SF and Sex. The case of Alma Nilsson

bu FRANCO RICCIARDIELLO

Born in a country that was hypocritically puritan in that portion of the century, modern science-fiction has always suffered from an ambivalent relationship with sexual content. On the one hand, it addressed an overwhelmingly male audience, overloading — also for reasons of commercial recognition — the scientific, or at least technological, content of a writing with scarce literary pretensions; and we all remember how a hundred years ago it was considered unnatural that a woman could be interested in science. On the other hand, however, SF blinked blatantly at the trashy aesthetics of the pulp covers, where to attract an audience with a coarse palate it did not skimp on the amount of female skin: as in detective magazines, the woman was often portrayed in situations that had no relationship with the text they illustrated, in direct danger of life, or at least of sexual violation; it’s the aesthetics of the damsel in distress, the damsel to be saved, with the advantage that compared to the detective story the artists could indulge in multiplying the threat against the WASP woman: crazy scientists, robots out of control, alien monsters that drooled for human females (never the opposite occurred), and other amenities. All this to say that there was more than one prerequisite for female readers to keep their distance from a decidedly nerdy genre, and literature is known to speak of sex in a mature way only when it is aimed at readers of both sexes.

The stages of the slow change in this situation have been authoritatively indicated several times, starting with Philip Farmer who broke the taboo in 1952 with The Lovers, the love story of a man and an insectoid alien female. But the wall began to crack, and science fiction became adult, only when female readers increased, and the writers began talking about sex not only as part of the setting or spicy detail of the plot, but as a central speculation.

“Arrivo” di Magdalena Radziej, Polonia

Today science fiction deals explicitly with sex, even if the works in which it is the central topic are rare: for example the future of the relationship between the sexes. In exactly the opposite direction, however, there is a rather vast offer of “erotic SF” for adults, especially in the English-speaking markets, with ambitions close to the zero degree of literature; here are some random titles taken from a distributor’s ranking: Alien Harem, Claimed by the Alien Horde, Taken by the water beast. It seems that nothing has changed compared to an unpretentious product, sold at least since the post-war period — apart from the non-secondary detail that many of these products are intended for a female audience, with the label “romance” or “erotic romance”.

The Renascence Alliance cycle by Swedish writer Alma Nilsson is very different: as far as I know, a more unique than rare case; and from a certain point of view it is exactly what science fiction needs today, because it enters a very little explored field.
The theme at the center of this cycle of novels (published in English) is so simple that it is surprising that other (male or female) authors of science fiction have not thought about it before: the relationship between man and woman, because even if half of Nilsson’s protagonists are aliens there is no doubt that we are talking about humans.

“On Basilisk Station” di David Burroughs Mattingly, USA

There are no heroes or women being rescued in any of my stories, instead readers are led through a maze of alien courting customs, strict religious codes and compromises, often uncomfortable, between men and women to come to solutions that work for both within the confines of Alliance culture. These books are meant to ask a question about a fictional, what-if scenario, ‘How connected are love and sex?’

Alma Nilsson

The initial assumption is simple, a Space Opera scenario: humanity represents one of the most technologically backward civilizations in the galaxy, considered condescendingly frivolous for an excessive involvement in aesthetic and artistic factors. Unfortunately, humanity is involved in a total war between the Jahay empire and the Alliance, the most powerful and virtually invincible culture.

The first volume of the cycle, Married to the Alien Admiral, begins in media res, when the human spaceship Dakota is captured during a battle; Admiral Tir, commander of the alien fleet, is among the most tenacious proponents of a theory for now minority, according to which the Earth was colonized in the distant past by the missing crew of an Alliance ship. This is the reason why, as everyone knows in the Galaxy, Alliance and humanity are the only two genetically compatible species. But Tir, a leading figure in the alien civilization, is also a supporter of a very clear political line, which pushes him to force his hand: the Alliance is experiencing a serious demographic crisis, the births of female individuals are clearly lower than male ones, and within a few generations this could mean the end of civilization. For reasons that will be better explained later, the Alliance does not resort to genetic engineering, and the faction of Admiral Tir favors crossed breeding between alien males and human females, in the hope that they will be immune from the chromosomal defect.

This is the starting assumption of the cycle, which to date includes eight titles (the initial project included four, it has been modified in the course of writing); each follows a different protagonist, a human woman in contact with the alien culture of the Alliance. The protagonist of the first is Kara Rainer, the Dakota commander who agrees to marry Admiral Tir and conceive a son with him; in return, instead of being executed (the Alliance does not make prisoners), male crew members will be sent back to Earth, female crew members (25 women of various ages between 20 and almost 40) will be brought to the capital planet of the Alliance, where they will be granted citizenship and will in turn be destined to marry.

Illustrazione di Zhang Moyi, Cina

To prevent the readers of this post from making an incorrect opinion of Alma Nilsson’s cycle, it is necessary to specify the main cultural differences between humanity and the Alliance.
1. On Earth, marriage is considered the remnant of a barbaric past, while for religious reasons, in the Covenant it is sacred and indissoluble (the meaning of “sacred” has little to do with the Christian concept).
2. The people of Earth are vegetarians, unlike the citizens of the Alliance.
3. Religion is considered a relic of the past on Earth, while in the Alliance it regulates every moment of life. This is the aspect that the protagonists struggle to understand, also because the author is rightly reticent. It seems to understand in the first novels that there is a profound misunderstanding. For the earthly, religion is the worship of immaterial entities, which they absolutely cannot believe. But as can be understood from some hints, the gods of the Alliance really exist and interfere in the events of their protegés, more or less like the divinities of the classical Greek pantheon, manifesting themselves in material apparitions.
4. The Alliance is a rigidly structured society: vertically, in three classes, from free to slaves (but there is no terrestrial word to define this lower class, which in reality is not of a servile state); horizontally in clan-like “Houses”. This produces a hierarchy partly meritocratic and partly based on birth, one of the side effects of which is the fact that males live outside the planet, females on the capital planet.
Unlike many other authors, men and women, Alma Nilsson has chosen to use “correct anatomical terminology” rather than colloquial terms for her sex scenes, some of which are decidedly driven. Her idea seems to me to be shared:

Most of you have probably noticed, maybe with a knee jerk reaction, that I purposely write all of my more intimate scenes using the correct anatomical terminology. […]
I wince when I see grown women cringing at the word ‘vagina’. I am even more shocked when I meet women who don’t know the correct terms for their bodies and somehow carry some shame in using the words, ‘labia’, ‘clitoris’ or ‘vulva’. It’s disappointing that in the 21st century people are still uncomfortable with the correct terminology for their bodies.
We as women are the bringers of life. We should know about our bodies. Yet globally, education is failing women. Cultural shame about women’s bodies is leaving women in ignorance. And it should not be as every person alive today was born from a woman’s vagina, but yet, even that last sentence makes some people uncomfortable. And that is troublesome. It is a telltale sign of a society with an unhealthy relationship between the act of sex and subsequent procreation. When you don’t use the anatomically correct terminology, it becomes almost solely about the sex without any consequences in those intimate moments. And I believe that in a very little way, writing sex scenes with the correct anatomical terminology brings both the act and the consequence closer together. […]
How does this relate to the Alliance Empire? Alliance people clearly separate sex as a natural desire and sex for procreation. […] However, one thing is for certain, I am writing these scenes with no nuances or pretense to better uncover these desires. As the sexual acts are described as they would be through an automated translation and it gives more leeway for the reader or listener to concentrate on the actions over other considerations, such as, to whether or not the word used for this or that was derogatory, cool or sexy. All that is gone, it is just the naked action.

In Alma Nilsson’s blog (in English), you can find all the information on the Renascence Alliance cycle, consisting of eight novels, five of which also in audio-book, all in English:

Married to the alien admiral (coming soon in audio book)
Married to the alien doctor (anche in audio book)
Married to the alien with no house (anche in audio book)
Marreid to the admiral of the fleet (coming soon anche in audiobook)
Abducted by the alien pirate (coming soon anche in audiobook)
Restaurateur in the Alliance empire
The ward of House Rega (Ellie’s story)
The disciple of the alien goddess of Home

The Italian version of this post is HERE

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