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Sex in speculative fiction

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Sexuality and gender have been explored in unique ways in SF

A common motif in speculative fiction is the existence of single gender worlds or single-sex societies. These fictional societies have long been one of the primary ways to explore implications of gender and gender-differences in science fiction and fantasy.[1] . In the fictional setting, these societies often arise due to elimination of one gender through war or natural disasters and disease.[2] The societies may be portrayed as utopian, particularly in feminist texts, or dystopian, as seen in pulp tales of oppressive matriarchies.


Female-only worlds

There is a long tradition of female-only places in literature and mythology, starting with the Amazons and continuing into some examples of feminist utopias. In speculative fiction, female-only worlds have been imagined to come about by the action of disease that wipes out men, along with the development of technological or mystical method that allow female parthenogenic reproduction. The resulting society is often shown to be utopian by feminist writers. Many influential feminist utopias of this sort were written in the 1970s;[2][3] the most often studied examples include Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.[2] Utopias imagined by male authors have generally included equality between sexes, rather than separation.[4] Female-only societies may be seen as an extreme type of a biased sex-ratio, another common SF theme.[5]

Such worlds have been portrayed most often by lesbian or feminist authors; their use of female-only worlds allows the exploration of female independence and freedom from patriarchy. The societies may not necessarily be lesbian, or sexual at all – a famous early sexless example being Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.[3]

Some lesbian separatist authors have used female-only societies to additionally posit that all women would revert to lesbianism if left unmolested by men, as in Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith. The enormously influential The Female Man (1975) and "When It Changed" (1972) by Joanna Russ portrayed a peaceful arable society of lesbians who resent the later intrusion of men, and a world in which women plan a genocidal war against men, implying that the utopian lesbian society is the result of this war.[6]

During the pulp era, matriarchal dystopias were common, in which female-only or female-controlled societies were shown unfavourably.[7] In John Wyndham's Consider Her Ways (1956), male rule is shown as being repressive of women, but freedom of patriarchy is only possible in a fascist female-only society modelled on ants.[8] Poul Anderson, in "Virgin Planet" depicted a world where five castaway women found a way of reproducing asexually – but the daughter is an exact copy of the mother, with the result that eventually the planet has a large population composed entirely of "copies" of the original five. Among them, males are considered mythical creatures – and a man who lands on the planet after centuries of isolation finds it difficult to prove that he is one.

James Tiptree Jr., a bisexual woman writing secretly under a male pseudonym, explored the sexual impulse and gender as her main themes;[9] in her award-winning "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever), she presents a female-only society after the extinction of men from disease. The society lacks stereotypically "male" problems such as war, but is stagnant. The women reproduce via cloning and consider men to be comical.

Male-only worlds

Men-only societies are much less common than women-only societies. Joanna Russ suggests this is because men do not feel oppressed, and therefore imagining a world free of women does not imply an increase in freedom and is not as attractive.[10] Ethan of Athos by Lois Bujold, inspired by the real world male-only religious society of Mount Athos, shows a world in which men have isolated their planet from the rest of civilisation to avoid the "corrupting" effect of women. Children are grown in uterine replicators.

A. Bertram Chandler's "A Spartan Planet" features the men-only planet Sparta which is dedicated to the values of militarism loosely modeled upon the ancient Greek city state of Sparta [1].

Genderless or hermaphroditic worlds

Other feminist utopias do not include single genders: Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) depicts trans-species sexuality, in which individuals are neither "male" nor "female" but can have both male and female sexual organs and reproductive abilities, making them in some senses intersexual.[9][11][12].

John Varley, who also came to prominence in the 1970s, is another writer of importance to sexual themes.[9] In his "Eight Worlds" suite of stories (many collected in The John Varley Reader) and novels, humanity has achieved the ability to change sex at a whim. Homophobia is shown to initially inhibit uptake of this technology, as it engenders drastic changes in relationships, with homosexual sex becoming an acceptable option for all.

Gender segregation

Segregation of genders is another common trope of speculative fiction - physical separation can result in societies that are essentially single gender, although the majority of such works focus on the re-unification of the genders, or otherwise on links that remain between them, as with Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, David Brin's Glory Season and Carol Emshwiller's "Boys". Even an episode of Duckman tried this.

Sometimes the segregation is social, and men and women interact to a limited extent. For example, when overpopulation drives the world away from heterosexuality in Charles Beaumont's short story The Crooked Man (1955), first published in Playboy, homosexuals oppress the heterosexual minority and relationships between men and women are made unlawful.

List of works

Female worlds

Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
The Female Man, When It Changed
Herland Consider Her Ways
Ammonite, Nicola Griffith

Male worlds

Ethan of Athos
The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal

Genderless or hermaphroditic worlds

Venus Plus X
The Left Hand of Darkness

See also



  1. ^ Attebery, p. 13.
  2. ^ a b c Martha A. Bartter, The Utopian Fantastic, "Momutes", Robin Anne Reid, p.101 ISBN 031331635X
  3. ^ a b Gaétan Brulotte & John Phillips,Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature', "Science Fiction and Fantasy", p. 1189, CRC Press, 2006, ISBN 1579584411
  4. ^ Martha A. Bartter, The Utopian Fantastic, "Momutes", Robin Anne Reid, p. 102 ISBN
  5. ^ Majerus, M. E. N. (2003). Sex wars: genes, bacteria, and biased sex ratios. Princeton University Press. p. 4. ISBN 9780691009810. 
  6. ^ Brooks Landon, Science Fiction After 1900, "Writing Like A Woman: Joanna Russ", p.129, ISBN 0415938880
  7. ^ Attebery, Brian (2002). Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. Routledge. p. 13. ISBN 9780415939508. 
  8. ^ Justine Larbalestier, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, "Mama Come Home; Parodies of the Sex-War", p. 72 ISBN 081956527X
  9. ^ a b c Clute & Nicholls, p. 1088 "Sex"
  10. ^ Romaine, Suzanne (1999). Communicating gender. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 329. ISBN 9780805829266. 
  11. ^ "Glbtq literature: Le Guin, Ursula K". Retrieved 2008-11-25. 
  12. ^ Garber & Paleo, "Ursula K Le Guin: Biographical note" p. 78
  • Larbalestier, Justine (2002). The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 081956527X. 
  • Bartter, Martha A. (2004). The utopian fantastic: selected essays from the twentieth ICFA. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313316357. 

External links

  • List of female/lesbian worlds at[2]


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