New aliens in science fiction wear familiar faces

April 14, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Sexuality is a theme cropping up in science fiction more and more often these days. You'll find some examples in "Nebula Awards 30" edited by Pamela Sargent (Harcourt Brace, 1996, $25).

"Nebula Awards 30" is an anthology of the best works of science fiction from 1994. The Science Fiction Writers of America was formed in 1965 and soon began handing out awards - Nebulas -- for the year's best stories. This evolved into a series of Nebula anthologies and eventually the group also adopted a new name -- the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

If you want to keep up with the ever-changing world of science fiction and fantasy, this is the book to have. It includes not only short stories, poetry and an excerpt from the 1994 Nebula Award-winning novel (Greg Bear, "Moving Mars") but essays about the state of the art.

I was interested in Nicola Griffith's essay on "The New Aliens of Science Fiction," for she suggests the aliens are us, men and women. It didn't start out that way.

The first aliens of pulp SF were green, slimy bug-eyed monsters, but in the 1930s and 1940s they turned into androids and robots. In the peace and love era of the 1960s stories began to be told from the point of view of the mutant.

But one element had been missing in science fiction for many years: women. SF writers finally began writing about women and gender, and women began writing science fiction. Ursula LeGuin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" is an early example.

Griffith complains that in the 1970s a hard-science backlash took place. It wasn't until the 1980s that sex, sexuality and gender again became hot topics and women writers re-emerged - including mainstream writers like Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy plus Gwyneth Jones and Joan Slonczewski. Male SF writers like Geoff Ryman ("The Child Garden") and fantasy writers Charles de Lint ("Memory and Dream") began to explore these issues.

But Griffith says not all fantasy and SF writers explored sexuality as enlightened humanists.

"The year 1994 marked the publication of a nasty little book called 'Colorado 1998' written by Mark Olsen, the communications director for Colorado for Family Values," she said. "The book purports to describe how America would really look if queers ruled the world. Olsen is about 30 years behind the rest of the genre," Griffith sniffs.

Instead, she says 1994 ought to be remembered for a resurgence of women writing about women - Melissa Scott in "Trouble and Her Friends" includes lesbians in the cyperpunk world and Suzy McKee Charnas in "The Furies" takes an unflinching look at how women and men can be utterly alien to each other.

Griffith says that sex, sexuality and gender as themes in SF are here to stay. There's even a prize, the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, which is given annually to the novel or short story that best examines and expands gender roles.

Griffith herself won this award for her first novel, "Ammonite." Her second novel, "Slow River," was recently published. A native of England, Griffith now lives in Seattle.

Included in "Nebula Awards 30" is one of the two 1994 Tiptree Award winners, "The Matter of Seggri" by Ursula LeGuin. (The other winner was Nancy Springer for her novel "Larque on the Wing.")

Primed by Griffith's observations about SF and sexuality, it was fun to read LeGuin's novelette.

In her world, all males are removed from their homes and villages at age 11. They are taken to luxurious castles where, for the rest of their lives, they will be allowed to do only two things: compete in sports and provide stud service.

At first glance it looks like the men have all the fun. They have privileged lives. They don't have to work or go to school. Indeed, it is forbidden. They are vastly outnumbered by women who pay for their sexual favors. But which sex really rules this strange yet familiar world? Of course, it's the women.

" 'The Matter of Seggri' ... has to do with gender; and gender does seem often to bring us right up face-to-face with sex, as well as love ... and the functioning of society and the conditions of freedom," said LeGuin. "It was a hard story to write because it was so painful. I had no idea that just changing the demographics would hurt so much," she added.

It is painful, uncomfortable and thought-provoking to look at an upside-down world. If the story is effective, it challenges our most basic cultural assumptions. That's the beauty of science fiction.

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