Sex Sells, BDSM Sells SF?

November 4th, 2002

I recently picked up and read two novels which have been on my peripheral awareness, gaining in popularity, and yet until now I had resisted them..

First was Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, which was garnering all sorts of critical acclaim all sorts of places, most importantly from my Uncle Robert who has introduced me to some of the best science fiction and fantasy, ever. The second was The Last Hawk/The Ascendant Sun by Catherine Asaro; the earliest entry point I could find into the immensely popular universe of Primary Inversion; recent Hugo nominee Spherical Harmonies; and an author frequently mentioned alongside Lois McMaster Bujold, whose books are amazing. (more on that later) Below is my reaction to the book, and what I see as their similarity. This is still very much a first draft. more on Kushiel’s Dart, more on Last Hawk, more on Ascendant Sun

The two books seem very different. Carey’s is one of those modern fantasy epics that all seem to clock in at 800 pages, it is lushly written, gorgeous cover, set in a prosperous, decadent, medieval society in an very alternate Europe, and traces the path of a tragic girl, trained to the holy institution of prostitution. Asaro is writing space opera, its a much slimmer book, its opens as our hero’s space ship is being shot down from the sky, the technological jargon of his bio-technology interface greets us, a faint promise of a “hard SF” novel. They may seem very different, but they aren’t.

Our spaceship flying hero is quickly grounded on an agrarian, semi-matriarchal world, where war was been replaced by a metaphorical board game, women dominate, polyandry is the norm, and intelligent men are sequestered in harems, which is, of course, where our hero ends up. Besides completely uninspired world building, nothing much happens for the first book except the a series of sexual encounters as our hero is swapped between harems. This is not the space regency of Bujold’s work, but more a “space harlequin”. Eventually our hero escapes back to the universe from which he fell, and we discover that it is divided into a struggle between the imperial Ruby dynasty (of which are hero is scion) and the Traders, a race of humans whose entire society is shaped by being telepathic sadists (mirroring the speciation tied to sexual desire often prescribed to homosexuality?), and who keep slaves for sexual tortures. Our hero is of course captured by said sadists, more sex ensues.

Which brings me to Kushiel’s Dart, you see our heroine isn’t just any young girl, taken into the revered service of prostitution, she has been specially chosen by the gods to be a bottom. Which is a good thing to, because over half of the ruling class of this particular enlightened kingdom are tops, and vicious ones. The world building is better, and the writing more elegant, the characters often engaging, even if the plotting feels like uninspired re-treads from Arthurian legends. (but if you’re going to steal, steal from the best) Yet often it feels like the book in really in service to the tour of BDSM Carey wants to give us. We get several pages devoted to introducing stop words (aka safe words), many pages devoted to various kinks, whips, blades, paddles, and more. And vasts seas of pages devoted to describing the sexual encounters. While Aasaro seemed only moderately familiar with the territory, Carey clearly knows of what she writes.

Which brings me to my question, why is a really rather lousy science fiction series, and okay, but not great fantasy novel, making such waves? Is it the common link of sex, particularly the healthy sprinkling of bondage and discipline which seems to seeping into the public’s awareness recently? (Secretary was playing at the mall here in Boston) And if so, why in both cases is it depicted as a biological imperative? It seems to demean the possibility that someone might choose the lifestyle, rather then being tossed into it, totally without agency.

On a related note, I picked up Decoding Gender in Science Fiction which looks excellent. I’m hoping it will give me some insight, or inspiration to finally get around to writing down why I think Bujold’s Vorkosigan books are doing such cool things with gender, and gender-bending, all deeply encrypted under the guise of Baen’s standard military space opera. Now if I can just find some time to crack the cover.

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