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Beyond Binary (Lethe Press) takes the reader on a journey through worlds where many things are uncertain and undefined, not least of which is what most of us look for first to orient ourselves in a fictional world. Is the protagonist male or female? Is s/he straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender? Am I reading a story told from the inside? About someone like me? By someone like me? We look for these things in the real world too, of course. Gender and sexuality give us a place where understanding can begin.
Because of the central premise of this collection, we are primed to discover what each is a story that goes beyond binary. We know before we begin that these stories will challenge us to recognize difference. We can reassure ourselves that we won’t be surprised by anything, because we are expecting it—whatever it turns out to be. How can we be surprised by the unexpected when the unexpected is what we are expecting?
So when I began to read, I looked for clues. Pronouns can be helpful, but since over half the stories are written in first person, the ungendered I, I looked for other things—clothing, or occupation, or the ways the characters relate to each other. But stories are tricky. They draw us in and carry us along until we forget what we were looking for when we began.
In the first story, “Sea of Cortez,” an American sailor on a ship in the Pacific during World War II is able to express a side of himself he could never have explored at home. He discovers what he wants and despairs of ever having it, until he learns that there are others like himself.
“Eye of the Storm,” the longest story in the book, puts us in an unfamiliar world with relationship patterns that are strange to us and also to the narrator, whose difference goes beyond the difference of the world s/he lives in. It is that very difference that leads the narrator to recognize difference in someone else and proves the key to his/her success.
This story contains the most brilliant line in the book: “…they would never reach me that way, and then we would all still be unsatisfied.”
It’s about encountering the truth of another person and respecting it.
“Fisherman” takes us back into our own familiar world to show us how someone who is different can still negotiate ordinary life in his/her own unique way.
“Pirate Solutions” shows us the danger in exiling difference.
Several of the other stories, like “Prosperine When It Sizzles” and “The Faerie Cony-Catcher,” deal with accepting the wholeness of the person one loves.
The narrator of “Bleaker Collegiate Presents an All-Female Production of Waiting for Godot” gives us the second best line in the book: “So many of the things we do we keep from ourselves.”
“Bone House” shows us the horrors of addiction to virtual reality while also giving us a way to understand it, as we see that some people retreat to a virtual world in order to be what the “real” world will not allow them to be—their truest selves.
In “Sex with Ghosts,” we see a world in which people live their sexual fantasies with the help of robots designed for the purpose. It portrays sex as narcissism, severed from relationship.
In “Spoiling Veena,” parents learn that even the child they designed themselves is different in ways they never could have anticipated. And the child, by living her difference, liberates the parents as well.
In “The Metamorphosis Bud,” an old woman wakes up to discover that she has a penis. Instead of being shocked or terrified, she decides to have some fun with it.
“Schrödinger’s Pussy” (a reference to Schrödinger’s cat, a thought experiment about uncertainty) explores a number of possibilities of what may (or may not) happen in a relationship between people who may (or may not) be same/opposite sex.
Read this one twice.
By the time I finished the book, I had found the unexpected that I was not expecting. I stopped looking for clues. It ceased to be important to know a person’s gender or the way they expressed their sexuality. It simply didn’t matter.
By the time I finished the book, I had forgotten that I was looking for difference, because these stories are not about people who are different. They are about us. They are about the difference in us, the strangeness in us, the part of us that we may not yet have discovered or acknowledged.
What this book is really about is the freedom to be different and to express one’s differentness, which is to say, one’s uniqueness. It’s not that a few people don’t fit neatly into the categories we’ve defined for ourselves; it’s that no one does. If we cannot accept difference, we cannot accept ourselves.
These stories encourage us to drop our expectations, to let go of our habit of thinking in categories and our need to sort things into boxes. We don’t know how to attune ourselves to uniqueness, except through love. And that is what these stories are about.
The power of these stories is not that they teach us about the other. They teach us that we are the other. In them you may find yourself—the self you know and the self you suspect, and even perhaps the self you’re hiding from.
Read them all.
If you dare.
Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction
Edited by Brit Mandelo
Paperback, 9781590210055, 276 pp.