Monday, April 6, 2009

Queer Science Fiction

Ever since I started research for my dissertation, which was on gay and lesbian fantasy and science fiction literature, I've been thinking about the role of queer studies and queer realities within 'speculative fiction' as a genre. I can remember reading Diane Duane's "So You Want To Be a Wizard" for the first time, when I was around 11 years old, and thinking it was so interesting that two grown-up male wizards (Tom and Carl) lived together in a house. They had pets and a mortgage and a life together, and Duane never described them as a couple, but for a kid like me, I think the spark of recognition and curiosity was definitely there and needed no explanation. When I was older, I discovered Duane's "Door into Fire" series, replete with bisexual characters, and I was amazed that she managed to publish this in the late-1970s. Until I started reading Samuel Delany, which made me realize how much amazing queer sf/fantasy had already been published.

The first fantasy book I read with an openly gay character was Mercedes Lackey's "Magic's Promise," featuring the queer teen wizard, Vanyel Ashkevron. Delany's "Neveryon" books, published earlier, were more racy in their preoccupation with queer sexuality and BDSM, but Lackey actually managed to write a gay love story between two teen boys, published by DAW in 1989. I'm still not certain why more fantasy critics aren't talking more about Lackey's contributions to both heroic and urban fantasy, especially her Diane Tregarde mysteries, which were really the first urban noir fantasy novels that appeared as mass-market paperbacks.

I've been wondering lately what the obligations are of gay, lesbian, bi, and trans novelists who work within the medium of fantasy. Some writers, like Samuel Delany, Nicola Griffith, Larissa Lai, and Chaz Brenchley, engage powerfully and adamantly with the politics of sexuality in their novels. Other fantasy writers, such as Tanya Huff and Fiona Patton (who are married) include prominent queer characters in their work but are fairly quiet from a political standpoint, preferring to create visible queer characters without aligning themselves with specific causes or movements. Some queer writers of science fiction deal primarily with straight characters and hetero storylines, but include marginal queer characters as well in their work. I've noticed, in the past 5 years or so, more and more loving same-sex dedications in fantasy novels, nods to partners, lovers, husbands and wives.

Sometimes I find myself asking: is my writing 'too gay?' What would that even mean, and where does that internal criticism come from? Is there a certain 'gay quota' for literary characters that, once it's reached, will allow for no more interesting or substantive roles? I try to balance queer and straight storylines in my own writing, but every time I introduce another a queer character, there's always this anxiety. How will s/he be received by a straight majority audience? Do I need some kind of tacit approval from my publisher? Can gay sex scenes in fantasy/sf be as 'hot' and as 'explicit' as straight sex scenes? How hot is too hot? If my straight protagonist sleeps with a woman, does that make her a bisexual tourist, or an experimental person, or an open-minded, sexually aware woman, or am I just doing it because I want to write selfishly about queer eroticism?

Fantasy is a divided genre, driven by patriarchal forces of violent cartography, imperialism, power, magic, and warfare; but it's also, over the past 30 years, been seriously revised and inflected by radical feminist and queer writers. It's not as easy as saying, 'Okay, in one corner you've got Ursula Leguin's "Tombs of Atuan," about a woman's sexual awakening, and in the other corner you've got LOTR, which might actually be about hobbits having sex anyways.' But I still often find myself drawing this artificial distinction. Most fantasy crit that I've read deals more with the structural poetics and mechanics of overlapping genres than with the necessary study of actual mass-market paperbacks. The simple truth for me is that, without a battered, rain-damaged copy of the Dragonlance Chronicles that I skipped class in order to read during middle school, I definitely would not be the queer man I am today. So fantasy, as kind of gay studies, as a reflection on gay studies and literature, can be a life-saving genre. How, then, to convince more fantasy writers to include queer characters in their work?

To me, it's simple. Fantasy has a queer readership. Lonely boys and girls and transkids are reading these books, hiding in bathrooms or under bleachers or in some other safe space that they've struggled to reclaim for themselves. I distinctly remember a point in my life, maybe when I was around 10-12 years old, when the only viable book to read in order to prove that you were a 'real' boy was sword-and-sorcery fantasy, since it was so masculine, so pure, so exciting. If more queer characters populate these books, then not just queer readers, but straight and questioning and imaginative kids from multiple backgrounds and communities might come to these books, open them, see these characters, and be moved by them. For this to happen, two things are necessary.

1. Gay writers of fantasy and sf have to include more gay characters in their works, and have to become more actively political about their sexuality. Think you're 'not political' as a queer person? Well, Prop 8 is just the beginning, my friends. Sooner or later, legislation is going to fuck you where it hurts, where you live, close to home. All we can do is create a powerful cultural, literary, and imaginative response to the forces that want to annihilate our intimate lives.

2. Massively popular writers of science fiction and fantasy need to include more queer characters, as well as characters of color, characters with disabilities, characters who aren't just rich white straight lads and ladies fighting crime in exciting noir cityscapes. Even David Eddings, writing his Malloreon series in the mid-80s, had a queer character (Sadi). He was a eunuch, a castrati, but he was also interesting, funny, smart, charming, and ultimately ethical. I remembered that when I was reading Eddings, long before I'd come out. Laurel Hamilton has done a lot to introduce alternative sexualities into the genre of urban fantasy, but too often, these are seen simply as occult 'alternatives.' Two werewolves in bed, two vamps and a human, and everything's all mixed up. Let's see a loving pack relationship between two women, two queer wizards cohabiting, another Vanyel Ashkevron, a queer Harry Potter. And please, please, can we see Harry Dresden kiss a guy? No tongue necessary, just a peck, to remind us that he's living in a magical city, surrounded by amazing occult people, friends and enemies, all with different sexualities and cultures.


nicola said...

I'd love to see some examples of us 'powerfully and adamantly with the politics of sexuality' in our novels. Mostly, in fact, I try to save politics for my non-fiction, so I'm intensely curious about what you read in my fiction.

I've written an essay (with my partner Kelley Eskridge) about this for Queer Universes (Wendy Gay Pearson is now running a blog of the same name, btw). You can read the essay for free here, or on my own blog.

I believe that as human beings we should all be fighting the good fight. But overt politics in fiction can doom it.

Anyway, I hope you read the essay. I'd love to hear what you think.

Jes Battis said...

I really loved Ammonite. :) I will definitely check out the essay. Robin Reid and I are also co-editing a book of essays on LGBT fantasy, called Queering the Fantastic.

nicola said...

Oooh, I'll look forward to that. Tell me more...

DragonKat said...

You didn't mention my all-time favourite books containing couples: Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint and The Fall of Kings. This 'world' is one where in everyone can be bi, gay or straight; all are accepted. And while the interaction between the gay characters is central to the plot, it isn't the plot.

I agree with you that gay characters are far more accepted in the science fiction/fantasy world. There are certainly far more gay characters in this genre than I have found in, for example, mysteries. Perhaps is it because mysteries are so rooted in 'reality' while SF/F is willing to look at the world in a different way.

I think that both gay and straight SF/F writers should include gay characters, but it shouldn't be forced. If the characters you create are gay; so be it. Let the character build their own voice (within reason). Forcing it, introducing 'overt politics' is the wrong way to go.

As for not being sure if your characters are 'too gay'... I have yet to meet an author who didn't worry about whether their characters were 'too something'...

James Rasmussen said...

I remember reading many of those titles myself and the sense of wonder wasn't reserved only for the fantastic, but also for finding gay elements within a book on the shelves of a public library...where I could see how many times it had been checked out and read by others. (There was something comforting in that for a young boy with a growing awareness of sex and sexuality.)

Your closing paragraphs were particularly intriguing as that is exactly what QueeredFiction is all about and our first release is the anthology, Queer Wolf (an urban fantasy collection).

Anonymous said...

You're correct that there is quite a bit of "queer fantasy." However, I would not put Carl and Tom of "So You Want to be a Wizard" in that list. I am eternally aggravated by the assumption that two adults cannot have a close relationship that has nothing to do with sex. I, myself, share a 'house, mortgage, and pets' with another woman. And we constantly face accusations of being lesbians for it, no matter how often we bring dates home. If an author does not state it explicit, I would not assume.