"The dominant . . . view since the eighteenth century has been that there are two stable, incommensurable, opposite sexes and that the political, economic, and cultural lives of men and women, their gender roles, are somehow based on these 'facts.'" --Thomas Laqueur, "Of Language and the Flesh"
"The king was pregnant." --Ursula K. Le Guin, "Is Gender Necessary? Redux"
Traditionally, one of the goals of science fiction is to ask the question, "What if?" In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, science fiction is a thought-experiment. It is a chance to bend the rules, and those rules can range from astrophysical laws to technological limitations to sociological norms. Given society's fascination with all things sexual, the mores and traditions surrounding sexuality have been a common area of exploration in science fiction.
Le Guin's essay, "Is Gender Necessary? Redux" deals with the portrayal of gender and sexuality. Sexuality is often the focus of the science fiction author's question, "What if?" Yet the extent to which the author can explore this question is limited in a variety of ways. By deconstructing the assumptions that go into science fictional portrayals of "alternate" sexual systems, one discovers that many such systems are in fact rather traditional, and that the speculative exploration is quite limited.
In her essay, Le Guin admits this point with admirable honesty. She discusses her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, in which she attempted to portray a world without male-female identity. An admirable experiment in theory, the result falls short of its goal. After all of Le Guin's work to create an asexual society, the characters tend to slip right back into traditional gender roles. "This is a real flaw in the book," Le Guin admits.
But Le Guin is still a step ahead of most authors in that she recognizes and admits the difficulties in attempting to question and explore sexuality. Other authors, in the attempt to produce new and alien systems of sex and gender, instead tend to reproduce rather simplistic sexualities whose connection to traditional sex roles is quite transparent. Such is the case in Piers Anthony's Cluster.
Finally, there are authors such as Robert A. Heinlein, who tend to leave biological sex alone and instead concentrate on sexual relationships. But once again, for every new or alternative idea Heinlein explores, there is a strong compensation in the opposite direction. A group marriage, for instance, will be counterbalanced by an exaggeration of traditional gender roles.
So in most cases, science fiction's thought-experiments with sex have fallen short of their goals. One way or another, societal norms have a way of counteracting truly original ideas and pressing them gently but firmly back into the context of a larger, socially accepted system. In essence, science fiction's sweeping vision of the future all too often finds itself bogged down by the past and the present.
On the surface, Piers Anthony's Cluster seems an excellent example of a novel that challenges traditional views of sexuality and explores alternatives. The novel tells the story of Flint, a human from one of Earth's outmost colony worlds. Flint's "aura" is stronger than most humans,' which allows him to transfer into alien hosts. Throughout the book, Flint jumps from one host to another, giving the reader a chance to explore Anthony's esoteric collection of alien species. In most cases, this exploration revolves around sex, as Flint proceeds to copulate in one way or another in nearly every alien host he inhabits. The book almost serves as a xenophilic Kama Sutra, describing sex acts practiced throughout the galaxy.
But the term "sex" is a slippery one, and it encompasses many separate ideas. For the purpose of this article, I use "sex" to refer to biological sex, the actual genetic and/or physical differences between male, female, and the potential alien "other." "Gender" refers to one's internal sense of sexual identity, regardless of biology. Finally, "sexual orientation" is used to describe any preference regarding the sex and gender of one's partner(s).
Anthony's experiments begin about a third of the way through the novel, when Flint actually begins to transfer into alien hosts. From the beginning, Anthony seems to throw traditional conceptions of sexuality to the wind by rejecting a two-sex model and the binary opposition that goes with it. This is a powerful move, since the two-sex model has been a basic foundation of belief for several hundred years. Thomas Laqueur describes the evolution from a one-sex model, in which male and female were considered to be biologically similar, to a two-sex model, in which "there are two stable, incommensurable, opposite sexes and . . . the lives of men and women, their gender roles, are somehow based on these 'facts'". Anthony breaks away from these models and creates a three-sex system that includes, rather than men and women, Impacts, Sibilants, and Undulants.
As an Impact member of this oceanic race, Flint swims along, proceeding on his mission, and accidentally crosses a boundary zone designed to keep the three sexes from intermingling. The reason for this soon becomes clear. For this species, sex is not a voluntary act. The presence of all three sexes causes an overpowering biological urge that culminates in sex. "It was sex -- with three sexes . . . [t]he three entities were penetrating each other -- but not as a man penetrated a woman. Not even as a two-man/one-woman trio. They were interpenetrating."
Even more alien is Flint's discovery that for this species, the sexual act automatically results in reproduction. The actual gender roles played by each sex vary depending on the circumstances. Whoever initiates the sexual act (in this case, Flint) becomes the catalyst. The other two become the sire and the parent, the latter of which actually creates the offspring. (Anthony never makes it clear how the remaining two participants become parent or sire.) As a result, someone who was a parent could easily become a catalyst in another union. As befitting the watery environment, gender identity is truly fluid. Sex only serves to create three possible roles, not to assign an individual irrevocably to any one of those roles.
Even as Anthony begins to explore this sexual system, he has already begun to undermine it as well. One of his primary assumptions about the technology that allows Flint's aura to transfer into other beings is that "the potential host [has] to be sapient and of the same sex." If this is the case, then how can Flint, a traditionally virile male, transfer into a member of this three-sex species? The underlying implication is that the Impacts are, despite the three-sex system, fundamentally male.
The complications become even more apparent when an enemy agent transfers in to follow Flint. This agent is female, and she takes over the body of Llyana, an Undulant. Once again, little mention is made of the apparent sexual disparity that should, according to Anthony's rules, prevent a two-sex species from transferring into the bodies of these aliens. Llyana must, according to the rules, be the alien equivalent of a female. Because nobody ever transfers into a Sibilant host, this third sex is relegated to the background and tends to be ignored.
Later, Anthony's system continues to disintegrate. Flint, having already experienced the involuntary alien triple-sex, uses his knowledge as a weapon to trap Llyana. He lures her into a forbidden area where he knows they will encounter a member of the third sex, which will again initiate the mating process -- and reproduction. This time, because Flint and Llyana arrive together, the third entity -- the outsider -- becomes the catalyst.
They drew together until the three were a tight, rock-hard ball, with only small portions remaining discrete, and there was appalling pressure. The urgency of completion was so great it seemed that their very substance would sunder.
And it did. . . . There was an instant of exquisite pain as a gross chunk of flesh was ripped out of his body; then Flint was rushing through the water, incomplete yet completed. . . .
[H]e swam around to follow Llyana. It was a risk, but a necessary one. He had to be sure he had nullified her.
He found her, undulating along with an infant of her kind.
The one factor that Anthony never explains is why Llyana was the one to assume the parental role. Why did she, rather than Flint, end up with the child? Both Flint and Llyana contributed part of their flesh to the creation of the child, but it is Llyana who ends up in the role of the mother.
The implication is that Llyana became the mother because she is female. While gender is fluid for the aliens, the host is still a female, just as Flint remains a male. With no other explanation, the audience is left with the impression that Flint must be the father, the one to contribute to the creation of the child without the burden of commitment, whereas Llyana, being female, would naturally be the one to actually give birth and, in the process, be saddled with the responsibility of raising the child.
The aura-transfer technology thus provides a workable metaphor to describe why Anthony's experiment is a failure. In transferring the aura, one's spirit remains the same even as it animates radically different forms. Likewise, while the outer appearance of this alien sexuality seems startlingly different and novel, at heart, it is still a traditional two-sex system.
Anthony's failure becomes even more pronounced when the reader realizes that it was most likely accidental. Nowhere does Anthony address the basic assumptions that underlie Llyana's relegation to the role of mother. Llyana is simply assumed to be feminine, and throughout the book, she is described in feminine terms. At one point, Flint compares her to his fiancé, Honeybloom -- a beautiful and idealistic woman from back home. "Llyana was to Undulants as Honeybloom was to woman."
In Cluster, Anthony has experimented with the surface appearance of sexuality, but he has fallen prey to the same traditional assumptions that Laqueur describes as being centuries old. Ours is a two-sex system, and even when Anthony breaks away from that system, he swiftly returns to it. In the process, he reinforces the idea that sex is binary, for while the description of the alien interaction involves three sexes, the underlying dynamics depend on a two-sex system.
Perhaps the problem was that Anthony tried too hard. In creating an alien system, it is easy to go to extremes, and in the process to overlook more subtle elements. Anthony created a three-sex system, but ignored the basic binary assumptions that formed the basis of that system. In that case, we might find more success in a novel that works, not with aliens, but with humans.
Friday, named after the protagonist of the book, is one of many examples in which Robert Heinlein explores, not an alien system of sexuality, but instead an exaggerated human one. His thought-experiments tend to take the form of prediction and projection. He is famous for his well-planned, carefully described near-future predictions. In discussing sex, he tends to break traditional rules, particularly when it comes to sexual orientation, and creates idyllic, free sexual spaces.
Friday's character serves as a way for Heinlein to explore (and violate) the "rules" of sex in greater detail. In the tradition of science fiction, Friday is a character on the outside looking in; she is an artificial person, a genetically designed human being who was grown and raised in a laboratory. As a result, her views on sex tend to be more practical, objective, and in the end, more mechanical than those of normal human beings.
Heinlein carefully avoids labeling Friday's sexual orientation. While she sleeps with both men and women, she is never identified as bisexual. Indeed, the word does not appear once in the entire novel. At one point, when Friday realizes that she has fallen in love with a woman, she turns to her boss and mentor for guidance. Her boss, with typical Heinlein-ian subtlety, replies, "Geniuses and supergeniuses always make their own rules on sex as on everything else; they do not accept the monkey customs of their lessers."
Those monkey customs seem remarkably similar to Gayle Rubin's "charmed circle" of traditionally accepted sexuality which restricts "good" sex to that which is monogamous, relationship-oriented, married, procreative, and heterosexual. Friday, on the other hand, begins the book as a member of an S-group, an extended family with multiple husbands and wives. In fact, she has three of each, and only a few pages after she returns home, she has already had sex with two of those three husbands.
While this approach still seems to incorporate the marriage relationship, that is the only connection to Rubin's circle (and it should be noted that this marriage is far from traditional). Friday also has sex with her wives, and as an artificial person, she is incapable of having children. Furthermore, when her identity as a genetically enhanced human is discovered, she is kicked out of the S-group.
In order to cope with her loss, she heads for the bar, where she encounters Ian Tormey, a pilot she had flirted with in an earlier chapter. She takes him to bed after getting thoroughly drunk. "I got smashed. Just how thorough a job I did on it I did not realize until next morning when I woke up in bed with a man who was not Ian Tormey."
This man turns out to be Ian's brother-in-law, Freddie. Throughout the following chapters, Friday proceeds to establish an informal polyamorous group that includes Ian, Freddie, both of their wives, and several others. In addition to being polyamorous, non-procreative, and bisexual, Friday has also thrown any trace of marriage to the wind, roaming ever farther from Rubin's circle of traditional sexuality.
Throughout the novel, Friday continues to throw traditional sexuality to the winds in favor of making her own rules and loving however, and whomever, she sees fit. Whereas Anthony attempted to create new sexual systems by creating new sexes, Heinlein's approach is more subtle, and more successful. He makes Friday a human female. In fact, Friday is an enhanced female, and could be considered a prototypical woman. Her genetic makeup was "carefully selected to maximize the best traits of H. sapiens."
So Heinlein seems to be demonstrating the fact that females can break out of the traditional rules of sexual orientation, the "monkey customs" of society. Likewise, Friday avoids traditional gender roles as well. She is an athletic woman -- a soldier. In many instances, she physically defends the men around her. She is strong, resourceful, completely independent.
All of this makes it much more disappointing when, at the end of the novel, Heinlein undermines everything he has built and relegates Friday to the role of a "traditional" woman. For her final mission, she is asked to smuggle "a modified human ovum." While she is supposed to smuggle the ovum in a specially concealed pouch, her employer double-crosses her. Her sterility is reversed, and the ovum is implanted in her own womb, the logic being that the child will be safer in the womb than it could possibly be in a mechanical substitute.
Through no fault of her own, Friday has become a mother. The consequences of this betrayal are numerous. Her employer has become the enemy, and Friday must find a way to escape before her ship arrives at the distant planet which is their destination. Friday breaks free of the ship and flees to a colony planet, where, by amazing coincidence and the heavy hand of the author, she is reunited with Ian, Freddie, and her other polyamorous partners.
At this point, she had numerous options. She could have aborted the child, or had it transplanted into another host. She could have waited and given birth to the child, then resumed her previous lifestyle. But instead, she chooses to become "a country housewife." She marries another escapee from the ship. While Heinlein hints that polyamorous liaisons continue to occur, they are now quietly swept under the rug. Instead, what is emphasized is the idyllic family life and Friday's happiness with her situation.
Geniuses make their own rules on sex? Perhaps . . . but in this case, those rules seem to include a period of experimentation that ultimately results in a rather traditional, relatively conservative approach. While Friday experimented with polyamory and Rubin's outer limits of sexuality, Heinlein avoided any authorial condemnation. Indeed, the general overtone was one of approval. But throughout the novel, Friday was never truly happy. She was always insecure and lonely, up until the end. At that point, everything else is swiftly forgotten in the face of Friday's sheer joy at her role as a housewife. Her final words, as she describes her role as a housewife, are, "It's a warm and happy feeling."
Apparently even a genius must conform to society's rules of sexuality, at least if they want to be truly happy. The results of Heinlein's thought-experiment, like Anthony's, are disappointingly restricted. Once again, the science-fictional world of tomorrow is fenced in by the world of today. The reader gets the sense that Heinlein began to explore alternative possibilities, but in the end, he gave in to societal pressure and contributed to the idea that the only truly good sexuality is that which is approved by the dominant majority.
But this was not a novel about sex. Sexuality was merely one piece of the futuristic world Heinlein created for his readers. As such, the more complex and subtle details might have been overlooked. It might be better to examine a novel such as Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, in which sexual issues are the very basis for the story.
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Left Hand of Darkness differs from the books previously discussed in several ways. First of all, gender and sex are more central to the story than in Anthony's or Heinlein's works. Le Guin wrote this novel because she "want[ed] to define and understand the meaning of sexuality and the meaning of gender; in [her] life and in our society." Whereas Friday and Cluster portray sexuality as the backdrop for a story, in The Left Hand of Darkness, sexuality is the story.
The novel takes place on Winter, a rediscovered colony world on which the human settlers had been genetically altered, resulting in a world of hermaphrodites. However, the colonists are not true hermaphrodites. They spend five-sixths of their lives in an androgynous state in which they display muted characteristics of both sexes. Approximately once a month, individuals enter kemmer. At this point, the sexual drive becomes overwhelming, and the individual must seek out another person who is also entering kemmer.
"When the individual finds a partner in kemmer, hormonal secretion is further stimulated . . . until in one partner either a male or female hormonal dominance is established. The genitals engorge or shrink accordingly, foreplay intensifies, and the partner, triggered by the change, takes on the other sexual role."
If someone becomes pregnant, they remain in the female role until the child is born. But beyond that one instance, sex is completely random. Someone who is female in one kemmer could easily be male in the next. As in Cluster, sex becomes a fluid term, one that can not be used with any permanence or stability.
The focus of the novel seems to be Le Guin's exploration of fluid sexuality. As a result, the sexual act has a more prominent place in the world of Winter than it does in our own. Everyone receives one week off from work each month for when they are in kemmer. There are public kemmer-houses where sex is freely available. Drugs can be used either to artificially induce kemmer or to postpone it indefinitely.
At its root, what Le Guin's novel accomplishes is the creation of a world in which sexuality exists without the baggage of binary opposition. No one is either male or female. Everyone is both and neither.
One of the results of this unified sexuality is the breakdown of gender identity. No longer is there a unified group of traits that is assumed to correlate with biological sex. Instead, most of the characters described display both "male" and "female" traits. The exception is Genly Ai, a male visitor from another planet. By using Ai as a narrator, Le Guin is able to continuously and effectively question societal assumptions about gender identity. She takes the bordered worlds of male and female and swirls them together into an inextricably intertwined knot.
In describing his landlady, Ai says, "He was so feminine in looks and manner that I once asked him how many children he had. . . . He had never borne any. He had, however, sired four. It was one of the little jolts I was already getting." This is a complex portrayal because it contains several contradictory dynamics. On the one hand, we read the novel through the eyes of a gendered character. As a result, he describes Winter and its inhabitants using gendered terminology. A truly androgynous society would be less likely to have described the landlady as feminine. This seems to undermine Le Guin's efforts to avoid oppositional sexuality.
At the same time, it enables her to emphasize the lack of oppositional sexuality. Ai's perspective lets him point out what is different. He examines and ponders the differences rather than accepting and ignoring them, as a native would. In this way, the reader also gets to experience Ai's jolts of culture shock.
In the end, unfortunately, those jolts are not enough to offset Ai's gendered filtration of Winter. Because characters are described in sexed terms, the reader begins to identify them as being of one sex or the other. The exceptions tend to come across as abnormalities rather than as a viable, "normal" pattern of life. Despite the somewhat shocking revelation that Ai's landlady has fathered several children, Ai, and therefore the reader, still tend to regard the landlady as female.
Perhaps this is inevitable. No matter how well-portrayed the world of Winter may be, the readers of The Left Hand of Darkness still come from a dominantly two-sex society. Anything they read will be interpreted in terms of their own experience. As reader response theorists point out, "the audience plays a vitally important role in shaping the literary experience." Any effort to present a radically different culture will be restricted by the cultural background of the audience.
Still, there is evidence that Le Guin herself fell short of her ideal, and may have helped encourage a two-sexed interpretation of her novel. The most obvious example is the fact that she chose to use male pronouns throughout when referring to the inhabitants of Winter. While the male pronoun is generally accepted to be the more generic pronoun in English, it still conveys a sense of sexual identity, and the reader begins to visualize Winter as a world of men rather than a world of androgynous hermaphrodites.
In her own analysis of the book, Le Guin points out that this was a deliberate choice on her part. Using "he" and "him" was preferable to the attempt to invent a new pronoun.
Still, the novel itself reinforces this all-male interpretation of Winter. This is most apparent through Ai's counterpart, Estraven -- one of the androgynous natives of Winter. Despite Le Guin's attempt to incorporate aspects of both sexes into the natives, Estraven tends to take on masculine roles to the exclusion of feminine ones. He engages in strenuous physical activities, hiking across miles of frozen glacier. He is a powerful political figure. He helps break Ai out of prison.
Le Guin admits that she did this because "I was privately delighted at watching, not a man, but a manwoman, do all these things. . . . But, for the reader, I left out too much. One does not see Estraven . . . in any role that we automatically perceive as 'female': and therefore, we tend to see him as a man." But even had Le Guin been able to perfectly balance Estraven's male and female activities, one must wonder if her efforts would have been successful.
Even as she analyzes the flaws that handicapped her "thought-experiment," Le Guin still refers to "male" and "female" activities. She still writes from a two-sex, two-gender perspective. She also conflates sex and gender -- the way to portray someone as being of both sexes is to portray them in activities of both genders. The result is a people who are not truly androgynous, but instead seem more like an artificial conglomeration of male and female, man and woman.
This is not to say that Le Guin's efforts are futile. Indeed, she does a remarkable job of exploring sexual issues. For the most part, she is the most successful of the three authors examined. Whereas Heinlein eventually undermines himself and reinforces traditional sexual norms, Le Guin remains consistent throughout the book. Within the limited success of the overall experiment, she often challenges more specific assumptions of sexuality. For instance, because sex in kemmer is inconsistent, monogamy is not a viable option. Likewise, by creating the institution of the kemmer-house, Le Guin brings sex out of the home and into a more publicly acceptable forum. She explores Rubin's outer limits of sexuality in a more effective manner than Heinlein, and she does it almost as an afterthought.
Similarly, whereas Anthony's portrayal of alien sexuality was a relatively transparent projection of human sex, Le Guin's world was much more complex, and the shortcomings more subtle. By ignoring the temptation to create "true aliens," and instead limiting herself to modified humans, Le Guin was able to focus more specifically on human sexuality. It is only by deconstructing the underlying assumptions of the book that one is able to see where the cultural context of the author/reader erode the effectiveness of Le Guin's experiment.
A theme that unifies these three novels is their attempt to experiment with sexuality. On a slightly deeper level, they are connected through the fact that all three fall short in their own ways: one simply places a mask of "alienness" over traditional human sexuality, another undercuts itself, and the third is limited by the context of both the readers and the author.
So what have these novels accomplished? What is the result of these thought-experiments? It is a common assumption that science fiction tries to predict the future. While this may be the case in some works, it is by no means universal. In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin argues that she is not attempting to predict the future, but instead to describe the present. She is "merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are [androgynous]."
Connect this quote to the fact that the least successful of these three experiments was the one which tried the hardest to escape the bounds of "humanness." Anthony attempted to create genuine aliens, and the result was strongly human. Le Guin and Heinlein worked with humans. Their results, paradoxically enough, were more effective in breaking the conventions of traditional sexual thinking.
For even though all three novels ultimately fell short of their goals, they still produced interesting results, particularly in the case of Heinlein and Le Guin. The former explored several alternate systems of sexuality. Though these systems were ultimately shunned, their very existence forces the reader to question the assumptions of sexuality. Heinlein may believe in society's rules, but in Friday, he makes it quite clear that they are simply rules, arbitrary and breakable.
Likewise, Le Guin uses The Left Hand of Darkness to question the idea of binary, oppositional sexes. Even though her portrayal falls short of her goal, the question itself leads the reader to question as well. Throughout this article, I have claimed that the context of the author and reader was one of the problems this book faced, that the sexual nature of our society filters and distorts our reading of Le Guin's society. But isn't it possible that this is simultaneously working in the reverse? Because we can read Le Guin's fictional society through the lens of our own, it makes sense that after we put the book aside, that fictional society will in some way affect the lens through which we see our own society.
It seems that science fiction is trapped. Any attempt to explore sexuality is ultimately bound by our own context. Yet within those bounds, it is possible to raise fascinating questions, to challenge assumptions, and ultimately, perhaps to loosen up those very boundaries, making more room for the next writer to explore. The goal is not to answer the question, but instead to simply ask the question. And as those questions are asked and the boundaries continue to loosen, it will be interesting to see the directions that science fiction will follow.
Jim C. Hines lives in Lansing, Michigan. He writes both fiction and non-fiction as the mood strikes. His favorite genre to write is light fantasy, and his least favorite would have to be author bios. His work is featured in Writers of the Future XV and Book Of All Flesh. For more about him, visit his Web site.
Additional Web Sites
Ursula K. Le Guin's official Web site.
Piers Anthony's official Web site.
Anthony, Piers. Cluster. New York: Avon, 1977.
Heinlein, Robert A. Friday. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.
Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker and Company, 1969.
---. "Is Gender Necessary? Redux." Dancing at the Edge of the World. Ed. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Grove Press, 1989. 7-16.
Richter, David H., ed. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998.
Rubin, Gayle S. "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Henry Abelove, Michele Barale, and David H. Halperin eds. New York: Routledge, 1993. 3-44.