PART TWO of Imagining Alien Sex: Feminist Interventions

By Jonathan AlexanderJanuary 2, 2014

PART TWO of Imagining Alien Sex: Feminist Interventions

FEMINIST SCIENCE FICTION writers emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as leaders in pushing the boundaries of traditional, pulp science fiction in the exploration of brave new worlds of gender and sex. Writers such as Joanna Russ and Ursula K. LeGuin began using the trappings of SF to rethink relationships amongst the genders, as well as the role of gender in society. If a man could captain a space crew, what about a woman? What would change with a female captain? How would the social, cultural, and political landscape shift if women were truly equal? The future landscapes of SF became templates for imagining such worlds. Quickly, not just gender but sexual issues emerged for these writers as pressing political — and imaginative — topics, including the possibilities of thinking about human-alien intimacy as a way to explore normative sexual practices, to imagine possibilities beyond current patriarchal social structures. Writers used alien sex to unsettle how we normally think about sex, to probe how our notions about sexual intimacy have become naturalized to fit cultural norms. Is that alien really male or female? What, if any, orifices would an alien use for erotic pleasure? Does the alien have sex or conceive children in any way comparable to the way humans do? Are sex and reproduction even linked for aliens as they are for humans?

In “Alien Sex Acts in Feminist Science Fiction: Heuristic Models for Thinking a Feminist Future of Desire,” Alcena Madeline Davis Rogan writes about Monique Wittig, Samuel Delany, and Angela Carter, authors “who describe alien sexuality in a way that calls attention to the limitations of the all-too-human oedipal model of sexuality and to the feminist heuristic potential of gesturing toward radically alien sex.” Such expansive notions of sex and sexuality are, admittedly, the products of Earthlings; as Rogan points out, “[s]uch a representation cannot ever be totally alien to an oedipal model of sexual relations, because the imagination of the one representing is always already deeply informed by this model. As [critic Frederic] Jameson points out, representations of a utopian or future space can represent only the imperative to imagine such a space. They cannot, alas, serve as blueprints.” Blueprints or not, the effort to imagine alternatives, to conceive of something radically different, serves a deep human need to test our boundaries,  whether culturally or biologically defined. Pushing our limits is a key characteristic of how we imagine the future. So why not imagine alien sexual encounters as a way not only to push our limits but to question the very limits that we have either accepted as biological mandates or have constructed as cultural imperatives?

Cultural dilemmas feature prominently in the science fiction featuring human-alien sexual interaction. Gardner Dozois’s classic novel, Strangers, presents us with a human colony on an alien planet, with the two species — humans and Cian — living largely separate lives except for some minor trading. The protagonist of the novel falls in love with a Cian, and tragedy ensues after he moves in amongst the Cian, becomes genetically altered so he can interbreed, impregnates his mate, and then realizes that, as per Cian custom, she will die upon giving birth. The stark differences between Cian and human understandings of family and reproduction bring home the point that the alien may present truly radical alternatives to human expectations, even about — and perhaps especially about — fundamental practices such as species reproduction processes and rituals. Love, in such cases, may not be able to “conquer all” and span ultimately unbridgeable gaps in intimate and reproductive practices. We risk falling in love with the alien, but living with the alien may prove another challenge entirely.

One feminist SF author, Eleanor Arnason, uses human-alien sex to offer different models of social organization. In her novel, Ring of Swords, she draws a surprisingly complex portrait of the hwarhath people (known as The People), in which women control mating and the men, living separately, practice homo-erotic behavior. Sex is valued, cultivated, and nourished as a social adhesive. According to a human anthropological report, “[o]bviously, says the woman of Tsai Ama, [sex] serves to keep the People..continuously and intensely interested in one another.” Such openness to sexual relations, including freedom both from heterosexism and a desire to “own” one’s partner, makes the hwarhath appealing to one of the novel’s gay male human characters, who forms an intimate relationship with one of the military leaders of The People. He finds love and companionship, even a kind of acceptance, amongst aliens when he cannot find it among humans. We do not believe that Arnason is actively proposing a reinvention of human sexual mores and customs with those of The People as the primary model. But she is offering us another way to think about the role of sex and sexuality in society. Could contact with such divergent models leave humanity unchanged? Perhaps more interestingly, what does it mean for human authors to imagine such divergences, such differences? Are we questioning the naturalness of our own sexual and gender paradigms? One of the most challenging dimensions of feminist SF is that it recognizes the sheer diversity of sexual practice and gender identification that already exist on earth — and it urges us to consider alternative models and, at the very least, recognize that what we may hold to be fundamental and “natural” need not be either at all.

Perhaps the most famous and influential science fiction novel that imagines such an encounter is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin, raised by the famous anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber, takes a decidedly anthropological approach in her SF. Early works explored, in a post-pulp way, interactions amongst various alien races, but The Left Hand of Darkness signals a profound shift in how SF would depict the encounter with the alien other. A human delegate, Genly Ai, is sent from the transplanetary Ekumen to Gethen, a world shrouded in ice, to make contact with its inhabitants. This encounter is the first stage in making contact with alien races; Genly is sent alone, so that he poses no threat, but also so he can try to make personal contact with the Gethenians, attempting to understand them as he lives amongst them. Such an attempt to “go native”  resembles the work of anthropologist Margaret Mead, but it also suggests a move away from the aggressive, battle-oriented, invasion-directed narratives of earlier pulp SF and a move toward an SF that emphasizes cross-cultural understanding and the development of mutual respect. The novel’s experimental style itself invites such understanding by offering the reader multiple “documents,” as though we were looking at different anthropological reports about Gethen; we read Genly’s reports back to the Ekumen, as well as snippets of Gethenian folklore, survey reports from earlier Ekumen observation of the planet, and personal reflections from Genly.

The unique “twist” in The Left Hand of Darkness, its anthropologically challenging dimension, is that Gethenians have only one sex. There are no males and females, and the species reproduces when Gethenians go into “kemmer,” a kind of cyclical “heat” during which individuals pair, with one partner assuming a receptive role, which can lead to pregnancy. However, any Gethenian can potentially assume that receptive role and become pregnant, so no gender differentiation is possible. In writing the novel, Le Guin chose to use the pronoun “he” to refer to all Gethenians since “he” was accepted at the time — the late 1960s — as the “gender neutral” pronoun. Curiously, Le Guin later suggested in her article “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” that this choice was a stylistic and political mistake and that she should have used a truly gender neutral pronoun, such as ze. Nonetheless, LeGuin reports that she enjoyed writing a book in which she could say, “the king was pregnant,” and thus create tension around issues of gender for the reader.

As the complex social and political narrative progresses, Genly finds himself in trouble, captured by one of the two dominant superpowers on the planet and held as a political pawn. He is rescued by a member of the other superpower’s ruling party, Estraven, and the two undertake a long and dangerous trek across an icy plateau to return Genly to safety. During that time, Estraven goes into kemmer, and inevitable sexual tensions result. While Genly and Estraven do not actually have sex, Genly is moved by his feelings toward Estraven, and their relationship becomes quite intimate. Genly does not always know what to do with his feelings about Gethenians, since he is accustomed to living in a society in which sex and gender roles determine lines of affiliation and sexual relation — which are dominantly heterosexual. The non-gendered Gethenians trouble such dichotomous thinking, particularly as Genly develops feelings for Estraven. What do such feelings say about Genly himself? Indeed, Genly doesn’t always know how to handle such feelings. In “Androgynes in Outer Space,” Barbara J. Bucknall points out that “[t]he sexual nature of the relationship between Genly and Estraven is blurred by the fact that Estraven is an androgyne who is neuter most of the time and Genly seldom has the opportunity to see him as a sexual being. But when he does, it is significant that he sees Estraven as a woman.” For Bucknall, the lesson that Genly must grapple with is how to deal with an alien other on ze’s own terms, refraining from imposing his assumptions and preconceptions about identity and relationality on the other: “As Estraven points out, duality is part of the androgyne, for there is always the Other. Recognition of the Other is the lesson of innocence and experience alike, and through this recognition we reach maturity.”

The unique perspective offered Le Guin’s novel was almost immediately recognized as an important turning-point of SF into a serious genre capable of exploring serious subjects. The novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best SF novel, and critic Brian Attebery claims that “The Left Hand of Darkness was immediately recognized by SF fans and critics as a classic within the field, a book that fulfilled SF’s longstanding promise to generate stories both intellectually challenging and aesthetically rich.”  Attebery notes that the text’s main strength is perhaps its hint of “utopian possibility.”  Indeed, other critics, such as Barbara Brown, writing in “The Left Hand of Darkness: Androgyny, Future, Present, and Past,” claims that “Ursula Le Guin suggests we too should accept as right, as familiar, the archetypal androgyny within us. Transcending male, transcending female, we can become fully human.”  We wonder if such is possible, even desirable, but we should note that the move toward androgyny was a popularly proposed solution during the 60s and 70s for easing tensions and misunderstandings between the sexes. At the very least, as Scholes and Rabkin suggest, an important moral of the novel is that “[w]e are of two sexes, in some sense doomed to alien extremes, and we must make a special effort to see one another as humans who can work together and be friendly without always falling into sexually stereotyped patterns of behavior.”

Some critics have pointed out, however, that the novel’s depiction of gender and sexuality is flawed, particularly if it is designed to help humans grapple with sexual difference and diversity. In The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Justine Larbalestier notes that “[t]here is one near-erasure in the text—homosexuality. The heterosexual couple is at the heart of Winter. […] Man during kemmer plus woman during kemmer equals the basic unit of society. But there is nothing to say that each partner in the kemmering will remain that sex every time they go into kemmer.”  Le Guin herself recognized that the “maleing” and “femaleing” of Gethenians in kemmer seemed particularly heteronormative, and in later stories she explored overtly homoerotic relations on Gethen. In a way, though, the basic challenge of the novel remains powerful to this day: the alien we encounter need not conform to the sex role or gender role stereotypes we value, no matter how natural they seem to us. And such challenges to our presumptions about gender and sex can — and do — all too easily occur on our own planet. We need not wait to encounter the challenging “alien” on another world.  Clifford Pickover notes in his brief and entertaining book The Science of Aliens that many nonhuman species native to planet Earth are quite strange — with mating rituals in particular that seem alien, such as gender-shifting, male pregnancies, and the consumption of limbs as part of the reproductive process (See in particular Pickover’s Chapter 6 on “Alien Sex” for a feast of intriguing alien practices right here on our home planet.)

But what about the “alien” amongst the human?  In his history of the idea of communication, Speaking into the Air, communications scholar John Durham Peters actually considers the possibility of future communication with aliens, and he pauses to comment that “[e]very owner of a radio or television set possesses both a time machine and a teleportation device for alien personages” . That is, these simple technologies already put us in touch with people — both from the past and from our imagined futures — who are already “alien” to us in many regards; their experiences, real or fantasied, surround us through this devices of technological mediation.

More radically, as individuals choose to pursue their own desires, modifying their bodies and engaging in diverse practices to better express personal and cultural tastes, beliefs, and convictions, we are creating a more diverse human race. We may never be fully “alien” to one another, but the technologies we use to transform our lives can create at times profound experiences of difference and estrangement—differences that may seem, and make each other seem, eerily alien.  Advances in medical technologies have allowed many people to correct what they perceive of as biological mistakes; an individual born feeling he or she is in the wrong body can now pursue a medical course of action to become the man or the woman felt inside. Susan Stryker, herself a transsexual woman and noted theorist of transsexuality, has characterized such sexual reassignment as taking advantage of our ability to think of ourselves as cyborgs — as both naturally human and technologically artificial, as increasingly part “man,” part “machine.” Don’t get us wrong: transsexuals are certainly not “aliens,” and we in no way want to suggest that going through sexual-reassignment surgery is “alienating” one from one’s body. However, we have encountered numerous friends and members of the trans community who reflect on the fact that their potential lovers, sometimes even potential friends, are often alienated by the revelation of their transsexuality. In a way, trans people offer us an interesting, even compelling case study of how we, in the here and now, cope — or fail to cope — with those who are other, who are different, whose experience of what is “natural” is not that of the dominant culture.  At the same time, others actually fetishize such difference. The famous sex worker, filmmaker, activist, and educator, Buck Angel, is a female to male transsexual with a working vagina, and his various erotic movies sell widely and well. He has become an Internet and popular culture icon. Considering such transsexualities, as “alien” as they may be to some, may require a questioning of our identity politics, a re-examination of how we organize sex and gender, and potentially of how we organizes family, relationships, intimacies, intimate connections.

Next Installment: Alien Sex Goes Mainstream: Star Trek

LARB Contributor

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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