Listen up fives, a ten is speaking.
Let’s start with the context. Although the mainstreaming of trans culture is a thing that has happened and is continuing to happen, like any future’s arrival it has been unevenly distributed, not least in the way in which it’s paralleled efforts at our extermination. One facet of this—especially relevant in the realm of trans SF/F—is the prominence of a particular trans aesthetic. It’s the one Charlie Jane Anders gestured at in her self-proclaimed “Sweetweird Manifesto”—one that’s seen Hugo nominations for Ryka Aoki and, of course, for Anders herself. It’s largely the one the Wachowskis have settled on, much as they retain a lingering fondness for fetish aesthetics. It’s the one on display in the successes of Rebecca Sugar and Nate Stevenson have had in children’s media.
I neither want to condemn this aesthetic—it’s produced a number of genuinely great works—nor, really, to analyze it unduly and try to delineate its borders or rigorously define it. Let’s offer a few arbitrary touchstones and move on: anime fandom, belief that the colors of the trans flag are something other than vomit-worthy, a fandom history going back to Tumblr, catgirls, strong attachment to children’s media… you get the picture. As trans aesthetics go, it’s done well for itself, not least because it’s compatible with existing trends in SFF—what I’ve previously called Torwave and others, more pejoratively and to my mind less coherently, have called squeecore. But, crucially, other trans aesthetics exist—ones that haven’t done as well in the mainstream.
One is what I like to call “angry goth trans,” in contrast to the dominant aesthetic of “cute anime trans.” (I was very proud of this joke as a baby trans.) Anyone decently steeped in trans culture knows the type: the trans woman with the noise band and a favorite Mark Fisher book, who goes for an outright punk aesthetic and has gloriously snooty taste in films, who thinks William S. Burroughs is still relevant and hated J.K. Rowling long before she became a TERF. These are the trans we don’t let out, in part because they’re fucking terrifying—slightly feral creatures whose social failure mode is not faintly endearing cringe but doom-laden prophecies and rage to chill the Erinyes’s blood. But also, if we’re being honest, because there’s something a lot less commercial about dungeon synth than there is about Steven Universe. And that’s just the way it is for angry goth trans. If you’re lucky, you also work in tech or are in a polycule with someone who works in tech so that your profoundly maladaptive ass can pay rent. You might make art, but you do it as a hobby because you are simply too fucking weird for any sort of success or existence outside of the queer fringes of culture.
And then there’s Gretchen Felker-Martin, whose debut novel, an explicitly trans splatterpunk zombie apocalypse thriller called Manhunt, has unexpectedly found itself to be one of the hottest books out of Tor this year. You’ve probably heard of it from when Felker-Martin got herself monstered by the Daily Mail over a throwaway scene late in the book where a bunch of trans women sit around the campfire telling stories, and one relates how J.K. Rowling spectacularly failed to survive when a virus ripped across the human population that turned anyone with excess testosterone in their system into a slavering rape zombie. (Rowling holed up in her Scottish mansion, which burned down when one of the fellow TERFs she invited in turned out to have PCOS and so became a monster, which is objectively hilarious) This plot point—which I stress is a four hundred word joke in the course of a hundred thousand word novel—prompted no less an A-list TERF than Julie Bindel herself to take to the pages of every Blackshirt’s favorite tabloid sniffing, “I will not dignify Felker-Martin’s underwhelming prose with any further detailed description, save to say that it is full of misogynistic bile of which you can get a flavour via one of many enthusiastic promotional tweets put out on social media.” Felker-Martin, for her part, tweeted through it before, and when it became apparent that Rowling’s thousand page novel The Ink-Black Heart was about a prominent children’s television creator who is stalked and murdered by mean people on the Internet, took to Twitter to boast that “I made the most successful author in the history of the world so mad she wrote a whole shitty book to cope with it,” almost immediately followed by announcing that Manhunt was going back for an eighth printing via a gif of an orc triumphantly holding up a severed head.
It is difficult to quite capture how weird this is. It’s as though a trans noise musician somehow scored a minor hit on the Billboard Alternative charts, provoked the personal ire of Kanye West, and then decisively won the subsequent beef. This sort of thing simply doesn’t happen to fat goth trans women who proclaim themselves to be filthcore queens. But, of course, all of this would be little more than celebrity gossip to file alongside the fact that she’s somehow also dating Nicole Cliffe were it not for the fact that Felker-Martin can back up this extraordinarily improbable success with what is easily the best SFF novel of the year.
Manhunt begins with a description of violence: two trans women, Fran and Beth, hunting one of the feral men, with Felker-Martin describing the “cracked and scabby skin splitting along fresh fissures to reveal raw pink flesh beneath as his face contorted into a snarl, exposing a mouthful of rotting snaggleteeth under a nose pounded flat and smeared onto the thing’s left cheek by God knew how many unset breaks.” It quickly becomes apparent that the reason for this hunt is not survival, but the fact that, post-apocalyptically, with the existing supply of estradiol valerate long since expired, the best way for trans women to obtain hormone therapy—and thus to avoid turning into marauding rape zombies themselves—is by harvesting men’s testicles and eating them, a process that gets descriptions like “a bath bomb infused with rancid pork” and an account of how “the pungent, gamey stink of the testicle coated her tongue like oil.” That latter description is a lead-in to the third chapter’s visceral description of emergency tooth extraction (“Tearing, sucking pain. Bone grinding against bone. Blood welling up from the white-hot absence of the socket. Threads and rags of loose flesh waved in the sluggish flow. Fran whispered, curling in on herself, flinching away from the gory little nub of broken bone clamped in Beth’s pliers.”).
I will freely admit that, on first reading, this was off-putting. This is not the sort of book I gravitate towards, and it would have sent me looking for another book if not for the fact that it was so obviously deliberate and well-crafted. Indeed, this opening salvo of unrelenting gore and abjection serves several purposes. First of all, it’s simply serving a genre function. Yes, this is splatterpunk. No, it is not sanding off any of the harsh edges. This is what splatterpunk has always been, a genre with far more literary ambitions than its name suggests, chronicling the abjection of the extreme and viscerally unpleasant. Manhunt is shot through with it—seemingly every description slips into the register of horror, becoming too bodily or stopping to linger on moments of decay and rot, which admittedly isn’t hard given her subject matter. Felker-Martin is playing full-on with her genre, embracing the aspects that ensure it is and will always remain a niche for particularly fucked up weirdos. Second of all, and more importantly, it’s setup for the moment in the next chapter when we get a glimpse of Beth’s dysphoria and it becomes apparent what the book’s real sense of horror is.
It’s a staggering trick, obvious in hindsight and hardly original to Felker-Martin, but no less devastatingly effective for it: using the framework and iconography of extreme body horror to describe gender dysphoria. Taking an arrow to the cheek, that’s just violence and gore, but the description of how Beth “passed a hand gingerly over her face, brushing light against the swollen skin around her stitches, and wondered if she’d have time for a quick shave tomorrow. It felt stupid to still care about it. It wasn’t like she ever passed, not at six foot two and two hundred pounds with her long horse face, broad shoulders, and blocky jaw. Why bother scraping another few days of stubble off something no one with eyes would ever think was a real woman?” That’s agony; that’s horror.
Having efficiently established the book’s bona fides, Felker-Martin proceeds to flesh it out into a more general portrait of trans abjection—a survey of the many ways to feel despair and horror when trans, and of the ways in which trans people inflict these pains on each other. Beth’s pain at being larger and less attractive than Fran, who passes; Fran’s dysphoria and desperation for surgery, and the ways in which she lets it blind her to moral horror; The trans man Robbie, who’s had to abandon HRT so as not to become a zombie. But also the feelings of those around them: the fat cis woman Indi, who faces her own body issues, and whose relationship with Beth slowly emerges as the novel’s most affirming dynamic, and Ramona, the self-loathing chaser TERF.
Oh right. The TERFs. Because, of course, Manhunt is a zombie novel, and plays emphatically by the rules of its genre, which means that the real monsters have to be the humans. Yes, this is a book with legions of mutated rape zombies, but that’s just backdrop. That’s just setting. The real conflict comes between the protagonists and the militant TERFs seeking their extermination, declaring them to be inherently dangerous, time bombs in womanface just waiting to turn into monsters themselves.
This, in the end, is the novel’s real trick, foreshadowed in the epigraph to its final act, a quote from Torrey Peters about the trans slang word brick, referring to “those square never-will-be passable trans women,” and the associated term masonry, “as in brick-on-brick love—only bricks get stuck to other bricks. Except,” Peters asks, “what do you do with the meanness of the word masonry itself—it was other trans women, the only ones that bricks could supposedly trust, who came up with that hilariously cruel slang. Brick-on-brick betrayal. But we have to understand each other well to be so cruel.” For all the agonies of trans friendship and trans love, the agonies with which we compare ourselves, judge each other, affirm with one hand and put down with the other, it is better to be known, to be seen and understood in all its cruelty, than to surrender to the deranged oblivion of those that want us dead. As the book puts in its most heartbreaking moment, late in the narrative, as one of the main characters (I’ll spare the spoiler of who) lays dying and looks at the TERFs with the horrified realization that “they don’t even love each other.” Manhunt is an exquisite chronicle of the worst emotions of being trans, but it is one that looks at these horrors and feels nothing but love for them. In all its filth and abjection, it is nevertheless a work of profound beauty.
Perhaps what is most interesting and exciting about it is simply the sheer amount of the trans community it unapologetically puts out there. There’s details like the term “brick,” yes, but crucially, trans desire and trans sexuality is calmly juxtaposed with the descriptions of body horror, so that trans bodies are confronted in all their, to pointedly quote Alan Moore, grandeur and monstrosity. One crucial coupling comes late in the novel, and slides from the pained agony of Beth “unable to meet Indi’s eyes, unable to think anything but that she’d broken the rule. She’d offered herself as though someone might want her, as though she didn’t have to wait to be asked before her touch transmuted from invasion to caress” into the blistering and oh so trans eroticism of “ Beth’s eyelids fluttered with the sleepy ecstasy of that sense of fullness. In and out. Drool running down her chin as she moved to follow Indi’s hand, to prolong the slow fucking of her mouth. Her breath came in shallow pants. She kneaded Indi’s breast as her free hand slipped between the rolls of her waist, fingers walking gently over tender skin. ‘Am I hurting you?’ Indi whispered, pulling her fingers free to stroke Beth’s cheek and leaving a warm streak of saliva down almost to her chin. Beth wriggled, smiling. ‘Not enough.’”
So yes, this is a major novel, exquisitely crafted, funny and heartbreaking and agonizing and beautiful often all at the same time. A work of chilling, skin-crawling horror, but only because it’s about something chilling and skin-crawlingly horrific. That it deserves the Hugo for Best Novel is self-evident, and yet too low a set of stakes for it. (Besides, the cowards will never give it to her.) I’ll go one further: this is one of the most important novels of 2022 period, a major work in two fields, standing shoulder to shoulder with the best of contemporary SFF and arriving as a major trans novel to be spoken of in the same breath as Nevada and Detransition Baby.
By any reasonable standard, this is a sufficient quantity of simping for Gretchen Felker-Martin. I’m basically at two thousand words for fuck’s sake, and I’ve already praised her novel and stanned her Twitter game. But restraint when talking about trans splatterpunk seems a spectacular missing of the point. And I don’t want to just sell how fucking good Felker-Martin is. I want to sell the weight of her accomplishment. I want to explain just how important it is that we have her.
In many ways the person to cite here is, ironically, Gretchen Felker-Martin, who somewhat astonishingly couples being the ultimate Twitter bad girl and being a breathtakingly good novelist with being one of the smartest and most pointed critics working today. Her brutal skewering of Sandra Newman’s The Men, her breathtakingly unfashionable George R.R. Martin apologism, or even simply the list of movies she finds interesting and worth talking about are all fiercely essential positions, a coherent yet iconoclastic critical position defended with lacerating wit and an insight that is less piercing than full-on impaling.
But let’s deal in specifics and consider her Patreon essay “Gwoss Displays of Power,” written on the occasion of discovering that a prominent writer and critic infamous for moralistic diatribes about artists whose handling of sexual assault he found distressing was in fact a well-off employee of Lockheed-Martin, and, more to the point, didn’t really see anything wrong with that. Felker-Martin attacks this, of course, which you’d expect, but it’s worth highlighting her stirring conclusion, where she notes that “Art may be an ideological battlefield, but beware anyone treating it as the whole of any given cultural war. Beware people who cling to their helplessness and their victimhood as symbols of power, as cudgels to fend off real accusations of abuse and wrongdoing. The most debased and degraded of us still has agency, and a person’s feeling that a work of art is attacking them carries no inherent moral weight… Art is not morality. Art cannot inflict material harm. Art as a field is not a substitute for the conditions of gross imperialist violence in which our lives are entangled.”
It’s a trenchant, immediately urgent observation. If I were to criticize the cute anime trans aesthetic my critiques would be that it’s infantilizing, at best faintly, at worst distinctly, and that it often mistakes fantasies of escapism for actual liberation. For all that art can do, the fact of the matter is that the only trans person who might have their material circumstances significantly changed by a work of art is the work’s creator, and that only through the brutal levers of capitalist success. More to the point, if making art is worthwhile—and obviously I think it is—its value is not as an anesthetic against the misery of living in eliminationist times. In chillingly realistic terms, the primary purpose of trans art in 2022 is to ensure that trans culture survives after President DeSantis sends us all to the fucking camps. And the fact of the matter is that Manhunt, with its depiction of the scabrous edges of trans desire, captures far more of the reality of trans lives and trans culture than anything aimed at children possibly can. I would argue that trans art in 2022 that is not a ragged, throat-searing scream of rage and pain is fundamentally dishonest.
And yet trans art—or at least trans art that’s been allowed into anything that can even remotely be called the mainstream—has largely been blocked from this, pinned down into a resolutely non-dangerous form. So to see Gretchen Felker-Martin storm in like a one woman barbarian horde and get eight printings out of something this staggeringly off-putting is astonishing. For those of us whose vision of trans art sits at odds with what had been the dominant aesthetic, seeing her grabbing the culture by the throat and making it say “choke me goth mommy” is a thrilling rupture of the painful limitations of what had previously seemed possible. Because let’s be clear, what’s changed here is not simply that trans splatterpunk is now a thing; it’s the opening up of an entirely new mode of being a trans writer in SFF—one that has room for the apocalyptic, the confrontational, the avant garde, and the esoteric. Trans splatterpunk is just leading the charge.
In short, trans SFF has a new dark queen. You can do with that what you will: bend the knee or take up arms. Ultimately, the world needs both. For my part, I’m content to stan a legend, loud and proud. This is what trans SFF direly needed. This is the future. The door has, at last, been kicked open, and it’s time to storm the castle and put our new fucking queen on the throne. Long may she reign.