Outlaw Bodies, edited by Lori Selke and Djibril al-Ayad

Debbie says:

Lori Selke is a friend of mine and a regular commenter on this blog, so this is not an “objective” review (of course, there is no such thing as an objective review).

I have been reading science fiction for over fifty years (!). I have been hanging out in the science fiction/speculative fiction community for nearly forty years. And I’ve been a body image activist for about thirty years. But I can’t recall a single anthology or collection focused on the body, except for a few focused on extremely narrow conceptions of the body (such as androids or sexuality), let alone one which prioritizes the unacceptable body.

 [ Issue 2012.25: Outlaw Bodies; cover art © 2012 Robin E. Kaplan ]

Thus, Outlaw Bodies is not only as appropriate and exciting, but also relieving, offering me the sensation of finding something I didn’t know was missing.

Outlaw Bodies is an anthology of fiction about (to quote from Selke’s introduction)

any body that defies social norms and expectations. An outlaw body is not necessarily the same thing as an illegal body, although illegal bodies are certainly outlaw. …

Outlaw bodies can also simply defy social and cultural expectations or move into spaces that the law does not accommodate. genderqueer, gender-nonconforming and transgender/transsexual people live in outlaw bodies. Individuals with physical disabilities may experience their bodies as outlaw as well. Plastic surgery performance artists join athletes who have changed their physique using performance-enhancing drugs. If a body must belong to a state, then stateless people become outlaw bodies as well.

Selke gives more examples, but that’s a pretty good taste. I’m not sure I agree with this definition of “outlaw bodies,” in part because I don’t see how it differs from “transgressive bodies” or “marginalized bodies.” I’d be interested in seeing some work that was specific to illegal bodies (and, perhaps separately, the question of whether or not a body must — or even can — belong to a state). But those are other anthologies. For this one, I’m happy to go with the editors’ definition of what they’re doing.

The anthology has nine stories, plus an afterword by Kathryn Allan. Looking for themes, I find six that are somehow about artificial or constructed bodies (including artificial constructs which replace the body), one about intense voluntary body modification,one future erotica story which sharply redefines gender,  and one about profoundly anomalous infant bodies. Obviously, all of those are shorthand descriptions that oversimplify the stories, but especially since the six about constructed bodies are extremely different from one another, that’s a taste of the variety in this slim volume.

All of the stories are at least good, and most are excellent. Flipping through the anthology to write this review, I kept getting caught in bits of prose or conceptual moments, enough to make me decide to re-read at least most of the book soon.

Perhaps most memorable is “Mouth,” by M. Svairini. Although there’s plenty of speculative erotica, it is rarely showcased with other forms. “Mouth,” a story about a private sex party, is not for the faint of heart even among erotica readers. In the world of this tale, the major division among humans, rather than gender, is preferred sexual orifice; let your imagination (or M. Svairini’s) take it from there.

Other particularly notable stories include:

“Good Form” by Jo Thomas, in which the narrator is supposed to be training a newly created android to be a companion, but instead becomes the android’s champion (oddly closely connected to the anthology’s “Elmer Bank” by Emily Capettini, in which the protagonist is uncommonly kind to his “paper wife”). “Good Form” creates a powerful empathy between reader and protagonist that echoes the empathy between protagonist and android; “Elmer Bank” offers some particularly haunting images.

“Millie” by Anna Caro, which grapples with the question of disability and technological separation of the person from the body. Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang (a novel that disability activists rightly hate) tackled this theme in 1969. James Tiptree, Jr.’s brilliant “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” approached it from a different angle in 1974. In 2012, the unnamed protagonist of “Millie” has a very complex decision to make because of this separation.

“Frankenstein Unraveled” by Selke, which brings a Frankenstein whose stitches are coming unstitched into contact with the contemporary U.S. medical scene, with both humorous and ironic results.

Outlaw Bodies is an excellent choice for anyone who wants a variety of explorations of where we and our bodies might go in the near and far future and the world of the imagination. Although it is satisfying in its own right, it also whets the appetite for more.