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Science Fiction and Fantasy  
 
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Readers who turn to science fiction and fantasy for depictions of alternative sexuality find two features of these literary genres in opposition.

On the one hand, as genres of popular literature, science fiction and fantasy often seem even more constrained than nongenre literature by their conventions of characterization and the effects that these conventions have on depictions of sexuality and gender.

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On the other hand, science fiction and fantasy seem also to promise more freedom than do nongenre literatures to imagine alternatives to the privileged assumptions of heterosexuality and masculinity that suffuse our culture.

The Origins of the Conventions in Science Fiction and Fantasy

In science fiction, these conventions originated in the boys' adventure stories of the late nineteenth century, a time when technology was transforming industry and promising to transform life for the better. Writers like Garett Serviss, for example, turned Thomas Edison into a technological wizard whose genius was to devise weaponry that would enable Earth to conquer Mars.

In fantasy, a nostalgic romanticism pursued its own spirit of marvelous adventure although it rejected technology in favor of magical or superhuman powers. Writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, for instance, achieved popularity with heroes who did not require help from advanced technology: Tarzan in the jungle or John Carter on Mars.

By promoting their popularity through enriched action and superhuman abilities, such early works of science fiction and fantasy instituted conventions for characterization that shifted away from individual complexity toward more easily accessible stereotypes. Such conventions do not promote intense considerations of sexuality in general or innovative considerations of alternative sexuality in particular.

Freedom from Conventions

Eventually, however, the two genres did learn how to free their characters from the limitations of their conventions. Science fiction freed them through extrapolation, a narrative trope that is particularly well suited for considering sexuality and gender as social constructions. In contrast, fantasy freed them through schemes of magic, which are better suited for considering sexuality and gender as essential features of identity.

Science Fiction: Extrapolation

In science fiction, extrapolation allows writers to focus not on the way things are, as fantasy and nongenre literature do, but on the way things can change. It provides science fiction with a quality that Darko Suvin has called, "cognitive estrangement," the recognition that what we are reading is not the world as we know it, but a world whose change forces us to reconsider our own with an outsider's perspective.

When the extrapolation involves sexuality or gender, it can force us to reconsider the most basic heterosexist assumptions in our culture.

In Ethan of Athos (1986), for example, Lois McMaster Bujold extends the present array of reproductive technologies to create an all-male world in which imported ova are fertilized, gestated, and brought to term in carefully monitored artificial wombs. On Athos, cosexual male partnerings to rear children are the norm.

In Walk to the End of the World (1974), Suzy McKee Charnas extrapolates from the familiar opposition of the sexes to a post-holocaust Earth in which women are kept as slaves for breeding and men are the normative sexual partners for other men. A culture of escaped female slaves has developed an equivalent norm for female sexual partners.

Thus, science fiction, by extrapolating fundamental changes in our culture, enables writers like Bujold or Charnas to challenge basic assumptions in our social construction of sexuality and gender.

Fantasy: Schemes of Magic

In fantasy, the equivalent to science fiction's use of extrapolation comes from schemes of magic. Such schemes provide fantasy with its own version of cognitive estrangement because they displace our materially based, scientifically shaped understanding of the world's dynamics with powers that are nonmaterial.

Often, such powers are spiritual or psionic (parapsychological powers, such as mind-reading or mental manipulation of the physical world). The displacement asks us to reconsider the nature of being.

Applied to sexuality and gender, such displacement in the nature of being enables fantasy to reinterpret the nature of sexual and gender identities. Some works do so by taking the disposition of sexual desire and transforming it with para-normal psychology. In such works, the ability to do magic emerges through an intense same-sex bonding or a sexual coming of age.

Thus, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mercedes Lackey have both developed series in which telepathy, telekinesis, and other psionic powers emerge with puberty.

In Bradley's The Heritage of Hastur (1975), for example, Regis Hastur's effort to repress a homosexual affair also impedes the awakening of his psionic "laran" ability. In Lackey's Magic's Pawn (1989), Vanyel's bond with another student of magic enables the student to open him telepathically and unleash Vanyel's powerful but latent psionic skills.

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