Review: Ad Astra Per Aspera by Nino Cipri

The Cover of Transcendent 4, with a shirtless white person with short brown hair sitting and facing away, wrapped in white sheets at the hips. Behind their head is a halo of golden spikes just in front of a backlit image of trees. The text in the center in a combination of regular and pastel teal says, "TRANSCENDENT 4". The text at the bottom in dark and regular teal in a smaller font size says, "The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction" and "Edited by Bogi Takács"

Y’all already know I’m a big fan of the Transcendent anthologies series, but damn! The very first short story in Transcendent 4–“Ad Astra Per Aspera”–blew me away. In Nino Cipri’s short story, an unnamed main character loses their gender while on a long road trip. Cipri’s style is comedic and filled with great one-liners like, “You know, I bet my gender left me for someone else.” (pg. 8) But the hilarity of “Ad Astra Per Aspera” is not all there is to this very short story. Nino Cipri uses comedy to address how uncomfortable gender uncertainty can be in a society which values strict gender labels highly.

The main character of “Ad Astra Per Aspera” refers to gender as (among other things) a highly-valued item that can be “lost,” which makes for some great laughs, but also for deep introspection. Cipri uses phrases like “lost my gender” and “haven’t seen my gender in a while” and “picked up my gender the way someone picked up my bag,” (7) but also ones that indicate some sentience on the part of their gender. Things like “I bet my gender left me for someone else” (8) and “Did my gender leave me for her?” (9) or one bit from a hypothetical lost sign referring to it as “hostile when cornered.” (8) In a lot of ways, this kind of fantastical paralleling between the social construct of gender and the tangible world made me chuckle, but it also resonated with me. Once you get to a point where you recognize that gender was something created by humans and isn’t universal, it’s hard to feel certain about or securely connected to one’s own gender. It’s easy to have thoughts of, “If this whole gender thing was made up, then what’s the point in feeling attached to it or keeping all of these little things that I was taught from childhood were the ‘right’ thing to do for a boy or a girl?” This short little story wasn’t just a passing amusement, I realized as the words settled in–it was far deeper than I initially thought, reading that first line of, “I’m pretty sure I lost my gender in Kansas.” (7)

I think the reason I realized this wasn’t just a happy-go-lucky story was when I saw how Cipri uses placeholder sections set off by parentheses. It starts off with a Wizard of Oz joke, but then it quickly ramps up to assuming the person the narrator is speaking to (perhaps the reader!) will use that space for judgment or disgust. I say that it may not be directed at the reader because it’s clear from harsh references to millennials that this is a very specific demographic that isn’t necessarily applicable to all readers. But then there are also moments where the placeholders give space for the person the narrator is addressing to “wonder how you carry your own gender” (8). It reminds me of how I have seen people around me rethink their own relationship to their genders because of knowing me; of the very nature of public queerness being one of impact and change.

So: Would I recommend this short story to you? Yes–a thousand times over. It’s introspective while still being fun and engaging. It encourages the reader to re-examine some of their instinctual reactions and biases, and to consider their own relationship to their gender–whether they’re trans or not. Trans readers will have a good time laughing at how relatable Cipri’s language is (much of this–for the cis people reading this–reminds me of some very funny gender-related memes) while also feeling the base-y reverberations that come from its subtlety. Cis readers may feel a bit lost at times, but Cipri’s use of language will pull them in and cause them to ponder themselves in a new light. For me, this was a great start to my 2020 short story readings, and I’m looking forward to what’s still in store.

Ad Astra Per Aspera by Nino Cipri in Transcendent 4 edited by Bogi Takács

Publisher: Lethe Press

Paperback: $17.5

Number of Pages: 7-10 of 261

ISBN: 978-1590216767

Content Warnings: Gender judgment, gender uncertainty

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