SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.

We continue our ongoing new series of posts called “SFF in Conversation” with a guest post from Kameron Hurley, author of the novels God’s War (excellent book, out in the UK now), Infidel, and Rapture as well as numerous short stories and kick-ass essays.

God's War Kameron Hurley

Please give it up for Kameron, everyone!

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A Complexity of Desires: Expectations of Sex & Sexuality in Science Fiction

“OK,” my editor wrote in the margins of an early page in my first book, “we get it. She has sex with women and men.”

Writing the character of Nyx – a bisexual bounty hunter with the brute sensibilities of Conan and grim optimism of a lottery junkie – was the first time I tackled writing a character who explicitly desired folks of either sex. What she desired in folks tended to vary, but in general she found the too-pretty and the plainly ugly equally fascinating: the pretty because they seemed out of place on a toxic, contaminated world, and the ugly because it showed a degree of resilience; she liked to think she could see stories in their faces.

Communicating that should have been easy. I am, after all, not the straightest arrow in the quiver, myself. But for some reason I found it necessary to make her desires really, really clear, and my clumsy authorial attempt stood out like a raised thumbprint on the page. LOOK HERE SEE THIS SHE LIKES DUDES AND GALS LOOK LOOK.

The reality was, I was writing with a straight white male gaze in mind. I was writing with the idea that her desire was somehow other, something that had to be explained to a reader who viewed straight as default. By pointing so loudly at her desire, I was automatically flagging it as something out of the ordinary.

But I was writing about a world that viewed bisexual and lesbian women as default, and that needed to come across in everything I wrote – from the way people non-react (and, in truth, expect) that women are married to or have female lovers – to the way they talk about love and desire and sex.

I had to rebuild the default narrative of “assume everyone’s only attracted to people of the opposite biological sex” (and the assumption that intersex and trans folks don’t exist) from the ground up.
Obviously, that expected default is a lie. It’s always been a lie. But readers carry it. Writers carry it. Society carries it. Challenging it is a monumental task.

For starters, it meant rubbing out additional lines of narrative that told readers Nyx was bisexual, because to be honest, in this world there wasn’t really a box like that. If strong female desire, and strong desire for other women, was the norm, it wouldn’t need to be said.

Think of it this way. If I had a man looking at a woman in a story and thinking about how much he’d like to go to bed with her, I wouldn’t then say, “In Menscountry, it was natural for a man to desire a woman like this one. They may even go through a short courtship period leading to a monogamous marriage, a sort of commitment ceremony which often includes family and friends to witness the event.”

No. I’d just note the attraction. End of story.

The cool thing about narrative is that the longer you’re immersed in that narrative, the more normal it becomes for you as a writer (and, hopefully, as a reader). Because the society I’d built sent all its men off to war, the culture and its expectations had shifted. From a narrative standpoint, I wanted to build up a whole world where “woman” was default, and women have automatic privilege, but do it in a way that felt organic to the story, while at the same time deconstructing ideas around default sexuality.

But, why did I care? Why did it matter so much, to me, to get this right?
In reading a great deal of science fiction growing up, perhaps I’d be forgiven for thinking that about the most radical ideas of sex and sexuality around were Heinlein’s strangely male-gazey polyamorous relationships (usually tending toward polygany), people who had strangely hetero-seeming sex with aliens, and the occasional “tragic homosexual.”

If all I stuck with was that stuff, I’d think Nyx was revolutionary or some shit. And I’d have nobody to look to for help in making her world real.

But science fiction has changed a lot since the rollicking 50’s, and I had a lot of other work to draw on in crafting a world with a different narrative. There was fascinating work in the latter half of the century from feminist science fiction writers in particular. I know everyone always quotes LeGuin here, but when I think of radical work, I think of folks like Joanna Russ, Naomi Mitchison, and Sam Delany. Later, Joan Slonczewski, Gwenyth Jones, and even Storm Constantine, with many titles but in particular with Wraeththu, envisioned different ways human biology and conceptions behind default desire might change. And Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite stands out as one of the first books I read published during my own adulthood that explored a fully female world.

Newer books, such as Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi and Malinda Lo’s work in Ash and Huntress, rewrite old narratives (space opera and fairytales/mythology) that tell us what kinds of desire are normal, expected, or default. Jacqueline Carey skillfully challenges traditional attitudes toward sex in her Kushiel books, where the act of sex itself is considered holy, sacred, and taking pleasure in the erotic is likened to prayer. Elizabeth Bear touches on a range of relationships and desires in all of her work, but Dust, Chill and Grail have always stood out for me in sheer variety.

The fascinating part about comparing newer SFF to the old is that, obviously, the desires of human beings themselves have not changed in a mere 50 years. But our ability to acknowledge, understand, and express them has been transformed by our cultural rewriting of the narrative around what’s considered “normal” human sexuality.

When I speak to people about some of my concerns about how important stories are to the way we view our own lives and desires, and why words matter (even in posts on Reddit), I don’t think a lot of people understand just how many regimes have sought and succeeded in rewriting our past. In the United States, the 1950’s was a time of great fear. We taught homogeny. We taught that anything outside a narrowly defined box was to be looked upon as suspect – a potential red terrorist threat. Our government, our schools, our media industry, built a story about what was acceptable, normal, decent, and we all strove to fit neatly into it, though this story was completely made up. Is it any surprise that the narrative of the “cave man” going out to hunt meat for the tribe while the “cave woman” stayed home and looked after the children became a staple of American history books during this time – a time when we also put forth the idea it was “normal” for men to go out to work while women stayed at home? (a narrative built in part to encourage women to get out of the workforce again so returning male veterans could fill their factory jobs). I’ve been amused the last twenty years to watch the whole conception about how early hominids lived unraveled from its 1950’s frame by more modern archeologists.

Stories are powerfully important to people who are seeking to make sense of their own lives. Stories of what is possible open doors. Folks who snub their noses at the power of story must ask themselves why control over ideas – over books and media and information – is so coveted by governments. Why do totalitarian regimes destroy books? Why are people with radical ideas about how to organize people put into prison?

The idea is the thing. The knowledge that things can be different.

The book that finally did it for me was Joanna Russ’s On Strike Against God.

From the time I was small, I considered myself straight, always. I had an easy narrative. I liked to hang out with guys. There was never a question, really.

Until… well. Until. I fell hard for the girl in my college speech class when I was 17, a fiercely bright, boisterous young woman with a smile that could knock you flat. But when I felt it, when it hit me, I had no way to parse it. It was different than my draw to a guy, I told myself.

Because when I spun out fantasies about spending time with her, it wasn’t me, Kameron the woman, that she hung out with. It was me, Kameron the guy. Or, better yet, me transported into some other identity all together – a guy named, oh, whatever, with some other life and a great job and easy laugh and great sense of humor. I’d have these long reveries about how, if I was a guy, I’d chat with her and ask her out and how much fun we’d have and how awesome I’d be and how we’d travel around the world together.

If only. If only I was a guy.

I couldn’t conceive of a desire outside of a hetero one. All I saw, all I ate, was women desiring men. In books. In television. In movies. In fairytales. I knew that desire. I know what to do with it. But this was different. Incomprehensible. I had no name for it. It existed in some fantastic realm where I was a dude.

Eventually I went off to college, and I’m sure she went on to have a very lovely life. But that fantasy would pop up sometimes. This fantasy of being a guy and therefore being suddenly free to woo the occasional woman I’d have a crush on. I honestly – dead serious – did not see this as “a lesbian thing.” I had no story for it. No narrative. It was just something that sometimes happened. And it didn’t happen often enough that it was a serious “issue” that I felt I needed to think about and interrogate. I had perfectly “hetero box normal” desire for men, which happened more often, and was so much easier to manage and deal with. No social stigma. No tricky, awkward conversations beyond the ones you’d see in bad romcoms. I could not actually imagine myself entering into a relationship with a woman, as a woman.

And then I read On Strike Against God, Joanna Russ’s semi-autobiographical book about coming to grips with her own sexuality. I was 24 by then, and thought I had my shit figured out. Russ talks about all the social constructs that enraged her about the marriage and children trap. She talks about being married. And then, later, she talks about this strange compulsion she has…

She talks about how she’s sitting in her car outside a bar and imagines flirting with one of the women there. In order to make it work, though, she imagines she’s a man. She can’t write the narrative of this desire any other way. It’s too alien. She’s never seen it before. And she realizes, in that moment, that it’s not at all that she wants to be a man – she’s quite comfortable in her female body. What she wants is the freedom to feel she can act on her impulse.

I sat there in bed and just stared at the page. I had never, ever, seen another person put into words this very strange occasional fantasy of mine, and name it for what it was – desire.

Stupid, right?

But when you are able to live comfortably within the hetero box, it’s easy not to question. It’s easy to sweep strange compulsions under the rug. It’s easy to pretend you’re “normal,” just like everyone else.

But normal is a lie.

Normal is a story.

As a writer, it’s my job to construct new normals for people. It’s my job to show folks what’s possible. It’s my job to rewrite narratives. Because we can change these narratives. We can choose better ones. We can tear it all down, and build it up again.

It makes us the most poorly paid, but the most powerful people in the world. And I take that power seriously.

So when my editor wrote, “we get it. She has sex with women and men,” I crossed out the line of stupid narrative. Then went back, and got rid of some more. I made Nyx’s world normal.

And by doing that, by crafting something different, I could show people that maybe, just maybe, there were other ways to be. Maybe not *this* way – Nyx is not the world’s best person, and her planet has some issues – but certainly people can live in *different* ways.

We’re all only as normal as the stories we tell ourselves.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.

Visit kameronhurley.com for upcoming projects.

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8 Responses to SFF in Conversation: Kameron Hurley on “A Complexity of Desires: Expectations of Sex & Sexuality in Science Fiction”

  1. Paul Weimer says:

    I’ve been amused the last twenty years to watch the whole conception about how early hominids lived unraveled from its 1950’s frame by more modern archaeologists.

    Indeed. Framing the past in terms of the present is nothing new, but a lot of the textbooks we grew up on embodied this viewpoint, putting the past in terms of the present.

    The past is a different country, and so is the future. (There’s a tangential bit–how a lot of SF assume 1950′s ‘social norms’ going on forever into the future)

  2. Amanda says:

    As a writer, it’s my job to construct new normals for people. It’s my job to show folks what’s possible. It’s my job to rewrite narratives. Because we can change these narratives. We can choose better ones. We can tear it all down, and build it up again.

    It makes us the most poorly paid, but the most powerful people in the world.

    Wow. Not sure how to convey a one-person standing ovation via. the comments section, but this piece was just fantastic and such an interesting, thought-provoking read.

  3. Kritika says:

    Wow, that post was incredible. I have so much respect for authors who can turn the world on its head and make it seem normal – I never realized that it might be a struggle to make that happen!

    “It makes us the most poorly paid, but the most powerful people in the world. And I take that power seriously.”

    I have never thought of it that way, but what an excellent way to put it. It’s often books that change the way I see the world, even if I don’t always realize it at first.

  4. LOVE this post. It reminds me of being a young teenager reading Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books. That was the first time I twigged to a very subtle reference to the idea that people in this society had homosexual relations and no one even commented on it, because that’s the way it worked for them. It was hugely eye opening for me and in part because it wasn’t addressed. It wasn’t all in my face: “Hey straight white girl in a conservative Christian family in the South. Sometimes men have sex with other men!!!”

    In a later book she did outright state that two men were “together” but by that time I’d figured it out and had a “See! I knew it!” moment that made me feel very smart and urbane. ;)

    It’s one of my favorite parts of writing sff. You get to create the world and don’t have to bring our social/sexual hangups into it. But WOW is it hard to get your own subconscious assumptions out of the way and get into that headspace to begin with.

    (I read God’s War, and I think you did a fantastic job with her sexuality.)

  5. Juan Pazos says:

    I don’t think I have the words to express how utterly important I think this post is. I just…. I don’t. All I can seem to think or feel is this big YES!, this relief, admiration, peace. Thank you so much.

  6. Rae says:

    This is a truly amazing post.

    It is very true that authors (and script writers, and magazine editors, and so on) can help define what is normal. Usually we hear about that being a bad thing because of how books buy into stereotypes, but of course it works the other way as well.

    One thought I keep having, though, is that people tend to gravitate towards books and TV shows that portray ideas they already agree with and characters they identify with. As a reader, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing so long as you’re aware of it and push yourself to read something new occasionally. Does it ever bother you as an author though?

  7. Beverly says:

    This was fantastic to read. Thank you SO much.

  8. Sarah says:

    A wonderful, inspiring post for so many reasons, but it touched me personally because she talks about Joanna Russ, whose books I discovered as a young teenager and read voraciously; and Ammonite, one of my favourite books of all time. Now I have to read every other book mentioned in the post! Thank you Kameron!

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