Sex and/or Dangerous Visions (Queering SF #3)
What you hold in your hands in more than a book. If we are lucky, it is a revolution. (Harlan Ellison)
On September 18, 2019, my Queering SF class read four stories, including “Aye . . . and Gomorrah” (1967) by Samuel R. Delany (1942 — ) and “Sex and/or Mr. Morrison” (1967) by Carol Emshwiller (1921–2019). Both stories originally appeared in Harlan Ellison’s 1967 anthology, Dangerous Visions. Agent-author and provocateur Ellison liked to push buttons and boundaries. He liked to shock, and — even more than that — he didn’t like to be told what to write. Ellison’s premise was that he would publish a collection of science fiction that could not, and would not, be published anywhere else. He contacted a number of authors and told them that they had no limitations. In the end, he published thirty-three pieces by thirty-two writers, some well-known, others not so much.
The results were mixed, the critics were conflicted, but the SF reading public seemed to be on board. The book itself won a Hugo Award (voted on by reading fans of SF), Philip José Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage” won a Hugo for Best Novella, and Fritz Leiber’s “Gonna Roll the Bones” won for Best Novelette. Several other stories were finalists. The readers in 1967, the readers of science fiction (though it’s worth noting that Ellison steadfastly calls it “speculative fiction”) responded positively to the works. Works designed to challenge expectations and taboos.
Both of the stories we read in class do break boundaries, as Ellison promised. Emshwiller’s story pushes the boundaries of what a science fiction story, is, does, and addresses. Doubtless it would not have been published in one of the many SF magazines at the time. Delany’s story, too, would have found a hard time. Although his story clearly fits into the science fiction mode, the subject matter would have been a tough sell in 1967.
Emshwiller’s story centers upon an unnamed woman. She lives just below Mr. Morrison, her tenant. The thing is, Mr. Morrison is a large man. For the perspective of 2019, the story could be read as fat shaming. For one, I don’t think it was Emshwiller’s intent. For another, my students didn’t think so. Nevertheless, the woman does comment on his size, repeatedly, and it might well trigger a negative response in someone reading it now. The woman’s real intent is to find out if he is one of the Others. She has become convinced that more than two sexes exist. One day, as she sat through a matinée performance of Stravinsky’s revolutionary work, Rite of Spring, watching the dancers in their “naked suits,” she began to wonder if our mistake is in assuming that there are only two sexes. Surely, Other sexes must exist. But who are they? Where are they? Is Mr. Morrison one of them? She adds, “It is not out of fear or disgust that I am looking for them. I am open and unprejudiced.”
She decides to sneak into his apartment and see for herself. She hides in his closet; she sleeps among his dirty clothes; she nibbles cheese and Fig Newtons beneath his desk. And then he comes home. And he undresses. And she is convinced that she has seen Mr. Morrison’s genitals, and they are not of the expected variety, though it may also be another “naked suit.” She flees down the stairs into her own home, and waits for him to come find her. Surely “he must (mustn’t he) come after me for what I saw.”
Delany’s story centers upon a group of Spacers. These individuals were chosen as children to participate in the Spacer program. They are neutered (gonads and organs removed) and then trained to work in space. They build stations, mine water, and provide resources for Earth. But the radiation in space would have long-term effects, and any offspring would be likely to have defects as a result. So, in order to curb population overall, and in order to limit birth defects, they are all neutered. As a result, they never pass through the usual physical maturation process.
At the beginning of the story, a group of Spacers arrive back on Earth for a “shore leave.” In Paris, they encounter a group of gay men in a public bathroom. The gay men warn them of the police presence and suggest that “you . . . people” should leave. They go to Texas and there they meet the prostitutes waiting for the shrimp fishermen to disembark. One of the prostitutes suggests that the Spacers are distracting the prostitutes’ clientele, and that “you . . . people” should leave.
You see, people have developed a sexual fetish for Spacers. While the technical term is “free-fall-sexual-displacement complex,” everyone just calls them frelks. The frelks desire the Spacers; they want to have sex with them; they seek them out and pay them. The politics of frelks divides our group of Spacers. Some see it as debauched and degrading, while others see it as a legitimate exploitation and source of money. If they’re willing to pay. . . .
In Istanbul, they divide up, and our unnamed protagonist finds a young art student. She wants to go to her room with him (it is the pronoun used in the story), but she cannot pay him. Her room is filled with Spacer porn: posters, magazines, and lurid novels. When he asks that she give him something of value to her, she refuses. She is ashamed of herself, of her “perversion.” When he suggests that she change, she yells, “‘You don’t choose your perversions.’” In the end, he leaves the apartment, neither one able to provide what the other one wanted. From the very first encounter with the gay men in Paris, it seems that the story can be read as an allegory for LGBTQ individuals. Delany was an African-American gay man living in New York City at the time. He writes in his autobiography, The Motion of Light on Water, about such public encounters with other gay men. When the frelk says that she did not choose her perversion, her words echo those of so many LGBTQ individuals.
Both these stories, both from 1967, both from the same anthology designed to challenge norms, queered the genre — though the term would not have been used at the time. As I noted in the first Queering SF piece, “queer” can be used in a variety of ways. For one, queer can signify an identity or a sexual practice. However, it can be used as an analytical framework, as a way of looking at things slightly askew. While the SF literary theorist Darko Suvin defines “science fiction” as literature that makes the world we are familiar with seem strange, and the strange world seem familiar, queer theorist William Haver defines “queer” as “making strange, queer, or even cruel what we had thought to be a world.” In this regard, the two forms of discourse share strategies and goals.
On the one hand, Emshwiller makes us look at the genre of SF (science fiction, or speculative fiction) differently. “Sex and/or Mr. Morrison” challenges us to consider what SF is and what it can do. But more than that, the story asks us to think about sex differently. The narrator thinks that we have been wrong all along to define sex as a binary. She says, “‘I accept. I accept. . . . I will love, I already love, whatever you are.’” She is wholly unafraid of the Other; she is eager to accept Otherness into her life.
Similarly, Delany’s story invites us to think about sexual “deviance” or “perversion.” Whereas Emshwiller’s story makes the familiar world strange, Delany’s story makes the strange seem familiar. While the frelks are generally demeaned — by society, by most of the Spacers — the narrator and the art student offer more sympathetic representations. Frelks (all too similar to “freaks”) are marginalized in society, but they cannot help who they are, or what they are attracted to. The frelks may seem strange or unusual to the readers — they are a new concept, after all — but the story makes them familiar. In doing so, Delany asks the reader to queer their perspective, their understanding of sexual identity, their attitudes and responses to “perversion,” since perversion is always define against the dominant practices.
From the perspective of 2019, the stories may seem tame, depending on the reader’s experience. But in 1967, they were ground-breaking. Read as history, read as part of the archive of SF, they provide insight into the development of the genre and of our thinking about sex, gender, and sexuality. Beyond that, though, these stories still have the ability to queer the genre and one’s perspective.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of a book on feminist science fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.