When I first read Samuel Delaney’s “Aye, and Gomorrah…” as a teenager, I had no idea what to make of it.
Most of the sf I’d read up to that point was about big ideas, big action and big conflict. People saving or destroying planets, besting alien adversaries and exploring new dimensions. And here was a short story deemed important enough to win the 1967 Nebula award that was simply about a woman propositioning the protagonist for sex — or something like sex.
What was I missing? Turned out, a lot.
In Delaney’s story, interstellar travelers — dubbed “Spacers” — are neutered before puberty to null the effects of the radiation they encounter during their travels. They grow into sterile, androgynous adults whose original sex is the subject of guessing games. Enter the “frelks,” a group of fetishists aroused by the Spacers, primarily it’s suggested, because the sexless space travelers are unattainable.
The story begins with a group of Spacers on a Kerouac-esque road trip that whisks them from France to Mexico to Texas to Turkey, drawing gawks from the populace along the way. We learn the Spacers are hustling for frelks, seeking compensation for their desirable androgyny and sterility. We also get the sense that while they’re superficially respected by Earth people, they’re still lonely outsiders.
About midway through the story, the unnamed Spacer protagonist ends up making eye contact with a pretty Turkish student, who invites him to her apartment. The rest of the story plays out largely in dialogue as they spar over the Turkish woman’s interest in Spacers and she tries to convince her pickup to stay, even though she can’t come up with any lire to make it worthwhile.
Delaney, who is gay, points out the story was “written three years before Stonewall and half a dozen years before anyone was aware there might even be a disease like AIDS.” It’s clearly a commentary on what it means to be a sexual other, and it makes the powerful argument that sexuality is not a choice — an idea not widely accepted 50 years ago.
‘“You don’t choose your perversions,”‘ the Turkish student tells the Spacer. ‘”You have no perversions at all. You’refree of the whole business. I love you for that, Spacer. My love starts with the fear of love. Isn’t that beautiful? A pervert substitutes something unattainable for ‘normal’ love: the homosexual, a mirror, the fetishist, a shoe or a watch or a girdle.”’
The story works in part on the strength of the prose, which whips along with a playful rhythm. Delaney doesn’t beat us over the head with long-winded explanations about who the Spacers or frelks are and how this future society works. We pick up those details gradually, through dialogue and action, as the story unfolds.
Even though its powerful message about sexuality not being a choice may not be as revelatory today (for many of us, anyway), “Aye, and Gomorrah…” has additional resonance because it recognizes that human sexuality evolves with technological change. Who’d have thunk back in 1966, for example, that people would be so willing to commit mutual masturbation in front of computer screens halfway around the globe? And consider the number of fetishes — from latex clothing to extreme body modifications — that are the outgrowth of technological advances.
I don’t know about you, but all that analysis has left me with a powerful thirst. May I present this week’s cocktail, the Spacer?
The Spacer riffs on the fetishized outsiders of “Aye, and Gomorrah” by giving exotic flavors a boozy boost. The ingredients also give a nod to the story’s Turkish, Mexican and Texan settings. The tequila and tamarindo are a perfect border combination, sweetened by the pineapple juice, and the mint spins us halfway around the world to Istanbul’s Flower Passage.
2 oz. reposado tequila
2 oz. fresh pineapple juice
2 oz. or more of chilled tamarindo (tamarind soda available at most Latin American markets)
Fresh mint leaves
1/2 tsp sugar
Muddle six to eight mint leaves with the sugar in the bottom of a cocktail glass. Fill the glass with ice and pour in the tequila and pineapple juice. Still until condensation appears on the outside of the glass and top with the tamarindo. Garnish with another sprig of fresh mint.