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Beyond Laser Guns, Blasters, and Time-travel: Essential LGBT Science Fiction


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At its best, great science fiction is never really about the future. Obviously, the overwhelming majority of science fiction is about ideas of the future or of potential scientific advancements, but really great science fiction tends to be far more concerned with the time it was written than the time it’s set. As a result, science fiction has long been a venue for discussing aspects of the human experience that can otherwise be marginalising.

When it comes to LGBT themes, authors can use science fiction to upset their readers’ expectations and preconceptions. In some cases, that’s as simple as having a character act as a lens into a world in which everyday realities are fundamentally different from our own. This may happen by eliding certain details we take for granted, as in Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, in which the overwhelming majority of characters are aliens with no defined sex or gender at all.

Other great works of science fiction may take a contrary approach, introducing new and more complex intricacies to gender relations, as in Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games, the majority of which is set on a world with three genders, whose interrelationships have shaped the planet’s politics and social structure.

Below you’ll find a list of excellent science fiction novels that deal with LGBT themes. In some, those themes are central to the plot, while in others we're treated to a science fiction adventure in which some of the characters happen to be gay. There's room for everyone on this shelf.

    The Gods Themselves

    Asimov is probably better known for I, Robot and the Foundation series, but over the course of his career he produced such an enormous volume of work that it’s hard to discuss sci-fi on any theme without his name being at least mentioned. The Gods Themselves features an alien race in a dimension that runs parallel to our own. While much of the book deals with the idea of an energy crisis, what interests us in this instance is the aliens themselves. As in The Player of Games, they have three sexes, though here they are separated into the roles of “logicals,” “emotionals,” and “parentals.” In the character of Dua, we are introduced to a character who seems to be split across two of those roles. For what it’s worth, Asimov also considered The Gods Themselves to be his favorite of his own novels.

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    The Man Who Folded Himself

    David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded himself was nominated for a number of awards when first released in the 1970s, largely for its novel execution of time travel. Its protagonist, Daniel Eakins, is a student who inherits a belt that allows him to travel in time. In an effort to better his life, he travels in time with a series of younger and older versions of himself, making gradual adjustments along the way. Among other things, he ends up in a relationship with himself, as well as with a woman named Diane (who may also be an alternate timeline’s Daniel).

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    Salt Fish Girl

    Salt Fish Girl tells the story of a shapeshifter named Nu Wa who is at once “fish, snake, girl, and woman” in 19th century China, as well as of a girl named Miranda in an urban 2044 in which cities are under the control of corporations. The sense of normality to same-sex relationships in the futuristic city of Serendipity sits well at the core of the novel, without ever ascribing a static orientation to Miranda.The novel can sometimes feel aimless and rambling, as much a meditation on myth as on a possible future. Salt Fish Girl also deserves note for its strange emphasis on scent, which makes up an enormous portion of the book’s descriptive text. It’s a strange choice, and one that adds to its charm.

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    Carnival

    In the distant future, Earth is managed and maintained by guardian artificial intelligences that rigidly control life to ensure that all activity is carbon neutral. Two Old-Earth ambassador-spies, Vincent and Michelangelo, are sent to the matriarchal (and largely lesbian) planet of New Amazonia, ostensibly for diplomatic reasons. Beneath this cover, each has their own secret mission. The New Amazonians thrive on an ancient alien power source that the Old Earth Colonial Coalition longs for.If that’s not quite enough, Vincent and Angelo are also hopelessly in love, which means that Carnival is effectively a novel about two gay men who land on a lesbian planet. It’s a spectacular concept, and one that’s executed with flair.

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    The Temple at Landfall

    Lynn feels more like a prisoner than the chosen one of the Goddess. Her transfer to another temple provides her with a chance to taste a little freedom, but all does not go according to plan and her dull life is shattered by the dangers and choices that await her.

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    Hollow World

    Michael J. Sullivan’s Hollow World is another time-travelling adventure story, in which readers are introduced to the far future through the eyes of chrononaut Ellis Rogers. There are definite hints of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine to it, though Rogers only has the courage to try out his time machine after he’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Told repeatedly that he doesn’t have enough time, he jaunts 2000 years into the future in an effort to find a cure, only to find that people now live on the inside of a “hollow” Earth. Moreover, the characters he meets appear to be entirely genderless, whether they’re artificial intelligences or simply ‘humans’ who don’t appear to have a defined sex. This leads to relationships that Rogers finds fluid and difficult to engage with. We come to see that, in the utopian future he finds himself in, Rogers is something of an anachronism, but despite that he forms meaningful relationships with the characters he encounters there.

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    Mind Fuck

    Mind Fuck is another entry in what might be the most interesting of genre crossovers yet devised, the sci-fi-noir-detective-story. Our ‘hero’ is a man named Val Toreth, a sociopathic para-investigator charged with getting to the bottom of a murder in the dystopian future city of New London. The job of para-investigator necessitates investigation not only through old-fashioned detective work, but also through out-and-out torture. Things get interesting when Toreth ends up in a relationship with Keir Warrick, a man whose new virtual reality technology is apparently killing his customers. Perhaps the stranges thing about Mind Fuck is that we see their relationship unfold from Toreth’s dispassionate point of view. There will be some eye-rolling, but for the most part the fun here is Val Toreth’s character. In any other dystopian novel, he would almost certainly be the villain, but he works well as a protagonist. Moreover, having someone who has trouble empathizing with others get caught up in a romance is an interesting premise for a novel.

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    Warchild

    Warchild is the first book of Karin Lowachee’s loosely connected sci-fi trilogy. The book’s protagonist, Jos Musey, loses his family at the age of eight, when the trading ship that has been his home is attacked by space pirates. We have a lot of time for space pirates, conceptually. They’re sort of the summation of all the promise of science fiction writing. Obviously, it’s not all fun for Jos, who eventually finds himself a prisoner of the striviirc-na, an alien race at war with humanity. The big warning, and it probably needs to be said, is that there’s an awful lot of abuse going on. While we're never explicitly told that Jos is gay, that's very much the popular reading of the character. Obviously, some of that is par for the course when you’re reading a book about being abducted by pirates as a child, but it’s still worth pointing out.

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    Professor George Edward Challenger first made a name for himself as a travelling adventurer and investigator. Unfortunately, he has never succeeded in solving the greatest mystery of all... and ... Show More

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