In modern speculative fiction (henceforth SFF – Science Fiction and Fantasy), one of the earliest examples of an asexual protagonist is likely Tarma from Mercedes Lackey’s Vows and Honor series. The first book, The Oathbound, was published in 1988, a good thirteen years before the establishment of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network in 2001 and the start of widespread asexual visibility as a sexual orientation and a queer identity in its own right.
Protagonist Tarma’s asexuality is as canon as it can be without Lackey using the explicit label we have today, however the representation itself is problematic. Tarma’s asexuality gets combined with celibacy, and furthermore has been imposed upon her by her goddess, presenting the concept of asexuality as at best a choice and at worst inhuman and unnatural. The conflation of celibacy with asexuality is particularly harmful as asexuality is not about whether or not one chooses to have sex. Asexuality is the absence of sexual attraction and says nothing about whether or not an asexual person is sexually active or not. Celibacy is a choice that is unrelated to whether or not someone experiences sexual attraction.
Acecoding, the practice of heavily implying yet never outright stating that a character is asexual, is reasonably common in SFF even before asexuality as an explicit orientation gained more visibility, but since 2000 authors have started to write and include asexual characters deliberately. Authors such as Katharine Eliska Kimbriel, have also spoken up about characters they’ve written in older books, noting that these characters fall on the asexual spectrum, though there were no known words to describe them as such at the time.
As an asexual reader and indie author, I see conflicting messages about the state of asexual representation in fiction and my heart hurts. Almost every list of recommendations, every discussion, every moment includes a variation on the lament “There is so little representation” with no elaboration or qualifications. While this essay will prove there most certainly is a lack of representation in fiction, there is also more out there than these articles often suggest and, though it makes little difference to the numbers as a whole, it can have a large emotional impact on individuals, especially those seeking asexual representation. Even if one restricts their search to books published by the Big 5 companies in publishing – that is to say by imprints owned by Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, or Hachette –, there is quite a bit more than people seem to assume.
Though this assumption appears to be true only of SFF. Outside these genres, only a handful of books with explicit and/or deliberate asexual representation were published by Big 5 publishers since Keri Hulme’s The Bone People was published outside of New Zealand in 1985. However, as my main interest lies in SFF, it is possible that there are actually many books I have not heard of that feature clear, deliberate asexual representation in other genres.
Regardless, they are hard to find, especially for less internet-savvy readers or readers with access only to limited books. This essay will explore the asexual representation that has been published by mainstream publishers from 2000 until 2018. Due to the splash made by select titles in the SFF communities, the essay will also include a brief foray into notable releases by small presses and online magazines. This essay aims to examine what the asexual representation in mainstream SFF actually looks like, both quantitatively and qualitatively, to present readers with an overview of asexual representation made available since 2000, and to give a rough outline of what to expect from the representation in these books.
As an additional note: many articles group together asexual and aromantic representation, though these are actually two distinct queer identities. This essay explores only asexual representation as the data and information about aromantic representation simply is not available. As low as the total numbers for asexual representation are, the numbers for aromantic representation are even worse.
I have been writing acespec (asexual spectrum) characters all my life and I have been looking for them specifically since about 2013. It is time to take a good look at the books that are out there and see what, if anything, they teach us about the representation of asexuality in SFF today.
What’s in a Discussion?
Before looking at the actual data and making comparisons, it strikes me as sensible to take a look at the dichotomy between said data and how people – myself included – talk about it. The discrepancy between how media outlets and asexual authors such as myself talk about representation can be a world apart and it was a key factor in my decision to examine what the numbers are actually like. Media outlets discussing asexual representation, and providing reading lists, rarely seem to acknowledge the body of work that is currently out there. Even if that body of work is infinitesimal:
Less than 0.5% of all books published in the US alone in almost two decades contains confirmed asexual representation. Put in more narrative terms: Imagine a university library. Just a small university library. Picture all those books. Rows upon rows upon rows. One of the books in those rows contains confirmed asexual representation. Just one, and that is using the most generous interpretation of ‘asexual representation’ possible short of including readers’ headcanon as factual representation.
These reading lists first came to my attention in 2017, when Tor.com reshared a 2016 article list of 5 mainstream books featuring asexual representation to promote the release of Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway. This novella is one of the first mainstream books to explicitly use the term ‘asexual’ for one of its characters and has been one of the most prominent books with asexual representation in SFF since its release.
Tor.com’s list remains one of the best lists of mainstream asexual representation I know about. It actively invites readers to share more books, it includes several lesser-known publications and, though it does not shy from admitting that there is little asexual representation available, it does encourage readers to look for and share more.
Since the Tor.com article, it feels like whenever media outlets write about asexual representation, it is usually without that encouraging and hopeful tone. In 2017, BookRiot published a list of 100 must-read queer YA titles. Four of the titles on the list contain asexual representation, which, while low, is an impressive number considering the length of the list and the dearth of representation in general. The issue with this list lies in the fact it is missing several prominent books with asexual representation (that had either already come out earlier that year or would come out shortly after the list was posted), all the while definitively describing the books on the list as the only ones available and suggesting that other searches will not yield fruitful results.
Bustle published an article during Pride month last year which was even less encouraging to readers. It includes only three books (and a link to the Tor.com article) and strongly implies that these books are all that is available, failing to encourage readers to look for more representation and ignoring the existence of prominent titles, YA or otherwise, in other genres as well as longer lists created after the Tor.com article.
While these are just three examples of mainstream media referring to asexual representation in fiction, they are a representative sample of the tone that such articles tend to use. These articles reinforce the misinformed perspective that there is little to no asexual representation in speculative fiction.
Readers and creators who actively seek out asexual representation, such as myself, tend to chafe against the claim that there is little to no representation because that angle tends to look at numbers in a vacuum, and focus strongly on mainstream books, leaving out relatively well-known asexual indie authors also publishing representation. Tor.com’s article, for example, includes a link to author Lauren Jankowski discussing the state of asexual representation in mainstream media in 2015 but does not actually acknowledge her explicitly asexual and aromantic urban fantasy series.1
It is this dichotomy between viewpoints that frames and informs the way I examine the numbers in this essay. When I started to research the numbers, I had a concrete idea of what to expect of the numbers for individual readers. I knew that while the anecdotal comments about the lack of asexual representation were true, I hoped to prove that the problem was one of perception and visibility. I decided to focus on mainstream SFF because it is what I know best and it would provide me more accurate numbers to work with. I set out to write a hopeful piece focused on celebrating the amount of representation that is already out there, if you know where to look, and encourage others to dig a little deeper and use the excellent tools that asexual activists are creating to help others find the representation they’re desperately looking for.
I had grossly underestimated the numbers of publishing overall and had to revise my findings and the essay accordingly. However, I would still recommend that readers dig a little deeper because there is more representation out there even if it does not feel like it. Look at resources like Claudie Arseneault’s Aromantic and Asexual Characters database. Dig beyond the first five or so results when googling for asexual representation. Search the lists on Goodreads specifically for asexual representation (and shake it up with ‘ace’ as some lists use the abbreviation). Look at FYeahAsexual’s list of asexual media. There is more. But this essay was about numbers and the state of representation within SFF published by the Big 5 from 2000 to the present.
By the Numbers
Counting asexual representation in SFF (or, indeed, any genre) before about 2016 is tricky because much of the data available is a tangled mess of acecoding, aromisia and readers’ headcanons or for books that hadn’t yet been released.2 Suffice it to say, tracking down the necessary information to survey the SFF landscape can be hard. I have excluded several books from my study, due to an inability to confirm asexual representation within the text or through the author’s own words in interviews or discussions.
Getting a concrete sense of the number of books with asexual representation is further compounded by the web that is traditional publishing and the question of when something is considered mainstream. As established, for the purposes of this essay, mainstream is defined as published by an imprint owned by or related to the Big 5 publishers. When looking at the type of representation available, a few notable exceptions published outside of the Big 5 will also be examined for their visibility within the genre.
The information for these books has been gathered from a combination of books I have read myself as well as various lists of asexual fiction, notably the GoodReads list Asexuals in Fiction and TVTropes’s page on asexuality (Can I just note, though, that asexuality is not a trope in and of itself and presenting it that way is extremely harmful.) To the best of my knowledge, the following list is a complete list of confirmed and established asexual representation in mainstream SFF fiction available since 2000 to the end of 2018. There are, however, a few caveats to this list: some novels may have been added erroneously due to a strong influence of headcanons and a lack of explicit statements from the author; other novels may have slipped through the cracks either because I have not heard of them in relation to asexual representation or because authors are, like Katharine Eliska Kimbriel, confirming characters fall on the asexual spectrum either after this list was published or it went unnoticed by the asexual and queer circles I am in.
The list contains 47 individual novels, counting sequels. Note that several of the books on this list were republished later. These have only been added to the list once under their original titles and publication date. Notably, this refers to Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small books (republished in an omnibus in 2004) and Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder trilogy (Dust, Chill, and Grail) which was republished under different titles (Pinion, Sanction , and Cleave) in 2015. They were only counted once. Removing subsequent sequels and counting each unique series as a single entry, the list shrinks to 27 titles. Only 47 books out of everything that Big 5 speculative fiction imprints have released in the past nineteen years can be said to contain detailed on page descriptions of asexuality, Word of God representation or explicit labeling.3 In order of original publication date, these 47 speculative fiction books are as follows:
2000: Page (Protector of the Small) by Tamora Pierce
2000: The King’s Peace (Sulien/Tir Tanagiri) by Jo Walton
2001: Squire (Protector of the Small) by Tamora Pierce
2001: The King’s Name (Sulien/Tir Tanagiri) by Jo Walton
2002: Lady Knight (Protector of the Small) by Tamora Pierce
2007: Dust (Jacob’s Ladder) by Elizabeth Bear
2009: Chill (Jacob’s Ladder) by Elizabeth Bear
2009: Flesh and Fire (Vineart Wars) by Laura Anne Gilman
2010: Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey
2010: Weight of Stone (Vineart Wars) by Laura Anne Gilman
2011: Grail (Jacob’s Ladder) by Elizabeth Bear
2011: Ultraviolet (Ultraviolet) by R.J. Anderson
2011: Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke & Bone) by Laini Taylor4
2011: The Shattered Vine (Vineart Wars) by Laura Anne Gilman
2012: Banner of the Damned by Sherwood Smith
2012: Days of Blood and Starlight (Daughter of Smoke & Bone) by Laini Taylor
2013: Quicksilver (Ultraviolet) by R.J. Anderson
2013: Demonosity by Amanda Ashby
2014: The Tropic of Serpents (Memoirs of Lady Trent) by Marie Brennan
2014: Dreams of Gods and Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone) by Laini Taylor
2014: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld
2014: Clariel (Abhorsen) by Garth Nix
2015: Dark Run (Keiko) by Mike Brooks
2015: Lair of Dreams (The Diviners) by Libba Bray
2015: Dark Sky (Keiko) by Mike Brooks
2016: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
2016: Games Wizards Play (Young Wizards) by Diane Duane
2016: In the Labyrinth of Drakes (Memoirs of Lady Trent) by Marie Brennan
2016: Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children) by Seanan McGuire
2016: Goldenhand (Abhorsen) by Garth Nix
2017: Island of Exiles (Ryogan Chronicles) by Erica Cameron
2017: Winter Tide (Innsmouth Legacy) by Ruthanna Emrys
2017: Within the Sanctuary of Wings (Memoirs of Lady Trent) by Marie Brennan
2017: Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody
2017: That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston
2017: 27 Hours (Nightside Saga) by Tristina Wright5
2017: Dare Mighty Things (Untitled Duology) by Heather Kaczynski
2017: Sea of Strangers (Ryogan Chronicles) by Erica Cameron
2017: Before the Devil Breaks You (The Diviners) by Libba Bray
2017: Dark Deeds (Keiko) by Mike Brooks
2018: Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children) by Seanan McGuire
2018: Heart of Iron (Heart of Iron) by Ashley Poston
2018: Dread Nation (Dread Nation) by Justina Ireland
2018: The Poppy War (Poppy Wars) by R.F. Kuang
2018: Deep Roots (Innsmouth Legacy) by Ruthanna Emrys
2018: Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie
2018: One Giant Leap (Untitled Duology) by Heather Kaczynski
These are all the novels that contain asexual representation published by mainstream US SFF publishers in the past nineteen years.
Contrasting these numbers to the total of books published by mainstream US SFF publishers in this time proved impossible as the information is not easily available to independent researchers. As such, this study uses numbers provided by the International Publishers Association annual reports and do not differentiate between different publishers. These reports are only available from 2012 to 2015. As the numbers that are available show a trend towards publishing more books per year, I have taken the average of these years combined with the reported statistics for the total of new books published in 1991.6 While this approach does not result in the accurate numbers I would like, the sheer volume of books published suggests that the final percentages will not differ significantly from these. They would, I hope, paint a slightly more positive picture.
Using this approach, it can be determined that the US has published a total of 6,558,937 books in this 19-year period. Bearing in mind the number above (47), that means that 0.00007% of all the books published in this period were books featuring asexual representation. More accurate data may be available through the Association of American Publishers likely has more accurate data available in its StatShot service. It was unavailable to me and I would welcome further research and corrections on these numbers.
Statistics more specific to SFF publishing can be found maintained on the website of Locus Magazine, though the website only includes data from 2002-2017. The lists maintained by Locus include books published in the US in that year. For the purposes of this essay I have tallied up both the adult and young adult novels published in these years amounting to a total of 9549 books. As these figures do not include the totals for 2000, 2001 and 2018, the list is incomplete. I have addressed this by taking the average of publications from 2002-2017 for the years of 2000 and 2001 and only counting the books listed as being upcoming 2018 releases on Locus’s Forthcoming Books page, which covers selected releases from May 2018 until March 2019. This results in a total list of 10,860 books of SFF novels published between 2000 and 2018. While these numbers are thus again not as accurate as I would like – the 2018 count especially is much lower than the average suggests it should be for a complete list – they are nevertheless representative of the state of asexual representation as a whole.
Using these numbers, approximately 0.43% books published in the mainstream speculative fiction field contains asexual representation. It is not much of an improvement on the overall estimate of 0.00007%. Both are frightfully low, proving that there is definitely a dearth of representation to be found in fiction. These numbers paint a bleak picture and it is no wonder that readers looking for representation have trouble finding books to fit their needs. While enough books exist that we can make (short) themed lists and can help readers find the subgenre or ideas that they enjoy reading, it is true albeit cliché to say that for many finding this representation is as likely as finding a needle in a haystack. It is impossible for anyone to walk into a bookstore or a library and be directed towards a variety of books featuring representation. Lucky readers may find that a bookstore stocks one or two books. (When I was in Cambridge in 2016, between four major bookstore chains, I could find a grand total of 3 different titles featuring asexual representation and if I had not known what to look for I would have found none of them.)
As for the valid point that these numbers could be more accurate, the percentages are not likely to improve significantly and certainly not in a way that invalidates the findings. I would be pleasantly surprised to see either number surpass the decimal point and ecstatic to see it reach double figures. I urge researchers with access to better data to prove me wrong as these discussions can help publishing improve their diversity. The first step in dealing with a problem is to have a thorough understanding of that problem, after all. It would also be interesting to see a breakdown of the number of queer books published in this time frame, to create an overview of the state of queer representation in speculative fiction as a whole.
The Value of Representation
Most of the books on this list fall into three different levels of representation: explicitly labelled (or “I’m asexual!”), acecoded (“I’m not interested in sex!”) or Word of God (“I, the author, say this character is asexual even though it’s not clear on the page”).7 Most books that contain the asexual label explicitly also contain extensive descriptions of asexuality.8 Many are problematic in some way: most, if not all, conflate asexuality with aromanticism and some, like Lackey’s Vows and Honor trilogy and arguably Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder trilogy, conflate it with celibacy.
To my knowledge, only one of the authors who have published a story with asexual representation in traditional publishing in this time frame has identified as being on the asexual spectrum. By contrast, both of the authors published by small presses in the same time frame identify as asexual or acespec. While the number is far too small to draw any useful comparisons from it, I consider it a notable difference as several asexual indie authors have expressed problems getting their works published traditionally.
Figure 1 compares the different kinds of representations found within the books on this list. As the representation can be presented as a hierarchy from “most explicit” to “least explicit”, only the highest tier of representation has been counted. That is to say, a novel such as Every Heart a Doorway, which explicitly describes Nancy as asexual, counts as “Word Used”, whereas a novel such as Flesh and Fire counts as “On Page” as the term asexual is never used within the book itself, and a novel such as Afterworlds contains descriptions that are so light one might miss or misinterpret it without the Word of God confirmation.
Surprisingly, only 11 of the books (23.40%) rely solely on Word of God representation. Unsurprisingly, on page representation is by far the largest category. Even as asexuality slowly gained in popularity and usage as a term in these past nineteen years, it is still considered relatively obscure and it may not have been available to authors writing their characters.9 It is also worth noting that most of the books published by mainstream imprints are fantasy books, where the use of queer terminology is often deemed to be anachronistic and something that pulls readers out of the narrative. Smith’s Banner of the Damned goes so far as to create fantastical terms for all the orientations it recognises but rarely uses them. Cameron’s Island of Exile adopts a similar approach, though unlike Banner of the Damned it only creates a word for the orientation of asexuality and does not appear to distinguish between different types of allosexuality. A character is either asexual (ushimo) or allosexual (no term given). In both cases, the result is that characters’ asexuality is presented to the reader as Other, as the author has needed to resort to making up a word in a constructed language to convey the idea. Bear’s Dust/Pinion wavers between using celibate and asexed (a potentially harmful term to asexuals) thus suggesting the two are interchangeable and playing into the harmful stereotype that asexuality is a choice and that asexuals are actually allosexual people who simply choose not to have sex.10
Only one of the books attempts to distinguish asexuality from aromanticism: Every Heart a Doorway. Partway through the book, as Kade and Nancy team up to look for Jill, the narrative remarks that “[t]his was always the difficult part, back when she’d been at her old school: explaining that “asexual” and “aromantic” were different things.” (McGuire 121) Emily Skrutskie’s upcoming Hullmetal Girls appears like it may also acknowledge the existence of the aromantic spectrum by explicitly using the term ‘aroace’. Reviews suggest it does not try to differentiate between the orientations otherwise.
Other than this, all authors on this list published by Big 5 imprints assume that their characters’ romantic and sexual orientation are the same without any attempt to show or explain to the reader that these orientations do not necessarily match up. Not all asexuals are aromantic, but even alloromantic (people who regularly experience romantic attraction) asexuals are frequently portrayed as aromantic asexuals due to this conflation. Of all the characters on this list published by traditional imprints, only two can be argued to be confirmed as alloromantic asexual. Darcy is Word of God demiromantic and is thus on the aromantic spectrum.11 Note that, in Westerfeld’s confirming tweet, aromanticism and asexuality are once again conflated as he assumes that Darcy’s romantic orientation is cancelled out by her sexual orientation.
Further, 61.70% of these books contain asexual characters that take on the leading or central role in the book (such as Kel in the Protector of the Small books) or are main characters part of an ensemble cast (such as Braeden in 27 Hours). Moreover, there is a slight leaning towards presenting the asexual protagonists in mainstream fiction as the driving force of the narrative (lead characters) rather than as simply a part of the core cast (main characters).
In 2017, Worldcon 75 held a panel about Asexuality in SF, featuring Todd Allis, Kat Kourbeti and Jo Walton. According to a livetweet of the panel, Walton said that asexual characters are frequently written as secondary characters. This claim is, at best, dubious as over half of the confirmed asexual characters in mainstream fiction are protagonists, albeit those present in an ensemble cast share the spotlight with other characters. Earlier that day, Worldcon had also held a panel called Asexuality in YA, moderated by Laura Lam, and with panellists Marguerite Kenner, Peadar Ó Guilín and Kali Wallace. Marieke Nijkamp reportedly asked to join the panel and was the only asexual author on the panel. One of the questions posed to this panel was whether authors face pushback from editors regarding the addition of asexual characters. Wallace, Ó Guilín and Nijkamp all reported they had no such issues and received no pushback regarding the inclusion of asexual characters. This directly contradicts experiences from indie authors such as Lauren Jankowksi being told that asexuality is ‘too niche’ to sell. Indie author Claudie Arseneault notes that submission guidelines can be hostile to asexual and aromantic authors, leading to self-rejection. Author JL Douglas has openly talked about the way beta readers wanted to see more sexual tension and that the advice she received whilst submitting her YA romance Lunaside was that “YA books with asexual main characters don’t get published.”
Last year Nicole Kornher-Stace has also discussed some of the reasons Archivist Wasp, a novel that features strong platonic friendships but not even a hint of romance, was getting rejected. Kornher-Stace explicitly states that rejections drove her to consider self-publishing before publishing with a small press.
More often, these discussions happen between asexual authors, creating a whisper network of which agents, editors and publishing houses are accepting of asexuality. Though these conversations likely happen privately for a variety of reasons, one of them is undoubtedly a fear of being blacklisted by powerful corporations.
This is certainly the first time I have publicly stated that, as an asexual author, I felt unwelcome submitting to a queer-specific submission call that should have felt welcoming. At the time, I stayed silent mostly because I wanted to focus on how much speculative fiction did – and still does – need to do better by all identities falling under the queer umbrella and to uplift fellow queer authors.
It is notable that from the perspective of mainstream publications, Wallace, Ó Guilín and Nijkamp are all established authors whereas the authors I have mentioned would be considered debut authors with no established sales record when it comes to novels. This suggests that publishers may be more likely to take a chance on books featuring asexual protagonists if the author is already established in the field. Further support for this hypothesis can be found by looking at the list of confirmed asexual representation provided earlier in this essay. Almost all of the books featuring explicit asexual main or lead characters were written by authors who had already published one or more novels. To my knowledge, Tristina Wright, Heather Kaczynski, R.F. Kuang and Mike Brooks are the only exceptions. Out of the 26 authors on this list, 15% were debut authors. Assuming that the agent Jankowski mentioned was correct and asexuality is (still) widely seen as ‘too niche’ for mainstream publishers to take a chance on explicitly asexual characters, of these four authors only Wright can be said to take any risk at all as only Braeden from 27 Hours actively deals with being asexual in the course of the novel. Kaczynski’s Cassie comes close with a brief exchange in chapter six:
She cocked her head. Tapped her pursed bottom lip with one manicured finger, as if considering. “Cass, have you ever thought that you might be, like, asexual?”
I didn’t look at her. My hand froze on the doorknob; my entire body was a bated breath. “Yeah,” I said, having waited too long to respond, the words flying out of me in a rush that was half panic, half relief. “I think I am, actually.”
“Oh,” Suko said. My eyes darted to her. She’d gone still a moment, her lips still forming the circle of her response. Then her face brightened. “That’s cool! I’m bi.”
(Kaczynski, chapter 6)
This exchange is the sole time the narrative actively deals with Cassie’s asexuality. While it is clearly mentioned and included, it rarely seems to have any impact on the narrative beyond serving as a reason to explain why Dare Mighty Things does not contain an explicit romance arc. Other well-known YA books featuring a competition (such as The Hunger Games, Divergence and more recently Mask of Shadows) as a central plot point do. Perhaps this response is simply the jaded reaction of an asexual reader eager for more representation that feels accurate to asexual experiences overall, but I think there is definitely enough to suggest that an investigation into what is going on here would further the discussions surrounding asexual representation in fiction.12
While the numbers discussed above are abysmal compared to the sheer volume of books published every year, this list of 47 titles suggests that things are marginally less dire than discussions usually seem to frame it. Lists of recommendations include anywhere between 5-10 books and focus strongly on why a particular book was included. Space, therefore, is at a premium and an in-depth discussion of the state of representation is not desirable. List-writers want readers to understand what the list is about and then sell their readers on the books mentioned.
The genuine lack of representation we have (not even 1% of what is published!) combined with the lack of visibility – either because the representation is not explicit or because the book is too old and got lost in the masses of books that exist – means that it is easy to preface discussions of asexual representation with a note about how little there are and to leave readers with the assumption that they will not find anything if they look. Further, list-writers may choose to pass on including less well-known books that feature lauded representation in favour of more visible books that may have more problematic representation without suggesting to readers that these books exist. Given how difficult it can be to find asexual representation, this helps to create a vicious circle discouraging readers from looking for more books.
To that end, this essay will also include some notable small press releases to help readers find more books with asexual representation and discuss some of the impact that these releases have on the numbers. Here too the numbers remain low and only a handful have risen to any kind of prominence for their asexual representation in the speculative fiction community.
To my knowledge the stories on this list have either been nominated for prestigious awards, included in recommendations lists by well-known sites such as BookRiot or lesser-known but prominent sites such as LGBTQReads:
2016: You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay by Alyssa Wong
2016: Keeper of the Dawn by Dianna Gunn
2016: We Awaken by Calista Lynne
2017: The Wrong Stars (Axiom) by Tim Pratt
2018: Moonshine by Jasmin Gower
2018: The Dreaming Stars (Axiom) by Tim Pratt
2018: The Spy with the Red Balloon (The Balloonmakers) by Katherine Locke
2018: Beneath the Citadel by Destiny Soria
Of these eight stories, only Lynne’s We Awaken and Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars are confirmed to include explicit labels. We Awaken is the only book out of all the books I mentioned that is known to feature more than one explicitly asexual character. In all eight of these stories the asexual character is either the lead or a main character. All but “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” and The Wrong Stars are written by authors who have publicly identified as being on the asexual spectrum. To my knowledge none of them acknowledge the difference between aromanticism and asexuality. The statistics then, though much smaller in number, end up looking roughly the same as those for the representation published by the Big 5 when taking at their percentage values.
As a bonus note, for those looking to use this essay as a jumping board to discover more asexual and/or aromantic representation, 2016, 2017 and 2018 have seen some explicit aromantic representation published by small presses:
2016: An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows
2017: A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows
2017: Not Your Villain (Sidekick Squad) by C.B. Lee
N.B. This essay initially erroneously presented C.B. Lee’s Not Your Backup as having come out in 2018. It is actually not available until later this year. To the best of my knowledge, its publishing schedule was moved back and I failed to catch that I’d left it on the list. My apologies for not noticing until it was pointed out to me.
The Trouble with Tropes
Though this essay has focused on statistics more than anything else so far, there is one more important detail to look at. One of the most common comments that asexuals make on fiction is that they feel dehumanised by the stories that they read, especially in speculative fiction.
(Due to how well-known Alyssa Wong’s novelette is, this section will include all the notable small press stories in its discussion and numbers by default. As previously noted, this does not affect percentages significantly.)
Author Claudie Arseneault notes the prevalence of certain associations and tropes and I have discussed these tropes in the past as well. While not all the books on this list include those associations or tropes, they are common. The association with death, for example, occurs in three of the most prominent and well-known asexual narratives currently easily available and arguably in a fourth as well. Garth Nix’s series (notably Clariel and Goldenhand) and Alyssa Wong’s “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” both feature an asexual, undead necromancer. Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway features an asexual character who visited the Halls of the Dead and whose main ambition in the novella is to return there to a life of pretending to be a statue. Nancy’s cameo in Beneath the Sugar Sky suggests that this is exactly what Nancy wanted and that this statuesque solitude and exclusion from the living world makes her happy. Darcy in Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds, though one of the lesser known novels on the list, writes a story about a psychopomp who can travel to the afterlife and who can see ghosts. While this is not a direct link between Darcy and death, it is nevertheless present enough to fit uncomfortably neatly into the trope that asexuality is closely related to death.
R.J. Anderson’s Tori, Laini Taylor’s Liraz, Ruthanna Emrys’s Aphra and Calista Lynne’s Ashlinn, meanwhile, are not human. Additionally, Ashlinn’s close link to the realm of sleep is arguably an extension of the association with death and exile, as she is not allowed to be part of the waking world. Lynne’s depiction of Ashlinn, however, is somewhat offset by the novel’s protagonist, Victoria. Victoria is also asexual and the narrative arc is about both Victoria and Ashlinn reconnecting with the living world.
The language used to describe asexual characters is often still othering as they are mired in microaggressions towards asexuality. I suspect that it is this language use that gives rise to the idea that negative portrayal of asexual characters is more frequent and prominent than this survey suggests it is. Sometimes, like in We Awaken, this language is explicitly called out. The climax of the novel involves the antagonist explicitly implying that being asexual means one is a freak. Earlier, Victoria asks if asexuality is “that plant reproduction thing we learn about in school”. When characters talk about experiencing attraction in other books, it is frequently in ways that exclude asexuals and aromantics if not feeling like outright erasure. Straying away from speculative fiction and books for a moment, the popular TV show Brooklyn 99, often lauded for its queer representation, deliberately and explicitly includes asexuality as the butt of a joke in one of its episodes (it occurs in the final scene of season 2, episode 18, for those curious or wishing to avoid it). Often, however, narratives are not as blatant as mentioned in these examples – and, in truth, We Awaken actually attempts to call them out and present them as wrong and harmful – but they are more insidious as microaggressions often are. Sometimes they are, sadly, unquantifiable.
They can be something like those occurring in Wright’s 27 Hours or C.B. Lee’s Not Your Villain and easily missed if one is not looking for them. Both these books aim to present a queer-inclusive future in which queermisia is no longer a factor. Both of these books show that asexuality and aromanticism are not yet accepted by these queer-inclusive societies, a fact which is especially galling in 27 Hours as its premise is that it is set several hundred years in the future and yet Braeden’s asexual identity is stuck in the activism of 2016/2017 and he is shown to be the only character struggling with his asexuality.
Pain flitted across Braeden’s face before he turned his back on everyone, hiding his face from her. Hiding how he was the colony commander’s son and more was expected from him. Hiding how he wondered if he was broken because he was seventeen and didn’t care about sex when none of their friends would shut up about it. Hiding how he loved Nyx and loved Dahlia but didn’t know how to translate that into a way that was comfortable for himself. Hiding so he could slip his mask back into place and smile.(Wright, Nightside 1400/Hours to Dayside 23 BRAEDEN)
Braeden is the only character who thinks about his identity and is described to feel broken in a future that is presented to the reader as both queer-inclusive and free of queermisia. Likewise, Braeden is the only character described as alien. The word ‘alien’ only occurs twice in the entire book. Once when Dahlia asks Nix about the strange moon vibrations she feels and once when Braeden describes himself while in a rebel camp.
Home. Braeden smiled back as he looked around the forest community, but his insides writhed around that simple word. What was home, anymore? The colony he’d betrayed, or the forest he had no business being in. He’d never felt more alien than he did right now. Everyone else moved past him, connected and where they were supposed to be, while he stood by trees older than he was, on a moon that was trying its hardest to spit him out into the stars.(Wright, Nightside 2200/Hours to Dayside 15 BRAEDEN)
Moreover, this passage explicitly presents him as disconnected from the community around him. As much as Wright’s choice of wording is a reflection on the scene, it is a presentation that is inconsiderate of the way asexuals are often treated and, more importantly, it is not the only time Braeden is described as feeling disconnected from the community around him. He dreams of leaving the moon and everyone on it behind. He laments that he does not have a bond with anyone and is shown to be the only character who would like to bond with an automaton. As realistic as his portrayal may feel to asexuals of today, 27 Hours can hardly be said to have created a queer-inclusive and queermisia-free society when one queer identity still feels inherently broken and another gets conflated with something else entirely.
In the indie novel Fourth World by Lyssa Chiavari, one of the acespec narrators, Nadin, asks herself what is wrong with her after her partner kisses her and expresses his sexual attraction for her and she pulls back. Nadin’s portrayal in this scene is a classic example of a sex-repulsed asexual trying to explain their feelings without having proper words to do so. While Fourth World never shames her for her feelings and contains a more positive portrayal of the asexual spectrum in its other protagonist, Isaak, he too experiences anti-asexual sentiments.
“Ah, come on, niño. You’re not still on about that oddball demigod thing, are you?”
“Demisexual, Dad,” I corrected him through gritted teeth. “And it’s not an ‘oddball’ thing, thanks so much. It’s normal. Lots of people feel this way.”
Dad rolled his eyes. “Right. And that’s why you have to make up a weird, complicated name for it.”
Not only does Isaak experience these sentiments from others, he himself expresses microaggressions against sex-repulsed asexuals and aromantic people in the course of the novel as well. In chapter 20, Nadin and Isaak are crossing a square and encounter two people expressing what is clearly shown as romantic affection for one another.
Two of the ball players, a man and a woman, broke away from the group, jogging over to the fountain. Their faces were red and shone with sweat. They stopped a short distance from us, scooping their hands into the water to drink.
“We have time for one more round before we get back to work,” the woman said, splashing water on her face. “Unless you want to surrender now.”
The man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’m just getting started, Corin. You know my stamina is unmatched.”
The woman scoffed. “I don’t know if I’d call three minutes ‘stamina’.” She laughed at his wounded expression, splashing water in his direction. “I’m just joking, yacunos.”
The man said something I couldn’t hear and pulled the woman close. She giggled and draped herself around him, her hands snaking up under the tight fabric of his shirt. I grimaced and pulled the hood of my cloak further over my face.
“What’s your problem?” Isaak asked.
“These plivoi are like animals,” I whispered.
“What’s wrong with them?” He stared pointedly. I jabbed my elbow into his side.
“Stop looking at them! We’re trying to be inconspicuous!” When he ignored me, I sighed and added in a low voice, “They practically mate on the streets.”
The other ball players called to the pair at the fountain. The two broke apart, grinning and running to join them. Isaak watched them go. “They were just being affectionate,” he said.
“You mean that didn’t”—I paused, struggling to find the right word—“bother you?”
“No. Honestly, it’s the first time since I’ve been here that I’ve seen anyone act human.”
I glared at him. “How is that what makes someone human?”
“I dunno.” He shifted, looking down at his shoes. “Being happy. Being in love. No one in the underground seems to love each other.”
His words stung. “We all love each other,” I corrected him. “We live for each other. It’s the way of Iamos.”
“Yeah, but, I mean… it’s different with your partner,” Isaak said. “Isn’t it? I mean, don’t you and Ceilos…?”
The sentiment Isaak expresses here – the idea that romantic affection and romantic love are what makes a person human – is a common microaggression directed at asexuals and especially aromantics, used as it is to dehumanise them. Nadin attempts to call it out, but lacks the vocabulary to do so effectively, aiding in the suggestion that being sex-repulsed, asexual and aromantic are abnormal and thus inhuman. In the first books of the Dreamhealers’ Saga by M.C.A. Hogarth, its aromantic and asexual-coded protagonist Vasiht’h struggles with the stereotypes surrounding his species. Vasiht’h is a member of the Glaseahn species, a species which was deliberately engineered to feel neither romantic nor sexual attraction. The books themselves are about dismantling the way that Vasiht’h has internalised these stereotypes that, because his species was engineered not to experience romantic or sexual attraction they have been engineered to feel no strong emotions at all and that he is neither capable of passion nor any kind of love.
Such microaggressions and phrasings are not unique to books featuring asexual characters, of course. The issue is that they are in many books that do not feature asexual characters and create an atmosphere of hostility and negativity that makes asexual readers feel unwelcome. A good example of how this manifests is the way Adoulla from Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon reacts to his celibate heterosexual companion, Raseed, and how the novel as whole frames Raseed’s experience of sexual attraction. On page 20, for example, the narrative remarks that “the fact that [Raseed] had never so much as kissed a girl lessened Adoulla’s respect for him considerably”, though the narrative otherwise focuses on Raseed’s impressive combat skills. Six pages later, Adoulla and Raseed run into a young woman.
As they crossed a small alleyway, a doe-eyed girl of an age with Raseed smiled a none-too-shy smile at the dervish. Raseed made a choking noise and kept his eyes on the ground until the girl was a block away.
Though he knew it was a lost cause, Adoulla couldn’t help himself. “What is wrong with you, boy? Did you not see the way that little flower looked at you? You could have at least smiled back!”
“Doctor, please!” The boy paused. “This attack. You spoke of the extraordinary powers of this ghul’s master. Do you think one of the Thousand and One, rather than a man, made these ghuls?”
So much focus on duty, so much neglect of what really matters. He doesn’t know the painful end of this road…
Adoulla abandoned his avuncular attempt to get Raseed to act like a living, breathing young man. The dervish would rather think about monsters than smile at a girl.
(Ahmed, p 26-27)
While this passage is not about an asexual character, the reader does not learn this until later and, even so, it presents the idea of not experiencing sexual attraction as first unnatural (what is wrong with Raseed that he is made uncomfortable by a girl assumed to be showing sexual interest in him) and later as dead (after all, Raseed’s embarrassment and choice to avoid the girl is what prompted Adoulla to get him to ‘act like a living, breathing young man’).
In Becky Chambers’ award-nominated The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, one of the narrative strands involves the mechanic Jenks and his romance with the ship’s AI, Lovey. In chapter 6, Jenks and Lovey have a conversation about Lovey gaining a physical body despite this being illegal. When they discuss Lovey’s reasons for wanting a body, one of the reasons she lists is “Having the ability to be a real companion for you. You know, with all the trimmings.” (Chambers, Technical Details) which at least heavily implies that sex is a necessary component to a romantic partnership and suggests that people who do not want to have sex, such as many asexuals, cannot be real partners to someone who is allosexual. This idea is further bolstered by the fact that the romance between Jenks and Lovey falls into the trope of portraying asexuals as robots. While Chambers undoubtedly did not intend this, the implications remain.
It is phrases and situations like these that Others and excludes asexuals in a way that can be hard to pin down if one does not know what to look for. As already shown, these ideas and phrases are not restricted to books that feature no asexual characters, but also to those that explicitly do. One can also find them in stories such as Every Heart a Doorway, where one of the first things Nancy is asked about asexuality is whether or not she minds her roommate masturbating and we learn that other people called Nancy dead inside and that her parents’ love revolves around trying to fix her, a concept that asexuals frequently discuss facing in real life whenever they come out.
As this is intended to be an overview of the representation available, however, this essay does not aim to look too closely at the way these stories frame and present asexuality. It is, however, an aspect that cannot be overlooked as one of the most frequent critiques against asexual representation is that it dehumanises asexuals and aromantics even when it attempts to include them. It matters because these experiences frame how asexual and aromantic readers approach and react to these books. It also helps explain why there is a persistent idea that mainstream asexual representation is frequently bad representation that gets key aspects wrong even though I would argue that things are not as dire as this idea suggests. Having read most of the representation that I know is out there in mainstream publishing, I have been pleasantly surprised by most of these books as they do not uphold some of the most prominent stereotypes about asexuality in fiction.
The concept that asexuals in fantasy novels are always associated with death holds some truth, but this is an idea that is perpetuated largely by the fact that some of the most well-known fantasy titles with asexual representation feature this trope. Including small press and notable releases, this essay lists 55 books with confirmed asexual representation. 36 of them are fantasy stories. Of those, only 5 books (or 13.88%) feature the death-adjacent ace or aro trope. Two books are horror, Winter Tide and Deep Roots, and while Aphra makes it clear that Deep Ones such as herself are a branch of human evolution and that makes her human, it is clear that she looks distinctly unhuman and that people respond to her that way. Of the remaining 17 science fiction stories, to my knowledge none of them feature the trope of a robotic aro or ace. Though Quicksilver’s Tori is an alien, Anderson makes it clear in the narrative that Tori’s asexuality has nothing to do with her being an actual extra-terrestrial.
Another idea that gets discussed frequently is the idea that villains are often acecoded and/or arocoded, much in the same way villains are often discussed as being queercoded. There is enough traction for this idea that TVTropes has a proposed trope known as the Villainous Asexual. Looking at the examples on that discussion page, however, only one of the characters mentioned is confirmed as asexual and all of them rely on acecoding. In the 55 books mentioned in this essay, only three characters can be argued to be presented, at some point, as villainous: Clariel (Clariel, Goldenhand), Emras (Banner of the Damned) and Tori (Ultraviolet) and in all three cases I am arguably stretching the meaning of ‘villain’ to its absolute limits. Tori is actually not a villain at all, though her antagonistic relationship with Alison in Ultraviolet is why she is mentioned here. Emras cares so much about others that she is manipulated into almost unleashing a great evil and has to work hard to ensure that this does not happen. Clariel is the only one of these three who can be described as an outright villain. Provided, that is, that one refers to her appearance as Chlorr of the Mask in the original trilogy and Goldenhand. In Clariel, she is similar to Emras in that she keeps herself aloof from society and her ability to care for others sees her getting manipulated into almost releasing evil onto the world. Like Emras, Clariel has to work hard to undo her mistakes and protect the world. Clariel, however, is driven from society on pain of death and it is this that drives her towards becoming the antagonist readers encountered in Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen. In Goldenhand, Clariel finally gets a redemption arc that ends in her death. Clariel, notably, is also the only book on this list that has garnered a small but vocal group of asexual and aromantic readers who discuss how harmful the representation is.
Finally, it should be noted that this overview of what to expect from asexual representation is extremely limited, omitting characters which are widely considered to be obviously acecoded, books published before 2000 or after 2018 and most characters from books published by small presses or indie publications. Mercedes Lackey’s Tarma, mentioned in the introduction, is one example. Others include the demons in the Bartimaeous trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, Sandry from Pierce’s Circle of Magic, various characters from the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks, Paks from the Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon, Charlie Weasley from the Harry Potter books is widely considered to be asexual as is Artemis from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. Well-known indie publications include RoAnna Sylver’s Chameleon Moon, Claudie Arseneault’s Isandor series, Lauren Jankowski’s Shapeshifter Chronicles books and Tiffany Rose and Alexandra Tauber’s Hello World.
The numerical findings in this overview are, perhaps, predicable, especially to asexual and aromantic readers who have managed to find lesser-known titles offering representation. While there are more novels featuring asexual characters than one would assume from the discussions surrounding these books on major outlets, the actual number is still incredibly low at around 0.00007% when compared to the average number of books published in the US (just the US) per year. Put otherwise 1 book out of every 139,552 books published contains asexual representation. As mentioned, picture a large library, the size of an average university library. One book in that library will contain asexual representation. Approximately 0.43% of the SFF books published by the Big 5 publishers in the past 19 years have confirmed asexual representation. That is 1 book out of every 231 SFF publications. For the less numerically minded like myself, picture a small bookshop (say the size of an airport bookshop) specialising in speculative fiction. Only one of the books in this shop will contain asexual representation.
Given that mainstream publishers have published only a small number of books with explicit asexual representation, it is little surprise that the books that rise to prominence are the most popular books within the field of speculative fiction as a whole. Added to that is the fact that asexuals only make up a small part of the populations and its online community is, like most online communities, fractured along various lines such as identity, the medium used, or even reading tastes. Often there simply is not enough momentum (or marketing budget) to propel lesser-known books with asexual representation to the same level of visibility as those backed by Big 5 publishers.
Other findings, however, are surprising. Most of the novels on this list attempt to present positive representation. Even the stories that are most likely to fall into using tropes or stereotypes do at the very least attempt to present its asexual character as sympathetic to the reader. This is likely due to the characters’ roles within the novels as most are protagonists or main characters.
Further, most of the books with asexual characters in this list are fantasy stories rather than science fiction, which may be surprising to some as the majority of SF titles on this list are queer YA titles and these books frequently imagine a more queer-friendly future. Yet this can be explained by the fact that fantasy is actually more flexible when it comes to including asexual representation as it allows an author more freedom to present asexuality as part of the world in a way that science fiction somehow does not. I hasten to add that this does not always mean the representation is good. The realm of fantasy is what allows authors to include asexual representation like Tarma, which presents asexuality as divinely forced celibacy or otherwise tied to magical abilities. Most of the asexual representation in mainstream speculative fiction is to be found in fantasy, and predominantly in secondary worlds.13
Most of the books published by the Big 5 were written by authors who are, or are presumed to be, allosexual rather than asexual. To the best of my knowledge only 3 out of the 28 individual authors are presumed to be asexual. That is 10.7%. While no author should be compelled to release personal information such as their romantic or sexual orientation, these numbers are potentially problematic as one of the persistent ideas about asexual representation is that allosexual authors are incredibly likely to get it wrong even when doing diligent research. This discussion is similar to the concerns expressed by other minority groups seeing themselves represented by a member of the majority.
Further, only 55% of the asexual characters in these books are aromantic or arocoded, but only two books (Every Heart a Doorway and Hullmetal Girls) can be said to attempt to differentiate between a character’s romantic orientation and their sexual orientation. The trouble here is that few people outside of the aromantic and asexual communities use the split attraction model to differentiate between different types of attraction, such as romantic and asexual. As such, the default assumption made by both the representation in the books and readers’ interpretation thereof, is that a character is aromantic and asexual unless (or until) a romantic arc is involved. The romantic arc suggests that the character is alloromantic rather than aromantic.
While deliberate asexual representation in speculative fiction isn’t completely missing (and in fact fares somewhat better than discussions would suggest), as this essay has shown the numbers are still incredibly small (0.0007% of all books published and 0.43% of mainstream publishing!) The absolute total increases when small presses and indie books are taken into account, however, resulting in a variety of books for individual readers to choose from, provided they can find the books in the sheer volume of what is published every year. Currently, mainstream authors are likely to conflate asexuality with aromanticism and to rely on on-page descriptions of this orientation rather than outright stating it. All in all, mainstream publishing has a long way to go before it presents the asexual spectrum in all its varied glory.
Ahmed, Saladin. Throne of the Crescent Moon. London: Orion, 2012. Print.
Altbach, Philip G. (ed) and Edith S. (ed) Hoshino. International Book Publishing: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.
Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to Small, Angry Planet. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015. Ebook.
Chiavari, Lyssa. Fourth World. Snowy Wings Publishing, 2015. Print.
Kaczynski, Heather. Dare Mighty Things. New York: HarperTeen, 2017. Ebook.
Wright, Tristina. 27 Hours. Entangled: Teen, 2017. Ebook.
- To be fair, this may have been because Jankowski was rewriting the first book of The Shapeshifter Chronicles at the time and likely would not have wanted to focus on the original publication. I mention it here because Jankowski appears to be one of the first openly asexual authors writing and advocating for asexual characters in stories. Her series would be a good recommendation for fans of Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series looking for asexual and aromantic representation, especially the revised 2017 editions. ↩
- Aromisia means something like “hatred of aromanticism.” The -misia suffix has been presented as a more accurate alternative to the -phobia suffix, as various people who have phobias find the suffix harmful and ableist. ↩
- Word of God is the practice of an author stating something is canon outside of the actual narrative. Alyssa Wong’s tweet that You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay contains an asexual protagonist is an example of Word of God representation. ↩
- The inclusion of Laini Taylor’s trilogy is contentious as there appears to be only one reference to Liraz’ potential asexuality and, while it is an explicit use of the word ‘asexual’, the context in which it is used is ambiguous. ↩
- 27 Hours was pulled after allegations of abuse were made towards the author. It remains on this list due to its relevance to the topic. ↩
- Altbach, Philip G. (ed) and Edith S. (ed) Hoshino. International Book Publishing: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 1995. (p. 9) ↩
- On page representation is tricky to include as it is somewhat individual to the reader’s tastes. As such, I have stuck to representations that explicitly demonstrate the character’s asexuality in the text to such an extent that it is blatantly obvious to the reader. ↩
- In practice, this is not actually as obvious as it may sound. In my experience, it is quite common for authors to call a character asexual, but to write them as indistinguishable from allosexual or to describe a story with no romance as containing asexual representation without considering that asexuals have a rather different way of viewing and understanding the world to allosexuals. ↩
- For example, Merriam-Webster finally added an updated definition of “asexual” that is somewhat accurate in 2017. It makes no mention of the fact that “asexual” is also an umbrella term for an entire spectrum of sexualities. ↩
- Asexed: The term asexed appears to derive from the verb “to sex”, meaning “to determine the (biological) sex of an organism.” This implies that asexuality looks physically different from allosexuality. Due to its likely association with studying non-human organisms in particular, there is also an element of dehumanisation to the term Bear uses. Needless to say presenting a group of humans as, well, not human is bad. ↩
- In The Invisible Orientation, Julie Sondra Decker defines demiromantic as “refer(ing) to a person who sometimes develops romantic attraction toward someone after becoming familiar with and emotionally fond of that person. Though some say that’s how romance works for everyone, demiromantic people don’t get crushes on strangers or people they don’t know well—or they may describe it as never experiencing romantic attraction based on immediately apparent aspects of a person—and they may identify as demiromantic if it’s very rare that they find someone romantically attractive.” ↩
- Asexuality is, after all, not a monolith but a spectrum. No one book will give readers The One True Asexual Experience, but there are still differences in perception and experiences between asexuals and allosexuals that often make the representation that exist feel off in ways people are only now starting to discuss in detail. ↩
- Counting generously, the split between primary world fantasy and secondary world fantasy is roughly 50/50. However, many of the primary world fantasy stories associate their asexual character with a secondary world. Liraz from Daughter of Smoke and Bone comes from another world, Every Heart a Doorway’s Nancy comes from our world but feels strongly that her home world is the Halls of the Dead and her cameo appearance in Beneath the Sugar Sky is set within that secondary world. ↩
Kate NepveuFebruary 28, 2019 at 8:27 am
Thank you for this thorough article! I found it very useful.
I see that you’re including non-humans, so I’m going to suggest two that are pretty well-known from major publishing houses; the fact that they are well-known might mean that you had reasons for leaving them off, so if that’s the case, my apologies. I’ll try to describe them with appropriate caveats, as best I can identify as an allosexual.
1) Breq, the main character and first-person narrator of the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy), published by Orbit.
Though Breq started out as an AI with multiple bodies, through the present-day of the series she’s in a single human body; and one of the things the series is about is whether AIs are morally equivalent to humans (spoiler: yes). Breq does not self-identify as human; given the tightness of the first-person narration and the overall arc and themes of the story, I did not experience Breq as an othered character, though again, I recognize my limited perspective in this regard.
By the end of the series Breq is explicitly asexual but in a romantic relationship.
2) Murderbot, also the main character and first-person narrator of the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells (four novellas, starting with All Systems Red; a novel is forthcoming), published by Tor.com.
Murderbot is a construct, a sentient human-shaped being that’s been constructed with organic and inorganic parts; its name and pronoun are self-given. Murderbot also does not self-identify as human. As with the Imperial Radch trilogy, part of the overall story is the arbitrarily thin line dividing constructs from humans; and for the same reasons as the Imperial Radch trilogy, I did not experience Murderbot as an othered character.
Murderbot is explicitly asexual: “I don’t have any gender or sex-related parts (if a construct has those you’re a sexbot in a brothel, not a murderbot) so maybe that’s why I find sex scenes boring. Though I think that even if I did have sex-related parts I would find them boring.” To my recollection, it hasn’t commented on romantic feelings at all.
Thanks again for the great article!
Lynn O'ConnachtFebruary 28, 2019 at 10:40 am
Ooooooh, thank you, Kate! No apologies necessary at all! 😀 I left both of those series off simply because I didn’t know they contained ace rep when compiling the data. Both Orbit and Tor.com are part of the Big 5 publishers I was looking at, so if I’d known about them beforehand I absolutely would have included them. I’ve read the Imperial Radch books, but clearly did not pick up on reading Breq as ace-coded at the time. All the more reason to reread it! 😀 I suspected Murderbot may have been ace-coded, but I couldn’t really find anything until you quoted bits of it just now. 🙁 Now I’m really curious to see how the stories handle it in detail, though, because “robot = ace/aro” is definitely a premise that isn’t always handled well.
Kate NepveuFebruary 28, 2019 at 12:22 pm
You want chapter 9 of the last Ancillary book. =>
Murderbot has as many feelings as Breq, which I’m guessing is the usual axis of failure!
Lynn O'ConnachtMarch 1, 2019 at 5:38 am
You want chapter 9 of the last Ancillary book.
Oooooooh, thank you! That’ll help me find it quickly, but it’s still a great reason to reread all the books afterwards anyway. 😀 *eyes TBR pile* Once I make a plan…
Murderbot has as many feelings as Breq, which I’m guessing is the usual axis of failure!
That’s definitely part of it, but it often ends up depending on the execution of the premise more than anything. Aces and aros get “You must be a robot if you don’t experience romantic/sexual attraction!” thrown at them in everyday life, so any premise that involves “The (only) ace/arocoded character is literally a robot” (or an alien or just associated with death) is going to be tricky to pull off well. I think the key to that is making the character’s love for others a central part of their story? All the books I’ve read that do it well have “This is a loving, caring individual” at their core and don’t posit that that love is somehow lesser because it’s not romantic/sexual (or the cause of everything that goes wrong) and the character needs to be kept apart from society as a whole.
If I recall, Imperial Radch presents Breq’s feelings that way. I expect to find similar in the Murderbot books, to be honest. Then it’s just a matter of whether the premise works for an individual because some people don’t want to read that as a premise no matter how well it’s pulled off, and that’s fine. It’s why having more books with representation and why acknowledging (more of) the books we already have is so important. It’ll help people find the representation that works for them. ^_^
Other books that do that really well (imo) are R.J. Anderson’s Quicksilver (it assigns all the usual ace stereotypes to the allosexual alien), RoAnna Sylver’s Chameleon Moon (Zilch’s love ties everyone together; they’re also explicitly written to smash the “aces are dead because they can’t love” stereotype) and M.C.A. Hogarth’s The Dreamhealers Saga (Vasiht’h spends the first two books struggling with the way society’s told him he can’t experience feelings or relate to other people because he can’t experience romantic/sexual feelings even though he’s literally the most compassionate and caring person in the series). I’m sure I’ll find more as time goes on too. ^_^
Lynn O'ConnachtMarch 1, 2019 at 5:40 am
Oops. I broke the comment box… (I’m sorry!)
Vicki RosenzweigMarch 1, 2019 at 7:18 am
I think Sulien, the protagonist (and first-person narrator) of Jo Walton’s _The King’s Peace_ and _The King’s Name_, is both asexual and aromantic. She has strong emotional connections to her family (parents, sister, son) and some of her comrades-in-arms, but I read those as the love of friends, not anything romantic. After reading the first book there, a friend of mine was sure that she would turn out to fall in love in the sequel, but that wasn’t because of anything in the text, but because that’s so much the standard narrative arc, of published fiction and how most people talk about real life.
Sulien lives to a very ripe old age (that’s not spoiler, it’s in the first couple of pages of her narrative).
(I’m not anywhere on the ace spectrum, and haven’t reread those books in several years.)
Kate NepveuMarch 1, 2019 at 7:51 am
Sulien is Word of God asexual and aromantic (and her books were published in 2000 and 2001 by Tor). In-text it wasn’t clear to me whether that was her orientation or it was the result of sexual assault.
I’m reminded by Sonya Taaffe elsewhere that a major character in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, Shuos Mikodez, is in-text asexual (though not celibate): “sex didn’t interest Mikodez” (Raven Strategem, Chapter 11). These are published by Solaris, so not big five, but they got a lot of notice (award nominations, etc.); I view them as mainsteam genre but not mainstream publishing.
My experience of Murderbot and Mikodez is that they have lots of in-text caring bonds and no-one really cares about or comments on their sexual or romantic orientations; I don’t think the text judges Sulien but I can’t recall if any characters comment on it, because it’s been ages since I read them.
Finally, maybe ask the site admins to close that tag for you?
LexiMarch 1, 2019 at 4:26 pm
As an ace reader here, I suggest Murderbot just because they are amazing. Much of the plot is Murderbot learning to care but also have agency. However, some may not appreciate that Murderbot is not fully human (nor fully robot though) and the only explicitly ace-coded character that I can think of. Though, also the only point of view character.
Lynn O'ConnachtMarch 4, 2019 at 4:29 am
It’s very subtle, but I think the portrayal of Sulien’s orientations leans towards her always having felt that way. Mind you, I also think it doesn’t really matter because Sulien is very obviously happy with herself the way she is. Even if her orientations are the result of trauma, they’re still presented as a positive and sympathetic aspects of who she is, not something in need of fixing. Sulien is never portrayed as broken because she doesn’t want sex or romance. (One day I will turn the review I did of these books into a proper essay arguing it.) The text *does* have some people ribbing her for not sleeping with anyone, but it’s presented in much the same way (imo) as the ribbing other presumably allosexual characters are. Mostly the characters comment on her close friendship with Urdo because they’re an m/f friendship pairing, but even that’s generally not portrayed as overtly negative.
[nods] If I’d read them before 2019, I would definitely have included the Machineries of Empire books for Mikodez. They’re definitely mainstream SFF, if not mainstream publishing. They’d have been counted among the secondary set of notable non-mainstream titles at the very least.
I’m so happy Murderbot seems to have resonated so strongly with you, Lexi! ^_^ Murderbot sounds like it’s definitely got some tropes that won’t work for everyone, but I hope that won’t stop aces who think the premise of the books sounds right up their alley. They’ll probably enjoy the books a lot.
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