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Entry updated 20 September 2020. Tagged: Theme.


This entry is primarily about human sexual relationships and sexual stereotypes as themes in sf; i.e., it is primarily about Psychology and Sociology. It discusses neither procreation nor the various inventive methods of Alien sexual reproduction devised by sf writers.

Traditionally sf has been a puritanical and male-oriented literature. Before the 1960s there was little sf that consciously investigated sexual questions but, as with all popular literatures, what is implied is often as important as what is openly put forward. Seen from this viewpoint, sf has been an accurate reflector of popular prejudices and feelings about sex over the years – especially in stories at the Pulp-magazine end of the sf spectrum, where the fantasies and Taboos of the day are encapsulated more clearly than in sophisticated works.

An important theme of pulp sf – sex as beastliness – appeared much earlier. Jonathan Swift's famous work of Proto SF, Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735), in its fourth book contrasts the brutish life of carnality led by the human-like Yahoos – much given to public defecation and genital display – with the life of reason led by the intelligent, horse-like Houyhnhnms; everyone understands the satirical assault on the Yahoos, but fewer critics have recognized the horses' fastidious squeamishness as being also, more subtly, under attack. Swift's eighteenth-century frankness about sex was not to appear in sf again with the same force for more than two centuries.

In the nineteenth century, feelings about sex were implied but seldom dealt with openly. The sexual fears and fantasies often involved in Gothic SF tended to be envisioned as powerful, irrational forces, difficult to quell. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831) by Mary Shelley is more overt than most in asking whether the artificial man's bestial urges, unfettered by a soul, would prove devastating. This aspect of the story has been emphasized in several film versions of Frankenstein, especially in the Parody Young Frankenstein (1974), where the monster's amorous abilities prove as formidable as we had always suspected.

Frankenstein points towards a recurrent theme in pulp sf: fear of the Alien manifest (at least in the subtext) as fear of a sexual capacity greater than ours, just as white men stereotypically fear Blacks as sexual athletes too well endowed to compete against. The menace of the alien is often seen in sexual terms in sf Illustrations, which right through the magazines of the 1930s and 1940s had a stronger sexual charge than the milk-and-water stories they purported to illuminate.

The sf pulp magazines seldom attempted to titillate in the manner of, say, Spicy Mystery Stories – an exception was Marvel Science Stories (especially in its incarnation as Marvel Tales), which contained stories like "Lust Rides the Roller Coaster". Generally, however, the SF Magazines proved unable to link the two genres of the spicy and the technological with any conviction. (The conjunction of flesh and metal, however, later proved inspirational to sf Comics artist Jean-Claude Forest [1930-1998], whose mildly erotic Barbarella featured a heroine who was prepared to receive even the embrace of a Robot – a not uncommon theme in the liberated 1970s, most amusingly dealt with in Robert Sheckley's "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?" [August 1969 Playboy]. Barbarella was successfully filmed in 1967 by Roger Vadim as a veritable compendium of the sexual fantasies to be found in sf.)

The sexual implications of sf stories have varied remarkably little in the past 100 years, and most of the themes were already well established in the popular literature of the nineteenth century. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson explores the notion that the human mind contains a cheerfully bestial component controlled by a mental censor that can – in this case with Drugs – be bypassed. Although there was more of Metaphysics than science in the idea when Stevenson penned it, developments in psychology (beginning, even as Stevenson wrote, with the work of Sigmund Freud [1856-1939]) and later neurology showed him to have been not so very far from the truth. Stevenson's fundamental theme, however, has a long history in the Christian West, where the pleasures of the flesh have traditionally been seen as sinful: it is the theme of Original Sin. Hyde was an incarnation of "the evil that lurks in the heart of Man". Sin and retribution remains a popular theme in Horror and Monster Movies.

Early sf was largely written by men, and tends to reveal specifically masculine sexual prejudices. (The female archetypes created by men are further discussed in Women in SF.) An interesting early example of gender archetype is found in The Time Machine (1895) by H G Wells. The future races discovered by the Time Traveller are the masculine, hairy Morlocks and the effeminate, beautiful, irresponsible Eloi, who are ultimately just cattle for the Morlocks. The two races allegorize nineteenth-century sexual distinctions and class distinctions simultaneously. One of the illustrations by Virgil Finlay to a magazine reprint of the story makes the point vividly.

To immature men, women often appear like an alien race, and much popular sf reflects a fear of their threatening foreignness. The stereotype of the Amazon Queen – imperious, cruel and desirable – is abundantly present in She (October 1886-January 1887 The Graphic; cut 1886; full text 1887) and other novels by H Rider Haggard (see also She). The she-devil, a favourite recurring Victorian literary archetype (Victorian pornography makes just as much of women chastising men with whips as vice versa), turns up throughout pulp sf, notably in the romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs and in many tales published in Planet Stories.

It might be expected that the image of woman as all-engulfing Holy Prostitute and She-Fiend would be an exclusively masculine fantasy, but – perhaps because it is at least an image of power in a world where, during the era of the pulp magazines, women were relatively powerless – it attracted some women writers. C L Moore made a speciality of such figures, notably in her Northwest Smith tales. The Medusa creature in Moore's "Shambleau" (November 1933 Weird Tales) is an archetype of the female as a fantasy of sexual horror: "From head to foot he was slimy from the embrace of the crawling horror about him ... and the look of terrible ecstasy that overspread [his face] seemed to come from somewhere far within"

The conjunction of womanhood and slime may have pathological connotations, but is familiar enough in Genre SF and elsewhere. Consider the following passage from The Deathworms of Kratos (1975) by Richard Avery (Edmund Cooper): "Each time she was penetrated, the queen's huge body rippled and arched and she gave out a hissing, screaming grunt. Steam rose from her straining body, gouts of milky fluid dripped from her immense length, bubbling from her orifices ..." The sexual confusions are intense: the queen is a giant worm, and, though female, unmistakably phallic in shape. The watchers are "sickened" but excited and, within pages, are asking the spaceship captain for permission to pair off and copulate. The sexual ambiguities here are of the very essence of pulp sf.

Some of the worst sexual crudities in sf, much attacked by Feminists of both sexes, are found in the male writers of Heroic Fantasy. What was merely a subtext in Robert E Howard's Conan stories of the 1930s had become explicit and central in John Norman's Gor books of the 1960s: a male desire to exert power over women, which Norman depicts in his many bondage and flagellation scenes in a manner clearly intended to be sexually arousing. The visual counterpart of these writings can be seen in the paintings of Frank Frazetta, whose ripe, lush beauties, when not being menaced by scaly, phallic monsters or subdued by men, are themselves cruel Amazons, holding the most brawny-thewed men in thrall.

Miscegenation, the mixing of races, is another common sexual theme in sf. It was often seen in Lost-World fiction from around the turn of the century to be degrading (see Devolution), as in Austyn Granville's The Fallen Race (1892), where a primitive tribe has resulted from the bestial union of aboriginals and kangaroos. But even during the period up to the 1920s, when racist popular fiction was the rule rather than the exception, miscegenation could be seen as a good thing. An early human-alien union (see Exogamy) can be found in Burroughs's A Princess of Mars (February-July 1912 All-Story as "Under the Moons of Mars" as by Norman Bean; 1917), symbolized in the amusing scene where John Carter stands proudly next to his wife, the princess, looking at their child in its incubator: the child at this stage is a large egg. For decades the sf magazines, notably Planet Stories, often featured on their covers BEMS or Bug-Eyed Monsters with lascivious expressions pursuing human women – an obvious absurdity (see Scientific Errors).

Thus far we have emphasized the sexual assumptions of society – especially male society – as revealed in sf, but not as analysed in sf. The very nature of sf, however, in which societies with cultures and appearances different from our own can be readily imagined, makes it an excellent medium for asking hard questions about our own sexual prejudices. By the 1980s, the conservative sexual bigotry of sf had largely given way to a radical exploration of alternative sexual possibilities (though these, too, produced their own Clichés). The process had first got under way in the early 1950s, when Philip José Farmer and Theodore Sturgeon treated the miscegenation theme more seriously. Hitherto magazine sf, no matter what it might coyly imply, had never been sexually explicit. Kay Tarrant, assistant to John W Campbell Jr, the editor of Astounding Science-Fiction (later Analog), was famous for her prudishness, and persuaded many writers to remove "offensive" scenes and "bad language" from their stories. This was partly in keeping with the spirit of the age and partly to protect adolescent boys, probably Astounding's main readership. Some writers made a game of outwitting her; in his story "Rat Race" (August 1947 Astounding) George O Smith got away with mentioning a "ball-bearing mousetrap" on one page, revealing on the next page the device: a tomcat. But both Farmer and Sturgeon were, for their period, explicit. They recognized that, in a genre which prided itself on imagining new and different societies, the sexual taboo was absurdly anachronistic, particularly because it did not exist to the same degree in conventional fiction. Sturgeon explored both three-way relationships and human-alien relationships in a number of stories and novels, notably Venus Plux X (1960), a savage attack on gender stereotyping. Farmer's The Lovers (August 1952 Startling; exp 1961) dealt with inter-species love and sex, as did many of his stories, including "Mother" (April 1953 Thrilling Wonder), in which a spaceman is inveigled into an alien womb, where he makes his home – perhaps the ultimate in Freudian sf stories. Both these writers questioned concepts of "normal" and "perverse" (although there is a critical argument about the degree of crudeness, salacity or sometimes sentimentality with which the attempt was made).

By the 1960s miscegenation was an acceptable serious theme in sf, and it was perhaps most carefully and delicately explored in Ursula K Le Guin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). An ordinary human is forced to rethink the whole question of sexual roles when faced with a race (and emotionally involved with one of its members) who are bisexual in that they can be, at different times, either man, woman or neuter. A sensitive treatment of love between alien races is Strangers (in New Dimensions IV, anth 1974, ed Robert Silverberg; exp 1978) by Gardner Dozois, which draws attention to the ghastly errors that can occur from trying to understand a foreign society in terms of the assumptions of one's own.

After the pioneer work of Sturgeon and Farmer – and also such mildly daring works as The Disappearance (1951) by Philip Wylie, which postulates a total but temporary division between the societies of men and of women, "Consider Her Ways" (in Sometime, Never, anth 1956, ed anon) by John Wyndham, which deals with an ambiguously utopian all-women society, and The Girls from Planet 5 (1955) by Richard Wilson, which deals skittishly with a similar theme – the breaking of the dam came with the so-called New Wave in the 1960s. Suddenly, explicit sex was commonplace in sf, in work by Brian W Aldiss, J G Ballard, Samuel R Delany, Norman Spinrad and many others. Harlan Ellison's consciously taboo-breaking anthology Dangerous Visions (anth 1967) printed some stories of this type.

Writers of an older generation, such as Isaac Asimov and Robert A Heinlein, also blossomed out into the freedom of the 1960s. In much of Heinlein's late work the central theme is a strong plea for sexual emancipation, sometimes expressed with a kind of embarrassing locker-room prurience. This was his emphasis from his popular Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1990) onwards, most obviously in I Will Fear No Evil (July-December 1970 Galaxy; 1970) – in which an old man is given new life in the body of his young female secretary – and again in Time Enough for Love (1973) and Friday (1982).

One publisher, Essex House, specialized in pornographic sf (a genre that had its heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s) including Farmer's The Image of the Beast (1968) and A Feast Unknown (1969) as well as books by Hank Stine (see Jean Marie Stine) and David Meltzer. Other publishers followed suit, notably Olympia and Ophelia Press, which published sf erotica by, among others, Charles Platt and Barry N Malzberg, the latter's work being perhaps the gloomiest pornography ever published. Most of the above were partially serious in intent, and sometimes more emetic than erotic. Slightly less reputable houses published pornography by Richard E Geis and Andrew J Offutt, and down at the bottom of the barrel could be found books with titles like Anal Planet (1976) by Alex Forbes. (A number of other sf writers – including both Marion Zimmer Bradley and Robert Silverberg under pseudonyms – occasionally published non-sf erotica, usually as a quick way of earning money.)

Some critics consider that the most distinguished work of "pornographic" sf is Crash (1973) by J G Ballard, in which images of technology and images of sex are interwoven to make an ambiguous and not necessarily disapproving comment on the nature of technological society and its alienations. The central images of this book are the orgasm and the car crash, the one often leading to the other. Also of note are some of the stories in Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition (coll 1970; vt Love and Napalm: Export USA 1972).

Sf is more liable than other genres, with the exception of horror, to link sex with disgust. Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Sturgeon all wrote stories in which images of sex overlap with images of violence, blood, revulsion and pain, yet these authors are generally considered to be towards the more "liberal" end of the sf spectrum. This dis-ease with sexuality, perhaps cultural in origin, is also reflected in a recurrent image of overtly sexual sf: a mind/body dualism in which the body is seen as "alien" and governing the mind, rather than governed by it or in partnership with it.

On the more positive side, sf that consciously judges the sexual prejudices of our own society by imagining societies with quite different sexual expectations began – relatively speaking – to flourish from the 1970s on, though remaining rather a small subgenre within sf as a whole. Many of these works were written by women, especially feminist writers, most notably Joanna Russ, and are discussed under Feminism. Such writers have made extrapolations towards cultures where troilism, homosexuality, bisexuality or even pansexuality is the norm. Samuel R Delany does so in much of his writing, notably in Dhalgren (1975; rev 1977; rev 2001) and Triton (1976) along with later works. Thomas M Disch does so in 334 (1972). Sf with a homosexual or bisexual theme is now commonplace, though Delany, for one, has suffered censorship from book-distribution companies for dramatizing these issues. An interesting reference work in this field is Uranian Worlds: A Reader's Guide to Alternative Science Fiction and Fantasy (1983; rev 1990) by Eric Garber (?1955-1995) and Lyn Paleo, which annotates 935 novels and stories of "variant sexuality", plus films. (Sf Fandom, too, has recognized the interest in gay sf with the formation in 1987 of the Gaylactic Network, based in Massachusetts, with 7 affiliated Gaylaxian groups in the USA and Canada.)

Two important writers on sexual themes, both interested in "alternative" sexuality and both attaining prominence in the 1970s, have been James Tiptree Jr and John Varley. Tiptree (not revealed to be a woman until 1977, when she had been publishing sf for a decade) sadly, savagely examined the skewings of sexual impulse in much of her work; it was her central theme, and with her anthropologist's eye she dissected it with great power. Varley, who works with broader strokes, examines polymorphous eroticism – with dazzle and schmaltz perhaps approaching too closely the condition of the romp – among the several themes of his Gaean trilogy: Titan (1979), Wizard (1980) and Demon (1984). More recently, Sexual Chemistry (coll 1991) by Brian M Stableford deals wryly with sexual issues, though its prime theme is Genetic Engineering.

The great change in sexual life during the 1980s was (as it still is) the AIDS epidemic, among whose many results has been the higher premium now placed on monogamy. Much sf of the 1980s has (either directly or metaphorically) touched on the AIDS theme, including Unicorn Mountain (1988) by Michael Bishop and the surreal, sodomitical nightmares of The Fire Worm (1988) by Ian Watson. A distinguished short story on the theme is Judith Moffett's "Tiny Tango" (February 1989 Asimov's), later incorporated into The Ragged World: A Novel of the Hefn on Earth (1991), which features, among many strange, sad images, that of an HIV-positive woman who voyeuristically frequents male lavatories wearing a fake penis.

Sf Cinema has also been transformed in the past two decades, though much of its sexual explicitness in the 1970s and 1980s is merely titillation, as in My Stepmother is An Alien (1988). The mild frissons of Alraune (1928), with its image of the soulless seductress formed by artificial insemination, or I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), with its theme of the bridegroom-cum-Monster (a traditional fear), have given way to the women who kill with sex in Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) and the alien orgasm-feeders of Liquid Sky (1982). But by far the most sophisticated, and to some disgusting, of modern cinematic explorations of sexuality are the films of David Cronenberg, especially The Parasite Murders (1974; vt They Came from Within; vt Shivers), Rabid (1976), The Brood (1979), Videodrome (1982), The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1989). From the parasite-induced nymphomania of the first, through the sexual metamorphoses of the next four, to the grotesquely cruel gynaecological technology of the last, the much abused and penetrated body is both the battlefield of Cronenberg's mind/body metaphysics and the object of his tenderness.

Perhaps the strongest anthology of stories with sexual themes is Alien Sex (anth 1990) edited by Ellen Datlow; this includes Connie Willis's shocking, but to some unconvincing, "All My Darling Daughters" (in Fire Watch, coll 1985), about child and animal abuse, which presents men as sexual sadists. Arrows of Eros (anth 1989) edited by Alex Stewart is a British anthology. Strange Bedfellows: Sex and Science Fiction (1972) edited by Thomas N Scortia, Eros in Orbit (1973) edited by Joseph Elder and The Shape of Sex to Come (1978) edited by Douglas Hill are earlier theme anthologies. An amusing study, with special reference to sf Illustration, is Great Balls of Fire! A History of Sex in Science Fiction (1977) by Harry Harrison. Two anthologies of critical essays about sex in sf/fantasy are Erotic Universe (anth 1986) and Eros in the Mind's Eye (anth 1986), both edited by Donald E Palumbo. [PN]

see also: Leather Goddesses of Phobos.

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