Back in the 1990s, there were a few queer science fiction anthologies that made waves, notably the Bending The Landscape books from Meisha Merlin. And since then, there's been a bit of a void in terms of print anthologies that really succeed in combining cutting-edge science fiction and fantasy with queer themes — at least, outside of erotica anthologies like the ones Cecilia Tan puts out.
The good news is, a new anthology coming in May, Beyond Binary, feels like a worthy successor to the Bending the Landscape books. It's chock full of strong stories that challenge your perceptions of gender identity and sexuality, but also turn your notions of reality itself upside down. Editor Brit Mandelo has done a great job of assembling some of the most provocative writers working in SF today.
Top image: Sawyer Westbrook/Deviant Art.
With a themed anthology, whether it's a book of zombie stories or a book of "Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Science Fiction" like this one, I usually consider it a win if I really like about half the stories in the book — it's really hard for a group of stories to conform to a theme and rock my world, for various reasons. And on those terms, this book is a definite win — at least half the stories in here really bowled me over, and the ones that I was less excited by were still at least thought-provoking or left me with a few mental images or fascinating phrases stuck in my head.
Beyond Binary is almost entirely reprints, too, which helps a lot — it's like a nice survey of some of the most interesting science fiction and fantasy dealing with gender that's come along in the past decade or so. There are previously published stories by Nalo Hopkinson, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and other well-known authors. Catherynne Valente contributes "Palimpsest," the story that became her breakout novel of the same title about a sexually transmitted city.
For me, the real standout of the collection is Kelley Eskridge's "Eye of the Storm," which comes from her story collection Dangerous Space, which I've written about before. I liked that story the first time I read it, but this time around I got even more out of it — the main character, whose gender is left ambiguous, develops a unique fighting style which turns out to be sort of like making love. And indeed, the better the main character gets at fighting, the more it becomes like a sex act — something the protagonists' boon companions don't realize at first. It's a really beautiful story, in which the strange, beautiful ending feels genuinely transformative.
A similar link between fighting and sweet, transgressive sex pops up in Ellen Kushner's "A Wild and Wicked Youth," in which a young man becomes a master swordsman at the same time as his relationship with the local gentry becomes painfully and erotically involved.
Some of the most interesting stories, too, are ones in which a technology or magic that subsumes identity collides with people whose gender identities are already in flux — like Keffy R.M. Kehrli's "Bonehouse," whose main character is a former virtual reality addict who now frees others from VR addiction, and you eventually realize that Chris' escape is both a gender- and a cyber-liberation. And in Katherine Sparrow's majestic "Pirate Solutions," a bunch of hackers drink magical rum that causes them to become pirates from centuries ago, rebuilding and refurbishing pirate ships and reclaiming a lost island. I love how Sparrow writes about the ecstasy of drinking the pirate rum:
Rum like the sea's milk filled my throat. I stood and swayed as the tempo picked up. All the code, all the hacking problems fell away as I slowly spun around the blazing red tongues of fire. I picked up speed and began to dervish like an unstoppable, destructive virus. Others rose and we became the rage of everyone murdered too young to have made a difference. We flung curses and hope up and out into the world. The song grew louder. We jumped into the air like gravity might fail, and then pounded our legs into the sand.
Also, a lot of the best stories in this book have an undercurrent of menace, of the fear of losing yourself — like "Ghost Party" by Richard Larson, in which the threat of becoming a ghost is sort of a metaphor for surrendering your selfhood and being taken over, claimed, owned.
And yeah, some of the stories in this book feel a bit more insubstantial, like thought experiments or poetic visions that never quite acquire enough heft to stick with you. But even those stories, like I said, have something going for them, either some great images or some neat ideas. And as a whole, the stories in this book do a great job of presenting a mosaic of all the ways that science fiction and fantasy can talk about non-normative gender and sexuality — it feels like this book is doing what the Bending the Landscape books used to do, expanding the conversation.
Editor Brit Mandelo just joined the fiction editing team of Strange Horizons, the venerable science fiction and fantasy webzine that, as Niall Harrison says, aims to "expand our field's boundaries and challenge its conventions." And this book feels like a great sign that Mandelo's sensibilities are in line with what I've enjoyed about Strange Horizons in the past, because it, too, is expanding the boundaries of science fiction in a way that's both enjoyable and welcome. [Amazon]