I had the privilege the other day of attending C. M. Spivey‘s fascinating workshop Fundamentals of Queering through the Willamette Writers Conference. The workshop covered best practice for representing queer characters in narrative, and it led me to reflect on representation in my first novel, Perdita, an eco-science fiction story about a violent clash over how/if to use a dangerous technology. As far as queer (and racial) representation goes, Perdita contains a lot of fail. This is not new news to me. But one thing came as a revelation: both of my main characters are asexual and much of their personal struggles hinges on their asexuality (who knew?). Is this good ace representation? By many measures, no. But it is detailed and cohesive enough that I’m going to share my reflections on it. (Some spoilers follow, not for the main plot.)
Despite improved line editing in recent editions of Perdita (with many thanks to my amazing editor, Erin Wilcox), the story itself has existed largely unchanged since its publication in 2001. I started writing Perdita at fifteen in 1990, and it’s very much a 1990s novel by a middle-class young American white woman who identified as straight. Race is represented via Star Trek-style tokenism, that is, characters of color are few, mainly secondary, and exist improbably on a planet with a small population that’s been isolated for 2000 years and is presented as having no racial tensions. So why is there this minority of much darker-skinned people? And why is the majority mostly coded “white”? Your guess is as good as mine. (I continue to work on an in-universe explanation for this.)
As for queer representation, there are two important secondary characters in a positive lesbian relationship (and, yep, one dies… well, “dies”). A male character mainly inclined toward women is seen kissing a man. A very minor male character is living with a man, implicitly as a partner. And it’s mentioned that one character’s parents are in a group marriage of two men and two women. There’s no gender diverse representation at all.
And then there’s principal characters Ethan and Sherayna, representatives of intransigent pro-tech and anti-tech philosophies respectively. Though ideological opposites, they are kindred spirits—and 43-year-old me looking back on the writing of 20-year-old me is struck by how clearly I wrote them both as on the asexual spectrum, and they kind of bond over it.
I didn’t do this intentionally. In the mid-90s, “asexual” meant you budded like an amoeba; the term “ace” had not been coined. AVEN (the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) was formed in 2001, the year Perdita was published. In short, when writing Perdita, I was not aware that “asexuality” was a definable thing. But I was—and am—on the asexual spectrum. I don’t fully identify as “asexual”; the term suggests certain assumptions about orientation that do not always fit me. That said, my experience gibes with asexual experience a lot, and this was true back when I was a teenager identifying as “straight” because I was attracted to men and not women. In Ethan and Sherayna, I was working through my own social experiences with sexuality—and my characters’ experiences are punishing on levels I never fully realized until looking back at the story through the lens of 21st-century queer discourse.
Perdita is a sex positive society. It is a successful free love society: anyone is allowed to sleep with anyone as long as participants consent, have reached the age of consent (fifteenish or so), and are not close relatives. This has worked quite well over a long period of time. The typical social unit is a household oriented around parents and children, but it’s expected that committed partners may have sex with other people. It’s also fine to be single and sexually active. In fact, so keen is Perditan society on the positive power of sex that it has a social institution of “grieving sex,” which is what it sounds like: sex is used as a means of emotional expression/healing when one is grieving a loss.
There’s a lot that’s nice about this. I certainly wrote it to be a “nice” aspect of Perditan society. But a natural consequence of his intense sex positivity and the large role of sex in social expectations is that people who don’t want to have sex are marginalized. As in our society, they tend to be erased or regarded as cold, emotionally stunted, psychologically unhealthy, and lonely—and you’d better believe, given all that social exclusion, there is a lot of loneliness.
Ethan and Sherayna don’t really want sexual relationships—or at most extremely rarely. But Perdita is their native culture. Like me in the 1990s, they don’t have any concept for “asexual,” and they have both internalized their society’s hostility to asexual tendencies. They both see themselves as sexual people (because everyone is sexual, right?) who, for a variety of reasons, avoid sexual relationships. Ethan tells himself he avoids sex because he’s an antisocial loner and is leery of repeating a teenage experience in which he was almost seduced by an ideological adversary. Sherayna tells herself she avoids sex because the guy she’s in love with is with someone else and she’s too selfish, jealous, and cowardly to share him and doesn’t want anyone else.
There’s some degree of truth to these self-narratives, but they miss the elephant in the room, which is that these characters just aren’t motivated to have sex. If they were, they would. On Perdita, finding sex is easy. The more sexually normative people around them, of course, don’t get it. And their social circles repeatedly hit them with what can accurately be called “microaggressions” (though I dislike that word).
For example, when Ethan spends his vacation skulking around spying on his superior officer, the officer tells him to go have sex with someone. When Ethan and Sherayna (forced to work together) stop over at Ethan’s house, his tenant is like, “Whee, you finally brought a lover home!” And Ethan and Sherayna are like, “Sure, think whatever you want. At least it will shut you up.” When Sherayna decides not to attend the big sex festival, she has to explain her reasons for being such a party-pooper. She also has to explain away why she’s not taking contraceptives.
And then there’s possibly my personal favorite scene in the book, though one that’s very painful, when an old friend, grieving the death of his partner, tells Sherayna to go to hell for not being willing to have grieving sex with him. He’s a nice guy. He’s arguably the nicest guy in the story. And though his words are cruel, I’ll note that trauma makes us say messed-up things. That said, it is really cruel. It’s telling her point blank there’s something morally wrong with her as a person because she’s not comfortable having sex. And Sherayna agrees! After all, she comes from the same society with the same expectations. She internalizes immense guilt—more probably than Ethan—over her inability (unwillingness) to behave like a normal member of society, hence her later characterization of herself as selfish, jealous, and craven for basically being ace.
So—a little bit of end spoilage—Ethan and Sherayna do end up falling for each other and having explicit sexual attraction/making out, though they never have sex. (They say they don’t have sex because the circumstances aren’t right, but you know, a lot of people just would have had sex.) They do not get happily together as a pairing or have an especially sunny ending. In fairness, only one relatively minor character ends up in a happy pairing by the end of Perdita, and the ending overall is hopeful-somber in tone.
By many standards, this is poor representation. There’s a lot of ace punishment, unremediated by any explicit way out or moment of self-empowerment with regard to that issue. It’s not “pure” ace representation at all, in that both characters have some degree of interest in sexual relationships—and there’s arguably back-pedaling on the representation with aiming the two at each other sexually near the end. But I think it rings true. Because it is true. It’s clearly a fictional rendering of many feelings and social issues I faced going through much of my youth, being labeled as a straight girl who was just “a bad date, inspiring no chemistry, impossible to figure out, not attractive, too shy, too inhibited, clearly too filled with sexual shame, who wants to be ugly and ought to become a nun” (I am a lifelong agnostic).
Is Perdita worth reading if you’re an asexual sci-fi reader or ace ally? Up to you. If you don’t want more bludgeoning, probably give it pass. But if you’re interested in what’s probably—unintentionally—a pretty nuanced example of how subtle, unintentional oppression works, well, 43-year-old me finds it an intriguing look back on the damage 20-year-old me incurred without having the tools to fully comprehend it.