with their teeth and somebody else’s nipple ring. But it came out gay because I was writing me.

Gideon is very focused on the relationship between Gideon and Harrow, but in Harrow we see Harrow interacting particularly with Ianthe. Was it fun to go full throttle with Ianthe in book two?

Oh, entirely. And I can’t wait to show off even more. She just gets worse in Alecto.

The series is about morally gray girls. Have you ever heard of the trope of Draco in leather pants?

Of course.

Ianthe is my Draco in leather pants. I’m playing with the idea that you expect the Draco in leather pants character to change: My love will be the magical thing that changes Ianthe. It’s not. Nothing will change Ianthe, but you really want to believe it might.

I wanted that relationship to be femme-queer rather than masc-queer, because Draco in leather pants is inherently a male figure. You never get girl Dracos in leather pants. And they’re wonderful! Ianthe sucks, but I hope that my deep affection for her shows. She’s the only other character in Harrow who gets a point-of-view scene. She’s in that crossbar just before the reveal of the last part of the book, where for the first time you see Harrow through her eyes and it is, I hope, explicitly romantic, but explicitly romantic despite Ianthe’s best wishes or desires. Harrow is somebody who Ianthe is forming a relationship with, but she’s losing control of the narrative.

It’s such a romantic scene, but you don’t feel safe. Youre not like, Oh, good, Ianthe will take care of Harrow. Its like, Harrow, run away!”

One thing I want to do with the whole series is show the ways in which love is transformative and also the ways in which it isn’t. I love that idea of safety where you have the bad boy and he’s behaving like an absolute wanker to the female protagonist, but then it turns out he’s in love with her. Oh, its okay, hell save her, you think, there’s no danger from him now. Whereas Ianthe fancying Harrow puts Harrow so much more in danger than anything else.

Harrow’s feelings for Gideon are more transformative than not. They are a redemptive force for Harrow, but for Ianthe we do not know if it’s love or anything else that can redeem her.

Would you describe Gideon and Harrow’s relationship as a love story?

There are undeniably elements of the love story between them and if you’re not noticing that in the narrative, either I’m not working hard enough or you’ve got blinders on. But it’s not just a love story; it’s a story about being enmeshed. They are the rock and the hard place: Harrow’s the rock and Gideon is definitely the hard place.

I didn’t want the books to be about two girls where one of them is cruel to the other and the plot turns on whether that cruelty will be redeemed. It’s two girls who have been sometimes unequal, sometimes not, in a terrible position with each other. I want that story, that love story, that relationship story, to go to a totally different place in the third book as well, because I want to turn the tables and show what it looks like when Harrow no longer has the upper hand.

Something very striking in the series is the way that women and violence are coupled: frequent physical battles, women doing very gory and traumatic things to one another, a constant threat of being attacked. Whats your approach to violence? It feels like a real sense of freedom, coupled with nastiness.

Oh, I love that. Freedom with nastiness is something I’m trying to push forward in the books.

Growing up watching shows, especially the old 1980s shows — She-Ra, for example — where women get to be around violence, you often find an inherent frowning against women taking any joy in that violence. If the girls are soldiers, they are not the lead protagonist. There’s something I call the “Power of Heart character” who is often the central female protagonist, and who is the central familial source of love and affection and often healing. She might fight the bad guy, but at the end of the day her role is to heal. I never liked that. I was playing a lot of video games where I was really excited whenever I got to be a female-identified character, because you never got that in media. You never got to be the woman holding the gun or the sword who is rewarded for holding the gun and holding the sword. Often the moral at the end has to be that it’s really sad a girl is fighting. What’s that line from Narnia, “Battles are ugly when women fight”? Yeah, cool, I want to see that. Out of the way, lion.

But every fight has a sexual element. Every fight scene written or choreographed onscreen or in books is in its own way a lovemaking scene, which is why it’s always gendered. That’s why when you get women fighting men there’s a weird charge to it which is often the threat of sexual violence. But I think, I hope, I strove throughout my entire trilogy to have no threat of sexual violence. I wanted the love of violence for good and for ill, but without the sexual element of rape.

Because Harrow was completed by the time Gideon came out, the final book in the trilogy, Alecto the Ninth, is the first one youve written since Gideon was published. Has the experience been different?

It has been an unending nightmare. Part of that is lockdown. My mental health, as well as everybody else’s, has been in the toilet. And writing a book when you’ve had people responding to the first book for good, for ill … Over the past six months I’ve had to quit social media. So much of the internet is now blocked for me. The only things left are GeoCities shrines to people’s Neopets.

The problem is that the entire industry is now on Twitter. There’s a sense, especially for debut authors, that if you are not getting all the likes, upvotes, etc., then you are not contributing and helping out your publisher. My publisher has always been incredibly supportive, bless them. I told them I couldn’t tweet anymore and they said, “Fine.” But for debut authors, there’s such pressure and Twitter is hell. I’ve started sounding like the crazy person who stands on the corner being like, The end is nigh, Twitters going to kill us. I fundamentally believe it’s really bad for all of us, for the way in which we talk, for the way in which we disseminate information. It’s good for about three things and none of those things are really useful to debut science fiction and fantasy authors.

I’m on week five of no social media and I just roam from room to room. I’m a freaking zombie, but it will get better. I feel myself getting better.

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Mikaella Clements’s writing has appeared in Lithub, The Lifted Brow Review of Books, Overland Literary Journal, and more.

 

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