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 character with an alternative sexuality as the protagonist, 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 conventions of characterization and their depictions of sexuality and gender. However, speculative fiction also gives 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 a variety of gender models or atypical sexual relationships, such as group marriages or homosexual single-gendered societies, 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 SF 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 to give 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 science fiction critic 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 change forces us to reconsider our own 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 SF 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. SF 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.
True History, a Greek-language tale by Syrian writer Lucian (A.D. 120-185), 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 that 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, 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 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 SF 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.
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, however, writers like Philip José Farmer and Theodore Sturgeon were able to introduce more explicit sexuality into their work.
Sturgeon, who wrote many stories during the Golden Age of Science Fiction that emphasised the importance of love, regardless of the current social norms such as in The World Well Lost, a classic tale involving alien homosexuality, and Venus Plus X, in which a contemporary man awakens in a futuristic place where the people are hermaphrodites.
Philip José Farmer wrote The Lovers (1953), arguably the first science fiction story to feature sex as a major theme and Strange Relations (1960), collection of five stories about human/alien sexual relations. In his novel Flesh a hypermasculine antlered man ritually impregnates legions of virgins to counter declining male fertility.
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.
In Poul Anderson's 1959 novel Virgin Planet deals in a straightforward manner with homosexuality and polyamory on an exclusively female world. There is the plot twist 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. Bertram Chandler had the mirror image in Spartan Planet, depicting an exclusively male world.
Until the late 1960s, however, few other writers depicted alternative sexuality or revised gender roles, or 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) and Ursula K. Le Guin, sympathetic depictions of alternative sexuality and gender multiplied in science fiction and fantasy, becoming commonplace.
In his 1972 novel The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov describes an alien race with three sexes, all of them involved in sexual reproduction. Sexual intercourse has to happen simultaneously, and they have other sexual and social norms of acceptable behavior. For example, one sex produces one form of sperm, another a kind of energy needed for reproduction, and members of the other bear and raise the offspring. 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. In 1973 Asimov also published an essay entitled "Sex in a Spaceship".
Feminist SF authors imagined cultures in which homo- and bisexuality and a variety of gender models are the norm. Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975) and the award winning story When It Changed, showing a female-only lesbian society that flourished without men, were enormously influential. Russ was largely responsible for introducing radical lesbian feminism into science fiction.
In his 1975 science fiction novel entitled Dhalgren, Delany spots his large canvas with characters of a wide variety of sexualities. Once again, sex is not the focus of the novel although there are some of the first explicitly described scenes of gay sex in SF. 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. Delany's Nebula-winning short story "Aye, and Gomorrah" 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 later works, Delany blurs the line between science fiction and gay pornography. Delany faced resistance from book distribution companies for treatment of these topics.
In Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein (1973), the main character argues strongly for the future liberty of homosexual sex, while Heinlein's earlier Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress both depict heterosexual group marriages and public nudity as desirable social norms. 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 thoughtful 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 opposite sex to the one they were becoming produced an unintended heteronormativity. Le Guin has subsequently written many stories that examine the possibilities SF allows for non-traditional sexuality, such as the sexual bonding between clones in "Nine Lives" (collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters) and the four-way marriages in "Mountain Ways."
The bisexual female writer, who used James Tiptree Jr. as her pen-name, explored the sexual impulse as her main theme; in her award-winning "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever), she 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. Other stories by Tiptree portrayed humans becoming sexually obsessed with aliens ("And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side") or aliens being sexually abused. "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is an early precursor of cyberpunk that shows a relationship via a cybernetically controlled body.
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 (many collected in The John Varley Reader) 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 Gaean trilogy features lesbian protagonists.
Elizabeth Lynn's Chronicles of Tornor novels (1979–80), 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. Her SF novel A Different Light (1978) features a same-sex relationship between two men, and inspired the name of the famous LGBT bookstore and chain, "A Different Light". She also wrote novels depicting sado-masochism, unusually from the viewpoint of an unwilling victim.
Modern SF (post-New Wave)
After the pushing back of boundaries in the 1960s and 70s, sex in genre science fiction gained much wider acceptance, and was often incorporated into otherwise conventional SF stories with little comment.
Glory Season 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 do not bear. Further, males and females have opposed seasons of sexual receptivity. Men are sexually receptive in summer, and women in winter. This scheme is said to be stable over evolutionary time because women gain an evolutionary advantage from self-cloning, while men only reproduce themselves in summer.
In the Mythopoeic award winning 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 safe-sex campaign resulting from the AIDS epidemic are also explored, both literally and metaphorically.
Lois McMaster Bujold also explores many different areas of sexuality in her Vorkosigan Saga books, based on the availability of uterine replicators and significant genetic engineering. These areas include an all-male society (Ethan of Athos 1986) where combinations ranging from promiscuity to stable couples to monastic celibacy occur, a society of human beings modified to thrive in free fall with two lower arms instead of legs ("Quaddies" introduced in the prequel Falling Free 1988), a society that is politely regimented but aggressively egalitarian in regards to sexual mores up to and including stable genetic hermaphrodites ("Beta Colony" - first introduce in Shards of Honor 1986), and Barrayar itself, the background for most of the books, where the bisexuality of a notable percentage of the upper class Vor men is accepted (also introduced in Shards of Honor). The Cetagandan Empire, as depicted in the novel Cetaganda, follows another angle on human sexuality, with three separate races, the Haut, the Ghem, and the neuter Ba, all being the results of heavy gene engineering on the part of the Star Creche which is run by the Dowager Empress, who is usually either the current Haut Emperor's mother or aunt. As with Athos, and to a lesser extent Beta Colony, sexuality is totally divorced from reproduction.
Elizabeth Bear's 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.
- glbtq >> literature >> Science Fiction and Fantasy
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- Imagined Sexual Futures: reading list
- Feministsf.org: Feminist SF, Fantasy & Utopias: annotated bibliographies
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: Sex ("This entry is primarily about human sexual relationships and sexual stereotypes as themes in s[cience] f[iction]; i.e., it is primarily about Psychology and Sociology.")