Andy H. (garran) wrote,
Andy H.
garran

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Transgressive Sexuality in Science Fiction

I have this university class I think I'd like to teach; I've been fiddling with it as a thought experiment in a lot of the time that I ought perhaps to be devoting to the classes I'm taking. (But now it's the reading break, extra-long so that my city can draw campus into its bright and public post-apocalypse.) My interest in it has been steady enough that I'm looking into sticking around to do something in UBC's student-directed seminars program, but in the meantime this post is still about the thought experiment rather than whatever real things might come of it.

The course would be called "Transgressive Sexuality in Science Fiction". It comes originally from my noticing that all the polyamorous people I know are SF fans*, which is not a coincidence -- there's a definite subcultural current in that direction in fandom, which may not have had its origins in Heinlein but he obviously didn't hurt -- and which got me thinking further about how science fiction has this narrative about itself as politically and culturally progressive while at the same time often coming across as very reactionary, and how both of these things are true. SF is a broadly counterfactual genre, so it has the potential to show us what it would be like if social or even biological norms were radically different, but at the same time it is obviously written by people whose expectations and opinions about what is possible have been shaped by the political discourses available in the society they are writing in. So I want to explore both the successes and the failures of imagination, and argue about which are which, in a bunch of works of written science fiction, where it comes to presenting alternate possible worlds around sex and sexuality in particular. The focus on sex is for a number of reasons, including that it's a big thing that I'm interested in right now and that it's something just about nobody is ontologically apathetic about; another nice thing about doing these two topics together is that both sexuality and genre are prime sites for humans fractiously trying to shove difficult edge cases into one or another of our somewhat arbitrary categories.

(* When I shared this realization with my Sociology of Sex class last summer, the professor loudly booed me; she later explained, mortified, that she'd thought I was taking a cheap shot at someone. This is pretty much my favourite way that a professor has ever responded to me in class.)

People keep saying when I describe this idea that it's kind of narrow, but actually I've had to narrow it still further in order to come up with a reasonable imaginary reading list. I've ended up putting four extra restrictions on inclusion: 1) Written science fiction, 2) SF rather than fantasy, 3) written and consumed in the subcultural milieu of English-speaking science fiction fandom, and 4) written somewhere between 1960 and 2000 (so with a focus on New Wave-ish stuff). Here follows that reading list, which it ought to be just about feasible to shoehorn into 12 or 13 weeks. It comprises three novels, ten-ish short stories, and three guiding works of theory (which aren't actually in the draft list here but I'll talk about them after).

ROBERT A HEINLEIN
Stranger in a Strange Land
(I wanted Time Enough For Love, but it's 600 pages. I'm pretty reconciled to Stranger though, especially since I can make up some of the missing issues with:)

THEODORE STURGEON
"If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"

SPIDER ROBINSON
Selection from Callahan's Lady
(or) "High Infidelity"

URSULA K LEGUIN
The Left Hand of Darkness

JAMES TIPTREE, JR
"And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side"
"Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death"
"The Screwfly Solution"?
(I'm not sure about "Screwfly" because I think pairing it with "Love is the Plan" might dilute the ambiguity of the latter story, which is one of my favourites ever and definitely my favourite Tiptree. There's lots in Tiptree to choose from, though. If I could find a copy it would also be nice to include the famous "ineluctably masculine" Robert Silverberg introduction.)

LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD
"Labyrinth"

JOHN VARLEY
"Options"

SAMUEL R. DELANY
"Aye, and Gomorrah"
Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand

OCTAVIA BUTLER
Something from Bloodchild

RAPHAEL CARTER
"Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation"

The theory would include one major reading each about sex, gender, and genre -- my current plan is for the first 50 or so pages of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, vol. 1, something by Judith Butler, and some of Delany's literary criticism, respectively -- and a smattering of smaller stuff relevant to specific works (like this!).

So there you go. I originally planned to post about this and ask for suggestions for additions or alterations to that list, but I put it off for a while and in that time got more set in it as it appears. Nonetheless if anybody does have an opinion I'd be happy to hear it.
Tags: books, philosophical ideas, transgressive sex in sf, ubc experience
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