That headline looks bad, right? Rather like claiming one reads Playboy for the articles. But to me, when I consider “adult themes and situations” in my writing, I really want them to carry their own weight. If it’s there, there’s a reason.
For me, this goes back to one of the very first adult fantasy books I ever read. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was young and impressionable, innocent in the ways of such things….
Actually, that’s pretty much true. I grew up an only child, so I didn’t have older siblings passing down their (woefully lacking and likely incorrect) knowledge of such subjects. Most of my reading in my tween and teen years consisted of old Bantam Star Trek and Del Rey Star Wars novels, a bit of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ed Greenwood’s original Forgotten Realms boxed set.
Hardly hot and heavy.
Early on in high school, I somehow obtained a third- or fourth-hand copy of Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex, a 1978 novel that had a very fantastical, yet very “adult” take on the Arthurian legends. By adult, I mean swearing, bloodshed and a fair amount of sex. How this slipped past my parents is fairly easy: There’s a picture of a gallant King Arthur on the cover, rather than a scantily clad Guinevere or some such. It blended in well with the rest of my bookshelf.
Naturally, I remember being quite interested in the naughty bits. There was Uther Pendragon’s conquest of Arthur’s mother, the seduction of Arthur by Morgan Le Fay that resulted in Mordred’s birth, the steamy affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, that sort of sidebar bit with Tristan and Isolde. Throw in all the graphic violence and profanity, along with a smattering of magic. How could a teenage boy not be hooked?
Berger was known for throwing a modern light onto a variety of genres. His Little Big Man, ostensibly a Western, was heavy on satire, as was his Kafkaesque examination of suburbia in Neighbors. Instead of specializing in a genre, Berger tried them all, turning them inside out and back onto themselves. Not a bad way to make a living, that.
In Arthur Rex, the sex was perhaps a bit more gratuitous than strictly necessary, but every dalliance was part of the overall story. If I had to guess, with nothing but memory of the book backing it up, I think Berger was trying to humanize the legends. Throughout history, King Arthur had been held up as a noble hero, with Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair given a romantically tragic angle. Berger turned those on their ear. Arthur literally fathered his own demise in Mordred, product of an illicit affair. Lance and Gwen loved Arthur, but ultimately betrayed him, their affair coming to light when he most needed them to stand up for him. It wasn’t preachy, mind you, just very human. People screw up, and it often comes back to haunt you. Legends start with normal, flawed human beings.
When I went to write my first novel, the work that ultimately became The Daedalus Incident, I thought long and hard about the relationships I had plotted and whether any of them would lead to the hot-and-heavy. I was very aware of how each scene had to further the plot along in key ways; dropping a sex scene in the book that didn’t carry that weight would seem gratuitous. Plus, I had to consider the kind of book I was writing – Daedalus is very much historical fantasy and space opera, and that carries an adventurous feel that needed to be respected.
Ultimately, I ended up with a pair of romantic relationships in the book. One works out, the other does not – not everybody gets the girl (or boy). There’s tension and excitement, heartache and thrills. The relationships are true to the setting and characters. They further the plot along. They just work. And that’s the most important think when you think about sex in SF/F, no matter how restrained or open it might be.
Daedalus ain’t Arthur Rex, of course. But Arthur Rex ain’t Daedalus, either.
Want to own a copy of The Daedalus Incident by Michael J. Martinez months before it hits shelves? Head on over to Con or Bust and bid today on a signed, personalized galley! Proceeds go to helping people of color attend SF/F cons. Don’t forget to check out Mike’s blog at michaeljmartinez.net and Twitter at @mikemartinez72. The Daedalus Incident is out May 7.