Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Great Travelling Fantasy Round Table Guest Blog - Round 4

 For everybody's comments, have a look on Deborah Ross's blog
My contribution, sans any pretty pix, sorry, here:

Sexuality in Fantasy
There’s an anecdote, probably from Ellen Datlow herself, that she once asked K. L. Jeter to write a story for an antho titled Alien Sex. To which the redoubtable K. L. responded, “What other sort is there?”

Like the equally out-there Rudy Rucker, Jeter is an SF practitioner, but the question could apply as well to fantasy: both are genres of Elsewhere, in my terms. What form of sex could be as native to them as the alien?

Some parameters here: the OED defines “sexuality” as: 1, capacity for sexual feelings, 2, sexual orientation or preference, 3, sexual activity. Since sexual preference/orientation will take us instantly into GLBT territory, slated for a later Table round, here “sexuality” means either 1 or 3. And 3, yes, is K.L. Jeter’s sense, usually  the modern shorthand for intercourse. First question, then: what have either 1 or 3 to do with (modern) fantasy?

The immediate answer is, Not much. The basic fantasy story arcs are the Quest and the Battle of Good and Evil, with a common side-helping of Bildungsroman – young wizard grows into/discovers magic. Sexuality, either in 1 or 3’s sense, is not integral to any of these. In fact, all 3are notably missing from early modern or even classic high fantasy, right back to Andrew Lang and Lord Dunsany. This is not surprising in early SF, with Gernsback’s emphasis on a teenage audience, but fantasy has earlier avatars. Sex in the 3rd sense is all over epic and mythology, from Enkidu and the harlot to Circe and Ulysses to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And it’s at the centre of Malory’s great romance, the epitome of the medieval.

Sex in any sense only “got into” SF in the post-War period, while modern fantasy’s eminence begins in the ‘60s, with the popularity of Tolkien. In SF treatments of sexuality, “human” or alien, suffered at first from stereotyping – most often, the female side, in either 1 or 3, appeared either a victim, a pattern still apparent in Connie Willis’ “All My Darling Daughters,” or another Evil Female stereotype, immortalized by the alien sexual predators in Tiptreee’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hillside.” But in SF, with its focus on the idea, second-wave feminism rapidly made sexuality a powerful basis for thought experiments. Ursula Le Guin opened the ball with her biologically gender-fluid aliens in The Left Hand of Darkness, and has continued to construct secondary worlds where sexuality, in both cultural and biological forms, offers a way to rethink our own societ(ies.)

But fantasy is not a genre integrally focused on The Idea. So when sexuality in all 3 senses begins appearing in modern fantasy, the questions arise: why now, and what’s it FOR?

The superficial first answer is that even fantasy writers can’t escape their cultural matrix. Coleridge’s Gothic verse romance created uproar over a glimpse of the wicked Geraldine’s naked “side” – not even her breast, mind you – in an age when rape of female servants, by male peers or masters, was a commonplace. Nowadays it’s an expectation that fiction include more and more explicit sexuality. A modern fantasy writer would not think of constructing a secondary world without reference to the inhabitants’ sexualit(ies).

Hence the skirts of the fantasy mountain now brush the modern genres of erotica and (commercial) romance. Admittedly, modern fantasy in sense 3 usually escapes the stock genre romance patterns, where descriptions of intercourse have become almost paint-by-numbers predictable. But steamy sexual encounters for major fantasy characters are now more usual, and some fantasy would count as erotica, if not porn. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books, Laurell Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry series, are only two that come to mind.
But if sexuality’s not a way of thinking about ideas, what’s it FOR? 

One functional answer is, sexuality humanizes. The Quest or the Battle of Good and Evil push a hero, in particular, to Deeds, not Words, let alone Lust. Consequently, as Tolkien discovered with irritation, he can turn out a stick, like Aragorn. But a hero who suffers from sexual passions or sexual handicaps or just plain inability to keep his trousers buttoned – very notably, Lois McMaster Bujold’s apparent hero Arhys in Paladin of Souls – is far more engaging. Malory already knew this, way back when he crafted Lancelot and Galahad.

Beyond actual sex, there’s all the delicious UST so beloved of fanfic writers. (Unresolved Sexual Tension, for the ignorant like me) and so useful for driving a narrative. The dynamo for Tanya Huff’s first novel, The Fire’s Stone, was the long-term UST between the protagonist and his eventual male lover. But UST is routinely done just as easily in realist genres. What, then, can sexuality be for solely in fantasy?

One answer is the term I started with. Alien sex. That is, sexual capacities that are not human, sexual activity that may involve partners more or less than human. Bestiality is a very gray area at the moment for publishers, but alien sex doesn’t merely have to mean sex with animals. It can be truly alien, in fantasy as much as in SF.

To mention only two notable examples, Sheri S. Tepper’s heroine in Grass eventually escapes her alien planet’s tyranny with a “native” lover who, from glimpses in the later Sideshow, may well be some form of god. In the last of her Door series, Diane Duane group-marries seven main characters, including a fire elemental, a gay king and his partner, and  two other couples, including the female warrior Segnbora and the dragon Hasai – referred to as “he,” but whose answer to, “What do dragons do to get married?” is, “Get pregnant, of course.” Whether Hasai or Segnbora is to do so isn’t quite clear.

Alien sex can be much more integral, as in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which focuses on the protagonist’s own sexuality, in senses both 1 and 2. But the alien sex he encounters is confronting and horrifying. On the other hand, in Hamilton’s Gentry series, sex with the alien – goblins, half-humanoids, gods – acquires even religious overtones, because it raises and recovers the Goddess. I’m not fond of Hamilton’s vanilla elf-porn, but as in Grass and Door into Sunset, there are scenes – when the Faerie Dun walls move to create a garden, for instance – when alien sex achieves that hoary goal of both genres: the reader experiences the sense of wonder that comes from a fleeting glimpse of another, un-human and enchanting world. If sexuality becomes a reclaimed weapon in the Elsewhere genre-writer’s search to grasp that moment, so much the better, say I.

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