I don’t know a better way to develop an open mind than to read science fiction. The very nature of creating alternate worlds has a way of making us question the assumptions of our own society. If done well, a speculative story leaves us with empathy for characters whose behavior causes no harm and yet would be offensive here and now. In short, we’re forced to question the rules we live by.
That’s not to say there is no wrong in science fiction. Villains continue to be mean, sadistic, greedy souls, and heroes still struggle to let the love in their hearts win the day. In world after world, the key points on a moral compass transcend time and space, even as authors acknowledge all the grey area in between. But as to the rest of those rules? In no arena is the arbitrariness of acceptable and perverted more apparent than in the world of science fiction sexuality.
Creatures come in three genders in Isaac Asimov‘s 1972 Nebula award winning The God’s Themselves and regularly change gender in Ursula Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness from 1969. Hero Rydra Wong is part of a three way marriage in Samual Delany’s Babel-17, written in 1966. Decades before the LGBT movement reached the hearts of the average straight person, science fiction writers were pushing readers to question their heteronormative assumptions.
Other questions they posed still make me uncomfortable. I don’t member the name of the short story about a world in which normal healthy parents were expected to introduce their children to loving sex, but I remember how the very idea made me cringe. The story about a world which kept the strongest babies born each year and ate the rest still makes me nauseous when I think of it, but the writer’s description of the inhabitants horror at discovering that we ate animal flesh hit a nerve. I got it. I don’t have to change my own behavior or preferences, but it is worth knowing that my normal could be someone else’s disgusting.
Many clever writer’s have used the flip side of this to make their world more vivid. Once something becomes socially unacceptable, it has the ingredients for kinky sex. Of course, the more ridiculous the rule, the sillier the kinkiness becomes. The hero in Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale lives in a world where women are not allowed to read. The man who essentially owns her takes her to a secret place to do something depraved. Her worst fears are groundless. The man wants to play scrabble with her.
I’m now about a third of the way into Frederick Pohl and CM Kornbluth’s 1952 satire The Space Merchants, and I’m enjoying it very much. I just finished a scene in which a most likable character disgusts our hero with his perverse behavior. It should be said that the hero is a work in progress, an advertising executive slowly learning the ramifications of his work. The perverse act we witness? His friend likes to read alone in a library that is filled with countless books with no advertisements at all. So much space with no attempt to sell anything is considered obscene in this dystopia.
“I’m not a prude about solitary pleasures when they serve a useful purpose. But my tolerance has limits,” our hero says. Point well made.
(For more about why I think The Space Merchants is a clever and under-appreciated story, see my posts I Know Sexism When I See It?, Predicting the Future or Shaping It? and Through the Eyes of Another.)