27 February 2004

Stories of Sex and Identity

Speculative fiction is one of the best artistic forms with which to explore ideas of sexuality and gender identity, because SF allows writers and readers to mix imagination and curiosity together to follow hunches about human nature toward some sort of conclusion. (Nonhuman nature, of course, is fertile ground as well, though when read by humans, such stories inevitably serve as foils for human nature.) Despite a fairly conservative base of readers, SF has been investigating sex and gender since at least the time of Theodore Sturgeon, and a few recent stories which fit into this tradition have caught my attention.

Strange Horizons has been, admirably, one of the leaders in seeking out stories which don't represent worlds where heterosexuality seems to have triumphed. Jed Hartman's editorial "The Future of Sex" made me shout out, "Yes! Exactly! Absolutely!", waking my neighbors and scaring my cat. Strange Horizons has carried through on Hartman's ideas, publishing quite a few stories which avoid the quiet heterosexism of most fiction. For instance, the recent "Genderbending at the Madhattered" by Kameron Hurley is a philosophical romance in every sense of either word, proposing, as it does, a world where people's gender identities can be completely fluid. The story itself is worth reading, but I felt after finishing it that it really needed to be a novel, not just because we are only given hints about the odd, steampunkish setting, but because the underlying ideas are ones which deserve more nuanced treatment than a short story provides.

Charles Coleman Finlay's "Pervert", in the March issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, is another story which takes what might be considered a bizarre look at sexual identity, opening with these sentences: "There are two kinds of people in the world, homosexuals and hydrosexuals. And then there are perverts like me."

Like many stories which begin with stunningly attention-grabbing lines, "Pervert" isn't quite able to live up to the promise of its first sentences, because in this case the first sentences are used simply to cause the reader to keep wondering, "But what's a hydrosexual?" and to subvert our expectations of what constitutes the narrator's perversity. It's certainly not a bad story, but if Finlay had bothered to really develop the ideas inherent here, he could have had a story with far more layers, implications, and nuance. Nevertheless, it's a great example of how excitingly strange SF short stories can be.

"Pervert" has caused a bit of a ruckus amongst F&SF's readers, one of whom said on F&SF's discussion board that he "removed" the story from his copy of the magazine -- that is, he tore it out, finding it morally objectionable. Meanwhile, as you've probably heard by now, Asimov's has been accused of peddling smut to minors.

Because SF as a genre is often associated in people's minds with childishness, the idea of "adult" SF -- that is, SF with some sexual content, or even SF about people older than 50 -- is difficult for some people to allow into their minds. (Never mind that the Lord of the Rings movies are intensely homoerotic -- celebrating the fellowship of men seeking to destroy what looks to me like a giant flaming vagina in Mordor, one worshipped by an apparently all-male society of trolls and orcs and other warnings against steroids.)

Thus, I was surprised to read "Serostatus" by John Peyton Cooke in the January issue of F&SF, a gay ghost story, and a sad one. The story is a beautiful evocation of the changing nature of Manhattan's neighborhoods in the wake of AIDS, some of the implications of which have been explored by Samuel Delany in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. (It's also worth noting here that Delany's "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" in Flight from Neveryon, aka The Bridge of Lost Desire, was one of the first works of fiction about AIDS.) Stories of people dealing with AIDS and the effects of losing loved ones to it are hardly rare, and though Cooke's story may not have the glitzy originality of "Pervert" or "Genderbending at the Madhattered", for me it's the most effective of the three tales, for Cooke takes his time in evoking the world of Manhattan's gay community, both past and present, a setting which has almost mythic properties in many gay novels and stories, from Dale Peck's dazzling and heart-wrenching first novel, Martin and John to Michael Cunningham's The Hours, and countless other books before, after, and in-between.

It's strange that "Pervert", which has no even remotely graphic sex scenes, has gotten more attention from prudes than "Serostatus", which has a few short, effective scenes of gay sex. In fact, those scenes are, for me, what make "Serostatus" work so well, for Cooke is exploring in the story the complicated feelings of his protagonist, Tom, about quick, anonymous encounters versus long-term relationships. Some readers will probably find the story "disgusting" because of its frank portrayal of promiscuity, a quality which is often seen as laudatory, or at least enviable, in straight men, but which in gay men (and women, straight and gay) is somehow a sign of insidious evil. Cooke has a far more mature attitude, one which encompasses contradictory feelings. Tom is able to look back on his past actions with a mix of both nostalgia and regret, and the story uses its fantasy elements to make this mix of feelings into a plot point which leads, finally, to a deeply affecting conclusion.

The editorial/biographical note at the beginning (written, I assume, by Gordon van Gelder), made me smile after I'd read "Serostatus": "[the story] is a dark fantasy that takes us into a world that may be as alien to some readers as anything dreamed up by Cordwainer Smith, and yet may be as familiar to other readers as walking out the door. (This world we're on is fairly big, isn't it?)"

That sure beats the warning labels that Asimov's used to put on stories which contained any hint of homosexuality, and it shows that the SF world, in particular, should not be wary of anything alien from "normality", because SF readers should know that "normality" is a delusion.

--Pardon the complete lack of transition, but I thought I should mention here another story I recently read, Jeff VanderMeer's World Fantasy Award-winning "The Transformation of Martin Lake", part of City of Saints and Madmen, in which the title character is gay, but the story doesn't make a big deal of it. That, too, is a direction writers shouldn't be afraid of following, because such characters probably offer a better representation of human life than ones which are put into stories to make a point about gender or sexuality. For various reasons, we need both.