By Lisabet Sarai
Most people who know me, both in my author persona and in meat-space, will agree that I’m an optimist.
Except, it seems, when I’m writing science fiction.
As a reader, I’ve been a scifi fan more or less forever. (Witness my recent post on the ERWA blog.) More drawn to “soft” than “hard” scifi, I’m awed by the ability of the best scifi authors to fashion totally convincing alternate realities and to explore their social implications. Unfortunately, my love of and admiration for the genre has made me hesitant to write speculative fiction myself. I’m consumed with self-doubt about my own ability to create truly original scifi scenarios. Thus, I have only a few speculative fiction titles in my catalogue.
Every single one unfolds in some sort of dystopia.
Furthermore, as you might predict, almost all my dark futures involve some distortion of positive sexuality.
Quarantine, my most ambitious scifi effort to date, takes place in a near-future US where the population, the social fabric and the nation’s infrastructure have been devastated by a virulent plague. Echoing the AIDS epidemic, the disease supposedly arose in and was spread by the gay community. In the wake of wide-spread rioting and horrific violence, a shadowy cabal known as the Guardians of American Greatness has taken over the government. All men whose genome includes the “H-gene”, which supposedly predisposes them to homosexuality, have been imprisoned - “quarantined” - in remote internment camps. The novel follows Dylan, a brilliant and desperate young man who’s been quarantined since he was teen, as he seduces one of the few human guards in order to engineer his escape from desolate Camp Malheur.
It’s not much of a stretch, I guess, to imagine a rabidly homophobic America that glorifies Eisenhower-era “traditional” families and treats same-sex attraction as a literal crime. In writing the book, I hoped I could make this dystopia vivid enough that readers would forgive the lack of originality, not to mention the more or less obvious political stance of the author. Quarantine is a romance; Dylan and Rafe, the ex-gang-member-turned-guard, have to overcome not only the real-world obstacles facing them as fugitives but also some serious trust issues. Eventually they realize they love one another. Still, the book does not have an unequivocal happy ending. Rafe and Dylan are together for the moment, but still threatened by the authorities, as well as physically and emotionally damaged. Meanwhile, a revolution is brewing which could easily tear them apart.
Dystopias tend to persist even after the story ends.
Another example can be found in my short story The Antidote. Indeed, this dystopia shares many features with the world in Quarantine, though I wrote this story first. It’s set sixty years after the Plague, a sexually-transmitted disease that triggered mass deaths, riots and massacres. The government, superficially more benign than that the thugs in Quarantine, requires that all citizens submit to a mysterious libido-suppression technology, in order to prevent a resurgence of the deadly virus. Most people are satisfied with monthly government-supported, hormone-enhanced procreative sex. But Lena is different. Though she loves her husband Jeff, she yearns to experience the thrill of forbidden lust, to know what it feels like to couple with a stranger. There are rumors of an antidote to the government’s technology. Lena’s willing to risk everything for a taste.
Superficially, Lena’s world is peaceful, prosperous and orderly. But can one truly be human without knowing sexual desire? I guess my personal opinion is pretty clear.
The Last Amanuensis (currently out of print, but hopefully to be re-released soon) once again is set in a world overseen by an intrusive, authoritarian government. In this case, though, it’s not sex that’s forbidden, but literature and art. The Preceptors envision a purely rational society, controlled and harmonized by logic, mathematics and science. They arrest and eradicate people who challenge their ideology. Adele, the amanuensis of the title, is hired to record a secret trove of brilliant poems written by her employer and help to keep them hidden.
Trespass, published in the altruistic erotica collection Coming Together By Hand, presents a different type of dystopia, one in which a small, super-rich elite lives in beautiful, soaring cities, supported by a destitute, struggling under-class. Again, almost a natural extension of today’s realities... The tale chronicles a tragic romance between a woman of the Tower People and a young man from the Sub-urbs. It also explores how notions of obscenity and transgression can vary from one society to another.
My dystopias reveal a good deal about me, I guess. It seems I’m worried most about losing freedom: freedom to love whomever one desires, freedom to experience lust even without love. Deep down, I’m worried about the eradication of the erotic. Love, sex and the joy they can kindle are precious. In today’s world, however, let alone tomorrow’s, I see them as fragile.
I’ll end with a bit of flash fiction I wrote a long time ago, on the same basic, dystopic theme.
Yes, you can imagine that I’m the one speaking.
Yes, you can imagine that I’m the one speaking.
Before the Plague
Of course you can buy me a drink. I'd be honored to have the company of an attractive young man like you.
Sorry, I can't help it. I know that I look like a lusciously ripe thirty-five. I've always had fabulous tits, and shapely legs, too. And the hair is all mine, even if the color is augmented. I've got to be honest, though. Don't be fooled by all the wiles of anti-aging technology. I'm old enough to be your grandmother. No, probably your great-grandmother.
Don't be shy, though. Didn't you ever fantasize about an older woman? You don't have to admit it, I know you have. Every young man wonders what it would be like: the willingness, the experience, the gratitude.
So, here I am. The older woman. The woman who remembers. Yes, I remember, I swear, remember what life was like, what sex was like, before the plague.
You were born to the plague. So were your mother and father. For you, making love has always been tainted by the threat of death. What a tragedy – an abomination! Can you even begin to imagine a time when two people who were drawn to each other could have sex without fear, without consequences, other than the fact that the emotional connection might or might not strike true?
It's nearly inconceivable to you, I know, the notion of spontaneous sex. No vaccines, no tests, no questions asked. No barriers – at least no physical ones. You might enjoy yourself, you might not. That was the only risk.
I lived in that age. The golden age, it seems now. You could revel in your own body, in someone else's body. Anyone you fancied. Maybe a stranger. Maybe your best friend's husband – or even your best friend herself! If desire called, you answered, as long as that was what felt right.
Every day was ripe with erotic possibilities. We moved through our world (well, perhaps I should speak only for myself) in a continual state of borderline arousal, ready to recognize and enjoy the next sensual adventure.
You're trying to be polite, but I can see your nose wrinkle with disgust at my "promiscuity". To you it sounds unthinkable. Irresponsible. Try to understand. Sex was safe – without drugs or viral inhibitors or any other "precautions". Oh, you could be hurt. You could fall in love with someone who didn't care for you, or with a stranger you'd never see again. But you were always free to try.
The Pill was the liberator that gave us this age of deliciously decadent exploration. My mother might have been as horny as I was (and let me tell you, I was horny. All right, I admit that with the rejuvenation treatments and the tailored hormones, I still am.) But she couldn't let herself go, because she might have gotten pregnant.
Pregnancy! Another life! Now there's a consequence, fully as weighty as potential death! Again, hard for you to comprehend the risk of accidental impregnation. Your parents probably paid a pretty penny for fertility boosters and gene customization, to produce a boy as cute as you.
Now don't get offended. Here, it's my turn to buy a round. All I'm trying to say is that even though we're sitting together in this bar, we come from different worlds. My early life is nearly as alien to you as the world of that Rigelian in the corner nursing his beer.
You want to hear more, though, don't you? Should I tell you about the afternoon that I rode my bicycle along the California beach, my nipples poking through my top, advertising my constant excitement? A man picked me up and took me up to his penthouse overlooking Venice. (That was a quirky little beach town near Lost Angeles. Before the Big One. Hippies and millionaires and body builders. There's really nothing like it now.)
He got me high (yes, I know you don't approve) and then screwed me for the entire afternoon. I came four or five times, and so did he. He was insatiable, the horniest guy I ever met. I can still visualize the curly black hair on his chest, the angry purple of his cock. I felt twinges in my deliciously sore cunt for days afterward.
As it turned out, I actually didn't like him much, once we started talking. He turned out to be intolerant and conceited. That afternoon, though, in that king-sized bed above the ocean, he was my stag, my centaur, rough and hard and unrelentingly physical.
You're blushing, you know. I understand. When the plague came, suddenly all pleasure became suspect. Forbidden. Denied. Improper. The media still sell using sex, but the images are impersonal, sterile. Flesh without warmth, sex without pleasure, and by subconscious implication, without risk.
I'm annoying you. But I'm turning you on, too. I can tell. Don't laugh. Like I said, I have a lot of experience.
Not all my adventures were of the casual variety. I made love to my husband the first night we went out together, and we stayed together for thirty years. He took me to a Burmese restaurant and told me wild, picaresque tales of his travels. My attraction to the exotic merged inextricably with my attraction to him. Later, near midnight, he lifted my skirt (I rarely wore underwear in those days) and fucked me on a street corner, bent over the hood of his car. I followed him literally to the ends of the earth.
Where is he now? What can I say? He's gone. Taken by the plague. He couldn't adjust, couldn't accept the constraints. The restrictions. He said that he'd rather die than worry if every fuck would kill him.
He got what he wanted, ultimately.
No, of course I'm not crying. That's the latest cosmetic enhancement – makes my eyes sparkle.
You're right, I'm a romantic, but don't you think the world today needs a romantic or two? Look, my conapt is just a few levels up. Wouldn't you like to come up and join me for a nightcap?
That swelling in your britches is answer enough. No, that's OK, let me get the tab. Come on now, don't be such a prude. You know that you want to.
Of course I have a supply of condoms, viricide, gloves and dental dams. I'm a woman of my times. But I hope that I can make you forget all that. I want you to relax, to trust me, to let me give you a glimpse, a taste, of what pleasure was like before the plague.
Because, so help me, if someone doesn't know, and remember, we're doomed. Or might as well be.