Homosexuality, sf, and the unheimlich

I really ought to be either editing or reading subs, but I'm gonna take a little time to point to a couple of really interesting entries in Kip Manley's blog Long story; short pier—a blog I was either previously unaware of or else just not paying attention to.

Manley's been writing about first exposures to the idea of homosexuality, and has been saying some fascinating stuff about sf in the process.

Back when I wrote that "Future of Sex" editorial, some readers responded that the problem with putting queer people in sf is that it distracts from the rest of the story—the idea being (more or less) that sex, and homosexuality in particular, is inherently so foregrounded that putting it in a story at all makes that what the story's about. Here's Manley on The Tomorrow File, a 1975 novel by Lawrence Sanders that's set twenty years in the then-future and has a bisexual protagonist named Nicholas:

Had Nicholas been narrating a contemporary beach-blanket thriller, he’d’ve been an alienating figure. No matter how exotic the locale, he’d’ve been insisting he was with all his queerness here and now, and I could look around me and see that this was not so. But science fiction ... gives him a certain license. He’s insisting that he and all his world could be, and inviting you to step awhile in his shoes and see the sights.

An excellent point. Though I would add that to some extent these days (thirty years after the Sanders novel was published), the presence of homosexuality in science fiction set in the future is more alienating than in contemporary-setting fiction, for a reason much like what I was talking about in my editorial: because there's so much more homosexuality in the real world (and in contemporary fiction) than in sf set in the future.

(Aside: It occurred to me recently, while reading a Human Future In Space story in Asimov's in which there are actual homosexuals, that I neglected something in my editorial: it's traditionally okay to have queer and/or kinky people in HFIS stories as long as they're decadent and jaded and world-weary. This realization led me to decide that I want to write an Absolute Magnitude-style Starship Pilot Adventure Story in which the dashing starship pilot jock hero is gay but not at all decadent.)

So then in a later entry, Manley goes on to discuss the terms ostranenie ("the experience of having the familiar and commonplace made strange or alien," says that Lézard Lexicon page) and unheimlich (apparently hard to translate, but often translated into English as "uncanny"; literally "un-home-like"). And then:

But the thing about any tool no matter how mighty fine is that once you’ve used a hammer for a while you start to expect the nails. Read enough SF and you come to expect those unheimlich touches, the ostranenie of another world. It is itself familiar, usual, canny, heimlich. It’s what you opened the book for in the first place; that door damn well better be dilating by page three or you’re taking your custom elsewhere. —This is neither a good thing, nor a bad thing, it’s just a thing, and savvy writers and readers take it into account, ringing ostranenie games off their own expectations of the unheimlich as naturally as breathing.

Yeah. I think this is at the heart of a lot of those "but it isn't sf!" arguments—and at the heart of a lot of the playing with genre boundaries that some authors do.

(Aside: for a bit more on "the door dilated," see Gunn's "The Protocols of Science Fiction," and a posting by Dan'l Danehy-Oakes, and Langford's Drabbles.)

Sometimes I read a submission and I start to get a little tense, thinking This is really good, but there aren't any speculative elements yet. I wonder if the author knows we're an sf magazine. And that tension sometimes lurks in the back of my head through the whole story, until I get to the last line and find out there's something sfnal going on after all, and I breathe a sigh of relief and start thinking, in effect, Will our readers trust us and the author long enough to wait for the dilating door? Or will they decide the story's not unheimlich enough, and give up?

And of course it makes things "worse" (in some sense) when we "betray" sf reader trust by publishing a story that doesn't actually contain any speculative elements at all, per se. The hardened sf reader sits down to read, knowing that since we're an sf magazine a door is going to dilate at some point in the story—and then they get to the end and the doors all swung open on hinges, and they're caught short, trying to step down onto a final step that isn't there (to switch architectural metaphors). Hey! they think, where the hell are my dilating doors? This isn't sf! What's it doing in an sf magazine? I've thought that myself about more than one story published elsewhere, most notably Andy Duncan's brilliant novella "The Chief Designer" (and if you haven't read it, for heaven's sake, go read it!), which was my first real exposure to the idea that an sf magazine could publish a not-really-sf story, a story that has what Ellen Datlow calls "speculative sensibilities." (And it got nominated for a Hugo, and I voted for it 'cause it was the best story on the ballot even though it wasn't really sf, exactly.)

And all of that leads directly to Manley's excellent question "How do expectations of wonder and estrangement limit the otherworlds we can build within [sf]?"

Manley then goes on to talk about "Time's Swell" and my editorial. Good stuff, even though I disagree with various of the specifics.

7 Responses to “Homosexuality, sf, and the unheimlich”

  1. Fred Bush

    If you want the original source for the discussion of the uncanny:

    Freud’s essay on the uncanny, which contains an extended discussion of “unheimlich” and “heimlich”.

    It looks like neither Delany’s essay nor Beyond This Horizon are available online. Alas!

  2. Michael

    The idea that sex and homosexuality is inherently foregrounded is interesting, but it’s not universal. It can be foregrounded for some readers while being back story for others, just as the homosexuality of characters like Ender or K’tha Jon is ignored by most straight readers and obvious (but background) to others.

  3. Adrian

    The tradition that the human future in space would have homosexuals only in the role of decadent, jaded, outsiders, is a perfectly reasonable expectation…so long as you define “homosexual” as “homosexual man.” If you want a queer “dashing starship pilot jock hero,” I’m coming up with a strong expectation that she be a butch lesbian. (Or a tomboyish woman whose sexuality is almost completely offstage.)

  4. Ide Cyan

    Have you read Nicola Griffith’s essay, The New Aliens of Science-Fiction? Or, say, Joanna Russ’s How To Suppress Women’s Writing?

    Because the sudden realisation of your desire to write about a “Starship Pilot Adventure Story in which the dashing starship pilot jock hero is gay but not at all decadent”, as if it were a brand-new idea, seems awfully symptomatic of the necessity to reinvent the wheel all the time because the ideas and explanations about the world with which oppressed groups come up are continually suppressed. Very Glotologgish indeed.

    You’re talking about all these “traditions”, but whose traditions are they, eh?

  5. John Scalzi

    “it’s traditionally okay to have queer and/or kinky people in HFIS stories as long as they’re decadent and jaded and world-weary.”

    This is predicated on the notion that
    a) there’s something inherently notable about being homosexual in and of itself, and must therefore be marked in some way
    b) it’s important to hedge one’s bets with the largely male, largely white SF audience.

    I think we’ve reached a point where both these assumptions can and should be challenged, since in both cases I don’t think the assumption is true.

    In “Old Man’s War,” I have one gay and one bisexual character who are not particularly jaded or cynical in one way or another, and the gay character has a fairly substantial role in the book. I have yet to see a review of the book which goes out of its way to mention character sexuality, nor have the people who have written me about the book mentioned it, which suggests at least anecdotally that SF is ready for characters whose homosexuality is not indicative of any other character traits, nor presented as particularly remarkable.

  6. David D. Levine

    it’s traditionally okay to have queer and/or kinky people in HFIS stories as long as they’re decadent and jaded and world-weary

    The cart may be before the horse in this case, because kink and especially bisexuality have been in use for a long, long time as markers for jaded ennui (“I’m so bored I don’t care who I sleep with”) rather than the other way around. In the case of The Tomorrow File, bisexuality is a marker for the jaded ennui of the entire society.

    “The Chief Designer” … was my first real exposure to the idea that an sf magazine could publish a not-really-sf story

    The trick of “The Chief Designer” is that it is a ghost story about space travel. It might not be SF, but it does have a fantastic element and therefore “earned” its slot in Asimov’s with that if nothing else. True, the fantastic element only appears at the very end, but the space-travel aspects of the story keep SF readers reading until that point.

    Now, if you were to take away the ghost, would it still be SF (because it involves space travel) or would it be historical fiction (because it is set in the 1960s and 1970s)? I maintain that it would be SF, because 1) it is still fiction about science, even though the science is historical, 2) the story has an SF attitude towards its subject matter.

    (Mind you, I consider “What I Didn’t See” to be non-SF despite the science (research into gorillas) because the science is tangential to the story.)

    What’s an “SF attitude”? That’s a whole separate essay, but I’d point to Poul Anderson as an example of an SF attitude toward fantasy and Patrick O’Brien as an SF attitude toward the Napoleonic Wars.

    For me, ostranenie is not a key part of the SF attitude. Though it’s part of the SF mileu, it’s not what I, personally, read SF for. I prefer SF to mimetic fiction because I find mimetic fiction depressingly limited. What’s the point of reading a story in which you know that nothing really unusual can happen? If I wanted real life, I could put down the book and go live it.

  7. Kip Manley

    I don’t think anyone’s arguing that there’s an effort to prevent or at least a broad unwillingness to accept homosexual characters in SF—focussing on the gay/straight dichotomy is blurring the point of Jed’s original essay, which was about opening up sexualities and ways of being sexual in general in Zukunftsromans. (Not so much an upstanding fighter pilot character that happens to be gay as a milieu in which gay characters have interspecies quasipublic sex in parks set aside for this particular pleasure, which, when you parse it, turns out to be Delany celebrating the cross-class quasipublic gay sex available in New York City in the ’50s and ’60s. That sort of thing.) —I mean, I’ve been focussing too much on the gay/straight dichotomy myself, given how I stumbled into this discussion, and it’s something I mean to try and pull back from, toward a bigger picture: there’s a whole bunch of borders to cross or “interrogate” or fuck with here, about sex and sexuality and gender, and my impression pretty much cues up with Jed’s: that SF is a great tool for doing pretty much precisely that fucking around, and that it hasn’t been used so much for that of late. Now, I’m willing to be proved wrong on this point: my reading of current SF is best described as spotty, and I’m probably exaggerating the importance of certain slices of the old skool New Wave, but still, that’s my impression: there’s work to get done, space to be colonized, impressive things to be built, let’s get cracking, but how?

    I mean, one thing, to dance around potentially heated discussions about assimilation, a upstanding high and tight rocket jock with an appreciative eye for his manly military confreres is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s something entirely to take up precisely those qualities seen as decadent and jaded and find within them strength, display their virtues: an effeminate male icon, to balance the ass-kicking chick, say.

    And I’d also just note that a desire for the unusual is pretty much what’s at the heart of a hankering for ostranenie.


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