The Heretic Has Left the Building (Queering SF #29)
The Canadian Ada Hoffman (she/her) is an adjunct professor of Computer Science. Hoffman was diagnosed with Aspergers when she was 13 and is a dedicated autism advocate. Indeed, she has hosted the online Autistic Book Party since 2012(ish). Her short story “Minor Heresies” appeared in a collected called Ride the Star Wind, a collection of Lovecraft-inspired pieces, edited by C. Dombrowski and Scott Gable. The story was then collected in Transcendent 3 (ed., Bogi Takács [e/em/eir]).
In a far future, (some) humans have been melded with alien “filigree.” Initially designed and grown in vats at Vaur Station, later iterations of these “Vaurians” are grown outside the lab, with parents. The human-grown Vaurians can be “men, women, neither, both, and in between.” The alien filigree allows them to shift their shape. Limitlessly. Some Vaurians then become “angels,” who are used to terraform other planets, or to organize society, or to hunt down “heretics.” The angels report to the “Gods,” which are sentient AIs that reign over human space.
At first glance, Vaurian sex seems to affirm the diversity of human sex. While popular “knowledge” clings to the notion that humans are either one of two sexes, science and medicine have long noted that that simply isn’t true. The term “intersex” has recently given way to “Disorders of Sex Development” to describe the myriad number of situations that result in nature (though some within the community prefer “Differences of Sex Development,” for obvious reasons). For some, the shortcoming of the term “intersex” was that some intersex individuals identify as female or male, and so the term left them out. For others, the difficulty was that the term seemed to assume that female and male were “the sexes” and that intersex existed in between the two “real” sexes. Here, Hoffman offers “neither, both, and in between.” And, yet, the inclusion of “men, women” unintentionally reinforces the belief that male and female are norms against which all other sexes are defined.
Enter Mimoru, among the first generation of Vaurians to be grown outside the lab. Mimoru, however, fails out of angel school. He doesn’t have what it takes. He prefers to sit and read. So, a Vaurian who cannot be an angel must find a job. Mr. Haieray of the Stardust Interplanetary Trading Company hires Mimoru to be an accountant. However, Mr. Haieray has other plans, and he compels Mimoru to use his shapeshifting skills in order to woo clients. Haieray also employs a number of nonhumans in order to appeal to alien trading partners. He treats them just as poorly. For example, Bûr-Nïb is a secretary in the company; a bipedal humanoid from Íntlànsûr, who frequently bears the ire of Haieray.
For Haieray, Mimoru is an Other, someone to be mistrusted and misused. While the Vaurians are frequently a weapon of the Gods, Mimoru has failed out. But then, “Nobody wanted a shifty, unpredictable shapechanger” working for them. Mimoru’s ability to change bodily shape, including changing sex, is simply a tool for Haieray’s exploitation. Haieray mistreats Mimoru and Bûr-Nïb because they are not human, because they do not conform to human norms, and because they are aliens in human space/business.
On their latest business venture, Haieray, Mimoru, and Bûr-Nïb travel to Hex Station to trade with the Zora, who “resemble horse-sized insects made of beads: heads, joints, and legs made of spherical segments, alternately pitch-black and chalk-white.” The Zora also hold particular religious practices, which do not conform to human practices. Haieray compels Mimoru to change into a shape more pleasing to the Zora, including a change of sex. She complies.
The AI, also known as the “human Gods,” aggressively cut off all contact with outside belief systems and practices. They allow no information about nature worship, or spiritual beings, or alternate philosophies. If a human (or Vaurian) came to believe what an alien believed, they would be a “heretic” and subject to execution. But when the Zora leave the negotiations to return to quarters, Haieray orders Mimoru to change shape (again) and to follow them. Never mind that that’s espionage. Never mind that they might also be engaged on some religious practice forbidden to humans (and Vaurians). Haieray wants his sale.
When Mimoru tracks the Zora to their quarters, he gets a momentary glance of their religious ceremony. He glimpses a large being, larger than an entire galaxy, eyes as large as stars. The Zora shut it off as quickly as he can register the scene; but the damage has been done. Had it been real? An hallucination? The doctor says he is not crazy, only “a mild Asperger neurotype.” Instead, the doctor diagnoses “heresy.” He now has the knowledge, if not the active belief, that something exists in the universe that is larger than, and more powerful than, the Gods.
The Gods will execute him.
The official propaganda of the Gods taught all children, all citizens that “heretics” slit people’s throats and blow up buildings. In training to be an angel, Mimoru also learns of “minor heresies”: believing the wrong things.
In the end, the Íntlànsûran Bûr-Nïb rescues Mimoru. She notes that he is “not really one of them.” She — and nearly every other alien race — sees humans as part of a “theocratic homicidal cult.” Mimoru has “failed” as a human. What does that mean? Mimoru cannot simply deceive for his own benefit; Mimoru cannot help but see things from others’ perspectives; Mimoru cannot share the human-centered view of the universe. And so, he has failed.
Mimoru notes that he must stop judging others based on the standards of humans — a species that does not even want him — and start judging himself and others by his own standards. What does this mean for a queer person?
In “Minor Heresies,” Hoffman offers an individual outside the norms of acceptability. Mimoru shifts shape, changes bodies, and moves among sexes regularly. Mimoru has no fixed sex→gender identity. But Mimoru has been trying to make sense of his life, and the lives of others, based on a set of norms developed by those in power. Those norms have failed Mimoru and have failed humanity.
Of course, one answer is to change the norms. To stay and challenge them and to get people to begin to see things differently. Mimoru, though, has a (metaphorical) gun at his temple. And so he flees. The only space for Mimoru is outside of human space. Or whatever currently passes for human. Which isn’t very humane. Like Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s Doll House, the only way out is to leave the building and slam the door behind him.
Is Hoffman overly pessimistic? “Minor Heresies” seems to suggest that humans and humanity will not change any time soon, will not be able to accommodate difference. The only answer is to flee. Like Ruth and Althea Parsons in James Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” who would rather flee with aliens than remain on Earth, Mimoru jumps on a ship with Bûr-Nïb. And, yet, the aliens here represent groups of people and individuals who DO see things differently, who do have a different set of norms, who are outside the awful human biases and limitations. And in that sense, I read “Minor Heresies” as hopeful.
Ritch Calvin (he/him) is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction (Palgrave), editor of “The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism” (Aqueduct), and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls (McFarland).