Does all science fiction need to spell out that there will be LGBT people in the future too?
Because everything i do, i do for the bragging rights, i am trying to read 200 books this year. The way to do that is read a lot of science fiction (i demolished Sue Burke’s Semiosis on a plane ride from Bergen to Bangkok in April, for example). Actually, i try and have a spiritual/philosophy book, a business book, a self-improvement book and a fiction book all going at once and in any two or three week period the goal is to finish them all and start the cycle again. That way i am never reading across myself, trying to keep up with two fiction storylines, yet i can read whatever i am in the mood for or depending on where i am (spiritual in the morning, business during the day, fiction on public transport, and self-improvement at the end of the day is the predominant rhythm).
I was traveling last week, so a science fiction novel for the plane was ideal and although i enjoyed the premise of Wesley Chu’s Rise of Io, reading its followup, The Fall of Io wasn’t highest on my list but seemed like the perfect airplane fodder.
And it is kinda fun. I love that there is an Indian lead character, Ella, and Chu weaves in her socioeconomic positioning to explain why she doesn’t fit the Superhero Academy trope, which gives the story a little depth, and helps draw you into Ella’s sense of isolation and constant feeling of being misunderstood. The idea of the alien living in her brain is also a neat concept, and this is well exploited in the first book in the series. There is also a lot of humor in the dialogue this time round, which i appreciate in a lot of modern science fiction (Tim Pratt, John Scalzi and Iain Banks come to mind).
But there were some shortfalls for me as a reader. The alien-in-the-head concept wasn’t nearly as well utilized in this second novel, despite the personality and life-goal differences between the alien (Io) and Ella. I would have liked to see some more subterfuge between the two play out rather than just via bickering conversations. Having each of them try to force actions towards a particular direction, only to be undone or fought against by the other, would have been a more interesting way to progress a few pages (where this is done it is mostly be exposition in chapter prologue italics). Chu clearly had a place in mind he needed to get Ella to by the end of the novel so he can set it up for (i’m guessing) the concluding part of the (i’m guessing) trilogy. So a few chapters with Ella and Io pulling in different directions would have been a fun insight into what it is like to live with an alien in your head, especially one that is more than just a bit of a condescending arsehole like Io. Instead, those pages-that-need-to-be-filled are used on blow-by-blow action sequences which will come in handy if anyone makes a Netflix series out of the trilogy and wants to be true to the books, which would be low expense by the way because you don’t need to have a budget for alien landscapes or spaceships or even any CGI-aliens as all the aliens are basically just interior dialogues, so you just need to spend production money on a lot of choreographed fight scenes. The action sequences are well written in that you can visualize exactly each guard, turn parry, dodge and spin. Unlike, say, the final book of the Harry Potter series where the big fight scene is such a mess that, already embarrassed that i had bothered to read the series, i ended up staring at the pages thinking, what the fuck is going on? (I guess they explain it in the movie but, like the final part of the Mockingbird four-part trilogy, i am content never to see it.) In a couple of spots, i skimmed the fight scene descriptions and jumped ahead. I love an action movie but i don’t particularly want to read them.
I will get around to reading the third in the Io series when it comes out, but probably on another plane ride, and after i have read a ton of other stuff: the equivalent of waiting for it to be on a streaming service rather than going to the movies to see it.
It was okay. Its action scifi, and while it is played out on a world stage and includes government and police factions, its not really political science fiction in the vein of, say, the Ender or Bean series, so there is no insight into why government or police forces side with each of the specific alien schisms. Its lone hero scifi, so the focus is really on Ella having to navigate to freedom while, literally, the world is out to get her. Its fun reading on an airplane.
But it did make me wonder about a more wider issue: would i be comfortable with gay tokenism in my science fiction?
And the answer is yes.
I can suspend disbelief and go for the ride in which a young Indian girl from the slums gets an alien cohabitating in her head. But it is much harder to believe that in all the people she meets in India, Australia, the Philippines, and Japan, with US and Russian operatives also running around, almost every single character of note happens to mention the monogamous heterosexual relationship that they are a part of, and there is not one gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender charcater amongst the globe-trotting cast or anyone they come in contact with.
Would it be okay if there was a lesbian mercenary on one of the two factions who ends up dying in battle, as gay characters are wont to do? Actually, even that would be better than not being present at all. Couldn’t one of Ella’s delinquent team of hardups in Japan be homeless because they had been kicked out for being gay, rather than all of them just being poor and struggling to get money for their grandparents who were looking after them? That would tie in with some of the socioeconomic nods Chu gives.
And given that Chu doesn’t think to add any LGBT people then personally, i would prefer a token inclusion rather than any attempt at a more rounded character, as he has already proven he doesn’t know how to write about us in any meaningful way so it would be better if he doesn’t go there. It would be nice not to be completely invisibilized in imaginings of the future though.
In the Io series case, it feels a little weird not to have a passing mention of any gays in such an expansive world-building environment that is meant to pretty much be set in an alternate version of the modern day, or, like, 20 years from now if there had been an alien world war (maybe he stipulated the time period in the first book, but the technology and world stage is pretty reflective of our current era, apart from nations each siding with one of the two alien factions. Everyone still uses mobile phones and gets around in cars and such).
But, you know, most of my action movies don’t mention the sexuality of everyone in the fight scenes and i don’t take umbrage at that. I guess in the Io books, Chu does throw in observances and minor details to try and give some of the secondary characters a more fleshed out presence, which is where it becomes noticeable that everyone is rampantly heterosexual, as often the minor details expounded on relate to their romantic opposite-sex interests. But overall, it is just weird that no one is LGBT in this world but okay, its not personal.
But for some reason, what i do take personally is a similar treatment by Kim Stanley Robinson in his book New York 2140. Okay, this one still gets me pretty shitty that there are no gay, lesbian or gender-fluid, non-binary characters in this epic tome that comes in at 624 pages. It’s set in New York fucking City. It has a cast of around 10 main characters. And none of them are gay? Has this guy ever even been to New York?
There is a neat little aside in the novel that talks about how if you choose any random ten or so people then the story you tell will center them in the plotline that propels the story forward. Robinson’s point is that since the novel is describing mostly external events then technically, you could choose any random ten people and they would have a plot that moves forward around those events too. Its a neat little joke that tips the hat to the idea that everyone in New York City has a story to tell, but is a little ingenious given that one of the ten characters ends up being president or whatever and waves her presidential wand to solve everything, and everyone lives happily ever after, the end (I’m not recommending you read it so i don’t really care about spoilers).
But even if you did just choose ten random people in New York City there is no way that at least one of them wouldn’t be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. You would have to go out of your way to find a sampling (that you could pretend was random) of ten that did not include LGBT and even then, were they really being honest with you, or you with them?
Again, in most science fiction novels its not that much of a point, like action movies, you don’t need to know the sexuality of each of the characters getting their ass handed to them, or running from killer robots/psychotic aliens/the natural collapse of the universe. But in Robinson’s expansive, again, world-building novel he pretty much mentions the heterosexual proclivities of every major character in the book. And by 2140, it will be even more likely that there are more LGBT people living there than now, so the absence is even more ludicrous.
It is not like Robinson doesn’t know that gay people exist. For each chapter, a quote is given of a leading New Yorker. Quotes are included from artist and ACTUP activist David Wojnarowicz, gay poet Walt Whitman (repeatedly) and Dorothy Parker, the literary wit who used to invite gays to her 1920s soirees at the Algonquin Round Tables (one theory even has it that it was her and not Judy Garland that was the source of the term “friend of Dorothy”). He can use quotes from our community to elevate the story, but not actually give any visibility into any of us actually existing in the New York he imagines will exist in just one hundred years from now.
In Wu’s case it is just a little weird and is nothing more than an annoying oversight. In Robinson’s case i feel it is a deliberate attempt at invisibilizing LGBT people and it still gets me pretty angry.
Because if you look at modern science fiction, there are a bunch of really great writings that all recognize fluidity of sexuality and gender in our futurescapes.
Tim Pratt’s awesome Axiom series has a female spaceship captain that has taken up with a woman after having discovered her ex-husband in bed (i think) with another man (if i recall), and there is another character that passingly mentions that his “type” is a dude. John Scalzi has been giving nods to gay characters since Old Man’s War (ok, the gay character didn’t do much except a threesome with a straight couple but i’m okay with that tokenism, the story wasn’t about that character but it was a nice nod to recognize in a mixed race spaceship with people coming from all over the planet that some of them would be gay). In Scalzi’s latest novel, the Selina Meyer-esque Kiva Lagos swaps from a male lover to a female one cos, well, the sex is good and at hand, and an emotional bond starts to grow.
Then there are a whole bunch of novels that manage to not focus on sexuality but are intelligent enough to weave in some reflections on how gender identity may play out in the future. Analee Newitz’s Autonomous has a fascinating riff on a character’s homophobic-like tendencies when he is attracted to an AI that has been built from an individual person’s memories and is torn until he can find out whether the original person was male or female, even though the AI is non-binary now. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series has a lesbian cross-species relationship in one book, a lesbian married couple in another, and in a third, features an alien species that swaps gender throughout their lifecycle at multiple times which makes another character curious about their own attraction and relationship status to a member of that alien species.
And of course NK Jemisin had one of her lead characters have a bisexual threeway relationship for a bit which wasn’t a big deal or necessary necessarily for the plot, but was just a plausible, realistic way to imagine the sorts of human relationships that naturally develop amongst outsiders who might be fairly transient and looking for love, companionship and warmth.
Science fiction involves a large cast and imagines humanity’s future in kaleidoscopic views of potentiality. Unlike other genre novels that may focus on a specific event or small cast of characters, science fiction is often literally world building (ok, i have used that term three times now). And there are a ton of science fiction gay and lesbian geeks out there, much more than the current level of character representation reading the genre would suggest. Allowing us to feel reflected in the author’s science fiction vision would be a nice step towards helping us imagine the possible futures we could all live in.