Dalí is a person of the changeling sex, living in a future world within the domain of the Sol Fed government. Dalí is an ambassador for Sol Fed.
A changeling is someone whose body is neither inherently female nor male but can be either of those, changing structurally according to need and circumstance. Changelings are empathic, picking up on the emotions of people around them, and tend to morph their bodies to match desires and expectations, although they can also shift their own shapes on a whim.
Changelings are a minority and a fairly recent phenomenon, and are targets of hate crimes in this future world. Many people condemn them as unnatural freaks. Dalí’s life has been upended by such violence: Dalí’s two spouses, Gresh and Rasida, were murdered, and Dalí is still ripped up by it, scarcely caring whether they lives or dies.
Yes, two spouses. Dalí is poly. Polyamorous marriages are common in this future world. But they don’t usually involve changelings and some folks are so creeped out by the idea of changelings marrying and consorting with normal folks that the prospect brings them to violence.
Dalí gets recruited to participate in undercover work to investigate these hate crimes. They ends up in jeopardy, a prisoner of a cosmic black market trader where, along with other captured changelings they is kept in a luxurious suite but faces the prospect of being sold as a sex slave.
Sharing those quarters are two other changelings, Dru and Kai. They have no idea that Dalí is working undercover and has allies who are working to spring them.
Holding the keys to their comfortable cage is Lord Rhix, he who rules this black-market domain. Rhix is the amoral vicious gangster feared by the traders and slaver and other denizens of the market, or so it initially seems, but when we get a closer look we discover a barbarian of principle, an evil lord whose stomach turns at some of the techniques of his predecessors. An enlightened hoodlum, he.
The person whose actions most directly got Dalí into this situation is Jon Batterson, son of the Sol Fed president and very much a spoiled powerful privileged wealthy villain, athletically powerful and arrogant. He is one of the bigoted haters and we learn pretty early that he’s immersed in the kidnapping and selling of changelings, a convenient way to rid the Sol Fed system of unnatural freaks while profiting economically from their disposal.
Jon Batterson has a battered wife, or, rather, ex-wife. Tella Sharp escaped him and coincidentally happens to be the provider of nursing care when Dalí is recovering from Batterson’s assault on her in the space statio corridors. Tella finds Dalí enticing and returns for some steamy aftercare in Dalí’s quarters.
DALÍ is a delightful gender fantasy. How totally fine, to be able to match one’s body to one’s gender of the moment, including a convenient neuter when you feel like it!
Yes, it does manage to echo the notion–held strongly by cisgender bigots and even loosely by some transgender folks (truscum)–that to properly be a given gender, you body must correspond. Being a changeling can be conceptualized as sex reassignment surgery on-the-fly, or, as Dalí’s parter Rasida’s journal article expressed it in the book, “A natural progression allowing transgenderism to correct itself”.
But there’s nothing in DALÍ that opposes ideas of gender variance that do not involve physical transitioning, and I just can’t bring myself to be curmudgeonly enough to resent or criticize the formulation: it’s just too damn deliciously cool. I don’t have physical dysphoria and despite identifying as a gendered feminine I have never rejected my physical maleness, but if I could have a body that could speak either physical language? Hell yes, that would be more fun than being able to fly like Superman!
DALÍ avoids the pestersome problem of pronouns by using first person. “I walked down the corridor” instead of he, she, they, or some other formulation doing so. There are third party attributions of Dalí’s gender–such as Brian, Jon Batterson’s little brother down in the Rosetta Labyrinth referring to Dalí as “she”–but because they are third party designations of gender, we, the readers, may dissent.
There is hotness in this book. DALÍ gives us a sensuous and often horny changeling. I appreciated some of the departures from chichés that surround sexual shapeshifting characters in fantasy and science fiction, especially Tella Sharp directly lusting after Dalí as theirself, as opposed to seeking either a male or a female, and the scenes with Rhix in which Dalí is betwixt and between sexual morphologies and is manifesting with external tingly parts. That’s seldom done: most tales featuring someone who can sexually shapeshift have the character bedding boys when shaped like a girl and doing girls when configured as a boy.
I was never very clear on the distinction the book attempts to make between “third gender” and “changeling”. There are people who are described as “third gender”; and then “changeling” is either a subset of that or else a new and different, yet similar, thing. Tella Sharp, while examining and treating Dalí, says
“I studied third-gender anatomy, of course, but each person’s genitalia varies according to their dominant sex.” Her fair complexion bloomed with rosy color as she discussed my genitals. “You don’t have one.”
Seems to me that either a “third gender” person in this universe has physical anatomy that corresponds permanently to their “dominant sex”, which differs from being cisgender only in the implication that they may also have a “non-dominant” sex (but we aren’t told what a “non-dominant sex” actually is or what it does for a living); or else being “third gender” means one’s physical anatomy is flexible and can change, in which case being “third” doesn’t differ in any readily discernable way from being a changeling. As an atypical genderqueer person myself, far be it from me to cast aside or look askance at anyone else’s gender identity just because I don’t understand why the heck we need this additional category, but as a configuration within a work of fiction that doesn’t explain it or utilize it more fully, I don’t think it adds anything to the story.
Dru and Kai, the other two changelings in the story, don’t change. Not because they can’t, it just doesn’t transpire that they ever do. Dru presents as female with a purseful of stereotypical femininity, while Kai is perennially male and manifests with textbook masculine traits throughout. I think it would have been more interesting to see Dalí interact with other changelings, but these are ersatz changelings, these two. They get gendered pronouns. Dru is all “she” and “her”, and Kai is totally a “he” and “him” person throughout. Only Aja, a changeling who doesn’t survive long enough to become conscious, is a “they”.
Jon Batterson is a bit of a cardboard cutout, a bit too much unrelieved portrayal as stupid and dense, evil and deceitful; there’s no individual and no allied group or contingent in the book which were ever in Batterson’s personal orbit that he doesn’t betray as soon as the opportunity presents.
The dynamic going on between Lord Rhis and Dalí is full-on neogothic: a brooding evil captor who turns out to be chock-full of ethical and moral concerns and is therefore worthy of the MC’s love, and the MC can get through his emotional armor and cause him to love her too. I do love a well-delivered gothic romance and I liked the departure from conventional gothic trajectory too: the absence of any full reconciliation after he discovers Dalí’s true identity as spy. Their departure scenes are more akin to heroic male opponents who express a grudging respect for their adversary. How appropriate! Well done.
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