Saturday, April 10, 2010

Aces in Fiction: Animythical Tales

This is an exciting post, but first, a little background: Last year, I wrote about "unnamed" asexuals in fiction. The basic idea was that "... it's still realistic for an asexual person to have never met another ace, and to not know that there is a word describing their sexuality that is in use for other people. If writers want to be realistic, the unnamed asexual is much closer to the truth than the 'out' asexual." However, that's not always an easy description to write. I didn't expect to get an e-mail from a reader saying, "I wrote a book like that, and it just got published"! Would I want to read it? Uh, hells yeah!

Animythical Tales is the book, which is a collection of 10 short stories in the fantasy or speculative fiction genre. Its writer, Sarah Totton, who is ace, told me that "...most (but not all) of [the stories] deal with asexual characters or themes. I'm thinking that other asexuals would 'get' what I was talking about when I wrote those stories in ways that a sexual reader might not..." I actually don't think I've ever read a short story in fantasy before, and I was impressed by the amount of invention that had to be condensed into a few pages.

So speculative fiction I am far from familiar with, but asexual characters...yeah, I'm a nerd. There were two stories that had obviously asexual characters, Henry in "Bluecoat Jack" and Bellan in "The Bone Fisher's Apprentice". How is this described, you may ask? In the latter story, the Bone Fisher is able to glance into Bellan's dreams and see that "there was simply no desire of that type for men or women in this man at all. And yet he was neither innocent nor damaged (93)." I liked the Bone Fisher's response to this "unusual" man: "He did not understand Bellan, but he was intrigued enough to let him sleep, at least another night, perhaps longer, so that he could study him". Henry seemed more distressed about his asexuality: "You don't know what you are. If it even has a name" (55), he says, after recounting his frustrating experiences with both women and men. Usually, real-life asexuals tend to shout about how passionately we nonsexually love things, just so people don't get the wrong idea. These characters are a lot more enigmatic than that.

Up until now, I've read a few vaguely asexy novels-- what asexual hasn't? But now that I have 10 self-contained, ostensibly asexual stories in my hands, I notice patterns emerging. I'd had no idea how much, as a reader, I'd relied upon, and expected, sex and sexualized romance to move a story along. The first time I ever noticed this was while watching the HBO series "In Treatment". It was very slow and plotless at times (yeah, yeah, my kinda thing), so when I saw that two characters had a growing attraction to each other, I was practically yelling at the screen, "Just hook up already!".

Because as we've explored, sex and romance serve as shorthands. No matter how random a story is, sex acts as an anchor of sorts and makes you think something meaningful is occurring. Whoever made "In Treatment" knew that holding off on what we expected to see would keep us interested (okay, that and Gabriel Byrne's voice). Animythical Tales is similarly challenging. The characters don't act how you might expect them to, which I think is a good thing. Without some of the typical signposts, I never quite knew where the stories were headed, so I wanted to keep reading to find out.


Ally said...

Whenever I write screenplays or stories, there's some kind of romantic subplot. And I kick myself for it. I very rarely write asexual characters, just like for a long time I didn't write about disabled characters. Part of it is that lingering fear of Mary-Sue, obviously, because asexuality is so 'rare' that people are going to see that and go, "OMG IT'S YOU!" which I don't want. But part of it is that even as an aromantic asexual, I know that sexual tension and romance moves the story, that for a vast part of the population, even in the most unrealistic setting, we EXPECT to see that. Sexuals expect that even if that's the ONLY part of the story that is understood, it is universally understood. Which would mean we're not part of the universe, since I find myself rolling my eyes at lots of 'obvious' pairings in movies, TV, and sometimes books I read. Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about why I'm more comfortable writing disabled characters and I haven't found that comfort writing asexuals yet, and this post is helpful, thanks.

Fellmama said...

That sounds like a very interesting book. I read a lot of fantasy; I wonder how it compares to typical genre works, which are usually full of romance, if not of sex.

Ily said...

Ally, I hear you. For some reason, I'm imagining people annoyingly chanting "MARY SUE!" and that's just frightening. People did love Sherlock Holmes, who was pretty much an aromantic asexual, although as far as I know, there were romantic subplots involving other characters. I think people really were reading for Holmes, though. Maybe those books would have more sex and romance if they were written now, I don't know. We need more good disabled characters, that's for sure, too.

Also, it can be hard to tell if someone's asexual until they react to a sexual situation. I think "On Chesil Beach" is a great example of this.

Yeah, the only fantasy novels I can remember reading are "The Hobbit" and "The Sword of Shannara" and I don't think those books even had any women, let alone romance. I read a lot, but there are still lots of genres I've yet to really delve into...

Jicca said...

Good post. I'm not a fantasy fan and I'm extremely picky when it comes to short stories so I may have a look at it.
Sometimes authors make characters asexual without realising - I always thought Frank from Wasp Factory was/is asexual - so it's nice to see a writer do it on purpose without the word 'asexual'.
Very rarely are stories without some form of romance plot. I can only recall one film completely without romance (much like The Hobbit lacked a female character).

Anonymous said...


I randomly came across a thread (it might have been posted awhile ago!), where I saw that you have your hands on an article entitled "Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two Invisible Groups" by Myra T. Johnson. On the page you offered to scan it, and I was wondering if you could send it to me? I have searched around and cannot find it anywhere. I am writing a research proposal and would love to use it as a resource.

Thank you! Your blog is well-written and so interesting, I look forward to reading it further.

My e-mail is

Anonymous said...


I was searching through Google and completely by chance came across a thread - it may have been posted quite awhile ago! You mention that you have your hands on a copy of Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two Invisible Groups by Myra T. Johnson. You offered to scan it, and I was wondering if there was anyway you could send it to me? I am drafting a research proposal and would love to use it as a resource.

Your blog is very well-written and interesting, I look forward to reading it further.

Thank you!

My email is

Ily said...

Sending you those scans now-- and thanks! :-)

Jicca, you're not going to share the title? ;-) I recently saw a movie with no romance (but a bit of bromance) called "The Damned United". I actually thought it was the best movie I'd seen in recent memory, even though I know absolutely nothing about its topic. It might have even been better that I didn't, because I couldn't say whether it was realistic or not.