Friday 13 April 2012

Guest Post | Justin of Staffer's Book Review on Sex in SFF

Ladies and gentlemen: welcome once again to The Speculative Scotsman!

You may or may not know that I’m in America at the moment – if not, yes, it’s true... in fact I’m as far AFK as I’ve ever been before – but never ye fear! For in my absence, a few good men and women have volunteered to make the site their own, albeit only momentarily. They’re bloggers, by and large, but also friends; fine folks one and all that I’ve met on the internet (and occasionally off) in the course of keeping this shared space set aside for burbling about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes.

They all have blogs of their own, of course, and I’d urge you to seek them out. I care a lot about what goes on here on The Speculative Scotsman, so let me stress this one thing before I get to giving over the floor: the fact that I’m hosting the work of each of these excellent writers here speaks to my admiration and my respect for every last one among them.

If you enjoy some or all of these terrific reviews and opinion pieces, do the decent thing and click through the links in the intro and outro of each. Follow a few of my favourite internet critics. :)

On this fine Friday, it's entirely my pleasure to welcome one Justin Landon to TSS. Justin, as you may well be aware, is the writer behind one of my favourite genre blogs of recent years, namely Staffer's Book Review.

By all means, click through that link and come on back here when you're good and ready... after all, it should only take a minute for you to realise why having Justin here is such a treat.

Now that we're all on the same page, behold this musing amongst musings!


Sex. Dirty, icky, squishy, sloppy, romantic, loving, and harmoanious (sic) sex. Most fantasy novels have it to one degree or another, but very few seem to get it right. Ask any author, what's the hardest thing to write? Most of them, I suspect, would answer sex. Although, Sam Sykes would probably say something like words. Smart asses aside, sex is hard because everyone's had it. Unlike sword fights, or politics, or horse riding, sex is a universal experience. If an author gets it wrong, readers will know it on a visceral level.

Maybe it's easier to write sex for young adults, those little punks don't know any better!

I've had sex. Not a lot of it - I mean I do read SFF - but I like to think I've had enough to identify what sex is like. Not what it should be like, or what it could be like, or what I wish it were like, but what it actually is. A few weeks ago I read an early review copy of Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts, a second world fantasy built on the foundation of steppe culture. In the early going she wrote a sex scene that I immediately dubbed, THE BEST SEX SCENE IN FANTASY NOVEL HISTORY. Bold words! Why is it the best? What makes Bear's scene capture what it's like to do the dirty?

Before I get into that, let's talk about what other authors are doing wrong. I don't mean a failure to use sex for a purpose -- to serve story telling, or to communicate theme and tone (something Joe Abercrombie does brilliantly) -- rather a failure to capture the perfect balance of pornography and romance. Since I mentioned Abercrombie, let's use his Best Served Cold as Exhibit A.

"Uh, uh, their mindless grunting. Creak, creak, the bed moaning alone with them. Squelch, squelch, his skin slapping hard against against her arse." Best Served Cold -- Joe Abercrombie

This scene captures a lot of what Abercromie tries to do with sex. There's a cinematic aspect to it, but also a detachment. His sex lacks investment from his characters and maintains a psychic distance from the act. There is a self consciousness to it that translates the kinds of characters he writes. The result is something inherently pornographic, a dead behind the eyes kind of fucking. Is it effective? Absolutely. But, as a sex scene, as a series of words meant to convey the act of sex and all that it is, it fails. There's an inherent lack of emotion that I believe cannot be separate from sex -- even in the most casual of relationships.

What would Abercrombie's on-line porn website be called? Before They Are Banged?

Then there's Charlaine Harris who wields sex like a laugh-track.

"While I stood stock-still, paralyzed by conflicting waves of emotion, Eric took the soap out of my hands and lathered up his own, set the soap back in its little niche, and began to wash my arms, raising each in turn to stroke my armpit, down my side, never touching my breasts, which were practically quivering like puppies who wanted to be petted." – Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

I'm sorry, did she say quivering puppies? I can't recall the last time my wife's chest barked at me. I must be doing it wrong. And then we have pure unadulterated stereotypical paranormal romance:

"I let my hand stroke boldly downward, my fingers aching to set him free, to grasp his turgid magnificence." – A Brush of Darkness by Allison Pang

I don't know about the other men reading this, but if my partner called mine turgid magnificence I'd be hers forever. [Amen - Niall] I asked my wife to say this sentence out loud and she couldn't do it. I asked her to think it next time we were mid coitus. She ended up laughing at a rather inopportune moment. All that goes to say that neither Harris nor Pang portray sex that carries any approximation to the real thing. Just as Abercrombie creates a false image that belongs in a Van Nuys garage illuminated with 1,000 watt bulbs, the PNR community trends toward over-glorification of the act, an idealized image of what sex should be. Or more specifically, some warped perception of what it should be. It lacks the selfishness, the craving of power, and the fear of failure that are inescapable realities between the sheets

It's not just me, right? Oh God, it is just me... isn't it? [I'm saying nothing! - Niall]

Kameron Hurley, author of God's War and Infidel, who I have in the past compared to Abercrombie, demands similar results from her sex, but restrains herself:

"She kissed and licked Jaks in a detached sort of way. It was like watching two people she didn't know have sex. God's War -- Kameron Hurley

Like Abercrombie she's using sex to develop character and set a tone for the novel, a tone similar in nature to the one quoted above. Unlike him, she eschews the graphic descriptions, the two quoted lines making up the entirety of the scene. This restraint is something likewise exhibited by Brandon Sanderson:

"...." Everything He's Written -- Brandon Sanderson

I'm kidding, in so far as to say that Sanderson mentions sex about as often as he mentions Satan as his Lord and Savior. For his purposes, story telling and otherwise, Sanderson ignores sex, a perfectly reasonable endeavor albeit somewhat willful in its denial of a fundamental human activity. Hurley doesn't ignore it, but prefers not to describe it. She recognizes it and uses it as a character device without risking the land mine that is an awkwardly written sex scene.

For my money, I'd rather Hurley's approach than many other's. As I sat down to write this article, making a list of sex scenes in my mind, I remembered that one from God's War. In my memory it was far more graphic than Hurley wrote it. I filled in the blanks. It's effective use of sex, but it's not really a sex scene, is it? This gets at the question, of why write a sex scene at all? I respond, why write a fight scene? And the answer is because people want to read them. Sex, just like action, can make for compelling theater. Just as a carefully orchestrated duel between two equally matched fighters can make for a breathless climax (pun intended!), so too can sex. The problem is that few authors attempt it in such a role, and fewer still can succeed.

Man lance. Seriously. Someone called it a man lance. Hey baby, want to get lanced?

To come full circle, Elizabeth Bear takes the rawness of Abercrombie, the idealism of Pang, and the purposefulness of Hurley. She uses sex as a character builder and a plot device, but also chooses to write in the details. She captures the selfishness, the self consciousness, the passion, and the romance. It is equal parts fucking and love making. It resonates for me as the realest thing I've read in something that's inherently fantasy. Bear creates excitement, anticipation, and release as her two character clash in a battle not of swords, or wits, but of their loins (awkward sex scene word!).

It is, in short, perfect. I leave you, fair reader, with a taste:

"She was softness, lush dimpled softness of arms and flanks wrapped around strength, like a bent bow. She was the fall of cool hair across his throat and his burning face, like water to a man sick with sun. She was the smell of sweat and pungent oils. She was the warmth of the night, and seventeen moons rose over her shoulders while she rode him with the purpose and intensity with which she raced her mare." Range of Ghosts -- Elizabeth Bear

Brilliant stuff, Justin... just brilliant! And one more time: thanks so much for putting it all together for The Speculative Scotsman.

Remember, you can and you assuredly should point your browsers towards Staffer's Book Review for more of Justin's masterful musings. Would you believe this bloke's been on the scene for barely a year? And already methinks he puts most of the rest of us to shame.

On that note, you may have noticed today was supposed to be the appointed day for another installment of Letters From America. Well, it's still coming... but it'll either be a little late, or I'll wrap this week's random recollections in with next week's, so hold your horses, y'all. :)

Everyone have a happy weekend, now. I'll see you on the other side!


  1. Thanks for having me Niall. Although, there's a certain irony that I'm not even on your blog roll... *pointed look at the right column*

  2. Fuck!

    Fixed without further ado. Goes to show how long it's been since I updated that thing, I guess.

    Anyway, it's an absolute pleasure to have you here, sir, especially in such a sexy frame of mind. :)

  3. That was a very good article - very refreshing to see.

    Of course, I'm not sure how you could not talk aboout NK Jemison's 100K Kingdoms as a terrilbly ideal sex scene that was laugh-out-loud bad. Unforntunate, since it was in an otherwise great novel.

  4. Awesome, Justin. Quivering puppies. There's a phrase I'll never be able to get out of my head again.

    Hey, maybe I'll be on the blog roll too, by the time my guest post appears here some time next week :)

  5. I might have to try turgid magnificence on my husband, see if I can make him laugh.

  6. Have you read the Earth's Children saga by Jean M. Auel? From book two onwards it has more sex than a bunny. Every scene is quite literally and vividly explained and all are lengthy. The problem is, like almost every other element in this series, the same thing is repeated over and over until it becomes like a formula you can safely skim through. But still, yet another different example from those you mentioned above.

    And turgid magnificence ... that's gold! We should start a list of creative names for penises.

  7. Well to defend Abercrombie i think that he did exactly what he wanted to do. To be honest i don't think there is a right way and a wrong way to do this kind of thing as long as it fits in the novel. I can't speak to any of your other examples but i do think this is a much more complicated topic then it has been made out to be here.

    However. That was a great article. I enjoyed it a lot, and you did make a lot of good points. Good show.

  8. I would like to point out that Sanderson does have a sex scene in his novel "Warbreaker". It's very short, but it is there.

  9. Before They Are Banged. I had a hearty chuckle at that.