We talk a lot about the cutting edge of sexuality, but what's beyond the cutting edge? If science fiction can sometimes predict upcoming scientific breakthroughs, what can erotic science fiction tell us about the future of sexuality? And if you're a sci-fi reader with a healthy sex drive who didn't know about this burgeoning genre, have I got some spectacular news for you...
Okay, full disclosure time: while I usually research the things I cover for Plugged In, this one was already squarely in my neighborhood. I write erotic science fiction, and I do it mostly for the seminal publishing company Circlet Press, which specializes exclusively in erotic science fiction and fantasy. It's a ridiculously awesome genre to play in for those of us who love gadgetry and also can't keep our hands out of our pants – or, if I'm feeling serious, a genre to explore the potential transformative nature of sexuality when it's amped up (or in direct conflict) with technology.
I admit to bias: I love this genre. I've tackled aphrodisiac implants, robot maids turned sexy, psychics touching another's flesh for the first time in years – and I've learned a lot about my own sexuality from it. No, not just in the "wow, creepy mechanical stuff turns me on" way. Although that's true too...but before we get too deep into my sexual psyche here, let's have a brief history lesson. It'll be yummy, I promise.
If the concept of erotic science fiction seems a little odd, look at it this way: sex writers have always pushed the boundaries of the acceptable, and science fiction authors live in the future inside their heads, well after today's concepts of “acceptable” are dead and gone. Suddenly, erotica and science fiction don't seem like such strange bedfellows. Add to this that pervy riffs have shown up in the annals of even the most classic science fiction through the years (albeit mostly “offscreen”), and the boom of sexy sci-fi seems inevitable.
How did the walls first start coming down between science fiction and erotica? “I always wanted to mix chocolate and peanut butter,” says Cecilia Tan, editorial director of Circlet Press. “I always wanted to put eroticism in my sf/f and vice versa, but back when I started doing it in the early 90s the sf/f publishers were scared of sex and the porn publishers were scared of any plot that was more complicated than a Penthouse letter. I had to start Circlet Press as a way to prove to everyone that chocolate and peanut butter actually went together perfectly well, and the next thing you knew, editors at the major houses started dipping their toes into more explicit content, and the romance writers started putting more vampires and telepaths and angels in their books.”
With the playing field much more open, newer authors like me quit writing stories just for themselves and their friends, and started writing serious sexy speculative fiction for legitimate markets. The success of steamy mainstream vampire works helped things along (and yes, there was plenty before Twilight; think Interview With the Vampire). “The Victorian sensibility just boils with repressed lust all the time,” Tan notes, and steampunk's popularity has permeated the erotic fiction world just as much as the mainstream science fiction genres. “That's going to continue trending upward like an airship cut loose from its moorings for a while,” Tan suggests.
As fanciful and forward-thinking as science fiction is, it must still ring true for present-day readers to stay relevant, from the technological aspects to the sexual ones -- which Tan suspects will particularly keep paranormal themes going. “It's just too good to resist, what with all the metaphors we can make for our modern fears about sex and relationships via vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. Fantasy is a great way to process that stuff.”
It's a great way to process not only for readers but for authors, too. What started as a lark for me – “I like robots; I like sex; I'll write about robots having sex!” – has become a surprisingly intense process of self-revelation and even self-therapy. I once had a phobia of mechanical "squid" creatures with glowing eyes (think the Sentinels in the Matrix films). Against my will, I got a good erotic story idea involving such creatures and wound up writing lots and lots of cranky sentient mechanical squid porn. Viewing them through the eyes of the human character who fetishized them changed my opinion -- not just of squiddies, but of present-day "inhuman" technology. (The fact that I went a little too far and now get a little breathless when I watch those scenes in the Matrix trilogy is completely beside the point).
Writing about robot sexuality also immediately calls into question what sex is for: if it's not for biological gratification or emotional satisfaction, what's the point? It never occurred to me that writing sexy sci-fi would so blatantly affect my personal outlook on the real-life sexuality I experience every day, let alone the sociopolitical ramifications of having characters arms-deep (or, er, other appendages) in robots: everything from informed consent to what constitutes "life" shows up on the page and makes me take a second look in real life.
By that token, is it possible to look at the trends in erotic sci-fi and guess at where we're headed in reality? Maybe. “I'm seeing a lot more 'poly' these days,” Tan says. “I'm not sure how much of that is society is ready to tackle questions of relationships with more than two people in them (though I can hope!) or if it's that our authors want to get away from plain old predictable twosome dynamics. Three or more lovers makes for a more complex story and a more complex emotional landscape."
That's a reasonable caution against using fiction as a crystal ball; I've certainly written futures I didn't want to live in that I hope are plausible but unlikely. Then again, there are some definite themes which seem to hint at societal change: “I don't think it's a coincidence that we're seeing such a rise in interest in gay (male/male) romance at the same time that gay marriage has become such a hot topic politically," says Tan. "A lot of people who never considered the topic before find themselves thinking about it, then fantasizing, then reading (or writing) a book. Funny how that happens!”
There's been significant bleedthrough into the mainstream market from the erotic sci-fi hinterlands. Everything from the popular Kushiel's Dart fantasies to Charles Stross's delightfully carnal science fiction futures are available on ubiquitous airport bookshelves. The increasingly faint line separating “erotic sci-fi” from “sexy mainstream sci-fi” brings more visibility to both, though erotic sci-fi's status as a niche market allows its publishers significantly more flexibility in business models than the little guys in the mainstream biz. Circlet Press has pursued a mainly electronic publishing scheme and is currently running a promotion to raise the money necessary for a paper version of a best-of anthology.
In many ways, it seems that the publishing arms of the erotic sci-fi genre are just as forward-looking as its authors – and that may just be the most promising thing the genre offers for our future yet...aside from the spectacularly fresh one-handed reading material!