Close encounters with alien sex

Alice Bo Sheldon wrote her exotic novels under the name James Tiptree.

Alice Bo Sheldon wrote her exotic novels under the name James Tiptree.

Space Raptor Butt Invasion is probably the crudest and most self-explanatory title to feature in the 2016 Hugo Award nominations announced last week. Nominating the short story, by one “Chuck Tingle”, is part of this year’s campaign by the conservative Rabid Puppies to game the awards so that only speculative stories favouring a cisgendered, white, male-dominated future universe (yep, just like the current one) win.

The tale of sex between a lonely American spaceman and a spacefaring giant lizard was allegedly nominated to satirise all that liberal, lesbian, inter-species sex that goes on in nonrabid speculative fiction.

The Amazon sample was so butt-numbingly boring and badly written that there was no incentive to make Tingle wealthier by signing up for the whole book.

It might be fun if current science fiction and fantasy (SFF) really was dominated by shelves full of lefty, liberal, space-monster porn. It isn’t.
Admittedly, rather too much fantasy is dominated by bare-breasted, cod-medieval wenches, a tired sexist trope picked up and massively exaggerated by the TV adapters of Game of Thrones — it exists in the books, but to nothing like the same extent — but that’s merely same-old same-old.

However, the theme of difference and its impact on sexuality and gender relations is one that thoughtful SFF writers have explored for a while now — from 1892 if we count Iola Leroy, a utopian novel from pioneering African-American author and abolitionist Frances Harper, and at least since the 1960s, when even pop SF like Star Trek put it on the menu. (If we include fantastic imaginings outside the English language, we can go back to Hokusai’s hentai tentacle-porn woodcut, the 1814 Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, and possibly further).

Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards in 1970 for a gripping story of space federation diplomacy in which a cisgendered male envoy raised on Earth finds his mis- sion almost stymied by his inability to understand or cope with the “ambisexual” culture of the planet Gethen. Work questioning sexual and/or gender roles by Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler and Samuel R Delaney followed — and after them, the names of speculative writers, male and female, employing the theme of sex with a nonhuman partner start becoming too many to number.

Far from being the harbinger of a very recent, deviant Communist wave threatening to overwhelm SFF, it is one of the many standard tropes of the genre: written both well and badly, used as both plot lever and metaphor, and towards both progressive and conservative thematic ends.

Some of the most interesting work on sex with aliens came from the late James Tiptree Jr (Alice B Sheldon), from whom Orion has just published a long-overdue reissue of the novels Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air in a single volume.

Sheldon assumed a male pen-name because she believed it would attract less attention within the genre; her high-concept, high-action space stories led SF author Robert Silver- berg to declare it was impossible the author’s identity was anything other than male: “It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me some- thing ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”

As a former CIA intelligence analyst (another probable reason for her discretion) Sheldon had learned first-hand about the exoticist fascination of American males overseas for sex with the Other.

In tales such as the award-winning 1972 And I Awoke and Found Me Here on a Cold Hill Side, alien relations served Sheldon well as a metaphor for the gender obtuseness and sexual obsessions of dominant human males on Earth.

So, sorry, Rabid Puppies, there is nothing novel or scarily radical about bonking aliens (though if you are going to spoof it to subvert the Hugos, please at least pick a well-written spoof). The books considered for the annual genre awards employ this theme as they employ all the others that, over the pasthalf-century, have become veritable traditions.

This year’s shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke awards, also announced last week, includes Becky Cham- bers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Hodder), a Firefly-style space opera in which a newbie crew mem- ber wistfully lusts after the senior pilot. Both identify as female and one of them has scales.

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