Rich and Sisyphus, in the comments at Acephalous, take a turn toward sci fi that tries to imagine other-than-the-case, more purely egalitarian kinds of human (at least, I take that as one of the implicit ground rules; watch as I violate it almost instantly) sexuality. That reminds me of Storm Constantine‘s Wraeththu, which I read some months ago at a friend’s insistence (and might not be remembering entirely accurately). It’s a series about a new species of beings, the Wraeththu, that supplant humanity, on the basis that they’re some sort of evolutionary progress—highly resistant to disease and death, and able to cure by magic almost all of what can afflict them—and are therefore more fit to survive.

I found the series an interesting failure. The writing was lovely; I haven’t read many books as broadly invested in imagery of all five senses, especially smell and taste. The problems were more conceptual and technical. To begin with, it seems to me the literary purpose of the Wraeththu is as an illustration of how sexual dimorphism and the more-or-less compulsory heterosexuality that comes with it breed trouble in a population. (They are also a condemnation of sexual repression, and an example of how to integrate sexuality more fully into identity and everyday life, but some portion of that comes through sex magic, so do with that what you want.) So they’re a race of hermaphrodites. Which is fine, by way of a mechanical solution to the “problem” of heterosexuality, but here’s the rub: To become a har—just as the human race is made of men and women, the Wraeththu race is made of hara—a human being must be converted through a ritual that involves, if I remember correctly, being drugged and then penetrated by a har, whose semen will corrode the human being’s insides (hopefully without killing him, although there’s a significant mortality rate) and cause what remains to transmute into Wraeththu substance.

And only males can become Wraeththu. If a har has sex with a woman, she’ll automatically die. So they’re hermaphrodites, but they’re hermaphroditic males, always referred to by masculine pronouns. According to the elite tribe of Wraeththu, hara are supposed to balance the masculine and the feminine within themselves. (You see the biological determinism in this, I assume: Man parts make you behave one way, woman parts make you behave another. If you have both, that means you’re more advanced, in terms of what behaviors are available to you, than other folks.) Yet they still have gender roles—even though they don’t have genders. All hara are capable of conceiving, and it’s entirely voluntary; the receptive partner grows a “pearl” inside him that transits out of his body through some unspecified mechanism, and then the pearl expands and hatches a full-formed har of about the size of a nine-year-old human boy. The active har in a conception like that is still known as the father, and in one of the only cases presented in the trilogy, the father is relatively uninvolved in raising the child. Even the elite tribe, once they subjugate resisters through warfare (aggression, which they’ve supposedly rooted out of themselves thanks to their equal male and female natures) and become the ruling tribe, has a king called the Tigron whose consort is the Tigrina. That just looks so much like “lady Tigron” to me that I wonder whether Constantine intends it to undercut that tribe’s philosophy.

This persistence of gender roles after the fact of gender has ceased to exist dismays me. I’d like to see the end of gender roles long before the end of the human race (I’m kind of sentimental about my own species that way). On top of that, though, it’s a fairly obvious element of a series of what—if I were a certain kind of reader—I would call countermoves the text makes against its author’s intentions (or perhaps countermoves made through the text by the culture and ideologies in which the text was written, although I’m pretty sure at that point I’m moving into a different area of interpretation): The more she tries to efface the differences between “male” and “female,” the more the text sidesteps her and reinscribes those differences in places she hasn’t yet specifically swept them aside. I’m not kidding. At the end of the third book, the main character discovers the secret capital of a heretofore-unknown Wraeththu-analog race made exclusively of women.

So that’s the trouble that series has with imagining a new kind of sexuality (and that’s not even getting into the brothel one character finds himself working in where they specialize in pretending to be unwilling, since rape kind of doesn’t exist anymore). That’s basically what I meant above when I mentioned the conceptual problems of the series. There is one sex-linked stereotype, though, that I think gets a fantastic reworking, and that’s the otherworldly consumptive girl. In this case it’s a har called Cobweb, who has a child with a tribal war-chief. Cobweb’s basically the stay-at-home mom, except he’s also a powerful sorcerer. He’s long-haired and pale, spends most of his time indoors with the curtains drawn, and lives in a world of clouds and fallen leaves and the shadows of birds’ wings, from where he’s always trying to fight to keep his man—but that world is where he draws his power from. He inhabits that “sickly” world so fully that he’s able to do great deeds of magic and willpower that strongly affect the normal world.

The technical problems are somewhat more pedestrian, although they’re of the “visible machinery” kind that I’m always interested in—being able to see how a piece of art works. In the first book, having converted the main character (Pellaz) into a har, Constantine needs to show off the variations in her idea, so she sends Pellaz on a world tour, which is supposedly necessary for him to learn the various skills required to advance through the steps-and-castes system of Wraeththu civilization. It’s kind of funny, actually; you can almost hear the boards creak as Constantine shepherds you around the whole stage to show you every corner of the set she built. The third book’s basically more of the same, only with a different character and on a different continent.

So like I said, an interesting failure. If nothing else, I think it shows that Rich’s point—that only sci fi can really try to posit new relations to sexuality—while true, assumes an important qualification without expressly mentioning it: Sci fi’s the best arena for that kind of speculation, but that doesn’t give it an automatic leg up on speculating well.