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Lester del Rey

{ n a v i g a t i o n   m e n u }

First, I must request all ladies and gentlemen of lady-like feelings to leave, since I've been shocked to find there are people who object to swearing, and, by God, when I extemporize, I demand the right to swear, or even be indelicate. (Fuss over exploding flashbulb and like trouble, while speaker wonders what he is going to speak about.) There seems to be a certain bass boom to this thing. Well, it's appropriate to the subject.

It can be base, and some handling gives it quite a boom. Subject: sex in science fiction. It's only part of what I want to discuss, but will do to start.

What I want to know is why among all the practitioners of the good old-fashioned American game of sex -- I don't think it's unAmerican yet, though you never know -- so few science fiction writers handle sex on an adult level. I do not mean mere sexiness, but the whole concept of integrating male and female sexes.

We've always had certain concepts of sex in science fiction. One example is all too familiar. A guy and a gal start out in a space ship or dimension tube and are captured by some monstrous outland dictator. Hero must save the universe and earth from said dictator. He just gets down to earth-saving, when the dictator goes over and says, "Boo! Kitchy-kitchy coo," to the gal. Hero drops everything, saves girl, who immediately wanders off into some grasping hands, so hero can save her, etc., etc. Finally, somehow incidentally, the hero saves earth, and gal comes to him. Maybe he now says, "Kitchy coo," to her, but it's a cinch he doesn't quite know what it means.

This isn't seen quite as straight as that too much today, so maybe the writers have grown up to be as old as their readers. That isn't a joke. When science fiction started, a lot of writers were younger than I was when I began reading it. I believe some were as old as fourteen, or so. Readers were younger then, too. And it's a perfectly normal high-school attitude to feel that a gal is somebody to whom you occasionally say, "Kitchy-kitchy coo," and who is so helpless she has to be rescued from something.

At least, so editors feel, judging by most juvenile books. Anyone here of high-school age has probably figured out pretty much what it's all about. But even in most adult fiction, the stupid and helpless girl is frequently only something to give the emasculated hero a job of saving. Roller derby on television may change some ideas about the helplessness of women, but that's still to come.

Lately, we've come up with a considerably more healthy story, which might be called the George Smith formula. There, a girl is something you take out in a spaceship so that when you come back to earth, you have to get married. It's both healthier and more resultful, though it still leaves things on a mere physical action plane. And I wonder whether they would have to get married.

George's angle is representative of the general idea that sex is going to be the same forever -- it's a good, healthy job of bringing science fiction up to general magazine level, but doesn't go much beyond it. Suppose we go to 200,042 A.D. -- probably then called 219 PBX, and we're running around in ships that go 743 parsecs a second. In fact, they talk something like this: "I've got fourteen megaparsecs to walk over there, so it'll be an hour before I get back." What's the big conflict on the sex level?

Hero meets gal, thrills and stuff. But there's a war going on, and they can't settle down long enough to get married, and she has to preserve her virginity at all costs. (I've often wondered if the extreme value of that is due to its scarcity.) It's the same old holicolarum spread in the magazines of 1890. Hero meets girl (we gather), who can't say yes because papa forbids a wedding. Today editors know the gal would say, "Phooey", to papa, and usually won't print it; but I expect it someday in a far future story -- right down to papa with whiskers.

There used to be an obvious reason for the gal saying no until the preacher said yes. Now they have contraceptives, and whether we like it or not, they've made major differences in our practiced morals. Down in a primitive South American village, there is an oral contraceptive which can be taken about once a month to insure temporary female sterility -- without harm to the eventual fertility of the woman. Isn't it possible to imagine a society in which papa worries about whether daughter took her last medicine, instead of about what she's doing with the young man?

That would not be an immoral society, but a society with a different morality. There have been a lot of different systems of sexual adjustment, all moral when and where used. Polygamy is a common one, and rather popular where used. You get a lot of waiting women in return for your paycheck -- if the paycheck is big enough. The Arabs found that it took a man of considerable means to afford two women -- but one could wash his feet while the other combed his hair. It has its advantages. Particularly if you have enough money to hire a man with a sword to make sure your women do what you want.

Polyandry is less popular; it seems a narrow concept to me, but maybe I'm prejudiced. Mostly in cold countries and poor countries, like Tibet, is this system of one woman and fourteen poor damn men to be found. Incidentally, judging by the effect of diet and climate on sex, the one woman is definitely not up to the average American woman, so you can figure out the result.

Those are actually minor variations of our system -- but the main difference is that both systems are necessarily based on the work and breeding concept of marriage, rather than full relations between sexes. Heinlein has hinted at another system, in use today but not considered 'nice', which does recognize other facets, while providing sexual outlets. In this, when a man and a woman wanted physical sex, they were whole hearted and healthy about it, accepting it in good companionship without any of the gush of a good love story, but without the after-pains. They lived together as long or little as they liked. It was simply a part of social life. Heinlein is gifted with more sense of social change than most writers.

There is also the possibility of group marriage, something many discuss and few try, though it has existed at times. It is probably the closest thing to full recognition that men and women are completely different; both human, completely equal, and each in some fields -- superior to the other. It also recognizes that men and women are attracted to each other and are necessary beyond sheer physical sex. Sex has a lot more than you see from the girl on the BEM cover; she has her good points, but there are others.

Group marriage is too complicated for full discussion here, but we can define it quickly. Let's say six men and six women all like each other; because you have variety in the group, you needn't have the adolescent romanticism commonly known as love -- the type found on the radio, or in the movies, where the tingle of a kiss proves compatibility. Real love isn't harmful, here, though that will come in some manner by itself in any compatible group of men and women.

In any event, the lack of variety or complete compatibility between an isolated couple isn't present here, and no chasing around goes on. The group has a rigid morality of its own. This morality is going to be terrific, because it will have to be a social code which will equalize the burden on all, and protect the group from all outside interference.

For Pete's sake, don't think this type of group is designed to provide pure physical sex in wholesale lots! People belong to a group marriage for mental variety. In such a group, there's no looking around at one woman (or man) and saying to yourself that you like living with this person, but what in hell are you going to talk about for the rest of the month, until the bills come due to bring up an argument. There's a constant interchange and flow of ideas, without the forced constraint of having only two sides to each argument,

Everyone in the group is married to everyone else -- and that means man to man or woman to woman -- but without the homosexual physical relations. And within the group lies greater strength than any single couple can muster.

Marriage, however, must include children -- that is the only real reason for marriage, and without them sex would probably be unimportant. But the kids must be tied into a recognized social framework where they can receive proper training, bringing up, support, and a chance to become healthy adults. Here is one of the reasons that our present marriage system may very well change -- because it isn't preparing this generation for its life -- but rather for the life of the last generation, already a has-been. The tragedy of our social ways lies not in the divorce statistics but in the children we see too often. Sometimes, it seems that bastardy is healthier than being legitimate, since the illegitimate child may necessarily have to develop better social habits.

In Heinlein's set-up, much too little attention was given to the children, though we have a slight precedent in the Scandinavian countries, where there are no illegitimate children. The children are the responsibility of the state to some extent, and of the father when he recognizes them -- which he will usually do when the social stigma is removed. In the group marriage, the children are fortunate; they are saved from being "only children", or having "momism" raise its head, and they are naturally born into a social structure, rather than spending their earliest years pitting one parent against the other and throwing tantrums.

How often are those children recognized in science fiction? About our only concession is to assume that there will be one change, in that the social diseases will be eliminated -- though there's no reason to bother with it in most stories. But that has been something we could have done fifteen years ago, and haven't done. The changes I'm discussing won't occur in any 25 years, since all the psychodynamics in hell won't change custom and stupidity that fast -- nor even increase stupidity that much, as in 1984; there, though, so much was bad that a few thousand errors don't really matter.

I'm discussing the story of the further future. And there, while any system may be the accepted one -- and where it is quite conceivable that every system I've mentioned, plus the normal, every day marriage of today will operate simultaneously, which is a pretty idea for a story background -- you find the same old pattern of romance of any other magazine. "She sweeps me off my feet, oh gosh, oh goo, oh gee; isn't love wonderful to me!" I find it in few of the classics, definitely not in the book of Ruth, which is a nice love story, and usually only from 1800 or later up to now. That's a very brief time to set up a fixed and inflexibly permanent pattern. Yet in stories of 2200, 2400 or 2600, there it is.

They're still thinking sex is something people do in bed, after some blinding flash of ecstatic love. Sex should mean a lot more than that, though we haven't the slightest reason why. Sometimes I want to talk to a woman, rather than a man -- want to spend an evening with someone completely feminine, and with no idea of physical sex in mind. I suspect that women would still be courted if a miracle were passed so that intercourse or even perversion of it was impossible. Science fiction overlooks this, too, to a major extent.

Here I'm just getting to the basic subject of discussion. We have explored every other -ology, including Sociology with a capital letter, and Psychology with dynamics. We haven't discussed people and living, beyond superficial lip service. I picked sex because it has a certain shock value, and because we were talking about it over a few beers before I was called up here. We were also talking about the fact that sex and beer don't mix, though alcohol and sexiness may. But the confusion between sex and sexiness is typical of the foundation of sand on which we -- and this includes myself -- have built our futures. We're conventionalized, without realizing that today's conventions may be tomorrow's superstitions.

But they don't explore the really vital things, the average human being's sex and home social life, who puts the cat out, what he reads in his daily papers, his sources of information, etc., etc. Heinlein has discussed propaganda, of course -- but I mean the unintentional propaganda of books and papers -- the propaganda for the generation past, rather than future, that colors everything we study, for instance. We discuss policing a galaxy in which atom bombs can wipe out planets, but how do you like your steak tomorrow? That won't change too much, of course, pills or no pills. But lots of things will -- such as the limits of man's friendships.

Friends come to the conventions today from opposite sides of the continent. A century ago, that was impossible for mere conviviality. That is changing our society, just as is the increasing average age of the citizens. What will it be like when we have friends of other races? How will it change our living? Doc Smith has created some lovely non-humans, and touched on things that will be required of the human race when it mixes with humanoid and non-human beings, but his chief emphasis was on other things. Most writers have touched on it, but none have explored it fully.

What of man's attitude toward his rights? Sex enters here, of course, but there is much more. How much freedom do we want? We all want some -- but ninety percent of the race wants darned little at present. He may want to get away with things, but he won't approve of general freedoms. How much right to kill our enemy do we want? There are conditions under which we will kill him, and our rights on this should be clarified. How much right to be conventional do we want, and how much to be original? There are societies in which you must be conventional, and others where the chief convention is so-called unconventionality.

We're in a great flux today. For the first time, and over a very short period of time, really, we've brought together almost every kind of society heretofore known, and they've been interacting and re-interacting on all society. The net result is that today people act in the goddamnedest way like people -- and that's all we can surely say. We're in a trial and error period, midway between the tribal priest and the technical expert. Our astrologers use comptometers. We haven't made all the trials yet, nor -- inconceivable as it is -- have we made all the errors. We have very little idea of the warmly personal aspects of man's psychological adjustment to the patterns, stresses and strains of the future.

We've explored the macrocosm and the microcosm, but we have the all-important middle -- the personal elements of life -- still to examine. For years, medical experts strove mightily to find a cure for venereal diseases, while the pillars of society went on with their macrocosmic task of eliminating sin, which would stop VD. But it was a quiet surgeon general, fifteen years ago, who hit at just one thing -- the taboo against the terms, gonorrhea and syphilis. He found the important thing within the houses of our fathers, rather than the altars of our gods -- and his contribution in the long run was the greatest of all -- because today I can use the words here without anyone fainting; and from facing it, we have begun to do something toward wiping out the menace.

Things have changed, including morals, which are always being changed. They're simply conventionalized attempts to find a means of getting along with other men -- and being conventions, can't keep up with changing factors, so that they must be changed in the long run. Maybe there'll be no conventions in the future, or there may be more -- and they may be sensible ones. Maybe they'll be so well designed that they'll work forever -- and maybe only half-way to forever, but become so rigid that we can't shake them and will perish because of them.

But we can tell a little about one thing in the future. The boom in science fiction for the general market won't be met by men who automatically add twenty decimals to everything and think in terms of -ologies and -onomies. The books by such houses as Doubleday, Simon and Shuster, etc., will be best received when they are written by men who can find the really personal subject. When you can shake off your conventions and attitudes, and explore the tremendously important ground of the lives of just people, you have a vital subject for a book.

There'll always be the gadget story. Van Vogt's psychological gadgets (which have nothing warm or personal, but simply the vast and exalted) and Jack Williamson's stories of gadgets as seen by more normal people will always be worth writing and reading -- to us who feel the love of gadgetry. But the drive for general science fiction will be a drive toward the exploration of this, my life, which is the bedrock of all literature. The exploration of the limits and horizons of the individual, is without limit, and goes far beyond the horizon. And it can only be explored properly in science fiction, because only there can postulates be set down in the necessary simple or hand-picked situations to work them out most effectively.

It's an artificial way of handling literature -- but so are they all. And with the proper skill, it can have the universality for which teachers praise Shakespeare and condemn good pulp fiction. Incidentally, in passing, consider the teachers in the future. Must we have school systems designed apparently to limit? Or can we get schools with the ability to develop more than a crop of dry facts? The artificiality of science fiction comes from a bad choice of postulates; the universality from stripping away all the frou-frou and operating on honest essentials.

In other words, if you're going to write a story to explore a section of the future, the man who tosses in "sex" to keep the reader excited will be a genius if he doesn't write a bad book; but the man who strips the quotes from the word, and honestly wonders what sex will mean to the individual in the future, will have the basis for literature.

Take any homespun bit of the fabric of life and explore it fully, and you'll have a good book. If you want to put some gadgets in it, it can still be a good book, for the magazines. But if you have picked your premises wisely and find -- as you will -- that a host of gadgets isn't necessary, you may have a book to be read long after you've stopped collecting royalties. And by God, I'd like to see more of the writers doing it.

I'd also like to see some of the fans think it over. If you are then bored with juvenility, I doubt that you can get your money back -- but you can scream like hell. You don't represent the major part of science fiction readers, by a long ways; you represent a very small group -- but a very active one. When you see a story that does what a good story should do, and relates itself to real life and people, you can help to get more of them. Editors are sensitive to letters.

And since I'm at least somewhat sensitive to expressions of boredom, so long -- and thanks.

editor's note-
The title of Mr. del Rey's speech is his own, as are any revisions of the original speech. When first transcribed from the wire recordings taken at the Cinvention, the speech lacked the "punch" which the outstanding personality and stage presence of Mr. del Rey gave to the original. Mr. del Rey kindly volunteered to edit his own speech within the general frame of the original and we feel that he has done a masterful job of it, despite the limitations of mere punctuation as a means of emphasis.

{ t o p   o f   p a g e }

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