PART ONE of Imagining Alien Sex: From Ming the Merciless to "The Lovers"

By David Lumb, Jonathan AlexanderDecember 31, 2013

PART ONE of Imagining Alien Sex: From Ming the Merciless to "The Lovers"
IN 2013’s hotly anticipated science fiction cinema romps, aliens are met with justified hyperviolence. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is a rock ‘em sock ‘em that ends with a nuclear K.O. to the invading aliens, while the adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game finishes its xenophobic war drum buildup with, again, a justified nuclear holocaust. Human interaction with the aliens is remote: cockpits and scale separate the protagonists from the alien enemies, which in turn separates the audience from aliens they might otherwise identify with. After decades of human losses, both films’ climactic fissile vengeance leaves us cathartically satisfied after the aliens are annihilated out of humanity’s path.

Such intentional separation is essential to selling the xenophobic “us-vs.-them” binarism to the audience  — a broad simplification compared to the alien intimacy in 2012’s highly-anticipated SF blockbuster, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Instead of insectile swarms and neon-blooded extradimensional nightmares, the creatures of Prometheus simulate — and sometimes graphically assimilate — the humans they encounter. Instead of platonic combat, the extraterrestrial creatures intimately entwine themselves with humans — which is intended to disturb. Getting bludgeoned by the alien isn’t repulsive, but getting touched is.

The success of Prometheus rests not just on the film’s amazing special effects and taut, thriller-like narrative, but on the questions it raises about the origin of our species — questions central to the film’s narrative, but also central to human self-questioning: who are we, really? why are we here? were we created? and, if so, for what purpose? Prometheus tantalizes us, like many other SF films and stories, with hints of our alien origins. But in those hints lies a bit of squeamishness, deliciously played out on the big screen as the characters come face to face with alien life forms, bodies interpenetrated by them, orifices broached and breached in the most intimate ways. While images of DNA strands combining and recombining make our potential alien origins look like a high-stakes lab experiment, the underlying sensation of such images is strangely sexual. After all, petri dishes aside, reproduction generally occurs through sexual encounter, and nearly all of our individual origins as people began with our biological parents’ sweaty sex. And the filmmakers know this, bringing the alien into close proximity with the human to call on our close associations of origin and sex. Who can forget the earlier Alien films in which the icky alien nearly licks Sigourney Weaver in a scene both frightening and provocative?

While Prometheus doesn’t offer us images of human/alien sex, the film certainly plays with sexual undertones — which might strike some as strange, as SF seems a very un-sexual genre. When we asked SF author Greg Benford about sex in SF, he quipped sarcastically, “There’s sex in SF?” But there is — and quite a bit, and often more explicitly represented than in Prometheus. A good bit of imaginative writing and filmmaking has gone into attempts to represent close encounters of a sexual kind. And we are not talking about fringe pulp stories. Significant episodes of the various Star Trek series offer us glimpses into intimate relations among aliens — sometimes between humans and aliens, and sometimes amongst different alien species (such as the relationship between the Klingon Whorf and the Trill Jadzia Dax in Deep Space Nine). One blog even purports to list the all-time “greatest human-alien sex scenes”. In written science fiction, major authors, such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler, have written masterpieces in which deep emotional, intimate, and sexual relations between humans and aliens form the central narrative. Why? Why is imagining such encounters a significant portion of our interest in science fiction, our imagining of the future, or of an alternative present?

The human capacity for erotic fantasy is rich and varied. Our erotic imaginations reach far and wide in pursuit of pleasure. With increased interest in space-faring as well as increased interest in and availability of science fiction, the imagination thrills — at least for some — to new sexual possibilities. Conversely, sexual encounters with aliens could also be understood as complex projections about our own alienation from ourselves. As we become more technologized, as we intervene more directly in our species’ evolution and the evolution of our planet, we may feel estranged from our own humanity; imagining alien sex may be one way to grapple with those feelings of estrangement, at least metaphorically.

Writers of science fiction have grappled not only with how to represent human/alien sex but also why such representations need exist at all. SF author  Benford, winner of the Nebula award and author of Timescape, muses on such questions in his essay, “Effing the Ineffable,” and he suggests that “[r]endering the alien, making the reader experience it, is the crucial contribution of SF”. SF is all about our encounter with difference: what better way to heighten the “encounter with difference”  than through a sex scene involving humans and aliens? A bit more seriously, as we shall see in a column later in this series, several writers of feminist science fiction have argued that the depiction of aliens and alien sexuality may offer us productive alternatives in reimagining the rigid sex and gender roles that often constrain expression and identity in many Earth cultures.

Imagining sex with aliens performs an important — if admittedly odd — cultural and even political work. In imagining sexual activity with aliens, or even just in imagining sexual aliens, we are projecting some of our own assumptions, values, and beliefs about sex and sexuality into those representations.  Such stories and narratives may metaphorically reflect existing tensions and issues, giving us a chance to reflect more critically on our own present-day, earth-bound cross-cultural sexual politics. Anthologies of SF depicting human-alien sexual relations have sprung up over the last few decades, including Garnder Dozois’s Killing Me Softly: Erotic Tales of Unearthly Love and Ellen Datlow’s collections, Off Limits and Alien Sex. In the introduction to Off Limits, Datlow opines: “[H]ow can we know what aliens want when we can’t even agree on what humans want from each other in a relationship?” We often seem alien to one another, so figuring us as alien may be a way to emphasize differences — and explore how to overcome our fear of difference. Moreover, in Aliens and Alien Societies: A Writer’s Guide to Creating Extraterrestrial Life Forms, Stanley Schmidt advises would-be writers of science fiction that writing about aliens can serve many useful purposes, such as inviting reflection on subjects that might be too difficult to discuss directly, with reference to “real-world” situations and issues: “In more modern, complex and sophisticated stories, such an approach might be useful if a writer wishes to get his readers to think about a theme so controversial in his own society that setting his story there would either get it banned or generate too much emotion to allow rational thought”. Such subjects could include ongoing biases against “interspecies” sex, as code for interracial relationships (after all, miscegenation laws have only recently been struck down); sex and the mixing of cultures (navigating cross-cultural relations in mixed and blended families can be tricky and touchy); and also the worldwide sex trade (even today, some culture’s economies depend in some part on sexually servicing other cultures, as in the relationship between the US and Thailand). Such representations help us think through how we encounter others — even earthbound others — with radically different values. Moreover, such imagining, as the feminist SF writers advise, can allow us a way to rethink and re-conceive the future of sex, and how we want to organize and monitor appropriate and ethical sexual behavior. The encounter of alien sex is frequently about the necessity of negotiating possibilities for reproduction, pleasure, and connection with the “Other.”

In this four-part series, we look at different depictions in SF of sex between humans and aliens, beginning with some early encounters in pulp and “classic” science fiction, in which the exotic “Other” entices — sometimes pleasurably, sometimes perilously. We then move to feminist and New Wave interventions in imagining intimate engagements with aliens, particularly as feminist SF authors often understand “alien sex” as a metaphor for misunderstanding between the sexes, or how we are “alien” to one another here on earth. We then boldly go with Star Trek and other popular mass media SF shows to see how alien sex gets taken up in pop SF, and we conclude the series with a look at Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, perhaps the most complex and nuanced examination of human/alien intimate interaction.

Early science fiction, particularly the pulp stories of the 1930s and 1940s, often depicted damsels in distress, fleeing alien invaders and the advances of alien warlords. Early Flash Gordon comic strips from the 30s and televised episodes in the 50s frequently showed us Dale Arden, Flash’s female sidekick, threatened by the implicitly sexual advances of Ming the Merciless of Mongo. These “alien encounters” reflected the gender, sexual — and often racial — biases of their times. Women were helpless in the face of alien (read “foreign”) terrors, and men needed to learn to protect them. Curiously, the “foreign” terror seemed frequently Asian, or blatantly nonwhite, perhaps marking the American dominant cultural concern both with foreign invasion and the less threatening immigration of individuals from Asian and non-European countries. Science fiction frequently codes such concerns, thinly veiling the antagonists as representative of the current cultural or political threat. Note, for instance, how the representation of Klingons in the various Star Trek series steadily changed from vaguely Asian (a leftover from the days of Ming the Merciless perhaps) to Black, with almost all Klingons portrayed by African-American actors. The change suggests shifting racial concerns in America from the 60s through the 90s; after WWII and the quelling of the “Asian threat” from Japan, attention steadily turned to uneasy race relations within America. Indeed, as the series progresses, the Federation and the Klingon Empire negotiate a series of uneasy truces, tracking, as it were, stalemates, tensions, and periodic reconciliations in Afro-Anglo relations in the US.

In terms of sexual representation in early and mid-century SF, we must remember its readership was largely composed of young men, including a  significant number of adolescents. Gendered representations were fairly stereotypical. Sexual representations were often implicit or coded. In Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision, Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin suggest that, “[a]lthough the Oedipus myth permeates science fiction, and although that myth uses sexual symbols, graphic depiction of sex is rare in science fiction, though at one remove from the literal such items as ray guns and spaceships may well function as phallic symbols”. Ray guns and elongated spacecraft may indeed have served as phallic signifiers for young men’s fantasies of bravery, might, and conquest, sublimating overt sexual content into symbolic trappings. But some authors increasingly wanted to explore more adult terrain. Theodore Sturgeon was amongst the first to take 1950s readers of American SF into sexual territories, such as genetic engineering, future androgyny, and even homosexuality.

Philip Jose Farmer may have given SF readers the first real glimpse of alien sex. Scholes and Rabkin discuss his 1952 novel The Lovers as among the first to explore inter-species sexual relationships in a positive light, not as the threatening and rather territorial challenges of Ming the Merciless. In The Lovers, as Scholes and Rabkin put it,

The extraterrestrial wife turns out to be a kind of insect who literally dies in childbirth for love of her human husband and he, in turn, decides not to return to Earth but to raise his children—who are best described as maggots. With great skill, Farmer makes this potentially repulsive story into a moving study of the development of love.

The short novel moves quickly but poignantly in depicting this intimate affair, and Farmer proceeded, in a series of other short works, to explore human-alien sexual liaisons. Scholes and Rabkin note, however, that such depictions were limited at this time: “More common than such bizarre relationships, however, are sexual liaisons between humans from widely different worlds or cultures, usually introduced as a dramatization of psychological relationships, as in the efforts of Rydra Wong to help Butcher develop a sense of self in Delany’s Babel-17”. They cite, for instance, experimental SF author Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog”, made into a popular underground film, about a young man in a post-apocalyptic world trapped by a group of humans who live exclusively underground; he is forced to provide them semen since their men have become infertile. Such relatively limited exploration of sex in SF, particularly alien sex, is characteristic of much early and mid-century Anglo-American SF. Scholes and Rabkin note accurately that “[i]f science fiction has been a bit belated in according sexual relations their due, the form has been a bit advanced in its treatment of race and race relations”. Indeed, the encounter with the alien was most often used as an opportunity to explore concerns about cultural and political invasion, as well as xenophobia. Who are these different looking Others with whom we must now negotiate and compromise?

By the 60s and 70s, things were starting to change. The emergence of a widespread feminist movement began to complement in strength and power the civil rights movement fighting for racial equality, and the combined social and sexual experimentation of young people throughout this era prompted new explorations in fantastic literature, particularly as writers began using the tropes and narratives of SF to explore alternative, sometimes radical social arrangements. For instance, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia serves as an imaginative space for thinking about the social, ecological, political, and sexual progressiveness of the period. Major SF writers, such as Ellison, John Brunner, J. G. Ballard, and others began using more experimental stylistic techniques to depict their radical social visions, and this generation of SF writers came to be known as the “New Wave,” suggesting an evolution, even maturation of this particular kind of genre fiction.

 Next installment: Feminist SF.

LARB Contributors

David Lumb is a New York City–based freelance journalist who writes about tech, culture, and gaming. He knows it’s impossible to find a good burrito in the city that matches his Southern California–grown tastes, but darn if he doesn’t keep trying. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Jonathan Alexander is the author, co-author, or co-editor of 22 books, including the Creep trilogy, which consists of Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology (finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, 2017); Bullied: The Story of an Abuse (2021); and Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir (2022). Other recent books include the memoir Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot (2021) and the scholarly work Writing and Desire: Queer Ways of Composing (2023). Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. 


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