How can you resist an
anthology that includes work by Nalo Hopkinson, Delia Sherman, Catherynne M.
Valente, Kelly Eskridge, Sonya Taaffe, and Sandra McDonald, among others? I
can't"”and when the theme of the anthology is thought-provoking and original,
that makes it even harder.
Beyond Binary posits some SF what-ifs that have been at times neglected within
the field, but which SF is uniquely qualified to explore. As the jacket copy
reads: "Speculative fiction is the literature of questions, of challenges and
imagination, and what better to question than the ways in which gender and
sexuality have been rigidly defined, partitioned off, put in little boxes?" The
stories in this reprint anthology star "people who proudly define (and
redefine) their own genders, sexualities, identities, and so much else in
I asked Beyond Binary's editor Brit Mandelo,
what she thinks makes science fiction and fantasy ideal for exploring issues
related to gender and sexual identity, and she pointed to the "astounding range
of possibilities speculative fiction offers for asking vital questions,
reinterpreting or discarding contemporary mores, and breaking boundaries is
what makes it ideal for exploring issues of gender and sexuality."
For Mandelo, it's not just that
these genres allow writers to ask what if, but also "make real whatever we can
imagine"¦This nearly unlimited ability to explore, expand, and explode
definitions makes speculative fiction the only form that can effectively
transcend and truly embody an equally vast multitude of potential gender and
sexual identities. "
Mandelo also points to the iconic Joanna Russ' argument for speculative fiction.
Russ wrote that "science fiction ["¦] provides myths for dealing with the
kind of experiences we are actually having now, instead of the literary myths we
have inherited, which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we
ought to be having."
then, expresses Mandelo's belief that in science fiction and fantasy, "we can
deal authentically with issues of identity and self in a way that is often
effaced or barred from traditional literary forms; being able to twist and
restructure reality in narrative is a powerful tool for social criticism"¦the
tools for social criticism are natural to and almost inseparable from the same
narrative machinery that drives speculative fiction to begin with"”that
willingness to ask questions, to imagine, and to invent worlds that are not
quite like our own." This willingness allows points of view that have been
overlooked or rendered invisible to be seen and experienced.
Editing an anthology is a lot of hard work, punctuated by moments of discovery.
I asked Mandelo about her biggest surprise as a reader while working on Beyond Binary. "[It] was the first time
I came across Kelley Eskridge's Eye of the Storm,' recommended to me by another
contributor. I began the story with the assumption that the narrator was
female-identified, and realized with a shock of delight after a few pages that
Mars wasn't being gendered at all by the story"”no pronouns, no referents from
other characters. That was a brilliant surprise, really provocative and
exciting. And, of course, 'Eye of the Storm' evolves further from there; my
delight was compounded by the explorations of alternative sexuality and
relationships that fill out the rest of the story."
Even though Beyond Binary includes several of big SFnal moments, the ones that
require a large canvas and leave the reader with a sense of wonder, these
stories also contain something more important: "many compelling moments of
personal intimacy"”moments stolen in conversation between characters, brief
pauses to appreciate the wholeness of self between lovers, slippages of time
where characters think about themselves and their identities. Mandelo sees the
anthology, in part, "as a collection of personal, intimate stories of self that
add up to a bigger picture."
In closing, I decided to put Mandelo
on the spot and asked her if she had a favorite quote or two from the stories:
"The line that ends the anthology [by Terra LeMay] is one that stuck with me
from the moment I read it. It's short and sweet: 'We are Love, infinite.'"