Guest Post: Outlaw Bodies

For another blog exchange, I wrote a post on how furries use their avatars to explore themselves (my post will appear next week). In return, I present this post from Djibril al-Ayad talking about his upcoming collection of stories, Outlaw Bodies. It sounds like a pretty cool anthology, and you guys should take a look when it comes out next month.

Outlaw Bodies: Breaking the Rules

Guest post by Djibril al-Ayad

When Lori Selke and I began discussing the Outlaw Bodies anthology at the very end of last year, the images rushing through my (sf-glutted) mind were of mentally enhanced and genderqueer cyborgs in rebellion against a cyberpunk dystopia, or free-thinking, differently-abled activists refusing compulsory normalization at the hands of an intrusive medico-perfectionist state. I was thinking bodies and all the issues that surround them in terms of control, modification, aggression, persecution; I was thinking cyberpunk, activism and political SF.

The collection of nine stories that we’ve ended up with in this anthology is both more diverse, more subtle, more comprehensive and more militant than my imagining. (I suspect it was closer to Lori’s vision, although no doubt even she was surprised by some of the content.)

Yes, we still have an anthology that addresses issues of body enforcement, normalization, control and persecution; we still have feminist, queer, trans*, disability, body dysmorphia and race issues; we still have science fiction, cyberpunk, posthuman, fantasy, superhero and body horror stories. We do have stories that deal with invasive authorities controlling we way we use or change our bodies, that deal with people breaking or imposing their own norms of physicality and corporeality, and that satirize or lambaste government, corporations and society for bigotry, hypocrisy and injustice.

But the issues that came out in the submissions to this anthology, including many of the stories that we ended up buying, were a reminder that there is more to body control than legislation restricting the ability of trans and queer people to marry, limiting women’s reproductive control, banning chemical and prosthetic enhancers in sport, and denying jobs to people with visible body modifications. The shaming of fat people in the fashion, sport, diet, cosmetic surgery and media industries is as much an assertion of control over our bodies as is a legal sanction; glass ceilings, rape culture, children’s gender stereotyping, cultural imperialism and disempowerment of older women are as much issues of concern to feminism as the rights to vote and take maternity leave; our right to choose gendered clothing, hair color and length, jewelry, tattoos and digital paraphernalia without mockery, discrimination and danger is a deeply political issue impacting on our ability to define our own identity.

We can argue about changing models of what it means to be human, or of a particular race or gender, or able bodied, when so many previously immutable characteristics can be apparently or actually changed by science or by social convention. Science fiction is particularly good at this sort of speculation, because technology is limited by what we can imagine, not what we can engineer, but the real world has examples too. Sport, with its obsession with “fair”, “natural”, “pure” and “above board” competition, is highlighting many of these issues already: Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee South African sprinter, was briefly banned from international competition because his prosthetic “blades” were considered to give him an unfair advantage above able-bodied runners; his compatriot, middle-distance runner Caster Semanya had her world title challenged on suspicion that she might be intersex, and so have an unfair advantage against other female runners. Although both challenges were ultimately overturned on scientific evidence, and neither runner swept the boards at the 2012 Olympic Games, sport’s identity crisis is clearly only going to get worse once cybernetic implants, gene therapy and transgenic humans enter the field. Will there be similar crises in the workplace, in politics, in marriage and adoption law, in medicine and social security benefits as our ability to modify or enhance (or refuse enhancement to) our bodies become more widespread and more radical?

But speculative fiction can—and as we have always argued, should—also be used to cast light on more mundane, less science fictional ways in which our bodies are modified, controlled and judged. Does a parent have the right to let their small child choose their own gender expression, rather than conforming to societal norms? Too easy? Does a parent have the right to let their small child refuse medical treatment for a life-threatening condition on religious grounds? Is there a clean line between these two questions, with no grey area between? Does the law ever have any right to dictate whether, when, how and with whom we can conceive (or avoid or undo conception)? Does government have a duty to protect those who have chosen (or more commonly who refuse to hide or repress) an unconventional orientation, expression, identity or lifestyle from the morality, judgment and prejudice even of an overwhelming majority? How can we, without banning coarse humor or censoring disagreeable speech, help to encourage a culture in which racism, homophobia and trans*-abuse are unacceptable, rape is never funny, and exploitation of marginalized groups is taken seriously as a social problem?
The stories in Outlaw Bodies do not of course answer all of these questions—they don’t even ask all of them—but they are a contribution to the ongoing dialogue about the place of our bodies, our individual, rebellious, wild, finite, exploited and deconstructed bodies, in an evolving political world. I for one have learned a huge amount from reading these nine stories (and the hundred or so other lovely pieces we received in response to the call for submissions but could not fit within this one book). I hope you will engage with this conversation too, by reading these stories, commenting on them, arguing with them, critiquing them, writing your own stories.

Djibril al-Ayad is the nom de guerre of the general editor of The Future Fire, an online magazine of social and political speculative fiction, and co-editor with Lori Selke of Outlaw Bodies, an anthology that Publishing will release in November 2012, and with Fabio Fernandes of We See a Different Frontier, a colonialism-themed anthology expected in Spring 2013.

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