Our local sci-fi book club recently discussed Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam. Originally a webcomic, it was published in book form in 2018. This is an interesting graphic novel, both visually—a very spare palette is artfully used—and in terms of content. In 2017 it was nominated for an Eisner award for Best Digital Comic. Well worth perusing, a free version of the work is available here: ON A SUNBEAM
On a Sunbeam is described as a “lesbian space opera”, though themes of family and friendship are emphasized over sexual orientation. Elements of science fiction imagery serve chiefly as a backdrop to what is essentially a coming of age tale about Mia, the principle character, as she navigates various relationships at an interstellar boarding school, and later on as a “vo-tech” student assisting with the repair of crumbling buildings in space.
There are no male characters in Walden’s story, save for a cat named “Paul”. All of the characters have two parents, though both are mothers, and there is no backstory explaining the absence of males, or how the humans that populate this world sustain their numbers. But these factors may be irrelevant to the overall focus. Walden writes that her initial goal was “to create a version of outer space that I would want to live in. So of course that includes tons of queer people, no men (did you notice?), trees, old buildings, and endless constellations.” Why not?
On a Sunbeam received mixed reviews in our book group. An older member felt that its interjection of queer ideology, while not objectionable in itself, was awkward and didn’t serve the narrative. Two of our members, experts on graphic novels, were intrigued with the gorgeous artwork, (heavily influenced by Manga), and her effective use of a minimalist color palette. One member, a strong advocate of civil rights, appreciated the book very much and could relate personally to its depictions of “found families”.
As a traditional, cis-gendered male Boomer, I found the text challenging but also intriguing—an experiment in manipulating typical expectations about male and female character traits in a science fiction story. I tended to agree with the general criticisms of my fellow group members. There was little backstory to help readers understand the unique world depicted in the novel, the romantic elements seemed superficial and predictable, and the use of various science fiction tropes appeared nonsensical at times. Despite my bias, I was still impressed with the author’s cleverness and creative playing with gender assignment.
My admittedly amateur approach to literary criticism often involves looking for examples of inconsistencies or incongruences, not central to the story, which nevertheless stand out as interesting, to me at least. ‘Which of these is not like the other?’ What is absent, that should be there? On a Sunbeam focuses on relationships among the characters, both familial and romantic. There are conflicts, but almost no violence, and conflicts are eventually resolved, with relationships showing healing and growth among the female characters, perhaps in keeping with the author’s ideology and optimism.
And yet, there is a solitary “nonbinary” character named Elliott, who never speaks until the very end of the story. Elliott, though singular, is referred to as “they”, in keeping with a convention advocated by progressives.1 How is it that there is a “nonbinary” in a world where female is the only gender? This adds an element of tension or ambivalence. So does the author’s use of character names like “Sydney”, “Jules” and others that can be assigned to males or females, further emphasizing gender fluidity and obscuring traditional, habitual assignment of gender.
Elliott, or “they” is markedly different from the other characters in the story. “They” was drawn with a different skin complexion, is utterly mute throughout most of the story, is the most technically proficient of all the characters, and also, later on, the most skilled in hand to hand combat. “They” is the only character known to have killed one of the elder beings that inhabit the “Staircase”, an unusual region of the galaxy where Mia later goes to rescue her love from a disapproving family. (A hint of class warfare here.)
Near the end of the novel Elliot is hunted down by the citizens of the Staircase–“they” had earlier been sentenced to death for the murder of an elder being, considered an act of sacrilege. Elliott is mortally wounded with weapons that resemble arrows or spears, though the character recovers by the end of the book. The wounding of “they” is the only instance where weapons are actually used to inflict physical harm and death. Why is this in the story? The level of violence is a significant departure from the boarding school drama of much of the book.
It was hard for me not to refer to Elliott as ‘he’, as my brain has been programmed up till now to use markers like those above to assign such a character a masculine identity. Berger, Luckman1 and other sociologists would call this process “typification”, assigning fellow people to categories based on social consensus on a set of identifying traits. The novel made me wonder how primed are we as readers to assign gender, (or other categories) to characters based on some set of preordained markers, and how this can change over time.
Though there were no males in On a Sunbeam, masculinity of a kind is present, manifested in the sprinkling of male names and one very typical male taunt referring to genitalia that is uttered by a friend of Mia’s to encourage her—why is that in the story? It’s as if despite the author’s ideological focus, the violence and chaos of traditional masculinity still manages to creep in.
(Something similar happens in more conventional science fiction, when religious and even biblical sensibilities show up in the work of officially agnostic or atheist writers. For example, H.P. Lovecraft’s preoccupation with hilltop circles of stones and forbidden incantations seems imbued with the Old Testament horror of idolatry and foreign gods. It’s as if certain archetypes—aggressive masculinity, the motif of salvation, the heathen practices of “the other”—are impervious to the ideologies of authors, and so emerge no matter what.)
The absence of male characters in On a Sunbeam gave me as a male reader the opportunity to be mindful of how perceptions and expectations of gender influence the understanding of characters and their motivations. The author has taken a stab at this (literally) in her first science fiction graphic novel, creating a visually arresting, heartfelt narrative, freed of conventional expectations about masculinity and femininity. Ours is a society that is still being built, and like the frames of Walden’s graphic novel, is filled with incomplete landscapes and architecture still under construction.
1I don’t begrudge adults selecting the pronouns by which they prefer to be identified. The problem with “they” in this instance is that it is a plural pronoun assigned to a singular case, which causes grammatical confusion in subsequent discourse. In France they have recently introduced “iel”, though not without controversy. A combination of “il” (he) and “elle” (she), “iel” does the work of a singular, nonbinary pronoun. Could English speakers come up with something similar to resolve the plural/singular issue?
2The Social Construction of Reality (1966, 1989), by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman.