Wed
Aug 15 2012 11:30am
Queering SFF: Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction

Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science FictionQueer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction, edited by Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon, is a collection of academic essays on, as it says, sexualities in science fiction, and was published by Liverpool University Press in 2008. In 2010 a paperback edition was released—that’s the one I’m discussing here.

While two of the essays are reprints (“Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer” by Wendy Gay Pearson and “Sextrapolation in New Wave Science Fiction” by Rob Latham), the rest are original to this collection and include an interview/conversation between Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge about their personal connections to queer science fiction, a queer reading of William Gibson’s Neuromancer sequence informed by Judith Butler’s theories of “stray penetration” as gender-disrupting, and a study of erotic SF anthologies edited by Cecilia Tan.

The book is perhaps more accurately analyzed through its subtitle—“Sexualities in Science Fiction”—than its title, because while it is explicitly concerned with queer theory, many of the essays are about applying queer theory and reading schema to heteronormative-appearing texts. Rather than exploring extant queer SF, these essays are often concerned with queering SF, and examining “queer” not necessarily as a statement of sexual orientation but as a narrative paradigm that enables a move “towards a different understanding of subjectivity and agency” (17). So, to put that in simpler terms: this collection features lots of reading “against the grain” of stories, reading queerness into them, or forming patterns (“genealogies”) between explicitly queer texts and texts that echo them to induct more sorts of narratives into the space of “queer SF.”

Another way of explaining this: While I enjoyed the creative hurdle-jumping and pattern-formation that the authors of many of these essays are doing, if you’re looking for a book of academic essays on queer SF, as opposed to a collection of essays that applies queer theory to SF to look for connections between the two, this is probably not the book you’re searching for. But, within the given framework, these essays are each fascinating takes on subjectivity and sexualities in SF—just not necessarily explicitly queer sexualities, or explicitly queer SF. I will also note that Queer Universes is, necessarily, a pretty crunchy, in-depth read; it might not be to the tastes of folks who aren’t into scholarly prose. Most of the essays aren’t overly impenetrable, but some are heavier on the theory than others.

The book is organized into four sections, concerned primarily with the things their titles say they are: Setting a scene for the essays in the book by providing the terms under which we’ll all be talking (the terms of Pearson’s “Alien Cryptographies” and its definitions of queer reading schema), then crafting a sense of history(s) relating to queer narratives in SF or SF narratives that can be read queerly, then dealing with queer subjective desire, and finally with the construction of livable worlds in the final, closing section.

As the introduction notes, and “Alien Cryptographies” expands, “if we […] take as the central task of queer theory the work of imagining a world in which all lives are livable, we understand queer theory as being both utopian and science fictional, in the sense of imagining a future that opens out, rather than forecloses, possibilities for becoming real, for mattering in the world.” (5) This is the framework through which queer theory and SF are functioning in this book. It’s about making all lives livable, including those that appear heterosexual, by breaking down paradigms that foreclose livability—no matter who that’s for.

In Part 1: Queering the Scene there are two essays: “Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer” by Wendy Gay Pearson and “War Machine, Time Machine” by Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge. “Alien Cryptographies” is predominantly concerned with laying out reading schema for queer/SF narratives, both implicit and explicit. It’s a good piece on the ways that we read, and the value of reading for subtext, that also sets up the work of many of the essays throughout the rest of the book. The second piece is one of my favorites, though it’s short and simple: “War Machine, Time Machine” is a back-and-forth with Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge about the ways that they approach queer subjectivity, identity politics, writing, and of course, how they came to queer SF. In Eskridge’s case, this involves a formative experience at Clarion with teacher Samuel R. Delany; for Griffith, arriving at queer SF came through lesbian-feminist stories. One particular line that stuck with me from this discussion is, “The Other takes up more space than the Norm.” (45) It is more marked, more noticeable, in a socio-cultural milieu, to be Other—an idea that sounds simple, but has quite a lot of resounding effects on queer lives.

Part 2: Un/Doing History contains four essays, each concerned with the act of creating a sense of background and history/genealogy for queerness and exploring sexual subjectivities in SF. “Sextrapolation in New Wave Science Fiction” by Rob Latham builds a sense of the history of sexual exploration in SF from the fifties through the New Wave, but is almost entirely heterosexual in focus, with the briefest mention of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. To my eye, this essay needs an additional ten or so pages on the ways that “sextrapolation” in the New Wave was about a great deal more than the ability to graphically depict heterosexuality—particularly on the explosion of explicitly queer sexual narratives around that period. Or, at least more citation of the folks who have written about the queer nature of much New Wave SF. So, while this essay might fit the subtitle of the collection in its discussion of “sexuality,” I don’t believe it goes far enough into a “queer universe.”

“Towards a Queer Genealogy of SF” by Wendy Gay Pearson is an intriguing piece that ties together a multiplicity of narratives about creating “a livable life” through deconstruction of heteronormativity. The connections here are made in the form of a Foucauldian “genealogy” as opposed to a concrete “history” with beginning and ending points—it’s a dispersed series of origins rather than one normative Origin. By discussing The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman, and the film Zero Patience, Pearson creates connections between queer ways of performing subjectivity in various science fiction stories. The ending section, however, begins to discuss gendered ways of making a livable life—and that bit could use more awareness/incorporation of trans* discourses in the examination of Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X and “hermaphroditism” in the text.

“Sexuality and the Statistical Imaginary in Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton” by Guy Davidson and “Stray Penetration and Heteronormative Systems Crash: Queering Gibson” by Graham J. Murphy are both essays dealing with individual texts from specific theoretical standpoints—the first using the figure of statistics to discuss sexuality in Delany’s novel, the second using Judith Butler’s idea of “stray penetration” as a signifier of norms that have been disordered or discombobulated. Both provide potential readings of these texts that don’t go “with the grain” of the story, but are rather trying to work out implications and subtexts, such as the tension between the inherently “male” or “female” nature of cyberspace and of Molly Millions in Gibson’s work: how the “female” world of cyberspace actually penetrates the male cowboys, while Case and Riviera cannot visually “penetrate” Molly, who in turn uses her razorblades to penetrate hyper-masculine flesh. Sure, it’s all metaphorical—but it’s interestingly, accidentally subversive stuff.

Part 3: Disordering Desires is more directly about how technology mediates and makes possible/livable queer and non-normative subjectivities. (So to speak, it’s the “queerest” bit of the book—the part most explicitly concerned with queer subjectivities in SF.) “‘Something Like a Fiction’: Speculative Intersections of Sexuality and Technology” by Veronica Hollinger employs the idea of “sex” as a fantasy refracted via performed gender as posited by Judith Butler. She also uses theories of technological development that are demonstrated as positive, negative, and complex for humanity/post-humanity. It’s a somewhat opaque essay, juggling of multiple theories and definitional slippage, with binary “sex” on one hand and with “sex” as erotic behavior on the other. However, the potential for posthumanity to queer the heteronormative matrix is a positive thing Hollinger discusses.

“‘And How Many Souls Do You Have?’: Technologies of Perverse Desire and Queer Sex in Science Fiction Erotica” by Patricia Melzer is one of the stranger, stronger essays in Queer Universes—concerned with subjectivity, sexuality, and non-normative bodies that are technologically “made real” and narratively made subjects and owners of their own desire. In discussing four stories included in erotic SF anthologies edited by Cecilia Tan, Melzer enters into an examination of the political significance of pornography and desire—using theory from Samuel Delany, as well as contemporary trans* discourse—and demonstrates how these stories show trans bodies and disabled bodies in positive ways:

“…unlike in many other texts, human trans and other non-normative bodies inhabit subject positions that are more than simply isolated metaphors for queerness: they are neither contained as fetish in a straight environment nor viewed as isolated transgressive elements. Instead, they inhabit the centre of the narratives. […] Most importantly, the non-normative body is not fetishized as that which is different, but is at the centre of erotic desire within the narrative: the ‘unnatural’ body is not only object (as often happens in pornography) but also subject of desire.” (165)

She continues by complicating her argument and making clearer the narrative and political space that erotic stories can inhabit in their “aesthetic excess” around the edges of the task-oriented sexy parts. In doing so, she acknowledges not only the ways that heteronormative discourse fetishizes trans and/or disabled bodies as “other” but the ways in which even queer discourse co-opts these bodies as symbols without considering the subjectivity of the people in question:

“There is a fine line between eroticization and the embrace of difference on one hand and fetishization that denies the textual and material reality of disability and prosthetics on the other … the transgendered subject is [often in queer discourse] reduced to ‘a key queer trope’ (5), as Jay Prosser states in Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (1998). Unlike many other texts, the science fiction I discuss explores transgender desire beyond its effect on straight sexuality – trans bodies in these stories experience pleasure for the sake of orgasmic release alone,” as opposed to being used as a symbol of gender performativity or gender instability for the benefit of queer theory at their own expense. (167-169)

Melzer’s essay is engaged with the political and personal aspects of sexualities, as enacted in these erotic stories to arouse—but also with how this positive, subject-position representation of sexuality allows for identity construction and the queer recognitions of how technology can be used to benefit non-normative bodies that do not fit the intelligible heterosexual taxonomy of mainstream desire. (I am reminded of the similar mission of Tristan Taormino’s recent book of genderqueer and trans* erotica, Take Me There.)

The final essay of the section, “BDSMSF(QF): Sadomasochistic Readings of Québécois Women’s Science Fiction” by Sylvia Bérard, is an odd duck—the author has limited herself to the investigation of Québécois women writers, but also wants to discuss sadomasochism in SF. The result is a discussion of three texts that are presented as signifying S/M, but aren’t themselves BDSM SF. The fourth footnote actually addresses this: “Why is there no explicit BDSM science fiction in my corpus? Because there is none in the contemporary female Québécois SF repertoire.” (197) I finished the article unsatisfied by Bérard’s arguments and found the linking evidence between them a bit shaky.

Then, last but not least, comes Part 4: Embodying New Worlds. “‘Happy That It’s Here’: An Interview with Nalo Hopkinson” by Nancy Johnston is another delightful piece, similar to the interview with Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge in the opening section. Hopkinson and Johnston discuss her work in terms of its political significance and personal significance. Over the course of the interview, they discuss particular books and stories (including “Fisherman,” a favorite of mine) as well as the overarching concerns Hopkinson has attempted to figure in her work. At one point, Hopkinson says:

“Sexuality gets binarized too often. Not only do I resist the idea of one form of sexuality, but the assumption that there are only two forms, and you do one, the other, or both, and those are the only possible behaviors. […] I’ve realized recently that the commonly accepted spectrum of gay-bi-straight doesn’t work for me, either […]” (203).

Few of these essays have dealt with queer sexuality and genderqueer identity, so I was thrilled to see a great deal of time spent on them here.

“Queering Nature: Close Encounters with the Alien in Ecofeminist Science Fiction” by Helen Merrick and “Queering the Coming Race? A Utopian Historical Imperative” by De Witt Douglas Kilgore are both essays that deal with “queering” narratives that otherwise might appear heterosexual. They are also concerned with reading for the ways in which the heteronormative might be erased via queering, though the sexualities in question are still arguably directed between a heterosexual grouping. In Merrick’s essay, we are given a brief introduction to the confluence between ecofeminist SF and queerness—and the way that “close encounters” and the alien reorganize problematic ideas about nature versus culture that have invested so much moral power in heteronormativity. (For example, the five-individual, three-sexed, two-species family/sexual units in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis saga. Arguable heterosexual and reproductively based—but definitively queer.) Kilgore, in turn, discusses Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy as an interrogation of the “coming race” narrative that is common through SF—another set of texts that features heterosexual relations, but which Kilgore argues offers a way of envisioning a queer futurity in which race and gender have been re-inscribed and re-imagined. Both are intriguing essays on specific texts, and both throw their light on the ways in which queer futures might be made possible and livable.

Queer Universes then closes with a fruitful and very-worth-investigating “works cited” and index. As a whole, I recommend the book for folks interested in intersections of queer theory and readings of SF—some essays are far stronger than others, but overall it’s a good collection that provokes a great deal of thought. I’m glad that the editors undertook the project, and that Liverpool University Press published it.


Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

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