Wednesday, July 5, 2017

LGBTQ Genre Literature and Utopias

I prepared some notes for a friend who is hosting a panel on LGBTQ genre literature and utopias. These are just notes, so excuse the rambling tone. I'd invite comments on other LGBTQ utopias that people have encountered in SF&F.

First of all, I recommend this interview with Kim Stanley Robinson:

There’s a lot there to appreciate, including KSR's comments about Bogdanov

I was going to recommend KSR because for all intents and purposes, most of Aurora deals with a utopian society facing hard times. Unlike most generation ship stories, there is no hint of a command hierarchy. All decisions seem to be made by deliberation in communities across the ship. People who take care of the ship (such as the protagonist’s engineer mom) basically choose to do so on their own. They take responsibility for making the ship a better place – or at least one that continues to be habitable. I believe there is also an LGBTQ male couple: the pair of guys who adopt the kid on the autism spectrum.

Next, a couple of essays by China Mieville. Both relate to his contributions to Verso’s recent republication of Thomas Moore’s Utopia: and

The book also includes essays by Ursula LeGuin, whose novel The Dispossessed, is inarguably a utopian SF novel (no idea if there are any LGBTQ characters there). I confess I have at least one copy of it within 5 feet of my reading chair, and have started it once or twice, but I have always stopped fairly early on. I’m probably too sectarian; it’s the Marxist in me that gets very impatient with anarchist viewpoints. 

Joanna Russ’ novel The Female Man contains the world Whileaway, an explicitly feminist utopia where men no longer exist, women create families and reproduce parthenogenically (more or less; I believe tech is involved). It is at least implicitly a lesbian world. 

That’s about the only explicitly LGBTQ utopia that I have read, although I’d guess Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing also comes pretty close.

If you think about utopia as having to start somewhere, and specifically in a determinate set of social relations, then a lot of Samuel R. Delany is suddenly relevant. Way back in the early ‘60s, we had his spacers, freebirds who take what jobs they will (Nova, Babel-17), and gathering as a community of their own kind in the spaceports (or on pirate ships!), sporting living tattoos/biografts and having their own zero-G version of WWF. Implicitly (maybe explicitly, I should read Babel-17 again, I mean it’s been a year already!) free love is a given among spacers.

Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is even more interesting. Two interstellar cultures, both with human members, are spiraling toward apocalyptic war. The Family is a culture organized fairly conservatively along lines of blood and family as traditionally understood. In contrast, the culture known as The Sygn (I think that’s the spelling) organize into nurturestreams which are definitely NOT organized by traditional notions of family (indeed the one nurturestream we see involves humans and giant spider aliens cohabiting and caring for each other!). The novel itself is one man’s quest to find his (male) “perfect erotic object”. There is also a sort of utopia of knowledge in this setting, an interstellar “internet” called General Information (this novel emerged in the early ‘80s too, well before the internet as we know it emerged!). 

There is a bit of a trend these days in SF that is worthy of note, and Greg Johnson was the one who brought this up last year at Diversicon. People are starting to write novels/create worlds in which some basic social issues have been resolved, such as sexual orientation, gender oppression, gender identity, although in other respects these are not particularly nice worlds. Ann Lechie, Ada Palmer, and Yoon Ha Lee have all come up with extremely hierarchical cultures in their recent fiction. These cultures have either abolished/suppressed gender distinctions, or these no longer matter for all intents and purposes. In Yoon Ha Lee’s case, sexual orientation is also a total non-issue. None of these societies is a utopia, but their authors are obviously on to something. 

And then there’s all the dystopian SF of the last decade – both YA novels and for adult audiences.

One of my professors, Anibal Quijano, had a particularly telling take on utopias. Thomas Moore’s work came out of the European encounter with indigenous peoples in the new world. Europeans often saw the indigenous peoples as being less selfish, less violent, and as having more prosperous and abundant societies than European ones. As I’m writing this, the internet is all atwitter with the discovery of an Aztec skull tower in Mexico City, but there is no doubt that Tenochtitlan was a more populous, cleaner, better managed urban metropolis than any European cities of the same period - however much violence may have been exercised in the temple sacrifices. (And I’ve seen compelling arguments by others – I think Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch - that the level of human sacrifice in Central Mexico at the time of the conquest was less than the level of death in Europe from executions of criminals and the witch hunts.)

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