Queer SFF Spotlight: 4 books with agender protagonists (human ones!)

Queer SFF Spotlight: 4 books with agender protagonists

In celebration of Agender Pride Day (19 May), I would like to spotlight four brilliant SFF novels and novellas with agender protagonists. (Not sure what agender means?)

A large proportion of agender characters in science fiction and fantasy are robots/AIs, aliens or supernatural beings, which—brilliant though many of them are—I wouldn’t exactly call representation. And out of all the SFF books I’ve read with non-binarby characters, I couldn’t think of any that specified that those characters were agender. So I set out to find some agender humans in SFF, and I set myself the challenge of finding books where they take centre stage as the protagonists.

It took a little bit of digging (and one case of complete serendipity), but it was so worth it. The four books below are absolute gems that I would highly recommend to all fans of queer SFF, whether you’re actively seeking out agender rep or not. And, as a bonus, all four of them happen to be uplifting, feel-good stories that I’m sure we can all appreciate right now. So, without further ado, here they are!

Werecockroach by Polenth Blake

Werecockroach is a weird and wonderful novella featuring an unusual alien invasion of London and humans who can shape-shift into cockroaches.

Rin (they/them) narrates the story with a delightfully dry wit. The fact that they are agender is mentioned in passing, and it’s great to see a book that doesn’t shy away from using labels to confirm representation.

[Pete]’d struck me as a little jumpy when I came for the interview. Sanjay had done most of the talking and was more concerned about whether I smoked. Pete’s only contribution had been to ask whether I thought Wi-Fi was the government spying on our brains. Still, cheap flats were hard to find. They’d also been cool when they realised I was agender. I could cope with a few secret government plots in exchange.

Rin is also asexual and aromantic, and there’s a vast array of other representation in the book, too, including other queer and trans characters, characters of colour, and neurodivergent and disabled characters (including Rin themself).

The supporting characters are characterised deftly, their personalities crystal clear without them feeling one-dimensional. I loved the found family theme, which unfolds as a gentle backdrop to the mystery and surprises of the plot. And, since I don’t want to get into any spoilers, let me just say that the plot is innovative and hugely entertaining!

Full of humour, imagination and charm, Werecockroach is a genuinely delightful read.


The Left Hand of Dog by Si Clarke

The Left Hand of Dog is a wildly inventive and hilarious novella, in which Lem (she/her) and her adorable dog Spock get abducted by bunny-like alien bounty hunters and have to team up with an assortment of other alien abductees to find their way home.

Lem is open about her experiences of being agender, including the difficulties she’s faced from other people. At one point, she has a heartfelt (but also very funny) conversation with one of her new alien friends about human genders and pronouns, and I love that the book made the space to explore—and poke gentle fun at—these things.

Bexley leant in close and sniffed at my face. I sneezed a few more times as she said, ‘I don’t think Lem is functioning properly. Something seems to have gone wrong with her breathing.’

It’s funny but – even as the edges of the room began to dim and blur – all I could think was how grateful I was that she got my pronouns right. Most people didn’t – or at least they struggled to understand why an agender person who’d been assigned male at birth would use she and her.

In terms of other representation: it’s mentioned that Lem is asexual, and I thought the book did a fantastic job with its prominent representation of Lem’s chronic illness/invisible disability.

The Left Hand of Dog had me grinning from ear to ear the whole way through and frequently made me laugh out loud. The story didn’t shy away from absurdity, but I found the humour itself to be heartfelt and kind-spirited—just my cup of tea.

Spotting the references to SFF pop culture rewarded me with little bursts of serotonin every time, and they were so smoothly woven in that I didn’t even notice the ones that I missed (and I’m sure there were a few!).

The Left Hand of Dog is such a fun, joyful and irreverent read. If you’re looking for something to brighten your week, this will do the trick!


The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta

The Heartbreak Bakery is a heartfelt and cosy YA contemporary fantasy novel. Syd (no pronouns) works at a queer bakery in Austin, Texas. Syd copes with a break-up by making a special batch of brownies, but it soon becomes clear that the cakes are causing a wave of spontaneous break-ups across Austin’s LGBTQIA+ community…

This novel grapples with questions of identity much more than the other books on this list. Syd is agender, and knows this from the start, but there’s still a lot to figure out and become confident with. It’s fantastic to know that a book like this is out there for readers who are exploring their own identities.

“I don’t feel like any pronouns fit,” I say, so low the words are nearly invisible. “Or any of them fits more than the others. And when I think about all the people whose lives are changed by the right words, people who have to fight for them every day, I feel like I should apologize because my pronouns are No, thanks.

As for other representation: Syd is bisexual, and Syd’s love interest Harley is transmasculine, demisexual, and switches between he and they pronouns. Almost all of the supporting characters are queer and/or trans, there are characters of colour, and there’s also some Deaf rep.

Warning: don’t read this book when you’re hungry! Every page is infused with mouth-watering descriptions of baked goods—and even when there are no cakes on the page, the narration is packed with delicious baking metaphors. Plus, between each chapter, there are actual recipes(!) and fun recipe-style interludes that match what’s going on in the story.

The Heartbreak Bakery isn’t all smooth sailing for its characters, but it feels like such a treat to read. The supportive queer community and the healthy dash of magic make this a very wholesome and sweet novel.


A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a gentle and contemplative solarpunk novella. It follows a tea monk who heads out into the wilderness and becomes the first human in centuries to encounter a robot.

The book doesn’t use the label ‘agender’, but while talking to the robot Mosscap, the main character Dex (they/them) specifies that they don’t have a gender.

“We name ourselves for the first thing we notice when we wake up. In my case, the first thing I noticed was a large clump of splendid speckled mosscaps.”

This raised far more questions than it answered, but Dex let them lie, for now. “Okay. Mosscap. I’m Dex. Do you have a gender?”

“No.”

“Me neither.”

If you’ve read any of Becky Chambers’ books before, you’ll know what to expect from this one: heart-to-heart conversations, quiet ponderings, and a slice-of-life feel. This novella has possibly the lowest stakes out of all her works, and this, along with the luscious prose, gives the story a very peaceful atmosphere.

If you’re looking for an introspective and comforting book, A Psalm for the Wild-Built will not disappoint!


Outro

Thank you very much for reading this post! I hope you enjoyed it and have added a book or two to your TBR.

If you know of any other SFF books with agender protagonists, I’d love to check them out! Please leave a comment down below or tweet at me @JakeCNicholls (link opens in a new tab).

This is the first in what will be a regular series of Queer SFF Spotlight posts. If you’d like to stay up to date with them, plus posts about writing craft and querying agents (among other things), consider signing up for my newsletter below to stay in the loop!


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Resources and further reading

What does agender mean?

If someone describes themself as agender, it usually means that they are genderless (they don’t identify with any gender) or that they have a neutral gender. Being agender is widely considered to exist under the non-binary umbrella, though not all agender people will identify as non-binary—and likewise may or may not consider themselves to be trans. As with all gender identities, agender people can have any gender expression and use any pronouns, or none. (Back to top.)

For a more detailed overview of agender identities, take a look at the agender entry in the LGBTQIA+ Wiki (link opens in a new tab).

Non-binary representation in SFF

‘Non-binary and not represented’ by Morgan Dambergs (link opens in a new tab) is an interesting article from 2014 about the lack of agender (and more widely non-binary) representation in SFF.

We’ve come a long way since 2014 and thankfully have a lot more trans and non-binary representation in SFF now, but there’s definitely still a lot of room to grow!

Queer SFF Book Database

Thanks to the brilliant Queer Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Database (link opens in a new tab) for pointing me towards Werecockroach and The Heartbreak Bakery. I’m glad to be able to add the others I found to the database! It’s a fantastic resource for all queer SFF fans.

What aspects of a manuscript does a developmental edit look at?

What aspects of a manuscript does a developmental edit look at?

A close-up of typewriter keys.
Image by Free-Photos, via Pixabay.

When I look at your manuscript during a developmental edit, I’ll give you guidance on two intertwining and interrelated levels.

Storytelling

First up, we have what I call the storytelling elements—the big-picture pieces that make up the overall story and character arcs. These are the aspects that I tend to focus on during a manuscript evaluation, which looks at your work with broader brush strokes than a full edit.

  • Overall pacing: does the plot progress at a pace which keeps the readers engaged?
  • Plot structure: does the plot unfold in a way that creates suspense?
  • Plot threads: do the subplots tie in with the central plot effectively?
  • Payoff: does the ending satisfy the reader’s expectations?
  • Point of view: is the story written from the most effective point(s) of view?
  • Narrative style: is the ‘voice’ of the narration consistent? Does the chosen style serve the story well?
  • Character arcs: do the characters grow and change throughout the novel?
  • Characterisation: do the characters feel ‘real’? Are their motivations and decisions clear and understandable to the reader throughout?
  • Conflict: do characters’ motivations and desires clash to create compelling conflict?
  • Stakes: are there personal stakes for the characters? Does the reader care about their struggles?
  • Worldbuilding: is the overall setting portrayed vividly? Does the in-world logic withstand scrutiny?

Writing Craft

In full rounds of developmental edits, I’ll also dive into the more technical level of on-the-page writing craft. These elements often overlap with the above storytelling elements and have a big impact on the reader’s overall experience of your novel.

  • Point of view: are the narrative boundaries maintained—e.g. are there any instances where information is given to the reader that the narrator couldn’t know? Is the perspective immersive for the reader?
  • Characterisation: is each character distinct in the way they behave and talk? Are emotions portrayed effectively?
  • Dialogue: does dialogue flow naturally? Are dialogue tags used appropriately?
  • Scene pacing: does each scene contain sufficient tension and plot/character progression to keep the reader engaged? Is there a good balance of description and action?
  • Setting: is there a strong sense of setting at the scene level?
  • Conveying information: does the narration use ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ appropriately and effectively? Are readers allowed to infer information rather than it being spelled out for them?


Note:

This list is intended to give an idea of the sort of elements I usually cover in my developmental edits. By no means are all of these criteria relevant to all stories.

I consider all aspects of storytelling and writing craft on a case-by-case basis, taking into account your creative vision. I am continually learning about different storytelling conventions and writing craft traditions (and subversions), particularly those that are systemically dismissed by and excluded from the Western publishing industry.


If you have any questions about the process of developmental editing, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


A quick guide to different types of editing

A quick guide to different types of editing

Pencil propped up on pencil sharpener and surrounded by shavings.
Image by Free-Photos, via Pixabay.

Editing is a nebulous word that covers a whole host of meanings. If someone says that they have sent their book off to an editor, they could mean anything from submitting their work in the hope of getting it published to getting typos fixed. This can understandably make it tricky to navigate the world of editors if you’re thinking of hiring one!

Here is a brief overview of some of the more common categories of editing:

  • Developmental editing looks at the ‘big picture’ of your novel as a whole and focuses on storytelling elements such as character, plot and worldbuilding, and writing craft elements such as dialogue and point of view. Going through development will likely involve some significant changes and rewriting, so a developmental editor would normally be the first type of editor that you work with. This is the type of editing that I offer at Future Worlds Editing.
  • Line editing focuses on strengthening your prose at the sentence and paragraph level. A line editor will bring out the style and the ‘voice’ of your work. This type of editing usually comes after the developmental stage and before (or combined with) the copyediting stage.
  • Copyediting is all about clarity, consistency and continuity. A copyeditor will ensure that your prose conforms to industry standards and that your characters’ hair doesn’t suddenly change colour from one chapter to the next. If you’re interested in hiring a copyeditor, you should only do so once you’re completely happy with the content of your manuscript—otherwise their work, and your money, will go to waste if you do any rewriting afterwards.
  • Proofreading is a final check for typos before the book goes to print. Proofreading is not strictly a type of editing, but proofreaders and copyeditors are often lumped together, which can cause some confusion. To be clear: you should not hire a proofreader if you haven’t first had your manuscript copyedited—they are a last line of defence against errors.

It’s important to note that even among editors, terms can be hazy and mean slightly different things. A good editor won’t just label it and leave you to wonder; they’ll explain exactly what it is they do (and don’t do). If in doubt, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask.