4,469 words of moar literary essayage, including quotes, end notes and works cited. I should probably stop calling them not-essays at some point.
Asexuality in R.J. Anderson’s Quicksilver
In 2013, shortly after I discovered asexuality, one book jumped out at me: Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson. Anderson spoke frequently and prominently about the asexual representation in the narrative during interviews and blog posts. At the time, though it stood out to me, I never picked it up because the first book, Ultraviolet, didn’t appeal to me at all and, in time, I forgot it existed.
Until recently when I decided to look more closely at asexual representation in traditionally published books. This brief essay will look at the way that Anderson included asexual representation in the narrative of Quicksilver and discuss the ways in which Anderson avoids or attempts to avoid certain common pitfalls when writers, especially those who are allosexual, include asexual representation.
First, a brief note: I highly, highly recommend readers interested in reading Quicksilver start with Ultraviolet. The narrative frequently alludes to events in Ultraviolet so it can be read as a standalone, but it takes about 3/4ths of the book before those events are truly clear to readers who haven’t read Ultraviolet.
The Narrative’s Treatment of Asexuality Overall
That note out of the way, one of the first things that struck me about the asexual representation in Quicksilver is that Tori (or Niki) is an alien. Literally. Throughout the narrative we see Tori struggling with this idea, though it is over the half-way point before Tori and the narrative confirm this is not simply the way Tori feels. Up to that point, she dances around the topic and dodges giving a clear answer. Conversely, it takes slightly less time for Tori to describe herself as asexual and she does not waver in describing herself this way. This matters because some of the ways that Anderson shows the reader that Tori is different from other teenagers are negative stereotypes that have been applied to asexuals. Before looking at this in more detail, however, it is a good idea to look at the broader picture of how Tori’s asexuality and Tori’s alienness are related.
As Tori is the only asexual character in the story, it is easy for readers to link her asexuality to the fact that she is an alien and thus erase the fact that this is a valid and normal sexual orientation for humans. On the surface, the fact that the only asexual character in the novel is literally an alien is dehumanising and Othering.
Presenting asexuals as literally aliens or coding aliens to read as asexual is part of a broader pattern in narratives and has been discussed by asexuals within their own communities for a number of years. Sciatrix from Writing From Factor X discusses this particular pattern briefly but explicitly in a blog post from 2010, saying that these tropes present to asexuals the following message: “You are, to us, unable to connect with us. You are without emotion, without love. You are, in short, inhuman.”
It is a discussion that Anderson must have come across in her research and one that Anderson has taken pains to address as much as possible within the constraints of the world-building done in Ultraviolet. While Tori is the only asexual character in the novel, she is not the only alien in the novel. Both a minor antagonist and a secondary character are also aliens. Mathis’s role as the flashback and off-screen villain is negligible in terms of his ability to counter the trope that asexuality and alienness are linked, but Sebastian Faraday plays a larger part in the narrative. Sebastian is depicted as mysterious, vanishing without explanation or warning, and fairly cold and calculating. He has, for example, abandoned his girlfriend without a word, an action which Tori remarks on several times throughout the novel as his apparent lack of compassion for Alison’s feelings frustrates and angers her greatly.
Through Tori’s unreliable first person narration, Sebastian is seen as distant, aloof, and even, as Tori put it, a jerk for disappearing on his girlfriend without a word and, upon reappearing, making no attempt to contact her. She also remarks that Sebastian and Alison’s relationship makes no sense to her. Combined with what we learn later, Tori is almost certainly remarking on the fact that their relationship is based at least partially on sexual attraction and we can infer from this and Sebastian’s reunion with Alison later that he is allosexual.
Further, about a third of the way through the novel Anderson implies very strongly that Tori’s asexuality and her alien nature are not related.
‘Sorry, what?’ I couldn’t have heard her right. Had she actually said sexy?
She blushed. Yes, she had.
And there it was again. The feeling that came over me every time this subject came up, as though I was standing on one side of some vast and uncrossable abyss and everybody else I knew was waving at me from the other. Until two hours ago I’d thought it had something to do with the chip in my arm, but since Sebastian had a chip as well, I guessed not. (Anderson Kindle Locations 1378-1382)
In this passage, Anderson hints at the idea that Tori is asexual. While the narrative has not yet, at this point, stated that Tori is asexual, it explicitly describes Tori’s confusion at why or how Alison finds Sebastian Faraday’s name sexy. From the context it is obvious that ‘This subject’ refers to Alison’s sexual attraction. At this point, Tori explicitly links the feelings of Otherness that she has lived with to a chip in her arm only to immediately reject the connection on the basis that Sebastian clearly does understand and, as such, is unrelated to Tori’s confusion.
The chip can be read as a stand-in for the knowledge that Tori is an alien, as readers who have not read Ultraviolet will not be aware of this at that time. Throughout Quicksilver, Tori is hesitant to state outright that she herself is an alien and instead focuses on the alien technology that was implanted in her body. In this book, as is obvious from the quote, Tori explicitly states that she has always believed her asexuality had to do with the alien technology implanted in her body. It is handled in such a way that even if it turned out that Tori was wholly human in her biology the link between asexuality and aliens would still have existed, and in a worse form than it does now. Not only would it have been presented as alien (strange, dissimilar, from another world) but it would have been presented as unnatural even to that world, a trait caused by technology’s interference with the body.
But, as already noted and can be seen explicitly in this passage, Quicksilver is aware of these stereotypes and attempts to undermine the most dehumanising aspect of its asexual representation. While Tori is an extraterrestrial who grew up on Earth, she is repeatedly depicted as caring and passionate. She may make mistakes, notably her refusal to confide in the people closest to her, but she is never depicted as cold or distant. Those aspects are reserved for the allosexual alien in the narrative, breaking both the idea that Tori is asexual because she’s not human and that asexuals are cold and emotionless. If Tori’s asexuality was linked to being an alien or to alien technology, Sebastian would have been asexual as well. If Tori’s asexuality was linked to being emotionless, Sebastian’s allosexuality negates (or at least mitigates) the impact on the reader.
Further, at the very end of the novel, Milo remarks that Sebastian thinks that his and Tori’s people may have originated on Earth and, as such, are arguably not true extraterrestrials at all. Milo brings it up in direct argument with Tori’s assertion that she is an alien, directly contradicting the idea that Tori is an alien by pointing out that she is not. After a full novel full of assumptions and associations, however, it may be too little too late to reverse the interpretations readers have carried all the way through the narrative.
Anderson succeeds better at breaking free of the stereotypes that asexuals are selfish, cold, distant and emotionless because throughout the novel we see Tori act in selfless, warm, passionate ways and, though her circumstances as a fugitive do keep her a step apart from society, she spends the entire novel looking for ways to connect and fit in, as evidenced by the fact that at some unseen point before the novel starts properly she has convinced her parents to let her get a job and by her later attempts to convince her parents to let her join makerspace, a place where young people can come together to work on mechanical projects together as well as on their own, even the subterfuge at the makerspace by convincing people that Milo is her boyfriend to gain entry.
Anderson’s attempts to break the portrayal of Tori’s asexuality from her portrayal of Tori’s alien nature are less effective because they do not occur everywhere in the narrative. As mentioned it takes more than half the novel for Tori to admit that she is an alien. Before then, the narrative presents the readers with descriptions like this:
When it became clear that I had a natural affinity for machines but no instincts whatsoever when it came to people, they’d poured all their energy into teaching me how to relate, how to connect, how to care. My dad had coached me through girls’ hockey until I understood what it meant to be part of a team, and my mom had shown me how to read people’s facial expressions and turn their frowns into smiles. All the awards I’d won, all the popularity I’d gained at school, I owed to them. (Anderson Kindle Locations 205-208)
Tori tells the reader that she struggled to relate to other people while she was growing up, that the people skills she is so good at now were almost drilled into her by her parents and not innate. Tori, having been one of the most popular girls in Ultraviolet, describes herself as having ‘no instincts whatsoever when it [comes] to people’, as someone who does not understand people in any way. Asexuals have been stereotyped as socially awkward and have even been called sociopaths, as evidenced by some of the examples cited by Sciatrix.
In interviews and guest posts, such as a 2013 feature on The Book Smugglers, Anderson notes that
I’d read a couple of articles by or about people identifying as asexual, enough to prove to me that asexuality didn’t mean frigidity or fear of intimacy or an inability to relate to other people, but I needed to know more. What kinds of challenges did asexual teens face in our modern sex-obsessed culture? What myths and misunderstandings about asexuality frustrated them most? What mistakes had other writers made in portraying asexual characters that I would do well to avoid?
I started reading all the articles about asexuality I could find, and tracking a number of relevant tags on Tumblr so I could see what asexual people were writing about their experiences. This gave me a good idea of what cliches to reject — or subvert — in developing Tori’s character and telling her story in Quicksilver.
While the strength of Anderson’s success in subverting or outright rejecting clichés depends on the reader, it is obvious that Anderson was aware of the stereotypes and attempted to counter them as best she could within the confines of the story she wanted to tell. As mentioned, Tori is repeatedly shown as caring. Early on in the novel, she is shown as brave and decisive when the driver of the bus she is on has a heart attack and she jumps forward to save him and her fellow passengers.
Tori’s love of machinery, tenuously linking her to robotics, is tempered by her strong desire to create things that will benefit society, at one point specifically mentioning (re)designing an exoskeleton to be affordable, more durable and more usable. The makerspace is, as mentioned, a space where engineers and creators share a space together and where they work on projects together and Tori’s initial attempts to sway her parents to let her attend are possibly the most passionate and enthusiastic passages in the whole book. Tori’s interest in machines is, thus, visibly not one that takes her away from society but into it. While she has to avoid recognition, this desire to be a part of society is what drives Tori and is ultimately what allows her to grow towards her friendship with Milo rather than pulling away from him.
Tori’s Asexuality Specifically
There is also a more personal and intimate side to how Anderson depicts Tori’s asexuality. While the plot itself hinges on an asexual stereotype and much of the narrative’s portrayal is devoted to undermining that same stereotype, another part of Anderson’s portrayal of Tori’s asexuality is highly individual.
The novel’s portrayal of asexuality is at its strongest in the scene where Tori comes out to Milo. In this scene, Anderson keeps the focus firmly on Tori and avoids overarching statements of what asexuality is or should be like.
The conversation between Tori and Milo is brief, taking up only about 1% of the novel as a whole, but it is significant in that it centres Tori’s emotions and Tori’s personal experiences with sexuality and allonormativity (the concept that allosexuality and alloromanticism are ‘normal’ and asexuality and aromanticism are aberrations) and what this means for her relationship with Milo. By the time Tori outright calls herself asexual, the reveal and the discussion have already passed and they are engaged in friendly banter once more.
‘How do you get anything done?’ I asked, and Milo laughed. Only a short laugh, but the smile that went with it was real, and it dissolved all the tension between us.
‘Cold showers,’ he said. ‘And lots of running. My thighs are steel. My abs are bronze. My biceps—’
‘They are excellent biceps,’ I said. ‘I’ve noticed.’
That got me a double take. ‘You have?’
‘I’m in your bus shelter, messing with your worldview,’ I said, elbowing him. ‘Yes, I’ve noticed. I’m asexual, not blind.’ (R J Anderson. Kindle Locations 1682-1687).
While this banter is the tail end of Tori’s coming-out scene, it encapsules the way in which the narrative presents Tori’s asexuality. The introduction of her asexuality happens in dialogue with I-statements rather than in the narrative with third person generalisations. “I’m asexual” she says here, just as earlier in the scene, she said “I’m not sexually attracted to anyone”.
Milo never asks her to explain what asexuality is because by the time she mentions the orientation by name, she has already told him what it means. Tori braces herself for invasive questions, the narrative briefly swinging into an inner monologue of what Tori fears and questions that asexuals are frequently asked when coming out, but Milo asks none of them.
Instead, Milo asks after the boyfriend he knows she had. It would have been incredibly easy for Anderson to write a coming-out scene that segues into a general discussion of what asexuality is. It would have been easy for Tori’s coming-out line to have been “I’m asexual” and to have Milo follow it up with “What’s that?”, but Anderson does not. Even here, when Anderson explicitly shows the reader what kind of questions asexuals fear and which could easily spin into a general discussion of asexuality, Anderson explicitly and deliberately keeps the focus on Tori and Tori’s experiences.
By eschewing generalised statements about asexuality or asexual experiences, Anderson succeeds in presenting readers with one of the most sympathetic and relatable depictions of asexuality in fiction to date. It also allows Anderson to explore deeply personal and highly individual aspects of asexuality without the implicit suggestion that any asexuals who do not feel the way Tori does are wrong or, worse, broken, and Anderson makes good use of this ability to highlight sentiments shared by many asexuals without implying that this is therefore true for all asexuals.
One such instance is the way that Anderson depicts Tori’s touch-aversion or sex-repulsion, something which not all asexuals share but which is common enough that it is a frequent point of discussion and identification within the asexual community. While Anderson’s narrative is unclear on the degree to which Tori is touch-averse or sex-repulsed with people she knows (such as Milo), she is definitely repulsed by the interest of people whom she does not know well.
For example, when Tori and Milo are being driven home by Jon, a co-worker who is sexually attracted to Tori, Jon presses his thigh against Tori’s. “But then Jon edged closer,” Tori informs the reader “his thigh pressing mine, and my charitable thoughts vanished in a surge of revulsion”. (Anderson Kindle Locations 709-710). This is not the only time Tori remarks on her discomfort with people showing sexual interest in her, though it is the most notable for its explicit use of the word ‘revulsion’ and what this means for touch-averse or sex-repulsed asexual readers looking for representation.
Other moments when the novel brings up sentiments that are at the very least associated with asexuality include Tori mentioning that she will never have children. Tori brings this up twice: once in relation to a conversation she had with her mother and once during a conversation with Milo. Notably, in both cases Tori only mentions her desire not to have children as commentary on events rather than as a part of the plot or the emotional arc that she goes through. She explicitly notes that she is avoiding the conversation with her mother and she deliberately changes the topic when Milo brings up children in a way that suggests he might want them in future.
Anderson’s depiction of asexuality does not end here, either. At several points in the novel, Tori remarks on the fact that allosexuality makes no sense to her, notably in the passage quoted earlier when Alison calls Sebastian’s name sexy where it explicitly says it is something that Tori does not understand and cannot wrap her head around and a passage during her coming-out scene when she discusses her relationship with her ex-boyfriend Brendan.
Tori and Milo
As discussed earlier, the coming-out scene in Quicksilver is an incredibly thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of asexuality. It extends beyond the way that the narrative handles the reveal of asexuality and what it means to how Milo deals with it. Tori is explicitly shown to brace herself for a barrage of invasive and hurtful questions as well as rejection.
It does not come. Milo is momentarily stunned as this is likely the first time he has encountered asexuality, but when he rallies his thoughts what happens is that he quietly accepts Tori’s statement, asking only a handful of questions: “What do you mean by that, exactly? You said you had a boyfriend once…” and “So you’re never going out with anyone again?”
Both are questions that are directly relevant to Milo’s situation rather than on Asexuality 101. He is romantically and sexually attracted to her and they were just talking about pretending to be in a romantic relationship. Tori does most of the talking and she focuses on her personal experiences.
As the narrative is told from Tori’s first-person narration, the reader never gets to see Milo working through learning what asexuality is and what that means for him, but all indications are that he is perfectly willing to do the emotional labour of researching asexuality in his own time and his own space.
He never pressures Tori for something she does not want to do or give and he is never truly presented as the allosexual who will allow her to connect to society and have a ‘normal’ life through a romantic and/or sexual relationship.
What Milo does do later on in the novel is accuse Tori of lying about everything, including her asexuality. When Tori finally tells Milo the truth about what he has been caught up in, Milo is angry with her for keeping the truth from him. Tori tells him the whole truth, including that she is an alien. Milo, hurt and angry because he thinks Tori is lying to him yet again, says “Alien, you say. […] I guess that explains the asexual thing? Don’t want to get too close to the humans. Might get some kind of disease.” (Anderson. Kindle Location 3176)
This implies that his easy acceptance earlier in the novel was not as easy as it seemed. He is clearly lashing out at Tori with whatever he thinks will hurt her the most. The scene ends up reinforcing the idea that Tori’s asexuality is invalid and unreal because Milo is explicitly dehumanising and Othering Tori. He explicitly links Tori’s asexuality to the fact that she is an alien to hurt her. More so, Anderson does not explore how much of Milo’s words here come from blind anger and how much come from a place of scepticism regarding Tori’s asexuality at any point in the novel. The fact that he said these things to her is never brought up again.
However, if Quicksilver’s portrayal of Tori and Milo’s relationship is deeply marred by anything in the novel, it is the fact that the book literally ends with a kiss and with Tori expressing that she is (now) okay with kissing, something which even that final scene notes is a significant change from how she felt about kissing her previous boyfriend. This is the only truly unexamined and unaddressed bit of asexual stereotyping that the novel contains, although I’ve hinted at aspects where it shows up earlier.
A common trope within asexual literature, especially in romance novels, is a variant on the Allo Saviour trope. At its strictest, the Allo Saviour trope is that the asexual character is introduced to asexuality through an allosexual character. In an interview with Cass Lennox, reviewer El from Just Love Reviews describes the Allo Saviour trope as follows:
But I’d also like to see less of what I call the “Allo Savior Complex”: that is, when the poor, confused MC has no idea why they’re “broken”, and their allosexual friend swoops in to say, “Oh, you’re asexual! TA DA!”
However, this definition excludes those narratives where asexuals are depicted as weird, broken and in some way stood apart from regular society until the end of the romance arc where they are in a happy relationship and have integrated into society in a way that was not the case at the beginning of the novel. In its strictest form, Anderson largely avoids the trope altogether, as Tori both already knows she is asexual before meeting Milo and she explicitly mentions finding out about asexuality on an asexual forum.
Anderson’s choice to end the novel focusing on Tori’s relationship with Milo belies some of that, however. In this final scene, Milo is explicitly shown to be aware of and attentive to Tori’s boundaries and needs, as in an intimate moment he drops his hand to his thigh instead of touching Tori, a fact which she notes as being different from her previous allosexual boyfriend, Brendan. Milo admits that he does not know how they would make their relationship work, but Anderson also makes it clear in the narrative that he wants their relationship to work for his sake and because it is something he wants for himself. When Tori and Milo kiss, it is Tori who initiates the kiss. It is Tori chooses to kiss him. It is Tori who shifts their platonic friendship to a romantic one. It is, thus, Tori who has the lead in their relationship.
Yet Anderson’s choice to focus the ending of the novel as a whole on that kiss and, more importantly, on the line that their relationship is “an experiment in progress” shifts the scene from being a sweet, romantic part of Tori’s overall future to being the most important part, pulling her relationship with Milo firmly into the Allosexual Saviour trope. When readers put down the novel and reflect on how it may continue, it is not with Tori’s dreams of making the world a better place or with Tori’s dreams of finally building all the devices she can think of. It is with Tori’s desire to explore a relationship with her boyfriend, something which she has previously repeatedly stated she does not understand and is not interested in.
While the ending especially seems to belie much of what the novel as a whole manages to do, Anderson’s portrayal of asexuality overall is a sensitive and positive one. While certain choices may not be ideal with regards to what they say about the asexual representation, they are always choices that fit within the narrative that Anderson has constructed. It either follows the world-building rules Anderson set out to create or it fits with the characters’ personalities.
Where Quicksilver cannot avoid stereotypes and harmful comments altogether, it subverts them (such as Tori being an alien) or it calls them out and explicitly counters them (such as Milo’s initial reaction to learning Tori is asexual).
Quicksilver’s asexual representation is not perfect and there will be asexual readers who cannot relate much to Tori either because their experiences are too different or because Anderson’s attempts to counter stereotypes and tropes falls flat for them, but it is multifaceted, sympathetic and even possessing subtlety and individuality.
 That is to say “someone who is not asexual”.
 Tori spends the novel living under an assumed name, though she spends much of the narrative being referred to, by herself and others, as Tori.
 Quicksilver itself makes no mention of the aromantic spectrum, thus carrying some of the idea that alloromanticism is the default.
 It is not true for all asexuals, obviously. Even today, this kind of nuance seems like the exception rather than the norm and it makes Quicksilver and the research Anderson did to get her depiction of asexuality right all the more memorable.
Anderson, R. J. Quicksilver. London, Orchard, 2013.
Anderson, R.J. “SFF In Conversation: R.J. Anderson on Diversity in Speculative Fiction.” The Book Smugglers, 2013, http://thebooksmugglers.com/2013/07/sff-in-conversation-r-j-anderson-on-diversity-in-speculative-fiction.html.
“Blog Tour: El Chats With Cass Lennox, Author Of Blank Spaces! (Plus Giveaway!).” Just Love: Queer Book Reviews, 2017, https://justlovereviews.com/2016/11/14/tour-blank-spaces-lennox/.
“What Fictional Asexuals Say About Us.” Writing From Factor X, 2017, https://writingfromfactorx.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/what-fictional-asexuals-say-about-us/.
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