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literature

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Science Fiction and Fantasy  
 
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The Changes of the 1960s

By the late 1960s, however, science fiction and fantasy began to reflect the changes prompted by the civil rights movement and the emergence of a counterculture.

Within the genres, these changes were incorporated into a movement called "the new wave," a movement more skeptical of technology, more liberated socially, and more interested in stylistic experimentation. New wave writers were more likely to claim an interest in "inner space" instead of outer space and to call their work "speculative fiction" instead of fantasy or science fiction. They were less shy about explicit sexuality and more sympathetic to reconsiderations of gender roles and the social status of sexual minorities.

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As rising expectations for social equity rippled from race to gender to sexual orientation, women writers sympathetic to these expectations took up both genres in increasing numbers--among others, Alice Sheldon (1915-1987), Ursula K. Le Guin (b. 1929), Sally Miller Gearhart (b. 1931), Marge Piercy (b. 1936), Joanna Russ (b. 1937), Suzy McKee Charnas (b. 1939), Elizabeth A. Lynn (b. 1947), and Diane Duane (b. 1952).

These women were joined by a smaller number of male writers with comparable sympathies, notably Thomas M. Disch (b. 1940) and Samuel R. Delany (b. 1942). Under their collective influence, sympathetic depictions of alternative sexuality and gender multiplied in science fiction and fantasy.

Exploring Alternative Sexuality and Gender in Science Fiction

In "When It Changed" (1972), for example, Russ takes science fiction's customary treatment of an all-female planet visited by men and turns it inside out; instead of experiencing a reflexive transformation into an eager heterosexual, the female narrator precisely identifies the men as a profound threat to her culture and lesbian identity.

In Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), an abused woman in a mental institution time-travels to a future that is feminist, ecologically sensitive, and accepting of homosexuality. In Gearhart's The Wanderground, Stories of the Hill Women (1978), women have been driven to the hills by male violence; these assertively feminist women incorporate psychic awareness and nature worship in their culture.

More sympathetic depictions of alternative sexuality and gender also increased among writers whose work was identified less completely with such concerns. These writers often reshape the more traditional features of the genres into figurative devices that illuminate essential problems experienced by women and sexual minorities.

Thus, John Varley made the protagonist of his Gaean Trilogy (1979-1984) a bisexual female space-pilot, Sirocco (Rocky) Jones. At the climax of the trilogy, Jones displaces an otherwise superior alien being through the self-sacrificing love of the female astrogator in her crew.

In another three-volume work, Cyteen (1988), C. J. Cherryh places the discrimination experienced by a male scientist and his male-android lover at the center of the complications of her plot.

And in Unicorn Mountain (1988), Michael Bishop includes a gay male AIDS patient among the sensitively drawn central characters who must respond to an irruption of dying unicorns at their Colorado ranch.

Reconfiguring Technologies and Mythologies

Just as writers in science fiction and fantasy learned to use more explicit depictions of sex and revised concepts of gender to convey a greater sensitivity and tolerance, they also learned to use features that were less reflective of their social context. In science fiction, such features include technologies that reconfigure sex or reproduction. In fantasy, they include deities from classical mythology, characters from fairy-tales, and figures from a sexually revisionist history.

Among the technologies that reconfigure sex or reproduction, science fiction has used , cloning, and artificial gestation. Unlike the procedures currently available to transsexuals, sexual reassignment in science fiction allows the altered individual to reproduce sexually after the change.

Sexual Reassignment in Science Fiction

In two notable instances, Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies" (1959) and David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself (1973), the changes are effected through time-travel, producing multiple individuals who become their own parents or siblings across the branching time lines.

Both writers seem more concerned with the temporal paradoxes in the situation than with the consequences for gender or sexual identity. Even so, Gerrold develops the potential for homosexual relations between the multiple individuals, for they are narcissistically attracted to one another.

In Triton (1976), Samuel R. Delany looks even more closely than Gerrold at the motivations and consequences of changing sex. In the world of Triton (where changing sex is easy), Delaney's protagonist, Bron, starts as a sexist male, pursues an impossible relationship with a woman who will not accede to his sexist demands, and ends as a woman searching unhappily for the kind of man he(?) had been. Dissatisfied as a man and as a woman, Bron provides an innovative study of the interaction between sexual and gender identity.

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