Sex and sexuality in speculative fiction
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Sexual themes are frequently used in science fiction or related genres. Such elements may include depictions of realistic sexual interactions in a science fictional setting, a protagonist with an alternative sexuality, or exploration of the varieties of sexual experience that deviate from the conventional.
Science fiction and fantasy have sometimes been more constrained than non-genre narrative forms in their depictions of sexuality and gender. However, speculative fiction also offers the freedom to imagine societies different from real-life cultures, making it an incisive tool to examine sexual bias and forcing the reader to reconsider his or her cultural assumptions.
Prior to the 1960s, explicit sexuality of any kind was not characteristic of genre speculative fiction. In the 1960s, science fiction and fantasy began to reflect the changes prompted by the civil rights movement and the emergence of a counterculture. New Wave and feminist science fiction authors imagined cultures in which a variety of gender models and atypical sexual relationships are the norm, and depictions of sex acts and alternative sexualities became commonplace.
As genres of popular literature, science fiction and fantasy often seem even more constrained than non-genre literature by their conventions of characterization and the effects that these conventions have on depictions of sexuality and gender. Science fiction in particular has traditionally been a puritanical genre oriented toward a male readership. Sex is often linked to disgust in science fiction and horror, and plots based on sexual relationships have mainly been avoided in genre fantasy narratives. On the other hand, science fiction and fantasy can also offer more freedom than do non-genre literatures to imagine alternatives to the default assumptions of heterosexuality and masculine superiority that permeate many cultures.
In speculative fiction, extrapolation allows writers to focus not on the way things are (or were), as non-genre literature does, but on the way things could be different. It provides science fiction with a quality that Darko Suvin has called "cognitive estrangement": the recognition that what we are reading is not the world as we know it, but a world whose difference forces us to reconsider our own world with an outsider's perspective. When the extrapolation involves sexuality or gender, it can force the reader to reconsider his or her heteronormative cultural assumptions; the freedom to imagine societies different from real-life cultures makes science fiction an incisive tool to examine sexual bias. In science fiction, such estranging features include technologies that significantly alter sex or reproduction. In fantasy, such features include figures (for example, mythological deities and heroic archetypes) who are not limited by preconceptions of human sexuality and gender, allowing them to be reinterpreted. Science fiction has also depicted a plethora of alien methods of reproduction and sex.
Uranian Worlds, by Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, is an authoritative guide to science fiction literature featuring gay, lesbian, transgender, and related themes. The book covers science fiction literature published before 1990 (2nd edition), providing a short review and commentary on each piece.
Some of the themes explored in speculative fiction include:
- Sex with aliens, machines and robots
- Reproductive technology including cloning, artificial wombs, parthenogenesis, and genetic engineering
- Sexual equality of men and women
- Male- and female-dominated societies, including single-gender worlds
- Changing gender roles
- Homosexuality and bisexuality
- Androgyny and sex changes
- Sex in virtual reality
- Other advances in technology for sexual pleasure such as teledildonics
- Male pregnancy
- Sexual taboos and morality
- Sex in zero gravity
- Birth control and other, more radical measures to prevent overpopulation
True History, a Greek-language tale by Assyrian writer Lucian (120-185 CE), has been called the first ever science fiction story. The narrator is suddenly enveloped by a typhoon and swept up to the Moon, which is inhabited by a society of men who are at war with the Sun. After the hero distinguishes himself in combat, the king gives him his son, the prince, in marriage. The all-male society reproduces (male children only) by giving birth from the thigh or by growing a child from a plant produced by planting the left testicle in the Moon's soil.
In other proto-SF works, sex itself, of any type, was equated with base desires or "beastliness," as in Gulliver's Travels (1726), which contrasts the animalistic and overtly sexual Yahoos with the reserved and intelligent Houyhnhnms. Early works that showed sexually open characters to be morally impure include the first lesbian vampire story "Carmilla" (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu (collected in In a Glass Darkly).
The pulp era (1920–30s)
During the pulp era, explicit sexuality of any kind was not characteristic of genre science fiction and fantasy. The frank treatment of sexual topics of earlier literature was abandoned. For many years, the editors who controlled what was published, such as the famously prudish Kay Tarrant, assistant editor of Astounding Science Fiction, felt that they had to protect the adolescent male readership that they identified as their principal market. Although the covers of some 1930s pulp magazines showed scantily clad women menaced by tentacled aliens, the covers were often more lurid than the magazines' contents. Implied or disguised sexuality was as important as that which was openly revealed. In this sense, genre science fiction reflected the social mores of the day, paralleling common prejudices. This was particularly true of pulp fiction, more so than literary works of the time.
In Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World (1932), natural reproduction has been abolished, with human embryos being raised artificially in "hatcheries and conditioning centres." Recreational sex is promoted, often as a group activity, and marriage, pregnancy, natural birth, and parenthood are considered too vulgar to be mentioned in polite conversation.
One of the earliest examples of genre science fiction that involves a challenging amount of unconventional sexual activity is Odd John (1935) by Olaf Stapledon. John is a mutant with extraordinary mental abilities who will not allow himself to be bound by many of the rules imposed by the ordinary British society of his time. The novel strongly implies that he has consensual intercourse with his mother and that he seduces an older boy who becomes devoted to him but also suffers from the affront that the relationship creates to his own morals. John eventually concludes that any sexual interaction with "normal" humans is akin to bestiality.
The Golden Age (1940–50s)
As the readership for science fiction and fantasy began to age in the 1950s, writers were able to introduce more explicit sexuality into their work.
Philip José Farmer wrote The Lovers (1952), arguably the first science fiction story to feature sex as a major theme, and Strange Relations (1960), a collection of five stories about human/alien sexual relations. In his novel Flesh (1960), a hypermasculine antlered man ritually impregnates legions of virgins in order to counter declining male fertility.
Theodore Sturgeon wrote many stories that emphasised the importance of love regardless of the current social norms, such as "The World Well Lost" (1953), a classic tale involving alien homosexuality, and the novel Venus Plus X (1960), in which a contemporary man awakens in a futuristic place where the people are hermaphrodites.
Robert A. Heinlein's time-travel short story "All You Zombies" (1959) chronicles a young man (later revealed to be intersex) taken back in time and tricked into impregnating his younger, female self before he underwent a sex change. He thus turns out to be the offspring of that union, with the paradoxical result that he is both his own mother and father.
Poul Anderson's 1959 novel Virgin Planet deals in a straightforward manner with homosexuality and polyamory on an exclusively female world. The plot twist is that the protagonist is the only male on a world of women, and though quite a few of them are interested in sex with him, it is never consummated during his sojourn on the planet.
A mirror image was presented by A. Bertram Chandler in Spartan Planet (1969), featuring an exclusively male world, where by definition homosexual relations are the normal (and only) sexual relations. The plot revolves around the explosive social upheaval resulting when the planet is discovered by a spaceship from the wider galaxy, whose crew includes both men and women.
Until the late 1960s, few other writers depicted alternative sexuality or revised gender roles, nor openly investigated sexual questions.
The New Wave era (1960–70s)
By the late 1960s, science fiction and fantasy began to reflect the changes prompted by the civil rights movement and the emergence of a counterculture. Within the genres, these changes were incorporated into a movement called "the New Wave," a movement more skeptical of technology, more liberated socially, and more interested in stylistic experimentation. New Wave writers were more likely to claim an interest in "inner space" instead of outer space. They were less shy about explicit sexuality and more sympathetic to reconsiderations of gender roles and the social status of sexual minorities. Notable authors who often wrote on sexual themes included Joanna Russ, Thomas M. Disch, John Varley, James Tiptree, Jr., and Samuel R. Delany. Under the influence of New Wave editors and authors such as Michael Moorcock (editor of the influential New Worlds magazine) and Ursula K. Le Guin, sympathetic depictions of alternative sexuality and gender multiplied in science fiction and fantasy, becoming commonplace.
Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) both depict heterosexual group marriages and public nudity as desirable social norms, while in Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973), the main character argues strongly for the future liberty of homosexual sex.
Samuel R. Delany's Nebula Award-winning short story "Aye, and Gomorrah" (1967) posits the development of neutered human astronauts, and then depicts the people who become sexually oriented toward them. By imagining a new gender and resultant sexual orientation, the story allows readers to reflect on the real world while maintaining an estranging distance. In his 1975 science fiction novel entitled Dhalgren, Delany colors his large canvas with characters of a wide variety of sexualities. Once again, sex is not the focus of the novel, although it does contain some of the first explicitly described scenes of gay sex in science fiction. Delany depicts, mostly with affection, characters with a wide variety of motivations and behaviours, with the effect of revealing to the reader the fact that these kinds of people exist in the real world. In later works, Delany blurs the line between science fiction and gay pornography. Delany faced resistance from book distribution companies for his treatment of these topics.
Ursula K. Le Guin explores radically alternative forms of sexuality in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and again in "Coming of Age in Karhide" (1995), which imagine the sexuality of an alien "human" species in which individuals are neither "male" nor "female," but undergo a monthly sexual cycle in which they randomly experience the activation of either male or female sexual organs and reproductive abilities; this makes them in a sense bisexual, and in other senses androgynous or hermaphroditic. Le Guin has written considerations of her own work in two essays, "Is Gender Necessary?" (1976) and "Is Gender Necessary? Redux" (1986), which respond to feminist and other criticism of The Left Hand of Darkness. In these essays, she makes it clear that the novel's assumption that Gethenians would automatically find a mate of the gender opposite to the gender they were becoming produced an unintended heteronormativity. Le Guin has subsequently written many stories that examine the possibilities science fiction allows for non-traditional sexuality, such as the sexual bonding between clones in "Nine Lives" (1968) and the four-way marriages in "Mountain Ways" (1996).
In his 1972 novel The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov describes an alien race with three genders, all of them necessary for sexual reproduction. One gender produces a form of sperm, another gender provides the energy needed for reproduction, and members of the third gender bear and raise the offspring. All three genders are included in sexual and social norms of expected and acceptable behavior. In this same novel, the hazards and problems of sex in microgravity are described, and while people born on the Moon are proficient at it, people from Earth are not.
Similarly, Poul Anderson's Three Worlds to Conquer depicts centaur-like beings living on Jupiter who have three genders: female, male and "demi-male". In order to conceive, a female must have sex with both a male and a demi-male within a short time of each other. In the society of the protagonist, there are stable, harmonious three-way families, in effect a formalized Menage a Trois, with the three partners on equal terms with each other. An individual in that society feels a strong attachment to all three parents - mother, father and demi-father - who all take part in bringing up the young. Conversely, among the harsh invaders who threaten to destroy the protagonist's homeland and culture, males are totally dominant over both females and demi-males; the latter are either killed at birth or preserved in subjugation for reproduction - which the protagonist regards as a barbaric aberration.
Feminist science fiction authors imagined cultures in which homo- and bisexuality and a variety of gender models are the norm. Joanna Russ's award-winning short story "When It Changed" (1972), portraying a female-only lesbian society that flourished without men, and her novel The Female Man (1975), were enormously influential. Russ was largely responsible for introducing radical lesbian feminism into science fiction.
The bisexual female writer Alice Bradley Sheldon, who used James Tiptree, Jr. as her pen name, explored the sexual impulse as her main theme. Some stories by Tiptree portray humans becoming sexually obsessed with aliens, such as "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" (1972), or aliens being sexually abused. The Girl Who Was Plugged In (1973) is an early precursor of cyberpunk that depicts a relationship via a cybernetically controlled body. In her award-winning novella Houston, Houston, Do You Read? (1976), Tiptree presents a female-only society after the extinction of men from disease. The society lacks stereotypically "male" problems such as war, but is stagnant. The women reproduce via cloning, and consider men to be comical.
Elizabeth A. Lynn's science fiction novel A Different Light (1978) features a same-sex relationship between two men, and inspired the name of the LGBT bookstore chain A Different Light. Lynn's The Chronicles of Tornor (1979–80) series of novels, the first of which won the World Fantasy Award, were among the first fantasy novels to include gay relationships as an unremarkable part of the cultural background. Lynn also wrote novels depicting sadomasochism.
John Varley, who also came to prominence in the 1970s, is another writer who examined sexual themes in his work. In his "Eight Worlds" suite of stories and novels, humanity has achieved the ability to change sex at a whim. Homophobia is shown as initially inhibiting the uptake of this technology, as it engenders drastic changes in relationships, with bisexuality becoming the default mode for society. Varley's Gaea trilogy (1979-1984) features lesbian protagonists.
Modern SF (post-New Wave)
After the pushing back of boundaries in the 1960s and 70s, sex in genre science fiction gained wider acceptance, and was often incorporated into otherwise conventional science fiction stories with little comment.
Set on an alien planet, Octavia E. Butler's acclaimed short story "Bloodchild" (1984) depicts the complex relationship between human refugees and the insect-like aliens who keep them in a preserve to protect them, but also to use them as hosts for breeding their young. Sometimes called Butler's "pregnant man story," "Bloodchild" won the Nebula Award, Hugo Award, and Locus Award. Other of Butler's works explore miscegenation, non-consensual sex, and hybridity.
Lois McMaster Bujold explores many areas of sexuality in the multiple award-winning novels and stories of her Vorkosigan Saga (1986-ongoing), which are set in a fictional universe influenced by the availability of uterine replicators and significant genetic engineering. These areas include an all-male society, promiscuity, monastic celibacy, hermaphroditism, and bisexuality.
In the Mythopoeic Award-winning novel Unicorn Mountain (1988), Michael Bishop includes a gay male AIDS patient among the carefully drawn central characters who must respond to an irruption of dying unicorns at their Colorado ranch. The death of the hedonistic gay culture, and the safe sex campaign resulting from the AIDS epidemic, are explored, both literally and metaphorically.
Glory Season (1993) by David Brin is set on the planet Stratos, inhabited by a strain of human beings designed to conceive clones in winter, and normal children in summer. All clones are female, because males cannot reproduce themselves individually. Further, males and females have opposed seasons of sexual receptivity; women are sexually receptive in winter, and men in summer. (This unusual heterogamous reproductive cycle is known to be evolutionarily advantageous for some species of aphids.) The novel treats themes of separatist feminism and biological determinism.
Elizabeth Bear's novel Carnival (2006) revisits the trope of the single-gender world, as a pair of gay male ambassador-spies attempt to infiltrate and subvert the predominately lesbian civilization of New Amazonia, whose matriarchal rulers have all but enslaved their men.
The plot of The Tamír Triad by Lynn Flewelling has a major Transsexual element. To begin with the protagonist, Prince Tobin, is to all appearances a male - both in his own perception and in that of others. Boys who swim naked together with Tobin have no reason to doubt his male anatomy. Yet, due to the magical reasons which are an important part of the plot, in the underlying, essential identity Tobin had always been a disguised girl. In the series' cataclysmic scene of magical change this becomes an evident physical fact, and Prince Tobin becomes Queen Tamír, shedding the male body and gaining a fully functioning female one. Yet, it takes Tamír a considerable time and effort to come to terms with her female sexuality.
- glbtq >> literature >> Science Fiction and Fantasy
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- Imagined Sexual Futures: reading list
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