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Sex in the System
edited by Cecilia Tan
Thunder's Mouth Press, 283 pages

Sex in the System
Cecilia Tan
Cecilia Tan writes about her many passions, from erotic fantasy to baseball, from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of Black Feathers and The Velderet, and has edited over forty anthologies for the publishing house she founded, Circlet Press. Her fiction has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, Best American Erotica, and many other places.

Cecilia Tan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Best Fantastic Erotica
SF Site Review: Sex in the System

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

Cecilia Tan is the founder of Circlet Press which bills itself as "the intersection of erotica and science fiction, fantasy, & futurism" so the subtitle of this anthology -- "stories of erotic futures, technological stimulation, and the sensual life of machines" -- isn't surprising. Tan is obviously seeking a wider audience than usual with this anthology from Thunder's Mouth Press and although she stumbles around rather aimlessly in her introduction the rationale behind the book is clear; she was after SF stories that "went straight to her groin," that were "just plain hot."

There is a difference between dealing with sex and being sexy though. Joe Haldeman opens and closes the collection with two pieces, neither of which could be described as hot. The first, "The Future Of Sex: A Garden Of Unearthly Delights," is a piece of light comic erotic SF verse. Thankfully that isn't a description you have to use too frequently. The second, "More Than The Sum Of His Parts," is more typical of the fare on offer. It originally appeared in Playboy in 1985 and takes the form of Doctor Wilson Cheetham's journal, recording his recovery from a traumatic industrial accident. His injures are so severe that he needs multiple cybernetic replacements, including a bionic penis. The supposed eroticism of the story stems from this new organ: longer, thicker and apparently irresistible to woman because it can be erected at will. Cheetham is actually a fairly repellent character and the unlikely magnetism of his member is not erotic in the slightest. It turns out Haldeman is writing a mad scientist -- well, technically mad engineer -- story so at least some of this is knowing but that doesn't save the story which ends up stranded in limbo halfway to satire.

Haldeman is a friend of Tan's which perhaps clouded her judgement. Her other reprint selections are some of the best stories in the book and prove she is a good anthologist, although again they aren't particularly sexy. Gavin J. Grant's "Softly, With A Big Stick" is short little dystopian piece about a world in which noise is a crime and, because it is taboo, it is therefore erotic. Outside of Grant's world though, burping and farting are striped of such racy connotations. Scott Westerfeld's "That Which Does Not Kill Us" is a queasy psychological profile of a sexual predator who finds he cannot stomach his prey. It is perhaps the best story in the collection but it is cold and unsettling, aimed more at the spine than the groin.

The final reprint, "The Show" by M. Christian, has the opposite problem to these stories: sex with no story. It is often suggested that sex is hard to write. Certainly sex scenes are easily mocked once stripped of context but generally that old advice "write what you know" holds true and most people know their sexual fantasies very well indeed. This means that even in a story as fundamentally lame and dated as Christian's take on cultural subversion you can still have a decent sex scene.

This problem -- that SF is harder than SEX -- is one that several of the original pieces share. Tan cautions against the type of erotica which tends towards "overly empathetic heart-stirring romance where the wish fulfilment is laid on so thick it changes my sense of disbelief." It is odd then that she opens Sex In The System with two such stories, "The Proof" by Shariann Lewitt and "The Book Collector" by Sarah Micklem. After these, Beth Bernobich's "Remembrance" is a welcome dose of realism, dealing with love rather than impossible infatuation, even if it is rather dull.

The collection swings back and forth like this and this is actually one of its strengths. After all, variety is the spice of life. "Value For O" by Jennifer Stevenson isn't even a science fiction story; it is what is perhaps an even rarer beast, a funny erotic story. Told entirely in dialogue, it eavesdrops on a couple as they attempt to unravel the mystery of the female orgasm using an extended mathematical metaphor:

"Okay. Here we go. Let's say female orgasm is a fixed value, but the travel, the distance required to move from position one to orgasm, is variable. That's our first unknown."
A couple of stories do actually manage to blend sex and SF though. "Poppet" by Elspeth Potter is a short, warm-hearted story about better living through technology (in this case teledildonics) for the disabled. The central sex scene merges into the main point of the story rather than merely being a welcome distraction. Distinctly less warm-hearted but equally successfully in its fusion is G. Bonhomme's "The Program," a direct, subversive stroke story made even more direct and subversive by being written in the second person. The anthology is at its best in these instances but even when for the rest of the time it doesn't do exactly what it says on the tin, the reader usually gets one or the other. That's a pretty good deal.

Copyright © 2009 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, Strange Horizons and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice.

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