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Every woman has died at the hands of a global pandemic that targets only them. The number of men still alive is unknown—perhaps unknowable—though a few subsist in a small agrarian community referred to as the Group, in a remote place called the Valley of the Rocks. Nate, "just twenty-three and given to the curation of stories" (p. 1), serves as the Group's storyteller. He is ours as well, narrating Aliya Whiteley's fungal body horror novella The Beauty. Published last year by Unsung Press, The Beauty went on to receive nominations for the Shirley Jackson and Saboteur awards, and also garnered an entry on the James Tiptree Jr. Honors List. The last of these accolades does well to contextualise Whiteley's novella next to the thought-experimental science fiction of the late sixties and early seventies which, like Tiptree's, steered the genre for a time towards sociological, psychological and political inquisitiveness, away from pulpy technological fetishism and masculinity-infused competence fantasies.

The Beauty begins in the midst of a long, slow wait for death. The men of the Group busy themselves in the roles they serve in the community (Ben the doctor, Thomas the cook, Nate the storyteller), their routine and nostalgia cultivating a tone of quiet misery. Unlike the rest of the Group, Nate feels that "there are signs of change" (p. 1). He's still looking for a way out. Until he finds it, he's content to "inject meaning" into to the Group through his stories, which he describes with immense pride:

I listen, retain, then polish and release them over the fire at night, when the others hush and lean forward in their desire to hear of the past. They crave romance, particularly when autumn sets in and cold nights await them, and so I speak of Alice, and Bethany, and Sarah, . . . and other dead women. (p. 1)

Homosexuality within the Group is mentioned, though it comes with qualifications: only the younger ones engage in it, "once the cider is thick and mellow in stomachs" (p. 13). Oddly, fellatio is explicitly referenced, but not intercourse. Meanwhile, no mention is made of trans women or men, nor gender fluidity. This may be because The Beauty occupies a space that is almost fairy tale or allegory: its cast of characters is small, the setting geographically vague and primordial in ambience. Nate's narration handles imagery with a songlike quality, a kind of playfulness that at times brushes shoulders with twee, while the science fictional mechanisms of disease and fungus lack the explanatory excess one too often encounters in genre fiction.

All of which, together with the brevity of the novella form, encourages us to read The Beauty's constructs less as mimetic representations than as symbols or signs: the Group serves, collectively, as the sign of Man; the sign of Woman has been erased or overwritten by the sign of Disease; and so on. Despite thereby broadcasting itself as perhaps ill-equipped to handle nuanced characterization, the story’s absence of self-identifying homosexual, transgender, or non-binary characters remains disappointing in light of The Beauty's gender-oriented premise. Soon, however, another "sign" appears which comes to embody non-normative genders and sexualities more generally.

One night, Nate's uncle Ted conscripts him to track two missing men in a tranche of nearby forest. During their search, Ted vanishes suddenly in the dark, while Nate gets pulled down into the mud, hearing a sound like low humming. He awakens later in a "large warm chamber with earthen walls . . . [and] a ragged hole in the floor," out of which crawls "[a] woman. A thing. It is yellow and spongy and limbed, with a smooth round ball for a head. It is without eyes, without ears" (p. 18). Descriptions of this being recall earlier ones of both the disease that killed the women, and mushrooms that Nate had recently discovered growing on their graves. The "thing" leaves Nate alone after he soils himself in terror, then visits periodically to feed him. It cleans him and attempts a kind of telepathic communication. They touch; they have sex. Nate recalls his mother, and her self-hatred for not living up to impossible beauty standards, then names the fungal humanoid being "Bee, for Beauty" (p. 22). Bee shows Nate others of its kind, all grown from the corpses of women, who want to join the Group and "be warmed by men." Nate names them, collectively, "the Beauty."

Having found the sign of change he longed for, Nate emerges from the womb metaphor and returns to find the Group exchanging eulogistic stories about him around the fire. After recovering from their shock, the men urge Nate to rest up and wait to tell the story of his ordeal, but he insists on sharing immediately; then, on the cusp of finishing it, he falls silent. Like a magician producing the object of a fairy tale at the climax of its telling, Beauties stream into the gathering during Nate's pause, each choosing, in a horrific parody of Eve being given to Adam, a terrified, panicked man with whom to pair and copulate:

The Beauty encircle them, enclose them, take them into their embrace and rock them, absorb them, until terror and pleasure become one and the same. Then the only sounds are the sighs and sobs of wordless confusion that will, no doubt, soon be replaced with an acceptance as deep and wide and thankful as my own. (p. 28)

Time passes. The Group and the Beauties, having settled into a series of monogamous couplings, live together amidst changes both predictable and unexpected. One of these is that the Beauties possess physical strength far outstripping the men's, and so take on much of the community's "unpleasant" manual labor. Though this type of work is not essentially masculine—since nothing is essentially masculine or feminine—we take Whiteley's point: that while physically resembling women as far as Nate and the rest of the Group are concerned, the Beauties assume social roles typically associated with men. The text's re-allocation of gender roles extends itself further when some of the men—the young ones, referred to as "teenagers," who engage in homosexuality—start wearing skirts and dresses left behind by the dead, much to the chagrin of the older men who represent a "traditional" or conservative mindset.

Few of the men, if any, are free of misgivings. Even after months with the Beauties, several remain deeply skeptical of and repulsed by them. The Beauties' strength also carries with it the looming threat of rape ("we must give up so much of ourselves to the Beauty," Nate says, "and not just our semen" [p. 34]). Nate describes symbiosis with them in psychic terms as the filling of an existential void; but an additional, biological component insinuates itself, seeing as several of the men cannot wander too far from "their" Beauties' sides without experiencing a kind of nausea:

Separating from Bee quickly leads to an ache in my stomach, a queasiness that grows with passing minutes [. . .] The feeling is strong that we shouldn't be in different rooms, not for a moment. It is this that makes me uncomfortable, but I can appreciate it. Discomfort is not a disaster. (p. 30)

Two dissenters conspire to kill a Beauty, and it turns out that Eve can leave the garden, and leave Adam to his void, because afterward the Beauties all head back into the woods, only returning once the killers are punished in view of the tree-line. Nate's uncle Ted delivers the beating. While he once spent most of his time away from the Group, Ted asserts himself as a kind of de facto leader. Almost as soon as he does, Nate and he begin to clash over the kinds of stories that each thinks the Group should hear.

The first story we see Nate tell, before the Beauties arrive, is an origin myth of the Group, making it clear that he serves as a kind of historian, and his stories as communal memories. Because of this, the stories' "truth"—or rather, the communal perception of them as being true—is of central concern. Once the Beauties arrive and some of the men threaten an already tenuous cohabitation with violence, Nate extends his mythologizing efforts towards peddling a fantasy of the future in which all the men love and accept the Beauties. This renewed approach to storytelling reveals that, for Nate, his tales have always been about managing the outlook of others. Nate's theater of control, which had once been a kind of communal glue, begins to dissolve when the men vehemently reject what increasingly amounts to sheer propaganda. Sensing the potential for Nate's overt manipulativeness to "tip [the Group] into chaos" (p. 53), Ted warns him that future "stories" of this kind will be met with punishment. In the meantime, Nate's inability to sway the Group towards a unanimous, loving embrace of the Beauties leaves him in a state of self-pity, and doubting what language can accomplish.

As Nate wearies of his failures as a storyteller, he develops further telepathic communication with Bee—a kind of morse code of strobing imagery and raw, seemingly unmediated emotion, which is necessary because the Beauties cannot talk. Their vocalization consists of a range of hums, wails, and screeches. The descriptions of human-Beauty telepathy are too few and thin, though, to offset the continuous portrayal of the Beauties as an inscrutable Other. In fact the subjective experiences of the Beauties are rendered so sparingly, and their presences reduced to purely bodily ones to such a thorough extent, that this othering quickly becomes the most significant aspect of the novella. It is also where the text either deeply undermines itself, or embraces the semiotic flattening of non-normative genders and sexualities into a single figure of misunderstood monstrosity. Beyond serving to re-configure gender roles, Whiteley's Beauties also represent queerness more generally. This double-duty or entanglement means that aspects of the Beauties that encode and critique masculinity—and nearly all of these are sexual or violent in nature, an example being their general disregard for consent—also encode and critique queerness.

*

In "Near Life, Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture," Eric Stanley offers a conception of queerness that resonates eerily with The Beauty:

I am using the term queer to precisely index the collision of difference and violence. In other words, queer is being summoned to labor as the moment when bodies, non-normative sexuality/genders, and force materialize the im/possibility of subjectivity. Against an identity that assumes a prior unity, queer disrupts this coherence and also might function as a collective of negativity, void of a subject but named as object, retroactively visible through the hope of a radical politics to come. [1]

These statements are so satisfied by The Beauty's premise that one wonders if Whitely had encountered Stanley’s essay. Stanley goes on to investigate the severity and manifestations of anti-queer violence, something that finds further echoes in Whiteley's novella. All of the following happens in some shape or form towards the Beauties: their subjectivity is ignored, overwritten, and scarcely reported; their bodies are assaulted and their sexuality depicted as assault; they are considered physically repulsive, and intimacy with them horrifying, by every member of the Group at first, even if some come to welcome the union; each is referred to as "it"; and Nate's attempts to include them in an ongoing oral history of the Group meet with derision. From Stanley: "Queers then are the specters of life whose threat is so unimaginable that one is 'forced', not simply to murder, but to push them backward out of time, out of History" (p. 9).

Queerness, embodied by the Beauties, manifests as trauma inflicted on this society of men—trauma that breaks and forces it to change and reform, or else die, in a reversal of how our own society traumatizes queerness and queer bodies as part of an ongoing program to police, reinforce, and rigidify an "assumed prior unity." In the capacity, then, that it acts as a kind of queer revenge narrative—a sardonic embrace of the idiom "fear the queer"—the rendering of queerness as body horror for this traditionally masculine commune is where The Beauty achieves something like ecstasy. Men who signify reactionary bigots, and who all have forgettable names, attempt to harm the Beauties only to be "disassembled" by them (p. 79). Someone's head gets flattened between a Beauty's hands with a "sound like the cracking of an egg," and is then "scoop[ed] up and carr[ied] from the room" (p. 67). "Blood as copious as a river after rainfall" drenches someone else's front porch. These sequences—and there are several, though one in particular remains the most visceral and disturbing piece of body horror I have yet encountered—are written with deftness and a kind of exuberance unmatched by any other aspect of the text. As far as queer-encoding monsters go, the Beauties are fun to root for.

By contrast, The Beauty's efforts to humanize its symbolic other and construct a vision of the future involving them seem underdeveloped, poorly considered, and ultimately unimaginative. Excepting brief bouts of telepathic communication, very few outlets for Beauty subjectivity—how a Beauty sees or experiences the world—exist. One of the ways in which that experience could be, if not demonstrated, then generated by the reader, would be through their actions; but what the Beauties do when they aren't "taking [on] the heavy tasks" (p. 30), hovering protectively over their symbiotes, or tearing threatening men to pieces, remains a mystery. Whether they need to consume food or are photosynthetic, whether they excrete waste or practice any form of personal hygiene, is never addressed, leaving the Beauties both a nearly entirely physical, yet at the same time spectral, presence in the text. Such is the life of a sign.

Not only is there a failure to explore to any appreciable depth the subjectivity of the Beauties; there is a failure to address the self-identification and subjectivity of the men who explore what the text views as femininity. Easily among the most intriguing turns of the novella is the decision by Thomas and the teenagers to wear articles of clothing once belonging to women. But if any of them feel as if they are women, or are becoming women, or would like to be women, the reader never discovers, and Nate never so much as wonders (it bears mentioning that the pronoun "he" remains in use for every member of the Group throughout). Nate himself does doubt on a couple of occasions whether he "want[s] to be a man" (p. 55), but he does not pursue this line of inquiry much internally or discuss it with anyone else. It is also unclear why the men are "feminized" by the Beauties taking on masculine traits to begin with, unless we are operating under the assumption of a kind of zero-sum gender binary that must maintain a balance or equilibrium, and which the death of women sets off-kilter. One recalls a memory of Nate's regarding a woman named Miriam, who told him before the disease took her that "nothing good comes from anything but natural rhythms: daybreak and sunset, spring and winter," and there are many other textual affirmations of the need for "natural" binaries (p. 2).

That The Beauty assumes a kind of gender essentialism becomes all but certain when it is revealed that a tumescent lump that had been rapidly growing from Thomas's side is in fact a baby, and that his genitalia have shriveled over the course of his pregnancy. (It is only this aspect of his experience of "feminization" that Thomas talks about with Nate, thereby reducing this entire process to a metaphorical interview about genitals.) The baby's appearance allows us to retroactively understand the meaning behind every depiction of Bee's telepathy with Nate, and the teleology behind "feminizing" the men who welcome their Beauties. Catalyzed by the figure of the child, these avatars of queerness undergo a final reduction, becoming a mechanical extension of Plot, the purpose of which is ultimately to produce, as a kind of deus ex machina, a manner for (hu)mankind to carry on, albeit in an altered form. Viewed more charitably, these Beauty-human babies are queer avatars themselves, and a protest against bigots who proclaim that a queer future is no future at all on the basis that queer people do not reproduce. Not only is a queer future a viable future here: it is the only viable future.

Though its riposte to the notion that there can be no queer future is both enjoyable and puckish, The Beauty's goal to reconcile queerness with a future that is reproductive in nature amounts to a rehabilitation of the queer along value lines inscribed by heteronormativity. A more radical approach would interrogate the imperative towards a reproductive future in the first place. Theorist Lee Edelman does this in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, arguing that an omnipresent cultural and political obsession with "reproductive futurism"—a concept visible through the cultish idolization and constant rhetorical abduction of the figure of the child—is fundamentally anti-queer.[2] Though the offspring of Beauties and men are hybrids—neither human nor fungus—and so signify a queering of the future, a preoccupation with the first such newborn's genitals—with awe, the men behold it has a vulva!—merely reinforces an ultimate concern with the biological mechanisms of reproduction; which isn't very queer at all. In fact it seems representative of a need to domesticate queerness and render it acceptable or appealing—not to mention comprehensible—to a non-queer populace. Even in speculative futures that are not intended to be queer, babies must count among the least imaginative embodiments, instruments, or symbols available.

*

Following a bloody massacre during which several men are ripped limb from limb for stabbing to death two pregnant teenagers, the few remaining men and "their" Beauties take final refuge in a house. The Beauty thereby subdivides into two different groups or classes: those who are bonded to one of the remaining men retain their names, develop individual identity traits (one takes to wearing a hat), and collectively are still called the Beauty; those who lack a symbiote, meanwhile, are kept outside, stripped of their names, and reduced to a horde called the Unloved, who bay and scratch at the sides of the cabin inarticulately demanding union. In his final act of managerial storytelling, Nate exhorts the others to leave with him; for if they don't, the Unloved, Nate says, "'will come in and they will kill the Beauty, and they will take us and use us. Maybe they'll even kill the babies so they can make their own with us'" (p. 90). Instead of Ted, it is Nate's best friend Thomas who rejects this narrative:

"You say the Unloved will kill and rape, and I say they won't. Why are you right, and I am wrong? Just because you know how to wrap it up in a story?" (p. 94)

Grammars of control and domination that The Beauty attempts to unravel—via, for example, its increasingly skeptical take on violent masculinity and political storytelling—are re-instated as a climactic solution, with Nate telepathically commanding Bee, now properly subordinated as his queer shadow, to slay Ted ("I call Bee in my mind. I tell it what to do" [p. 97]). Nate casts this act as an acceptance of "how to be a man," seemingly relinquishing the skepticism he had held regarding his gender identity. Forsaking persuasive rhetoric only to employ a more reliable way of removing the obstacle posed by another also indicates the text's real problem with propaganda: not that it is manipulative and dehumanizing—a reduction of the subjective Other to a mechanical extension of the self—but rather that it doesn't get the job done as efficiently as outright mind control.

The novella's themes of coercion, manipulation, and subjugation ultimately undermine its overarching message of acceptance. Nate often uses the word "love" when presenting symbiosis with the Beauties—as the filling of an existential void, then as a hopeful "future for men." Yet, the inter-dependency between most of the men and Beauties seems as much a matter of necessity in a kind of hostage situation, a dynamic that echoes the novella's early depiction of homosexuality within the Group. Even Nate's initial infatuation with Bee develops so quickly, and under such duress in the underground cavern, that it can be potentially read as a form of Stockholm syndrome, and Nate's resulting desire to conjoin the Group and the Beauty as having been telepathically implanted by Bee. Indeed, the text supports this reading: Nate says during their first encounter that "to touch it—this plant's thoughts, emotions, in my mind. I can't separate its desires from my own" (p. 20).

The problematic nature of the Beauties as a symbol is somewhat resolved if they are read strictly as a mirror held up to masculinity, a science-fictional device meant to displace men into the physically vulnerable position typically associated with women, and in the meantime divorce—albeit to a very limited degree—conceptions of gender from a foundation in bodily constitution. Likewise, there is an interpretive back door for the text built into its format as unreliable first person. This opens if, instead of agreeing with him throughout or accepting his depiction of events as accurate, we instead take Nate as a deeply worrisome though perhaps well-intentioned control freak who attempts to manipulate the reader as much as he does the Group. Certain details in the text, however, deter an inclination to view Nate in this fashion. Most prominent among these are the fact that the narrative occurs in the present tense, confining its unreliability to that of sensory perception rather than the wholesale construction of events; and the vindication of Nate's portrayal of the Unloved, the only instance in which he is opposed by an equally plausible counter-narrative. There is no easy way out for the novella’s troubled symbology.

Despite what I consider significant representational failings in Whiteley's novella, which emerge largely from the decision to substitute metaphor—and a body horror one at that—for a more mimetic rendering of queerness, the fact remains that The Beauty is nevertheless a rarity in contemporary science fiction: an overtly ideologically minded text, and one that serves as a useful conversation starter in a genre that could stand to engage with gender and queerness more, and more often.

Endnotes

  1. Eric Stanley. "Near Life, Queer Death Overkill and Ontological Capture." Social Text 29.2 107 (2011): 1-19.[return]
  2. Lee Edelman. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke UP, 2004.[return]
  3. Ryan Elliott is a writer/critic based outside of Seattle.



Ryan Elliott is a writer/critic based outside of Seattle.
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