Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sex in Science Fiction: No Feelings Allowed

After my last rant about the lack of female friendly science fiction, I’ve started looking around to see what I can find that might appeal to the average female looking to get into science fiction.  After reading a positive recommendation from Charlie Jane Anders over at io9.com I picked up Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks, the first book of his Culture series. 

Nope.  Not it.  Not even a fairly hardened sci-fi reader like myself could swallow that one easily.  It was everything you think of when you think, “Gack, hard sci fi.”  And I mean that in both a good way and a bad way.  However, one thing really struck me about this book and its sequels:  The sex.

I read a great post by Nicola Griffith recently about the utter reluctance of hard sci-fi to embrace any sort of physical pleasure or descriptions of body-to-body contact.  At the time, I sort of pictured that hokey ‘sex’ in Demolition Man where Sandra Bullock and Sly Stallone put on silly helmets and sort of have virtual brain sex.  But now I totally get it.  In Consider Phlebas, the sex was referred to clinically, and with all the emotion you might use for turning off the bathroom light.  In the next book, The Player of Games, the sex the main character has is similarly referred to – it’s just a perfunctory act.  The third book, Use of Weapons, has our female protagonist matter-of-factly asking a man she just met if he would like to f*ck.  And that’s all she has to say about that.

Could these scenes have been written differently?  Definitely.  However, there’s the sense that if they’d gotten into icky things like feelings and enjoyment, the books would lose their hard sci-fi edge and be… soft.  You know, like girls.  And everyone knows that girls have cooties.  It says, right there on the sign, that they must KEEP OUT

So, where can I find a science fiction book where the main character has sex, enjoys it, and actively seeks it out?  Where she has a full understanding of the meaning and consequences of complex sexual relationships and faces them unafraid?  I’m looking for something where being female doesn’t mean being soft.  Where she can have actual feelings about things and people, and still do whatever it is that comprises her story – the way we all do every day.

What do you suggest, dear reader?
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  1. Sex can be a part of 'Hard Sci Fi' but really, i've only ever seen it in a Space Opera or two. I love all kinds of Sci Fi but would also like to see more woman friendly stuff. It doesn't have to be flat out romance and we can handle the hard Sci fi soooo, I wonder what the problem is?

  2. Iain M. Banks' characters tend to be, well, horrible people, and those that aren't are at least severely maladjusted. He writes his stories between the cracks and on the fringes of the Culture where all the happy, grounded people just aren't.

    This post gives me a sad. Girls are welcome in my treehouse.

  3. Ok.. This is gonna be a SHORT SHORT version of what I wrote previously, because this google interface burned up my note:

    First, off, I hope this doesn't come off as too abrasive. ;)

    I personally think that is a hard line. Sci fi books use the plot and science to pull along the novel. Character driven books use the characters to pull along the novel.

    Romance writers, in general are better character builders and in turn better character writers. While the sci fi nerds, in general, probably make some nifty keen science.

    A character driven novel can happen in any setting. A sci fi novel is based on setting and the characters are pulled along by plot.

    I am sure there are a HANDFUL of people who can write the good sci fi, and add the sex, and not make it seem.. like something the editor says.. "person, you should REALLY cut this..."

    However, I am going to GUESS that when you try to mix the two, your book gets sold as Sci Fi under the name Piers Anthony.

    I'll let that sink in a moment..

    Wait.. no.. I'll just stop. I think that makes my point! ;)

  4. Oh, and you might like Banks' Inversions better.

  5. I don't know that she'd like Inversions any better. I mean its basically Banks' take on whats wrong with Epic Fantasy as a concept, and ends with the female protagonist almost getting tortured for being a witch.

    I agree with your (mkirkland) previous statement about the Culture books being about characters who are the misfits in a tech utopia, so there tends to be not much room happy enjoyment of things.

    Hard SF in general is pretty technofetishtic. Its about the tech. I'd love to see something that embraces a little more human physicality but I just don't see it happening. Most Hard SF writers have enough trouble just writing interesting characters. It probably doesn't help that the writers are also mostly male.


  6. You know, it makes me wonder - are women just not writing science fiction? Or are there some great female-friendly or even female-penned sci-fi books out there that just aren't getting published?

    I feel like a well-rounded science fiction story that was more 'moderate' than hard or soft might be well-received - if you could find an audience for it. Or a publisher to publish it.

    Right now, I'm reading The Use of Weapons and finding that Zakalwe is almost like a real person. A crazy f*cked up person, but a real person nevertheless. I am warming up to Banks.

  7. Robert Heinlein's books,
    John Varley's Gaea Trilogy (Titan, Wizard, Demon), Steel Beach, Ophiuchi Hotline and Millenium
    Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs novels(Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies)
    Joel Shepherd's Cassandara Kresnov novels(Crossover, Breakway, Killswitch)

    Others which I havent read but may fit the bill are
    The Seeds of Time (Kay Kenyon)
    The Secret of Life (Paul Mcaueley)
    The Illuminatus Trilogy and Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy (Robert Anton Wilson)