News Flash! “Liz H” is the final winner in the “Help Make Artemis This Summer’s Hot Destination” contest. Many thanks to all of you who participated. Special thanks again to Tori Hansen for the picture of Sand Shadow at the beach!
JANE: A couple of weeks ago, when we were chatting about some of the works of Arthur C. Clarke, you mentioned that he didn’t restrict himself to science and spaceships, he explored questions of human sexuality as well.
ALAN: Yes – his own favourite of his novels was The Songs of Distant Earth which was published in 1986 but which still reads very well today. Among the many themes that it explores is the idea of homosexual attraction as a character motivator – there’s nothing gratuitous about it, it is an integral part of the story and Clarke handles the theme tastefully and passionately. Actually, it’s really rather moving.
JANE: Yes. And SF is good for that sort of exploration because it’s happening somewhere and somewhen else, not here and now – and potentially threatening.
Although these days, when I hear Heinlein mentioned, it seems to be mostly in the context of military SF and his “juvie” novels, he certainly did a lot of exploration into human sexualities in his novels. These were no less “SF” for all that.
His novel I Will Fear No Evil blew me away when I first read it. In it, his main character – an elderly man in very bad health, arranges to have his brain transplanted into the first available donor. He forgets to specify gender and the first donor just happens to be his young, beautiful, sexy secretary.
So now the old man is a hot young woman. But Eunice may be dead, but apparently she isn’t gone. She continues on as his spirit guide…
I Will Fear No Evil certainly wasn’t Heinlein’s best novel, but it was very different from anything else I’d ever read. For that reason, I’ll always remember it fondly.
ALAN: The ideas in I Will Fear No Evil were fascinating, but the writing left much to be desired. I’m much more fond of Stranger in a Strange Land which explores a lot of different sexualities, some of which are rather odd even by today’s standards! It’s one of my favourite books, and I’ve read it many times.
JANE: Oh, yes… Stranger in a Strange Land was given to me when I was fifteen. Talk about eye opening! Again, the SF element allowed Heinlein to explore these oddities in a non-threatening context because Valentine Michael Smith, while human in form, is alien in sensibility. He can’t be expected to know what is “normal” and what is not.
ALAN: Can I go off on a brief tangent, please?
ALAN: Stranger in a Strange Land is available in two editions. There’s the novel as originally published in 1961, and there’s Heinlein’s original, uncut manuscript which was published about thirty years later. Heinlein cut the novel for publication by going through the manuscript and tightening almost every sentence by removing extraneous words and rearranging the phrasing. No scenes were cut, no ideas were omitted, he just worked on the words, and he cut out about 60,000 of them!
JANE: 60,000 words is about the length of a slim paperback. That’s a lot of cutting.
ALAN: When you compare the two, the edited version from 1961 is by far the stronger book. The uncut manuscript is flabby and discursive whereas the cut version is very tightly focused. If Heinlein had done the same cutting exercise on I Will Fear No Evil, I suspect he might very well have had another classic on his hands. Sadly he never did that and the book remains almost too flabby to read. What a wasted opportunity.
JANE: I read that Heinlein was very ill when I Will Fear No Evil was due to be published. He probably didn’t have the energy to do that level of editing and, since at that time he was one of the pre-eminent writers of SF, I doubt his editors wanted to put pressure on him.
As I said when we started this discussion, one of the elements of SF that definitely contributed to the Sense of Wonder element was the exploration into what you might call “inner space.” Often this included psionic (mental or psychic) powers. Even John W. Campbell who was considered the bastion of “hard” SF considered psionics valid.
The psionic ability that certainly received the most attention was telepathy – or mind reading – along with empathy, which is the ability to read emotions. You can’t explore how possessing these abilities would shape a culture without speculating on how being able to read minds would impact on sexual relationships.
ALAN: This is a minor theme in Robert Silverberg’s stunningly brilliant novel Dying Inside. And I vaguely recall that James Tiptree Jr. used it in some of her stories as well.
JANE: Another author who did a lot with telepathy was Marion Zimmer Bradley, who built her entire Darkover culture around a ruling class that was a ruling class precisely because it possessed psionic abilities. These, by the by, were acquired in a very skiffy fashion – crossbreeding with the aliens who were the original inhabitants of the planet but who, by the time humans arrived, had nearly died out.
Sexual relations – and the restriction of the same – played a greater and greater part in her novels.
I discovered her works when I was in college and they certainly gave me a lot to think about. I was particularly taken with a sub-section of novels having to do with how the psionics of Darkover came to realize that their attitudes toward sexual relations between members of the “circles” and “towers” that dominated the use of such powers had created wide-reaching problems.
ALAN: I think you are quite right about the Darkover books. The later novels in the series portray this brilliantly. I’m particularly fond of The Heritage of Hastur (1975) which explores a lot of sexual themes. Rather like the Clarke novel we mentioned before, it also takes the view that homosexuality is a normal variant of human sexuality.
Marion Zimmer Bradley was a writer with great potential but she lost me with The Mists of Avalon. It is her most famous and popular book, but I’m afraid I bounced right off it and I never returned to her after that.
JANE: She started losing me with the books about the “Free Amazons,” I fear. The Mists of Avalon didn’t work for me either… It seemed excruciatingly dry.
ALAN: SF used to be a very chaste literature. Someone (I’m not sure who) once remarked that SF authors were very immature and they didn’t write sex scenes in their books because they never really got over being scared that their mother might read them…
JANE: Oh! I like that. My first published short story (which will be included in the collection I’m just about ready to release) had a sexual element… I didn’t worry about that when I was writing it, because I don’t think I believed it would actually get published. It did. My mom still talks to me.
What do you think led to the change?
ALAN: I think it was a product of the times. The liberal ideas that were part of the culture of the 1960s and 1970s freed up the field and the new dimension that this added to all literature (not just science fiction) gave us a lot of interesting speculations. Philip Jose Farmer was particularly notorious for this, and his books ran the gamut from sheer unadulterated pornography, clearly designed to be read with only one hand, through to some much more thoughtful works.
For example, A Feast Unknown is a pastiche of pulp fiction, erotica, and horror fiction which was published in 1969 and which still makes for uncomfortable reading today as it cleverly explores the complex relationship between sex and violence.
The short story collection Strange Relations (1960) uses sexual encounters between humans and other alien creatures to explore problems of personal development. Farmer insists that human integrity requires that people must develop a respectful flexibility to strange situations (and believe me, some of the situations he describes in these stories are very strange). Applying intelligence is a pre-requisite for all reasonable responses – without it, everything falls apart. And of course, prejudice is simply not possible in these circumstances. Invariably, argues Farmer, prejudice derives from lack of thought. It’s instinctive as opposed to rational. He makes a convincing case.
JANE: “Notorious” is a good word for Farmer and sex. I liked some of his books very much, but I wish I could vacuum Lord Tyger from my memory.
ALAN: Oh I don’t know – I thought Lord Tyger portrayed a rather more realistic picture of a boy growing up alone in the jungle than Burroughs managed to paint with Tarzan. But I agree that it did have more than its fair share of grotesqueries.
However, we musn’t get so serious that we can’t have a laugh. John Sladek wrote a very funny short story called Machine Screw in which a fifteen foot tall sex-crazed robot runs amok and starts raping automobiles. There’s also the very entertaining Great Balls of Fire! A History of Sex in Science Fiction (1977) by Harry Harrison
JANE: Is the Harrison fiction or non-fiction?
ALAN: It’s non-fiction. It concentrates mostly on science fiction illustrations, but it does have a fair amount to say about the stories as well.
JANE: I’ll keep an eye out for it. The way artistic depictions shape interpretation of text is of perennial interest to me.
I have several other authors, I’ve thought of as holding “Sense of Wonder” for me, shall we move toward a grand finale next time?