This book is about alien sex.
Not imperialist, colonial sex, with human male astronauts dominating winsome green-skinned babes à la Captain Kirk. Nor is it bestial. This is real mutual discovery and understanding between sentient beings. It’s not something you see much in science fiction — in Tiptree’s short stories, admittedly, and to a lesser extent with Heinlein and Delany, although that’s mostly human-on-human stuff. Not that I’m a connoisseur.
In Strange Relations, a little collection of early, thematically related short stories by Philip José Farmer, man loves plant, man caresses worm. On a perpetually dusky planet named Baudelaire, a shipwrecked spaceman named Ernie Fetts is tentacularly absconded into the roomy womb of a plant-like gastropod. Recognizing nothing, feeling nothing but the soft warmth of fleshy walls and various holes from which warm liquids pour and sweep, he learns to communicate with his captor. A she. Marooned on a Mars base, Cardigan Lane meets an alien biologist, pink and symbiotic with an ungainly worm, who houses and feeds him deep underground. A she.
I am wowed by the honesty, the sheer get-to-the-pointness of these stories, because what is our anxiety w/r/t the alien about but sex? If intimacy, pleasure, and reproduction make up the evolutionary (and hence primitive) core of our psyche, then we must necessarily desire to be familiar with those aspects of an alien before we could truly know it. Or love it. Or make love to it.
In the 1950s, when Philip José Farmer was starting out, these ideas were nauseating, even to heads. Today, there’s alien-human sex in Avatar. Alien reproductive systems, though never presented winningly, are a common science-fiction trope — babies hatching out of human chests in Alien, the writhing cesspool of reptilian eggs in the remade V series. What this implies, I’m not sure; perhaps we’ve become more comfortable with sexuality in general, or less rigidly puritanical about our own bodies and choices. Because the idea of becoming intimate with an alien being necessarily implies a certain level of self-knowledge, and free will.
And, of course, since the alien has always, in some way or another, been a placeholder for the “other” (communists, gays, women, etc), maybe it just means that we’re more tolerant, more aware that the oppressed and marginal have sexual lives like the rest of us — and that they’re almost certainly more interesting.
In any case, I feel like it’s really important. Imagine encountering a completely alien being — in Farmer’s world, maybe a mountain-sized gastropod, or a five-legged football sized thing with beaks — and spending enough time with it to eventually overcome your deep-set revulsion towards it. That’s what the characters in this collection of short stories do: stranded with only the company of an alien, they come to know, understand, then love, their partners. They manage to take that herculean conceptual step away from themselves, to know the other as equal, in the only real way. They face the anthropocentric prejudice deep within themselves and prevail over it. They go native. And it gets to an incredibly sensitive, raw place after that because to love something is to lose a little of yourself to it.