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When it comes to Kameron Hurley's work I've lost it; I'm a fully fledged fangirl and a fool for her words. I signed up for her newsletter and I actually read it—that's how deep I'm in.

How great was The Mirror Empire? So great I couldn't even approach writing about it. As with all epic fantasy, I struggled to keep account of who all the characters were and how they connected without flipping back through past chapters but WHO CARES? I had most of the relationships down by the time the book ended, and when I read it a second time (which is inevitable) I'll build on that knowledge. What's most important to me is that The Mirror Empire presented the same kind of big idea, small detail writing that made me wallow in The Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy; the kind of writing that leaves me referring to Nyx so often I'm becoming tiring and predictable.

How to get a hit of that style while I wait for Empire Ascendant to drop? Why, read as much of Hurley's back catalogue of short fiction as possible of course. And so to "Elephant and Corpses", one of Hurley's most recent short stories. Hurley excels at writing grimy atmospheres and digging into unexpected aspects of her character's physicality—see how she starts her first book with a woman selling her womb—and she returns to those areas of expertise in this story about a corpse jumping merc, Nev, who finds himself on the run when he picks the wrong body to buy.

Let's take a little bit of a diversion to think about the SFF concept of swapping bodies and how SFF generally uses that magical device. Two books I read recently, Seanan McGuire's A Local Habitation and Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire included characters whose bodies magically transformed. In these two novels, the gender presentation of these characters is changed when their bodies transform. McGuire's character becomes an entirely different person when their body changes, much like Jack and Jill characters from Lauren McGaughlin's Cycler. In contrast Hurley's character retains their personality but their gender presentation changes from male to female. Often in SFF when character's bodies are magically changed their gender presentation is also affected by that magic.

Stories like this are not exactly common but there are still a fair few. Mainstream stories, like It's a Boy Girl Thing show men and women swapping bodies. I think the use of this device is sometimes seen as an automatic sign of progressive writing - the very idea that a story would allow characters to magically change their gender presentation between two binary points blows people's minds. The trouble is that these stories can have really gross implications when analysed closely with a gender studies or LGBTQ critical focus. For example, Scheherezade's Facade - an LGBTQ anthology which unfortunately includes "Kambal Kulam" - a terrible story about body and gender swapping which basically presented a straight man's fantasy of being able to have a threesome with his male best friend without it being gay. That anthology also contains "Pride" a really poor story about a boy who wants to transform himself into a girl because he is seen as weak when he presents as a boy but would be seen as strong in a female warrior society. I think we can all see why these premises are troubling.

What seems to be missing from these stories is a genuine understanding that when authors present stories about swapping physical gender presentation they inevitably ping real world issues. I sometimes feel that SFF is still in a place of metaphorical magic where gender transformation is part of fantasy rather than a reality which fits into a fantasy world. It's well acknowledged that chromatic people have long been "represented" (poorly) by orcs built from racist stereotypes. Now it seems transgender people, non-binary people, genderqueer people and sometimes even bisexual people (cisgender or transgender) get represented (awkwardly) by body swappers who flick back and forth between two binary gender positions. That's not a reality, as I understand it, which fits many people's experience.

It's much rarer to see a transgender person or a non-binary person, as they exist in reality, just rock up in an SFF story. Happily, the tide is starting to change as books like The Coldest Girl in Coldtown introduce transgender characters. And short stories like "How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" and "Never the Same Again" include non-binary characters rather than introducing fantasy metaphors and mishmashes to represent these people.

Back to "Elephants and Corpses" where the main character, Nev, is a transgender body jumping merc. Importantly, Hurley has chosen not to shape Nev's gender around his employment and the magic which allows him to switch bodies. Nev isn't non-binary just because he shifts from male to female bodies. Instead he defines himself as a transgender man by things he says and thinks. Nev was born as a biological woman but he can body jump and prefers to wear men's bodies. In fact, he says “I like women well enough … I just don’t have the spirit of one.” Nev is not a magically gendered character but rather a man with clear ideas about his gender identity. Sometimes he uses magic which allows him to wear the body of a cisgender woman but that doesn't change his gender identity. The story clarifies this by saying that 'Putting on a new, dead skin of the wrong gender often resulted in a profound dysphoria, long-term.'1 after he's forced to jump into a female corpse and run like hell.

In "Elephants and Corpses" Nev finds himself scarpering from a cult in body familiar to his body manager, Tera. The pair have inadvertantly bought the body of her sister, Mora, who disguised herself as a man so she could flee from her pledge to the God's eye cult. Corez, the leader of the cult, sends people to hunt down the body and burn through anyone who gets in their way. It turns out Corez is also a body jumper and she wants Mora's body for herself. Tera, despite being Nev's body manager, is understandably upset about the idea of someone else walking around wearing her sister like a 'suit'. Things look different when it's your sister, especially when, like Tera, you've recently discovered you can talk to the dead.

Which brings us to the ethics of body swapping in general as Hurley explores a topics that crops up in a lot of her fiction—the politics of the body. Tera tells Nev that the dead aren't as gone as he likes to think they are when he inhabits them. She calls into question the whole philosophy which allows him to separate his desire to ride bodies from any ethical conundrums about taking over flesh that doesn't belong to him:

The guild taught that death was darkness. There were no gods, no rebirths, no glorious afterlives. The life you had was the one you made for yourself in the discarded carcasses of others. Most days, he believed it. Most days.


And Nev needs this justification to be true because he doesn't just jump through bodies in order to stay alive. He jumps corpses because they accept him without question and allow him to feel better than his old body ever did:

Bodies are only beautiful when they aren’t yours. It’s why Nev had fallen in love with bodies in the first place. When you spent time with the dead you could be anyone you wanted to be. They didn’t know any better. They didn’t want to have long conversations about it. They were vehicles. Transport. Tools. They were yours in a way that no living thing ever could be.


Tera's claim calls him back to a world grounded in body ownership, particularly when he invades her sister's body:

“It made you angry I jumped into her body, didn’t it?” he said.

“Didn’t ask me, or her. No choice, when you don’t ask.”

“It didn’t occur to me.”

“Yeah, things like that never do, do they?”

And suddenly the story is subtextually talking about so much more than the fantasy idea of whether it's OK to jump into someone's dead corpse. Hurley is great at investigating big ideas that resonate in the context of the fantasy world she's creating and with our own world. In "Elephants and Corpses" she touches on consent issues, body image, human connection and religious concerns about the afterlife. It's a very smart story and a strongly written one.

In the comments for this story MattVanLaw says 'The most interesting thing about this story is the sense of depth and the right questions being left unanswered'. YES! Hurley is amazingly good at knowing what to leave out in order to draw the reader deeper into her stories. Writers talk about how much background they have to leave on the cutting room floor to make a story work for a reader. Hurley is adept at having her cake and eating it; snipping out things that might slow down the story if they were fully investigated and yet alluding to them in an irresistibly tantalising manner:

They dumped the body down the latrine. “Lot of work to bury your sister,” Nev said.

“Fuck you. You wouldn’t know.”

He considered her reaction for a long moment while they waited in the doorway, looking left to right down the hall for more wandering priests. It was true. He wouldn’t know. He’d neither burned nor buried any of his relatives. They’d all be long dead, now.

The reader is left wondering what Tera and Mora's relationship was like and what Nev's family background was like. While small details will be added to the reader's understanding of these character's backgrounds, their full backstories are never revealed and the reader leaves this story abuzz with unanswered questions. What's fascinating is that this absence of confirmation doesn't create an unsatisfactory feeling of confusion. Rather, it elucidates a deep sense of curiosity. Hurley's creation of these kind of active blank spaces and her masterful control of a narrative full of so much uncertainty makes her work a particular kind of fan-fic writers dream. Which is why I wish more fan writers had read her words. Hey, maybe if a trilogy seems like too much of a commitment they could start with this short story? *nudge*

Amongst all that thinky stuff and creative writing there's a cracking plot, snappy dialogue, a strong partnership and some sad times with a sweet elephant. I can not warn people upset by fictional dead dogs enough about the sad times with the elephant. I advise you to barrel on through that moment if you can though. Otherwise you'll miss out on a story that gives you the line 'But the dead didn’t give you turtles, either.' And where else could you get that kind of line, with the emotional wallop it packs, but from Hurley. The ending of "Elephants and Corpses" is a weirdly comic emotional perfection and I highly recommend the ride this story throws you on from the very beginning.

"Elephants and Corpses" is available for free at Tor.com.

Footnotes

1 This idea of experiencing dysphoria is, as I understand it, not applicable to every transgender person. I would love to hear about stories that present different experiences of being a transgender person - please drop suggestions in the comments.

Supplemental Material

Guest Post: Gender, Family, Nookie: The Speculative Frontier by Kameron Hurley
Renay's essay Women in Perpetual Motion: Thoughts on We Have Always Fought by Kameron Hurley
Jodie's essay My Life As A Weapon - Nyxnissa so Dasheem
Lady Business+ - Episode #1: God's War

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