Outlaw Bodies, edited by Lori Selke and Djibril al-Ayad
Reviewed by Tori Truslow
09 November 2012
From the cyborg to the superhero and ever onwards into the teeming multiverse of posthuman futures, science fiction churns out new and interesting bodies like nothing else. The body is the locus of many of the genre's most cherished motifs: human/alien encounters, intelligent machines, the evolution of the human form—such imagined others often functioning as a lens through which to examine ourselves. But aside from the problematic idea that there's any such thing as a universal definition of the human self, what about the identity and integrity of those other bodies? Popular examples that take a sympathetic look include Asimov's robots and Marvel's mutants, but in many cases "different" bodies are plot devices, threats, or window dressing.
Read with this in mind, this new anthology from The Future Fire is a valuable addition to the tradition of science fictional bodies in two ways—firstly, in poking at the regulations and restrictions placed on a range of bodies by the worlds they inhabit, it acknowledges that human bodies are already complicated, and diverse, and all too often othered. Secondly, in doing so, it makes an argument against the way that "outlaw bodies"—defined in Lori Selke's introduction as "any body that defies social norms and expectations"—are so often treated, in speculative fiction, as monstrous or exotic. Which is not to say that it does away with the cool factor—plenty of neat ideas in here—but that it presents bodies that are surprising and different without making shiny objects of them.
At nine stories, Outlaw Bodies is on the slight side, and mixed in quality, but each of those stories has something interesting to say about the bodily experience, and they are nicely bookended by Selke's introduction and Kathryn Allan's afterword, which do a good job of framing the stories within wider literary and social contexts, and teasing out common themes between them.
Several of the authors have chosen to respond to the subject with tales of constructed bodies: those engineered by humans for a variety of purposes, as with the sentient mannequins of Jo Thomas's "Good Form"—a disturbing, effective choice of story to start the anthology. It follows Astrid, who takes a job assembling and instructing "forms," synthetic copies of celebrities created to entertain rich patrons in exclusive department stores. The forms are products, programmed to please, and yet they must also be socialized by a human teacher before being shipped. This premise alone presents some compelling questions about how much a person's physical presence and behavior is learned and how much is innate; it gets more complicated when Astrid realizes that the other instructors have no qualms about taking sexual pleasure from their forms, and that CCTV footage of these encounters is being leaked as viral advertising.
When Astrid and her assigned form are locked in a cubicle together, ostensibly for privacy, the form rapidly becomes much more knowing about human behavior than Astrid expects. The cubicle's console is frequently alluded to, in one instance "with an Internet browser waiting for a search term to be entered. It wasn't the way she had left it." Just what the form has been looking up is left to the reader's imagination, but there is a strong implication of a self-perpetuating cycle, in which the advertising selectively shows certain bodies acting in certain ways—thus teaching the forms behavior more effectively than either their programming or their human instructors can. Nature and nurture both lose out to media.
Like its opening story, Outlaw Bodies is not a comfortable read; nor should it be. Its subject matter is, after all, the body's relationship with law, society, and culture. Exploring this means showing bodies mistreated, disregarded, and denied autonomy; it means showing conflicts where the body is the battleground. Problems of ownership and control return again and again, and I found that stories that dealt with these issues from an insider point of view—that of the body in question—tended to work better than those looking from the outside in. In the latter category is "Elmer Bank" by Emily Capettini, an alternate reality featuring paper wives, designed as affordable domestic helpmeets for men during a war of the sexes scenario. This story feels like it's trying to be two stories at once, and they never quite gel: one is a grimy realist dystopia of triumphant men and subjugated women, told with a kind of stuffy indignation—"Why, just this morning, Elmer had pulled Douglas out of a scrape because the idiot hadn't bothered to crunch the numbers he'd been assigned"—while the other is a more surreal satire in which paper can talk and recycling bins feature pictures of "newspapers, tin cans, glass bottles and . . . an outline of a female form." And while I understood the decision to tell the story from the point of view of the eponymous well-meaning man who, ultimately, can only fail to understand the perspectives of women both paper and flesh, I was disappointed not to get any insight into the bodily experiences of his paper wife as she tries to free herself.
A more successful look at how someone might try to reclaim their own body is Vylar Kaftan's "She Called Me Baby," in which the cloned daughter of a supermodel undergoes a series of extreme body modifications. Experiencing this through Baby's eyes allows the reader to appreciate that the mods are a statement, but not a straightforward one: part burlesque on her "perfect" DNA, part exploration of what the human body can be, part declaration of selfhood. As she says:
I've spent my career as a model and artist redefining what it means to be Maria-Danae—what it means to be me, to be Baby. I'm proud of my new fame, because it's mine.
There's a wider metaphor at play here, with the imposition of meaning by society onto individuals' bodies being distilled through the mother/creator's imposition of meaning onto her daughter/clone's body. Baby's choice to create her own meaning is resonant for anyone who has defied the expectations placed on them to appear or behave in a certain way, while the awkward mother-daughter reconciliation makes this an emotionally satisfying story as well as a thought-provoking one.
In another riff on the theme of autonomy, Anna Caro's "Millie" takes the idea of the projected body and makes a quietly furious character piece of it. Here, a child born deformed is denied her own physicality, her parents having made the chilling decision that "she would be better off as a brain and a projection, a girl with no body and with the perfect body." This paradox comes to a head when she turns thirteen and her peers are going through puberty—something her computer-generated form can't do. "You do know the age of consent is sixteen," her doctor patronizingly tells her. "You're still a child. Come back when you're older and we'll look at making you an adult." So, in a brilliant moment of self-determination, she learns to hack herself in order to have the body she wants.
Other stories foreground the ways in which bodies are defined by laws and systems, including a return to science fiction's original outlaw body, Frankenstein's Monster, in Selke's "Frankenstein Unravelled." This story looks at what happens when a body is entirely ordinary to its inhabitant, but unrecognized by systems that deal with bodies—in this case, the US health insurance system, which cannot compute the Monster's mismatched DNA. In "Winds: NW 20 km/hr," Stacy Sinclair tackles the mutant scenario from the perspective of a pregnant mother, who has already signed her unborn, anomalous child over to the mysterious Institute. With the number of stories in here about parents and children, it's interesting to have one from the parent's point of view, particularly one that explores how being pregnant can utterly change the legal and societal view of a woman's body.
In a completely different vein is "Mouth" by M. Svairini. This is first and foremost an erotica piece, and did not work for me as such, but it deserves a fair look for dealing with something that I found surprisingly lacking in the rest of the collection: sex and gender variance. I'll admit to having a bee in my bonnet about this, but given that the future seems to come in so many flavors of uploaded consciousness or nanite augmentation, why does so little futuristic SF goes beyond the binary, to places where bodies might be gendered in different ways? Well, "Mouth" goes there. This is a future in which there are four parts of the body classed as "genital areas," and it is up to an individual to assert their gender by choosing which one to have surgically enhanced. Although reducing the spectrum of human gender identity to four instead of two is still, of course, reductive, the concept is imaginative and fascinating, and the story an exuberant one of bodily fulfillment.
However, it's a shame that the only instances of gender variance in the anthology—"Mouth" is one, the other being the "Meta-Gendered" love interest in "The Remaker," Fabio Fernandes's delightfully Borgesian singularity story—are presented primarily in a sexual context. "Mouth" wears this issue on its sleeve—
She had a name, but tonight she would just be Mouth. How delicious and perverse it felt to be addressed just by her gender, her primary genital area.
—and the story takes pains to point out that its protagonist has a full life and identity beyond the (self-)fetishized role she takes on at a sex party, but another story or two dealing with differently sexed or gendered bodies in other contexts would not have been amiss. I was glad to see them here at all, but this is the one area in which the anthology felt lacking to me.
Otherwise, its size is deceptive, providing plenty of food for discussion and thought. It is not a perfect book, in contents or structure—there are some repetitive ideas and forms, particularly the Bildungsroman-y feel that many of the stories take on, perhaps somewhat inevitably, given the focus on bodily identity. The approach works in stories like "Millie," where the narrator's experience of hacking her own way into puberty is a pivotal moment, but less so in Tracie Wesler's "Her Bones, Those of the Dead," where the adult protagonist's desire for a machine body is interesting but the backstory feels like dead weight.
Despite its unevenness, I keep finding my mind wandering back to Outlaw Bodies. Like the bodies and identities it explores, it is patchwork, unexpected, insistent; sometimes awkward, often troubling, always provoking. In a way, the messy parts are also a point in its favor, a reminder that bodies are not straightforward. There's something punky about these stories, in their sense of crisis, their dissonance, raw and electric. And the anthology is more than an assemblage of stories: it's an invitation to reconsider and perhaps reconfigure our understanding and treatment of bodies in science fiction, in our present and our future. I hope plenty of readers and writers take up that invitation.