The Role of Science Fiction in Literature
I’ve been reading science fiction since I was very young. I honestly don’t even remember the first sci-fi book I read. I do remember the first one that made a huge impact on me. It was a short story by Ray Bradbury called All Summer in a Day. After that I couldn’t get enough. Somewhere along the way I read I, Robot and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K. Dick and realized that science fiction wasn’t just great stories. It was a commentary on our society and our place in that society. The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge further cemented this in my mind. Then I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. My whole perception of myself and my world view changed with that one book. It was profound thing for a young preteen to realize that other people, other beings, even those vastly different could have the same emotions. They might not be expressed the same way or be overtly recognizable as such but they were there if you kept an open mind.
In the years since, I have read much science fiction. Some of it was just fun others of it required a more cerebral approach. I also expanded my reading selection to include literary novels, mysteries and non fiction. I discovered something.
Science fiction is our modern day fairy tale.
Its the morality story, the cautionary tale. It serves as both entertainment, enlightenment and instruction. It takes a social problem, stigma or perception and shines the light of truth on it in a way that is not always obvious. Now this is not true of all science fiction. Not every novel can be The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) or Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes).
Transformers, Sex and Intimacy
I was recently introduced to the IDW Publishing line of Transformer’s comics. Among them was the title More Than Meets The Eye, written by James Roberts. At first I was put off, nearly incensed by the story line, but I set aside my prejudices and allowed myself to be caught up in the story. I would have deprived myself of so much, had I not.
The way Roberts writes these characters is fantastic. As good as any of the sci-fi novel’s I’ve mentioned. The stories are in turn funny and poignant and at times down right sad. The issue that came out yesterday encapsulated all of that.
Issue #13 brought up some interesting discussions among fans about gender roles, sexuality and what makes a character identify ‘male’ or ‘female’ when their species has no gender bias. The interpersonal relationships have been expanded upon in ways that I had only ever seen in fan fiction. He treats these giant non-organic lifeforms as if they are actually people and not just giant weaponized automatons.
It is these relationships that intrigue me. Much is implied, and in issue #12 it was even stated that they have a relationship status called conjunx endura that is sealed by a ceremony involving the two ‘bots in question. Yet they are an alien race. They do not have genders or a need for genders of any kind. What they do have is a basic need for intimacy as any intelligent life does. Intimacy does not have to equal sex. Being intimate can be as simple as holding hands or as complex as taking care of someone with a chronic illness. Both require trust, commitment and love.
This point was eloquently stated in the latest post by DorkDaddy.com entitled: It’s Just Sex, Dammit!
“There are a thousand things necessary for a successful day and a successful life. Balancing the checkbook. Reading to the kids. Visiting your parents. Maintenance on the house. Laughing. Resting. Playing. Growing. Learning. These are the things of life. These are the things that determine whether we are fulfilled, whether we are successful in life. None of them require intercourse. And yet still we venerate sex as the ultimate goal in life, as if everything else is just a way of occupying time between sexual interludes. We high-five our friends when they “got lucky” or “got some” or “got some action” as if to say “Well done. You got that taken care of. Now you can move on to all the other stuff.”
Granted, there is no better way to foster intimacy with your partner than sex. It connects you and makes you vulnerable and draws you together with another person like no other way can. But when considering intimacy, it isn’t even necessary for that (blasphemy, I know). Imagine the potency of your partner gently running her fingers through your hair, or down your back. Picture those moments when you’re lost, looking into your partner’s eyes, and neither of you has to say anything. Think for a moment on the lasting rewards of gently holding hands, or on the way you can totally lose yourself in a deep, committed kiss. These too are the things of intimacy. Because of them, even if you never knew sex, surely you could still know intimacy.”
This is what I find so fascinating about this comic and the way Mr. Roberts has written these characters. They are realistic, deeply thought out and interesting. I care about them. I relate to their struggles, their insecurities, their quirks in ways I have never related to ‘human’ characters. They allow us to explore relationship dynamics without the added pressure of sex. There is no sex for the sake of intimacy. The intimacy comes from other means but is no less potent.
The Wordsmiths Forge on Livejournal lists multiple ways of displaying non-sexual intimacy. Among the things she lists are personal care, spacial closeness including sharing the same sleeping space. Living arrangements which include a measure of trust involved such as sharing passwords, bank accounts and/or living quarters and cleaning someone else’s room. She also talks about urgent situations up to and including risking your life or making medical decisions for someone.
Each of these things have been featured in the comic.
Comradewodka on Tumblr had some interesting things to say about the ‘married’ couple in the comic:
” . . . Chromedome and Rewind. I’m not sure what I could say about them that hasn’t been said, so— let me just say this. Any sentient race, regardless of whether they’re mechanical or actually capable of anything sexual or not, is going to feel emotions and form relationships, even to the point that they feel romantically about someone. Even to the point that they want to spend the rest of their lives with that someone. Every sentient race, if they find something pleasurable in life—even if that something is as innocent (and non-sexual by our standards) as fond, platonic or romantic touches—is going to seek out that pleasurable something with others. It’s biology.
Chromedome and Rewind aren’t “male”. They don’t have genders. They’re not unusual in considering each other “spouses” either, if everyone else’s reactions are any indication. But to a whole heck of a lot of people, they LOOK “gay”—and sometimes it’s almost easier for us humans to refer to them that way—so them being canonically in a romantic relationship isn’t just a big step for a franchise in which we’ve generally been given a grand zipola about how relationships work, it’s a big step for comics and media in general. One more pebble on the pile of change.
That being said, though I and many others really freaking appreciate Chromedome and Rewind for a number of reasons, I don’t think Roberts had some big overt gay rights agenda when writing them. Which brings me back to my main point— that he’s just THAT good at writing them as what they are—fully fleshed out characters that just happen to be giant gender-less robots. So they happen to look kind of masculine by human standards? Roberts don’t care. Roberts don’t give a fuck. He just write what he wants.”
Are all Robots Male?
She made a good point. Just because something ‘looks’ male in our perception does that mean it is male? Some fans had their worlds turned upside down by the appearance of holomatter forms of the Transformers. It was stated that these new forms were an exact representation of the robot’s psyche. So in other words, the human forms the program assigned them was based on their personality. Not all of them identified as male or even adult. Tailgate was an infant being carried around in a backpack by Swerve.
Comradewodka on Tumblr made some excellent observations on this subject as well:
“Yeah, most of them have features we associate with masculinity, and that’s fine and dandy, but they actually do not fall into any kind of gendered roles in their culture.
So why the hell CAN’T big warriors like Ultra Magnus or Whirl relate or identify, psychologically speaking, with representation as a human female—just so long as that human female still accurately represents who they are as a character?
Answer: there’s absolutely no reason why they couldn’t. They’re a blank slate, gender-wise. They can have the biggest most “masculine” bodies ever, be called “he”, have what I assume to be masculine voices and features, and still feel like a human female body is a more accurate representation of their psyche.”
Assigning gender roles to gender-less species is like saying pink is feminine. Pink is pink it has no gender. A hundred years ago women would never wear pink. Men did. Pink is a color that societal norms have shifted into a different perception. The terms male and female differentiate sexual reproduction roles. They do not apply to colors any more than they apply to a species that does not reproduce sexually.
The fact that giant robots might see themselves as better represented by a human female form should say a lot. I will leave that topic for my next post.
This is why I love science fiction so much. It allows us to explore themes that would be and are taboo in other forms of writing and it does so in a way that is digest able for the larger audience. It illuminates aspects of society that might otherwise go unnoticed and in doing so educates us about being human. Yes, we can learn from giant alien robots how to be more human.