Stranger Loves: a Brief History of LGBTQ+ Science Fiction
Posted on: 11 February 2021
Dr Phoenix Alexander, Science Fiction Collections Librarian, University of Liverpool
To celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month we have invited Dr Phoenix Alexander, the University’s Science Fiction Collections Librarian, to outline the history of LGBTQ+ themes in the genre.
The University of Liverpool Library's Special Collections and Archives houses the largest catalogued collection of science fiction in Europe, encompassing over 35,000 books and 2, 500 periodicals, as well as the archives of some of the major science fiction writers of the twentieth century. Join us on a tour through the LGBTQIA+ history of science fiction, showcasing just a handful of items from the stacks.
Detail from the front cover to the ground-breaking anthology of ‘lesbian and gay’ stories, Worlds Apart (1985).
The Science Fiction genre has long claimed imaginative space for new worlds, technologies, social structures and social beings. But for all its purportedly future-facing aspirations, it has often proven to be just as reactionary as any other literary genre, able to imagine bizarre alien races before acknowledging the existence of, say, same-sex sexual attraction. In another context, the phrase “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” reflects this phenomenon succinctly. Nevertheless, pioneering writers have brought what we would now call LGBTQ+ themes and characters to the page over the decades, and we’ll look at a few of them within this blog post. Before we proceed, it’s important to note that many of the terms we use today to describe gender and sexuality are somewhat anachronistic to some of the texts we’ll look at in this blog post; nevertheless, they represent important moments in the development of the genre.
Vamps and Vampires
Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic Carmilla frames the protagonist’s infatuation with the titular character as a transgressive sexual threat: a trope that would become familiar in the dangerous eroticism of the vampire as a figure in sf/f. Later series such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles are much more explicit in their representing non-heteronormative sexual identities of characters.
Front cover of Volume 1 of the comic adaption of The Vampire Lestat (1990); illustration of Carmilla by Henry David Friston (1872)
The human body-as opposed to the alien, or the monster-became the site of increasingly experimental renderings of gender and sexuality later in the twentieth century. Many narratives incorporated the tropes of body-switching, body-swapping, and body-transformation, not necessarily in a threatening manner but with new-found optimism and curiosity. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) famously chronicles the life and loves of a gender-shifting time-traveller; decades later, Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton (1976) narrates the trials of an initially-male character, Bron Hellstrom, as he struggles to negotiate the dazzling ‘heterotopia’ of the planet Triton. Ai Genly, of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is similarly bewildered by the politics and society of the planet Gethen, whose inhabitants are ‘ambisexual’ as opposed to possessing discrete and fixed sexual identities. Meanwhile, texts like Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975) braided together realist and speculative narratives to offer critiques of distinctly familiar gender relations on planet Earth.
Sex and the Body Erotic
In the latter decades of the twentieth century, sf/f writers continued to push at accepted norms and taboos alike to radically reshape the genre. Harlan Ellison’s landmark edited anthology Dangerous Visions (1967) brought together thirty-two writers who did such work; the collection notably included, again, Samuel R. Delany’s short story ‘Aye, and Gomorrah’, which imagined a strange new class of humanity-and an attendant, strange new fetish. Turning the screw of obscenity a few decades later, Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (1996) paraded almost every taboo imaginable across its pages. Returning to the vampire theme, Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling (2005) breathed new life into a now-familiar mythos-and added a level of discomfort via its protagonist, Shori.
Front covers of Fledgling (2005), A Song for a New Day (2020) and Exquisite Corpse (1996).
In 2021, LGBTQ+ literature continues to be a growing force, with more and more publishers, agents and editors-the arguable gatekeepers of any literary field-actively seeking stories from under-represented authors and championing the importance of own voices. Writers such as T J Klune, Kellan Szpara, Charlie Jane Anders, Rivers Solomon, Sarah Pinsker and countless others are building a dazzling canon of queer literature. Seek them out!