Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Oliveira & Sabin, Xenocultivars (2022)

Isabela Oliveira & Jed Sabin (edd.), Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth. Speculatively Queer, 2022. Pp. 210. ISBN 978-1-7366182-2-6. $19.99.

Reviewed by Gwen C. Katz

Confession time: I wanted to submit to this one, but something came up, where “something” is “my own laziness.” But, having read it, I’m now glad I didn’t submit, because I probably would have dragged down the average. When Speculatively Queer launched last year with the triumphant It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility, it stepped into an under-served market: Full-length queer SFF short stories. Consequently, a lot of us have been keeping an eye on it. Xenocultivars, its sophomore publication, is a very strong follow-up, and a sign that Speculatively Queer may be a formidable new contender.

“It hooked me from the start” is a cliché, but truly, it did. “The Aloe’s Bargain” by Julian Stuart is an eloquent, moving piece that explores all the main themes of the anthology: Personal growth, the different forms that love can take, and the deep, ineffable longing for a true self when you may not even understand what that self looks like. These ideas show up again and again throughout the collection. Trans identities are particularly well represented, which I appreciate, since they’ve typically been underrepresented in queer SFF in the past. The trans experience (especially the trans coming-out experience) is particularly well-represented. It feels like an especially good fit for the theme of the anthology, though queers of every stripe will find stories to identify with.

Given the narrow topic, some conceits do appear over and over—expect a lot of plant magicians and talking plants—so, like many anthologies, it’s best enjoyed a bit at a time rather than devoured all at once. (The stories run quite short, including a lot of flash fiction, which makes this a perfect read to pick up on the bus or waiting in line.) But there was also a great deal in this anthology that surprised me with its freshness and innovation, such as “Seedlings” by Audrey R. Hollis, where a woman swallows a cactus in order to develop cactus-like qualities, and “How to Make a Spell Jar” by EA Crawley, where a home canning project has unexpectedly explosive consequences (the description of the aftermath of an explosion in the 4H Jams and Jellies tent at a local fair is one of my favorite bits of prose in the whole collection).

The only weakness to this anthology was a couple of stories that felt like they were trying too hard to be quippy. But that’s a matter of personal taste; your own mileage may vary. So what is queer growth? What did we learn about it? Perhaps the best embodiment of this theme is P.H. Lee’s meta-titled fairy tale “This Story is Called ‘The Transformation of Things’.” In this curious short fable, a tree dreams of living a lifetime as various creatures, culminating with the reader themselves. What better expression of growth than, simply, giving yourself fully to the life you are living?

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