“Outlaw Bodies” ed. Lori Selke & Djibril al-Ayad – A Review

outlaw bodies

(Futurefire.net Publishing, 168pp, pb £8.00)

This review was originally published in issue #245 of science-fiction magazine Interzone. You can buy back issues and subscribe to future issues at their shop.

If science-fiction has a point beyond simple entertainment – and I would imagine most Interzone readers would say it does –I would submit that the most likely candidate is to push boundaries and challenge norms. So it’s fairly encouraging to see Outlaw Bodies wedding itself to that idea from the introduction: an anthology of stories revolving around “any body that defies social norms and expectations“.

With that as a mission statement, Jo Thomas’ “Good Form” is a good start. Painting a strangely alarming vision of the future, it shows the construction and education of an artificial intelligence. The conclusion leaves an unsettling taste, with deeper musings on the nature of intelligence and when exactly the pupil outstrips the teacher.

Vylar Kaftan’s “She Called Me Baby” is a story about a mother-daughter relationship, ramped up to eleven as the daughter is a clone, as a publicity gimmick by her “mother”. It’s a subtle story, wearing its themes softly and with a lightly emotional touch, and an ending which sadly strays a little into the predictable (or perhaps inevitable?).

“Millie” by Anna Caro went to the heart of the anthology’s theme. A girl without a body, struggles to grow up experiencing the world through an artificial aid which is more like a pet. It was a good story, but tended to confuse and lose me along the way.

I’m generally wary of editors including their own stories in their anthologies, and Lori Selke’s “Frankenstein Unravelled” rather seems to justify those concerns. It’s well-enough written, with the technical competence of a clearly talented writer, but as a concept Frankenstein’s monster grappling with the healthcare system was a bit bland.

I rather liked “Her Bones, Those of the Dead” by Tracie Welser, yet thinking on it I’m not entirely sure why. It was a simple yet effective story about a character uncomfortable in her skin, seeking the solitude and comfort of another way of life. It stuck with me long after I had turned the page on it – which can only be a compliment.

It took me a while to make up my mind about Emily Capettini’s “Elmer Bank”. It wasn’t poorly written, and the idea of a world in the aftermath of a gender war was ripe and interesting. But too often the explanation seemed focused in the wrong direction–exposing flaws in the setting, rather than elucidating the mechanics or advancing the story.

And now we reach my least favourite offering. “Mouth” by M. Svarini started out promisingly, with a bold and imaginative world where people are grown in labs, and biology is the plaything of a decadent society. So it was disappointing to see it fade into a straightforward, if explicit, erotic fantasy. I don’t read erotica, so maybe I’ve missed the point, but then this isn’t an erotica anthology, so I’m not really sure what the point was.

“The Remaker” by Fabio Fernandes is, I think, my favourite. It kept me guessing, uncertain until it was done whether I actually did like it or not. At face, it’s a story about a literary mystery, set in a vastly transformed world. But through that, it moves to the sort of fundamental themes on which the anthology as a whole sets its sights. The constant popular culture references get a bit grating, but the writing glimmers nonetheless, and the characters crackle with life.

Closing out the collection, Stacy Sinclair’s “Winds: NW 20 km/hr” is another very good story. Featuring an unconventional pregnancy and birth, it manages to weave compelling themes of motherhood, fatherhood and what it means to be human, into a surprisingly short piece. An excellent curtain-closer.

Outlaw Bodies features some very good stories, and sets itself some very laudable aims. Unfortunately, it also hamstrings itself to some extent with a sense of inconsistency. Some of the stories in this collection were outclassed by the subjects they set themselves. That inconsistency, and the failure of some of the pieces to measure up, leaves a regretful and souring sense of disappointment which mars the experience.

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