Sunday, February 3, 2008

Thinking about sex in some sf/f stories

Lately, I have noticed that I often disagree with others about sex in science fiction and fantasy stories. I don't have a general theory about it, it's just specific cases that come up where I seem to think differently about it than other readers.

Some time ago I wrote a kind of review of Mainspring by Jay Lake on my Swedish blog. The author himself linked to it, and also to a review on a blog called aguylibrarianreads. That reviewer writes:

I do have one caveat and that is there is a rather graphic sex scene towards the in, that while being consistent contextually, does make it inappropriate for younger readers. I still think it would make a good young adult novel, albeit for the 16 and older crowd.

I confess that this sex scene was something I didn't really like in this novel, but for very different reasons.

Why is it inappropriate for younger readers? Maybe it's a cultural thing, something American that I don't really understand. I remember a friend of mine who told me about a translation of a Swedish book for children, Per, Ida och Minimum about two kids who learn about how their little sibling is made and grows in mommys belly. My friend said that the page about how the seed from the father is actually planted into the mother was censored with some black fields in the translated version. Hmm. I don't remember learning about those things, so I guess I must have picked it up very early -- which is good, because otherwise someone would have had to give me an embarrasing lecture about bees and flowers.

What I would complain about is this: this is the only (or almost the only) place in the book where the author makes young Hethor actually conciously formulate his questioning of things he learned before his journey. There are lots of other things he learns, and he changes hes mind about many things, but Jay Lake usually lets us know by showing Hethor's reactions, not by telling us his thougths. I thought this thing did not fit into the rest of the book, it felt clumsy.

There is something else also, that I have some trouble formulating. Maybe it's just that I'm a little bit tired of depictions of perfect marathon sex -- but it's alright in this story, since Hethor is intoxicated with first love and everything seems perfect to him. Maybe it's that I'm just a little bit disturbed by the fact that the woman is of a kind that is so much smaller than Hethor, and that she still shows him "where else to enter". I have heard a little too much about young people who think that it's normal that the woman feels pain during sex, and the pressure to live up to unrealistic pornographic ideals. Well, anyway, I actually didn't really like the scene.

Then of course we have the infamous inverted fall in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. People often complain about the fact that the two young protagonists have sex when they are so young (12 or 13 years, I think). When I read the books I didn't think about their age, but I was upset about this event for another reason. It has been a while since I read it now, and I didn't do a really close reading of this section, but as I understood it the sexual act in Lyra's world is what causes the coming of age, and it is after this that a person's daemon is constant and unchanging. To state it clearly: when you have sex your soul takes it's adult form. Don't you see some disturbing implications of this? Very many, possibly the majority, will have their souls formed by an unpleasant experience. What about those who are raped? And also, there are those who don't get any sex even if they want it -- will their souls never really take shape? I think it's a cruel way to construct the way this fantasy world works. (Maybe I misunderstood something. Correct me if I got the whole thing wrong. I actually hope that my interpretation is wrong and that the author intended to say something else.)

Also, I could complain a bit about the connection between sex and knowledge that Pullman makes. His whole point is that experience and knowledge are good things, and are actually what drives the life of the universe. OK, that's all good, but I think you can have lots of sexual experience without gaining any wisdom at all. Also, it's obvious that many people use sex for power rather than love, so I just cannot agree with his way of equating sexual awakening with spiritual maturity.

(And for that matter: the notion that the fall had something to do with sex is very wide spread, but I'm not sure that it's a proper interpretation of the text.)

When I'm talking about these things I also have to mention The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. (Minor spoilers follow, just so you know if you are sensitive about such things.)

I have read many reviews and heard many discussions about this book. We read it for a book meeting in Uppsala, and one of the things we discussed was why it had won the James Tiptree, Jr Award ("an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender"). Most seem to focus on the fact that the aliens the expedition meets on that other planet have somewhat inverted gender roles compared to our society. That's just lame, Russell is not doing anything particularly interesting or new with this. Why won't anyone ever mention one of the most interesting things, the whole focus of the story about Father Emilio Sandoz?

This, the way I read it, is among other things a story about rape. About how guilt and shame is often put on the victim. It's not until Sandoz can admit to himself and others that he was actually raped that the process of healing can start. The interesting thing about this is of course that this time the rape victim is a man, which puts the whole matter a little bit in a new perspective.

I'm not sure. Many clever people have discussed this book without mentioning this, so it's probably just in my brain that this comes together and stands out as interesting. But anyway. (The Sparrow is on the list of books I want to reread at some point. I don't know when. It's possible that I will find completely different things the next time I read it, that's usually how it goes.)

I will stop here, and not discuss any more examples for now. It would be interesting to know what other people think about these things.


Hans Persson said...

Interesting discussion, but I've managed to not read any of the books you mention so I can't comment on the specifics. I must get around to Pullman soon.

Elliot said...

Very interesting. I think you're spot-on about The Sparrow. Also of interest is the celibate bridal-mysticism the priest has. Russell show the devastating effect rape would have on someone devoted to that sort of spirituality. Actually, she talks about the rape theme in some of her interviews available on her website. Also, the whole issue of celibacy and sexual self-restraint that she depicts in the priests. She's said that she personally has been a one-man woman who's wrestled with sexual self-control and faithfulness in the face of temptation, and learned its benefits. This is not exactly a popular theme in modern literature! So I think you're right to say that The Sparrow has a lot to do with sex, but not in the standard "subversive gender roles blah blah blah" way.

The symbolism of sex in Pullman does sound rather disturbing. And yeah, while in certain historical periods the Church has often viewed sex as the Fall, it's really hard to find that in the original biblical text.

jtgillette said...

Thanks for the quote. : )

My reaction to the sex scene was only that it was a bit much to recommend by a public library for a 10 to 15 year olds (or rather their parents) who live in a Midwestern state.

You have a good point about Lake telling us instead of showing us Hethor's actions. It's something I haven't considered.