Queer Universes

OK, so there isn’t much of a market for academic books about science fiction, but someone has to review them, so I guess I might as well try to fill the gap. Obviously I don’t have a PhD in Literature or anything like that, but I have gone to quite a few ICFAs so I have a reasonable idea what LitCrit is about. And, not being an academic myself, I care about how accessible the text is, which may not always be the case with a review in Science Fiction Studies.

Much of the problem is, of course, that academic books are absurdly expensive. Their primary market is libraries, and they don’t seem to be very price sensitive. The book in question – Queer Universes, edited by Wendy Pearson, Joan Gordon and Victoria Hollinger – is published by Liverpool University Press and comes in at a whopping $85 list price ($67 on Amazon when I bought it, but not now). If I hadn’t scored a $50 Amazon gift voucher (thank you, Capital One) I might never have bought it. But I’m very glad I did, because it has been very useful to me in thinking about my paper for ICFA next year.

The book is a collection of essays and is subtitled “Sexualities in Science Fiction”. Those of you who are tuned in to LGBT politics will probably already have an alarm bell ringing, and you’d be right to do so. I’ll come back to that later, but first all of the LGB stuff.

As with any essay collection, the writing styles of the contributors vary tremendously. Wendy Pearson is probably the least understandable. Her first essay is also perhaps one of the most controversial sections in that it argues for attempting a queer reading of SF even if the book in question has no overt queer content. This is neither the time nor the place to get into a discussion with those people who believe in authorial intent. Let’s just say that Wendy’s essay, being something of an introduction for the book as a whole, does a good job of setting the stage, even if it does so in language that many readers will find difficult. Her second essay is even more obtuse and left me confused as to what she was trying to do.

In stark contrast, Rob Latham is extremely readable. He provides a nice historical survey of the arrival of sex in science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. There was apparently much angry debate between the old guard who wanted safe, ‘family friendly’ stories, and the angry young men of the New Wave who wanted to be allowed to write about sex if they decided the story needed it. There are a couple of places where Rob trips over the fine detail of fannish terminology and says things that will cause WSFS regulars to blow a fuse, but generally it is a nice piece of work.

The other academic contributions are all interesting in various ways. Personally I found Guy Davidson’s essay about Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton very interesting, but that was it was because it was directly relevant to my own research. Sylvie Bérnard’s essay on S&M in Québécois women’s SF was also surprisingly interesting, given the narrowness of the subject matter.

Unusually for an academic book, this one has two contributions by writers. The first is an essay by Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge which talks about the experience of being lesbian writers (and how, if you have a lesbian character in a book, some reviewers can’t think about anything else except this being a “lesbian book”). It is good stuff. The other is an interview with Nalo Hopkinson that says similar things in Nalo’s own distinctive voice. (Having seen her twice in the last couple of weeks I can hear her talking when I read it, and she has a wonderful voice.)

So now here’s the question you have all being expecting me to ask: is this an LGBT book, or just an LGB one? If you remember the subtitle then you will already know the answer to that, because the book is about sexuality, and most T people will tell you that being T is about identity, not about sexuality. So in fact if the book had largely ignored the T angle then it would at least have been true to its title. Unfortunately it doesn’t. There is an essay by Patricia Meltzer which appears to start from the base assumption that being transgender is a form of sexual preference.

It is often hard to unpack what academics are trying to say because so much of their argument is couched in jargon and in references to other academic work. However, this sentence jumped out at me:

Instead of depicting the desire born from a trans identity as either tragic – it can never be realized – or deviant – it is ‘unnatural’ – this queer S/M story uses technology to envision the fantasy not only as legitimate, but also as ‘real’.

It is a complex sentence, but “the fantasy” at the end presumably refers to “the desire born from a trans identity” or perhaps even the trans identity itself. The “desire” bit is presumably a further put down in that Meltzer is saying that trans people cannot actually be members of their identified gender, they can only desire to be so. And of course trans identities are contrasted with “real”, and therefore defines as “unreal”.

Meltzer appears to be setting up a constrained set of definitions for trans identities comprised of “realized”, “deviant” and the form of sexual expression that is the definition she prefers (she does a good job of avoiding using the word “perversion” even though that would fall naturally into what she is describing). The “It can never be realized” (there’s that “real” world again) is presumably some sort of essentialist argument, though whether this is a biological essentialism (all in the chromosomes and dangly bits), or the cultural essentialism (all in the upbringing) currently favored by hard line feminists, is unclear. However, Meltzer is ruling out the possibility of taking trans people’s narratives at face value without even the courtesy of consideration. Equally, however, she refuses to define trans people as “deviant”, presumably because this would involve siding with religious fundamentalists and other groups of people that you would not expect to find favor in a book on queer issues.

Because both of these definitions are to be denied to trans people, Meltzer needs to find another role for them in the world, and she finds it in fiction that uses trans people to allow a degree of sexual freedom and experimentation otherwise impossible if only two genders exist. In this way Meltzer finds a “legitimate” reason for trans people to exist in her universe.

This sort of attitude is, sadly, rather common amongst people with a political axe to grind, especially in the arena of identity politics. If you find a small group of people whose activities or natures contradict the strict definitions that you have built around your identity, but nevertheless want to co-opt them to your cause, then you have to find some way to legitimize them. This generally means redefining them in such a way as to force them to conform to your requirements while casually tossing away anything that they might have to say about themselves. It is rather similar to the way in which colonial powers attempt to “civilize” those that they have colonized by forcing their subjects to ape the colonial culture.

I’m sorry to have gone on at such length about one particular essay, especially as the rest of the book is pretty good. I certainly have no objection to theorizing about the role of LGB people in science fiction, and Queer Universes, though a difficult read in many places, does a good job of that. However, the use of the words “legitimate” and “real” in reference to trans people tends to set off all sorts of alarm bells in my brain and excess pontification is a likely result.