In speculative fiction, sex is no longer a fantasy

New and exciting fantasy novels are constantly making names for themselves in the present day: From Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy genre has continued to redefine and reinvent itself. While fantasy is not new—arguably over a century old, dating to George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858)—authors’ attempts to shift the genre into R-rated territory, namely in the bedroom, is relatively nascent. Only recently has sex become explicit among heroes who typically fight evil magic or discover their world’s lost secrets. Far from being simply pornographic—which admittedly it sometimes is—the presence of sex in fantasy books allows the genre to access relatable, socially reflective, and even political spheres of discourse.

Many canonical fantasy books are explicitly non-explicit. Pillars of the genre such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Tad Williams’s The Dragonbone Chair present worlds of propriety and modesty, while contemporary novels portray intimacy through grittier, nastier aesthetics. Some feature sex so prominently that readers and marketers alike recognize them for such; Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series is notorious among fantasy fans for its uncomfortable, awkward, and therefore realistic portrayals of physical intimacy between the main characters. 

Sex has also enabled innovative storytelling in fantasy novels, allowing authors to craft detailed, relatable human characters and to market specific stories toward certain audiences. Fantasy books often exhibit the peak of literary world-building and deep, original characterization, but sex-less worlds and characters foreground their fictitious, unrealistic identities. By incorporating sex and its associated expectations, stigmas, and even regulations, authors can literally and figuratively flesh out these worlds and characters. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy features a masochistic courtesan protagonist in a world where prostitution is a religious activity carried out by female devotaries, demonstrating that sex can be a powerfully liberating plot device and even act politically within a fictitious, otherworldly novel. 

In an interview with Rolling Stone, A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin explained how relationships and their erotic fulfillments are tools for crafting realistic characters and stories. Because of his unequivocal treatment of sexuality, Martin has received many letters from fans—often women—asking him to include specific male sex scenes in his novels. Despite this, Martin maintains that he only choses to include sex scenes if they have mattered to his plot. Martin’s decision speaks to a larger trend in fantasy, where sex is not used simply for shock and awe, but to meaninfully advance character development and storyline.

Along with sex itself, new fantasy novels have also explored topics of sexuality and gender, accessing new forms of representation and relatability for their fanbase. In his first fantasy novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James decided to create characters of varying sexual identities, paying homage to his story’s sources of inspiration. Since James derived the novel’s world from traditional African mythology and storytelling, he wanted to accurately represent the cultures that influenced his book. In an interview with Vice News, James spoke on how queerness, gender fluidity, and sexuality fluidity existed within ancient African society, and, while their presence in the book was contemporarily relevant, he didn’t do it to appeal to certain audiences. 

“None of that was new. They end up making a contemporary statement, which is true, but that’s all old shit,” James said. 

Sexuality has allowed fantasy authors to take their characters and worlds into new, uncharted realms which many readers enjoy and relate to. The recent explosion of sexually provocative fantasy books might be jarring for some, but for many, it is just another dimension of the literature. 

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