Queering SFF

Queering SFF — Pride Month Extravaganza: The Bending the Landscape Series

In the late nineties, Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel produced a landmark series of anthologies collecting gay and lesbian speculative fiction: the Bending the Landscape books, published by Overlook Press. These books have become, in a real sense, classics of queer speculative fiction, and so I’d like to talk a little about them—honor their contribution to the conversation, and introduce them to new readers, too.

The series is made up of three books, each featuring a different genre: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. They were published from 1996-2001. Between them, they won a World Fantasy Award, two Lambda Literary Awards, and two Spectrum Awards—as well as being finalists for an ALA Stonewall Award and a Locus Award. “Time Gypsy” by Ellen Klages, from Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction, was a nominee for the Hugo for Best Novelette in 1999, and for the Nebula in 1998.

While there were certainly more queer books being published in spec-fic in the late nineties than before, these anthologies were significant for their explicit focus on putting together new, fresh gay and lesbian fiction—not so much queer or QUILTBAG yet—and giving it a visible, vital place in the market. The reactions of the SF community, in the form of awards and critical reception, signaled a shift in significance for queer narratives in the mainstream of speculative literature.

The message of these books is, in fact, quite familiar. In the introduction to Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, the first book, Griffith says: “We all need to see representations of ourselves in the world, whether that world is real or not.”

The driving ideas behind these anthologies have also motivated my work as an editor of queer fiction—in putting together the recent anthology Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction, my explicit goal was to foreground hard-to-find stories about queer folks and folks along the spectrum of gender and sexuality so that their tales would be available, would be accessible. And that sort of book—my book—wouldn’t exist without precursors like the Bending the Landscape series, also deeply concerned with making queer fiction visible and accessible to the audiences who want it—and those who might not yet know they want it.

Each book features names familiar and not, as Griffith and Pagel solicited widely. There are folks readily visible in the SF world, as well as queer writers who don’t generally work with speculative subjects. Carol Ives Gilman, Tanya Huff, Delia Sherman and Jessica Amanda Salmonson write alongside Simon Sheppard, Keith Hartman, and Nancy Johnston—all of them alongside writers who were newer on the publication of these stories, too. It’s particularly interesting, reading this series again from more than a decade down the road, to see who is and isn’t still active in the field; which names I recognize, and which I don’t; which have grown larger with time and who weren’t quite there yet when these books were released—and, even more so, who’s still writing queer sf.

The stories themselves also contain a great deal of variation, and sometimes don’t push quite so far as they might; there are pieces starring straight characters who are “simply observers […] whose lives have been changed irrevocably by the struggles of their queer friends” (Fantasy, 11). (The Horror volume in particular seems not to go as far or extrapolate as widely as its predecessors—or, alternately, I just don’t care quite so much for horror fiction.) This is potentially thanks to the outward-directed nature of the books. Griffith’s introductions make clear that, while they are aiming to create books where queer readers can see themselves, they are also making books for the mainstream straight audience who need to read stories like these, to see other folks and experience other narratives. That complicated balance—between the comfortable and the Other for the straight readership in the wider SF field, and between the life-saving visibility and recognition for queer readers—is struck particularly well by these books, and I respect the choice to do so. (Hell, if I didn’t, I’d hardly be writing this column series, would I?)

In many ways, this sort of series opens a vein of potential for further work—it lays groundwork, it invites, it delights. The sense of being welcomed into the conversational give-and-take is powerful, and Griffith and Pagel achieve this effect via their story choices and arrangement. The arrangement of stories tends to slip back and forth between stories with different tonal or thematic focal points, so that a balance is achieved. That balance is one between narratives dealing with gay and lesbian issues as their foremost concern, alongside narratives focused primarily on their speculative element—or a mystery, or another sort of plot. That tension and divergence creates an especially satisfying reading experience for a queer SFF fan.

The range of genres within each book is also notable for the way that it contributes to the larger conversation of generic definitions—for example, Bending the Landscape: Fantasy contains high fantasy complete with orcs and wizards, contemporary ghost stories, alien stories like Carol Ives Gilman’s powerful “Frost Painting,” second-world pieces like the novella that spawned a later novel by Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, “The Fall of the Kings,” and quite a lot in between—including another story I quite liked, set in rural Arkansas but starring classic Greek muses, “Water Snakes” by Holly Wade Matter. The definition of what speculative fiction means widens with each of these books—to include queer folks, but also to encompass greater narrative diversity.

These books are still vital to contemporary queer SF—hence this looking-back on them during out Pride Month Extravaganza, with appreciation, respect, and a desire that new readers might now know to look for a goldmine of queer short SFF waiting for them on a used bookstore shelf somewhere. The stories in the Bending the Landscape books are often a delight, a confrontation, or a personal confirmation. They are also fairly one-of-a-kind, even today; they remain favorites of mine to go back to and re-read a story or three. Griffith and Pagel’s ambition to foreground gay and lesbian speculative fiction for a larger audience, to put our stories in the bigger picture and to add to the wider narrative of “what SFF can be,” is well-realized by the books they produced.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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