Science Fiction Studies

#109 = Volume 36, Part 3 = November 2009

Sherryl Vint

Views from Queer

Wendy Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon, ed. Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction. Ed. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2008. xii + 285 pp. $85 hb.

In a guest column first published in PMLA in 1995, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner attempt to answer the question “What does queer theory tell us about X?” and they caution against a conflation of queer theory with gay and lesbian studies. Queer, they argue, must remain open as a critical practice aimed at creating “publics that can afford sex and intimacy in sustained, unchastening ways; publics that can comprehend their own differences of privilege and struggle; publics whose abstract spaces can also be lived in, remembered, hoped for” (416). Sexuality, they remind us, is “related not just to family, romance, or friendship but also to the public world governing both policy and everyday life” (418). Queer theory opens any discursive or material practice up to new insight and modes of inquiry, to renewed understandings of our selves, our worlds, our passions, and our preoccupations. Queer Universes begins from a similarly broad understanding of what is signified by queer, and it effectively shows us that queer theory has indeed much to teach us about science fiction.            

The book is divided into four sections: “Queering the Scene,” which provides a theoretical framework that is evident in many contributions; “Un/Doing History,” whose readings focus both on specific sf texts and also on larger tendencies within the genre, provoking us to see sf history in new ways once questions of sexuality take center stage; “Disordering Desires,” a group of essays that provocatively conceptualizes the discourse of sf in new ways; and “Embodying New Worlds,” a section that expands our understanding of sexuality and queer reading to encompass the utopian impulse of sf more broadly. Queer Universes—as the plural hints—embraces a wide variety of critical perspectives and examples, and ably demonstrates that matters of sexuality have always been at the core of sf’s interest in imagining otherwise, while at the same time rectifying a critical tendency to understate the genre’s libidinal side. The collection includes scholarly essays, more personal reflections by sf writers, close readings, and theoretical position pieces. The sum is an essential collection that challenges our understanding of a genre we thought we knew.

Wendy Pearson’s Pioneer-Award-winning essay, “Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer,” which was first published in 1999, is reprinted here and in many ways anchors the collection. In this groundbreaking essay, Pearson links the projects of queer and sf studies, contending that “Queer, with its denaturalization of master narratives and its movement towards subcultural and subaltern understandings of texts, operates, by analogy, on some of the same levels as sf” (18). Pearson’s essay makes three important interventions through her reading of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (1938) as a text that foregrounds the contemporary panic about the potential passing of queer people among straights and of Tom Reamy’s “Under the Hollywood Sign” (1975) as one that explores the consequences of a willful blindness to homosexual identity. First, she calls attention to the centrality of heteronormativity in producing a subject recognized as human, thereby compelling the recognition that sf’s engagement with alterity has always already been deeply shaped by assumptions about sexuality and gender. Next, she makes the crucial point that queer reading is “less about content … than about worldview” (34), thereby establishing affinities between sf and queer theory as novel ways of thinking about the world and subjectivity. Finally, Pearson concludes, the generic features of sf make it “possible—although obviously not inevitable—for sf to tell alternative stories … of both sexual ontologies and the systems that sustain and create them” (35). In certain ways, the remaining essays in the collection can be understood as critical responses to this implicit call to chart and evaluate the ways in which sf has told such alternative stories, as well as the ways in which it has failed to do so.            

Pearson’s new contribution to this volume, “Toward a Queer Genealogy of SF,” extends the idea of sexuality as “a lens through which to refract the potential to be recognized as human, the capacity for a livable life, and the possibility of asserting agency and subjectivity” (73). By using the idea of genealogy to expand what we traditionally consider sf—moving from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) to Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden (1989) and finally to John Greyson’s fantastical film critiquing AIDS moral panic, Zero Patience (1993)—Pearson challenges sf criticism to “enter into dialogues not only with each other but with contemporary epistemological and ethical approaches to questions of identity, subjectivity, history, and science” (99). Her reading of Le Guin’s problematic novel is particularly fruitful, allowing us to understand Genly’s misrecognition of the Gethenians as part of “the question of normativity and the problem of recognition” (76) that operates along axes of sexual orientation as well as gender. The presumption of heterosexuality, Pearson reveals, shapes this and other narratives of asexual or hermaphroditic being in ways that reinforce rather than challenge gender norms.            

Certain contributions stand out, and I will focus on them in this review. Rob Latham’s ”Sextrapolation in New Wave Science Fiction” usefully contextualizes the prudish tenor of Golden Age sf within the tight editorial policing of a time when a few magazine editors controlled access to print, and reminds us that the New Wave’s taboo-breaking sexual representations did not arise in a vacuum but were instead the culmination of a long struggle. Latham notes three responses of the genre to the more permissive context: feminist critique of normative gender roles and sexual relationships; a proliferation of various forms of sf pornography; and sextrapolation—that is, “projecting future trends based on current sexual mores or inventing novel sexual practices and relationships” (68).            

The first of these responses might seem more pertinent to a book about gender than one about sexuality, but, as Veronica Hollinger’s insightful “‘Something Like a Fiction’: Speculative Intersections of Sexuality and Technology” makes clear, sex and gender are inextricably intertwined via what Judith Butler has called the heterosexual matrix through which bodies, genders, and desires are mapped onto culturally intelligible subject positions requiring particular alignments of sex, gender, and sexuality. Hollinger exposes sf’s own role in policing and reproducing this heterosexual matrix via shifting representations of the conflation of sexuality and technology. She begins with Lester del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” (1938), a story in which “sex, gender, and sexual desire are represented as naturally aligned in the interests of normative heterosexuality; technology’s function is simply to support and replicate the natural order of things” (145). Hollinger reveals sf’s complicity at times in reproducing heternormativity, first exploring Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” (1948), where “identity returns to the (masculine) self through the self’s reunification with the natural/sexual body and its renewed capacity to penetrate an appropriately feminine body” (146) and then C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” (1944), whose anxiety about Deirdre’s status as a “real” woman is rooted in a conception that “‘Real’ women are (hetero)sexually available to ‘real’ men; since Deirdre is no longer a sexually available body, the text worries obsessively about her status as ‘woman’ and, by extension, her status as ‘human’” (147). As Latham argues, the genre “is always treating sexual topics, perhaps most powerfully when it seems to be primly avoiding them” (53). Yet Hollinger’s essay concludes on a more optimistic note, examining texts by Samuel R. Delany and Joanna Russ that focus on the plasticity of human desire and provide examples of sf that can help us find a way out of what Judith Butler in Undoing Gender (2004) calls “this circle whereby heterosexuality institutes monolithic culture and monolithic culture reinstitutes and renaturalizes heterosexuality” (qtd 150).            

Perhaps more surprising, the second strategy identified by Latham—sf pornography—also proves politically enabling in contributions to this volume, most significantly in Patricia Melzer’s “‘And How Many Souls Do You Have?’: Technologies of Perverse Desire and Queer Sex in Science Fiction Erotica.” Melzer usefully reminds us that sf erotica is not exhausted by its function of producing pleasure in the reader, but additionally contains what she calls an “aesthetic excess produced at the margins of their sexual encounters” and which she demonstrates contains “comments on, and models for, new subjectivities” (162). Melzer makes visible some of the critical and utopian energies fuelling these erotic fantasies, but she also warns us not to dismiss the pleasure; this fact of pleasure, she insists, “is central to queer theory, which addresses the navigations of bodies and desires in relation to subjectivity” (161). Melzer’s corrective is a welcome reminder that a serious consideration of sexuality and sf not only returns notions of embodiment and affect to our critical engagement with sf, but it also requires the recognition that our own embodied and sexual being is part of our engagement with these texts. Melzer’s analysis resonates with Pearson’s observation that “as readers, we become different through the act of reading, of opening ourselves to the flow of possibilities, of new ideas, of new bodies” (73). The sf erotica Melzer examines rejects the aim of “creating the illusion of a natural body with natural desires” and instead “embrace[s] the multidimensional manifestations of bodies and sexualities” (168), using the conjunctions of technology and sexuality to find some ways out of the endless reproduction of the same problems that Hollinger critiques.            

In an interview with Nancy Johnston entitled “Happy That It’s Here,” Nalo Hopkinson similarly draws connections between the material ways people live their lives, including their sexual lives, and the potential for sf to tell alternative stories, observing, “It sometimes seems to me—and perhaps whimsically so—that the people who are courageously non-normative in their sexualities are doing in the real world some of the work that speculative fiction can do in the world of the imagination, that is, exploring a wider range of possibilities for living” (203). Latham’s third strategy, sextrapolation, is pertinent here: sf can both make visible the damage done by current, limited ways of conceiving of sexuality and subjectivity and also provide a space for other potential assemblages of sex and the other. Hopkinson concludes the interview by echoing a critique found frequently throughout this collection that sf “still [has] a long way to go to practice [valuing diversity],” while at the same time stressing that it is a literature she values because it “probably helped to save my life” (215).            

This insight returns us to the statement by Berlant and Warner with which I opened this review: their contention that sexuality is equally of concern in matters of policy and everyday life and in matters of romance and affect. The two final essays in Queer Universes develop this notion most overtly and challenge us to recognize that bringing together queer theory and sf requires us to re-examine all aspects of the genre, not merely its depictions of sexuality and gender. Helen Merrick’s “Queering Nature: Close Encounters with the Alien in Ecofeminist Science Ficton” opens with the assertion that “just as our constructions of sexuality (and the strictures of normative heterosexism) infuse every aspect of our culture/s, so too do sexualized assumptions underpin our constructions of ‘nature’” (216). Queering nature, in her argument, involves questioning which truths have been allowed to pass unchallenged in our representations of nature. Such questioning enhances our constructions of both “nature” and “culture” in solidarity with the editors’ assertion in the introduction that queer theory is about “imagining a future that opens out, rather than forecloses, possibilities for becoming real, for mattering in the world” (5). Merrick reads ecofeminist sf by Amy Thompson and Octavia Butler through the lens of Donna Haraway’s recent work on kinship, detaching kinship from biological notions of sex and reproduction, emphasizing the role of self-conscious agency in producing cross-species kinship. She finds in this approach a “highly appropriate aid for re-reading and potentially destabilizing the heteronormative surface of ecofeminist stories of alien-human encounters” (229).

De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s thought-provoking “Queering the Coming Race? A Utopian Historical Imperative” obliges us to see the centrality of questions of sexuality to sf’s most familiar scenarios. Examining coming race narratives, Kilgore asserts that “the task of imagining a queer futurity … requires that we confront closely held generic assumptions about human nature and destiny” (233). Noting that “Whatever the physical or mental enhancements of the new races they invent, most sf narratives are organized around a heteronormative whiteness that limits thought experiments on species that truly differ from us or social relations that diverge radically from our own” (236), he compares the “homespun” (239) conclusion of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) with the more radical vision of humans becoming Martian in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1993-97). The humans who are named the new Martians at the end of Bradbury’s work are “familiar: patriarchal, heterosexual, middle-class, and white” (240), whereas Robinson imagines “the denaturalization of the nuclear family as regulator of sex and race on Mars” (241). Like Merrick, Kilgore sees queer possibility in figuring kinship beyond the heterosexual, reproductive family. Robinson’s new Martians force us to question “what we mean by a human future” (248): they see humans from Earth, products of a different regime of regulating sexuality and a distinct physical environment, as atavistic monsters constrained by limited bodies and sex/gender identities. Thinking and living queerly, Kilgore suggests, means transforming not only our sexual practices but also our sense of what it means to be a subject, to be part of a community, to inhabit our bodies, and to create networks of kinship beyond the heteronormative dyad.           

Queer Universes is a timely, smart, and innovative collection. In their introduction, the editors quote Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s statement in Epistemology of the Closet (1990) that “an understanding of virtually any aspect of Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition” (qtd 3). This vital collection ensures that our conception of sf is fuller and healthier.

Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner. “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?” The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Ed. Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas. New York: Routledge, 2008. 414-21.

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