How queer is science fiction?

  • by Liz Highleyman
  • Wednesday July 26, 2006
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<i>Stranger in a Strange Land</i> is one of the most popular science fiction books of all time.
Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the most popular science fiction books of all time.

For GLBT and straight authors alike, science fiction lends itself to exploration of new possibilities in the realms of sexuality, gender, and intimate relationships.

Among the first stories to portray homosexuality sympathetically was Theodore Sturgeon's "The World Well Lost" (1953), which featured a gay male alien couple who land on a repressive Planet Earth. With the civil rights movement and sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, science fiction began to boldly explore sexuality and gender. Noted queer authors who started writing during this period include Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, and Octavia Butler, all of whom received science fiction's highest awards, the Hugo and Nebula.

Lesbian author Marion Zimmer Bradley recalled that an agent introduced her to the Daughters of Bilitis after detecting hints of same-sex eroticism in her science fiction and fantasy. Arthur C. Clarke nearly came out in a 1986 Playboy interview, but when directly asked if he was gay, he replied that he was "merely cheerful." Less well-known GLBT science fiction authors include Thomas Disch, David Gerrold, Nicola Griffith, and Melissa Scott.

Many heterosexual science fiction authors have also adopted queer themes. Often, androgynous bisexuality is the cultural norm. In other cases, the tables are turned on heterosexuality: In Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974), for example, straight time-travelers return to Earth after an interplanetary war, only to discover that homosexuality is now the norm due to overpopulation and they are considered perverts.

Gay male relationships have fascinated the straight women authors of "slash" fiction, who envision liaisons between classic characters such as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock from Star Trek . Many authors have explored various alternative relationship structures, such as the multi-partner marriages in Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

Gender variance is also an enduring motif in science fiction. Sex change is a common theme, either permanent or back-and-forth as the mood strikes. Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) features a race of mutated humans who are nongendered except during brief mating periods when they randomly take on the sexual characteristics of males or females. Many works feature aliens with more than two sexes, such as Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves (1972). In Scott's Shadow Man (1995), most advanced worlds recognize five human sexes, but individuals on the isolated planet Hara are forced to live as either male or female.

Many authors have explored technological innovations in the realms of sex and reproduction. As early as 1932, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World portrayed a high-tech society in which babies were grown in bottles in factories. Cloning and parthenogenesis allow humans to abandon sexual reproduction, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915), about an all-female utopia – a theme revisited in Russ's The Female Man (1975). Several authors have explored sadomasochism or the sex trade of the future. Delany included an interspecies gay bathhouse scene in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), while Storm Constantine's Hermetech (1991) featured a struggling hustler who agrees to have his body surgically modified into a male/female hybrid with multiple sex organs.

Author and editor Nicola Griffith has written that GLBT readers tend to identify strongly with the outsider status of mutants, aliens, and characters who lead hidden or double lives in science fiction. Transgression of contemporary norms of sexuality and gender is commonly employed to demonstrate how different futuristic or alien societies are from our own – and is often used to demonstrate their enlightenment.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected].

For further reading

Delany, Samuel. 2004. The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village (University  of Minnesota Press).

Garber, Eric, and Lyn Paleo (eds.). 1990. Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (G.K. Hall).

Griffith, Nicola, and Stephen Pagel. 1999. Bending the Landscape. Original Gay and Lesbian Writing: Science Fiction (Overlook Press).