At the outset of the science fiction novel Astropolis: Saturn Returns, set in the far future, the main character, a mercenary named Imre, is having a peculiar day: he awakens to realize not only that he's a partial-amnesiac, but he's been resurrected in the body of a woman. Imre (who retains the masculine pronoun throughout the book) then struggles to find out who killed him and why. A finalist for this year's prestigious Philip K. Dick award and written by best-selling Australian author Sean Williams, the novel poses questions of sexuality and gender that only a futurist could devise. Changing gender in this world is no longer a political statement or a declaration of identity, explains Williams. Imre's former companions -- including a lover -- treat him no differently.
What exactly possesses a straight -- and married -- author to explore such a character? Williams cites everything from gothic lit to the music of technopop maestro Gary Numan, but ultimately admits to finding Imre's gender-bending voice within: As with most of my characters, Imre has my voice. He shares many of my anxieties and curiosities about gender and sex. He comes from a place in me that rarely gets to show itself. He points to an early scene in the book, where Imre takes his new bod for a test drive and masturbates. To me, that seemed an obvious move and it's one I discovered that most of my male friends would also try, jokes Williams. I grew up in the '80s, in the era of bad gender-swap movies, and it was an immense relief to explore an issue that I had always wondered about as a teenager.
Ultimately, the author admits that in trying to be non-political, he's potentially being anything but, and prays he's not trivializing anyone's situation. I hope I've added something new to the debate, in a small way, he says, that a future might exist in which we're liberated from present-day anxieties so people can be who they want to be, how they want to be, and will be judged for the former, not the latter. Indeed, that day can't come fast enough.