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[personal profile] garran
I have this university class I think I'd like to teach; I've been fiddling with it as a thought experiment in a lot of the time that I ought perhaps to be devoting to the classes I'm taking. (But now it's the reading break, extra-long so that my city can draw campus into its bright and public post-apocalypse.) My interest in it has been steady enough that I'm looking into sticking around to do something in UBC's student-directed seminars program, but in the meantime this post is still about the thought experiment rather than whatever real things might come of it.

The course would be called "Transgressive Sexuality in Science Fiction". It comes originally from my noticing that all the polyamorous people I know are SF fans*, which is not a coincidence -- there's a definite subcultural current in that direction in fandom, which may not have had its origins in Heinlein but he obviously didn't hurt -- and which got me thinking further about how science fiction has this narrative about itself as politically and culturally progressive while at the same time often coming across as very reactionary, and how both of these things are true. SF is a broadly counterfactual genre, so it has the potential to show us what it would be like if social or even biological norms were radically different, but at the same time it is obviously written by people whose expectations and opinions about what is possible have been shaped by the political discourses available in the society they are writing in. So I want to explore both the successes and the failures of imagination, and argue about which are which, in a bunch of works of written science fiction, where it comes to presenting alternate possible worlds around sex and sexuality in particular. The focus on sex is for a number of reasons, including that it's a big thing that I'm interested in right now and that it's something just about nobody is ontologically apathetic about; another nice thing about doing these two topics together is that both sexuality and genre are prime sites for humans fractiously trying to shove difficult edge cases into one or another of our somewhat arbitrary categories.

(* When I shared this realization with my Sociology of Sex class last summer, the professor loudly booed me; she later explained, mortified, that she'd thought I was taking a cheap shot at someone. This is pretty much my favourite way that a professor has ever responded to me in class.)

People keep saying when I describe this idea that it's kind of narrow, but actually I've had to narrow it still further in order to come up with a reasonable imaginary reading list. I've ended up putting four extra restrictions on inclusion: 1) Written science fiction, 2) SF rather than fantasy, 3) written and consumed in the subcultural milieu of English-speaking science fiction fandom, and 4) written somewhere between 1960 and 2000 (so with a focus on New Wave-ish stuff). Here follows that reading list, which it ought to be just about feasible to shoehorn into 12 or 13 weeks. It comprises three novels, ten-ish short stories, and three guiding works of theory (which aren't actually in the draft list here but I'll talk about them after).

Stranger in a Strange Land
(I wanted Time Enough For Love, but it's 600 pages. I'm pretty reconciled to Stranger though, especially since I can make up some of the missing issues with:)

"If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"

Selection from Callahan's Lady
(or) "High Infidelity"

The Left Hand of Darkness

"And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side"
"Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death"
"The Screwfly Solution"?
(I'm not sure about "Screwfly" because I think pairing it with "Love is the Plan" might dilute the ambiguity of the latter story, which is one of my favourites ever and definitely my favourite Tiptree. There's lots in Tiptree to choose from, though. If I could find a copy it would also be nice to include the famous "ineluctably masculine" Robert Silverberg introduction.)



"Aye, and Gomorrah"
Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand

Something from Bloodchild

"Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation"

The theory would include one major reading each about sex, gender, and genre -- my current plan is for the first 50 or so pages of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, vol. 1, something by Judith Butler, and some of Delany's literary criticism, respectively -- and a smattering of smaller stuff relevant to specific works (like this!).

So there you go. I originally planned to post about this and ask for suggestions for additions or alterations to that list, but I put it off for a while and in that time got more set in it as it appears. Nonetheless if anybody does have an opinion I'd be happy to hear it.

Have you already checked out....

Date: 2010-02-22 02:23 pm (UTC)
brainwane: My smiling face, including a small gold bindi (Default)
From: [personal profile] brainwane (from
...some suggested works from the "Pushing the Envelope" panel at WisCon 2006? (Related suggestions.)

What did you take out? I'm curious because it's been a decade since I taught my own scifi class.

Re: Have you already checked out....

Date: 2010-02-23 11:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hehe, from, one of the references is

Bron argues that "what gives the species the only value it has are men, and particularly those men who can do what I did . . . the bravery demanded there." These men, he continues, "deserve more than second-class membership in the species," but are currently not getting their due because "that kind of man can't be happy with an ordinary woman, the kind that's around today." [...] Bron's decision to become a woman, then, is based on his desire to be the woman he thinks he deserved as a man, in order to ensure the existence of such a woman.

...Acquiescing to Lawrence's demand that they go out to dinner when she would rather remain at home, she observes, "after all, Lawrence was a man. And a real woman had to relinquish certain rights. Wasn't that, she told herself silently, the one thing that, from her life before, she now, honestly knew?"

...Bron's counselor tells him that his inferior work performance is a consequence of the fact that he is "somebody who believes that women are less efficient. So you're just living up to your own image."

...He argues that Bron can never really be a "complete" woman because "being a woman . . . means having that body of yours from birth, and growing up in the world learning to do whatever you do . . . with and within that body." Bron hasn't experienced the socialization required to make him the 'real' woman he desires to be, both because he has not occupied the female body throughout his life experience, and because the kind of ideology that used to produce the 'inferior-to-man' woman Bron desires is no longer a part of social experience in Delany's heterotopia.

Both/And: Science Fiction and the Question of Changing Gender

But it also has the blurb "Trouble on Triton, by Samuel R. Delany (1976). An early sfnal portrayal of transsexuality."

Ow! >D

Re: Have you already checked out....

Date: 2010-02-24 10:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've never managed to get past the first chapter or so of Triton, but I understand that he wrote it as a rebuttal to The Dispossessed, and in this way it seems like kind of an inverted Dispossessed -- an uptight and not very intelligent protagonist entering into and coming into conflict with a much more progressive and egalitarian society. I suspect that Delany is not arguing implicitly or explicitly that no person not raised in a female body could genuinely embody womanhood, though I guess he could surprise me.

I was surprised that the list included that and Dahlgren but not Stars in my Pocket, in the main society of which 'she' is the default pronoun, and 'he' applied only to those to whom the speaker is sexually attracted.

-Andy H.

Re: Have you already checked out....

Date: 2010-02-24 05:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Re "I suspect that Delany is not arguing implicitly or explicitly that no person not raised in a female body could genuinely embody womanhood"--I agree.

It's true that I referred to the book, on our "breaking the envelope" list, as an early sfnal portrayal of transsexuality, but the emphasis there is at least as much on "early" as on anything else; thirty-four years ago, Triton was groundbreaking. I agree that it was not a terribly sensitive or realistic portrayal of transsexuality in general, but it explored gender--through the eyes of a deeply flawed protagonist--in interesting and unusual ways.

But yeah, the question of whether Bron is truly a transwoman, or is instead a man who puts on a female body due to his notions about gender, is an interesting one; perhaps I ought to have used more nuanced phrasing for the blurb on the list.

Re: Have you already checked out....

Date: 2010-02-24 09:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I hadn't seen those; thanks. Much of it is outside my chosen purview and some of the rest I'd already considered and either included or consciously left off (Butler's first Xenogenesis book, Dawn, would be the first runner-up I'd turn to if it turned out I couldn't include one of the novels I have), but some of the scholarly articles in particular could be useful.

I'm not sure I can parse your question. Do you mean, what did I want to include in this list that I had to remove? Aside from what I've already alluded to, actually not much; I brainstormed some things I thought I'd obviously like to have and that's remained mostly intact (the restrictions I put on the list were in large part after the fact, so that I wouldn't have to face hard choices about what else to add to it).

-Andy H.

Re: Have you already checked out....

Date: 2010-02-24 05:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm sorry to spam your entry with a bunch of comments, but I can't resist one more:

If you find yourself with room for just one more short story, and if you haven't already considered and discarded it, I would recommend taking a look at "Liking What You See" by Ted Chiang.

It's not his best story ever, but I found it thoroughly mind-opening in terms of taking apart what attractiveness is and how we behave in response to it. It's one of the few stories that has changed not only the way I think about the world but the way I behave. It's not exactly or entirely transgressive in the sense you're talking about, but it sheds an unusual light on asexuality, which can be pretty transgressive in the real world, and on sexuality in general. And I think it makes a neat pairing with "Congenital Agenesis," which is probably my favorite story about gender ever.

Speaking of pairings, you might consider adding another Le Guin piece to Left Hand of Darkness: either her followup essay "Is Gender Necessary" (I think that's the one I mean), in which she discusses her pronoun choices and other stuff, or her short story "Coming of Age in Karhide," which revisits and enriches her exploration of what life on Gethen is like.

Okay, I'll stop now. Thanks for your post!

Re: Have you already checked out....

Date: 2010-03-04 07:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I really appreciate your comments; sorry for taking so long to respond. I have read the Chiang but I've had it filed as too late to be within my purview here. I put 2000 as my cut-off date up there, and indeed "Liking What You See" was written after 2000, but the restriction I was going by while generating the list was something closer to 'written before I started paying attention' ("Congenital Agenesis" is an edge case here but I couldn't resist it, especially because I imagine at least one hypothetical student not noticing that it's fiction until it gets discussed. My thought for pairing it right now is to put it alongside the Stars in My Pocket reading somewhere). I expect I could fill a whole sequel class with stuff from after that point, with discussion about the Tiptrees to complement the earlier about Tiptree, and I'd definitely include it there.

It is a shame that there isn't so much about asexuality in my list as it stands, though there's a bit in "Aye, and Gomorrah...". It's interesting that in both of those stories it's the result of a procedure done on the characters rather than an inborn quality. I can think of at least three fantasy protagonists who just happen to be asexual, but none in science fiction.

The LeGuin essays sound like a great idea; I'll see if I can track down copies.

I think you're absolutely right about the limited range of sex/gender exploration in SF, certainly the majority of it, which is a big part of what I'm hoping to poke at in this class.

-Andy H.

Date: 2010-02-22 03:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This sounds pretty great. I'd be curious to hear more about this, and I'm tempted to link it to a community I follow here on LJ called 'bipolypagangeek,' as I think some members might be interested in an academic exploration of the subject.

I've actually read Time Enough for Love. It's too bad you can't slip it in, but it is mostly, I seem to recall, about Lazarus Long's serial monogamy than his polygamy until the end-ish of the book. It does have a lot of interesting ideas and stories to chew on, though.

I remember taking it to High School and getting crap from another student once or twice 'cause ladies without clothes were on the cover.

Date: 2010-02-24 10:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Time Enough For Love is an absolute gold mine; in addition to the polyamory it has lengthly apologia for various types of incest, and that great opening in which two minor characters proposition one another without knowing one another's sex (in spite of which, as far as I can recall, no character actually has homosexual sex anywhere in the book, unless you count that one bisexual threesome between clones). Stranger is still pretty good, though, because a lot has been written about it along these lines, because it was a lot of people's introduction to poly ideas, and because it's full of Heinlein's didacticism about how hidebound and culturally specific our sexual norms are, coupled curiously with his characteristic outlandish claims about the essential differences between men and women.

I'm kind of shy about publicity, but I'll leave a link to your judgement; as long as that isn't the sort of community such that it would bring with it a tsunami of nonsense, that's probably fine.

I remember taking it to High School and getting crap from another student once or twice 'cause ladies without clothes were on the cover.

Thanks for reminding be once again how atypical my own schooling experience was. X)

-Andy H.

Date: 2010-02-24 05:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Re Stranger being "full of Heinlein's didacticism about how hidebound and culturally specific our sexual norms are, coupled curiously with his characteristic outlandish claims"--yeah, agreed; and most specifically, coupled with the very very widely argued-about stuff about homosexuality.

IIrc, Stranger was one of the main foci of the Great Floating Heinlein-and-Homosexuality Flamewar that drifted all around Usenet for years back in the old days. I imagine it's still out there somewhere, but when I see one of its tentacles encroaching, I generally flee. (So I'm sorry to bring the topic up here; I certainly have no intent to turn your comments section into a branch of that fight! But the topic does seem relevant to what you're talking about, and I'm trying to keep this comment fairly neutral on the question of H's views of homosexuality.) (Of course, this may mean that you might not want to focus on this issue in class, given the topic's proven ability to eat huge amounts of time and energy.)

Date: 2010-02-22 05:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I don't have much useful to add, other than I would so take this course in a heartbeat. :) Especially because my experience reading SF is fairly limited and I'd love to change that (I just never know where to start... possibly with your list here!). Of course, being me, I'd love to see a course like this that included TV, but I can definitely understand how that would make the course too long. TV/movies would be a whole separate class. :) Anyway though, yeah, this sounds really interesting (reminds me of the essay on Farscape and gender I wrote a couple of years back), and it'd be awesome if you ever got to teach it.

(btw, out of curiousity, who taught your Sociology of Sex class? Was it Becky Ross? She taught me back in 3rd year and I love both her and the class).

Date: 2010-02-24 10:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think Becki Ross probably wouldn't have booed me! I took Soci of Sex from the much more junior (but nonetheless awesome) Brandy Wiebe. We did read one of Ross' articles, though.

And yeah, media SF is really a whole different milieu, much as I also like to go on about Farscape and its determined efforts to break down the boundaries between the individual subject and the outside world. On the whole it's more mainstream and conservative than written SF, which is not surprising given its much wider audience. I'm leaving fantasy out for similar reasons; even though the difference between fantasy and SF is fuzzy at the best of times, there are actually quite different trends in the exploration of sex in each subgenre. Fantasy tends more often to have sex scenes that are written to be erotic, has more explorations both of uneven sexual power dynamics and of asexuality (but fewer of the sexually and societally alien), and it has developed a sort of a 'gay protagonist' archetype in a way that I don't think SF really has; so that, too, would be a course all of its own.

I don't know if this list is actually the best place to start reading; I put it together to provoke conversation and to give a sense of the range of what's out there, which means among other things that it actually includes some pieces I don't like very much. Although I do like The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, if someone were asking me to recommend a LeGuin more generally I'd immediately offer The Dispossessed; it's just not as much in my theme. I do think you would really like Bujold, though, come to think of it; see if you can find The Warrior's Apprentice, or the Young Miles collection.

-Andy H.

Date: 2010-02-23 08:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is pretty much my favourite way that a professor has ever responded to me in class.


My favourite is when Dr. Balmforth broke down laughing for several minutes because of the expression on my face.

Date: 2010-02-24 10:39 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
broke down laughing for several minutes because of the expression on my face.

Fixed that for you, ha ha ha.

-Andy H.

Another tidbit

Date: 2010-02-24 05:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Nifty class idea, nice reading list!

In addition to my entries that brainwane linked to, here's another one that might be of interest:

The relevant bit is near the end of the entry, starting with the line "I finished off my time at the con by being on one last panel"; it's about gender rather than sexuality per se, but there's enough overlap that I thought you might be interested. The main relevant bit of that section is my claim that sf doesn't generally cover as interesting or as broad a range of gender and sexuality as occur in the real world. There's also a nice little list (by my co-panelist) of areas that people often conflate under the terms "gender" and "sex."


garran: (Default)
Andy H.

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