#77 = Volume 26, Part 1 = March 1999
Science Fiction as a Young Person’s First Queer
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, 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,
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
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
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
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
"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
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
The tactile qualities of technologies, how they enact, represent, foil, and
pleasure. How tactility "glues" texts together, along with their
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
1. See his "Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine
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
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "White Glasses." Yale
Journal of Criticism 5 (1992): 193-208.
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