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Reviewed by:
  • Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction
  • L. Timmel Duchamp (bio)
Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon, eds, Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2008. xii + 285pp. £50 (hbk).

Sf criticism and theory have always lagged behind the genre's development of new reading protocols and work that departs significantly from core – mainstream – values and assumptions. It took critics about two decades, for instance, to catch up with the wave of feminist sf that burst onto the scene in the 1970s, and only a few critics have paid even cursory attention to the feminist sf that has evolved since then; that lag time is similarly reflected in the lack of critical recognition of the recent surge of sf by writers of colour other than Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler and Nalo Hopkinson. But it is easy to understand why critics fall so far behind the curve. For critics, every new way of reading and understanding sf requires ground-breaking theorisation, which is always both risky and challenging for academic critics, especially when the work under consideration has not received critical acclaim.

Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction accomplishes that ground-breaking work for a newly identified area of the genre known as 'queer'. Queer sf texts and queer sf reading protocols have long been flying under most critics' radar. Until recently, co-editor Wendy Gay Pearson's pioneering 'Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer' (1999) marked one of the few outposts of queer sf criticism on the critical landscape, along with Veronica Hollinger's '(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender' (1999), Samuel R. Delany's notable Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary (1999), and the pioneering, pre-queer theory Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (1983) edited by Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo. Queer Universes reprints Pearson's 'Alien Cryptographies' as the key text it has become in the decade since it first appeared – and pushes deeper into the territory it named and explored. [End Page 135]

Queer theory and queer studies may have been around for almost two decades now, but for many people, the word 'queer' still tends to be understood as simply a synonym for gay or LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender). Queer, however, is not simply a term in a binary system of sexual identity. As Queer Universe's very table of contents aptly demonstrates, the 'queer' in queer studies signifies, rather, the quintessential unsettling of social ideological binaries, most prominently the heteronormative sexual binary, but also gender binaries, race binaries, human/animal binaries and even human/nature binaries. If in one sense 'queer' is the opposite of 'straight' and 'straight' itself often stands for the dominant term in a multitude of binary pairs, at the same time, in the more expansive sense, 'straight' can stand for the binary itself (just as 'queer' in the more expansive sense stands for the unsettling of binary thinking). Queer theory, that is, does not merely accommodate the intersectionality of multiple identities, locations and oppressions, but actually encourages and facilitates complex analyses that take numerous variables into account.

In their introduction to Queer Universes, the editors note that the project of queering sf draws heavily on feminist, postcolonial and race theory as well, of course, as queer theory. Although they offer some brief generalisations about what queer theory does, I am not certain that anyone not already familiar with it will necessarily find their generalisations intelligible. Intelligent newcomers to queer theory ought not worry too much about that, for they should have no difficulty reading the chapters of Queer Universes that actually draw on queer theory. Readers familiar with sf probably will not be surprised to see sf matched with queer theory, since sf has long demonstrated a facility for presenting (and even inventing) and implicitly analysing sexual economies. But the editors' claim that queer theory itself is at heart 'both utopian and science fictional' (5) might surprise many sf critics and fans. This aspect of queer theory takes centre stage in the strongest pieces in the book and has as much to do with the book...


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pp. 135-141
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