SFS Symposium: Sexuality in Science Fiction
In May 2009, I invited a number of sf critics and authors whose work engages with the thematics of gender and sexuality to submit brief essays that could be gathered into a symposium on “Sexuality in Science Fiction.” I included a copy of the original Call for Papers for this special issue, which indicated an interest in a broad range of topics: “sf and sex/gender change, sf pornography, techno-fetishism in sf, alien sex, multiple genders/sexualities in sf, sexual subcultures in sf, sf and censorship, sex work(ers) in sf, slash/flash writing, and more.” Contributors were encouraged to engage with these or other relevant topics and to take any angle of approach they chose, from the analytical to the meditative to the polemical. The result is a mosaic of position statements on the representation of sexuality in sf—its past history and future prospects, its challenges as well as its blind spots, its links to social and political realities.—Rob Latham, SFS
A Mirror for SF Observers. One of the challenges for queer theorists is figuring out how to deal with the past. Aside from a few exceptionally courageous and/or outrageous individuals (Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein), most of the writers that we might call gay or lesbian if they were alive today would remain cagy about their sexuality, offering textual hints and then denying them. Even Walt Whitman claimed an active heterosexual life, complete with bastards. Thus we get posthumous outings of Shakespeare and Herman Melville, which are immediately contested by scholars determined to “in” them again, and it is unlikely that any eyewitness will ever step forward to settle the matter.
In the history of science fiction and fantasy, a number of writers invite speculation about their sexuality. One of the most significant is Edgar Pangborn, both because he was a very fine writer and because his approach to sf seems to me to be grounded in a queer perspective. Both biographical and textual evidence support reading him as gay—or rather, to fit his time period (1909-1976), homosexual, since “gay” implies a certain post-Stonewall consciousness of and confidence about sexual identity. In response to these clues, earlier critics tend to describe his work with terms such as “sensitive,” “elegant,” and “infused with longing,” while contemporary ones refer regularly to instances of homoeroticism in his fiction. Both strategies are ways of saying, “I’m pretty sure he was, but I can’t say it outright.”
My suggestion for writers such as Pangborn is to reset the controls on our gaydar, from “detect” to “decode.” Wherever his desires lay, and regardless of how actively or openly he pursued them, his work supports queer readings. He writes from an outsider position assigned by heteronormative culture, and he uses that position to critique social norms and institutions. The best example is his strongest novel, A Mirror for Observers (1954). Although Patricia Bizzell, in one of the few critical pieces on this neglected writer (Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 8), reads the novel in terms of “an intense homoerotic friendship,” that seems to me a limited or even misguided interpretation of the relationship between the book’s Martian narrator and the gifted boy, Angelo, whom he mentors. Elmis, the Martian observer, is the key to the book; ancient and benevolent, sensitive and cantankerous, he is our species’ confirmed-bachelor uncle. In a key scene, he shows Angelo a Cretan mirror whose flaws and distortions reveal hidden truths. Elmis and his mirror show us ourselves from a perspective we cannot otherwise attain. I don’t think we can account for that insight, or for the emotional charge Pangborn gives it, without reading the novel in terms of sexual identities and desires, but we need also to develop more complex models of both identity and desire than the binaries of same/other, masculine/feminine, or gay/straight.—Brian Attebery, Idaho State University
Alien or Alienated? Last summer in France, I attended the Colloque de Cerisy on science fiction entitled Comment rêver la science fiction à présent. The audience had been listening to yet another (interesting) paper on feminist utopian science fiction, and at one point someone stated how ineffective those fictions were in the end. “But why?” asked another. “Because those radical feminist fictions alienate the lambda sf reader,” he replied (I am paraphrasing), “and if they divert their readers from their fictions, they completely miss their target, which is to change gender roles.”
All right, I thought (and eventually stated out loud), so those fictions could not interest most readers because they depicted women living with, loving, and fucking each other? But wait, weren’t we talking about science fiction, that same genre in which, on the one hand, female readers for a long time had to identify with male characters because female characters were non-existent or were relegated to traditional roles; that same genre in which, on the other hand, readers were invited to identify with humans of the future meeting the most outlandish creatures, and sometimes with those aliens themselves? In other words, how come a queer human being was too much of an alien for that same reader who could identify with a green man from Arcturus?
To me, science fiction has always been about identifying with the green man, and a great part of my pleasure, as an sf reader, is to look for new metaphors for queer identities, to finally feel at ease in a genre where not everything is a matter of familiar genders and sexualities. Not every piece of sf (intentionally) breaks the common (binary) patterns, but it is always there as a potential. Perhaps science fiction, because it exposes readers to a set of possible worlds and possible identities, is a great tell-tale about their ultimate limits—and the closer ones are not always the easiest to cross. To me, the great interest of science fiction has always been about watching two (or more!) aliens fuck each other. And the rest is, I guess, alien to me.... — Sylvie Bérard, Trent University
Fucking Machines: A Tirade. It is the dream, not the sleep, of reason that produces monsters. Capital’s dream that it is reasonable or, rather, rational (despite its desire) has produced numerous monsters and other devices—fucking machines—that embody/enact the relation of the sexual-subject to capital and the capital-subject to sex. In the fucking machine, the economic, the machinic, and the sexual reveal their intimate productive/destructive embrace. The fucking machine is not just a metaphor. It is a material site where machinized desire and the desire for the machinic collapse. It is the experience of embodied, intersubjective life under capital. Between the horror of our systematic abuse by the processes of production-consumption and the more meretricious pleasures offered by capital’s machinic colonization of sexuality, the fucking machine—like Haraway’s ironic-political cyborg, like the extropian wetdream—is a Lukácsian typical subject.
We use and are used by these fucking machines. They deny and increase our potential for satisfaction. They dissolve distinctions between organic and inorganic. As labor-power and sites of consumption, we become them. They show that our posthuman future is now at least several hundred years old. (And they are pointedly—extravagantly—not Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring machines.)
Sf was long imagined sexless.
As if absence was not also presence, as if repression was not obsession.
And as if sf’s manifest sexual content was not really sf! (It’s so cute when they say that.)
Sf outs the fucking machine, casts it as an Other because it is also us. Here, quickly, are four of the varieties; as relentlessly hetero-patriarchal as the sf heartland, they are its own very special issue.
1. Industrial/commodity and sexual (re)production are conflated and confused by the manufacture of the creature and by his subsequent demand for a mate to be made in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818); by numerous idealized artificial women, from Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s robotic L’Ève future (1886) to the virtual S1m0ne (2002), who variously culvert libidinal energies; by Jerome K. Jerome’s “The Dancing Partner” (1893), who waltz-fucks Annette to death; by Fritz Lang’s false-Maria who provokes catastrophic sexual frenzy; and by the twins/doubles who evoke the specter of mechanical reproduction as capital constructs the subject as quantifiable labor-force—an exchangeable commodity, reproducible and replaceable, whose sheer alien-ness underpins the (re)productive and genetic terrors of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Alien Resurrection (1997).
2. The “guilt-free” sex organs and orgasmatrons of Barbarella (1968) and Sleeper (1973) (re)produce quantifiable—thus marketizable—moments of autoerotic pleasure, just like the standard pleasure models of Westworld (1973), The Stepford Wives (1975; 2004), Making Mr. Right (1987), Cherry 2000 (1988), 964 Pinocchio (1991), and A.I.—Artificial Intelligence (2001). Backlashed women are, however, raped into reproduction (Demon Seed ) and compulsory heterosexuality (Blade Runner ); and if they fail to be good mothers, they are imagined as rampaging phalluses with nuclear bombs where their wombs should be (Eve of Destruction ).
3. Technology reveals a universe of wonderful/terrible polymorphously-perverse plenitude, and (usually) sets out to police it. H.G. Wells’s Time Traveler builds a device to flee the homosocial, only to fall in with effete Eloi and for the prepubertally-androgynous Weena. In Méliès’s Éclipse du Soleil en pleine Lune (1907), the savant’s telescope sees the heavens as a field of erotic possibility, witnessing a lascivious sun bugger a flirtatious moon, before turning instead to gaze at female bodies. Lara Croft and other avatars reveal—although it is no revelation—that jacking-in and jacking off are not so very different.
4.) Mediating technologies of vision, not least the spectacular display of cinematic attractions and the scopophilic gaze, constitute a sexual economy of showing-and-looking—a model for the cinematic apparatus itself in Hitchcock, De Palma, Peeping Tom (1960), A Snake of June (2002), and film theory after Laura Mulvey. Sf film’s self-reflexive privileging of screens-within-the-screen foregrounds this dynamic: in Brainstorm (1983), an executive plugs into a virtual wankloop for the weekend and nearly ejaculates/dehydrates to death, while Videodrome (1983) insists—should we ever have doubted it—that cinematic, televisual, and science-fictional apparatuses themselves are fucking machines.—Mark Bould, University of the West of England
Heteronormative Futures. In response to the 2009 GLAAD Network Responsibility Index rating of “F” for their content, Mark Stern, a SyFy (formerly Sci-Fi) Channel executive, admitted that the channel needed to try harder. After the era of Will and Grace (1998-2006), Queer as Folk (1999-2000; US version 2000-2005), and Six Feet Under (2001-2005), where many TV dramas feature gay characters, onscreen sf lags lamentably behind—with Joss Whedon’s productions being honorable if not always helpful exceptions.
The utopian futures of Star Trek have remained determinedly heteronormative, with occasional hand-waving to mollify the fans—there are gays, but we’ve not seen them (where’s Will?); there were gays, but a plague killed them (triffic); or there were gays, but it got cured (thanks). The best we are left with is a game of Spot the Queer—a tactic borrowed from the McCarthyites—where those of us in the know decode a look, a phrase, a liking for show-tunes, into the sense that so-and-so in that program or film is secretly gay. The streets find their own uses for things, and we slash away.
In retrospect, the period that gave birth to slash was a golden age—between the events of Stonewall and the identification of HIV was a decade of liberation. At the same time as fights for Civil Rights and equality for women, a number of organizations campaigned for gay lib, and homosexuality became more visible. In late 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders, followed by the American Psychological Association a year or so later. Surely sf was well-placed to reflect such social changes?
Apparently not, judging by the research I’ve been doing into 1970s sf. It is there, but it becomes a matter of definition. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) and Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song (1979) seemed likely candidates, but Kidd has sex as frequently with women as with men and Daniel Weinreb is sometimes dismissive of being but sometimes claims to be a hustler. Bisexuality seems to be the order of the day. Joanna Russ’s gay character in And Chaos Died (1970) behaves straightly, and for all the talk about homosexuality in The Dispossessed (1974), actual homosexual behavior is omitted. In some of John Varley’s short stories, characters swap sex—but clearly that adds a more complex orientation to the matter. And J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1973) adds anal sex to its catalogue of moral tightrope-walking. Again there are honorable exceptions—but Mandella remains straight in the homosexual futures of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974). Curiously it is two films—The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971)—that seem most radical during the period. Too often gay became a label for anyone who challenged gender stereotypes as much as an actual sexual orientation.
Forty years on, real gay characters are still rare in written sf, and almost nonexistent on the small or large screen. And even the rare televisual exceptions seem to struggle to find something to do with such characters after they come out—all too often reaching for the gay gothic as a plot coupon (and spare us from any more BrokebackMountain or vampire or werewolf metaphors). Whether the sf audience is ready for more—when crime, reality show, and sitcom audiences clearly are—remains to be seen.—Andrew M. Butler, Canterbury Christ Church University
Some Notes on the Failure of Sex and Gender Inquiry in SF. Most of the readers of this forum will be scholars who will automatically footnote this rant, so I’m leaving out the footnotes and going straight (pardon the expression) to the meat of the matter.
The communications satellite. The bank card. The laptop. The moon mission. Cyberspace. Virtual reality suits. Bioengineering and cloning. Atomic weapons. Thin screens and smart paper. Hackers. Anything else on the list of sf tropes that have become common parlance? Sure, we can add a few or a lot. But is the End of Gender or a redefinition of sex on the list? No.
I’m not talking about cute new high-tech ways to create sex objects or have orgasms. Those abound. The sf version of the blow-up doll is legion, whether utopian or dystopian in narrative slant. I’m talking about a redefinition of how we conceive of sex and gender. Has anyone abolished gender yet, in any lasting way?
I’m not just talking about the invisibility of lesbian, gay, ambisexual, trans-identified, or otherwise queer characters and situations. That’s the tip of the iceberg. I’m talking about the invisibility of queer as a notion at all. A century or so after the creation of modern homosexuality, sixty years or so after the US military created gayness, forty years after Stonewall, and post-Delany, LeGuin, Russ, Tiptree, Varley, Rafael Carter, Melissa Scott, Nicola Griffith, Elisabeth Vonarburg, Daniel Sernine, Rachel Pollack, M.J. Engh, Candas Dorsey (if I do say so myself), Kelly Link, Nalo Hopkinson, et al., the cultural face of sexuality and gender has changed. So why can’t the future contain the same kinds of changes for the “average” sf writer?
Sure, we can all count, on the fingers of one or two hands, maybe also our toes if we are well-read (and have our shoes off), the core texts that have messed with gender roles, sex and sexual behavior, and the shape of sex and gender in the future: a few key texts that have actually done what sf is supposed to do, and have pushed the envelope of what is sex and what is gender. Pause for a moment to remember your favorites. Then, onward.
Most of the time, queer isn’t queer enough in sf. Despite all of us pushing the sex-and-gender envelope as hard as we can, it’s a hard, harsh membrane and a bunch of our sf writer colleagues, and our readers too, are pushing harder on the outside of it, keeping queer contained and manageable. Or trying to, anyway. Why is that? Are we as a culture so socially invested in modern ideas of gender that we have internalized the gender police? Duh. Even those of us who are queer are too prone to defining the Right Kind of Queer. It’s all so boring.
We already know humans come with a variety of genitals and hormones. We’ve already seen the proof that our behavior is, yet is not, biologically determined. We may be wired this way, but we’re not wired this way. We’re a cultural construct. And so is our literature. Why are so many of us, in so many ways, not able to see beyond our current paradigms?
I love the writers who are pushing these envelopes. I know they (we) exist. But that doesn’t mean we’ve actually been able to shed the present in pursuit of the future. For many of us, our internal year for gender and sexuality is still 1969, shouting “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to us,” and the internal year of the majority of sf is still somewhere between 1947 and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
We don’t need more science-fictional Harrad Experiments. I don’t just want to see more c.-2009 lesbians, gay men, trans people or polyamory in sf. I want to see more. A breakthrough of paradigm. A future those of us stuck in our own internal years (me included, I’m just as much a product of my time as anyone else) can barely imagine—but that we try our damnedest to imagine.
Please let us imagine it: a real imagined future where our ideas of gender are so far gone that a modern reader is lost in the subjunctivity.
I want a singularity of queer. (And I want it soon, before I’m too old to enjoy it.)—Candas Jane Dorsey, Edmonton, Alberta
SF and Queer Theory: Butler vs. Suvin. My critical interests reside in sf narratives of prosthetic or virtual embodiment, and their intersection with queer-theoretical arguments such as Judith Butler’s. Butler famously claims that queer practices of gender performativity, such as drag or butch/femme, disrupt the expressive relation between sex and gender that has come to be termed heteronormativity, the assumption that gender identity naturally emerges from inhabiting a body sexed as either (and only) male or female, and that gender identity in turn is expressed by sexual orientation or heterosexual object choice. I have found Allucquère Rosanne Stone’s book The War of Desire and Technology (MIT, 1995) useful for its analysis of how virtual systems, in their attenuation of the relation between body and social persona, undo the assumptions about expressive subjectivity characteristic of both Western modernity and heteronormativity. In sf, my touchstone for these issues has been Maureen McHugh’s 1993 cybersex story “A Coney Island of the Mind” and, more recently, Nisi Shawl’s 2004 story “Deep End” for its rewriting of cybersex conventions in terms of transracial as well as transgender performance. The questions I go on to discuss here also emerge clearly in recent attempts to articulate queer theory with critical race studies; see Roderick Ferguson, Aberrations in Black (U of Minnesota P, 2004).
These concerns have led me to the question of heteronormativity in queer theory, as what Butler calls a falsely naturalized “regulatory frame,” and its connection to sf. For Butler, the resignification of heterosexuality through drag or butch/femme performance is intended to open heteronormative gender categories to “future uses of the sign” (“Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss [New York, Routledge, 1991], 19). The result is to emphasize the impossibility of heterosexual norms, exposed “as an incessant and panicked imitation of [their] own naturalized idealization” (23; emphasis in original). Both heterosexuality and heteronormative gender distinctions are therefore “rendered thoroughly and radically incredible” (Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity [New York: Routledge, 1990], 141; emphasis in original). The focus is on differences within heteronormativity, precisely in order to destabilize the difference between hetero and homo.
This emphasis on the future and the incredible suggests an overlap with sf protocols, and indeed Darko Suvin’s equally famous argument about the basic contrastive structure of sf as the “literature of cognitive estrangement” implies that sf shares with queer theory an interest in contesting norms. For Suvin, the interaction of cognition and estrangement means the elaboration of fantastic or futuristic themes, the novums or estranging devices of sf, into internally consistent alternate realities. The result of such an elaboration is to confront “a set normative system ... with a point of view implying a new set of norms” (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre [New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1979], 6). The critical effect of this cognitive or realistic treatment of the unreal is to reveal “the norms of any age, including emphatically [our] own, as ... changeable” (7), a formulation that echoes Butler’s emphasis on exposing gender as a temporal or iterative process of performance, a “stylization of the body” (Gender 33), rather than a fixed essence or identity.
Butler, however, understands queer performativity as an alternative to a transgressive politics that seeks to locate itself outside heteronormativity, in what she calls “a utopian beyond” (34). From Butler’s perspective, then, sf’s alternate realities, in the process of cognitively estranging sexual norms by attempting to literalize alternatives to them, would also presumably run this same risk of ontologizing the difference between hetero norms and their alternatives, undermining or contradicting sf’s power to expose the phantasmatic “nature” of heteronormative frameworks. For Butler, the ideal of heteronormativity fails because, like all “ontological locales,” it is “fundamentally uninhabitable” (146). But in sf, estrangement through the cognitive confrontation of alternative norms seems to imply a commitment to presenting both the dominant and the alternate norms precisely as habitable “locales.” As Suvin puts it, in sf, “a transgression of the cultural norm is signified by the transgression of a more than merely cultural, of an ontological, norm” (70-71).
In this context, I would ask whether sf’s creation of alternate fictional realities reifies and ontologizes the two settings that dramatize the confrontation between competing norms; or does the normalization of the novum into a realistic setting avoid the problem of defining queerness as abstractly transgressive and therefore situated outside norms entirely, even as the alternate narrative setting implies that we are not trapped by existing norms either? From this latter perspective, sf as Suvin defines it might have something to offer queer theory, even as queer theory can help to define sf’s potential for thinking critically about sexuality and gender.—Thomas Foster, University of Washington
Hard Takes Soft, Still. Sf as a genre is terrified of the body. As a result, its depictions of physical pleasures are rare. Historically, writers and readers seem to prefer their characters to pop nutrition pills rather than delight in a gourmet meal, dwell 24/7 in sterile environments rather than wander through a wood, and jack into virtual sex rather than touch another human being.
When sf does dare mention sex, the focus is on the intellectual and emotional aspects of the experience. Sf still subscribes to Cartesian dualism: the mind is pure, adamantine, and noble, the body bestial, soft, and squicky. (I have talked about this at length elsewhere: see my essay “Writing from the Body,” online at: <http://www.nicolagriffith.com/body.html>.) Even a hint of body-to-body sex can be enough to earn an sf novel an Approach With Caution warning—that is, categorization as soft sf.
In this regard, the world-view of the sf Old Guard has a lot in common with that of the cultural guardians of Old Iceland. Embedded in the Icelandic sagas is that society’s tendency to divide the world—politics, intelligence, gender, sexuality, the physical properties of objects—into hvatr (hard) and blauôr (soft). Hard equates to bold, independent, powerful, vigorous, sharp, dry, and decisive, soft to weak, powerless, dull, moist, and yielding.
Guess which was deemed the more admirable quality.
Guess which kind of sf, hard or soft, is privileged.
For the Old Guard, a novel’s hardness depends to some degree on the biological sex of bodies entwined. Women are perceived as literally and metaphorically softer than men. If the viewpoint character having sex in an sf novel is a woman, the squick factor is doubled. If she’s having sex with another woman, the Old Guard passes out.
Consider reviews of my second novel, Slow River (1995), in which much real estate was devoted to denouncing (I’m paraphrasing) the “exclusively and explicitly lesbian sex.” The thing is, there’s plenty of heterosex; reviewers just couldn’t see past the (to them) Othersex. Given the way they carried on, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was porn. Certainly many dykes read the reviews, thought “Woo-hoo, one-handed reading!” and bought the book. Then they sent me pissed off emails: Where’s all the sex??
Consider, too, a well-known experiment: put ten engineers in a room, three of them women. Ask observers how many are female; they will say “half.” The Other blots out the Norm. (Yes, this experiment is ancient as these things go—dating from the 1960s or 1970s, I think. No doubt observers in today’s brave new world would require as many as, gasp, four women to qualify as “half.”)
This is as true now as it was then. It’s the twenty-first century, yet still I have never seen Slow River—a novel stuffed with shiny hardware, chemistry, and extrapolations about the future—labeled as hard sf. The Old Guard still rules.—Nicola Griffith, Seattle, Washington
Kinking SF. Sf stories that explore the complex dynamics of power and desire allow for critical reflections that span countries, worlds, or the vast expanses of time and space. A number of texts stand out for the ways in which they have engaged with the constructions of gender, the fluidity of sex(uality), or the desire for beings other than human, whether that otherness be defined by alien culture/biology or technological mediation/alteration/integration. These texts include C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” (1944), Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) and Trouble on Triton (1976), George Nader’s Chrome (1978), Candas Jane Dorsey’s “(Learning About) Machine Sex” (1988), Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords (1993), Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man (1995), Geoff Ryman’s Lust (2001), and Eden Robinson’s “Terminal Avenue” (2004). Each of these texts, and others like them, have effectively explored the broader social and political contexts of their worlds, and ours, through the politics of sex and power. Yet for all the potential insights these explorations may provide, however extrapolative or allegorical those might be, sf always leaves us wanting more. Many questions remain for which science fiction could provide rich explorations, particularly in regard to areas defined as “kink,” outside arbitrary constructions of acceptable sexual morality.
How would significant differences in sexual morality manifest in human or alien cultures? How will biological and technological innovations change understandings of gender and sex(uality)? What would fully immersive virtual reality open up for the polysemic possibilities of BDSM, and for roleplay more generally? How would alien physiology construct understandings of pain and pleasure, and how would that translate into broader social and political contexts in that alien culture? What versions might truly alien cultures have of foodplay, fireplay, or knifeplay? How will sex and sexuality change when technology, and perhaps anything that marks us as bodily human, changes beyond the causal logic of extrapolation?
While there are many exemplary texts that have touched upon some of these questions, there remains so much more that has yet to be explored.—Adam Guzkowski, Trent University
Queering Humanity in SF. Discrimination by reason of race, gender, or religious affiliation lacks the respectability it once had. So the social norms surrounding sexuality have become the last bastion of human difference. Despite late-twentieth-century narrative explorations and theorizing by genre writers and critics, science fiction has been and remains part of the regulatory process that naturalizes human sexuality as heteronormative. As Charles Elkins long ago argued in these pages, genre writers frequently replicate the social norms of their times (see “An Approach to the Social Functions of American SF,” SFS 4.3 [November 1977]: 228-32). A glance at the paintings and illustrations in Harry Harrison’s Great Balls of Fire: An Illustrated History of Sex in Science Fiction (1977) reinforces this point.
But what lessons do we draw from the genre’s imagined extraterrestrial races whose reproductive and sexual relations have been imagined as “other”? H.G. Wells’s Martians reproduce by budding and Raymond Z. Gallun’s Martians are decanted from test tubes. The former are evolutionary antagonists who are physically incapable of the affection shown between the narrator and his wife. The latter sport a difference that makes no difference in a tale that marks its otherworldly protagonist as human in the only ways that count. In either case heteronormative human beings are the privileged standard. These gestures indicate that the genre’s aliens may be either enemies or friends but, more often than not, they offer no trouble to our understanding of human nature.
Recently sf writers have entertained a general posthumanism that breaks with the regulatory hierarchies commonly associated with human sexuality. Challenging mid-century definitions of sexuality means that what is considered “natural” is disrupted and replaced by something else. In sf the queering of humanity is most often expressed as a literal, material change or a replacement of human biology (e.g., the Singularity).
Allowing modern medicine to de-link human reproduction from the female body (as Shulamith Firestone proposed in The Dialectic of Sex ) is still considered “wacky” in mainstream political discourse (see “Gender Differences in Medicine,” To the Contrary [PBS Program], 22 June 2001). This social climate has produced a range of optimistic and pessimistic responses in sf. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-95) is optimistic about a human evolution that forces the species into a different, more harmonious era. Over the course of her career, on the other hand, Octavia E. Butler was both intrigued by the evolutionary possibility of alternate sexual selections and skeptical that such changes would really better the human condition.
At issue is whether the changing nature of human sexuality (real or imagined) will allow us to achieve the better angels of our nature.—De Witt Douglas Kilgore, Indiana University
LGBT/YA/SF. Would it be fair to say that everything I know about sex I learned from reading science fiction and fantasy? Well, no, and undoubtedly that’s all to the good. Did an adolescent reading program dominated in large measure by Andre Norton, Robert A. Heinlein, and A.E. van Vogt teach me things that I might not have learned on the street, from my parents, or in what passed for sex education in the 1960s? Probably not. What was considerably more influential, in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s, though, were such novels as The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Female Man (1975) which, along with Betty Friedan and the women in my graduate classes at the University of Minnesota, delivered a series of highly valuable kicks to the head, permanently rearranging how I look at the world.
Feminist fantasy and sf for adolescents didn’t really exist when I was young and there wasn’t a lot of exploration of gender roles or alternate sexualities, for all that Mary Poppins, Miss Pickerell, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958) served up the occasional strong female character. Things began changing in the late 1980s, however, and in recent decades, adolescent readers of sf and fantasy have had available to them at least some stories that deal seriously and intelligently with a variety of possibilities concerning sex and gender. In Tamora Pierce’s many fantasies, from Alanna (1983) to, most recently, Bloodhound (2009), young women are shown aspiring to and achieving active roles, as knights in shining armor no less, despite sexism and with normal adolescent sexuality. Beginning with Magic’s Pawn (1989), Mercedes Lackey has made a career of creating sympathetic gay characters in high fantasy as, in urban fantasy, has Francesca Lia Block, beginning with Weetzie Bat (1989) and, most recently, Necklace of Kisses (2005). David Gerrold, in science fiction, beginning with Jumping Off the Planet (2000), and Holly Black, in dark fantasy, beginning with Tithe (2002), are also worth mentioning in this context.
In such contemporary urban fantasies as Skellig (1998), The Fire Eaters (2003), and The Savage (2008), David Almond has presented a series of adolescents whose sense of gender is at odds with their conservative northern English society. In the intensely realistic near-future tale How I Live Now (2004), Meg Rosoff explores anorexia, incest, and teen sex with an unflinching eye. In Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008), this year’s James Tiptree Award winner, a variety of societies are shown, each of which has made different decisions concerning gender relationships, and the gay adoptive parents of the young protagonist are portrayed without comment except in so far as they have strengths or weaknesses as parents. In truth, the large majority of YA science fiction and fantasy centers on traditional nuclear families and heteronormative gender roles, but readers on the lookout for other options can often find what they’re looking for. It would have been nice to have had such books available when I was a teen.—Michael Levy, University of Wisconsin-Stout
Remembering Eve Sedgwick. The death of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in April 2009 reminded me of how significant Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Columbia UP, 1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (U of California P, 1990) were in establishing the exciting potential of “queer” reading during the 1990s. Sedgwick also helped to revitalize that interstitial literary era, the fin de siècle, then rather uncertainly located between the Victorian and the Modern. While Judith Butler probably traveled further because she offered an abstract theory suitable for processing a wide array of texts, Sedgwick was always interested in the concrete, local, and difficult experience of reading specific texts in their detailed historical contexts. There is much in Sedgwick’s work from which sf studies could still learn.
Sedgwick’s argument in Epistemology of the Closet was that Western thought had, during the nineteenth and early-twentieth century, been fractured by a crisis surrounding homosexual (and therefore heterosexual) definition. The homosexual was a specific minority figure, to be defined, medicalized, contained, and socially outcast by a host of juridico-legal authorities. But homosexuality might also be a universal tendency in all human sexuality, a drive that could disturb and destabilize any claim to heterosexual normativity. This was sometimes what Freud scandalously proposed. Homosexuality was therefore “a space of overlapping, contradictory, and conflictual forces” (Epistemology 45). This resulted in a kind of paranoid masculine culture, where the space “between men” might shift uncertainly between homosocial fraternal bonds and masked homosexual desire. In a series of brilliant readings of works by Herman Melville, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, barely conceivable desires took shape in narratives of “homosexual panic.” In Between Men, Sedgwick had argued that the Gothic romance repeatedly articulated this panic in stories where men were persecuted by their doubles—from James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Sedgwick was therefore not averse to reading popular-cultural forms through the prism of queer theory. Her work was memorably extended into the colonial adventure narrative by Anne McClintock in Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (Routledge, 1995), in which H. Rider Haggard’s African landscapes were examined as “porno-tropics,” openly sexualized spaces where racial markers had to be grasped as intrinsically sexual ones too. Elaine Showalter’s “queer” reading of Jekyll and Hyde in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (Viking, 1990) was another important landmark in suggesting how feminist readings might be reconfigured by queer theory.
In her collection of essays Tendencies (Duke UP, 1994), written at the height of the ascendancy of Queer Theory, Sedgwick defined “queer” as “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements … aren’t made … to signify” (8). Queer reading picked up the resonance of queer as a deliberately odd perspective, perverse or counterintuitive. This approach annoyed some critics and probably did open the gates for far too many over-active interpretations of classic fictions. Yet despite these occasional excesses, we should not lose sight of the value Sedgwick’s work still offers.
The excellent recent collection, Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction (reviewed in this issue), doesn’t have that much to say about Sedgwick, and its “Queer Genealogy of SF” is notably focused on the very recent past. But the designation “Queer SF” should not only signal contemporary writers already in a kind of feedback loop with queer theory itself—the most obvious example being Samuel R. Delany (but we might also add Octavia Butler or Nicola Griffith or Geoff Ryman). The very beginnings of genre sf in the late nineteenth century are clearly coincident with the emergence of a new set of demarcations around hetero/homosexuality, incoherently mapped across masculinity and femininity. I’ve always thought it absurd to claim, as Vivian Sobchack did in her 1985 essay “The Virginity of Astronauts,” that sexuality was entirely absent from most sf. Her argument is focused on postwar American sf film, but it repeats a standard assumption about a putatively “immature” (or pre-adolescent) sf that only belatedly—and rather messily—discovered sex in the 1960s. What Sedgwick suggests is that a genre codified as “masculine” and overlapping, in the 1880s and 1890s, with the colonial adventure and the Gothic romance is already saturated with issues relating to sexuality. Re-read Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885)if you don’t believe me.—Roger Luckhurst, University of London
The Coming Future. This is a plea for good queer sf. Despite its speculative grounding, Anglo-US/UK sf has a sad track record when it comes to innovative stories about non-normative sexuality. While the 1960s New Wave, in the spirit of the sexual revolution, engaged with sexuality more explicitly, and cyberpunk’s technobodies provided new surfaces of projection, queer folks most of the time were left out of the romantic or raunchy interactions with aliens, enhanced bodies, and virtual-sex encounters.
So what makes good queer sf? I second Donna Haraway’s assertion that sf is political theory. While many of its reflections appear introspective and thus not political, it is the narrating of future visions, the authority claimed in designing what is to come (and what is not to come), who counts as subject and who doesn’t, that makes sf political, not just the social order of its futuristic cultures. Adding to this Gayle Rubin’s early claim that sexuality (not just gender) is political, sexuality in sf also becomes a political issue. Who is coming (and who isn’t) in imagined sexual encounters? As it often happens, innovation advances from the margins into mainstream sf: lesbian sf and utopian fiction examine desire in relation to gendered power; sf writers of color explore sexuality and racialized power. Too often, however, the narratives still rely on binary categories that leave heterosexuality intact. Homosexuality and anti-colonial self-determination are powerful as resistant narrative positions, but within them, the categories of us and them, self and other remain in place.
One of queer theory’s contributions to discourse on sexual politics (a discourse that had been spearheaded by feminists) is that sex is about power, and that power runs along complicated lines of social interaction—an application (and extension) of Foucault’s theory of power that makes visible how gender, race, class, bodies, age, and nationality all inform and produce power and thus are part of sexuality. Science fiction is fertile ground for queer envisionings of sexuality, since it permits endless formations of bodies and thus of desires. Good queer/transgender sf makes obsolete the comfortable binary classifications of sexual orientation, homo- versus heterosexuality, bisexuality, and the gender expectations of male and female, and does not try to recreate them in a future populated by alien cyborgs and AIs.
Good queer sf addresses issues of power without eroticizing the (racial, cultural, or physical) Other, nor does it reiterate existing power in sf disguise (e.g., straight male sexual fantasies about animal-like, feminized aliens and/or techno-prostitutes, or about sleeping with their own female clones). These stories privilege already established sexual narratives and are quite boring to those who don’t identity with the straight (white) male subjectivity that underlies them. Instead, good queer sf undermines heterosexuality as the normative economy of desire, and engages with how desire is constructed through bodies, and privileges the non-normative. In this, race becomes as much a component of desire as is gender, and good queer sf investigates heteronormativity’s sexual taboos by questioning, not legitimizing, forms of power.
I guess I’m an old-fashioned queer who, while appreciating the potential of a broad alliance against white, male heteronormativity, holds with the opinion that queer sf has to clearly challenge heterosexuality and the gender binary invested in upholding it. Raunchy, kinky sf is not necessarily queer if white male heterosexuality is the starting point of its explorations—many of the aliens and/or female cyborgs having sex with humans do not rethink desire; they merely channel it into familiar paths through newly configured bodies. Which leaves the work to the queer reader to rewrite the stories in their imaginations.
The best queer sf I’ve been finding these days is sf erotica that—with the simplicity of much function-bound fiction—manages to radically shift the established economy of desire in its shameless embrace of queer sexual practices in sf settings. Also, works such as Octavia Butler’s vampire novel Fledgling (2005) challenge the straight paradigm with pleasures articulated across ages, sexes, races, and species. These narratives create queer subjectivities within the text, and it is here that sf lives up to its pleasurable, intersectional potential—and we can all go home, well … satisfied.—Patricia Melzer, Temple University
Going boldly on … to the 1950s? The heteronormativity of science fiction for children and teens is astonishing. It reflects neither the real world, nor the wider world of books for younger readers.
In the real world, most YA books using the ensemble structure (five or six characters, someone for everyone to identify with) will have at least one gay-oriented teen. Someone will have had a divorce, there will be step-children, there will be boys who don’t like boy stuff and girls who don’t like girl stuff. There will be an assumption that mothers have paid employment and fathers are real people who quite like their kids.
In most science fiction for children and teens, all of that is forgotten. It’s as if—in conforming to Heinlein’s idea that while you make part of the future strange, you need some kind of anchor to the present through an element of unchangingness—there has been an almost unanimous choice to make the 1950s nuclear family the baseline. Just a few examples: William Nicholson’s award-winning The Wind Singer (2000), in which the exam results of the father dictate the fortunes of the family; Jeanne DuPrau’s acclaimed City of Ember (2003), in which no one in the underground city ever seems to want a divorce; or even, to be fair and pick books I like, Conor Kosticks’ Epic (2004), which is a similarly divorce-free zone, or K.A. Applegate’s Remnants (2001-2003), which seems to be able to contemplate all sorts of things, but not homosexuality. In Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children (1997), the one child who is beyond the norm, a castrated boy, dies before the end, as we are led into a future in which the nuclear family is restored. In these books, most of the adult women don’t work, or if they do work, they are shown mostly as mothers.
There are exceptions: orphans are normal in children’s and teen fiction, so I will ignore those. Of the YA books, in Ann Halam’s (a.k.a. Gwyneth Jones’s) Siberia (2005), there is no mention of a father and a small indicator that the protagonist might be a created child. Susan Price’s Odin’s Voice (2004) and its sequel Odin’s Queen (2006) presents a loving relationship between two women: it isn’t sexual, is in many ways abusive, and is destroyed by a man, although as this turns out to be a betrayal on all sides, heteronormativity is not restored. Gregory Maguire’s I Feel Like the Morning Star (1997) manages to avoid assumptions of both heteronormativity and whiteness (yet another short rant available on request) and Troon Harrison’s Eye of the Wolf (2003) goes further, projecting a future Canada in which polyamory is one of the many norms. One might argue that this is possible because these are books for teens, but Adam Rex and Joan Lennon both succeed in writing books for children where sexual identity and gender behavior is not normed to the 1950s. In Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smek Day (2007), the protagonist is clearly the child of a single parent, while in Joan Lennon’s Questors (2007), the three children have the same mother but different fathers, and one of them is pre-gendered. Zie will choose zie’s sex when zie is good and ready, and no pressure from the other two children (one boy, one girl) will hurry zie. I do not think it a coincidence at all that it is these books, each of which imagines a different mode of sexual behavior or social fabric, that present adult women holding down interesting and responsible jobs.—Farah Mendlesohn, Middlesex University
Trans(lating) Sex/Gender/Sexuality: Trans SF? With the controversy over the sex-testing of South African runner Caster Semenya (a news story that raises disturbing connections among gender policing, homophobia, and racism), it seems relevant to ask how trans perspectives inform sf. Transgender, transsexuality, and intersex provide the genre with potent tools for deconstructing assumptions about gender and sexuality (and the relationship between them) while also offering a reflection of historical and contemporary changes in social mores in relation to embodiment and desire. Of course, trans representations in sf also reflect the lives, practices, and epistemologies of people who identify as trans—the often neglected “T” in LGBT.
Sf is not, as a rule, good at the soft, wet, messy, abject aspects of human and other bodies. This discomfort is redoubled when dealing with trans questions because the crisis points around trans identity so often take place in the various dissimilar but inevitably fraught spaces where people are unable to ignore bodily realities: e.g., toilets, encounters with airport security, spaces of actual sexual practice. Yet depictions of trans people and bodies, whether as humans or aliens, thread through the entire history of sf, often functioning allegorically as ways of questioning Cartesian approaches to sex as dichotomous and gender as its essential consequence.
Two of the main forms of sf that question the heteronormative logic equating gender with sexuality involve, on the one hand, hermaphroditic people, usually aliens, as in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and, on the other hand, sex changes. Sex changes are perhaps surprisingly common in sf and their use and rationale ranges from deeply reactionary (the kinds of stories that Joanna Russ deconstructs so thoroughly in her 1980 SFS essay “Amor Vincit Foeminam”) to subtle explorations of the ways in which contemporary humans understand the complex relationships among embodiment, gender, sex, desire, and sexual orientation. Even works as problematic as John Varley’s Steel Beach (1992) prod readers to think through questions as basic as whether choice of sex object, sexual orientation, or neither would persist through a sex change. For some readers, the answer seems utterly obvious; for others, the ability even to pose the question is remarkably liberatory.
Similarly, one could ask whether single-sex worlds can be usefully understood as a form of transgender. Since either gender is defined, at best, as half of humanity (when men are not assumed to equate to “mankind”), do all-women societies become a form of trans simply because the women in them take on all the aspects of humanity? There are a lot more questions than answers when it comes to varieties of trans sf, as well as many different perspectives on these issues (even from members of trans communities). Overall, they deserve a great deal more of our critical attention, both for their allegorical qualities and for the ways in which they represent (or fail to represent) trans lives in the contemporary world, including the potential for trans people to be champion athletes, successful politicians—or even starship captains.—Wendy Gay Pearson, University of Western Ontario
Title: Four Drabbles
Fandom: Melissa Scott’s novels: Burning Bright (Quinn Lioe); Dreaming Metal (Celinde Fortune, Rivardy Jian, Celeste); The Jazz (Tin Lizzie); Trouble and Her Friends (Trouble, Cerise)
Disclaimer: One argument made about fan fiction (stories written using existing characters and settings) is that such works can be interpretive acts, can embody readers’ responses to texts. The following are four drabbles based on the novels of Melissa Scott. A drabble is a fan fic of exactly 100 words.
The Art of Life. Life first wakes from metal dreams not in the workshops of cartels but in the colors, illusions, sweat, and music of the Empires where art and music are offered daily. Reverdy, glimpsing shadows of life in the machine that interfaces between pilots and FTL hyperspace, sells her construct. Celinde buys it for her act, mating it with another construct, to run humaniform robots cast in her own image, gold, bronze, silver, and copper. The women of power, pilot and conjurer, birth Celeste with the help of the midwives of music and flames, first true AI coming from the women’s worlds.
High Noon. Seahaven shimmers. Trouble strolls down the street, Cerise close.
“Are you sure?”
Trouble nods. Wood, dust, and glass soak in sun. The light changes, and a jagged run of music marks the arrival. Shadow slides through air to stand in Trouble’s sight. Black leather coat wraps around silk shirt and jeans covering dyes Trouble knows mark half her body, only a webbed corner showing through the open collar.
Trouble nods. “Lizzie.”
The two, born of the street and prison, circle, sifting through the stories on the nets. They are drawn to each other, fearful. Cerise, smiling, stands back to watch.
The View from Persephone. Quinn, spinning through data feeds, collects images for her stories. Gleaming bodies bright against the night sky draw her closer. Women’s bodies, copper, silver, bronze, and gold, stretch in all directions, touching and touched. Behind them all, or between them all, a woman swathed in silk stands, face turned away, hand resting on an iron frame.
Breath quickening, Quinn pulls closer, falling through. The image blurs. She pulls back, view sharp again. Used to Burning Bright’s masks and costumes, she is enchanted by these bare faces and bodies. Trying to see the woman’s face, Quinn wonders what story she could create.
Transformative Realities. Pages open into realities which do not ignore pain and oppression and yet show women working and growing and loving women. That center is grounded, solid, whether we navigate FTL hyperspace with Reverdy or swim virtual spaces with Trouble, Cerise, and Tin Lizzy. Game transforms into art transforms into life as Quinn burns bright, as Celinde changes the intelligences of machines. No utopias exist, but utopias are too distant, lack any connections. I will choose these live women I love who live every day at risk in worlds so close to mine that they can touch, can dream of transformation. —Robin Reid, Texas A&M University-Commerce
Where Are the Lesbians? When I think about sexuality in mainstream sf, I’m most struck by the relative dearth of lesbian characters. Particularly when the genre has, in recent years, embraced gay male characters and a wide range of sexual expressions, the small number of lesbians seems at best peculiar. Nor do I think this is purely the result of external, editorial pressure.
Shortly after the publication of my novel The Kindly Ones (1987), a reader insisted that two of the characters, the Peacekeeper Leith Moraghan and the pilot Guil ex-Tamne, were neither lesbians nor having an affair. Nor would she accept that I’d intended both. I would have dismissed this misunderstanding had editors Lyn Paleo and Eric Garber not repeated the mistake in their annotated bibliography Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (2nd ed., 1990). They focused instead on the narrator, Trey Maturin, whose gender is never stated; if you assume Maturin is male, the listing points out, then the relationship with a male actor is gay. They didn’t mention the lesbians, Paleo later told me, because those characters didn’t have sex, and so they couldn’t be sure.
Oddly, no one ever made this mistake with any of the gay male characters. Everyone read them as queer without needing to see them have sex. The lesbian characters, however, could be read as sexless—in effect, made invisible—even when the same conventionally queer cues were employed.
This changed the way I wrote. In subsequent books, I included explicit sex between any lesbian characters. I was determined that no one was going to be able to ignore at least that part of my intent, and so far, at least, no one has told me that Trouble or any of her friends aren’t actually gay. But I’ve still never needed to do the same for the gay male characters.
The range of sexual possibility now routinely included in the field suggests that neither prudery nor simple misogyny is the answer. Perhaps it’s a limited view of what a female protagonist must be: young, growing into her power, often damaged or conflicted—the Warrior Princess. But that character could as easily be a lesbian as a straight woman, and yet she isn’t. Maybe it’s a symptom of a more general failure of imagination, and the missing lesbians are a warning of something else missing in the field: a wider vision of what kind of person is worthy of a story.—Melissa Scott, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Thinking Sex in SF. In 1984, Gayle Rubin’s provocative essay “Thinking Sex: Notes Towards a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” challenged the academy to think about sex. Although some, she notes, would consider sex frivolous in an era faced with problems such as poverty and war, contemporary hysterias around sexual behavior suggest it is a site where people’s most profound anxieties and preoccupations emerge. Sex, Rubin reminds us, has symbolic weight.
Yet this symbolic weight has frequently been something for which academic analyses are ill-equipped. Indeed, as Rubin surveys issues germane to her context of publication (right-wing opposition to sex education, institutionalized homophobia, legal debates over pornography), she emphasizes their crucial import because the outcomes of these struggles will “leave a residue in the form of laws, social practices, and ideologies which then affect the way in which sexuality is experienced long after the immediate conflicts have faded” (The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas [New York: Routledge, 2008: 281-323], 287). And she laments the absence of coherent, intelligent, nuanced critical theory to think radically about sex—not only about gender as a social category, which Rubin feels has been effectively addressed by feminist scholarship.
Now in 2009, well into the new millennium, many of the same social practices and ideologies that fomented public debate in the 1980s continue to plague us, taking the form of such things as the cult of virginity promoted by Disney teen icons or the controversial votes on gay marriage proposals in recent US elections. We now have more critical tools for thinking about sex and sexuality, thanks to theorists such as Judith Butler, Jeffrey Weeks, John D’Emilio, Teresa de Lauretis, Michel Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Judith Halberstram. They offer us the critical tools to deal with the residue of the 1980s, as well as to participate in contemporary struggles shaping the laws, social practices, and ideologies of our own day. Increasingly we see this theory being used in readings of sf.
Like critical theory, sf also boasts authors willing to explore the complexities of desire and coupling through all the imaginative tools that the genre makes available. The paradigm-shifting work of Joanna Russ is obviously relevant here; any listing will inevitably be incomplete, but among the writers who have helped us think more radically about sexuality, desire, subjectivity, and politics are Nalo Hopkinson, Kelly Link, Gwyneth Jones, Raphael Carter, J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Nicola Griffith, and Octavia Butler. Scholarship on these writers has engaged with the pressing questions of the politics of sexuality, including crucial debates about who counts as “human” and which lives are livable. At its best, sf is a genre that continually challenges the status quo and makes room for other ways of being, of loving—and of fucking. All of this is good news and suggests that sf can be an important, progressive voice in these debates.
But, like Rubin, I think we need to do more when it comes to thinking about sex. As well as writing about authors whose critical engagement with questions of sexuality and power pushes the boundaries of the current social configuration, we need also to ask hard questions about those whose seeming lack of engagement with sexual politics betrays a dominant ideology masquerading as “natural” or “neutral.” And we need to begin reading queerly the supposedly “conventional” attitudes of traditional sf; Wendy Pearson’s analysis of the suppressed homoeroticism of John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (1938) is an exemplary model (see “Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer,” SFS 26.1 [March 1999] 1-22). Instead of merely dismissing as inevitable features of the time things such as Altaira’s short skirt in Forbidden Planet (1956) or the brass-brassiered vixens on classic pulp covers, we need to ask ourselves why such images persist in sf, what they tell us about the genre’s imaginary. A case in point is Robert A. Heinlein’s The Door into Summer (1957). Why do we not discuss the fact that the protagonist of this celebrated novel invents time-travel at least in part to enable and sanction a kind of pedophilia?
Thinking radically about sex requires us to examine our most basic preconceptions, our most sacrosanct beliefs. And if sf is to live up to its potential to imagine a future of diverse sexual identities, pleasures, cultures, and modes of embodiment, then it must be willing to look at its darkest sexual fascinations as well as its most enlightened ones. Sexuality is political, as Rubin contends, “organized into systems of power, which reward and encourage some individuals and activities, while punishing and suppressing others” (315). It is time to start having a serious look at how sf has contributed to—and can modify—this hierarchy of sexualities.—Sherryl Vint, Brock University
Allison de Fren
Technofetishism and the Uncanny Desires of A.S.F.R. (alt.sex.fetish.robots)
Abstract. -- This essay interrogates the visual landscape of technofetishism, particularly in relation to the machine woman, using as a springboard a little-known internet community of technosexuals who collectively refer to their fetish for artificial bodies as A.S.F.R. (alt.sex.fetish.robots). Although A.S.F.R. was made possible by the advent of virtual communities, its fetishistic interests have historical antecedents that were documented in the early literature of sexology. Against their classifications of similar fetishistic practices as variations of necrophilia, as well as subsequent Freudian interpretations of fetishism as grounded in castration anxiety, this essay argues that A.S.F.R. is less about technology in general, or the artificial woman in particular, than it is a strategy of denaturalization that uses the trope of technological “programming” to underscore subjecthood. Like the trope of “hardwiring”—used within cyberpunk as a signal of the constitution of bodies and identities in relation to networked systems of control and power—“programming” serves as a metaphor for the biological and cultural matrices within which desire is articulated and pursued. “ASFRians” experience pleasure and agency through, in a sense, hacking the system, the visual indicators of which often take the form of a female android who has run amok, an image that is typically read as a threat. By drawing analogies between the uncanny artificial bodies at the heart of ASFRian fantasy and those fetishized by the Surrealists, in particular the disarticulated dolls of German artist Hans Bellmer, as well as those within the current technosphere as exemplified by Mamoru Oshii’s anime Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), which was deeply influenced by Bellmer’s work, this essay offers an ontology of artificial women that is relevant to the critical understanding of mechanical bodies in popular culture, both past and present.
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
SF/Porn: The Case for The Gas
Abstract. -- Charles Platt’s pornographic fantasy The Gas (1970) is not only a bona fide work of sf, but also a significant work in the genre. By obscenely parodying the well-established British subgenre of the petite apocalypse, The Gas satirizes both the sublimation strategies of sf and the repressive desublimation of post-1960s pornography.
Wendy Gay Pearson
Born to Be Bron: Destiny and Destinerrance in Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton
Abstract. -- Bron Helstrom, the protagonist of Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton (1976), articulates an ideology of masculinity that is deeply at odds with his society and that his friend, Lawrence, labels a “logical perversion.” Deploying Derrida’s concept of destinerrance (the notion of arriving at the wrong place, or reaching the right place only by going wrong), this article argues that Delany’s complex investigation of questions of gender, sexuality, and race in Triton exposes the extent to which such ideologies depend on irrational self-justification and outright duplicity. Bron is caught in the tensions among destiny, destination, and destinerrance; this, quite ironically, makes him in many ways the most utopian character in this ambiguously heterotopian world. Bron has a blueprint for a better society, even if that blueprint is rooted in a nostalgic fantasy of an antiquated realm of sexual hierarchy. However, because Triton’s heterotopian narrative and locale cannot be wholly dissociated from the concept of utopia, the novel also demonstrates that, since utopia is more of a critical concept than a realizable destination, contemporary utopics have no choice but to deal with their inherent destinerrance. Whether male or (after his chosen gender reassigment) female, Bron’s only possible destination is nowhere at all.
Delany’s Queer Markets: Nevèrÿon and the Texture of Capital
Abstract. -- This article addresses the connection between queerness and capital within Samuel R. Delany’s Nevèryön sequence, looking particularly at the volumes Neveryóna and Return To Nevèrÿon. By mobilizing Marxist concepts (such as the commodity fetish) within his depiction of a fantastic Iron Age economy, Delany deliberately “queers” Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation. Tracing the connections Delany draws between lived queer sexuality and the interpellation of subjects within the capitalist market system, this essay examines how the series’ LGBT characters are subjected by and through the circuits of global capital.
Kill the Bugger: Ender’s Game and the Question of Heteronormativity
Abstract. -- This essay offers a reading of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game in terms of its treatment of homosexuality. After reviewing Card’s handling of the topic in his earlier works of sf, where it was presented more explicitly, the essay shows how Ender’s Game continues to engage the issue in disguised ways: through its naming of the alien enemy “buggers” to its anti-sentimental construction of childhood eroticism to the subtly sexualized violence to which protagonist Ender Wiggin is subjected. Finally, it compares the higher tolerance for sexual difference in Card’s sf with his more condemnatory statements as a commentator on contemporary cultural/sexual politics.