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Unheimlichsenke.

Jed Hartman, who wrote that “Future of Sex” essay back in the summer of ’03, picks up some threads from recent discussions hereabouts and just hauls off and runs with ’em, handing me a real d’oh! moment in the process:

Though I would add that to some extent these days (thirty years after the Sanders novel was published), the presence of homosexuality in science fiction set in the future is more alienating than in contemporary-setting fiction, for a reason much like what I was talking about in my editorial: because there’s so much more homosexuality in the real world (and in contemporary fiction) than in sf set in the future.

Which, yes, of course, and I wish I’d said something to that effect. I started off on a very personal note with a TIME cover from back in a day when it was still possible without trying too terribly hard to grow mostly up in this country and not encounter the idea of same-sex love and desire and didn’t really look back up from it. —Things are different now: studies and anecdotal evidence both demonstrate that among the Youth of Today in America, there’s a marked jump in acknowledgement and acceptance of, and experimentation and experience with—humanity towards—alternate sexualities. At least insofar as gender preference goes. (I don’t know that we’ll be hitting gender-as-fetish anytime soon, but every little bit helps. —Will it hold, this humane attitude? After all, the Boomers were all about peace love and understanding, and look where they’re getting us now; we Gen-Xers, of course, were apathetic and disaffected underachievers, and look what we’ve got to fix. Backlash bites.) (Why, yes. That was a whole slew of unfair generalizations. Goodness.)

Where was I? —Oh. Right. So with this marked jump in humanity, why then does the future in our current fiction appear to be so darned straight? (And vanilla?) —To properly begin to frame an answer would take us all night and far afield; I’d suggest you start with Interlogue Four in “The Rhetoric of Sex/The Discourse of Desire,” when the pissed-off ventriloquized puppet takes over and rants for a bit—but I don’t want to tackle the big amorphous things Down There, crawling about the foundations to the tuneless tootling of shrill pipes; I want, for a bit, to pretend that history progresses; that there is a Big Picture; that with Metaphors I can construct Conceits and with Conceits I can grasp Concepts and shove them about to make pleasing Patterns that line up neat as you please, oh, I get it. So: first, I’d note that the fiction we’re finding wanting in this particular is outlined and written and produced by the Boomers and Xers and not so much the aforementioned Youth of Today. And second, I’d note that, much as none of us is as dumb as all of us, none of us is as normal; and third, I’d note that maybe the uncanny valley applies to more than just robots and rotoscoped CGI.

Unheimlichsenke.

Ah, but here we’re playing with conceptual dynamite. Any time you start labelling this normal and that ab-, this human and that in-, you set somebody whether you like it or not up to play the ventriloquized puppet—sorry; chances are you haven’t read the essay. The Other, then: the One Who Isn’t. (Normal. Human. “Would you actually argue that I am, whether with my breasts thrust into black leather or basket heavy in a studded jock, the One Always There, who, when everyone else is redeemed, can be thrown to the dogs, at the eye of the patriarchal cyclone you’ve already located as the straight white [need I add?] vanilla male?” —To quote the aforementioned puppet. Did I mention it was pissed off?) —So let me repeat myself: none of us is as normal as all of us. And when we pitch our ideas for consumption beyond our immediate circle, we tune them to our idea of all of us, or as many as we can stomach: that matrix we all keep in our heads of what will fly and what won’t, what’s acceptable and what’s not, what’s titillating and what’s beyond the pale, what plays in Peoria and what doesn’t, what’ll run up the flagpole and who’ll salute it. What’s heimlich, and what’s un-.

(Yes, I know: there’s more than one: there’s a myriad alls for all the myriad audiences we could dream up; there’s Peoria and there’s Hollywood and there’s the Great White Way; there’s the MIT SF Club, and the one at Hampshire College; there’s even ways to pitch the same piece to more than one all at once, and never they’d know the difference. I know. Let’s brutally simplify it and peg one hypothetical all to the right of that graph up there, the axis labelled “fully [careful! dynamite!] human.” —The mechanism such as it is would be the same for whichever all you’d care to pick.)

As, then, an idea, a behavior, a way of being Other, approaches in familiarity that matrix of behaviors and attitudes we’re assuming comprises this asymptotic all, it climbs the red line marking the favorability of the all’s assumed emotional response: it’s a curiosity, it’s something new, something exciting, ostranenie; whatever New Wave is current can leap out and play with it and build strange weird glorious frightening (dull, turgid, inexplicable) shapes with it. —But as it gets even closer, goes from something conceivable to something that could conceivably affect us (transform us, replace us), it hits the cold dark heart of the Unheimlichsenke. (“Oh God I am the American dream…”) We push it away. With the most benign of reasons, sure: why should we bother; they have their own stories; it’s not our your their place; and anyway, if we foreground protagonize celebrate it, it will all prove too distracting, and we can’t sell it to boys aged 16 – 24. Best just to let it happen when it happens of its own accord. —Which is never, if we don’t push it.

Did you notice how the assumed matrix that made up that mythical, asymptotic all became we, and us? —Yeah. You’ve got to be careful about that.

Of course, this fable has a happy ending. History progresses, you see. Things get better. Having enthroned that all, having become aware that we’ve so enthroned it, it becomes our duty to broaden flatten spread it all as far and wide as we can. To open it up to as much as possible. (The ultimate futility of this task is no excuse.) —And our graph foretells a happy ending, doesn’t it? Things do get better.

Don’t they?

(Look at all the Assmissile jokes and ask yourself: what is so goddamn funny—what is so insulting, really—about enjoying anal sex? What is so belittling about being penetrated? —Don’t laugh. The ventriloquized puppet is still furious, and there’s a lot more to it than maybe you first thought.)

Um. Okay. That got a little stranger than maybe I’d first thought when I set out. Certainly longer. —What else was I up to? Right. More from Jed:

(Aside: It occurred to me recently, while reading a Human Future In Space story in Asimov’s in which there are actual homosexuals, that I neglected something in my editorial: it’s traditionally okay to have queer and/or kinky people in HFIS stories as long as they’re decadent and jaded and world-weary. This realization led me to decide that I want to write an Absolute Magnitude-style Starship Pilot Adventure Story in which the dashing starship pilot jock hero is gay but not at all decadent.)

Well, yes, but: there’s more than one dichotomy here. It’s not just straight/gay (straight/queer; vanilla/every other flavor in the universe); it’s active/passive, dominant/submissive, masculine/effeminate (not, note, feminine), penetrative/penetrated. There’s a lot of borders to shall we say interrogate here, and some are easier than others. A female character taking on masculine attributes—those ass-kicking chicks, in other words—they’ve made it past the Unheimlichsenke and are rapidly climbing the final asymptotic all. (For some values of all, yes yes.) A tomboy dyke with sufficiently feminine touches and an unrequited crush on the ingénue? What harm could she possibly do? (And we could bring up the male gaze, but let’s not; it’s late.) —A male character taking on effeminate attributes, though? As some would have it gay men must do: penetrated, submissive, passive, decadent, jaded, world-weary, distant, push away, push away, into the cold dark heart of the Unheimlichsenke, and that’s why Assmissile jokes are so funny. To some.

Our great hope here? Aside from the old reliable engine of slash, and all it’s been able to do? (Have you watched an episode of Smallville? It ain’t great, but damn.) —It’s yaoi. Go, baby, go!

What else? —I’ve got one more move to make in the “long explore,” as Lance put it; it was maybe going to have been two, or one-and-a-half, but I think I took care of that with this unlooked-for aside. I want to peer more at Jed’s original essay, and the why and wherefore of it, and some of the things that are going on outside the circle he’s drawn and examined, that maybe can be sources of pop-culture juice for engineering the epiphanies he’s looking for (but also, making it harder for those epiphanies to be engineered: “They have their own stories,” after all). And I want to look at what happens when you misuse that space, that grace I outlined; what happens when you try to engineer an epiphany and fail. (It’s not that they can only be epiphenomena, these epiphanies. I don’t think. I hope not. But it has to look like they are. I think. Maybe.) —And I’m gonna do it in 1500 – 2000 words. Oh, yeah.

Before we leave the grace of this in-between, backstage space we’re in here and now, though, let me point you in another direction, away from the straight/queer border and towards one that’s more between male and female, and how SF allows (again) a pushmepullyou of ostranenie and the unheimlich. —It involves Dicebox, which is the Spouse’s comic, which is maybe why I’ve been reluctant to bring it up, and maybe I’m a dolt; anyway, here’s cartoonist Erika Moen playing with some of the same ideas:

While a sci-fi story, it is impossible to lump it into any of the common stereotypical categories. It is not an adventure, it is not a hero’s story, and while futuristic gadgetry is present, it is hardly relevent. With most sci-fi stories the location and time are just as integral characters as the protagonists; the audience is there to be swept up in the exotic future. Manley Lee places the chronicle of Dicebox in a science-fiction environment not because that setting is pertinent to the development of the story but because it gives her the freedom to break her characters out of modern day gender stereotypes and rules without having to justify her decision to her audience.

So: one more move, and then I’ll see where I’ve ended up.

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