The webzine Expanded Horizons calls itself “speculative fiction for the rest of us,” which could mean a lot of things. Who exactly are “the rest of us”? People who are embarrassed to be science fiction and fantasy fans, perhaps? As it turns out, EH’s mission is to “increase diversity in the field of speculative fiction, both in the authors who contribute and in the perspectives presented.” They publish authors of various racial backgrounds and sexual orientations—straight white guys need not apply. The January 2011 issue contains two short stories, a poem, and a book review, all of which explore questions of gender, race, and sexuality in a science-fiction context.
The first story is “Sensitive Ice” by Keyan Bowes. Its protagonist is a Kenyan girl, Anyango, who grows up to become an international supermodel. Anyango’s claim to fame is her startling eyes, which are reflective, shining, and icy-looking (literal ice, not emotional chilliness). American doctors describe the ice in her eyes as “unusual crystalline structures contained in both orbits, no apparent effect on vision.” But we readers know that these are frozen tears, the tears Anyango never shed after a family tragedy back in Nairobi.
Repressed emotion manifesting in the body is rich fodder for science fiction. Unfortunately, Bowes doesn’t quite know where to go with the idea. We see Anyango on a photo shoot, and the evolution of her relationship with her manager, but we are blocked from ever seeing inside her mind or heart. We never really get to know Anyango as a person, whether sympathetic or not. Instead, we wind up perceiving her no more deeply than her fans do. Instead of a fully developed character, Anyango is merely an exotic and lovely surface onto which we can project our own desires or fears: “the dazzle glittered off her ice and gave her a brilliant dazed expression that became her trademark.”
In the second story, “re: The Last Man on Earth” by Eric Del Carlo, two men meet over email in a post-plague America. Each had previously feared himself to be the last person alive on the planet. The story takes the form of their email exchange, as they go from camaraderie and relief to flirtation, and eventually decide to brave the blasted landscape to find each other. The descriptions of a post-apocalyptic world will be familiar to anyone who has read dystopian fiction. Del Carlo does embed one horrifying image in the midst of the more predictable chaos and action, so readers with weak stomachs should steel themselves before reading.
Del Carlo’s story has a sweet concept at its core, but the author doesn’t twist it in very many interesting directions. Given its title, “re: The Last Man on Earth,” this story could have been a searing sendup of queer male hookup culture, or of monogamy among gay men. I wish Del Carlo had allowed himself to relax and play around with readers’ preconceptions. For example, I’d love to read a story in which the last two living guys on the planet are gay—and they can’t stand each other! But Del Carlo takes a more straightforward, romantic approach, and the story stumbles, tripped up by its own earnestness.
The poem in the January issue is “Cave-smell,” by Shweta Narayan. Its narrator is a young woman who is half human, half bear, and the poem explores her relationship with her bear mom and with the human scientists who helped create her hybrid form. It creates an evocative feeling of loneliness, both that of the cave and of the lab: one primal and earthy, one sterile and antiseptic, both potential isolation chambers. It’s also an intriguing meditation on being biracial and bicultural.
Finally, Ayana Kee reviews the new anthology Conversations with Octavia Butler (ed. Conseula Francis, University Press of Mississippi, 2010). Butler is an influential SF writer, and for a long time was the only black woman to be a known name in the genre (as such, she could be the patron saint of EH). Kee’s review celebrates this collection of interviews with Butler, while also suggesting additional content that could have made the book even more powerful. Her essay conveys her obvious enthusiasm for Butler’s work, as well as her clear sense of what makes a scholarly collection like this useful.
Expanded Horizons has a lot of energy, and it’s enjoyable to see stories by writers from various cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations. But diversity doesn’t guarantee quality. It would be nice to read stories in which the characters are more complex, in which queer people aren’t necessarily heroic, and black people are allowed to be something other than saintly. Perhaps future issues will feature that kind of diversity, allowing EH to truly fulfill its mission.