Beyond Binary

Deathless - Warren, Biancotti & SparksBrit Mandelo’s anthology of genderfluid fiction was one of the books I was most looking forward to this year. These days we are quite used to seeing stories containing gay and lesbian characters. Lethe Press now has two fine anthology series — Wilde Stories and Heiresses of Russ — which collect the best of these. Beyond Binary, however, is something new, and quite rare.

I should note from the outset that this is not an anthology of stories about trans people. Mandelo has given herself the much wider remit of simply looking for stories in which some characters do not confirm to traditional gender roles. It is a reprint anthology, which makes it much easier to produce, but means you have to go with what is available. One of these days I will get the money to do a proper trans anthology where I get to commission the sort of stories I want, but in the meantime Beyond Binary is the best we are going to get.

So what do we get? Well, quite a few big names for a start. Inevitably there’s Sandra McDonald with “Sea of Cortez”, a tale of US Navy sailors finding love on board during WWII. Ellen Kushner contributes “A Wild and a Wicked Youth” which tells of the early life of Richard St. Vier, a character who will be familiar to fans of Swordspoint and its sequels. Nalo Hopkinson’s “Fisherman” is a story about a young woman finding her way in a very male profession. Catherynne Valente’s “Palimpsest” is the short story from which the Hugo-nominated novel grew. And in “The Faerie Cony-catcher” Delia Sherman shows that pretty fairies are not always all that they seem.

These are all good pieces of fiction from top quality writers and I’m delighted that Mandelo was able to acquire them all. I’m slightly concerned about Sherman’s story because it does play upon the idea of the trans woman as deceiver, but fairies always trick mortals and it all ends happily so on balance I’m OK about it.

The big name story that I have left out of that list is “Eye of the Storm” by Kelley Eskridge. That’s because it is a Mars story, and I love her Mars stories so I want to highlight this one. Mars is a person, not a planet. Moreover Mars is a person whose gender is never disclosed. Kelley does this brilliantly, and you should all get the collection, Dangerous Space, to see her do it lots.

The big name writers are mostly at the beginning of the book. That’s an unfortunate commentary, because there’s a clear structure to the book that starts with cross-dressing and gender neutrality, then works up to stories about actual trans people. The book ends with “Schrödinger’s Pussy” by Terra LeMay, a highly experimental story that, as the title suggests, refuses to collapse the waveform of identity into particles of specific gender. The fact that Mandelo didn’t, and therefore presumably couldn’t, find good examples from big name writers to put in the second half of the book is another reason for my wanting to commission a trans anthology. (I’m assuming that there are good reasons why she chose “Sea of Cortez” and not one of McDonald’s Diana Comet stories.)

I note also that the vast majority of the writers included are female-identified. This suggests that gender fluidity is something that men are uncomfortable writing about.

The closest we come to a well-known writer with a trans character is Tansy Rayner Roberts’ “Prosperine When It Sizzles”. That does feature a character who has undergone gender surgery, but it is made clear at the end that this was done for political reasons, and as a disguise, which is presumably why it features so early on in the book. I’m not sure I really understood the character.

I don’t think any of the remaining stories are stand-outs, and I’m not surprised. Given how much I have seen novelists struggle with trans characters, I don’t really expect short fiction to be any better. For now it is simply enough to know that some people are prepared to try. Some of the stories are quite ambitious as well. “Spoiling Veena” by Keyan Bowes takes on the emotionally charged issue of raising trans kids, and then goes and sets the story in Delhi. It wasn’t clear to me whether Bowes chose the setting simply to be different, or if she was trying to make a point about Indian society imposing more rigid gender roles.

The other thing worth remembering is that an anthology is, by its nature, a very diverse animal. It is rare that I’ll find one in which I like more than half the stories. So I don’t want to complain. The mere fact that this book exists is something of a minor miracle. And it does contain some really good stories. I expect to see it at least long-listed for the Tiptree — probably shortlisted. But, having seen a taste of what is possible, I now want to see something even better. When does Kickstarter launch in the UK?

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