‘Valid’ takes on the surprisingly rich postapocalyptic transfeminine genre

REVIEW: Chris Bergeron’s dystopian new autofiction novel delivers mixed results

Once a little-known genre mostly consigned to the shelves of really geeky sci-fi, postapocalyptic fiction is now as mainstream as it gets. This genre began emerging in the early 2000s, with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road marking a watershed moment—stories about the end of the world could be literary enough to satisfy the snobs, as well as popular enough to be an Oprah Book Club pick. Since then there has been a steady stream of master works, including books such as Emily St. John Mandell’s Station Eleven, Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy.

Queer authors have also gotten in on the fun, with trans women in particular writing some of the standout pieces. Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt is unhinged in all the best ways, with trans women harvesting estrogen from men made crazy by their own testosterone, and TERFs instituting a nightmare regime. Torrey Peters’s novella Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones imagines a future where two trans women concoct a virus with the potential to make everyone trans. And Charlie Jane Anders’s novels All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night imagine vibrant doomsday worlds where queer themes are present, but more subtly woven into the fabric of the story.

All this brings me to Valid, the first novel by Montreal-based trans author Chris Bergeron. The book takes place in 2050, when humanity is struggling to survive in the wake of a climate change-driven apocalypse. Unwisely, humanity chooses to give control of the world government to an artificial intelligence known as David—created initially to be a next-generation travel-marketing program, David uses this as an opportunity to learn about the vastness of the human world, as a prelude to taking it over. David comes to assume total control of virtually all aspects of people’s lives, dictating that anything deviating from the goal of absolute efficiency be erased. The ranks of the erased include not only most of the art and literature ever created, but also queer people.

The question at the heart of Valid is thus: is the touching story of one trans woman’s life enough to overcome the heartlessness of an AI engineered to be inhumanely logical? Bergeron sets this up quickly, as the septuagenarian trans woman narrator, Christian/Christelle, disables David’s defences and proceeds to speak her truth to him in an hours-long all-nighter. The book proceeds along these two separate but interlinked tracks: the story of Christelle’s emergence and life as a trans woman, and her battle with David for the fate of humanity.

Declaring itself “dystopian autofiction,” Valid is based on the author’s life as a trans woman, and in telling Christelle’s story it hits all the spots one would expect of a trans woman born in the 1970s. There’s the childhood of trying to fit in as a boy but knowing something is very far from right (“I’ve often been asked at what age I understood that I was different. The answer is I’ve always known”). There’s adolescence and young adulthood filled with envy of the young women who seem to be blossoming everywhere around you (“I was also envious of the girls. Being a girl looked so much easier. They were like us, the boys, but better”). There’s the ever-so-slow cracking of the egg in young adulthood (“My first therapist tried to reassure me. She urged me not to succumb to self-destructive shame. After all, I wasn’t hurting anyone.”). And there’s the difficult-but-inevitable decision to transition in one’s late 30s. (“I had 40 years of sisterhood to make up for.”)

 

Along the postapocalyptic track, Christelle tells the story of how humanity reached the point of rule-by-AI. She describes the secret police that David uses to keep his citizens in line, the climate disasters that originally made the world’s elites believe that our salvation lay in a supercomputer master, all of the joyful things that David has decided aren’t necessary to human life. Christelle also makes occasional mention of a shadowy group known as the 5 percent—an allusion to the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans identification has typically hovered somewhere around 1/20th of the population. This group, it seems, is doing its best to hold out against David’s implacable regime.

Over the past two decades, as LGBTQ2S+ people have made unprecedented strides into the mainstream world; we have also shown ourselves to be incredible storytellers, crafting some of the best books that our community has ever imagined. Gone are the days when queer themes might be smothered beneath suffocating layers of metaphors and allusions, or when queer lit would be didactic preaching-to-the-straights explainers of queer life. Rather, we have come to speak for ourselves in our own idiosyncratic voices, showing the world the potent things that our minds can imagine.

As this has happened, the ante has been upped for quality in queer fiction—it no longer does to simply walk through the basics of what it is to be one of us. This is where I see Valid as falling short. While it does an able job of telling the prototypical life of a trans woman, it doesn’t go beyond that to make something memorable or that stands out. When I think of the best books written by trans authors, I think of works that have proven so visionary as to make me see myself in a new light. They speak of things that I have always known about myself, but do so in a way that makes my sense of my own transness feel so much larger and more complicated. Unfortunately, Bergeron’s writing about trans themes often feels more aspirational than visionary, as in this section, where Christelle comes out to David and falls back onto long-worn clichés of trans people:

So here it goes: I’m trans.

As in transgression. I’ve broken the genders, I’ve evaded the codes …

I’m trans.

As in transmutation.

My life is alchemy. I’ve turned lead into gold …

As in transported by love. I’ve known all the fervours. Those of women, those of men, and those in between who chose to leave the binary’s ball.

I’m trans.

As to Valid’s postapocalyptic storyline, this also feels well crafted, but ultimately not as imaginative as it might be. Writers like Felker-Martin, Peters and Anders have all created books that are compelling in their imaginative intensity. Valid does not feel virtuosic like this.

That said, Valid is a compelling, fun read, and I think it would ultimately be best suited to newcomers to either LGBTQ2S+ or postapocalyptic literature. It might be a great gift for helping a parent better understand their trans daughter, or maybe for a trans woman herself who is still in the early phases of coming out and self-acceptance. It might also do well with younger readers, especially queer and trans ones, who might be intrigued by a compellingly written work of sci-fi with a queer protagonist.

I am glad that Bergerson got the chance to tell her story, and to do so in a way that I imagine felt powerful and validating to herself (pun slightly intended). I am glad to have acquainted myself with her voice, and I hope that she continues to write and tell queer stories. Queer self-creation is always a special thing to behold, and in reading Valid it was interesting to see the form that Bergerson transmuted her story into.

Veronica Esposito (she/her) is a writer and therapist based in Oakland, CA. She reports regularly for The Guardian and KQED, the NPR member station for Northern California, and has written for dozens of magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. She speaks English and some Spanish.

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Culture, Books, Review, Trans

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