Science Fiction Studies


#77 = Volume 26, Part 1 = March 1999

Ann Weinstone

Science Fiction as a Young Person’s First Queer Theory

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ed. Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction. Duke UP (919-687-3600), 1997. vi + 518. $21.95 paper.

Instructions to reviewer: Offer some general comments on the usefulness of queer-theoretical frameworks to the study of sf.

Not New Things, but New Ways—Credo of inhabitants of Krakatoa, The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois.

3.14159+ Unresolved. In my childhood home, the oversized radiators made for overheated rooms. We went through the winter with the windows open. The hot, closed-in house, the immense and frigid night. I lived on the edge.

Scribble, the protagonist of Jeff Noon’s 1993 novel Vurt, describes himself as an edge rider between Real Life and the virtual world. Riding inside the edge.

The edge, in this instance, is a radiator directly beneath my bedroom window. The window looks out over a scrappy, exhausted park. But in the dark, with the wind haunting silhouettes of tall oaks and the crystalline cold air lighting up the sky with its own pure aura, it all looks stately, even profound.

I’m ten and I’m calling to the aliens. Here, sitting on the radiator, a folded-up towel guarding my butt from the scorch, I lean out the window. My face burns as hot cheeks touch the freezing air. I look past the shivering black branches. Sending to the aliens.

Come on! Come on! Hurry!

The aliens won’t come, not just then. Instead, the people in my neighborhood, my parents, everyone I know, continues to overwork, to fight, to walk in lockstep, the repetitious, imperative lockstep of every day—the imperative to follow arbitrary rules, put up with violence, meanness, the absence of movement and joy.

As a school teacher I was pretty well tied down to a rather monotonous form of urban life.—Mr. F, Inhabitant of Krakatoa, The Twenty-One Balloons.

What did I want from aliens? I didn’t imagine they would be teachers or offer cures for cancer or ply us with technological wonders. I wanted joy. Or at least play. Or at least relief. I thought the way to get this was through a kind of shock treatment, a jolt of strangeness, an upset of scale. That was the job of the aliens. Just by being here, I thought they would shake us out of the depression that is so-called normal life.

Things you must know: There is something else.—Cover of h2so4, art zine.

After writing this, I read Joseph Litvak’s essay "Strange Gourmet: Taste, Waste, Proust." It’s in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ecstatic, sometimes frustrating, and always daring collection Novel Gazing. Litvak makes me cry. More than any other essay in the volume, his is about queer (perpetual) adolescence; it is also about, although not ostensibly, science fiction.

Many gay people, at least, do have at their disposal … the highly Proustian experience of falling, if not, at first, for some other person, then for some other place, some other world, magically different from the world of family and school, from a heterosexual everyday every day more banal, more oppressive. Whatever that other world is called—"Broadway," "Hollywood," "the opera," "Greenwich Village"— … it beckons not as a simple escape from the everyday but as a vision of the everyday transfigured. (76, italics in original)

Teresa de Lauretis wrote in her introduction to the 1991 "Queer Theory" issue of Differences: "This [queer] elsewhere is not a utopia, an otherworldly or future place and time. It is already here ... in the imaging and enacting of new forms of community by the other-wise desiring subjects of this queer theory" (xvi).

De Lauretis, of course, has written some significant sf theory and criticism. She shares with other sf theorists, and with Litvak, a salutary presentist focus. Nonetheless, Litvak and de Lauretis’s poignant trust in, and affection for, even fragile renditions of community contrasts with Fredric Jameson’s incisive, tough-love admonitions to keep our future-intoxicated eyes on the present, a present which sf may serve only by demystifying the besotted with a trick of indirection.1 I take Jameson’s sternness to be characteristic of much early academic sf criticism, and this sternness lingers even though the headily sober days of our Marxist mothers and fathers have passed. While I have been inspired and moved by the writings of Jameson and many others over the years, I find that a certain admonitory tone, a certain performative seriousness, and, routinely, a reluctance to stray from traditional modes of scholarship still haunts us. This state of affairs, I believe, is the lingering legacy of the desire to make sf a good object choice, to convince us that sf is a worthy, mature, adult object of study, but perhaps more importantly, and in relation to academic sf criticism’s Marxist beginnings, to make sf do the hard work of political instruction, to make sf useful.2

Transfiguration Other-wise. What does transfiguration have to do with usefulness? Does it have to? Focusing his discussion on The Guermantes Way, Litvak locates in sophistication a strategy for queer survival in a heterosexist world made oppressive not by dint of homophobia only, but by managing to be omnipressively boring, a world that would direct all attention to the marriage plot, to the plot period, to its own relentless plottings. Sophistication pays attention to what it is not supposed to: the faux pas, the overdone gesture, the subtleties of intonation, the hidden work of social niceties, the bitchy, the useless, the leisurely, the wasteful; it wreaks a lovehate vengeance on this world by constructing an alternate, but obsessively observant, otherworld in its interstices.

He looked like an overdressed aristocrat, sort of a misplaced boulevardier.—Description of Mr. F of Krakatoa.

What I propose queer theory has to offer academic sf criticism, then, is an otherworld, an otherwise not divorced from, but serving as a delinquent sibling to, the critical, theoretical worlds engendered by the imperative to Make SF Useful. Academia’s first practitioners issued this instruction so forcefully, one suspects they were motivated, in part, by the desire to ward off with incessant labor (or, with greater cunning, indirectly to reach?) the oh-so-queer and excessively wasteful scene of sf reading.

6.9 Puerile. "In our eagerness to reclaim the child, inner or otherwise, do we seek to evade (or, with greater cunning, indirectly to reach) her even more embarrassing, and even more exciting, older sibling.... a certain untranscended juvenile delinquency[?]" (Litvak, 77, 82).

Under the entry "Sense of Wonder" in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute and Peter Nicholls write of some sf theorists’ dismissal of "their own yearning adolescent dreams":

This becomes another version of the cynical old epigram that the Golden Age of sf is 12 (or 13, or 14), and as such may be rejected by the many readers who can still recall with perfect clarity the feelings inspired in them by their first childhood or adolescent encounter with these books, feelings that seem too honest and strong to be dismissed as youthful illusion. (1084)

You are serious.

I am serious.—Samuel Delany in a letter to SFS editors, 1979.3

Queer Reading. In contrast to gay and lesbian literary studies, whose m.o. might be described as locating or manifesting its favored subjects in its objects, queer literary studies have been mainly about reading outside of established concepts and categories, even accepted-as-marginal categories. More importantly, queer literary scholars often mess with the very practices that assist readers in stabilizing these categories. At their best, queer literary and cultural studies are activist with respect to the scenes of their own readings through a plethora of strategies ranging from the mixing of genres to shifts in traditional modes of address to grammatical and syntactic experiments.4 This enaction of transformative magic through reading, this hope for reading, for the reader, must, I feel it (oh!), reach back to a moment in queer adolescence when— locked in that sexually/perceptually strange, peterpanoptic zone, having been sure that you were condemned to live alone among perpetual adults of perpetual resignation—a companion appears, a companion world, a small opening, the incredible relief, one sinks into it, abandoned, delirious, electrified. Reading Dhalgren was like this for me. The city that doesn’t "work," confusion as release from the everyday, from the burden of knowing the plot; the pleasure of being overtaken by surprise, the readmission of randomness, of technologies that played. I didn’t want resolution. I didn’t want to know.

Not New Things, but New Ways.

Claims about reading sf are what make much sf theory work, especially as much of it has been motivated by the urge to entrain our reading experiences to the politically and socially efficacious. Under the commodious tent of reconstructive reading, we find arguments about cognitive estrangement and the covariant semantic field, cognitive mapping, the literalization of language, and various forms of participatory world modeling, either coolly procedural or, more recently, brought on by semantic destabilizations and openness, followed, again, by the hard work of reconstructing the better semantic world.

Here I pause to picture myself lying in bed reading a science-fiction novel. The sheets are bunched carelessly about my legs. On the nightstand sits a half-cannibalized Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate bar. Royal Trux’s garage band guitar sounds weirdly tinny issuing from the miniaturized speakers of the radio/tape player that is supposed to be stowed with my earthquake supplies. The light is barely bright enough to make out the page. Time lapses. I digress ... or do I? I want to ask: Why have so many of us disowned our own delinquency? Or, better, what might happen to our theorizings if we tapped its adolescent energies?

Efficiency rather bores me.—Mr. F of Krakatoa.

A Child is Reading. In her Introduction to Novel Gazing, "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction Is about You," Sedgwick argues that the paranoid bent of cultural/literary critique, à la Judith Butler and D.A. Miller, is signaled by the attempt to anticipate and ward off nasty future surprises with an advance ambush of the always-already bad, an ambush usually furthered by "an extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se—knowledge in the form of exposure" (17). Sedgwick graciously argues for a reparative turn in queer literary and cultural studies, a turn that allows for amelioration and works through quieter, less future-imperative, less inevitablist, more heterogeneous relations to texts. The avatar of this turn is Proust’s reading child,5 an absorbed, porous, alert yet aesthetically drugged being working on itself, in solitude, "where recognitions, pleasures, and discoveries seep in only from the most stretched and ragged edges of one’s competence" (3). Given this presiding avatar, whose image Sedgwick hopes will lead us to questions of how we do read rather than how we should, Sedgwick proposes that the essays in the volume offer more positive affective variety, relaxed, open-ended transits, the acceptance of aesthetic passion, non-separatism, a "real-world" orientation, an additive attitude with respect to critical approaches that have gone before, and importantly, a certain ordinariness that does not attempt to maintain rigid distinctions between everyday theorizing and academic theorizing. In many of the essays, these effects are achieved through an openness to multiple scenes of reading.

Renu Boru’s "Outing Texture" starts right there, plunging into a scene that is a rubbing, a "crush" of potential readers and readings. The scene forgets its own genre and origins and enacts the contiguity of one reading and another. It begins with a first-person epigraph that elides the difference between Boru, the epigraph’s author, and us, and then slips, sans opening quotation mark, into this passage from Henry James’s The Ambassadors: "Chad was brown and thick and strong; and, of old, Chad had been rough’…" (95). The desire of the characters to touch is never entirely distinguishable from our desires for the words, for Chad, for the reading; and the scene of Boru’s reading is never out of the scene. "I picture James’s head hovering over a consummated toilet, a glossy, smooth turd lolling in the waters, pride summoning lost pleasures" (97). Boru introduces TEXXTURE to indicate the complex relations of surfaces, objects, internal movements, the "intimately violent, pragmatic, medium, inner level" that constitutes, experientially, the reader/text (99). TEXXTURE—for example, the textual movements of food and sex—are "the inner matter that extends ... into the surface," and, by various modes of touch, into the reader (101).

Kathryn Bond Stockton’s "Prophylactics and Brains: Beloved in the Cybernetic Age of AIDS" interrupts cultural theory appropriations of cybernetics and virus with a kind of viral gothicism that rides on antinomian phrasing such as the "boat of the brain" and proposes hypotextuality as a mode via which words slowly accrete and gather into themselves histories, peoples, tragedy, the dead. Most importantly, Stockton’s interpretive strategies, while elegant, remain unbound to conventional notions of methodological consistency. She contaminates the hypertrocious informationalism of Mondo 2000 with a reading of language, history, and trauma in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Rather than an exposure, this is, as Stockton puts it, "a reading that is trying to get itself thought. One that wishes a novel would think it" (64).

Unfortunately, the essay in the volume that most explicitly deals with sf is not so inspiring. Tyler Curtain’s "The ‘Sinister Fruitiness’ of Machines: Neuromancer, Internet Sexuality, and the Turing Test" poses questions of how gender and sexuality are implicated in the recognition of "self" or "sentience" particularly with reference to A.I. and cyberentities. Trajecting through three case studies or "moments" (this nomination seems to underwrite Curtain’s decision not to consult any pertinent pieces of writing by other sf critics), Curtain addresses his questions to Neuromancer and one such moment, claiming that "the function of cyberspace as wholly ideological space/ narrativized place is to stabilize the messiness and the perversity of real life" (137). While there is certainly lots to be said about how an expendable queerness and an idealized heterosexual family life generate various sorts of structures and movements in Neuromancer and other Gibson texts, Curtain paints Case, and by implication Gibson, with the big brush-off of "homosexual panic," entirely missing complications wrought by Gibson’s considerable sense of irony. Curtain also has much to say about the importance of aesthetics in relation to his questions about gender, selfhood, and A.I., but he seems to have a feel for this in largely negative terms. He never explores the possibility that Gibson’s collectomaniac textual strategies might blur into Julius Deane’s "gay sensibilities" (134).

But this should not stop anyone from avidly engorging themselves on the volume’s many wonderful offerings. Wonderful particularly because of what they suggest to us writers of sf criticism and theory about opening up our readings to the scene of our adolescent encounters with sf, those deliciously alienated, titillatingly estranged, damp, forgetful, delinquent, tongue-fuzzing yearnings for transfiguration that precipitate, as much as any world-reconstructing cogitations, visceral, and in some respects pleasing, after-experiences of the simple oddness that our world should be arranged just so, that it should be so stubbornly and statically arranged. Nearly every essay in Novel Gazing stages a moment when a reader, the reader of the essay or its author, enters, not in the metafictional sense, but as if dropped in, creating a hole, uncertainty, the fracturing of a reading by a world. These readings generally pay attention to the bodily relations between readers and texts; they ask questions about inchoate recognitions, affects, tonal valence, tickles, stings, roughness, smoothness, fleshiness, terrain. In this sense, the central trope of the volume is not gazing, but touching. To sf critics, and anyone else, the volume offers modes of reading the underbellies, the muscles, the polymorphous sex organs of texts, their urges and surges, how what we aren’t necessarily directed to look at directs us, moves the reader into the interstitial, embodying, relational world of the text.


"We have spent considerable time in doing absolutely nothing at all."

"What’s wrong with that?" I hastily asked.

"Nothing!" shouted Mr. F. "I am happy to see that you are a good loafer. Certain prudish people in other countries seem to find that busy hands are kept out of mischief, or some other such silly idea."

The Twenty-One Balloons is the first sf I remember reading, and it remained a favorite for many years. In keeping with a certain queer flaunting of the excessive gesture and bravura recycling of the materials of the mundane world, The Twenty-One Balloons features a group of San Franciscans who secede from life-normal and move to the island of Krakatoa. They live according to a haute "restaurant government"; their domiciles are fantastical constructions that feature modcons such as electrified living room furniture —used mainly as bumper cars—and beds that crank up through skylights so that residents can sleep under the stars. Despite their tropical isolation, Krakatoan attire is parodically ceremonial: a medley of Edwardian formalism and a day at the races. Mr. F is the first Krakatoan whom the narrator meets. Mr. Fay, Mr. Fairy, Mr. F... F... Faaaabulous.

The Twenty-One Balloons was first published in 1947, two years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here on Krakatoa, people are changing the machines, not changing for them. And they are accomplishing this by inventing machines that play.

Not New Things, but New Ways.

Queerness, as the essays in Novel Gazing enact it, and as I’ve experienced it, means paying attention, admitting to the psyche and the body what already is transfiguring, magic, wayward: the gorgeous, pissed-off, outrageous, frivolous, tragic, sexy, ignored, deflected, distracted otherworlds that come into our being, not by dint of labor-intensive practices, but through willing porosity, pleasure, a commitment to exempting no one and nothing, the commitment to feeling sorrow and fostering joy. This is also the queer, delinquent, immersive scene of sf reading, a moment whose energies and insights are already available to us, in the present, tugging at the edges of our competence.

Some Touches. I haven’t read Dhalgren in many years, so this is a report from the psyche. What I took from my reading was the understanding that while characters at times exhibit anxiety about the city’s disorganization, about its inexplicable disconnection from the normal world, the mysterious something that draws them (and me) is the pleasure of not making sense, the relief and opportunity that flows from the lifting of the imperative to be socially, economically, and sexually coherent.6 I learned that the greatest thrill sf has to offer me is the fact that it takes the materials and supports of dominant cultures and changes them into pleasure, into the "waste" of sf. Sf, in this sense, wreaks a kind of lovehate vengeance on such cultures by reanimating our engagements with the terms around which this essay has revolved: work, usefulness, pleasure, the political, waste, joy, the interstice, the otherwise.

The essays in Novel Gazing encourage us to contact, to touch this vengeful aspect of sf, which is also its joy, its play, its eroticism. They point us toward an opening up and out of the scene of sf reading and toward a more personalist affect for sf theorizings. They suggest we might manifest and affirm the polymorphous modes in which sf pleasures readers by looking where we’re not supposed to, by sticking with moments of confusion and destabilization, indulging in them rather than putting them to "good" use. Mainly, they conjure an sf theorizing into which readers might drop with their bodies intact and in contact with the viscera of texts. These fleshy visitations, these refusals to exempt pieces of ourselves, are just as radical and political here as in any other zone of our world.

So, as I come to the end of this essay, I find that my own sense of what it might be possible to write has changed through writing this. And while my premonition that I will find ways to engage sf on the terrain of my own pleasurable delinquencies has not yet matured, even to adolescence, I offer the following notes:

The tactile qualities of technologies, how they enact, represent, foil, and pleasure. How tactility "glues" texts together, along with their readers. Dhalgren.

The mis-appropriation of technoscience in relation to reader and character erotic encounters. John Varley’s Titan.

Desiring "bad" bodies. Monkey in the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. Zena in Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels

Relation of technodestruction, manufactured things that don’t work properly, the release of the binding energy of technology, to the release from oppressive gender/sex norms. J.G. Ballard’s Crash.

The erotic pull on the reader as counterforce to other sf elements including scienticity. Octavia Butler’s Dawn.

Failed knowledge quests coupled with release from doxic forms of love. The pleasures of not knowing. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.

All of which makes me wonder if delinquent, joyous, queer sf reading and its theorizings could become, if we allowed it, "a model for recapturing not so much a lost [or new] world as a lost libidinal intelligence, a capacity for having more than a blandly routinized relation to any world" (77).

Is it time now for queer sf theory ?


For help writing this, thanks to Karen Cadora and Mark Seltzer.

1. See his "Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?"

2. In 1976, Joanna Russ wrote approvingly that American science fiction is "collective in outlook, didactic, materialist.... Science fiction is the only modern literature to take work as its central and characteristic concern" (qtd. in de Lauretis, "Signs" 137). For a fun trip back into the thick of it all, see Reynolds, Rottensteiner, and Jameson, "Change, SF, and Marxism." Follow-up discussions among these participants and others can be found in subsequent issues of SFS.

3. Starboard Wine, 207.

4. Sedgwick’s essay "White Glasses" is exemplary in this respect.

5. While he is not cited explicitly, the reading child of Proust’s essay On Reading hovers over the volume.

6. I just picked up the 1996 re-issue of Dhalgren and see that, in his introduction, William Gibson has said much the same and with a similarly fervorous, adolescent affect.


Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 1993. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

De Lauretis, Teresa. "Signs of Wa(o)nder." In The Technological Imagination: Theories and Fictions, ed. Andreas Huyssen, Teresa De Lauretis, and Kathleen Woodward. Madison, WI: Coda, 1980. 159-174.

______. "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities An Introduction." Differences 3 (1991): iii-xviii.

Delany, Samuel R. Starboard Wine: more notes on the language of science fiction. Pleasantville, NY: Dragon, 1984.

_____. Dhalgren. 1975. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1996.

du Bois, William Pène. The Twenty-One Balloons. 1947. New York: Viking, 1947.

h2so4 , zine. Jill Stauffer, ed. PO Box 423354, San Francisco, CA. #10 (1998).

Jameson, Fredric. "Progress versus Utopia; or Can We Imagine the Future?" SFS 9.2 (July 1982): 147-158.

Proust, Marcel. On Reading. Trans. Jean Autret and William Burford. London: Souvenir, 1972.

Reynolds, Mack, Franz Rottensteiner, and Fredric Jameson. "Change, SF, and Marxism, Open or Closed Universes?" SFS 1 (1974): 269-76.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "White Glasses." Yale Journal of Criticism 5 (1992): 193-208.

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