Read A F*cking Book: “Beyond Binary” Is Genderqueering Speculative Fiction

Beyond Binary is exactly the type of anthology that I have always, always wished existed and that I am so so glad finally does. Here is what it is: 17 stories of really excellent speculative (read: sci fi and fantasy, but also both/neither) fiction about people with all sorts of genders and sexual identities.

As with any anthology, I loved some of the stories much harder than others. Kelley Eskridge’s “Eye of the Storm,” in which the main character, who has a fairly undefined gender, develops a link between fighting and sex, was my absolute favourite, but I also really enjoyed Tansy Rayner Roberts’ “Prosperine When it Sizzles” and Keffy RM Kehrli’s “Bonehouse.” Others, such as Katherine Sparrow’s “Pirate Solutions,” about drinking and coding, were less up my alley, but they almost certainly might be up yours.

I love speculative fiction, and genre fiction generally, and I’ve noticed I love it even harder when stories break out of the completely heteronormative mould that so much genre fiction tends to fall into. In Beyond Binary, nearly every story has a different perspective on gender and sexuality, and while I am certainly biased, I appreciated them all the more for it. This isn’t just an anthology of really excellent speculative fiction or of really excellent queer fiction — it’s both, and really strong because of it.

Editor Brit Mandelo is also really awesome. She has excellent taste, has recently been named a fiction editor at Strange Horizons, and says this is her first Real Interview.


Beyond Binary is your first edited anthology. What was the selection process like? What are you hoping to explore with it?

With Beyond Binary, which is a reprint anthology, I wanted most of all to collect and present various great stories about genderqueer people and folks with fluid sexual identities, and to do so in one place — to take a sort of snapshot of at least a small portion of the tapestry of non-binary identities being represented in fiction. I love nonfiction that deals with genderqueer identities, but there’s power in fiction, and power in speaking narratives about ourselves and our lives. I wish I could do ten more books to encompass further identities, stories, and voices — this is certainly not a complete picture of what it means to identify outside binaries, though I was very concerned with including a diverse spectrum of voices.

“I love nonfiction that deals with genderqueer identities, but there’s power in fiction, and power in speaking narratives about ourselves and our lives.”

To that end, the selection process for this book was an amalgamation of things: I solicited submissions from friends and colleagues who write about or are themselves non-binary folks, I picked up stacks of anthologies and back-issues of magazines to search for stories, and I hosted open submissions as well. I didn’t want to take the chance of missing a story that would be perfect for the book, and I was especially aware of the ease with which I could miss something. Half of the motivation for this project was the knowledge that there were a lot of folks writing genderqueer stories out there, but that these stories were hard to find — that they weren’t being gathered together. I’m glad I chose to try all of those approaches, because every avenue was fruitful; I found stories all over the place.

Who is your ideal reader for Beyond Binary?

In a way, my ideal reader — the person that I thought about most while editing the book — was my younger self, when I was a teen looking for words and narratives to explain my own feelings about gender and sexuality. It would have been such an immense relief to that younger me to have a book like this, a book that was concerned with slipping and subverting gender and sexual binaries, to show me that these were options. So, by extension, I was thinking a lot about the issue of being visible — in fiction, in public spaces, in public speech — while working on Beyond Binary. The ideal reader in that sense is pretty ambitious: anyone who needs to see this book on a shelf, who needs to have a collection of stories like this, and who it might empower in some way to be able to see themselves represented. I want to give back to the communities that have supported me — queer, speculative — by helping gather these voices together, and by making them easier to find.

What is your favourite story in the anthology?

Oh, hell – what a question. I’m not certain that I could say I have a favorite, because each of the stories in the book is doing something quite different, and I love them all for those different things! For example: Kelley Eskridge’s “Eye of the Storm” has a fabulous use of pronouns, nontraditional sex, and queer/poly dynamics in a coming-of-age adventure story, while Ellen Kushner’s “‘A Wild and a Wicked Youth'” is a totally different sort of coming-of-age tale that explores a young man’s discovery of his fluid sexual identity as he learns the art of the sword. I think these stories all have something to say, and occupy different points on — or entirely off of — a spectrum of identities.

Or, to think of it another way: these stories are all the favorites I chose out of what I read.

What draws you to speculative fiction in general, and queer speculative fiction specifically?

I think the thing I love most about speculative fiction, the thing that’s drawn me to it since I was young, is the sheer range of possibilities that it represents: anything you can imagine, you can also make real. The constraints of daily life are erased, or reinterpreted. The potential for social criticism, for pushing boundaries and exploring new ways of being, is built into the very machinery of speculative fiction.

That’s also part and parcel, I think, with why there’s so much queer SF and feminist SF. Joanna Russ, a lesbian-feminist SF critic, once argued in an essay called “What Can a Heroine Do?” 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.” In her view, traditional fictional structures are so imbued with heterosexist, patriarchal assumptions that it is difficult, if not impossible, for women and queer folks to appropriate them for use. Instead, being able to write stories where we use our own voices to represent our own worlds and lives — that was the ticket. And speculative fiction is a major way to do that, because you can totally rewrite the rules of the world that we live in right now. I definitely think that’s true of the stories that I chose for Beyond Binary; they’re all deeply involved with issues of self-definition and — often explicitly though also implicitly — social criticism.

You recently became a fiction editor at Strange Horizons. What drew you to working with the magazine and what do you hope to accomplish during your time there?

“The thing I love most about speculative fiction […] is the sheer range of possibilities it represents: anything you can imagine, you can also make real.”

I’ve been a reader of Strange Horizons for years, because they’ve always been explicitly concerned with promoting diversity—and they publish great writing. Two of the stories collected in Beyond Binary were originally published in Strange Horizons. I had very much enjoyed the process of editing an anthology, and found myself eager to do more editorial work after finishing. So, when I was offered the position at Strange Horizons, I was overjoyed.

I hope to continue with the editorial philosophy that made the magazine one of my favorites to begin with: publishing high-quality fiction that promotes diverse voices, new writers, and inclusivity. I think those are awesome goals to strive for, and I hope to do them justice.

Do you have a favourite author or book?

I have too many favorite authors and books to count (doesn’t everyone?), but I’ll try to narrow it down a little. So, over the past year, I’ve read the entirety of Joanna Russ’s body of work, and I can’t recommend her enough. Her writing is amazingly incisive, harsh where it needs to be, and terribly funny. (I’ve also written about her work quite a bit after doing all that reading. We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, a nonfiction book [by me], was just released by Aqueduct Press, there’s a column series about my more personal engagements with her books at Tor.com, and Stone Telling Magazine has recently published a two-part article on her early-career poetry.) As for more recent things that I’ve loved: Jo Walton’s Among Others, Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze, Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl, Tristan Taormino’s collections Take Me There: Trans and Genderqueer Erotica and The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Roleplay, and the Erotic Edge, and Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder books (three delightfully queer and gender-fluid science fiction novels).

At the moment, I’m reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Julie Phillips’s James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon.

What are you working on next?

Let’s see — I have a couple of short stories forthcoming over the next few months, in Apex Magazine and Tor.com, respectively. I’m currently working on several other short pieces, and doing research for a potential novel project. And, of course, continuing editorial work at Strange Horizons!

Otherwise, I’ll also be attending WisCon 36 in Madison WI, May 25-28th, where we’ll be having a book party for Beyond Binary.


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Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Editor and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com. She is also a freelance editor and writer, and her work has appeared in Bitch, Nylon, The Toast, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 711 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. 0

    I was hanging on to this Barnes and Noble giftcard, wouldn’t you know I just spent it last week? If only we had that Spanish books and love day in Michigan…

  2. 0

    Ooh, thanks, this looks great!

    “The Eye of the Storm” also appears in Kelley Eskridge’s short story collection Dangerous Space which contains different stories featuring a gender-inspecific character with the same name (who is not necessarily the same person) spanning multiple areas of the speculative spectrum.

    It is very queer and very good and she is in a total lesbian literary sci-fi power couple with Nicola Griffiths, who edited the Bending the Landscape queer sci-fi/fantasy/horror anthologies which everybody should read.

    This subject gets me very excited.

  3. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 4/25/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  4. 0

    I immediately looked this up and I can’t get it on my kindle! So many books that aren’t available in the asia/pacific region! Wake up peobles, please open the amazon gateways up. Globalisation woot.

  5. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 4/26/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  6. 0

    Oooh, thanks! I am definitely going to read this! Also, the author lives in my hometown, so maybe I’ll run into her on accident while I’m visiting my parents and it won’t be weird at all.

  7. 0

    Thanks for the heads-up, ordered it! Sounds like the (currently dormant) James Tiptree Award Anthologies. There were three of these (2004, 2005, 2007) — all awesome.

    Julie Phillips biography of Tiptree is also a gripping read, and I don’t even like biographies.

  8. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 4/28/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  9. 0

    I’ll have to read this! I always wondered why books set in the future/alternate worlds couldn’t have queer love interests, why they just stuck with the heteronormative view of the world (Hunger Games could have had a really interesting non-hetero romance!)

    Can’t wait to see another perspective : )

  10. 0

    I bought this book a few months ago thanks to this review, and enjoyed it so much I felt compelled to review it for my student paper. It was published today. Reviews beget reviews it seems!

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