Queer eye for sci-fi

Science fiction has long been associated with faster-than-light travel, world-dominating aliens and futuristic cities with humans dressed in long flowing robes. Or one might associate the literary genre with dirty streets, megacorporations and gritty protagonists navigating cyberspace. Not many think of gay scientists trying to save the world, or tough lesbian freedom fighters shaking down evil male society. Why not? Science fiction at its best is a vehicle for exploring social change, a mirror to our own world. Whether the mirror is smudged or clear, science fiction a la Asimov has the power of great literature to examine our society and turn it on its head. Within this realm, gay science fiction has emerged as a new genre, yet few authors tackle the subject with seriousness. One of them, a pioneer in queer sci-fi who has received critical acclaim and sells novels for a living — an amazing feat in and of itself — is Royal Oak’s Anne Harris.

Harris, who is on the verge of launching her third novel and in the midst of writing her fourth, has the restless inquisitive mind of a writer determined to push boundaries. Though she experimented for a time with feelings of bisexuality, Harris is happily married and bound and determined to write about a world that she’d like to live in.

“When I first started, there was very little science fiction with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) characters at all, let alone main characters. I really wanted to read about some other types of relationships besides heterosexual ones,” she says.

“I was a very radical feminist, and very angry. I felt continually confronted and harassed by the evidence of patriarchy all around me.”

Harris’ characters are always on a quest, and are often genetically altered. Transformation is the recurring theme, not only physically but socially and emotionally. Harris creates gritty cyberpunk female leads with plenty of attitude.

The Nature of Smoke, Harris’ first novel, features Magnolia, who grows up in a slumlike futuristic Detroit. She runs away from home and falls in love with a good-looking guy who makes love to her, then tries to kill her. Cameras are rolling — he wants to film not only the sex but also the murder. Magnolia kills him and afterward encounters a biophysicist who wants to share his chaos-theory virus with the world. Accidental Creatures, her second novel, involves a world where the Big Three have collapsed and cars are replaced by a plastic used for almost everything, including transportation. The protagonist, Chango, is a young woman who’s been exposed to the growth-medium plastic, which makes her different. She eventually falls in love with a woman named Helix (bearing four arms) who wants to influence the future.

“I like to write about characters who feel things intensely,” Harris notes.

All her books have a Detroit setting, either as a jumping-off point, or as the narrative’s locale.

“I grew up here, lived here all my life. Why wouldn’t I set stories here?” she asks, laughing good-naturedly. “I do something awful to Detroit every time I write a book.”

Interweaving gay themes with her interest in chaos theory and her love of monsters run amok, Harris has garnered praise from many of her contemporaries. She was the first science fiction writer to win the Spectrum Award, which honors writers who deal positively with gay characters, themes and issues.

“Anne Harris is one of the most unique voices writing today. She can be absolutely brilliant! Her characters are always true to life, beautifully human,” says Sarah Zettel, who won the 1996 Locus Award for best first sci-fi novel, for Reclamation.

“One of the things that makes Anne a good writer is that she brings a lot of intelligence and humor to the books she writes. The way she expresses her convictions through fiction is just amazing. You should read her,” says Kathe Koja, recipient of a Bram Stoker Award (the Oscars of horror lit) for best first novel.

At the spacious home Harris shares in Royal Oak with husband Steve Ainsworth, she explains that she didn’t start off as a writer. She sweeps her dark red hair to one side, gazing behind her small glasses. Her bright blue eyes are focused; her pale hands hold a cup of warm coffee. She possesses a warm face, vaguely Victorian.

The Oak Park native, the youngest of three children, found early exposure to science fiction at home, she says. The whole family read sci-fi and discussed it at the dinner table, like many families today might discuss an episode of “American Idol.”

“Books were always really important in my life,” she says, leaning forward and drawing deeply on her cigarette.

Her new book, Inventing Memory, scheduled for release in March, is semi-autobiographical.

“I wanted to do something that would express the plurality of feminism and wanted to draw on the journey I’ve taken, and how I’ve changed over time. That’s the journey of the main character.”

Harris isn’t the first to venture into gay sci-fi. Melissa Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends and Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite were written from a gay/lesbian perspective and published before Harris’ first book.

“There’s a lot more gay and lesbian characters in science fiction now than when I wrote The Nature of Smoke, or even Accidental Creatures,” she says. “I’m thrilled by the progress that has been made.”

Rough start

Harris didn’t think she would become a writer, because she had to make a living. She got a degree in computer science with a minor in physics from Oakland University. She never considered taking lit or creative writing.

“It was impressed upon me that I needed to pursue something I could get a job in when I got out of college. I didn’t think I could write fiction, and for some reason or another, the concept of journalism was written off in my mind. I don’t know why I didn’t think that was an option.”

Then she met her first husband, Michael Mrozek, and everything changed.

“We were both avid readers, and one day we were talking about books and what we were reading, when he turned to me and said: ‘You should be a writer.’ I had been walking along the edge of this cliff and he just turned around and shoved me off. It was as if someone had finally given me permission to do it, and from that point on, I started writing.”

She secured a job after college as an operations research analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. She lasted six months in her field of study before entering the artist’s round-robin of work-to-pay-the-bills, getting gigs as a book clerk, a dry cleaner, a vegetarian cook and a host of other jobs, while developing her writing.

She married Mrozek in 1987 — they both changed their last names to Harris, her mother’s maiden name. She began writing her first novel.

She says Michael was “the sweetest man. We’re best friends to this day.” They divorced amicably in 1992.

“I owe him so much, first for saying, ‘You should write.’ Second, for providing me with the financial means of doing this.”

After five years of rejections and revisions, The Nature of Smoke was sold to one of the top publishers in science fiction, Tor Books, and published in 1996. Her second novel, Accidental Creatures, followed in 1998. She remarried in 1999.

She says she’s never been happier.

“I discovered this really wonderful relationship with Steve, and life is great. Because why? Because I found the right man? I mean, it doesn’t sound very politically correct, does it? But that was the truth for me.”

So why the fascination with lesbian characters?

“Why not write about them?” she asks. “As far as I’m concerned, there can’t be too much love in the world, and I’m interested in every form it takes. As for my personal life, I knew when I was in the fifth grade that I liked my best friend the way a boy would, and I also knew that my life would be a living hell if anyone found out about it. And then a few years later I started feeling attracted to boys and I was vastly relieved. In my 20s, I encountered the word bisexual, and I knew that’s what I was. But I haven’t had a woman lover. Just guys. I think human sexuality is quite malleable, at least it is in my experience.

“I’m inspired by the ridiculous. I have more joy now. I used to have a lot of pain and some of the joy. Love is what makes me do it. Love and chaos.”


Harris’ books can be found at Paperbacks Unlimited, A Woman’s Prerogative (in Ferndale) and Borders and Barnes & Noble stores. For more information about her new book, Inventing Memory, go to www.inventingmemory.co.

Cornelius A. Fortune is a Detroit-area freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]