What is the role of sex in science fiction?
Authors Philip Jose Farmer, Robert Heinlein and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name just a few, have all had sex and sexuality in their stories in one way or another. Science fiction and fantasy is full of examples of blurred gender roles, cross-species sex, virtual sex - are these legitimate points to move the story forward or are they simply there to sensationalize the prose? What are some examples of sex in science fiction that, good or bad, still stick in your mind? What are some examples where you felt it was completely out of place?
As an SF Signal Irregular, I had intended to take part in this discussion, but a scheduling conflict precluded me from joining in. Still, I left a comment where I noted that:
I think sex in any novel should, like any other element, either move the plot forward or develop/reveal character. How explicit a particular scene is or should be, IMO, depends on the voice of the author and also what needs to be revealed about plot or character. If a sex scene seems to occur out of nowhere, sometimes it’s because the author didn’t set up sexual tension between the two characters. I think this is one of the areas where the Romance genre excels. In Romance, the tension between the characters builds to an obvious physical and emotional crescendo. A love scene between the heroine and hero fundamentally changes the characters as it forces them to confront intimate details about themselves or their partner. This is why, IMO, Romance sex isn’t porn -- no matter how graphic a scene it is, in Romance the sex has a purpose that can’t be extracted from the rest of the story.
In preparation for the podcast, I talked to a handful of my fellow SFR writers and readers to help me articulate the general attitude of SFR toward sex in the genre. SFR often has to maintain a delicate balance between too much and too little detail when writing sex or love scenes.
While there is certainly a spectrum of preferences, it’s true that in many Romance novels the bedroom door is open and the sex takes place “on-screen,” but this isn’t so often the case in Science Fiction. Also, when sex takes place “on-screen” in Science Fiction often it’s classified as “erotic Science Fiction.”
Science Fiction Romance blends these two genres and sometimes it can be a tough call as to how much intimacy and steam to include in a story. So much of this, I think, depends on the author’s voice, but also what the story needs – how intimately does the rest of the story depict the psycho-social inner world of the protagonist?
Along this latter point, Science Fiction Romance has grown as a subgenre due to the popularity of character-driven Science Fiction. As readers become more comfortable reading about the deep emotional landscape of protagonists, it’s logical that the bedroom door will at times remain open if intimate scenes build on that character’s emotional arc. The Galaxy Express’ Heather Massey made the following observation in our e-mail conversation on this topic:
. . . [T]he main question posed to the [podcast] panelists begs the question of "what is the role of relationships in SF." Because sex happens within a relationship, however brief. Sometimes the relationships are romantic in nature, sometimes not. So I would be interested in hearing a discussion about does the inclusion of sex mean that some SF authors were interested in including a romance, but felt they had to disguise it as a sex scene? In other words, could sex scenes in SF be a type of code for "romance"?
The exploration of gender roles, sexual relations, sexual orientation, etc. is a perfectly valid application of SF. If anything, sometimes it's the injection of a *romance* (regardless of heat level) that may be used to "sensationalize" the prose.
This begs the question – does the Romance side of Science Fiction Romance allow writers to explore the sexual side of characters that isn’t so accepted in mainstream Science Fiction?
Author Jess Granger made the excellent point that the sexual lives of Science Fiction characters are vital to world-building both in terms of biology and cultural expectations:
Sex can be something a race doesn't need at all, or needs desperately to survive. The world building plays an intricate part in that, and consequently, in Science Fiction you can push the biological need to breed much further than you can with a realistic portrayal of any culture here on Earth. Plus, you can do it without the "human" baggage. There is huge opportunity to play with biology, and that's really the point of Science Fiction in my mind, to use science to push the boundaries of what we understand about ourselves.
As far as cultural expectations go, again, your canvas is wide open. With alien cultures, you can push acceptance and taboos to the extremes without blinking an eye. Sex is so integrated into all cultures throughout history. Whether it's encouraging, hindering, or controlling, sex and culture go hand in hand. To say sex shouldn't be a part of Science Fiction is like saying food shouldn't be a part of Science Fiction. It is an integral part of all life. An alien's got to eat, and he's got to create a new generation somehow. If you're building alien cultures, how they view and approach sex has the potential to reveal a lot about that culture. So once again, sex is an essential part of world building.
A few of the more common indictments of depicting the sex lives of Science Fiction characters have been along the lines of (1) SF readers are only interested in intellectual/scientific concepts and political intrigue, and (2) reading intimate details makes some readers feel like voyeurs.
Well, to the first notion, I’d say that the intellectualism of Star Trek’s Spock is only compelling because we occasionally see his walls disintegrate and understand what the stakes are. Make all the “pon farr” jokes you want, but it’s only through seeing Vulcans in that visceral light that we understand just how powerful their intellect really is. Then, the tension grows out of a sense of restraint, a technique used from “Jane Eyre” to “Twilight.” The brain really is the largest and most important sexual organ. When it comes to political commentary, character relationships provide dimension. Like the Spock example, the fates of relationships show what’s at stake and humanizes vast intellectual concepts. If a character has to choose between political duty and a life-long love, that’s a prime opportunity for the kind of internal conflict that makes stories memorable.
For those who are uncomfortable with too many sexual details, SFR, like so much of Romance in general, offers quite a spectrum of “heat” levels from the sensual to the explicit. Read reviews and listen to other readers to figure out which authors are writing the types of SFR stories that appeal to you. They are out there. However, I do think that the deeply personal point of view in character-driven stories lessens the sense of voyeurism since it makes it easier for the reader to feel the emotional arc along with the characters. In other words, it breaks down the “fourth wall” in ways more distant writing styles cannot.
Sometimes, an author’s voice is naturally sensual and to close the bedroom door on character’s intimate moments can seem forced. The reverse is true of naturally technical voices. Some readers just do not like character-driven novels. We all have our preferences.
Having said that, delving deep into a character’s emotions can offer a unique perspective on an intellectual idea and can take the “what if” Science Fiction question to a new level. Jess Granger made this point well when she told me that:
So, as Science Fiction writers, and human beings, sometimes I think we need to take our own cultural blinders off and see the sex act as something with the potential to illuminate some of the larger themes of a story instead of something that is merely titillating, pornographic, stupid, self-gratifying, or unnecessary.
Sex is important, and it deserves to be.
What do you think? What are some of your favorite examples of the intimate lives of characters that you’ve read? Do you prefer highly sensual stories – or not?
I personally very much enjoyed the inner journey back to humanity Linnea Sinclair's hero Admiral Branden Kel-Paten makes in "Games of Command." His journey deeply affects the heroine, Captain Tasha “Sass” Sebastian, and enables her to rediscover that part of herself along with him. Another stand out for me was Sandra McDonald's "The Outback Stars" because the emotional risks the characters take enable them to take other risks that impact the rest of the universe.