Tag Archives: Doc Smith

SF and sexuality

The Revolution of Politics

One of the most interesting facets of modern science fiction, at least for me, is the culmination of various threads of cultural pressures that have coalesced to shatter the socio-political underpinnings of the genre.

In English, things have changed. And it is good.

I grew up reading the founders. I have (I think literally) everything Doc Smith ever published, from Lensman to Skylark to his detective stuff. Doc was a fun read. His heroes were grand. His villains embodied evil. His damsels were hard-headed, for all their distress.

But one thing was always constant.

They were invariably white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants derived from northwest European cultural and genetic stock.

A century ago, that was not just expected. It was required. These were the days when (white) women had just been granted the right to vote in the United States, something that any southern blacks would not achieve for another HALF CENTURY. Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was still decades away from being fought. The Japanese were legally prohibited from immigrating to this country. Those that were here were frequently prohibited from voting or owning land in many cities. Chinese immigrants were kept in ghettoes that European Jews would have recognized.

What this meant was that the target audience of science fiction in those days was narrow. WASP. Middle-America. White bread. Boring.

There were limits to what you as a science fiction author could write about, if you wanted it to sell. Lantern-jawed male heroes with strong moral and ethical codes (read: Boy Scouts, back when that connotation had positive aspects).

You might have an exotic alien princess to rescue, but exotic invariably meant dusky in the Italian sense, and no farther. (Loving vs. Virginia was a half century away, as well.) It wasn’t until Jim Kirk that you could seduce strange green chicks in your science fiction and be taken seriously, because Gene Roddenberry was all about pushing the envelope in good ways.

So where are we today?

I only do indie-press publishing. That means I write it. Fabulous Publisher Babe™ and a few others do the First Reader thing (not critique. There is a difference.) I fix the things they identify. We publish it.

I don’t bother trying to get an agent and a publishing deal. Partly, I’ve done the economics. Even those folks to do get a deal don’t get a good one. Every year, a single person hits the zeitgeist, and achieves literary godhead, but that’s one in however many millions of us are trying.

Not worth playing those odds.

Plus, I’d have to submit to editorial ideology. Every year, the major publishing houses identify the particular areas they want to push. The themes, if you will. Those of you paying attention at home will note that we are coming to the end of a major cycle dealing with teenagers in strange, post-apocalyptic blood sport games. (A YA Dystopian sub-genre, if you will.) I suspect the next surge will be near-Earth Hard Science, Space Exploration, playing on the fantastic success of Andy Weir (who got all the science right, and is happily moving us away from pseudo-magical hand-waving. Thanks, Andy.)

For the writer, that means that your book must fit within a VERY narrow slice of a sub-genre, if you want to get the big houses to pick it up. And they will demand that you hammer your round peg into the square hole they believe will sell.


Instead, I want to talk about another hot-button topic.

Last week, we touched on race and gender in science fiction. (Because, as some [dumb-ass] people will tell you, women and minorities can’t write SF. Right.)

This week, I want to grab the third rail: Human sexuality.

Once upon a time, (the only way to publish was that) your heroic main character was a man who was absolutely committed to one of two ideologies. First, proper heterosexual conjugations within the confines of marital bliss. (Read: almost all of them.) Alternatively: proper males heterosexually seducing buxom females into short-term flings with no emotional weight, generally just before the villain killed her, or she gets written off in the epilogue as having to stay behind to protect her people while the hero rides off into the sunset. (Read: Ian Fleming, as the master, everyone else as bad knock-offs.)

Research over the last few generations has offered very strong evidence that binary, monogamous heterosexuality (one boy + one girl) only describes a majority proportion of the population, but not all of it. If you throw in Kinsey numbers, things get even more dicey.

Put simply, we don’t always fall into nice, binary boxes.

Why should our characters?

Science Fiction is all about producing stories set in alternate realities, as a means of exploring “What if…?” We are not in the present tense. We are going someplace where the world is not a mirror or analog of our day-to-day lives.

Our readers have already committed to suspending some level of their disbelief when they picked up a book on the SF/F shelf and flipped it over to read the back. This is your opportunity to tell them a cracking good story that pulls them in, entertains them, and, best of all, makes them THINK. Makes them wonder. Starts to break down some of the ideological constraints in their heads.

I understand the basics of biology. A culture, a people, a society only survive when you continue to produce future generations of progeny to sustain it. Whoopteedo. There are way more ways to do that. Aldous Huxley explored cloning to an interesting degree. Others have done the same.

Since the early 70’s, organic chemistry has helped to separate the act of procreation from the consequences. (Please spare me the religious diatribes. We’re talking science today, not cultural relativism.)

So what should science fiction be like for those people who don’t get stimulated by the concept of binary, heterosexual monogamy? How are those characters going to be different from the classic hero? (Hint: probably not one damned bit. You already know a whole bunch of people for whom such frameworks don’t fit. Your public acceptance of such things frequently determines if they include you in such conversations. You may not realize you know so many people that are “not normal.” heh)

Me? I have known a number of interesting people. Creatives tend to be far less rigid in their adherence to such ideologies. One of my good friends at the day job is a very out gay man, whom you would not identify if he didn’t say something specific. (I have other friends and co-workers who broadcast such things. Seriously gaydar-pinging level broadcasting. We don’t any of us care.)

I had a good friend, ages ago, who used me as her beard, because she worked for a couple who were far less understanding of such things. they would have probably fired her immediately if they ever realized she was a lesbian, them being hard-core fundamentalists in the early 90’s. Suffice it to say she and I had the same taste in women, else we might have ended up married at some point. But much of polite society was not ready to accept, let alone embrace, such things.

Today, laws based on such very narrow set of relativistic cultural norms that criminalize this kind of human behavior are being cast into the dustbin of history, alongside most of the rest of the Twentieth Century’s other ideological –isms.

As writers of science fiction, it is our duty to consider how the future will work, especially in such a place. I’ve had to, recently, because I’ve run into some characters with relatively high Kinsey numbers. There’s not a right or wrong, just an understanding that how they look at things might be different. And how your other heroes and villains will react to such knowledge and such behavior is a topic that needs to be explored.

Indie-press means you get to throw a pot of spaghetti at the wall, and see what sticks. What entertains. What sells. Some of it will resonate with readers. Especially if you have done it right. And I don’t mean old-fashioned caricatures, unless used satirically, or (rarely) dead accurately.

(I have another friend. One of the original Studio 54 Queens. Go look that one up if you aren’t old enough. One night, a girl got him drunk, took advantage of him, and he got her pregnant. They’ve been married for more than 25 years at this point, but he’s still the most fabulous person I have ever met.)

So my challenge to you is this: What have you written about a character who goes beyond the two tropes above? (Lensman Kinnison and Captain Kirk?) Have you explored a culture where things aren’t WASP? (wasps, by the way, do it entirely different than WASPs, as a rule.) Have you explored the Uncanny Valley? Has your science fiction been traditional or exotic?

And what do you think human sexuality will be one hundred years from now? One thousand? Thursday After Next?

How big is your science fiction? How far has it pushed the envelope and made your audience really THINK while still telling a good, entertaining story? (One can always push things too far and end up grinding a political axe INSTEAD of telling a story. Have run into a few of those over the years, as well.)

Hopefully, you have had fun pushing the boundaries of everyday in your writing.

shade and sweet water,


West of the Mountains, WA


Those of you know have been keeping score at home know that I moved this summer into a new place. The old house was 1800 sqft with a three car garage.  The new gig is just under 1100 sqft, with no garage, but a couple of outbuildings and a little over six acres of trees, ponds, and quiet.

I have spent the better part of several weekends unpacking boxes that I put away over a year ago, left first in a storage unit, and then a barn. As a result, I have had to assemble old bookcases, find the shelves, rearrange them several times, and then finally stack them with books.

It’s interesting, what changes you can go through over a year. Or, in my case, something like ten years.

It was a decade ago that my first wife was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and given six months to live. She wasn’t done yet, so she got another three years out instead. I still miss her every day.

One of the things she required (REQUIRED, mind you) was that I not turn into a shut-in when she was gone. That I would start dating again after she was gone, and be happy. (She left me several pages of lists of things I was to do, afterwards. I have now, finally, checked off the last item.)

So I met the woman who would become Fabulous Publisher Babe ™ around seven years ago. We dated for around six months, but it didn’t work out at the time. I went off and had other adventures along the way.

A little over two years ago, she appeared in my life again in a strange way (you gotta buy me cider, mead, or wine to hear that story). It worked out this time, and we got married a little under two months ago.

Along the way, I had to re-invent myself into someone completely new. People that knew me ten years ago might recognize the shell, but not the innards. My friend Dusty can attest to that, and he’s in the best position there.

So today, Labor Day Weekend in the US, I’m looking at the strange year I have had, and two years, and three, and five, and seven, and ten. And I’m arranging books on shelves, trying to sort out what should go where.

Between then and now, I’ve probably gotten rid of around 3,000 books. Mostly paperbacks, but still. I figure it comes down to roughly 3-4 cubic meters of books. And around a standard ton of paper.

When I decided it was time to move, I was ruthless, kinda. If I hadn’t read it in six years, and it wasn’t being retained for a very specific reason, it went. My office suddenly became navigable, which is saying something.

As I unpack, I’m culling more, simply because I really have become someone else, someone who doesn’t need so much stuff. It’s very weird.

Which brings me, long ways around a shaggy-dog, to inspiration. Thanks for staying with me thus far.

A number of readers have compared Jessica Keller to Honor Harrington. I feel honored, because that’s one hell of a nice comparison. But it’s not really accurate. I’ve read the first few books in the series, but they just never reached out and grabbed me. Haven’t read any of them past about the third one, not even sure how many there are.

When I set out to commit science fiction, my inspirations come from a different set of sources. I own everything Doc Smith ever wrote, including things he inspired, but someone else wrote, like all four Tedric books, written by Gordon Eklund from something Doc wrote, or the D’Alembert books (the original set) with Goldin. Everything, including a mystery title called Have Trenchcoat, Will Travel.

At the same time, I have read almost everything David Drake has ever published, but I have generally only kept the SF stuff and let the fantasy go. (He writes good fantasy, but it doesn’t inspire me as much as his SF.) And that’s generally in hardcover, so Drake takes up an entire shelf with hardbacks and another with paperbacks. I’ve probably recycled two more shelves of stuff.

(Pardon me, I keep having to wander back to my bedroom and examine what’s still on the shelf. I just got back from another run to Half Price Books to deposit more stuff for future generations of me to find.)

The only other significant writers in that bookcase now are CS Friedman (almost all of her stuff, regardless of genre, except a couple of recent, “modern” pieces), Michael Moorcock (the original 15-volume Eternal Champion hardbacks I picked up 20+ years ago), and Glen Cook (Books of the North and all 4, so far, Instrumentalities of the Night.) On a different shelf, in the hallway, I have all twenty Aubrey/Maturin books.

So, inspiration.

Patrick O’Brian inspired Drake to write the Leary/Mundy books. I love those. Re-read them when a new one comes out, so I have it all fresh. Drake writes realistic characters responding in human ways to extraordinary circumstances. Not many writers focus on that sort of thing, at least not while telling big stories. That’s why I rank him first.

Doc Smith just told humungous space opera. He invented the very genre, as far as anyone else working was concerned. A million battle fleets converging on a single planet and trying to blow it up. Grand Moff Tarkin was the next person to think on that scale. And Doc was on the bleeding edge of tech.  Re-read the second on the command ship describing “the Tank” and tell me that’s not a standing 3D Laser hologram, before any of those words had been invented.

Glen Cook, when he’s on, tells cracking good stories that bring a ground trooper’s point of view to grand epic fantasy. And if you asked me to rate my top five favorite single books, The Dragon Never Sleeps makes that list.

Michael Moorcock pretty much invented his own sandboxes to play in. Epic blending of fantasy magic and technology, along a strange spectrum that works.  If it’s a little too pot-boiler/deus-ex-machina in places, he handles it well.

CS Friedman, when she’s on, constructs fantastically rich worlds into which a variety of characters can romp. In Conquest Born makes my top five list as well. But Coldfire is close behind, as is The Madness Season.

So my inspiration is drawn from writers who told big stories, but always tried to keep the human element. Tolkien bores me because he wanders all over the place, down irrelevant dead-ends, and several of the big characters are gods masquerading as mortals in order to play their silly games with each other. The price of immortality is boredom, not evil. Don’t let Gandalf fool you.

I was inspired by some really amazing writers, telling stories that take place in a technological future where we’re still human. Where we could have a conversation over a beer or cup of coffee, separated by technology, not humanity.

My second inspiration is to tell stories about a future where mankind has spread to the stars, and not just white people from North American and Western Europe. China and India collectively represent forty percent of humans. They are poor today, but that’s a modern invention. India and China have both been the center of human civilization at one time or another. It is likely that they will be, again.

And I don’t mean modernists. China as outsiders see it is not the China that would take to the stars. I imagine that they would be more like those sailors and pirates of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Or the grand explorers of the 14th and 15th.

India is no more India than Europe is Europe. Both are collections of interesting peoples with their own languages, their own cultures, and their own dreams, working fitfully to find their own place in the sun. A thousand years in the future, I expect both will still be recognizable as such, assuming we make it off world.

And that brings me back to inspiration. David Drake makes no bones about basing many of his stories (however loosely) on historical events and adventurers. He mines all of history for how people hundreds or thousands of years ago got into a mess, fought their way through, and came out the other side. All the stupid friction that occurs makes it into the stories as well.

As you know, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The first thing the enemy does is f#%! it up. In Drake’s stories, plans go astray. And people react and respond.

This is on my mind because I just finished reviewing the final battle sequence of Last of the Immortals before I send it off to First Readers. Emmerich has a plan. Jessica has a plan. Both fail, but it is how they fail, and how both recover, that makes the final battle interesting.

It will be everything I expect readers of Auberon and Queen to be clamoring for, and none of it. It will be a final battle, but not THE final battle. Futures will hinge on it, but nothing grand appears to come of this battle, except for the men and women who pay the ultimate sacrifice.

I realized along the way that I don’t write epic fantasy, but I do (occasionally) write epic SF. I have (at least) nine Jessica novels planned. I’ll probably start organizing for #4 early next year, and start the series forward from there.

Between then and now, another Javier, another Brak (short) piece, and then I don’t know. I will let the Goddess of Music dictate for me when we reach that point.

I hope all that makes sense. I realize I’ve just written a way-longer blog than normal, but I had something to say and it took more paper than I planned. Hopefully, it made sense. Or will, after you go check out the names on your own bookshelf.


Shade and sweet water,