Monday, May 13, 2013

Body and Identity in SF/F - a rich source of inspiration

This weekend I was reading a couple of stories in preparation for the Nebula Awards weekend (my own small role in which I will tell you about a little later) and I got to thinking about the way bodies are portrayed in science fiction and fantasy.

Bodies are a big topic, and an important topic. In our modern world, we have a vast, complex culture of body image and body shaming all around us. We also have the ability to change our bodies through tattooing and piercing, and in more extreme fashion through plastic surgery. At the same time, there is a strong current in our society toward concentrating on the mind to exclusion of the body. The work a person does is often considered while the effect it has on the person's body is ignored. People spend their entire days working and sitting at desks, accomplishing things that are abstract and cognitive, and from the corporate point of view their body has little to do with it. But those workers are the ones who have to go home at the end of the day in the physical body that results from all that lack of action...and either make up for it with physical activity, or not... and then live with the consequences. Other people spend their entire days working with their bodies, picking fruit or building houses or playing sports (to take three very different examples), and the effects of their work are written in strength, but also in scars.

I've seen a lot of stories that involve body-thematic elements. These are often very powerful, and the topic has by no means been overused or plumbed out. Science fiction and fantasy are uniquely positioned to offer opportunities for this topic as well. How often have you seen transformation in a fantasy story? How about body alteration? Just the other day I read a classic Irish fairy tale about a hunchback who had his hunch removed by the fairies because he helped them to improve a song they were singing (the hunch was later given to someone else who wasn't as nice to said fairies). The Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation were always frightening and fascinating because of the way that they invaded the body and changed it without permission. Science fiction also offers opportunities for us to explore non-human bodies and their parameters. Many stories feature tattoos or scarification in one way or another, as ways that we change our bodies permanently to indicate something about our identity or life experience.

We can change our bodies to better represent our identity, but body identity isn't always in our control or subject to our own choice. There is always the possibility of coercive change to our bodies (and in this category I include rape and rape pregnancy). There is also the more subtle question of how our bodies "come out" when we are born - and by this I mean our racial identity and our gender identity. Both of these are aspects of body that can vastly change the course of our experience, and are highly resistant to change. Another issue which has always fascinated me is that of mismatch between body and identity, which can occur with race or with gender in various ways.

It would take me twenty articles to go into depth about all these various topics, but I wanted to let you know I was thinking about them, because there are hundreds of rich stories available here.

I hope you feel as inspired by these ideas as I do.

Note: My hangout for this week (5/16) will be a recap of Families, due to technical difficulties during our last session, but next week (5/23) I'll be taking on Bodies as a topic. I hope you can join me!


  1. Anyone interested in fiction related to this topic should read The Female Man by Joanna Russ and The Girl Who was Plugged In by James Tiptree, Jr. :)

    1. Thanks, Shaun. Good suggestions. There is a lot of great literature out there on this. "Love might be too strong a word" by Charlie Jane Anders is interesting in this regard as well. The Hunger Games actually has some interesting body-related elements when it contrasts the people of District 12 with the people of the Capital, and Katniss has to undergo her styling.