We’re Here, We’re Queer, and We’re Spec Fic: Lee Mandelo’s Beyond Binary

For a genre that actively explores new ideas about society, there is very little queer speculative fiction out there. When the average sci-fi reader thinks of examples, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or the works of Samuel Delaney may come to mind, but more recent fiction doesn’t usually get time in the spotlight.

Turning the closet lights on and throwing the door wide open is what Lee Mandelo does in their edited anthology Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Fiction. They cover the LGBTQ beat here on Tor.com, and in this collection, Mandelo uses their expert eye to select seventeen stories that range from rambunctious adventure to techno-noir to romance, all featuring characters from a variety of genders and sexual orientations. Big name authors help give this anthology some of its literary chops—such as Nalo Hopkinson, Catherynne M. Valente, Ellen Kushner,  Kelley Eskridge, Sonya Taaffe, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and Sandra McDonald—but each of these stories is satisfying in its own way.

When writing spec fiction that falls into queer territory, one of the oft-made assumptions is that gay stories are all about relationships and romance. Where does the “speculative” come in? Having reviewed other gay fiction that fits in the speculative quite well, I had no worries that these stories would all fall into one theme. I did, though, note how some stories were much more speculative-driven while others were not (and a couple selections I thought would fit in better in an issue of Ploughshares or Glimmer Train instead). Despite this quibble, Beyond Binary has a strong showing of tales, and you can get my more in-depth impressions after the jump.

Sandra McDonald opens the volume with her piece “Sea of Cortez,” a historical tale set on a naval carrier stationed in the Pacific theater during World War II; it is a great work that plays upon various themes that run through the anthology: desires, hidden or exposed; playing and putting on masks; assumptions about characters being turned on their heads. This story, however, is one of the least fantastical; besides the nameless protagonist’s flashes of premonition, very little differentiates it from a romance in a historical setting. This is not a criticism against the quality of the story itself, of course, but it made me wonder for how much sci-fi/fantasy enjoyment would be packed into this collection.

My doubts were overturned immediately, however, with Kelley Eskridge’s “Eye of the Storm,” a medieval fantasy novelette about Mars, a bastard child who yearns to become a soldier in the prince’s personal guard… and yearns for a few other things along the way. I appreciated both the poly relationships that Mars (the appropriate pronoun is neither “he” nor “she,” in Mars’ case, but the agendered “they”) develops among their fellow comrades, but how Mars’ own sexuality is unique even among them. “Fisherman” is renown sci-fi author Nalo Hopkinson’s contribution, and a wonderfully steamy piece about a trans man’s first time with the madam of an island brothel, all written in beautiful Caribbean dialect.

Katherine Sparrow’s “Pirate Solutions” takes the volume a turn back toward the speculative and relationships take a bit of a backseat. This was a particularly fun read about anarchist hackers who recollect their past pirate reincarnations thanks to some mysterious rum and form their own illegal island heaven that bend realities.

The second novelette in this anthology comes from award-winning author Ellen Kushner. “A Wild and Wicked Youth” is a sprawling coming-of-age tale that didn’t end the way I expected it to: relationships develop between Richard, the illegitimate son of an eccentric noblewoman, and Crispin, the son of the local lord, and their friendship-turned-romance runs parallel with one between Richard’s mother and Crispin’s son, before a surprising final tryst happens in the last few pages.

“Prosperine When It Sizzles” is another fun romp through an intergalactic retrofutustric world, where advanced technology is forbidden and everyone lives locked in a pseudo-18th-century society;  Tansy Rayner Roberts manages to pack a lot of intriguing world-building in this short piece that makes me hope to see other works set on the planet of Prosperine. Delia Sherman’s “The Faerie Cony-Catcher” is a very cute piece about an apprentice jeweler who gets drawn into the realm of the Fae, and he makes a bargain to wed a fairy bride with unexpected results. The story’s end is a reassuringly predictable, as fairy tales can be, and also very sweet.

Of course, no modern anthology of genderqueer short fiction would be complete without an except from Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest. Taken out of context from the novel the emphasizes how the vignette form brings out Valente’s signature lyricism. Sonya Taaffe’s “Another Coming” also deals with the tangled pursuit of celestial bliss, except this is in the form of a poly relationship between two mortals and an angel, and the story concerns itself with the unwanted results of a divine threesome.

Claire Humphrey’s “Bleaker Collegiate Presents an All-Female Production of Waiting for Godot” is another selection that I wasn’t sure how it fit in the spec fic category, since nothing about it seemed fantastical, unless the character Deirdre’s persistent nosebleeds have some sort of fantastical origin I overlooked. The piece I could see working in a more general young adult collection.

On the other hand, a wonderful heady mix of the fantastical and the real collide into one uncontrollable desert rave/ demon summoning in Richard Larson’s “The Ghost Party” and his story provided just the right mix of romance, suspense, and dramatic action that kept me guessing at the final end what actually happened at that party.

Keffy R. M. Kehrli also writes a strong genre piece in “Bonehouse,” a futuristic noir that addresses transgender identity and the creation of the virtual into the real. The lead character is known as the “Evictionist” who tracks down people who plug themselves into the internet to live out their virtual lives as their physical bodies are kept in ramshackle hideaways. This tale had a wonderful sense of grit that I enjoyed.

Asexual explorations happen in Sarah Kanning’s “Sex with Ghosts,” where a receptionist at a brothel that plys custom-made pleasure bots comes face-to-face with her fetishized doppelganger. This being my first story about an asexual protagonist, I really found the premise she was put in an interesting way of bringing her sexuality to the forefront without it being about relationships.

Short story pro Keyan Bowes, however, wrote my favorite story of the anthology with “Spoiling Veena.” Bowes highlights interesting ethical concerns in a near-future India that comes with designer babies, rampant consumerism, and intriguing cultural dynamics among India’s bourgeois. When gender becomes a choice, the ultra-progresssive idea of letting your child choose his or her gender develops the recursive drawback of further enforcing conservative gender roles; the complex bait-and-switch take on gender dilemmas make this piece stand out among the rest for me.

Tobi Hill-Meyer’s “Self-Reflection” another purely fluffy porn piece that plays with time travel and the ultimate masturbation scenario: having sex with your past self… of the opposite gender; that is a fun compliment to the intense hotness of Hopkinson’s story.

In a play off of Kafka, an elderly woman wakes up on day to realize she grew a certain “extra limb” in Lui Wen Zhuang’s “The Metamorphosis Bud”; the story is refreshing because it talks about sexuality from an experienced perspective and also addresses cross-generational Asian relations in a non-typical way that I enjoyed.

The collection wraps up with Terra LeMay’s flash fiction piece “Schrödinger’s Pussy,” an experimental whirlwind that seems to be a perfect summation of Beyond Binary as a whole: the collection presents a list of potentialities and possibilities, and in these stories, anything goes.

Ay-leen the Peacemaker enjoys reading diverse sci-fi of all kinds, though readers may know her better as the founding editor of Beyond Victoriana, a blog about multicultural steampunk, or for her academic writing on the subject. You can also follow her on Twitter.


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