Saturday 13 October 2012

Outlaw Bodies contributors' joint interview

Cover art, Robin E. KaplanThe Outlaw Bodies anthology, conceived by Lori Selke and co-edited with The Future Fire, will be released in early November in print and e-book; a few of the stories will also be published online in a special issue of TFF magazine. The book collects speculative fiction stories that deal with the control, repression or regulation of the human—or post-human—body. To set the scene, we’d like to introduce you to the contributors and editors as they ask each other questions in this serial interview.

Djibril asks Jo: Is there a story behind your choice of subject-matter for “Good Form”? Did you have an actor or celebrity in mind for the Form we meet in the story? (If you didn’t, who do you think would be the first person to license their image like this?)

Jo Thomas: There isn’t any particular story behind it—just the usual underlying fascination with the train-wreck that is celebrity public life. I have difficulty reading people and I always wonder what the gap is between what I see and what is presented. Likewise, with celebrity, I wonder what the gap is between what is presented and the person behind the presentation. In terms of “Good Form”, I was thinking of a number of male actors who get something of a reputation for being, well, let’s go with “charming”. A characteristic that would sell well and the original might be happy to licence off, particularly if he were unlikely to run into any copies and end up charming the same people!

Jo asks Vylar: I enjoyed the characterisation of the relationship between mother and daughter in “She Called Me Baby”, and the use of body modification to mark the daughter’s rebellion against her mother and society’s expectations. If you could have similar work done, what would you do and would it also be a rebellion?

Vylar Kaftan: I’m afraid I’m really boring with my body modifications. I only do reversible/removable things. So I’ve got some fun piercings, but no tattoos. I might have some fun with spine-altering artwork, like in the story, if it were fully reversible. But overall, I prefer subtle subversion; I’d rather infiltrate than confront.

Illustration: Rhiannon Rasmussen-SilversteinVylar asks Anna: The protagonist in “Millie” had interesting reflections on her situation and a unique perspective on the world. What inspired you to write this story?

Anna Caro: The inspiration was in part personal; as someone with a neurologically-based impairment which affects my movement, I’ve often wondered about the possibilities of replacing the body with something else, whether that would be something which offers me opportunities or simply another area of exclusion, and how I would relate to it. That said, I’m careful to add that my situation is vastly different from that of the protagonist—and something I hope I’ve managed to do justice. A secondary inspiration was people I know experiencing natural disasters, and thinking about the question what would you save first? Most people wouldn’t separate themselves and their bodies in answer to that question, and the idea of doing so gave me the opening scene.

Anna asks Lori: Your introduction to the anthology concludes by talking about resistance. Do you see the mere fact of having (or being) an outlaw body as a form of resistance, or is resistance an act that needs to be chosen and performed?

Lori Selke: This is such a great question. I think there are certain forms of resistance that are chosen and conscious, and some that can be unconscious. I think one can lack a “revolutionary consciousness” as it were and still be enacting resistance—possibly against one’s own wishes and ideology—just by continuing to exist in an outlaw body. Situations in which someone’s very presence may challenge the usual narrative. This also, of course, brings into question issues of visibility and invisibility as well, for an extra layer of complication. But basically, I see a continuum of possibilities here.

Lori asks Tracie: Your protagonist goes through great lengths to spend more and more time in a mecha body, but she also admits that her true desire is to touch the earth, which she can’t do in any form. Will she find happiness in her new body or will she still feel essentially alienated?

Illustration: Miranda JeanTracie Welser: I see Sarah’s primary desire as one of escape from her own body in which she feels out of place. She’s also escaping from the restrictions placed upon her body in terms of gender and her claustrophobic life in the overcrowded space habitat. A trans friend with considerable creative chops (so I trust her critique doubly) told me that she read this narrative as one of body dysmorphia: Sarah doesn’t feel this is the body she wants to be in, and she never really has. That read had a powerful impact on the way I saw my own story. For Sarah, escaping from her body to a mech body was an act of liberation rather than desperation, in spite of the fact she’ll never be able to live on the planet and interact with the earth the way people once did.

Tracie asks Emily: I confess that I’m a huge fan of stories that explore power dynamics and feminist awakenings, the kind of stories that Alice Sheldon, Joanna Russ or Pamela Zoline might have written. These stories tend to engage domestic dynamics in pointed ways, sharply critiquing economic and social inequalities. You’ve captured that sensibility in this story; there’s an actual war between the sexes occurring. Are there particular works that influenced your creative process in this story?

Emily Capettini: It’s funny you should mention those writers—Russ and Tiptree/Sheldon are two of my favorite feminist science fiction writers. What’s odd is that when I wrote the first version of this story in 2008, I knew little about them! The initial inspiration came from the Pygmalion myth and paper dolls. I also drew on works from writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and fantasy authors that I loved (and still love), like Patricia C. Wrede and Tamora Pierce, who not only write very good, very real female leads, but who also write with such a wonderful sense of humor about the sort of “traditional” tales that have come before them. I’m particularly fond of Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet. I would say I also owe a debt to Philip K. Dick when it comes to some of the atmosphere and consumerism of the story.

Luckily, since that first version of “Elmer Bank,” I have become much more familiar with works of feminist science fiction. Tiptree’s short fiction, collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, Russ’s criticism, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, have certainly had an impact on the (many, many) later revisions to this story, providing a much richer and more informed way for me to look at what I’ve written and give it a sort of feminist SF ancestry.

Emily asks Svairini: I think it’s really interesting in your story how technology is a major factor when it comes to sexuality and performance of this sexuality is also very important, as clothing seem to be the main indicators of sex in a day-to-day setting. What made you decide to make the sexes still somewhat engineered and to have this concept of performing sexuality built in? Do you anticipate a naturally occurring four sexes in the future of this world or will there always be some reliance on technology?

M. Svairini: This story is the beginning of a sequence, so without giving too much away about the later stories set in the same world, I’ll say—both! Some characters will explore more and more neurological possibilities for pleasure, while others may begin to reject the enhancements. Some characters will get more performative, others will prefer not to perform sexuality at all, saving it for private pleasure only.

“Natural” is a difficult word for me in relation to sexuality, because it has been used so much against people who express divergence: from female desire, to queers, to SM and everything else. I don’t think there is anything “natural” about any aspect of human sexuality at this point in our history—it’s all culturally determined, even the hotness of breaking cultural taboos—unless one takes the position that the sheer diversity is a “natural” outpouring of abundance.

I was interested, in the story, in creating a sexually liberated society free of patriarchal taboos, but also with the power dynamics that I find sexually exciting. This is a society that got rid of the gender binary, only to create an equally rigid set of four genders. The characters get to have great dom-sub sex without patriarchy, and as the later stories unfold, they’ll also get to experience pushing up against their own society’s taboos.

Svairini asks Fabio: Your futuristic story has so many interesting ideas, like the Hive mind, and the Unconnected people who intentionally opt out of the pervasive and intimate information grid, and the Meta Gender individuals who you describe as “a kind of 2.0 hermaphrodite.” It’s like a postmodern Poe story! What’s sexy to you about this imagined future and how are you playing with the edge between sexy/scary/creepy?

Fabio Fernandes: I was just trying to write a very near-future society, as much credibly as I could. In all honesty, The Hive seemed even a silly concept to me—I changed it back to Web twice in different versions of the story, but then again I thought, “well, one day this all will have to change, and it is already changing due to smartphones, mobile devices and what they are calling now the internet of things”. So I guess The Hive was as good a name as any. As for the Unconnected, there are always going to be people against the system. I didn’t want to establish a clean-cut bipolarity; you can be an unconnected for political reasons, but also because it is hip. Also, because the possibility is there; because “I am not a number”. All these reasons are there.

Meta-Gender: I love transexuality and have a special fondness for transgenders. The funny thing is, while I was writing this story, Brazil has accepted into academia the first PhD transgender in its history, Luma Nogueira de Andrade. I didn’t even know that, but I was exhilarated by the fact. I created Midori partially inspired in the life story of Lea T., a Brazilian transgender fashion model who is very assertive of her identity.

To be quite honest, the only really creepy thing to me in this future society I envisioned is the fact that there are still people that see others as different—or, let me put it this way—people that are deeply INDIFFERENT to each other. Things are not getting simpler, let’s face it—they are going to get more complex and maybe messier down the road. We don’t need more than tolerance, we need true acceptance—first of ourselves, then of others. We still live in fear, and I wanted to put other element in the equation to stir the pot. But that doesn’t mean the matter of transgenders will be solved by then—I still intend to write at least one more story with Midori. I’m in love with her and her possibilities.

Illustration: Rachel H. WhiteFabio asks Stacy: First, congratulations on your story. You approached the subject so gently it moved me deeply. What I would like to know in a first moment is how you see this new society you envisioned working a few years down the line? Will the genetic change be eventually seen as a good thing for humankind? Will this new category of the Other suffer even more prejudice, or, as we see that, if doctors already feature it, then so probably politicians, religious leaders and other kinds of influential people are part of this new genus. And did you think how things would develop in other countries?

Stacy Sinclair: Thanks, Fabio. I suppose the optimist in me wants to believe this society that’s evolving so quickly physically, somehow finds a way to emotionally keep pace. That these unique individuals are eagerly welcomed into positions of influence and power to help usher in a new era where humanity experiences a joyful rediscovery of its own capabilities.

In truth, though, I think that the confusion and lack of understanding about such a fast and illogical evolution of the human race would quickly snowball, causing mass confusion and conflict across the globe. Real, true change is seldom gentle, especially when science and society collide. That’s why I tried to write a quiet story; I have this hopeful idea that understanding doesn’t need to be institutionally mandated; that it can and should blossom first on the smallest, most individual level.

Stacy asks Robin: Robin, your work wonderfully fuses organic and synthetic elements and evokes a sense of both conflict and grace. So, playing with the idea of dichotomies, I’m curious as to whether you find more inspiration in the what is, as in, a new perspective on our reality, or in what can be, all the beautiful and terrifying possibilities of tomorrow?

Cover art: Robin E. KaplanRobin E. Kaplan: I find inspiration in what is, and what has been, in order to find hope for tomorrow. All art begins with what we know, and even the most futuristic designs are firmly rooted in the tastes and technologies of the artist’s time. I’m sure authors understand this as well! Actually, I find much inspiration in dichotomies. Especially since I don’t buy that everything is a simple binary system—male/female, black/white, good/bad, organic/inorganic... that kind of over-simplification inspires me to explore the spectrum in-between.

Robin asks Kathryn: As a scholar of science fiction, what ways have you seen mainstream and borderland (for lack of better term) sci-fi differ in their depiction of the ‘outlaw body’? Do you see mainstream fiction as marginalizing, or does it help bring visibility?

Kathryn Allan: I think that it comes down, in many cases, to the intent of the writer, as well as that of the reader. To use your terms, in mainstream SF, the “outlaw body” is often unquestionably monstrous and used in the narrative to represent something else - the outlaw body is monstrous, standing-in for ethnic, physical, intellectual, or moral deviancy of some sort. In a lot of mainstream SF then, it is easy to read the writer’s (perhaps unintended, unquestioned) biases in the figure of the outlaw body. In borderland SF, however, the outlaw body is often at the centre of the text and it is not a simple representation of some kind of deficiency or lack. Writers of borderland SF bring their politics to the forefront - their “monsters” are figures of agency, resistance, and hope. We can see these kinds of outlaw bodies in each of the stories of this anthology - the outlaw body gets to be the hero, or at least, he/she/it resists containment and marginalization by others.

While mainstream SF can certainly be marginalizing for outlaw bodies, I think that many readers experience a sympathetic, or even empathetic, connection to them that goes against the “expected” reading of a text. That is part of the draw of outlaw bodies - even their creators cannot contain them. If a reader is someone grappling with their own sense of isolation or exclusion, then the outlaw body may very well be the figure that they identify with in the story (even if the reader knows that the outlaw body must lose in the end). Those outlaw bodies then become translated into borderland SF, re-owned, re-imagined, and given the agency to speak for themselves. It’s a slow conversation between the centre and the margin, which makes anthologies like Outlaw Bodies so important. Everyone should get a chance to tell their own story, especially the freaks, the monsters, and the outlaws.

Kathryn asks Djibril: As someone who reads a lot of SF/F written by people “on the margins,” do you see hope for the future in their narratives? If yes, how so (in what places, whose voices, which communities)?

Djibril: I do see a lot of hope in these sort of stories, partly simply because these stories are being written at all, as it takes a lot of faith to put yourself out there and believe that speculative fiction can make a difference. (As of course it can, even if it is only—as Ursula Le Guin puts it—to “preach to the choir” and reassure them they’re not alone in caring.) I see a lot of hope in a scathing postcolonial story like Aliette de Bodard’s ‘Immersion’, which not only identifies the problem of appropriation of colonized cultures, massive colonial privilege, cultural and bodily assimilation, but proposes a solution to putting some power back in the hands of the colonized. I see hope in stories like ‘Millie’, ‘Frankenstein Unraveled’ and ‘Winds: NW 20km/hr’ (and really all of the stories in this anthology) which depend for their impact on real world injustices or prejudices, but dare to challenge them and propose solutions to make the world better. I don’t think I would be publishing speculative fiction if I didn’t see great potential for hope in even the darkest dystopia or most gruesome hardcore horror story alongside the joy and excitement of cyberpunk and magical realism. The stories in magazines like Expanded Horizons, collections like Book of World SF, AfroSF, works recommended in #FeministSF and Outer Alliance discussions, all exist because of marginalization, but they couldn’t exist without hope for the future.

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