queer speculation

Over at Tor.com there’s a post by Brit Mandelo titled “Queering SFF #1: First Experiences”  ( http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=58902 )

This started me thinking about fiction that I’ve read that features the non-heterosexual.  I know I’ve read several authors over the years where I’d been impressed by the way they included either homosexuality or non-binary sexes.  And I think there’s a difference between writing characters or actions to make a point, and writing them one way because there’s no reason they particularly need to be another way.  Does the story require that your characters be homosexual?  I think that can often be an un-subtle read.  But if there’s no particular reason why a character should be heterosexual, I think it’s nice to encounter situations beyond the two-genders/one-sexuality “normal”.

I do not recall what might have been my first literary exposure to sex outside the box.  I started reading Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series when I was nine years old.  While I can’t think of any main or strongly supporting secondary characters who aren’t simply heterosexual, there is a significant group of largely background characters who engage in homosexual relationships.  The riders of dragons have sex with each other when their dragons do, carried away on the mental bond they share.  The dragonriders are usually male, so male riders of female dragons (Blues) end up having relationships with male riders of male dragons. But I’m unsure how much I would have been paying attention to details like that at age 9.

My favorite gay character, the one who comes to mind the most quickly as a protagonist and who I read fairly early, was Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyel Ashkevron from The Last Herald-Mage trilogy.  Her Valdemar universe also includes a few other homosexual characters in minor roles.  The largest role I can think of after Vanyel with an alternative sexuality is the flamboyant bisexual Amberdrake, who is a recurring secondary character.

The first book I read that really changed my perspective on sexuality however, was definitely Samuel R. Delany’s Triton.  I read it as a teenager and it was the first time I encountered the idea of sexuality as occurring along a spectrum.  Here was this idea, officially out there in the world, and it explicated thoughts and half-formed ideas that I had been having.  It seemed so right and perhaps liberating to drop this imposed binary thinking and instead view sexuality as a much richer and deeper and more contextual thing.  Science fiction did a lot to shape my views on humanity.  Reading Heinlein introduced me to the idea of relationships that weren’t just about a monogamous pair, and Delany introduced me to sexual desire and identification beyond a binary pair.

Those are the works that come most readily to mind that feature non-normative sexuality.  I know there are a lot of others out there, and I can probably add more to this list, but these are the books that I can say were first experiences of it.

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And for a bit of science:

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Published in: on April 7, 2010 at 15:13  Leave a Comment  

Silence and Telling

The alien civilization in Ursula K Le Guin’s The Telling is deeply evocative of post-Cultural Revolution China. A few months ago I read the non-fiction book Song & Silence: Ethnic Revival On China’s Southwest Borders by Sara L. M. Davis.  The parallels in description between parts of the two works were at times so strong that I felt Le Guin also must have read Song & Silence.  (The Telling was published in 2000.  Song & Silence was published in 2005, but the author began gathering data in 1997.)  Davis is describing at microcosmic level events that are known to have happened throughout China.  Le Guin has not conjured out of thin air the policies and methods used by the governments in her work; the practices of both the Unist Fathers on Terra and the government of Ava are based in concrete events that have happened in living memory.

The narrator/author of Song & Silence and the narrator/protagonist of The Telling share many similarities.  Both women are in a foreign land, trying to track down any existant remnants of older folk culture.  This once vibrant tradition has been systematically destroyed by the intervention of a modern, secular, dominant state.  This dominant state is progressive and concerned with embracing technology and erasing culture that does not arise from the central authority.  Ms. Davis and The Telling’s Sutty have initial difficulty finding the old storytellers, and must take care once found that they do not endanger these people who preserve their past against the wishes of the government.

In Song & Silence, Sara Davis hears of old temples with fine murals depicting local tales, but when she asks about them they have been destroyed so utterly that local villagers have never heard of them.  She finally discovers a remaining old temple whose walls are white

“places where old murals had been carefully but incompletely scraped off. Old and delicate lines appeared on some areas of the white walls-the contour of a woman’s face, the silhouette of a palace roof, a swirl of black ink. In a few places these were obscured by something painted in broad strokes of red, but this red paint had also been scraped off.
“Why did people scrape off the murals?” I asked the boys.
They pointed to the back of the temple. Here were a few places where the red paint had been left intact, forming old slogans. These read “Long Live Chairman Mao” and
“Any counterrevolutionary thing, if you do not knock it down, will not collapse of its own accord. This is like sweeping the ground: if the broom does not reach the dust, the dust will not usually go away of its own accord.” ”  (S&S page 4)

That is the passage that immediately sprang to my mind when I was reading The Telling and Sutty first encounters the Fertiliser’s shop where she describes,

“the inscriptions that covered every wall from floor to ceiling, all in the old, the illegal writing.  On the facade of the shop the inscriptions had been whitewashed out and painted over with signs in the modern alphabet, but these had faded enough that she could make out some of the underlying words.”  (page 57)

Both books talk of the old writing which preserves the past being destroyed, of temples pulled down or blown up.  They talk of elements of culture being preserved only dangerously.

“To challenge those limits by insisting on other kinds of language or religion, as ethnic Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Inner Mongolians sometimes do, is to risk violent conflict with the state.  But in Sipsongpanna, some elements of the unapproved, unofficial ethnic culture were also preserved underground. An ancient text, an old temple, an epic poem in praise of the dead prince: all were saved because someone took a risk; hid them in the rafters of a stilt house; persuaded the Red Guards to pass them over; sang them to a listening student at night.”  (S&S page 7)

These governments are engaged in the conscious invention of a new national culture, which both Davis and Le Guin make clear.  This is a way of enforcing power at the expense of the outlawed past.  What is interesting is the way that history informs Le Guin’s writing on this.  It assists in the creation of a much richer and deeper fictional world, one that draws deeply on our past to speculate on our future.

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“During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), he said, Red Guards had descended on the village to knock down old buildings, destroy texts written in the Tai Lϋe language, and bum the old, gold-covered image of the Buddha. He had convinced them not to knock the temple down by arguing that villagers used the building to store farm tools and grain. The Red Guards let the temple stand but scraped off the old Buddhist murals, replacing them with Maoist slogans. After the Cultural Revolution ended, the villagers carved and painted a new wooden Buddha statue and scraped off the desecrating slogans. But they left a few slogans up, he said, so that they wouldn’t forget.”  (S&S page 5)

Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 00:13  Leave a Comment  
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Can it love you? Will that matter?

(This rock, Earth, spinning in space and shaped by man, is my stone god.  It provides me life and death.  I fear that we will topple it.)

sun kissed moon by Amy s Turner

“The Stone Gods” by Jeanette Winterson has one of the more interesting structures that I’ve come across in a novel recently.  Initially I found the narrative jumps a bit disconcerting, though the novel is thankfully more cohesively linear than “The Female Man” and hence less off-putting.  I think a novel like this (one where the narrative may seem to jump around) is harder to tease meaning and direction out of.  My professor claimed the story was about love, which I disagreed with.  My reaction after finishing the novel was sadness and frustration; I feel the story is about repetition, or perhaps one-ness (if events are not happening along a linear timeline, but all at once, everywhere), and the feeling it gave me was one of futility.

We are always wrecked.  The constants of the novel are destruction and yes, love.  But always it is the destruction that overcomes, not the love.  Each of the smaller stories within the novel addresses our destruction of each other and of our world.  Always humans exhibit hubristic control and always we are dissatisfied, striving incompetently for things to be ‘better’.  Even in the midst of our too-late realizations of what we have wrought, we destroy that which we need to live and our ability to have a future… or for anything at all to have a future.  Continuously we will end up with hot balls of lifeless rock spinning through the emptiness of space. We destroy the ability of love to exist (unless the lonely ashes of planets can love).

The love between Billie and Spike, the foreign entity who takes up residence in Billie’s heart, which melds them into one love-being, is a thread that runs throughout the novel.  Spike offers the possibility of a ‘better’ life on both the microcosmic personal level and the macrocosmic world/species/life itself level. The space explorer iteration of Spike is talking to her Billie about what love is, and Spike says she thinks love is “the chance to be human”.  When Billie responds that that makes us sound almost worthwhile, Spike replies, “One day you will be.” (page 90)  Spike, both the love-object and mirror of the self, is our hope for the future.  But the reading of the novel as being about love, or even hope, is problematized by the manifestations of Spike.  Spike is always broken or unfinished, so Spike is always an incomplete hope.
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(If eggs represent life and renewal, then is Spike our Humpty-Dumpty that we cannot put back together?)

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History Repeating performed by the Propellerheads and Shirley Bassey

Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 19:15  Leave a Comment  
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interesting articles

(This is yet another instance of having some really interesting concepts in mind, and having a lack of time in which to write up my thoughts on them. Anyway, for now, here are some links to interesting articles.)

evolving robots http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2010/02/evolving_robots.html?sc=fb&cc=fp

genetic engineering http://discovermagazine.com/2009/mar/02-evolution-by-intelligent-design/?searchterm=human%20reproduction

http://discovermagazine.com/1996/jul/whywomenchange817/?searchterm=human%20reproduction

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2009/12/02/study-biotech-mice-with-two-moms-and-no-dad-live-longer/

Published in: on March 5, 2010 at 23:40  Leave a Comment  

You Will Be Assimilated

Just re-watched the 1975 film The Stepford Wives, and then came across a relevant article from CNN via this description on the blog of webcomic author Ryan Sohmer:

“Well, we all knew it would happen eventually, but I’m somehow proud that it’s been accomplished in my lifetime.
The human race has created the Cylons.
Why, you might ask? So that we can have sex with them and tell them about our day.”

The article he linked to was this from CNN: “Inventor Unveils $7000 Talking Sex Robot” at

http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/02/01/sex.robot/index.html?hpt=T2


The full article, a video, and my bit at the end after the cut:

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Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 23:48  Leave a Comment  
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Dominance in Reproduction

(I meant to write about these as I had some interesting thoughts, and this was just a way of placeholding the links, but I haven’t managed to find the time.)

There was interesting discussion

this http://www.helium.com/items/697216-reproductive-health

also this http://discovermagazine.com/1992/jun/theaggressiveegg55

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/incredible-sperm-survived-oral-sex-knife-fight-impregnated/story?id=9732562&page=1 “not only a testament to Murphy’s Law but one to arguably nature’s most impressive swimmers: sperm”

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/couple-twins-25-years-vitro-fertilization-ivf/story?id=9574779&page=3 “”There is something really special about being pregnant,” she said, “something primal.””

http://www.jstor.org/pss/3174586 The egg and the sperm

Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 21:11  Leave a Comment  

Can only the crazy perceive Utopia?

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I will state upfront that I do not believe she is crazy; Consuelo perceives a reality that others do not.

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Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy still has one of the most reasonable Utopias that I have ever encountered.  Her Massachusetts of 2137 seems to have achieved a solution for every injustice and inequality that we have.  The problem of how to attain a truly egalitarian society when we as a species tend to be so markedly sexually dimorphous has long bothered me.  We may have an ideal that we strive for, but how is that to be practically achieved?

I definitely buy the argument that the author is presenting – I believe Mattapoisett is indeed a Utopia. It is not Utopia because everything is perfect, but rather because it reasonably seems like the best future we could hope for.  I disagree however with the protagonist’s disgusted and outraged reaction when she is initially presented with the results of sexual equality accomplished (page 97).  Presumably this should be a sympathetic moment for the reader as they empathize with Connie’s feelings, but I found it distanced me from her.  My reaction was more, “a-ha!” or, “finally!”.  I thought the depth of Connie’s anger was merely a literary device used by the author, until my professor also admitted to such an initial reaction when presented with males breastfeeding and “mothering”.  Perhaps then it is a generational divide; from my temporal perspective third-wave feminism has been firmly ensconced for almost two decades, and the passionate binaries in second-wave feminism seem almost barbaric.

Piercy is not trying to conceive of what I think of as a false utopia, one where society is simply a reversal of our own, which might have been an appealing idea 40 and more years ago (the Matriarchy of “The Conquest of Gola” may be empowering but it is far from egalitarian).  Rather she has clearly put thought into obliterating the fundamental dichotomies which underlie the greater power inequalities of humanity (an argument presented on page 204).  All people get to “mother”, all people get to breastfeed and establish a real, intimate physical bond with their children, and no people (get to) have the burden of pregnancy and childbirth.  Joyful and spiritual as some may claim the experiences to be, one will have a much more difficult time competing efficiently and on equal footing with others if they are waddling around nauseated & having to pee all the time.  Whether you view pregnancy & childbirth as something that elevates one group over another – “I can do something that you can never ever do no matter how hard you might work” – or as something that oppresses one group and not another – “You cannot participate in X while you are in such a ‘delicate condition’ or because you will in future end up in such a condition” – it is manifestly and inherently unequal.  I ascribe to the philosophy that there is no “separate but equal” and that any such claim only masks institutionalized power differentiation.  Piercy clearly shows us the results of continued separation of spheres in Connie’s dystopian experience in chapter 15.  The contrasting path of Mattapoisett where Connie marvels that men can cry and raise children, and women can be confident, aggressive and unselfconscious is a genderless utopia.

(updated March 4 2010)

(Further updated to share that the WordPress spellcheck tried to correct my using “Matriarchy” with the proper word, “Patriarchy”!!!)

Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 23:26  Leave a Comment  
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The Human Animal

“Not to go on all fours, that is the law.  Are we not men?” – The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

I enjoy that which makes me question, which makes me examine and re-examine the assumptions I hold, and this is probably part of what I enjoy so much about science fiction, and also what I love in feminism.  While neither of the short stories I read this week (“Wives” by Lisa Tuttle and “Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy) are the revelatory, perspective-changing kind, they did make me think, which I think is the best aftertaste a story can leave.  I am eagerly looking forward to shortly re-reading some Octavia E. Butler to delve more into something that “Rachel in Love” deals with:  what does it mean to be human?

Painting by Colette Calascione

“Rachel in Love” on the author’s website:  http://www.brazenhussies.net/murphy/Rachel.html

The Rachel of the story is portrayed as both human and animal.  She shares the memories of the blond teenager and the young chimp in the cage; they fuse together for her, creating dreams in which she is neither just one or the other.  But I think the ostensible melding is false; Rachel is mostly girl, with her life seemingly structured more by her girl’s thoughts than her chimp brain.  I am not so sure that the imprint of human thoughts would be so unaffected by the physiology they are layered onto. Particularly when the memories of Rachel the girl seem to be at a remove for Rachel the chimp.  Seemingly entirely lost is much of a self-identity of the chimp-before-she-was-Rachel.  While the story encourages us to rethink the boundaries of the human and expand them, it seems not to address the anthropocentricity of the human being imposed over the animal, depriving the original chimp of her life.

Rachel is clearly more of a human than she is an animal, but is being closer to human than to animal the same as being human?  The story demonstrates to the reader an intelligent self-consciousness in Rachel, and raises the question of whether she will be accepted as human by the larger population.  It is an example of the enduring human anxiety that we are not alone in ‘personhood’.  “Wives” shows us the inner world of a sentient truly inhuman people sacrificing their personhood for mere existence (and we can extrapolate more deeply that this constructed figure of a ‘wife’ also lacks personhood for humans).  “Rachel in Love” is about simply being more expansive in the definition of the human.  Certainly our mythology is rife with figures melding the human and the animal, and as with Murphy’s story it is usually the mind that matters.  A centaur or a mermaid with their human upper halves are both considered intelligent, though wild, while the bull-headed minotaur is a beast regardless of his more human form.  The 1958 film “The Fly” shows that what remains as human is the poor doomed fly-bodied scientist – who must be killed.  Even when a being has a human mind, is she human enough?  At what point would she be considered human?

(I wonder, are just human thoughts enough?  Is a being of pure thought still human, if it’s not shaped by our fleshly human concerns?  Do you have to have the human brain to be human – so that a cyborg is a human?  Is more required?  Do you need Human breasts?  Human arms?  Human reproductive organs?  Do you consider Rachel less human for mating with the chimp who is more biologically appropriate for her? )

As always, I’m left with questions of practicality after the credits roll.  I’m willing to presume that Rachel is allowed to inherit the house and money that her father left her, perhaps after some protracted legal battles.  But how will she earn a living?  She is a chimp, who would hire her – and for what, as she is also a teenager without any job skills.  We are told that the money is no fortune, and while it may be enough to pay for however much a chimp (or two, or a family of chimps) eats over the remainder of her lifetime, and also assuming that the house is owned free and clear, could it even so possibly be enough to pay for property taxes or utilities?  Can she possibly find life mentally rewarding and stimulating with Johnson as her mate?  What about when she (human) has non-human chimp babies?

The story ends on an ambiguous note.  We are not told how things work out, which encourages the reader to speculate about the future.  Rachel goes bravely forward, but ultimately what happens to her (permitted merely to live, made into an object of spectacle or experimentation, killed) and whether Rachel is accepted as human depends upon the cynicism of the reader.

Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 22:58  Comments (4)  
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‘Created He Them’ by Alice Eleanor Jones

He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them “man”.

– Genesis 5.2, New International Version

1.  This is an account of the births of Adam: In the day of God’s preparing man, in the likeness of God He hath made him; 2. a male and a female He hath prepared them, and He blesseth them, and calleth their name Man, in the day of their being prepared.”

– Genesis 5.1-2, Young’s Literal Translation


The biblical verse quoted by Jones as the title of this story does a wonderful job evoking the theme that becomes clear at the end; as the Geneva Study Bible says about this verse,  “By giving them both one name, he notes the inseparable conjunction of man and wife.”.  Ann is bound to Henry Crothers, unhappy and with no hope for her (or really anyone’s) future.  She is yet the epitome of dutifulness.  She is the dutiful wife, sacrificing any happiness or luxury to maintain her husband’s lifestyle and attempt to meet his ridiculous demands, in which he is either irrational or intentionally abusive.  He has the classic markings of an abusive spouse both verbally and emotionally* – I was going to say, though not physically, when I remembered his obvious sexual abuse of Ann on the last page when her husband does not even allow her to say “no” to him.  Their relationship is characterized by his complete lack of respect for her, and his abuse keeps her subdued and gives him control over her. (The desire to control the victim is an earmark of abuse, and perhaps Henry feels this need for control in the relationship because of Ann’s greater size and strength? – As she says, she could kill him.  Or he demands control at home because he lacks the power he desires at work?)

As I wrote of Henry’s abuse of Ann, I realized that she is also the victim of that abuse at the hands of her society.  (Henry is a victim of this society too, of course.)  Ann is not just subdued because of Henry’s behavior, but also because of the hopeless and degraded life she must live.  The state takes away that which she loves and deprives her of any further contact with her children, and disallows any criticism or disagreement.  (Written in 1955, the shades of McCarthyism as Ann listens to the radio broadcast are as obvious an extension of contemporary realities as her post-apocalyptic “bombed-out” world is of fears over the nuclear bomb.)

Neither Henry nor Ann appears to really want to be with the other person, yet they are yoked together.  This seems to be beyond any considerations of tradition or morals but is once again duty, to the state and to the species.  Ann is a dutiful citizen, giving up child after child to the government, never being disruptive.   At the choice of the personal vs. the social, Ann sublimates her own desires.  The end of the story makes clear that she has not chosen what is best for her (and what would satisfy the reader more).  Instead she has chosen the greater good (continuation of the species) at the expense of her own.

* see http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=8476 or really any source describing types of abuse

Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 23:00  Leave a Comment  
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feeling my way around

This is just a first post to make sure I have the hang of things.

Slightly topical (and, slightly tangential) to my direction here is that this morning I started reading the latest Jim Butcher novel, although it is neither written by a woman nor science fiction. It is a genre work; however, fantasy rather than science fiction. Butcher is a quite excellent author, and to my mind one of the best current fantasy writers.

Published in: on January 4, 2010 at 17:27  Leave a Comment