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Beyond cover

Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Anthology is a welcome departure from the stale crumbs of tokenism and subtext in media. Created by queer comic artist and writer Sfé R. Monster, Beyond reaches towards the edges of the universe, explores the edges of the known and imagined, all while centering queer, trans, and nonbinary experiences. Some of the stories play with familiar queer narratives of coming out, finding your family, and finding love; others present queered versions of recognizable SF/F stories and premises.

For readers who follow contemporary queer comics, there will be some familiar names on Beyond’s table of contents. Contributors include Blue Delliquanti of O Human Star and Leia Wethington of Bold Riley. Strange Horizons readers might recognize Alison Wilgus and Nicasio Reed, credited here as Gabby Reed, who both published stories in SH in 2015.

Beyond opens with "Luminosity," drawn by Rachel Dukes and written by Nicasio Reed. Joy, an astronaut, must find a way out to the stars without sacrificing Amy, the woman who powers her ship. Amy, though a prisoner, recognizes the monumental triumph of their trip. "Don’t tell me it doesn’t make your heart race," Amy tells Joy. "Don’t tell me that’s not worth it to you."

"Don’t be a butthole," Joy replies, kissing her. But the two women are not given a choice in the matter. Amy and Joy make it out to the stars, but then elect to stay there. Joy jettisons the engines which are necessary to make their return, but which might kill Amy in the process. "You were right, okay?" Joy admits. "This is worth it to me."

"Of Families And Other Magical Objects" by Reed Black explores the love that ties together found and formed families. Two fathers have to journey into a goblin house to retrieve their daughter, who was kidnapped by the goblin king. The foundling that was meant to replace her, Grog, helps them after realizing how much the two men love each other, and their daughter. The art is perfect for the story, with cute and imaginative monsters—even the menacing ones look like something you’d want to hug. It’s a warm and affirming story, something you’d want to read to your kid (or adopted goblin, whatever).

"The Monster Queen" by Savannah Horrocks and April J. Martins is a wordless story about falling in love across political lines. Its two protagonists are members of rival kingdoms, one human and the other monster. The princess of the human kingdom discovers that her parents are holding one of the monsters imprisoned, possibly as a hostage, or perhaps a political prisoner. She confronts her own prejudices to do what she knows is right, and frees it, accompanying it back to its own territory. The monster kingdom is lovingly drawn, with creatures that evoke Shaun Tan’s worlds and work, and the atypical love story is charming and sweet.

This is a good place to mention the sheer number of happy endings this collection has. Tragedy has hemmed the real life trans and queer communities in on all sides, and "Bury Your Gays" is a narrative device popular enough to earn a place in TvTropes (not to mention queer audiences’ continuing ire). Beyond understands the need for queer stories that don’t end in death—a need that feels particularly acute in the month following one mass shooting in a Florida gay club, and a narrowly averted one during a Pride celebration in California.

Not to say that all the stories are happy and without tragic or sad elements. "Duty and Honor" by Shing Yin Khor is a look at polyamorous relationships, and how grief can affect them. Alexei and Mary, the commander and doctor of a mission to Mars, eagerly await the arrival of their mutual lover, Ming Hua, who is commanding the next shuttle. When her ship explodes in transit, Alexei and Mary have to learn how to navigate the press, their duties to Ming Hua’s memory, and each other. It’s a careful, sympathetic tale of the bonds of love and friendship. Its coda is a heartbreaking letter from Mary to Ming Hua, with two lines that resonate so strongly with the rest of the anthology. "There has been another manned shuttle already. The program’s continuing. This work we do—it’s important, right?" And Mary’s parting words, "with love, from Mars, to wherever," seem like an alternative subtitle to Beyond, the ultimate sign-off from its creators to their audience.

What and who we sacrifice to further the bounds of human knowledge is a theme that also runs through "O-Type Hypergiant" by Joe Cairns. The story’s art is reminiscent of the hypermasculine beefcake and physique magazines, sexy but restrained—all of the art in Beyond is rated PG—interspersed with moments of not-quite body horror; the male androids ("Instamen" in Cairns’s story) are able to partially disassemble themselves to plug directly into their ship. The ship in the story is powered by a single star, Alpha Cygni or Deneb, which folds space-time around it: in order to bring humanity to the stars, we’ve had to steal them out of the sky, robbing the night of their presence.

A story of contrasting opposites, "Versus" by Wm Brian MacLean feels like an outlier in the anthology, with a story and art that are minimalist and evocative, nearly abstract. The lines flow effortlessly, portraying love and conflict and death and the spaces in between.

"Barricade" by Anissa Espinosa and Alison Wilgus is a tense, tightly-plotted look at what can go wrong in space, as one astronaut races to save another. It’s one of the most thrilling stories in the book, with excellent pacing, cinematic art, and a moving ending.

The anthology closes with a different take on a post-apocalyptic story. "The Next Day" by A. Stiffler and K. Copeland takes place after Ragnarok, when the sun has been eaten and all light has gone out of the world. Or has it? Aud and Ziri find each other in the dark wilderness, and scrape out a life together; the end of the world doesn’t extinguish life or love. It’s a sentiment that nicely echoes the opening story: even at the edges of the universe, love guides us, and steers our lives and choices.

A couple of Beyond’s stories hit the same beats with the same rhythm. They establish the world, the main conflicts, and the characters in short order. The resolution of characters’ internal struggle—whether it’s for acceptance or self-love—leads directly to the resolution of the external conflict. "They Simply Pass" by Kristina Stipetic has a cast of robots who are trying to change their programming, but the break with tradition needs to be balanced with their need for community. The transgender[1] protagonist of Sfé R. Monster’s "The Dragon Slayer’s Son" wants to prove himself a man in the traditional ways of his clan, but doesn’t want to kill a dragon to do it. The resolutions come a little too easily, and the space’s constraint works against the story, rather than for it.

A few stories have the opposite problem; that the sheer amount of worldbuilding eclipses the characters in it, and readers don’t have the time or space to explore. "Eat At Chelle’s" by Lin Visel and Leia Wethington is overcrowded with science-fantasy accoutrements: insectoid traders, octopi that work in kitchens, tattooed maps, flying carpets. Other stories read as (and mostly seem to be, from the contributors’ bios) smaller introductory stories from larger works. Luckily, most of those works are available for free online, such as Blue Delliquanti’s O Human Star and Dylan Edwards’s Valley of the Silk Sky.

It’s too big a task for a single volume to serve as an exhaustive survey of the field, but Beyond is an excellent jumping-off point into the wide world of queer speculative comics. Each story has something to offer. There are space pirates, robots, dragons, goblins, aliens, androids, and everywhere, sewn into the spine of the volume, there is pride for all things queer and nerdy.

One of the most important things about Beyond is its accessibility to younger readers; though the stories deal with themes that resonate across generations, all of them are PG. It can be tough for younger queer, trans, or nonbinary audiences to find themselves reflected in media, or to access community. Queer content is often automatically labeled as "for adults," and restricted or made inaccessible to underage audiences. Beyond’s PG rating is a sign of the anthology’s eye towards younger readers, who might feel isolated and alienated. Sfé R. Monster, in their introduction, writes that Beyond is "the book I wish I had been able to find when I was sifting through stories as a kid, desperately trying to catch my reflection in fiction."

Beyond is dedicated "for the people in the dark—on an island or in the closet—still waiting for their first sign of light." With love, from Earth to wherever; from distant planets and stars, from goblin houses, from pirate ships, from monster kingdoms, from the future, from cities of magic; to every future we can imagine for ourselves.

One last note: the editorial team behind Beyond recently announced the lineup for their second anthology, which will be a collection of urban fantasy and post-apocalyptic stories. Happy Pride!

Endnotes

  1. I’m conflicted about using this term in a fantasy story where there’s little context for a culture’s view of gender, whether it’s binary or tertiary or a gradient or something else entirely. I use it here for clarity’s sake. [return]

Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago, and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Nino's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, In the Fray, Autostraddle, and Gozamos. One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.



Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago, and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Nino's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, In the Fray, Autostraddle, and Gozamos. One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.
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30 Jan 2023

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