Vonda N. McIntyre is a sophisticated feminist science fiction writer and “Little Faces” is a sophisticated feminist science fiction story, operating on many levels, including attention-grabbing science, an interesting plot, and political and social critique that blends into the character’s emotional arc.
The story does more than treat readers to flashy visuals and awesome far-future stuff. For instance, it analyzes serious issues, like female-on-female violence and the meaning of consent. It plays with the audience’s expectations by defaulting female instead of male.
If I were a better person, I might write about that.
Instead, I’m going to write about alien sex.
Sex is weird, wild, and wonderful. It comes in all sorts of strange combinations of sexes, seductions, and strategies. And that’s just on the planet Earth.
Why would sentient aliens have the same mating habits as humans? Even other great apes don’t have the same mating habits as humans. Humans don’t always have the same mating habits as humans. From culture to culture, we pursue different styles of seduction and different ways of forming households.
Yet the issues of sex and gender seem invisible to many science fiction writers, who appear to think that the here-and-now is the inevitable-and-always. Far-flung imaginary futures bizarrely replicate modern Western expectations, sometimes including a sexy alien or robot for spacey flavor.
When science fiction writers do pause to think about the mating habits of aliens and future humans, they may be inclined to draw from familiar, visible species. Bright flashing peacock tails, clashing deer horns, elephant seals galumphing across the beach to protect their harems.
Sex is so much weirder.
Consider the bedbug. The female of the species has no vagina. Instead, she’s impregnated through a wound inflicted by the male’s knife-like penis. This cringeworthy behavior is the basis for Vylar Kaftan’s “Hero Mother.” More than once, I’ve heard that story’s biology described as totally impossible, and I can’t blame the people who say it. If I didn’t know about the mating habits of bedbugs, I’d cling to the idea that nothing so gross could possibly exist, too.
But it does. Because sex is weird, and sometimes also vicious.
“Little Faces” builds on the mating habits of some anglerfish which have extreme sexual dimorphism. Female anglerfish are large, beautifully ugly animals. In comparison, male anglerfish are born tiny and never get much bigger. Some don’t even have the capacity to feed themselves. Instead, they seek out females with their keen senses of smell and sight, and then attach themselves like parasites by biting her. They fuse into her body, constant parasitic companions, ready to produce sperm at need.
Isabella Rosselini’s series Green Porno is a great resource for people who are curious about anglerfish sex, and other mating habits that are even weirder. In these minutes-long pieces, Rosselini explores the sexual oddities of the animal kingdom in a quirky, almost surreal style. She usually stars as one of the mating critters, sometimes dressed in a body suit, or mounting a huge construct. The series features shrimps, limpets, spiders, and earthworms, among many others. Two other series serve as companions to Green Porno: Seduce Me, which is about courtship behaviors, and Mammas, about animals and motherhood.
At Humon Comics, you can find another fun and quirky way of investigating the weird, weird world of animal sex, this time with cute, pastel cartoons. “I love the weird and wonderful mating rituals of animals,” writes the artist. “[I] illustrate them with these human looking figures because part of the fun is to imagine if humans did the same.” Unfortunately, the compiled book, Animal Lives, is no longer available.
In the weird world of sex, many things are possible. Animals mate in pairs or threesomes or moresomes. They mate with the same sex or the opposite sex. They masturbate. They are males or females. They are both male and female. They are neither male nor female. They’re born as males and then they become females. The females have penises. The males get pregnant. They tie each other up and they stab each other and they eat each other during copulation.
In her video on Noah’s Ark, Isabella Rosselini asks the question, “How could there have been one male and female of all the species?” For donkeys and geese, sure. But how do you classify an earthworm?
From looking at the species of the earth alone, we know that there is no universal feminine sexual behavior. There’s no reason to assume that alien females must wrap themselves in pretty clothing as they try to catch the eyes of males. In fact, there’s no reason to assume that the females are even the ones getting pregnant, or that they remain female their whole lives, or that femaleness is even a useful word to describe one of their sexes.
That’s why it can be a feminist statement to refuse to take sex for granted. Creating aliens or far-future humans based on the diversity of earth challenges the notion that femaleness is a thing that can be forced into a single container labeled “natural universal default.” It makes space for femaleness to be strange and multi-varied, worth prodding and pondering.
And that takes us back to the rather serious philosophical business of Vonda McIntyre’s story, but I said I wasn’t going to talk about that. When it comes to philosophy, I’ll let “Little Faces” speak for itself. It’s a complex story, and it expresses its ideas with subtlety and nuance, in the ways they need to be told.
So, go read “Little Faces.” And be glad you’re not a bedbug.