There are no gay people in the future. (Or are there?)
August 23, 2009 3:55 PM   Subscribe

Looking for book recs about sci-fi, specifically about gender issues and jetpack-related physics.

Slowly easing my way into science fiction (classic Star Trek as of right now, with some Blade Runner/Electric Sheep-related thoughts and plans to branch out some more), interested in two aspects of discussion right now. I did some quick Amazon and Google searches (not very helpful) and poked around a bit at AskMe, and was hoping for specific recommendations about these things:

1) Sci-fi as a white, male space </allegation>: Essay collections prefered over single-topic tomes. I'm referring specifically to sci-fi movies and novels and the way women, sexuality and/or race are handled in the narrative and, to a lesser extent, the history and culture of the genre as a whole.

2) Why transwarp teleportation will never be possible </opinion>: Books on the science behind the fiction, preferably written for the layperson without being overly cutesy about it. This sounded pretty ideal, until I read the last paragraph of this review. See 1).

Not looking for actual novel recs, just the meta. Will also take specific essays that can be found online, if you feel like sharing a link. Thanks very much in advance!
posted by mumble to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Concerning your second question, I've heard great things about Physics of the Impossible. I don't know much about gender in sci-fi, but I know that I've read an essay or two by (amazing sci-fi author) Octavia Butler about science fiction, and I wouldn't be surprised if she's written about gender somewhere. Another female author who may be worth exploring is Ursula K. Le Guin- she explores so much about gender in her work that she's probably the author or subject of some related essays.
posted by farishta at 4:15 PM on August 23, 2009

If this helps, here is an interview with Le Guin where she discusses gender and an article about gender in Butler's work.
posted by farishta at 4:18 PM on August 23, 2009

I was going to recommend Physics of the Impossible also, though I've yet to read it myself. But Michio Kaku is one of the biggest names in popular science, and often appears on Science Channel/Discovery-type fare.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 4:27 PM on August 23, 2009

This site might be of some help in at least locating source material for your research into gender roles in sci fi.
posted by EnsignLunchmeat at 5:04 PM on August 23, 2009

Best answer: James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is the biography of a fascinating female science fiction writer who wrote under a male pen name and was very interested in gender and sexuality issues in science fiction. While it's more biography than literary criticism, it should still very much fall into the realm of your first request.

Regarding your second area of interest, you might want to check out the "Mundane SF" movement, which is basically speculative science fiction that takes pains not to have any impossible science in it. You can start with Geoff Ryman's speech announcing the movement, then get yourself caught up on the blog.
posted by infinitywaltz at 5:10 PM on August 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

Your 1) doesn't really hold a whole lot of water -- s/f is and has always been a place for gender/sexuality/identity play... and nowhere more metatextually than in Dhalgren itself. While you say you're not looking for recs, you can't do better than the extended passages on authorship and the internal landscape of a (queer?) writer than in this novel-cum-meditation in its own right.

For strictly non-fiction essays, check out (besides the Neveryön series)...

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1977) by Samuel R. Delany
Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1984) by Samuel R. Delany.
The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction (1978) by Samuel R. Delany
posted by mr. remy at 5:37 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think one of the reasons it may seem to some that everyone in SF is white is because for most SF writers, they assume that in their futures race no longer matters. It's no longer noteworthy. Thinking about it, I can remember several cases where race or skin color are only mentioned very obliquely, intimated but not explicitly stated.

One of the major characters in "Childhood's End" is specifically mentioned as being a black man, for example, but in the context of a specific mention of the fact that it did no longer matter. That was 1953.

Another example is "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" which is one of the finest SF novels ever. The protagonist, Manuel O'Kelly Davis, is married into what is called a "line" marriage, one where new spouses are married on a pretty regular basis as the members grow older. At one point Mannie is on Earth on a diplomatic mission, and shows someone there his most recent picture of his family. Turns out it's in an area where bigotry still reigns, and he ends up being arrested because of the wide variation of skin hues amongst his co-husbands and wives.

Interestingly, Heinlein never told us which were what. Because Mannie didn't care and didn't think about it. That one event is the only time the issue comes up because it's the only time it mattered.

Your question suggests that you are operating under a pretty severe misapprehension of what SF is all about. (Especially if you think that OST is "classic SF".) I think that if you were to read "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" it would disabuse you of a lot of your misconceptions.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:50 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Justine Larbalestier has written a book and edited a collection of sf stories by women with accompanying essays about their position in the field. I haven't read them, though I have read most of her fiction (of which, I admit, I am not a fan, though it very clearly addresses the sexism and racism in a lot of sff).

There has been much recent controversy over racism in SF, so if you dig into the RaceFAIL links (some are compiled at Linkspam, you can find a lot of information about this issue online as well. I find it a little hard to track, as do many people who aren't users of LiveJournal, so you need to be a little aware of the conventions, but there is still piles of information on racism and cultural appropriation (and to a lesser extent sexism) in the genre.
posted by jeather at 5:56 PM on August 23, 2009

I'm not smart enough to figure out wtf you're asking for, so I'll just go ahead and recommend Dark Water's Embrace by Stephen Leigh. You want gender and sexuality issues and good scifi? That's your book.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:22 PM on August 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much to everyone who provided recs and food for thought so far. I'm friends with sf/f geeks of color and followed the RaceFail pretty closely as it unfolded, so my broad generalization above wasn't *only* based on watching some old Star Trek eps. I didn't mean to step on any toes, just wanted to give a general idea of the kind of discussion I wanted to explore further.

@infinitywaltz, fascinating speech, thank you for pointing this out to me.

@mr. remy, Samuel R. Delany was already recommended to me in a different context, will definitely check him out!

@Chocolate Pickle, I can't comment on this with any authority (and I don't mean to start an argument, eep), but I think that some people of color might not be entirely happy with just positing a "color-blind" future without actually referring to any $present-day-minority characters and just sort of assuming they're there. I see your point about alluding to race or culture without bluntly stating someone's skin color, but just saying "race doesn't matter anymore" handwaves away a lot of real concerns and struggles. (Not saying you're doing the handwaving, some sci-fi authors might, disclaimer disclaimer disclaimer!)
posted by mumble at 7:24 PM on August 23, 2009

Response by poster: Forgot to say, I've also been spending a lot of time on Memory Alpha and Wikipedia and read up on Star Trek's history with LGBT characters--i.e. there hasn't been one in any of the movies and shows since 1965, unless you count ambiguously-gendered alien races or mix-up parasite/host shenanigans, which I don't--and, well, I find this very sad (hence the subject line). If you know of any discussions on this topic as well, feel free to toss them my way.
posted by mumble at 7:39 PM on August 23, 2009

One of my favorite childhood writers was Ray Bradbury. He wrote a story called "The Other Foot" in which Mars, which has been colonized by African Americans tired of racism on Earth, greet a spaceship from Earth which contains white travelers asking for sanctuary after Earth becomes unlivable. This story is part of his compilation The Illustrated Man I believe.
posted by Piscean at 8:10 PM on August 23, 2009

OOps- sorry for the grammar. You can probably figure out that I meant to say that African Americans inhabitants of Mars greet the spaceship. Bradbury's science fiction often dealt with social dilemmas in interesting ways (kind of the way Star Trek did).
posted by Piscean at 8:13 PM on August 23, 2009

Here's an essay about how ftl implies time travel.
(via wikipedia) is the blog for WisCon, an annual feminist sci-fi convention that happens in Madison, Wisconsin. You may want to poke around there (both the sites and the con).

I imagine the gatekeepers for film and television are more interested in making money than challenging societal mores. They won't greenlight a story with two gay black leads because they figure it's going to tank at the box office, for example. Instead they'll tweak variables to maximize ROI, i.e. gay black -> het white.

An editor at a publishing house has a slightly different sensibility, and can hope the same story might actually sell as a book.
--- seems like a decent resource, albeit one the poster has probably already looked at.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:04 PM on August 23, 2009

I know that you said "no novel recommendations," but given your interest in LGBT characters in the future, I can't help but recommend the work of John Varley, especially the short stories set in his "Eight Worlds" milieu. While the end result is pretty much that "in the future, gender and sexual orientation don't matter," many of his short stories actually talk about how society gets to that point (in short, it happens when medical technology gets to the point where people can have more or less instant sex changes). Stories that are particularly interested in that angle include "Options," "Picnic on Nearside," "Retrograde Summer," "The Phantom of Kansas," and, to a degree, "Beatnik Bayou." All of these except "Retrograde Summer" are included in The John Varley Reader, which also features brief autobiographical introductions to each story by the author himself.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:10 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

This one might actually be of particular interest - the Star Trek thing gets mentioned.
posted by Artw at 9:25 PM on August 23, 2009

I can't comment on this with any authority (and I don't mean to start an argument, eep), but I think that some people of color might not be entirely happy with just positing a "color-blind" future without actually referring to any $present-day-minority characters and just sort of assuming they're there. I see your point about alluding to race or culture without bluntly stating someone's skin color, but just saying "race doesn't matter anymore" handwaves away a lot of real concerns and struggles.

SF authors are under no obligation to pander to every grievance group. Nor are they under any obligation to be socially relevant. An author's job is to entertain, and that's all. It isn't to preach, or to help instigate social justice, or any of that crap. I've read books which tried to do those things, and they were tedious and insipid.

I'm sorry to be blunt, but it sounds like what you're really trying to do is pick a fight. You aren't trying to find out what SF is, you're looking for excuses to complain about what it is.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:27 PM on August 23, 2009

Alos, and you've possibly seen this already, the subject of LGBT in STar Trek gets some coverage in wikipedia.
posted by Artw at 9:29 PM on August 23, 2009

I should point out theres an open thread regarding this sort of thing here, which might be a better place for tangents not directly related to answering the question.
posted by Artw at 9:34 PM on August 23, 2009

If I may don my academic hat for a moment, it's ludicrous to read up on critical writing about a genre when you aren't versed in the primary sources, if for no other reason than the fact that you won't fully understand those critical perspectives without a grounding in the material. And it's not like these novels exist in a vacuum; as in all other art, authors are constantly responding to other authors, and that's just as valuable (and more enjoyable) than reading some academic wankery on the subject.

Because I am congenitally unable not to recommend these two books, I would suggest that you read Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle and Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Both are fantastic, and specifically engage with the issues you mention.
posted by sinfony at 11:37 PM on August 23, 2009

Best answer: To find good books that tackle gender issues in SF, I recommend you look at past winners of the Tiptree Award - "an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender".

A collection of stories that look at postcolonialism and race issues in SF is Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan's
So Long Been Dreaming. Uppinder Mehan has also published criticism on the topic.
posted by siskin at 12:41 AM on August 24, 2009

Response by poster: @Chocolate Pickle, really did not mean to pick a fight, my apologies if it came across that way; and @sinfony, I'm not planning on just digging into the wankery, promise, but there were already other threads with relevant recommendations for me to peruse, so I tried to keep my question as focused as possible. Thanks for the recs!

And thanks again, everyone!
posted by mumble at 1:16 AM on August 24, 2009

If you can follow the novel The Forever War or the short story "If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let Your Sister Mary One" back to commentary, you might find stuff that interests you. Though to be honest, in each case I think the author uses sexuality as a in your face symbol of more subtle and complex social issues.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:57 AM on August 24, 2009

I think that some people of color might not be entirely happy with just positing a "color-blind" future without actually referring to any $present-day-minority characters and just sort of assuming they're there.

Even if no $present-day-majority characters are referred to, either? To each his own, I guess. But a future in which no racial status is seen as a negative thing is by definition also a future in which no racial status is seen as a positive thing; !(a !(b>a), and you can't get around math.

But speaking of "can't get around math", I was actually writing to answer the other half of your question. If you want a source for some of the non-fictional physics behind (hard) science-fictional engineering, the best I've ever come across is here:

Atomic Rockets

It's mostly limited to spacecraft discussion alone, though if you follow the rocket equation stuff you'll end up understanding as a corollary why we don't have good jetpacks yet.

posted by roystgnr at 7:35 AM on August 24, 2009

You can't get around math or get around the need to escape HTML characters or double-check the preview window, I see...

That was supposed to read:

...positive thing; !(a < b) => !(b > a), and you can't...

It was also supposed to be followed by less bold text, and supposed to be read by fewer people thinking I'm incompetent.
posted by roystgnr at 7:38 AM on August 24, 2009

I've not read it, but this might be of some interest to you.
posted by Artw at 11:18 AM on August 25, 2009

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