Rob Latham in his article “Sextrapolation in New Wave Science Fiction” (2008) argues that in the early 1950s “a handful of stories were published in the magazines that dealt explicitly with sexual topics” long absent from genre. Latham suggests that some of the notable New Wave takes on science fictional sex read as reconceptualized versions of these stories . With few exceptions, the 50s trailblazing tales were ignored by the major digests of the day and instead appeared in the failing pulps–Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories–or in “second- and third-tier digests just struggling to establish themselves” such as Howard Browne’s Fantastic Adventures. For example, my two previous posts in this series covered Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (1952), which appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Philip José Farmer’s “The Lovers” (1952) in Startling Stories. The later was rejected by H. L. Gold, according to John Brunner, at Galaxy with the note: “I’ll publish this if you can get rid of the sex–I run a family magazine” .
Let’s get to the stories! Both Fritz Leiber’s “The Ship Sails at Midnight” (1950) and Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Sex Opposite” (1952) explore polyamorous relationships between humans and aliens. In Leiber’s case, a group of bohemians fall in love with a bisexual alien. In Sturgeon’s tale, a heterosexual couple both fall for a parthenogenetically female “alien” symbiote that appears male to women and female to men.
Fritz Leiber’s “The Ship Sails at Midnight” first appeared in Fantastic Adventures, ed. Howard Browne (September 1950). You can read it online here.
Four self-proclaimed “‘wild’-young people, bohemians” (61), fresh out of college but still “sponging” off their parents “doing academic odd-jobs” (57), encounter the enigmatic and stunningly gorgeous Helen serving food at Benny’s, an all-night diner. Soon after meeting Helen, Es, “something of an artist,” starts to push the boundaries of her previously staid art (56). The narrator, Larry, who calls himself a writer but spends more time “reading magazines and detective stories, lazing around, getting drunk, and conducting […] endless intellectual palavers” (58) suddenly has something to actually write about–a carnal and intellectual love for Helen that they keep hidden from the rest. Louis, a philosopher, slowly encounters new avenues to explore rather than “merely cultivat[ing] a series of intellectual enthusiasms [..] and fruitless-excitement over the thoughts of other men” (57). And the gruff exterior of Gene, an atomic scientist, begins to mellow. All four view Helen as a “Great Books discussion leader” who serves as an intellectual midwife–who fosters, encourages, and inspires the expansion of their minds.
Helen makes only indirect references to her past. In one instance, when the group recalls strange events that transpired a few months before, she murmurs that perhaps an alien might “grow itself a new body” (63). But the arrival of a stranger who threatens their connection to Helen soon unravels the mystery. Not only is she an alien who crashed on Earth but has fallen deeply in love with each of them. Es, Louis, Larry, and Gene all have more than a platonic connection with Helen, a sexual relationship: “…but I fell in love with all of you” she confesses (67). And cracks immediately appear amongst the so-called bohemians who end up being “pretty vain and possessive” and “straight-laced” after Helen’s secret gets out (61). And Gene is driven to violence. I find it humorous–and incisive–that the atomic scientist is the man who lashes out.
“The Ship Sails at Midnight” ends with a far less fractious reflection. The four in their grief, and once-again friends despite Gene’s horrific cruelty, wonder what would have happened if “we’d kept Helen” (69). While Es’s relationship–I assume a lesbian interaction was more taboo than Helen having more one male partner?–is not directly stated, Leiber’s descriptions of Helen’s allure and the alien’s confessions of love make no distinction between sex. For example, Larry describes how Helen had given them a look to the “four of us that first night at Benny’s” (67) and recalls how Es shivered in her presence (57).
Due to the publication date, it is hard to escape the feeling that Leiber wants to explore the erotic elements of the tale with far more direct strokes but is prevented by the genre mores of the day. I can imagine the editor excising Es’s line–after Gene, Louis, and Larry reveal their secrets–stating her own affair with Helen. Leiber’s story fills the void of implied lust between human and alien that echoes through the pulp covers of the period. Helen states: “I know you’ve all laughed at the comic-book idea of some Martian monster lusting after beautiful white women. But has it every occurred to you that a creature from outside might simply and honestly fall in love with you?” (63). And, in the end, each–according to Larry’s narration–wish the spell had never been broken and they had continued to love Helen in their own way.
While this doesn’t reach the heights of Fritz Leiber’s best work, there’s a quietly subversive feel to the story–although it’s a bit lost in the satire of the self-proclaimed intellectual youth that permeates the pages. If sex and sexuality in 50s science fiction is something that interests you, then track this one down. I still recommend that you read Leiber’s “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” (1949) and “A Bad Day for Sales” (1953) first.
3.25/5 (Above Average)
Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Sex Opposite” first appeared in Fantastic, ed. Howard Browne (Fall 1952). You can read it online here.
Preliminary note: I wish I completely understood Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X (1960). “The Sex Opposite” might be productively read in conjunction with his better known novel. I struggled to get a grasp of Sturgeon’s aims in Venus Plus X. I found it an oblique but intriguing thought experiment that attempted to analyze contemporary views on sexuality and gender roles.
Dr. F. L Muhlenberg, a brilliant young biologist and special medical consultant to the City and State Police, is summoned to investigate a murder unlike any other. The victim? A conjoined humanoid entity that appears to be hermaphroditic. The method? Torn apart. The location? A deep recess in the woods. Soon the intrepid reporter Budgie gets word of the murder and arrives at the morgue. Muhlenberg initially refuses to divulge what he knows but soon they team together and fall in love with each other and with a mysterious stranger that appears to each of them. They discover that the stranger–while appearing male to Budgie and female to Mughlenberg–is a humanoid symbiote with an unusual role in humanity’s history. The couple proclaim their deep love and admiration for the symbiote despite their initial confusion: “You’re looking for a pronoun” (84) the entity muses. At no point do they experience or voice revulsion. Despite the couple’s platonic love for the entity, the symbiote must go into hiding and erase knowledge of its existence as most humans cannot accept “anything that’s… different” (88).
While far from Sturgeon’s best, “The Sex Opposite” contains a range of fascinating ideas and a surprisingly progressive message that love is love even if the participants do not neatly fit into 1950s society’s conception of gender. As with Fritz Leiber’s vision, it’s hard not to conclude that Sturgeon wanted to explore the nature of the unusual ménage à trois in more explicit ways but had to create an ending that preserved the traditional nuclear family.
I found the structure and manner of telling extremely clunky for Sturgeon. Told as a roman noir murder investigation replete with snarky reporter and a grouchy man who needs companionship, “The Sex Opposite” doesn’t revolve around a snappy adventure but a series of lengthy dialogues about the nature of love and desire. It is most successful in its ideas!
 Rob Latham’s article “Sextrapolation in New Wave Science Fiction” appeared in Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction, ed. Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon (2008), pg. 52-71.
 Latham, 66: “In many cases, feminist sf built upon–and ethically complicated–the genre’s quasi-Freudian experiments of the 1950s; several of Sheldon’s stories–such as “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (1971) or “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” (1973)–can be read as corrective extensions of Farmer’s pioneering tales of inter-species desire, drawing out the fetishistic exoticization of otherness lurking within them.”
 Latham, 56.
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